Cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation?
Today started out with a Committee on Teaching Asia-sponsored panel, "Asia: Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation" that began with a music video (Coldplay/Beyonce) and a set of questions from the moderator, Karen Kane. Where is the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation? If that line has something to do with unequal power relations, how do we know when one group takes something that does not belong to them? And how do we determine what "belongs" to whom? Is authorship possible for, say, folk traditions? What are the modes or ways that appropriation might occur? How do we reconcile these issues with concepts like a "multicultural society" (Canada) or a "melting pot" (America)? How much does change over time complicate our understanding of culture? And does it matter when money is at stake?
Elisheva Perelman developed these questions further by pointing to Katy Perry's performance as Japanese geisha clad in a Chinese qipao with a miscellany "unauthentic" props for a 2013 live performance her single "Unconditional Love" because, in her words, "I was thinking about unconditional love, and I was thinking: Geishas are basically, like, the masters of loving unconditionally"? Is that the same kind of problem as the Oberlin students who called out the bad Asian food in the dining hall as appropriation?
Melanie King and Farley Richmond seemed to offer two alternative takes on these questions. Professor King viewed the issue as essentially political, arguing that people of dominant cultures not only perform the cultures of oppressed peoples, but restrict or forbid oppressed peoples from performing their own cultures. Gwen Stefani can sport a bindi, King pointed out, but Indian-Americans need to "fit in" to survive financially. Professor Richmond answered that in theater and in film, the primary concern was creativity, requiring the freedom to draws upon – and mix together – inspirations across time and space. Money cannot be seen as merely "dirty," since it is what makes the arts sustainable. All fascinating insights, though it struck me that King and Richmond did not actually address one another, just as Asian-American protesters against the "kimono" exhibit at the MFA in Boston never really came to terms with the Japanese-born counter-protesters when a similar debate unfolded in July 2015.
Nixon in China, Trump in Pyongyang?
John Delury offered an unexpected take on North Korea as part of the panel, "U.S.-Asian Relations under Trump." Above all, he said, North Korea is an "isolated, impoverished state in the heart of Northeast Asia." What would happen if we stopped pretending that the regime is on the verge of failure and instead started accepting the facts as they are and guiding Kim Jung-un toward a future as the North's "developmental dictator," not unlike Deng Xiaoping? Completing the nuclear program, he said, is the "tail end of daddy's program"; Kim Jung-un's task is to "Make North Korea Great Again." While acknowledging it is unlikely that the president is a regular reader of Foreign Affairs magazine where Delury laid out his case, he suggests that no one is better positioned than Trump to pull off a Nixon-meets-Mao moment.
How do we make sense of Japan's Empire?
In a terrific late-afternoon panel, three Japan scholars sought to tackle the view that Japan's modernization-cum-imperialism from the 1870s to 1945 was contradictory, "schizophrenic," or even "absurd." Historians have long noted that after "mimicking" patterns of Western imperialism, Japanese leaders swung between seeking a place in the international order as a great power and attacking the legitimacy of that order as a self-styled guardian of Asia.
All three of the panelists pushed back against this picture of contradiction. Robert Eskildsen offered an admittedly "complicated" alternative explanation of "recursion," by which he meant to shift our focus from the structure of relationships to the logic behind how those relationships were formed. Japan, he argues, was not a passive recipient of Westernization, but rather was engaged in a constant process of adaptation that Westerners ultimately found helpful and adopted for their own ends. Thus, the particular state of relations between Japan and, say, the United States might be different at any given moment, but the longer-term pattern remained the same as Japan sought to absorb and adapt the lessons of the West to avoid colonization.
Robert Tierney and Ethan Mark each sought instead to complicate the structure in which Japanese imperialism operated. They offered what I saw as ultimately complementary arguments on the "triangular" relations (Tierney) between Japan, the West, and Japan's colonies and what we might term "rectangular" relations (Mark) between Japan, the West, Japan's colonies, and some other factor – usually the Chinese. To make sense of Japan's actions at any given point, one simply needs to recognize the role third (or fourth) party actors played in the calculations at a given moment.
Bonus! What did "alternative facts" look like circa 1942?
Trying to navigate these complex web of relationships (see previous section) was tough, as Mark pointed out with several rich textual examples. I have copied out one below from a "China pacification unit" in July 1942:
They argued that Japan and China have the same script and are of the same race (dôbun dôshu), they are brothers, and they should proceed with hands joined. Someone in the audience replied: All right, but China is the older brother. It is said that members of the pacification unit had no words to answer this for some time. How wonderful if they had been able to reply immediately. It is a problem of history – when you are properly aware of Japan's history, the answer is extremely simple. Japan has always been leader of the Asia-Pacific sphere from ancient times – if you know this history, that is enough. Japan has always been constructing China – if you know this is history, that is enough. We are now seeking this truth with our own eyes in the Greater East Asia War. We must be aware that this truth before our eyes had been continuously repeated in China since ancient times. What is true in China is, again, true in the southern regions. Japanese people, take great pride!
6. Dapeng (大鹏) is a type of mythological bird in Chinese mentioned at least as far back as the Zhuangzi. The term has also been used to translate Persian and Buddhist mythical birds, and recently has been a symbol of the "One Belt One Road" (一带一路) project. (Jim Millward)
5. "Ancient" tourist sites are being constructed around China, most commonly reflecting the pre-Opium War eighteenth century "high Qing." Effort to reconstruct the past part of shift from believing that "the past was dismal and the future bright" to "the past is comfortable but the future is scary." (Tobie Meyer-Fong)
4. Contrary to official proclamations on the eve of the Korean War that the peninsula represented China's "little socialist brother," many Chinese at the grassroots distrusted Koreans, who they viewed as "thugs" that "took advantage of China before 1945." And indeed, police reports show 400+ Korean drug dealers were in Beiping (today Beijing) under protection of Japanese authorities in the early 1940s. (Zhao Ma)
3. Child trafficking is a real problem in China, with hundreds of children (many of migrant parents) going missing each week. At least 10,000 – probably more than 70,000 – trafficked each year. (Johanna Ransmeier)
2. Closure of organizations or publications in China less connected to particular actions on part of those organizations or publications than commonly believed. Sacking of Yanhong chunqiu《炎黄春秋》leadership in July 2016 corresponded with arrests of human rights lawyers, church groups, and others. (Rowena Xiaoqing He)
*Bonus: Criticisms of Yanhong chunqiu as representing "historical nihilism" are glaringly disingenuous. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pretends that the magazine ignored the merits of the past, but instead the magazine was merely recognizing the de-merit of the CCP, meaning it is the CCP that is in fact nihilist. (Perry Link)
1. In 1970 before channels were opened between United States and China, Mao told the leftist American journalist Edgar Snow, in English, that Nixon was the "number one good fellow in the world." This wasn't mere momentary exuberance, because he then ordered perplexed Cultural Revolution-era party cadres to study the statement. (Sergey Radchenko)
Kicked off today in Toronto with "CTA Day" (Committee for Teaching Asia). Seeking peace was the theme, with impressively textured presentation by atomic bomb survivor Setsuko Thurlow, who was thirteen years old in Hiroshima when the bomb fell in August 1945. Toward the end of her talk she recommended checking out her interview with Amy Goodman. In addition, we heard talks on strategies for teaching Hiroshima and the legacies of the partition(s) of British India.
AAS keynote by Zhang Longxi (张隆溪) argued cultural insight only possible if one works from more than one tradition. Cited Montaigne, Reichwein, Leibniz, Gertrude, and Brook showing important role China played in West's intellectual modernity. Also exposed sloppiness of East vs. West essentialism and called out Richard Nisbett (Geography of Thought).
Timothy Cheek and David Ownby led terrific panel on Canadian-Chinese collaboration tackling translation of contemporary Chinese public intellectuals. Cheek said new generation of scholars tasked with engaging Chinese colleagues on equal terms. Good questions on translation practice, e.g. when to keep romanized vs. when to translate? what to do when author makes wild claims? how much to smooth over cultural-specific references?