Robots: The Backstories

by Jennifer Robertson, author of Robo sapiens japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

Today robots have become, in the words of a Boston Globe headline from 2014, “the 21st century’s must-study subject.” Unless one is living in isolation or off the grid, one cannot avoid noticing that robots are in the news and entertainment media everyday. The scholarly literature on robots has also expanded exponentially, and the field of robotics is front and center in superheated debates about autonomous cars.

All the media attention paid these days to robots makes it a daunting challenge to write about them, as I realized while organizing my field notes and crafting my book. A major task I faced was to finesse the disconnect between actual robots and the robots that populate science fiction comics, novels, and movies. Although technologically complex, the former are clumsy, slow, and underwhelming compared to the latter. Video PR footage of actual robots moving is typically speeded up significantly, sometimes ten to thirty times their original speed, and is heavily edited to create the illusion of smooth, coordinated movement.

I also had to deal with the fact that the field of robotics and related technologies is evolving so quickly and in so many directions that research focused solely on highlighting the newest gee-whiz models quickly becomes out of date. How to keep my book relevant even after the robots featured in it were obsolete was a major concern. In addition, while seeking to analyze cross-cultural differences in attitudes toward robot-human interactions, I was careful to avoid fueling the stereotype of “the Japanese” as gadget obsessed and culturally prone to desiring robot companions over human ones.

My solution to these quandaries was to explore and interrogate the type of national cultural, social institutional, and gendered family structures within which humans and robots are imagined to coexist. I also researched and crafted substantive historical backstories to help contextualize the “imagineering” of human-robot relationships since the mid 1920s when, newly coined, “robot” (robotto) became a household word. Today, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, whose two separate terms in office bookend my work, is a leading promoter of robotizing the Japanese labor force. His 2007 blueprint for Japan, Innovation 25, anticipated the “robot revolution” formally announced in 2015. Abe is keen on making Japan a society in which robots of all configurations are utilized more than anywhere in the world, from agriculture to eldercare. He is also planning to use the 2020 Olympics to showcase robots in a separate “robot Olympics.” Although the robots displayed will be those made for the civilian market, Abe, like his Euro-American counterparts, is keen on parlaying robots in the lucrative weapons economy.

In Japan, the family or household is the place where robots will be domesticated and even given citizenship. Only in the past few years has this scenario become common in the United States and western European countries as evident in advertisements for gendered domestic robots called “Mother” and “Buddy.” Although it was broadcast in late October that Sophia, an android commissioned by the Saudi government, was the first robot to be granted citizenship, the fact is that the first robot to be granted citizenship was Paro, a Japanese robot seal recognized as the “World’s Most Therapeutic Robot.” Paro was added to his inventor’s family registry or koseki in 2010, which is irrefutable proof of Japanese citizenship.

The family or household is also the framework for a list of robot laws drawn up by writer and cartoonist Osamu Tezuka, the Japanese counterpart and contemporary of Isaac Asimov, whose robot laws are of a more abstract, universal nature. I argue that as Americans and Europeans become more comfortable with the prospect of sociable household robots, they will regard the family as the metaphor and model of human-robot relationships, just as they already do for animal pets.

And, just like in families when a relative passes away, a robot member will be similarly grieved and eulogized. Robot and computer funeral services have been provided by Buddhist temples for several years now. The glum looking humanoid robots on the cover of my book are in a holding cage at Osaka University waiting to be taken to a recycling center. It has never been confirmed if they were memorialized at a temple before being dismantled.


Jennifer Robertson is Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan. She is author of Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan and Native and Newcomer: Making and Remaking a Japanese City.


Make the Han Great Again

by Kevin Carrico, author of The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

Blame placed upon minorities and foreigners. Calls for isolation from the outside world to protect our way of life. Visions of a lost past, the good old days, needing to be recaptured.

For anthropologists gathering in Washington, DC for the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, these concepts will naturally bring to mind recent developments in politics in the United States. But these are also in fact issues addressed in my recent ethnography of race and traditionalism in urban China, The Great Han.

The Great Han is based in fieldwork across China with members of the Han Clothing Movement (Hanfu yundong), a grassroots nationalist group that has emerged in cities across China since 2001. Although “the Han” is China’s majority ethnicity, constituting 92% of the country’s population and playing a dominant role in the country’s political, economic, and cultural life, members of the Han Clothing Movement see the Han as an oppressed people, prevented from realizing their full potential, and thus China’s full potential. Why do these members of a dominant majority ethnicity see themselves as marginalized victims? In my analysis of majority nationalism, I interpret nationalism as an autopoeitic social system driven forward in the tension between boundless national fantasies and inherently bounded national realities, such that the reality of China today is interpreted as not corresponding to a fundamentally impossible yet alluring vision of “the real China.”

In response to this perceived dilemma, movement participants strive to bridge this distance from their “real China,” by promoting a purportedly ancient yet recently invented style of ethnic clothing, alongside reinvented rituals, etiquette, and traditional education. Having established the founding dilemma of Han nationalism in the first half of the book, in the second half I analyse various means by which participants seek to resolve these dilemmas: clothing that stabilizes, naturalizes, and eternalizes a romantic vision of Han identity; ritual that produces sequestered micro-spheres in which their ideal visions can be acted out without interference; and conspiracy theories that provide seamless narratives of Han innocence and goodness. These cultural manifestations of the movement, presented as “traditions,” in fact emerge primarily from the contradictions of the present, serving simultaneously as symptom and fleeting cure.

In tune with the theme of this year’s meeting, Anthropology Matters, I would like to suggest that in this age of newly emerging and revitalized global authoritarianisms, anthropology matters more than ever: a comparative anthropology of nationalism and racism can shed new light on the micropolitics of these troubling new trends, taking critical account of both global dilemmas and unique local experiences.


Kevin Carrico is Lecturer in the Department of International Studies at Macquarie University and the translator of Tsering Woeser’s Tibet on Fire.


Anthropology Matters: Going Back to our Talent for Finding Cracks

by Claudio Sopranzetti, author of Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

The 2010s opened with waves of popular uprisings. Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, cities across the US and Western Europe, Hong Kong, Korea, and—as Owners of the Map narrates—Thailand were all shaken by massive, and largely unpredicted, political awakenings. Established and secure authoritarian regimes, capitalist common sense, and cultural hegemonies seemed to crack under the weight of collective action. Then, as the decade progressed, those awakenings were often followed by authoritarian push-backs, fascist resurgences, diffused fear and repression. Whether in Washington’s offices, in the ballot boxes of Athens, or on the streets of Cairo, Damascus, and Bangkok hopes have been crashed and shivers of change clouded.

The unthinkable happened twice in the course of a decade; as Marx would have said, first as a tragedy than as a farce. Caught in the midst of this open-ended reality, Owners of the Map asks: how can state power be so fragile and open to challenges at one time and yet so seemingly sturdy only a couple of years later? Specularly, how could protesters who had once fearlessly resisted military attacks now remain silent? And finally why, as social scientists, have we completely missed the coming insurrections and their violent silencing?

Trying to answer these daunting questions—central to contemporary political mobilizations around the globe—gets at the core of the theme of the 2017 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association: anthropology matters, a statement that in its grandiose tone is hardly able to silence the unwritten question mark that follows it. Owners of the Map argues that anthropology does matter, provided it re-directs its attention to his strong suits—namely finding contradictions, fractures, and weak spots in political, economic, and theoretical meta-narratives.

In the last decades, unfortunately, our analyses of power have often gone the opposite direction. We’ve too often focused on the sturdiness of power, the invincibility of capitalism, or—at most—on the small and hidden acts of resistance to its triumphal and disastrous march. This has made many of us into the over-systematic thinkers despised by Henry Lefebvre, people who “oscillate between loud denunciations of capitalism and the bourgeois and their repressive institutions on the one hand, and fascination and unrestrained admiration on the other. [Thinkers who] make society into the ‘object’ of a systematization which must be ‘closed’ to be complete; [and] thus bestow a cohesiveness it utterly lacks upon a totality which is in fact decidedly open—so open, indeed, that it must rely on violence to endure.”

Owners of the Map tells a different story, a story of unresolved tensions and continuous attempts to brush them under the rug, of re-emerging cracks and fault lines, of opposing orders striving in vain to impose themselves, and of collective actions that raise significant challenges when aimed at specific weak spots. Letting these stories go unheard, the book argues, does more than losing an intellectual perspective, it promulgates a praxis of political immobility, a position that in times of mass mobilizations and fascist resurgence will not only make anthropology irrelevant, it eventually will put its practitioners on the stand, on the side of those who could have helped but decided to do nothing. As a discipline we have made that mistake in the past, remaining silent and turning our heads to the horrors of colonialism. Are we going to make it again?


Claudio Sopranzetti is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red Shirt Movement.


Behind the Curtain: A North Korean History Reading List

With the ongoing tension between the United States and North Korea, we mined our backlist for titles to help us better understand our shared history. Below, a list of recommendations:

For the General Reader

The Reluctant Communist: 
My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea
Charles Robert Jenkins (Author), Jim Frederick (Author)

In January of 1965, twenty-four-year-old U.S. Army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins abandoned his post in South Korea, walked across the DMZ, and surrendered to communist North Korean soldiers standing sentry along the world’s most heavily militarized border. He believed his action would get him back to the States and a short jail sentence. Instead he found himself in another sort of prison, where for forty years he suffered under one of the most brutal and repressive regimes the world has known. This fast-paced, harrowing tale, told plainly and simply by Jenkins (with journalist Jim Frederick), takes the reader behind the North Korean curtain and reveals the inner workings of its isolated society while offering a powerful testament to the human spirit.

“Jenkins’s book is oddly compelling. The blank ordinariness of his character brings out the moral and physical ugliness of life in North Korea.”—New Yorker

“However we judge Mr. Jenkins’s actions so many years ago, “The Reluctant Communist” is itself an act of redemption. This extraordinary book opens a window on a world of fathomless evil, and it tells a heartbreaking story — of a life lived in adversity and conducted with a mixture of fortitude, resignation, tenderness and regret. Clearly Charles Robert Jenkins emerged from his years of ordeal with his Americanness intact. True patriotism can come in many forms.”—Wall Street Journal

For the Scholar

Rationalizing Korea:
The Rise of the Modern State, 1894–1945
Kyung Moon Hwang (Author)

The first book to explore the institutional, ideological, and conceptual development of the modern state on the peninsula, Rationalizing Korea analyzes the state’s relationship to five social sectors, each through a distinctive interpretive theme: economy (developmentalism), religion (secularization), education (public schooling), population (registration), and public health (disease control). Kyung Moon Hwang argues that while this formative process resulted in a more commanding and systematic state, it was also highly fragmented, socially embedded, and driven by competing, often conflicting rationalizations, including those of Confucian statecraft and legitimation. Such outcomes reflected the acute experience of imperialism, nationalism, colonialism, and other sweeping forces of the era.

“[Breaks] new ground… [Hwang has] offered readers an ambitious challenge: one directed to Korean studies, but also one also carrying its implications far beyond.” —Cross-Currents

“Kyung Moon Hwang has given us a model of the disciplined historian’s view, a work that goes beyond the idea that Korean modernization was a sudden result of pressures from Japan and the West. Rather, by connecting the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he demonstrates that its seeds are to be found in habits of mind and social life under Korea’s traditional bureaucratic state.” —Donald N. Clark, Trinity University


Finding Women in the State

by Wang Zheng, author of Finding Women in the State: A Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1964

This is our final guest post published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Thank you for reading!

Hundreds and thousands of Chinese women from diverse backgrounds had joined the Communist Revolution between the early 1920s and late 1940s. Like many of their male comrades, many Communist women had died in battlefields or on execution grounds in their fight against the warlords, Japanese fascists, and Nationalist government. When the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war in 1949, there were five hundred and thirty thousands women members in the CCP who now became the state power holder. Except for a few books in English presenting portraits of Chinese Communist women who endured tremendous hardship in the vicissitudes of the revolutionary journey, these women who had been an important part of the epic of the Communist Revolution curiously vanished in scholarship examining the CCP’s leadership in building a socialist country.

Parallel to the absence of Communist women in scholarship in and outside China have been the dominant narratives of how the party-state did or did not liberate Chinese women. Accomplishments or failures in advancing women’s equal rights and social economic progress have been unfailingly attributed to a monolithic abstract entity – the party-state, a patriarch paradoxically adopting many pro-women policies in the socialist period. If feminist scholars in the English speaking world since the 1980s have shown logical coherence in criticizing the Chinese patriarchal state’s failure to fulfill its revolutionary promise of women’s liberation, scholars in post-socialist China have articulated many contradictory statements without historical research, from “Chinese women have been the most liberated in the world,” to “a crime of Maoist women’s liberation was to have masculinized Chinese women.”

Based on archival research and interviews of Communist women who were officials of the socialist state at various administrative levels, my book reveals the concealed and erased history of socialist state feminists’ endeavors to materialize their visions of socialist revolution. Continuing an anti-feudalist New Culture agenda, state feminists operated in diverse fields including the film industry to transform patriarchal cultural norms and promote gender equality laws, discourse, and practices. Their conscious combat against sexism in and outside the CCP constituted a contentious “gender line” of struggle within the power structure of the Party. Excavating a hidden feminist history in the Chinese socialist revolution, my book presents the first scholarly effort to investigate the high politics of the CCP and examines the demise of a socialist revolution from a gender perspective. I also raise critical questions of methodology in scholarship dealing with specific historical moments but without a historical approach.


Wang Zheng is Professor of Women’s Studies and History and Research Scientist at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories and the coeditor of From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society, Translating Feminisms in China,  and Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era.


Last Church Standing: Resisting Demolition in Ho Chi Minh City

by Erik Harms, author of Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in New Saigon

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

Since January of this year, Ho Chi Minh City residents and intellectuals have been increasingly rallying around the fate of the Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and the neighboring convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross. These architecturally and religiously significant structures currently face the prospect of demolition. The church, which still fills its pews with worshippers at its regular Sunday masses, and the convent, which is still home to an active congregation of nuns who have diligently maintained their historic buildings and grounds, both stand in the middle of a major urban redevelopment scheme called the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Zone. Surrounded by the rubble of mass eviction, the story of these religious structures provides a useful counterpoint to the story of more than 14,500 individual households who have been displaced by the project over the course of more than a decade.

 

Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and Convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, viewed from Ho Chi Minh City’s District One. Once surrounded by dense neighborhoods, all of which have been demolished, the church is itself threatened by demolition. Photo by Erik Harms. June 2016.

 

In 2010 the pace of eviction and demolition picked up rapidly in Thủ Thiêm as many residential areas were reduced to rubble. Photo by Erik Harms. September 2010.

 

The story of the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Zone is detailed in the recent UC Press book, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon. This new urban development, which is being built directly across the Saigon River from Ho Chi Minh City’s central commercial and shopping District, has been saddled with controversy. Throughout the project’s development, the biggest dispute surrounding its construction has swirled around the amount of compensation being offered to individual households who were asked to give up their homes and land to make way for the project. Luxury and Rubble details the ways in which the compensation process itself gradually drew residents into a largely monetized mode of negotiation with project authorities. This process, in turn, transformed how people in the area conceived of land and rights. Their negotiations over land-use rights framed their understanding of rights by focusing on “money and meters,” that is, how many square meters residents would be compensated for and how much money each square meter was deemed to be worth. In the process, evicted residents learned to fight for their right to receive just compensation based on market values. But in doing so, they also started to think of land primarily in terms of its monetary value, which in turn conflates the act of fighting for one’s rights with gaining the market-based value of land.

By contrast, the fight to preserve the Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and the convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross employs a very different idiom. Instead of focusing on the monetary value of the land, this fight is has been framed in terms of preserving the cultural and religious value of the structures. For example, in a post to its facebook page on January 12th, the Consulate General of Canada in Ho Chi Minh City posted the question: “Do you think it’s a good idea to demolish something that is even older than Canada?” In a follow-up post on January 25th, the consulate page noted: “Nearly 100% of comments made were in favour of integrating historic buildings such as the Thu Thiem Convent and Parish Church into new urban developments.”

The fact that the Thủ Thiêm church remains standing, while all the individual houses surrounding it have been demolished, makes it worth considering what strategies might be most successful in helping to resist eviction. In this case, resistance is most successful when it rejects the marketized idioms of land compensation and instead focuses on alternative idioms of justice that cannot be calculated in terms of money and meters.


Erik Harms is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University and the author of Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City.

Luxury and Rubble is currently available as a free, open access eBook as part of our Luminos program. Read it online now.


Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory

By Valerie Stoker, author of Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory: Vyasatirtha, Hindu Sectarianism, and the Sixteenth-Century Vijayanagara Court

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

The fall of 2016 was an interesting time to publish a book on the relationship between religion, identity, and politics. As we know, the United States elected a president in November who ran on an openly Islamophobic platform and who, within the first weeks of his administration, has made dramatic changes to American immigration policy.

Trump’s election is part of a general 21st-century wave of resurgent nationalism, populism, militarism, and religious and ideological conflict that are responses to broader social and economic change. My book, Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory, looks at a time and place quite removed from our contemporary lives: the South Indian empire of Vijayanagara in the early 1500s. But, not unlike recent reality, this empire was marked by high levels of immigration, foreign trade, a rapidly changing economy, and new patterns of religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Much as in today’s world, these changes generated both anxiety and opportunity. I wrote this book in part to elucidate how Vijayanagara’s leaders managed these changes and what impact this management had on traditional social units like Hindu monasteries. How did people understand the differences between themselves and others and how did the machinations of the state affect these processes of identity formation?

To explore these issues, my research focused on the relationship between the Vijayanagara Empire’s most famous king, Kṛṣṇadevarāya, and the Hindu monastic leader, Vyāsatīrtha. In the field of Indian religious history, Vyāsatīrtha is best known as a sectarian polemicist who wrote several texts devoted solely to criticizing the views of rival religious traditions. But my work shows that he was also an agent of the Vijayanagara state who worked closely with rival religious communities on projects that helped Kṛṣṇadevarāya expand the state’s functional apparatus. This type of collaboration between religious rivals, who were often also linguistically and regionally distinct, was something the Vijayanagara court actively patronized for many reasons. Such collaboration created cosmopolitan nodes throughout the empire that became hot-beds of economic activity as well as cultural and intellectual exchange. My book re-reads Vyāsatīrtha’s polemical works as an attempt, not solely to criticize other systems of thought, but to engage with them in order to clarify both the boundaries and commonalities between different religious traditions. I argue that this very clarity provided the basis for successful collaboration in daily life.

Thus, by creating a religious cosmopolitanism that was inextricably linked to a variety of practical endeavors, Kṛṣṇadevarāya and his agents shaped a social environment that not only avoided religiously based conflict but supported socio-economic mobility in highly diverse settings. Of course, not everyone flourished within this framework. Because the Vijayanagara court’s patronage was selective, it was also exclusive. And there was plenty of militarism in Vijayanagara statecraft, directed both at rival polities to the north and recalcitrant groups within the empire. Nevertheless, the approach of the sixteenth-century Vijayanagara court to ideological and other differences provides a striking contrast to today’s political rhetoric and reminds us of the value in studying India’s past.


Valerie Stoker is Associate Professor of South Asian Religions and Director of the Master of Humanities Program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory is currently available as a free, open access eBook as part of our Luminos program. Read it online now.


The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan

by Marcia Yonemoto, author of The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

During the final month of the bruising 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, Inoguchi Kuniko, a member of Japan’s parliament and former Minister of State for Gender Equality and Social Affairs, registered her disappointment at the coarseness of American political discourse, and remarked that “when the glass ceiling breaks, there are a lot of injuries that a woman must bear.”[1] This struck me as a valid but curious statement, coming as it did from a high-profile female member of the conservative wing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and staunch ally of current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. For despite the Abe government’s vigorous endorsement of “womenomics,” its policy program to increase the number of women elected to public office, in high managerial positions in business, and in positions of authority in public life in general, Japan is still far from reaching the government’s target goals—indeed, at least by the measures of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Japan is trending downward, not upward, in terms of resolving persistent gender inequality.[2] So in speaking about the danger of shattering glass ceilings, was Inoguchi simply expressing sympathy for then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton? Was she speaking from her own perspective as one of a spate of women cabinet ministers in the Abe government, many of whose terms in office were cut short by campaign-finance and other scandals? Or was she speaking in the abstract, ruminating perhaps not about when women in Japan break the glass ceiling, but if they ever will?

These particular questions can’t be answered with any certainty, but it is clear that roles and perceptions of women in Japanese public and private life continue to evolve, to raise questions, and to spark debate. I address very similar issues in my book, The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan, except my focus is on women in the seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries. The book explores the challenges women encountered when trying to reconcile confining social norms with individual autonomy, obligations to others with desires of their own, and limited public authority with myriad forms of private power. While the early modern military state often has been viewed as authoritarian and oppressive, its social and political controls were far weaker than those enjoyed by state today. And while the government articulated cultural norms and ideals of propriety, it lacked the comprehensive authority to enforce them, and this allowed considerable latitude for women to learn, to work, to write, and to play in ways contemporary observers may find surprising.

[1] “U.S. Presidential Campaign Shocks Women Around Asia-Pacific,” Asahi Shinbun/Reuters, 10/20/2016.

[2] Japan’s overall ranking dropped from 101st out of 145 countries surveyed to 111th out of 144. By comparison, the United States’ overall ranking also went down between 2015 and 2016, dropping from 28th to 45th. See World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2015, accessed at: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2015/ and World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2016, accessed at: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/ . Other data, however, show some progress—a 2016 Cabinet Office poll showed that for the first time, a majority of Japanese adults (54.2%) believed that “women should continue working even after they have children.” Maiko Ito, “Majority for First Time Says Mothers Should Continue to Work,” Asahi Shinbun 11/14/2016, accessed at: http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201611140005.html


Marcia Yonemoto is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Mapping Early Modern Japan: Space, Place, and Culture in the Tokugawa Period (1603–1868).


Challenging the Notion of “Globalization” as a 21st Century Phenomenon

by George Dutton, author of A Vietnamese Moses: Philiphê Binh and the Geographies of Early Modern Catholicism

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century it has become a truism that we have finally entered the era of the “globalized.” It takes little effort for historians to produce a wide range of evidence to suggest that this is not the case, and that the phenomenon of “globalization” is one found already in the ancient worlds. This is particularly true with respect to the various “world religions” that emerged between the 5th century BCE and the 7th century CE, each of which gradually, and occasionally rapidly, travelled to distant corners of the globe. A particularly good example is Roman Catholicism, whose initial spread was relatively modest, but which then took advantage of the sailing ships of the “Age of Discovery” to span the globe. Unlike the other world religions, Catholicism has developed an elaborated ecclesiastical hierarchy that reaches around the world with implications for local Christian communities.

Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, agents of the Christian church reached the farthest corners of Asia and slowly built up communities of local Catholics. One of these groupings was founded in the coastal reaches of the Red River in the northern part of what is today Vietnam, and was then often called Tonkin. Initiated by Portuguese Jesuits, this community of Catholics grew to several hundred thousand in less than half a century. These mission fields soon drew the attention of other orders – Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and secular mission societies – and priests from a range of nations – Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, among others.

The Christians in coastal Tonkin found themselves both served by the European priests that were in their midst, and profoundly shaped by ecclesiastical conflicts and decisions emanating from the Catholic centers of power in Rome and the Iberian Peninsula. While local Christians experienced a substantial measure of autonomy imparted by distance and the logistics of communication, they were still subject to church politics in Europe. Thus, the papal recall of all Jesuits priests in Tonkin in 1678 sent shockwaves through the community. The order to divide Tonkin into two vicariates that same year further shook the local Catholic communities, who found themselves now experiencing elements of their faith in ways shaped by differentiated approaches to ritual and emphasis. A century later the formal dissolution of the entire Jesuit Order in 1773 further rattled Tonkinese Catholics, now finding themselves subject to new ecclesiastical leadership whose dictates and expectations were often at variance with their long-standing traditions.

While those loyal to the deep rooted Portuguese Jesuit tradition defied their new overseers, this was not sustainable and in 1796 they dispatched one of their own, the recently ordained Vietnamese priest, Father Philiphê Binh, to Portugal on their behalf. This community understood the global forces of Catholicism, and the nuances of its politics. They became active participants in defense of their traditions and sending their emissary to Europe was an indication of their engagement in the church politics of the period. Vietnamese Catholics recognized, far more than most Vietnamese, the degree to which they themselves lived in an era of “globalization.” What happened beyond their borders in remote political capitals had profound and measurable impacts upon both their material and spiritual lives.

Father Binh’s emergence as a priest and representative of his community on a journey half way around the world to defend its spiritual traditions is the subject of my book. While in substantial measure it is the story of a particular man and the complex contours of his life, it is also very much a tale of the ways in which eighteenth-century religious globalization had profound repercussions for Catholics in Tonkin. It is thus a reminder that peoples in seemingly remote corners of the globe were already then active participants in a world where the reach of ideas and politics was no less extensive than in the twenty-first century, even if it travelled at the speed of sailing ships rather than fiber optics.


George E. Dutton is Professor of Vietnamese History in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A Vietnamese Moses is currently available as a free, open access eBook as part of our Luminos program. Read it online now.


Laughter in China

And now for something completely different: introducing the first-ever history of laughter in China! Lauded by legendary Python Eric Idle as “the finest in its field to include a lyric by me,” The Age of Irreverence shot to the #1 spot on Amazon’s New Releases in Asian Literary History and demand hasn’t slowed since.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a sneak peek at the Executive Preface:

Congratulations on buying the Executive Edition of this book. You have chosen wisely, and I value your discerning taste in deciding to pay the few extra cents for a product of real quality. Everything in this book has been designed to meet the exacting standards that you have naturally come to expect. The content has been quality graded to give you the finest in reading pleasure. The paper itself has been milled from the very finest British Columbian softwood. The text has been printed to fit exactly onto the pages of your book, or e-reader, with all the precision of finest Californian craftsmanship. There is little or no offending academic jargon apart from four metacritical interventions, two hermeneutical exegeses, and a paradigmatic (re)inscription. And as they only occur in this preface, you’re past them now.

reaOr check out the bounty of praise and attention The Age of Irreverence has garnered this year, including a Q&A with the author from the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, or this audio podcast of a conversation between the author and Timothy Brook, 2015 President of the Association of Asian Studies. Curious about what China’s age of irreverence has to tell us about global trends in entertainment, cinema, or new media? Head straight to this author discussion with Henry Jenkins.

All well and good, you might say, but is it funny? Find out for yourself! Head to our website and use the discount code 15M4426 at checkout to save 30%!