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Archive for the 'Asian Studies' Category

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Trickster Tales and “True Crime”: An Interview with Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, translators of The Book of Swindles

Book of Swindles
This week, we introduced The Book of Swindles, a chronicle of scams and deception from Ming China. These stories of fortunes made and lost, of cunning crooks and unsolved crimes make us ask: was swindling so widespread in 1600s China? What caused the profound social changes and moral anxiety at the time?

To learn more about the stories’ background, we talked to Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, professors at the University of British Columbia and translators of The Book of Swindles. They told us about rising consumer culture in the early modern period, parallels with American literature, and Zhang Yingyu’s “delight in criminal cleverness.”

Question: You write in the introduction to The Book of Swindles that Zhang Yingyu’s time, the early 1600s, was one of rapid social and economic change. Why was the Ming empire suddenly so commercialized and its roads and rivers busy with itinerant merchants? Many of Zhang’s stories are set in coastal provinces like Fujian. If we were to travel with him across late-Ming Fujian, what would we see that was new and different?

BR: First, we’d see a lot of merchants—and even more porters and boatmen—carrying goods over long distances, some for domestic markets and some coming from, or bound for, overseas. We’d encounter other travelers of many kinds, such as opera troupes, itinerant doctors, and even some we could classify as tourists, male and female, going to see famous sights, to perform pilgrimages to holy mountains, or to do a little of both. More than ever before, we’d pass through villages devoted to the production of a single commodity such as fruit or ceramics, whose producers would use the revenue to buy their staples, such as grain produced in other areas. And in the towns and villages we would see many signs of rising prosperity, people of middling status who owned works of art, books, and fancy clothes; some had hobbies such as goldfish-raising or bonsai. Many contemporary writers remarked on these changes, often seeing them as illustrating a decline from the ideal social order. To them, one of the ills of the age was a new fluidity of social status resulting not only from new wealth but also the increasing need to interact with strangers of uncertain background either in populous cities or “on the road,” in inns, taverns, and on boats. These anonymous and transitory spaces were perfect settings for the shape-shifting swindler.

Modern economic historians disagree about exactly what factors caused these broader economic developments. Some point to favorable climate trends. Others emphasize the role of huge amounts of silver—the main form of money in the period—coming in from new mines in Japan and the New World. Foreign traders used silver to purchase Chinese goods such as tea, silk, and porcelain and this trade increased the money supply in the late Ming economy. Internal factors include a long period of relative stability that allowed local, regional, and long-distance trade networks to develop, which fostered more efficient, specialized production in agriculture and industry. Swindlers and other criminals were all too ready to siphon off these new flows of goods and money.

Q: Zhang ends each tale with a moral lesson, yet the stories are clearly also meant to entertain. As you point out, a story like “A Eunuch Cooks Boys to Make a Tonic of Male Essence” is long on scandal and social criticism and short on helpful advice. Who was The Book of Swindles written for, and what would you say is its closest contemporary equivalent in terms of genre?

CR: Well, the “Male Essence” story does teach people with sons not to sell them to eunuchs—who in the late Ming numbered in the tens of thousands and who did purchase boy servants—but my hunch is that at-risk readers of that particular swindle were few. Zhang often panders to popular prejudices about eunuchs, monks, women, and government underlings. You could say his commentary is a mix of moral posturing and earnestness. Still, his stories do educate as they entertain. “Male Essence” is a good example: its sensationalism notwithstanding, it actually begins with a polemic about taxation.

As for audience, most of the stories involve merchants, and Zhang discusses their interests extensively, so it seems likely that they were his primary intended readership. He expresses sympathy with men who get lonely on the road, and notes that this makes them vulnerable to false friends. He gives detailed advice about the handling of silver. He suggests ways to vet potential business partners. But he also offers a much wider variety of scenarios of how people perpetrate and foil fraud at home, on the road, in the marketplace, in court and in courtship. As we mention in our introduction, one of the fun things about this book is that it can be read for fun and profit.

BR: One additional hint to the audience is the language of the stories: it’s simple, but it follows the syntax of Literary Chinese (aka Classical Chinese), not the more colloquial language of some novels and stories of the same period. But it is also short on the sort of allusions and historical references a more scholarly work would contain. So it was probably aimed at readers with the kind of literacy that many merchants at the time would have had, enough to write letters, keep accounts, draw up contracts, and make use of books for practical and religious purposes as well as for entertainment.

CR: As for genre, works like The Book of Swindles are easy to find in China nowadays. Some collections actually pair stories about contemporary scams with stories about historical swindles under titles like Panorama of Swindles Old and New, and even include story-end commentaries à la Zhang Yingyu. So, you can find pretty exact genre equivalents in the Chinese-language book market today. “True crime” stories would be an approximate genre category in English, and there are links to folklore such as trickster tales. You also have a similar impulse to compile stories of trickery in anthologies like Michael Farquhar’s A Treasury of Deception: Liars, Misleaders, Hoodwinkers, and the Extraordinary True Stories of History’s Greatest Hoaxes, Fakes, and Frauds (2005).

BR: Entertainment is definitely one of the “hooks” of the Book of Swindles, even when it purports to teach a moral lesson. This is true of much Chinese fiction of the period, however tenuous the link between story and moral might be. It’s also true of a lot of writing about swindles from around the world—for example, American novels like Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and of course much of Mark Twain. The Book of Swindles shares a delight in criminal cleverness with these works and with other Ming dynasty collections of stories about ingenious officials who catch often equally ingenious lawbreakers. Unlike that kind of “case fiction” (gong’an xiaoshuo), however, the Book of Swindles usually has the criminal outsmart the detective, or makes it a merchant or other unofficial party who gets to the bottom of the case. In this way it’s strikingly different from most of the fiction of its time.

Q: Several stories concern scams perpetrated by women. As you summarize in the introduction, “Women seduce merchants far from home, prostitute female relatives, frame innocent men, steal horses on the highway, and enter into sham marriages for purposes of murder and extortion.” How does Zhang portray gender? Does the book show any changes in, or anxieties about gender roles in Ming China?

CR: The Book of Swindles is about how to recognize tell-tale signs that you’re being had, so its main concern is with showing typical scenarios and behaviors. Characters do have names, but they tend appear less as individuals than as representatives of certain social types. Women, scholars, government clerks, brokers, Daoist priests—Zhang objectifies them all. He does make admiring comments about the brilliant schemes in the first two stories of the “Women” swindles section, especially in the excellent “Three Women Ride Off on Three Horses.” But then we have categorical statements like this one: Even the chastest of women, without exception, will be led into sin if she encounters and is enticed by a licentious woman.

Zhang’s representations of women, prejudicial though they are, don’t represent the main anxiety about changing social roles in his collection. Looming much larger, to me anyway, is his sense that merchants are being too cavalier in handling their money and in trusting people they encounter while traveling. While the courts sometimes do help a dupe obtain restitution, in most stories it’s clear that a man going out on business has to rely mostly on his wits—and the accumulated vicarious knowledge offered by The Book of Swindles—to keep him safe.

Q: Which is your favorite story in the book, and why?

CR: The two in the “Poetry” swindles section were a delight to translate; see especially the pleasure boat poem in “Chen Quan Scams His Way into the Arms of a Famous Courtesan.” Plus, I like the idea of poets as swindlers. I enjoy Zhang’s comment on the “painless scam” in “Forged Letters from the Education Intendant Report Auspicious Dreams,” which was based on a true story. And the four-in-one appearing under the title “A Geomancer Uses His Wife to Steal a Good Seed” made me rethink what it means to be the victim of a swindle.

BR: I am taken with the audacity of the monk in “A Buddhist Monk Identifies a Cow as His Mother,” in which the cleric uses simple, even childish, tricks to spin yarns about past lives and promises of a better rebirth.

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

Read the Story “Pilfering Green Cloth by Pretending to Steal a Goose”

Book of Swindles
“‘I won’t lie to you,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I’m a petty thief… I’ve got a plan, and I just need your help to pull it off.’” — Zhang Yingyu

Today we are happy to present an excerpt from The Book of Swindles: one of the over forty stories of scams and deception in Ming China featured in the volume.

Stay tuned for an interview with the translators, Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, to be published on Friday. Rea and Rusk talk about changing social norms and other reasons why theft and scams were on the rise.

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

Low-Brow Culture and the Art of Deception in Ming China

The Book of Swindles

If your first association with Ming China is delicate blue-and-white vases or the dreamy landscape paintings of Shen Zhou and others, The Book of Swindles will give you a very different idea of the period. This book reveals the seedy, funny, cruel and absurd aspects of a culture dominated by a complex government bureaucracy, on the one hand, and rampant commerce, on the other. While in its thoroughness it stands on par with, say, canonical Chinese writings on warfare, The Book of Swindles is a classic of a different kind. This is a treatise on one of the less dignified aspects of human nature: the art of deception.

The experience of reading Zhang Yingyu is comparable to that of Boccaccio’s Decameron. While the buildings and frescoes of fourteenth-century Florence are a testament to the Renaissance city’s loftiest aspirations, Boccaccio’s tales show a world of widespread corruption, illicit sexual exploits, strong passions, and shameless scams. Perhaps human nature has not changed all that much since then. Writers like Zhang Yingyu and Boccaccio show us the darker, funnier, and more human side of even the most glorious historical periods.

In the case of Ming China, scams and deception are also reflected in some of the visual art of the period. The handscroll painting on the cover of The Book of Swindles shows a busy market in which a visitor is being given false assurances by an insistent salesman. The new edition’s translators, Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, explain:

“The cover illustration shows detail from ‘Bustling Nanjing’ 南都繁繪圖卷, a long handscroll painting by an anonymous Ming dynasty artist (formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英, 1494?–1552) currently held in the National Museum of China. This scene of a marketplace in the capital features in the foreground a row of shops, including the Yonghe Fabric Emporium; a money changer, identifiable even to the illiterate by the silver ingot and bronze coin depicted on the top of its two signs; and what appears to be a candle vendor. An itinerant musician—a quintessential figure of the Rivers and Lakes—walks by on the left, carrying a lute on his back. Across the street, we see a vendor of ceramic dishware on the left and, on the right, a man selling tea or warmed wine. Drawing our attention at the center is a man gesturing toward a restaurant called ‘Zhang’s Place’. Yet the animals flanking the passerby suggest he should be wary of accepting the tout’s invitation: this establishment is probably one that ‘hangs a lamb’s head out front while selling dog meat in the back’, as a common expression for bait-and-switch would have it. This roadside scene thus depicts a cultural tableau of commercial institutions, itinerant characters, and deceptive practices similar to what we find in Zhang Yingyu’s work.”

The Book of Swindles includes some forty-odd tales of deception, from the daft to the elaborate, with each one ending poorly for either the potential victim or the scammer. Stay tuned for an excerpt from the book, which will be published on the blog tomorrow.

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Book Giveaway! The Book of Swindles

Book of Swindles

“In The Book of Swindles, Rea and Rusk give us hilarious and sobering proof that swindling isn’t just a contemporary concern but has been around for centuries. We are treated to stories of porters cheating officials who cheat porters, of conniving Taoists and gullible officials, of lusty widows who provoke their husbands’ death, and of debauched gentry who prey on poor locals. Yet many of these tales sound eerily familiar to today’s world, and especially today’s China. We are confronted with a widespread, ambient feeling of social mistrust in which people across the land feel that they are constantly being cheated. Besides giving insight into deep societal concerns, The Book of Swindles is a great read.” — Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

This week, our featured book is The Book of Swindles, by Zhang Yingyu, translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

An excerpt from A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden)

Book to Burn

“A rich translation of essays revealing Li Zhi as the epitome of dissent. His tragic suicide culminated Li’s life as a free thinker, but at the same time his enemies immortalized him as someone who had defrocked Ming autocracy of its elegantly woven orthodoxies. He also provided Ming precedents for political repression under the Republic of China and the People’s Republic. The PRC ironically appropriated Li Zhi’s rhetoric, pretending that everyone was now liberated, as long as they towed the party line. Later Pierre Bourdieu honored him as China’s homo academicus!” — Benjamin A. Elman, Princeton University

A Book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden) introduces the controversial Ming scholar Li Zhi through his letters, essays, poetry, and historical writings. Below, we excerpt the volume’s introduction, by editors and translators Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Lee, and Haun Saussy.

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

On Wm. Theodore de Bary (1919–2017)

Wm. Theodore de Bary

The following post is by Jennifer Crewe, associate provost and director of Columbia University Press. As an editor she worked with Wm. Theodore de Bary for many years before his death earlier this month.

Ted de Bary’s contributions to Columbia University, Columbia University Press, and America’s understanding of the East are immeasurable. All of Ted’s books mentioned in the recent New York Times obituary, and many more, were published by the Press. His extraordinary idea in the 1950s, to introduce and to teach the Asian humanities to Columbia students, was realized in part when he began to commission translations of key historical, philosophical, and literary source texts from China, Japan, and India. After all, he could not create a course for English-speaking students until at least some of the canonical works existed in English. Once the texts were translated, he enlisted the Press in publishing them so that they would be available to scholars and students across the country and around the world.

Groundbreaking books under Ted’s editorial direction and published by Columbia University Press are still in print and include the monumental primary-source collections Sources of Chinese Tradition, Sources of Japanese Tradition, and Sources of Indian Tradition. The first editions of these works were published in 1959, and The Sources of Chinese Tradition is one of our long-term best-selling texts. Early individual volumes in the Translations from the Asian Classics series, which Ted founded and edited, include Donald Keene’s Major Plays of Chikamatsu and Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko; Burton Watson’s Records of the Grand Historian of China and Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings; and Ivan Morris’s translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. From South Asia we published Chakravarthi Narasimhan’s The Mahabharata. The Chuang Tzu (now in pinyin transliteration as Zhuangzi) is another perennial best-seller. New translations were added in the 1970s and 1980s, including The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Barbara Stoller Miller, and Ryokan: Zen-Monk Poet of Japan, translated by Burton Watson. The Translations from the Asian Classics series gave American students, whose understanding of the “classics” was based on ancient Greek and Roman texts, new ways of thinking and understanding these ancient civilizations and their relevance to the modern West. (more…)

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

Announcing Center for Korean Research Books

CKR Logo

The Center for Korean Research and Columbia University Press announce the new Korean Studies Book Initiative.

The Center for Korean Research in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University and Columbia University Press are pleased to announce a new Korean studies book initiative. A $10,000 subvention will be awarded each year on a competitive basis to an author who has secured a contract from Columbia University Press for an outstanding Korea-related book in any academic discipline and covering any time period. Applications for the subvention are not required. Columbia University Press will consider all Korea-related manuscripts under contract in a given year for the award. The designation “A Center for Korean Research Book” will appear on the title page of the book, along with acknowledgment of the funding source on the copyright page.

“The Center for Korean Research is happy to have the opportunity to expand its publications activity through its partnership with Columbia University Press. We hope that Center for Korean Research Books will advance Korea-related scholarship in the social sciences and humanities,” remarks Theodore Hughes, director of the Center for Korean Research in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University.

Christine Dunbar, editor, Columbia University Press says, “From Peter Lee’s Sources of Korean Tradition to Janet Poole’s When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea, Columbia University Press has long been dedicated to publishing seminal translations and forward-thinking monographs in Korean studies. We are delighted to be working with the Center for Korean Research to continue this important work.”

Those interested in publishing in the series should send to Christine Dunbar, editor at Columbia University Press (cd2654@columbia.edu), a proposal containing a brief description of the content and focus of the book, a table of contents or chapter outline, literature review and market analysis, and professional information about the author, including previous publications.

About the Center for Korean Research:

The Center for Korean Research (CKR) in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University plays a leading role in the study of Korea on the local, national, and international levels. CKR collaborates with institutes and departments across Columbia University, providing support for Korea-related research across the social sciences and humanities in the form of programming assistance, graduate fellowships, postdoctoral positions, undergraduate teaching grants, and library funding. By sponsoring public lectures, conferences, workshops, and cultural events, CKR advances academic knowledge and a greater public awareness of Korea in the New York City area. CKR serves as a bridge between Korean studies in North America and the most recent work of the Korean academic world through its active partnerships with universities and institutions in South Korea. The Center also maintains a global reach via its sponsorship of the field’s leading journal, the Journal of Korean Studies (published by Duke University Press).

About Columbia University Press:

Columbia University Press was founded in 1893. With nearly 125 years of continuous publishing activities, it is the fourth-oldest university press in America. Notable highlights in its history include the publication of the Columbia Encyclopedia in 1935, the acquisition of The Columbia Granger’s Index to Poetry in 1945, and the introduction of the three Sources anthologies of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian classic works in the 1950s. East Asian studies has always been a strength of the Press, which has published such luminaries in the field as Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene, Burton Watson, Haruo Shirane, and JaHyun Kim Haboush. For more information see: http://www.cup.columbia.edu/.

Friday, April 7th, 2017

On Burton Watson (1925-2017)

Burton Watson

The following post is by Jennifer Crewe, associate provost and director of Columbia University Press. As an editor she worked with Burton Watson for 30 years before his death earlier this month.

Burton Watson died a few days ago, and with his passing the world has lost one of its greatest translators. Burton was one of the only people who possessed the extraordinary ability to translate equally well from both Chinese and Japanese. In fact, one of the early anthologies he translated and edited for Columbia University Press was Japanese Literature in Chinese, a title that puzzled me greatly when I first arrived at the Press, knowing nothing about Chinese or Japanese literature. Burton was deeply familiar with both languages and cultures. He started learning Japanese while serving in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Japan during World War II (as did several giants in the field of his generation, including Donald Keene and Wm. Theodore deBary, also seminal Columbia figures who created the Columbia Asia program and started the Press’s list in East Asian civilizations). After Watson’s discharge he enrolled at Columbia and received his Ph.D. in Chinese literature in 1956. The Press published a revised version of his dissertation, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Grand Historian of China, beginning what would be a sixty-year relationship.

In addition to working freely in both languages, Burton also moved easily from premodern classics (his Zhuangzi, originally published in its Wade-Giles version in 1968, is still one of the Press’s best-selling books) to works from the modern period. He was at home translating a similarly wide range of genres, from ancient history (Records of the Grand Historian of China) to philosophy and religion (Analects of Confucius and The Lotus Sutra), to literature (Tales of the Heike and Selected Poems of Du Fu).

I marveled at his ability and at his copious production. When he finished one book and sent it to me, there was often a period of silence; then he would write and ask what I thought he should translate next.

I once heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, told to me by someone who visited Burton’s Tokyo apartment and watched as he sat at his manual typewriter looking at whatever book he was translating and simply typing the translation as he read the original, without having to look up any words. As a nonspeaker of Chinese and Japanese, I rely on experts to tell me whether a transition is an accurate and faithful rendition of the original. But as a reader I rely on my ear. It was clear to me that Burton was an avid reader of American poetry—particularly of the Williams era. His translations, particularly of poetry, are concise, deceptively simple, and evocative. And they employ the language of everyday speech, which is why they are so successful with students. Burton’s translations opened up the world of East Asian culture to countless students and general readers. Over the years I would occasionally hear criticisms—Watson’s translations were not “scholarly” enough. Burton eschewed notes, and it was often difficult to coax even an introduction out of him. But his translations will last because of the simple beauty of his English idiom. Many “scholarly” translations do not display that inner beauty. Burton’s translations seem effortless. He strove for that.

By my count Columbia University Press has 41 books in print with Watson’s name attached to them. I have been at the Press 30 years, so that is how long I knew Burton. I got acquainted with him slowly, by means of old-fashioned letter-writing. He would send me carefully typed pale blue aerograms, which I would open with trepidation lest I accidentally tear off any of his prose, which was friendly, spare, and efficient, sometimes with a note of petulance—“I don’t suppose you liked my last manuscript much”—if I had failed to respond promptly to what he’d sent. I never saw his apartment, but I always imagined him sitting in a barely furnished Japanese-style room, with the typewriter, and later the computer, in the center on a small desk, and with books all around.

My relationship with Burton remained mostly epistolary on into the e-mail era, when his messages were shorter and lost a bit of flair, but I did see him several times when he came to Columbia for a semester some 20 years ago, and then twice in Tokyo more recently. The last time I saw him was in 2012, and he seemed in good health and rather chipper. He took me on a long walk through the Imperial Palace Gardens, and it seemed to me that he could go on walking forever.

All day
In the mountains
Ants too are walking

From For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santoka
Translated by Burton Watson

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Carrie Preston On Being a Scholar-Teacher-Student

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

“To write this book, I had to become a beginner rather than an expert.”—Carrie Preston

The following is a post by Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching:

To write this book, I had to become a beginner rather than an expert. I had to study an entirely new language (Japanese) and performance form (noh theater). The experience of becoming a student again—and often a poor student at that—taught me a good deal about being a scholar-teacher.

The ideal of the scholar-teacher emphasizes that research inspires great performances in the classroom. I remain committed to that ideal, but writing Learning to Kneel made me realize the need to develop strategies for making my research more accessible to my students. The book includes stories of my research process, various attempts to teach my scholarship, and also what my scholarship has taught me about teaching.

I originally intended to write a book called Noh Modernism (pun very much intended) about the ancient Japanese noh theater’s influence on early twentieth-century European and American drama, dance, poetry, and film. I decided to take lessons in noh performance technique because I was dissatisfied with previous scholarly accounts that suggested because W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, and other “westerners” were more interested in their peculiar ideas of noh than the reality of the theater, actual research into noh performance technique is unnecessary. The artists certainly mystified noh, but scholars were advancing that mystification of a “foreign” art form by refusing to do the work it takes to learn about noh. I realized that deep research on noh requires taking lessons in the form, so I applied for a grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science that allowed me to become a visiting researcher at Hosei University in Tokyo. My hosts there helped me find a professional actor and master teacher who would take me on as a student.

In preparation for my time in Tokyo, I began taking Japanese language classes with undergraduates at Boston University. I found myself hiding in the back row, hoping that my professor would not ask me to come to the board to draw kanji characters. If my Japanese classes reminded me that learning something new can be scary, my noh lessons in Japan completely changed the way I thought about scholarship and teaching. Before each lesson, I had to fall to my knees before my teacher, or sensei.

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

As I bowed, I spoke the formulaic phrase, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” which might be translated as “Thank you for your help and guidance now and in the future,” or, as a fellow noh student suggested, “Please be kind to me during this lesson.” I received instruction while kneeling in seiza, a position with buns on heels that I found incredibly painful after a few minutes but was supposed to maintain for a half hour while I practiced chanting.

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

(more…)

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

With and After Orientalism — Carrie Preston

Carrie Preston, Learning to Kneel

“After almost forty years of important and illuminating discussions of orientalism and ironic responses to the scourge of empire, I think a new space is opening for global or transnational scholarship and intercultural art. Participants in this space are not naïve about the continuing ramifications of empire … [b]ut they also want to move beyond irony and make room for pleasure, inspiration, even enchantment in the fraught encounters between cultures.”—Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel

The following post is by Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching:

A century ago, W. B. Yeats’s first noh-inspired play for dancers, At the Hawk’s Well, was performed in Lady Emerald Cunard’s London drawing room with an invited audience that included Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot—one time we know for certain that these three great modernist poets were all together in the same room.

Also in the room was Ito Michio, the Japanese-born performer who choreographed and danced the role of the Guardian of the Well and went on to have an important career in American modern dance.

Ito Michio
(Ito Michio as the Guardian of the Well in At the Hawk’s Well (1916))

The French artist Edmund Dulac designed full wooden masks, made costumes, and composed and performed the music.

Edmund Dulac
(Edmund Dulac with other musician and the cloth to be folded and unfolded at the beginning and end of each play for dancers.)

It was a fascinating collaboration and avant-garde modernist performance experiment. Eliot, also a great critic, claimed that Hawk’s Well made him think differently of Yeats, “… rather as a more eminent contemporary than as an elder from whom one could learn.” For him, Yeats soared into the new modernist generation with Hawk’s Well. Plenty of critical ink has been spent on Yeats in the past century, but this play has tended to be something of an exception and embarrassment, largely because it’s a pretty good example of orientalism, exoticism, and cultural appropriation.

There were many warnings against writing a book focused on Hawk’s Well and modernist noh, certainly against moving to Japan to take lessons in noh performance technique. I was literally becoming an orientalist, part of that academic tradition Edward Said famously defined in 1978 as being based on essential distinctions between the so-called “Orient” and “Occident.” The “Orient” (primarily the Middle East for Said) is imagined to be spiritual, passive, effeminate, exotic, traditional, and inscrutable, while “the Occident’” is rational, aggressive, masculine, central, modern, and knowable. Said argued that scholarly and aesthetic accounts of “the Orient” justified empire, even when, as with Yeats and noh, the artists were celebrating nonwestern achievements to counter white European cultural stagnation. In later works, Said clarified that he viewed modernism as an “ironic” rather than “oppositional” response to empire. And in the decades that followed, critics have recognized that cultural exchange is inevitable in modernity and can’t simply be deplored, but few models of transmission emerged that did not emphasize irony, mimicry, or appropriation. Warnings from Said and other postcolonial theorists have contributed to my feeling that I should have been more ironic, certainly less enthralled, as I took noh lessons and researched modernist noh.

Yet, studying and participating in collaborative intercultural exchange, however fraught and full of mistakes, tended to encourage my optimism rather than irony. Accusations of orientalism and appropriation begin from a desire for cultural sensitivity, but they can unintentionally reinforce the notion of an unbridgeable divide between east and west. Certainly we can identify plenty of orientalist assumptions in Yeats, Pound, Dulac, and their collaborators, including Ito, one of the most successful performers to build a career out of orientalist performance.

But, after almost forty years of important and illuminating discussions of orientalism and ironic responses to the scourge of empire, I think a new space is opening for global or transnational scholarship and intercultural art. Participants in this space are not naïve about the continuing ramifications of empire, the offense of cultural appropriations that look more like theft, and the ways that outdated polarities like east and west still encroach upon our thought. But they also want to move beyond irony and make room for pleasure, inspiration, even enchantment in the fraught encounters between cultures.

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Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

An Interview with Carrie Preston, author of “Learning to Kneel”

Learning to Kneel, Carrie Preston

“My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.”—Carrie Preston

The following is an interview with Carrie Preston, author of Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching

Q: Learning to Kneel examines the Western interest in the Japanese noh theater from many different perspectives, historical and scholarly, as well as via your own experiences as a teacher, student, and performer. How did these different vantage points shape your approach to the book?

Carrie J. Preston: I began thinking about this book as a fairly typical scholarly study of the noh theater’s influence on modernism. As I read previous scholarship on the topic, I kept encountering a disclaimer that went something like this: I tried to watch a noh play but understood next to nothing; that’s ok, there is no need for a deep knowledge of noh because W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin Britten, and other Westerners knew nothing about noh. Aside from the homonym fun (nobody knows noh), this was a troubling and decidedly un-scholarly disclaimer. I set out to learn deeply about noh, and I soon realized that experts locate the essence of noh in training, always in private lessons where the student mimics the teacher’s chant and dance so as to memorize the noh repertory. I clearly needed to take lessons, and my experience as a performer helped me undertake this rather daunting enterprise. My noh training in Tokyo with a master actor changed everything about Learning to Kneel.

I decided that the story of my experience taking lessons in noh performance technique needed to be central to the book. I tried to interweave that personal story with the accounts of how the various artists I was discussing learned about noh. I treated us all as noh students who bring personal desires and goals to our studies that impact how we understand and use noh. This approach allowed me to face the disclaimer that none of us know anything about noh by acknowledging that there are always limits to a student’s knowledge. But students also develop unique and interesting strategies for learning. By focusing on the techniques for learning and teaching noh, I hoped to open up the rather esoteric topic of noh theater’s influence on modernism so that the book will be of interest to many students and teachers of cultures—and we are all students and teachers of cultures on some level.

Q: Yeats, Pound, Brecht, and Britten’s approach to noh is often viewed as an example of cultural appropriation. In what ways does your book alter this perception?

CJP: I don’t disagree that these figures were engaged in cultural appropriation and orientalism, but in some ways, that’s the least interesting thing to say about them. It’s easy to accuse them of cultural insensitivity and prove their guilt. At the same time, we often celebrate multiculturalism and diversity, believing that study abroad will produce cultural sensitivity in our students. I find the binary of good multiculturalism and bad appropriation to be particularly unhelpful. Who owns a culture? Who should be allowed to study and perform the theater of a particular culture? What is the difference between being inspired by noh and appropriating noh? If the answer is that only those born into a culture can study, use, or be inspired by it, what does that mean for study abroad, diversity requirements, and global studies?

These are difficult questions, and international/transnational teaching and learning is messy work. In Learning to Kneel, I embrace that mess and get down on my knees in the dirt, so to speak. And that taught me that all cross-cultural or global learning involves a degree of appropriation, whether we’re studying noh or opera. But, of course we don’t put those two lyric musical theaters in the same category because of unequal power relations between the so-called “east,” where noh originated, and “west,” the birthplace of opera. Was Ito Michio appropriating opera when he moved to Germany to become an opera singer? I recognize that power disparities are absolutely crucial to understanding cultural exchange and that some appropriation is regrettably malicious, but I also hope to recognize and question the habits of mind that make us treat noh so differently from opera.

Q: Ito Michio is one of the more fascinating figures in your book. How does his life affect the way we think about cross-cultural exchanges?

CJP: Ito’s life is the perfect example of the messiness of cultural exchange. He traveled to Europe as a young man hoping to become an opera singer and then a western dancer and slough off his stultifying Japaneseness. Upon reaching London, Ito was valued most as an “oriental” artist” by Pound and Yeats, who wanted him to help them translate noh plays and work on modernist noh adaptations. He claimed that they taught him to value his own culture, but they also taught him how valuable the popular fascination with Japan could be for his career as a performer. He began to advertise himself as an “oriental dancer” and exoticize his modern dance practice. When he arrived in New York during World War I, Ito began staging Pound’s translations of noh plays, even though he had no training in noh. And in spite of the fact that he was adapting Pound’s already adapted versions of noh texts, Ito advertised them as absolutely authentic. His tendency to stretch the truth and invent a powerful position for himself in Japan raised the suspicions of the CIA, and he was arrested shortly after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor as an enemy alien. He was eventually repatriated to Japan, where he staged spectacular revues for the U.S. occupying forces and introduced American modern dance and beauty pageants (for better and worse).

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Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

Book Giveaway! “Learning to Kneel,” by Carrie Preston

This week our featured book is Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching, by Carrie J. Preston.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Learning to Kneel to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 9th at 1:00 pm.

Martin Puchner writes, “What drew Western writers to an arcane, highly stylized form of Japanese court theater? As a scholar, Carrie J. Preston answers this question by way of the archive, unearthing a global network of dancers and writers. But she also pursues this question as a student, subjecting herself to the rigors of noh training. The result is an unusual blend of both approaches, a magisterial study in cultural history that is also a compelling story of teaching and learning.

For more on the book, you can read the book’s opening chapter “Introduction to Noh Lessons”:

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

A Post for 4/20: Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter on Pot Smuggling

In recognition of 4/20, we are re-posting Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter’s appearance on HuffPost Live to discuss their book Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade In the interview, Maguire and Ritter discuss drug smuggling in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s. Also joining them was Jim Conklin, the DEA agent who busted Mike Ritter for smuggling.

As the three explained, surfers began smuggling marijuana from Thailand but in relatively small quantities, driven by a spirit of adventure as much as a thirst for profit. Initially, neither Thai or U.S. officials paid much attention to the smugglers, who were generally nonviolent and “laid-back”. It was only later in the 1970s when professional criminals became involved and the amounts began to grow that the drug crackdown began.

After discussing this fascinating history, the three consider current drug policy and the dangers of synthetic opiates:

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

Interview with Hyun Ok Park, author of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

The Capitalist Unconscious, Hyun Ok Park

The following is an interview with Hyun Ok Park, author of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

Question: The concept of “the capitalist unconscious” in the book indicates that you take the unification question out of the familiar box of the nation-state system. Can you explain what you mean by “the capitalist unconscious” and how it figures in your book?

Hyun Ok Park: “The capitalist unconscious” provides a conceptual framework for my approach. It places the global capitalist system at the center of historicizing the national question. The capitalist unconscious concerns the sociocultural symbolization of the capitalist system and the historical character of such representation. This book expands the understanding of the unconscious from Frederic Jameson’s political unconscious and its focus on narrative to incorporate corporeal, sensorial, affective, and mnemonic symbolizations. I bring the body, senses, involuntary memory, performative ethnicity, and longing for a stateless nation to understanding experiences of transnational migrants. In fact, the disjuncture among what migrants say, how they say it, what they remember, and what their bodies tell demonstrates their commodified subjectivity as anything but total.

The capitalist unconscious is the historical unconscious that involves the fidelity of the political and the historical. The book shows that one’s experience of capitalism, democracy, and their linkage is organized by the interpretation of crisis (e.g., crisis of industrialism, of socialism, and of migrants and refugees as epochal changes (e.g., the transition from socialism to capitalism, from dictatorship to democracy, and from industrial to financial capitalism). I juxtapose the transition theses of history harbored in democratic politics with migrants’ own flashbacks into history and my accounts of Cold War industrialism—both socialist and capitalist.

Q: How can the understanding of the capitalist unconscious explain your thesis, “Korea is already unified in a transnational form by capital”? This statement will come as a surprise or even a provocation to those for whom the routine questions about Korean unification are whether and when the two Koreas will be unified.

HP: This book proposes a paradigm change on North Korea and Korean unification. I explore the ways that the capitalist unconscious encapsulates the currently unfolding and yet unobserved form of Korean unification that I call transnational Korea. Bringing capitalism into the analysis of the nation-state formation illumines the largely forgotten original and utopian ideal of national unification. It also enables us to historicize ethic national sovereignty. Only when we bring capitalism into the analysis can we discern the otherwise hidden shift of the mode of Korean unification from territorial and familial integration to transnational Korea. The chiasmus in this book is, therefore, not so much between ethnic national sovereignty and territorial integration as between modern sovereignty and global capitalism.

Accordingly, I consider the national unification question a social question, which is irreducible to the return to an undivided Korea or the establishment of a single nation-state. From the beginning, nation and national unification concern social relations of the people. Koreans’ quest for resolving the Japanese colonial legacy and becoming independent from American rule was never separate from transformation of social relations of land, labor, and tenancy. Popular sovereignty, decolonization, and ethnic-national independence were one and the same. Although the rivalry of the two Korean states during the Cold War tethered the matter of Korean unification to the task of creating a single nation-state, the South Korean democracy struggle of the 1980s saw the critique of global capitalism as integral to realizing national unification. In the post-Cold War era, the politics of unification is, in an unexpected turn, articulated with the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism and the war on terrorism.

As a critique of the old and new modes of Korean unification, this book presents various border-crossing interactions among Koreans during and after the Cold War era, including family unions of divided families and diaspora’s experiences, which fall through the cracks of all modes of unification politics since the division. I historicize Korean unification so that we distinguish its current form and envisage a new political possibility. When Koreans in different moments and in various Korean communities state their wishes for Korean unification, they are not to be taken as habitual slips into a received ideology. Instead these statements are harbingers of a utopia desire whose meaning and effect are decipherable only in reference to concrete social relations.

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Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Mark L. Clifford on The Greening of Asia

Mark L. Clifford, author of The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency, will be talking about issues relating to climate change in Asia at an event today at the China Institute. For those that can’t make it, here is a video of Clifford discussing the book:

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

Thirteen Ways of Making and Looking at Books

It is an understatement to say that Chang Jae Lee has seen and designed a lot of books and book covers over the course of his two decades in the design department at Columbia University Press. Last month, the senior designer shared some of his favorites in an exhibition at Gallery Sagakhyung in Seoul. Titled “Thirteen Ways of Making and Looking at Books: Columbia University Press Book Design, 1990-2015,” Chang Jae’s exhibition showcased over a hundred books, both his own designs and those of his past and present Columbia University Press colleagues. Also on view was an installation showing the complete processes of cover design and book production.

While Chang Jae came to Columbia University Press in 1996, he chose 1990 for the start date of his exhibition so that he could include several book covers that were influential to his development as a designer, such as the 1990 Columbia University Press translation of Marguerite Duras’ Green Eyes, the jacket of which was designed by Tracy Feldman.

The exhibition drew visitors from all over the Korean publishing world, ranging from design students to editors. “Thirteen Ways of Making and Looking at Books” closed its run at Gallery Sagakhyung on May 30, and will move to the Seoul Metropolitan Library at the end of July for a four-week engagement.

Chang Jae was previously featured on the Columbia University Press Blog when he was interviewed by Asian Global Impact in 2013. In that interview, Chang Jae addressed the future of print book design optimistically:

I am pretty pessimistic about everything else, but I am not pessimistic about the future of books…. The physicality of books is important, and I think it can only be further accentuated, enhanced with thoughtful design. All successful designs achieve communication—translating the written language and its core ideas into the visual language, transforming them logically, succinctly, and viscerally.

To illustrate the power of thoughtful design, we’ve selected some of the covers Chang Jae has designed over the years for Columbia University Press books in two of his favorite subject areas, Korean Studies and Philosophy. Despite the range of topics and visual styles, what all these covers have in common is that they are carefully tailored to communicate information about the book within.

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

The Father-Daughter Relationship in Early China

Exemplary Women of Early China

“Referring to the prevailing concept of the ruler as fulfilling a parental role, ‘How indeed,’ [the Emperor] asked when contemplating the cruelty of corporal punishment, ‘can I be called the father and mother of the people?’ He then declared, ‘Let the corporal punishments be abolished!’” — Anne Behnke Kinney

The following is a guest post from Anne Behnke Kinney, author of Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang:

If Fathers’ Day cards are any indication of how Americans idealize the father-daughter bond, we honor our fathers as wise, strong, and encouraging, extolling these virtues in verses set against images of golf clubs, neckties, and for some reason, mallard ducks. The cards are purchased by sons and daughters alike. But in early China, daughters were afforded a status well beneath their brothers because, as females, they could not carry on the family line or the sacrifices necessary to nurture ancestors in the other world. (more…)

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner — The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji, Michael Emmerich

For this week’s fiction corner we look at what is considered by many to be the world’s first novel. The following is an interview with Michael Emmerich, author of The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature now available in paper.In the interview, Emmerich discusses, among other subjects, how The Tale of Genji became a classic of Japanese literature, how it changed reading habits, its place in world literature, and his first experience with the novel:

Question: We tend to think of The Tale of Genji as a kind of immortal classic but in fact its history is more complicated. How did it become a national classic or emblematic of Japanese culture and literature?

Michael Emmerich: Genji was written in the early eleventh century, so of course the story of how it achieved its present status as one of the preeminent classics of both national and world literature is very long—a millennium long, in fact—and very complex. I argue that while Genji came to be regarded as a “treasure” very early on at an elite level, ordinary readers had little or no interest in the tale until surprisingly recently. The work that first managed to interest a truly popular readership in Genji—if only indirectly—was a sort of early modern graphic novel called A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji that was published over the course of thirteen years, from 1829 to 1842. The way I see it, Bumpkin Genji was crucial because it inspired for the first time in a popular readership the desire to know more about Genji, and then offered itself up as an enjoyable means of satisfying that desire, without actually having to read Genji itself. In other words, Bumpkin Genji popularized the notion of the complete translation of Genji into vernacular Japanese. Then, almost exactly a century later, from 1939 to 1941, the novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō published a translation into the Japanese of his day that became a best-seller. That was when Genji really came to be re-canonized not just as a celebrated but unread “treasure,” but as a “national classic” in the sense of “a classic of the Japanese people”—as a work for which, and to which, Japan and its citizens were somehow responsible.

Q: What has been the role of The Tale of Genji in the popularization of Japanese literature in English?

ME: Scholars have long recognized the importance of Arthur Waley’s translation of the tale, The Tale of Genji, which was issues in six volumes from 1925 to 1933. Waley’s version was widely read, and was praised by reviewers from the time its first volume appeared as one of the great works of world literature. In my book, though, I explore the role an earlier partial translation that has now been largely forgotten played in making Genji known—though less as a literary classic than as a portrait of eleventh-century Japan, and as a work by a woman writer. This translation, published in England in 1882, was done by a young Japanese named Suematsu Kenchō. At the time, the publication of a work translated from Japanese was such a rarity that it was actually considered newsworthy, and the notion that women writers had played such a crucial role in creating what is now known as classical Japanese literature made its appearance even more sensational. It’s hard to say how much of an effect the attention Genji garnered, first in 1882, then in 1925, then in 1976 with the publication of Seidensticker’s translation, and again in 2001 when Royall Tyler’s appeared, has had in popularizing Japanese literature more broadly, but I do think it has helped give people an image of Japanese literature as something worth paying attention to.

Q: How has the reception of The Tale of the Genji changed over time?

ME: To tell the truth, I’m somewhat skeptical of the notion of “reception.” In the case of Genji, hardly anyone reads it in the original classical Japanese these days, and even fewer people read it in the form in which it was originally circulated—in calligraphic manuscript rather than typeset book. Instead, most people come into contact with Genji through what I call “replacements.” Translations are perhaps the paradigmatic form of replacement, but there are all kinds of other replacements, too: digests, guides, movies, manga, artworks, designs on kimono. So many people have created so many different kinds of replacements of the tale over the millennium since it first appeared that it would take a book even to begin to explore the trajectory they have followed—as it happens, Columbia University Press has published just such a book: Envisioning the Tale of Genji, edited by Haruo Shirane—but I think one might at least say that, over the centuries, the forms Genji’s replacements take have moved further and further away from the forms in which it was first circulated.

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Monday, April 20th, 2015

A Post for 4/20: Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter Discuss Pot Smuggling

In recognition of 4/20, we are re-posting Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter’s appearance on HuffPost Live to discuss their book Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade In the interview, Maguire and Ritter discuss drug smuggling in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s. Also joining them was Jim Conklin, the DEA agent who busted Mike Ritter for smuggling.

As the three explained, surfers began smuggling marijuana from Thailand but in relatively small quantities, driven by a spirit of adventure as much as a thirst for profit. Initially, neither Thai or U.S. officials paid much attention to the smugglers, who were generally nonviolent and “laid-back”. It was only later in the 1970s when professional criminals became involved and the amounts began to grow that the drug crackdown began.

After discussing this fascinating history, the three consider current drug policy and the dangers of synthetic opiates:

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

“Born to Chaos” — an Excerpt from Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

We continue our week-long feature on Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, by Phyllis Birnbaum with an excerpt from the book. In the chapter “Born to Chaos,” Birnbaum opens with the last days of Kawashima Yoshiko, while looking back at her exploits, her troubled upbringing and her conflicting legacies in China and Japan: