Blogs > Cliopatria > AHA Day Two: Medieval, Early Modern, Very Modern

Jan 8, 2005 12:26 am

AHA Day Two: Medieval, Early Modern, Very Modern

What can I say, everything I did today had a premodern feel about it. Except for the futuristic stuff....

The Conference on Asian History luncheon speaker was Mary Elizabeth Berry, who gave us a preview of her soon-to-be published book on 17th century Japanese knowledge: production, organization and consumption of public information and public sphere, and the implications of this Early Modernity for thinking about Modernity. She started out with maps, and went on, appprently, to encyclopedia, gazetteers, travel guides and what she refered to as public, verifiable, useful information. There was a baseline of knowledge -- political, economic, geographic, cultural -- which was expected of moderately educated people and which these books organized in interesting and creative ways. This shared cultural heritage (I'm blanking on the term she used, but it was more concise and effective) was formed mostly in the mid/late-1600s, starting with the rise of commercial printing in the 1640s, and by the turn of the century was pretty well fixed. It's the best description of the stagnation of 18th century Japan I've ever heard, in a sense, or of stagnation anywhere: a culture is stagnant if it is not producing new landmarks, new forms of organizing information and activity. Not that nothing was happening -- there's some really great literature from the period, and some interesting intellectual history -- but the basic shape of this culture was rather static. This book is going to reorganize our thinking on 17c Japan, for sure.

The table discussion was mostly about scholarship and scholars of modern education, but there were some interesting forays into the realm of the rising scholarship on childhood. This is an area which is very exciting: childhood is a basic formative experience, and the fact that we've gotten this far without attempting serious studies of childhood is a shame which we are only slowly rectifying.

My afternoon panel was on Hui Muslims in China, and I was there for two reasons: first, I'm teaching modern China and second, an old friend (anthropologist, actually) was the discussant. Two of the papers were on the Tang-era stories about the founding of the Muslim community in China: apparently, the story goes, the Tang Emperor had a dream of being chased by a devil, and was rescued by a dark, turbaned man. Consulting his experts upon awakening, they concluded that the devil was a disaster coming to China and the turbaned man was a Muslim. In order to protect China, the emperor sent a request to the Prophet Muhammed, which was answered by an authorized expedition of Muslim men who settled in China to protect it from whatever the trouble was. This is the origin of the Hui people, according to a medieval myth that is, curiously, no longer current. In the modern age, anti-Hui sentiment has been common among Han (the majority ethnicity) Chinese, resulting in both vicious attacks on the community and rebellions by Hui (which were usually answered with vicious supression); there are regular clashes and conflicts to this day.

After the panel I ended up chatting with a very smart gentleman who does Chinese history, and was very pleasantly suprised to hear that he approved of my China course structure. I also ended up talking about it with one of the book acquisitions folks.... most places divide up Asian history into modern and premodern (if they divide it at all), but that rubric is getting kind of weak. Worse, the dividing lines are usually dramatic modern historical moments, like the end of WWII or Meiji Restoration (1868) or founding of the CCCP (1949): I never understood ending (or starting) a course in the middle of a transition. So when I had the chance, here, I made both the China and Japan courses into three-semester sequences, breaking roughly around 1600 and 1900, and that gives all six courses much tighter narratives, with less teleological structures. I stole the structure from UC-Berkeley, with some modification (Berkeley uses a long 20th century starting in 1890, but I prefer to break it in the 1910s, at least this time). It also means that it's damned near impossible to find good textbooks: sometimes I use the Encylopedia Britannica Online, sometimes I stretch a text across two courses, sometimes I only use 2/3rds of a text; I rely much more heavily on primary sources, literature and really good secondary material about specific historical moments than I used to, which is also good. If there was more than one asianist here, I might consider dividing it up even more narrowly, but there's a good reason to have survey courses, too, so teaching it that way and doing more narrowly defined seminars is fine for now.

Dinner was with bloggers, mostly, including our own Ralph Luker, and a few historically minded pseudonymous non-Cliopatriots. We talked about all kinds of things, including food (fish was the order of the day. Really good fish), feudalism, flamewars, hiring, historians, hyperlinks and a few non-alliterative topics as well. The great thing about blogging (and e-mail, etc.) is that the conversation does not have to stop just because the check came. Conferences can go on and on, but it's really nice to have sat down with a few folks in person.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 1/9/2005

One of the things which I like about Berry is her willingness to use useful concepts like public sphere without getting caught up in ideology and definitional abstractions which lead to "moving on."

Konrad M Lawson - 1/9/2005

I just saw a presentation by Professor Mitani (Meiji nationalism guy) from Tokyo University. He was trying to apply the use of Habermas' public sphere (really an outdated theory, Habermas has really moved on hasn't he?) on 19th century...she seems to be really moving it far back. Perhaps she has modified his conception to fit...Mitani was less optimistic about its use until much later...and even then only in a modified form.

C. H.L. George - 1/8/2005

A friend of mine is doing her PhD on the Uighurs. From what she's said I think you're right. They are the Turkic ones.

C. H.L. George - 1/8/2005

Thanks I'll do that :)

Jonathan Dresner - 1/8/2005

Depending on what period you're interested in, there might be other names. E-mail me if you want to talk about it more.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/8/2005

They are, as I understand it, two very distinct groups. One proof of that, mentioned at the panels, is that Hui is a non-Turkic language, whereas I'm pretty sure that the Uighurs are Turkic. The Hui are also much more widely distributed within China, including substantial concentrations in the south, whereas the Uighurs are almost entirely in the northwest.

The Uighurs came up in the discussion a bit, as one of the panelists was very strongly questioning the primacy of religion as a component of identity and explanatory factor in the history, but the focus was very much on the Hui as a distinct group.

Andrew Ackerman - 1/8/2005

How do they differ from the Uyghur muslims ethnic minority? Do they just practice different flavors of Islam? Located in different regions?

C. H.L. George - 1/8/2005

Thanks Jonathan. I've been wondering about the public sphere in Japan. Now I know the name of someone who's working on it I can go in from there.