provocations in east asian modernity (III): schemes of travel

Some notes on the 2013 Harvard Reischauer Lectures

Part I: Schema
Part II: Schemes of Sight
Part III: Schemes of Travel

Given that we pay attention to different things—because different things matter to us—can we ever hope to find congruence between divergent cultural worldviews? So much of modern Asian history speaks of the linear transfer, translation and copying of Western ideas—science, democracy, artistic techniques etc.—into East, Southeast and South Asian contexts. Their histories narrate this as crises of modernity; their historiographies often crave explanation: why some European idea or another did or did not take root in Asian soil.


Instead, Kuriyama asks: why search for perfect congruence at all? What if we eschew the (he thinks Western) notion of one-to-one correspondence between original idea and translation, between object and replica? What if, in the tangled histories of Western and Asian encounters, ideas and things travelled playfully—remixed and refashioned, put to different uses—because we, with our many different interests and attentions, wanted different things from them? He traces the pictorial history of a certain illustration in a book by a Dutch biologist, Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), which begins as a meticulous anatomical depiction of a mosquito and travels to Japan, where it ends up as an illustration of a nightmarish monster in children’s fiction, and subsequently as a fashionable print design on a Kabuki actor’s costume. The history of the global peregrinations of Chinese porcelain contains many analogous stories. Here is some Vesalius-esque anatomy on a piece of 18th century Jingdezhen porcelain, for example.

The practices of playful travel and juxtaposition, Kuriyama went on to say, might also comprise an alternative “East Asian mode of communication”: one which offered flexible alternatives for thinking about what translation and travel do to ideas. He talked about the Japanese practice of juxtaposing furigana (syllabic Japanese characters which serve as pronunciation aids) with imported Chinese words, a practice which is only inadequately called “translation”. The use of ateji (“borrowed characters” ), as they were known, was common during late Edo and early Meiji Japan, when the borrowing and use of Chinese characters, especially in Japanese medical texts, was more arbitrary and widespread. Ateji here served both as translation and explanation.

But ateji did not seek a one-to-one congruence of Chinese word to Japanese pronunciation. Rather, a translator might choose in the same text to juxtapose, for example, one Chinese word 精神 jingshen (spirit, energy) with a number of different Japanese pronunciations—kokoro (heart), genki (vitality) or tamasahii (soul), depending on context and on which meaning mattered at the time—to translate a playful field of meaning greater than the literal definitions of all the constituent parts. This “East Asian mode of communication”, Kuriyama thinks, might help us see differently: to look at how things and ideas have travelled across the world in non-linear, looser, more contextual, more playful ways than have been suggested by presumably more “Western” modes of knowledge transmission.

Shigehisa Kuriyama, Reischauer Lectures

as he elaborated these concepts, though, they began to strike me as strangely familiar. Isn’t “juxtaposition” also the art of the global web? the unconventional or unexpected alignment of incongruent phenomena? It’s the aesthetic of Tumblr—a juxtaposed stream of media content that refuses narrative and only obliquely suggests thematic coherence. It’s what makes New Shelton Wet/Dry feel radically different from conventional news—its playful montage of title, image and text whose interrelationships are never made explicit, but are somehow communicated, mutely. It’s the art of the meme, whose meaning is found only in the juxtaposition of image and obliquely related declaration. And doesn’t “playful travel” perfectly describe the read/write culture of the web today? it’s Wikipedia, it’s fan fiction and the flip-flop, it’s the art of the mashup, it’s the million iterations of the Harlem Shake, and maybe everything is a remix anyway.

and at the end, I thought: weren’t juxtaposition and playful travel also central to the art of these lectures themselves? In giving us this artful jumble of images; in showing through the pre-lectures that they could be remixed into as many stories as there are remixers: Kuriyama communicated to us a picture—a provocation. Provocative, because when you step back slowly and the whole picture of the Reischauer lectures mists into view, it starts to look like he’s painting a uniquely “East Asian” way of thinking about, looking at and paying attention to the world—one best characterized by the principles of montage, remixing, juxtaposition, seamlessness and play—but actually, one which also kind of….looks like the 21st century internet.

The histories we write, as we know, are a product of our times and contexts. Perhaps this is no less of an interpretive shift as the one from, for example, Benjamin Schwartz’s 1964 intellectual biography of Yan Fu to Max Huang’s 2008 revised portrait of him—a shift in large part accounted for, as Guy Alitto pointed out, by the very different worlds from whose vantages they respectively wrote. Perhaps then, Kuriyama stood at that podium in the Tsai Auditorium at Harvard, from the vantage of our globalized read/write web-world of 10-12 April 2013, to make a startling, playful claim: that this “East Asian epistemology”, far from being unsustainably archaic, actually offers a fundamentally 21st century, modern mode of thinking and communicating. And perhaps too, that East Asia has been “modern”, or really just paying attention to the world in a different way, all along.

This is the last in a series of articles on the Reischauer lectures. Links to all articles in this series may be found here