All About Asia
Painting used with permission of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The world’s largest and most populous continent, Asia may also be the most diverse, with subregions containing vastly different cultures, environments, historical ties, and government systems. For centuries it has captivated the imagination of visitors from around the world. Today, it inspires the research of more than 50 faculty members affiliated with BU’s Center for the Study of Asia.
Together and independently, faculty at BU are exploring the history, economics, values, and art of Asia from a variety of perspectives. With projects focusing on leisure, coffee, and a little-known 19th-century civil servant, it seems that sometimes you have to start small to tackle a subject as large as Asia.
A History of Hobbies
Chinese scroll painting by Father Giuseppe Castiglione from Art Resource
Image of Mei Lanfang courtesy of Catherine Yeh
What do modern-day Japanese smokers, Qing imperial hunts, and the art of the Mughal Empire all have in common? That’s what several faculty members in Asian Studies found themselves asking in 2008, shortly after the opening of the BU Center for the Study of Asia, led by William Grimes, an associate professor of international relations and the center’s director until last summer.
In September, Joseph Fewsmith became the new director, and Grimes became chair of the International Relations Department. With more than 50 BU faculty involved, the center’s diversity—in terms of geographic regions of interest and scholarly disciplines, with everything from Turkey to China and economics to art history represented—was overwhelmingly full of possibilities.
“We wanted to know, what kinds of interests do we share? And how can we build on the synergy of all of us being in one place?” says Robert Weller, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology. “We were looking for a topic that enough people worked on, and found interesting and fun, to pursue.”
The point of convergence turned out to be a surprising one: leisure. The ways that people across Asia have spent their free time over the centuries was a topic that many Asian Studies faculty were already looking at—some without even realizing it. “At first you might think, I’ve got nothing to say about this topic,” says Weller, who is currently looking at the relations between religion and civil life among Chinese communities in Malaysia, China, and Taiwan. Key to facilitating collaboration across departments, he says, was encouraging researchers to “rethink what we even mean by leisure.”
“For example, if long ago a member of the Chinese elite painted in the evening, that’s not exactly leisure because we know he had to do it to maintain his political credibility,” says Weller. “So, then, is playing golf today leisure? Leisure turns out to be this loose and sloppy concept. When you talk to other people and think about these things in a new way, it becomes really interesting.”
Weller, together with Catherine Yeh, an associate professor of Chinese, and Eugenio Menegon, an associate professor of Chinese history and world history, both in the College of Arts & Sciences, has launched a three-year project titled “Leisure and Social Change: The Transcultural Flow of Concepts, Institutions and Practices across Asia,” with generous support from the BU Humanities Foundation. Fifteen faculty members from six departments will meet regularly to present new research and look for areas of collaboration, with visits from invited guest speakers from other academic institutions. Each year, an international workshop is planned on one of three focus areas: Leisure and the State; Leisure and Money; and Leisure, Gender, and the Generation Gap. The first conference will be held at BU, the second in Europe, and the third in Asia.
The goal is to examine leisure from a multidisciplinary perspective, as well as explore how concepts and practices of leisure change—or don’t—across boundaries of geography, time, nationality, culture, and class. Ultimately, project participants hope to collect the scholarship produced over three years in one or two edited books.
“Not much has been done on the topic of leisure in Asian Studies,” says Menegon. “So this project will give us not only a comparative perspective, but a space in which to say new things.”
But why study leisure activities—the things that people do in their free time—at all? Aren’t hobbies and pastimes as peripheral as they are pleasurable? Actually, suggests Weller, the periphery can often serve as a helpful mirror of what’s going on at the center. Leisure—whether it’s playing soccer or practicing calligraphy or watching television—is inevitably more than just leisure: it’s a reflection of everything from politics and economics to culture and human relations. Those connections, as well as the shifting meaning and kinds of leisure over time, make it a fascinating topic.
“We are at the beginning, not the end,” Weller explains. “It could be that we end up with a definition of leisure, or an argument about it, which could be more important. But we can certainly work through the questions together and come up with things we couldn’t have on our own.”
Surprising Spaces: Café Culture in Japan
Photo courtesy of Merry White
Soon after Merry White arrived in Japan in the mid-1960s for the first time, she was invited out to a local coffeehouse in Tokyo.
“It was a dark, cavernous, French-style artists’ café. And the first thing I noticed was that there were white sheets hanging all over the walls,” she says. “Soon after we arrived, we were asked to take off our clothes.” Artists at the café painted White’s body with bright, cobalt blue paint, and then she and the other participants became living paintbrushes, à la Yves Klein, pressing themselves against the white sheets. “This was not the Japan I expected,” she says. “It never is.”
Since that first trip to Japan, White, a professor in the Anthropology Department, has become a leading expert on Japanese culture, publishing multiple books on the country’s education system and popular culture. And that surprising episode at the coffeehouse has always stayed with her, inspiring her forthcoming book with the University of California Press on the role of the urban coffeehouse in Japanese society.
To research her book, White became a regular at 14 cafés in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe over four years, and spent hours upon hours interviewing customers as well as coffee masters (the people we know as baristas). She enrolled in a coffeehouse management course, so she could learn more about the logistics that went into running these prolific public institutions—there are often multiple coffeehouses on a single city block in Japan. She also spent time with Japanese coffee roasters and importers and read primary documents from the 1600s when coffee was first brought to Japan, including Dutch journals that recounted Japanese prostitutes trying coffee for the first time.
What White discovered is that coffee, not green tea, is the foremost social beverage in Japan. There have been coffeehouses in Japan since the 1880s, and the country is the third-largest consumer of coffee, after the United States and Germany. The first coffeehouse chain in the world, Paulista, opened in Tokyo in 1908. Japan is also the frequent testing ground for new varieties of coffee before they go on to be marketed throughout the world. “The Japanese have higher coffee standards than anywhere else,” White says. “So if your coffee can pass there, it can pass anywhere.”
Specialty coffee in Japan is usually served using a hand pour, rather than brewed by machine. And the Japanese prefer blended coffee. “This preference comes from the sense that a real master can ‘play’ the different notes of different coffees together, making a symphony of flavor,” says White. The whole process, she says, is very handmade, very artisanal—as much a cultural experience as a beverage. Recently, cafés in the United States and Europe have begun to use Japanese techniques to brew and serve coffee. “What interests me is coffee as an industry in Japan, but also this new export of Japanese-style coffee from a place that people really don’t think of as a coffee-drinking country,” she says.
Photo from iStockphoto
And it’s not just this prevailing image of the Japanese as the quintessential tea drinkers that White hopes to challenge. She also hopes her work will confront other common stereotypes. “We have the idea that the Japanese are all incredibly fastidious people who sleep and work and don’t take time off,” she says. But Japanese cafés show another, more dynamic side of Japanese culture, playing a central role in the country’s arts and cultural scene. And unlike the United States, where you’ll usually find patrons firmly fixated on their laptop screens, the coffeehouse in Japan has remained a vibrant social center. That said, Japanese cafés can also serve as a personal time-out space, where an individual can find solitude in public, a rare thing in what White calls a “densely relational society.”
Whether Japanese coffeehouses are used as a place to exchange ideas or a space in which to contemplate them alone, White believes cafés provide an illuminating glance at the country as a whole. “These are creative, innovative spaces. Unlike many other institutions in Japanese society where people have their identities given to them, the café is a free, flexible place where there is no operative role that governs you. There are stories in the coffeehouses and cafés of Japan that people wouldn’t expect. There are a lot of surprises,” she says. “And I think these surprises ultimately extend beyond the café environment.”
A Scholar and a Gentleman
Used with permission of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Wu Dacheng may be the most interesting Chinese historical figure you’ve never heard of.
The 19th-century government official was a scholar, artist, collector, and patron of the arts, who counted among his friends some of the most important politicians of the day. But for Art History Professor Qianshen Bai, Wu is more than just a colorful member of the Chinese literati—he is also a symbol of its ultimate decline.
Bai has published dozens of articles on Wu and his contemporaries and is currently at work on a book. His research has taken him to places ranging from nearby New Hampshire to distant China, in search of materials—paintings, seals, diaries, and the like—on Wu and his circle. Upcoming trips are planned for Japan and South Korea, where there are many enthusiastic collectors of Wu’s work.
Wu’s life, family, and relationships, as well as his work as both an artist and a civil servant, exemplify some of the major changes happening in China during the 19th century, says Bai. Therein lies the source of the continuing interest in him.
Born in 1835 in Suzhou, then the capital of arts and culture in China, Wu came from a wealthy, well-connected merchant family. In 1868, he passed the civil service examination required of all government officials and went on to become governor of the Guangdong and Hunan provinces. In that time, he also established himself as an important artist and calligrapher and a very prominent collector, compiling a massive assembly of art and antiquities.
These artistic pursuits were not merely idle pastimes; knowledge and mastery of art were expected of government officials. “Calligraphy, scholarship, and artistic skill were all a necessary part of the political life,” says Bai. “There was an idea that China was ruled by educated men, so self-cultivation became critical.” The entrance exam for civil servants contained numerous questions on poetry, art, and literature. If a candidate had poor calligraphy skills, officials would refuse even to look at his test.
But over the course of Wu’s lifetime, this emphasis on artistic self-cultivation dissipated. “China was once ruled by people with a humanities background,” explains Bai. “But with modernization and increasing confrontation with the Western world, China was forced to change.” Part of that shift was toward a modern education system, with an emphasis on specialty subjects like science, engineering, and the law—subjects previously considered unimportant for the governing class to know. Three years after Wu’s death in 1902, the 1,300-year-old civil examination system was abolished, an official sign of the irreversible decline of the scholar-official class.
Ironically, Wu and many of his contemporaries supported the very modernization and globalization efforts that led to the end of Chinese cultural and political life as they knew it. The resulting, profound implications for the relationship between politics and art are what Bai hopes to tease out through his examination of Wu’s life. “Wu represents the last generation of this class of people,” he explains. “As the structure of the elite changed, so did the fate of Chinese art.”