Brendan Mackie, a contributing editor for the JHI Blog and the host of “The Making of a Historian” podcast, speaks with Professor Joshua Fogel of York University about his book A Friend in Deed: Lu Xun, Uchiyama Kanzō, and the Intellectual World of Shanghai on the Eve of War (Association for Asian Studies, 2019).
In Theory co-host Simon Brown interviews Professor Michael Carhart on his recent book Leibniz Discovers Asia: Social Networking in the Republic of Letters (Johns Hopkins, 2019)
By Contributing Writer Michael Kinadeter
The conference “The Mahabharata in Modern Intellectual History: Perspectives from South Asia, Europe, and East Asia” organized by Milinda Banerjee at Ludwig–Maximilians-Universität Munich on 24 November 2018, addressed the dearth of academic engagement with the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the perspective of modern global intellectual history. The edited volume Political Thought in Action (S. Kapila, F. Devji: 2013) constitutes a rare exception in this regard, given that the bulk of scholarship on the Mahabharata (subsequently Mbh) tends to concentrate on premodern Indian history. Academic research on the Mbh in its many written, oral, and performed versions not only has historical value, but contemporary relevance, given that the Mbh has profoundly influenced modern politics in South Asia; in fact, it still significantly shapes public discourses in the subcontinent and intellectual-cultural debates globally. To analyze the manifold reception histories of the epic, scholars need to weave together approaches from multiple disciplines, including global intellectual history, Indology, philosophy, literary studies, and political theory.
Paulus Kaufmann (University of Zurich) and Philipp Sperner (Munich University) examined the transnational significance of the Mbh as evident from its reception in German philosophy. Kaufmann noted the tendency to neglect non-Western philosophers in German histories of philosophy, with the ambivalent reception of the Mbh providing a paradigmatic exemplar. Kaufmann chose Hegel as an example of a critical, yet informed, philosopher interested in Indian thought. Hegel’s main critiques of the Mbh, which Kaufmann identified as the “argument from lack of freedom and the argument from lack of systematicity,” led to vivid discussions during the workshop regarding the distinction of philosophy from other areas of intellectual creativity.[Unbekannt1] Kaufmann argued that discussions on systematicity and traditions of dialectical reasoning can offer insight into how a philosophical corpus can be distinguished within the vast amount of (Indian) literature; in the process, misperceptions about Indian philosophy in Hegelian and European thought can also be more comprehensively addressed.
Sperner chose a deliberately achronological approach to point out not only the possible influences from India on German Romanticism and vice versa, but also how the Mbh was “considered as a quintessential example of a national epic, even before most other European nations discovered their national epics in the course of the 19th century.” He focused on the understanding of the Mbh as a national epic and the subsequent political implications. His comparison was based on Friedrich Schlegel’s On the language and wisdom of the Indians (1808) and Maithilisharan Gupt’s Bharat Bharati (1912). Schlegel not only significantly shaped debates about cultural nationalism in Europe and the role that German romanticism and folk literature played in its formation – which, according to Sperner, prefigured the emergence of similar ideas later in Indian nationalism –, but was himself foundationally inspired by his engagement with Indian history and textual culture. Similarly, Gupt, the first Hindi poet to be called rashtra kavi (national poet), put major emphasis on anti-colonial themes of Indian identity and national unity. He deployed ‘historical’ examples from the Mbh to place the concept of the epic at the center of Indian nationalism in Hindi-language discourses.
Meanwhile Egas Moniz-Bandeira (Autonomous University of Madrid) and Melanie J. Müller (Munich University) dealt with the uses and representations of the epic since the turn of the 20th century. Moniz-Bandeira traced its philosophical impact among intellectuals in China and Japan, where Okakura Kakuzō, Liu Shipei, and others examined the historical relationship between India and East Asia. Interest about India was fostered by several factors such as its colonial status, seen as a warning to East Asians, and the wish to find common traditions in the face of European imperialism. Several intellectuals maintained private exchanges with Indians, in which they discussed politics. International connections like these led to publications in Tokyo, where Indian and Chinese students gathered and authors such as Su Manshu and Liu Shipei wrote about Indian classics, while revolutionary authors among them emphasized India as the origin of cultural goods and philosophy.
Müller examined the “production of the ideal woman” through the Mbh. She alluded to Gandhi’s movement, which included women in the non-violent struggle for independence, although Gandhi dismissed the importance of education for women and failed to adequately consider their economic situation and their position within the family and in broader society. Gandhi emphasized the supposed ability of women to suffer silently, their non-violence as well as their alleged moral superiority over men. In contrast, the entrance of women into the public sphere required stronger prototypes to inspire, shape, and revise the ideas of gender roles. Here, the figure of Draupadi from the Mbh offered a powerful exemplar for women seeking a more active role in society and politics. Müller emphasized how Draupadi and other female characters from the Mbh motivated the fashioning of women’s voices and feminist literature in India. Such characters inspired women with values such as an activist sense of justice and self-determination. A typical example of a feminist retelling of the Mbh, as Müller pointed out, can be found in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions (2009).
Milinda Banerjee (Munich University) traced the role of the Mbh in the emergence of sovereignty in modern Bengal from the late 19th century. After the Imperial Assemblage in 1877 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title of Empress of India, British and pro-colonial Indian writers often legitimized the British colonial state as the restoration of the kingdom of Yudhishthira, described in the Mbh. In response, anti-colonial writers started their dialectical engagement, unwilling to submit to the unrighteous and exploitative British rule. This struggle gave rise to modern Bengali ideas of national sovereignty, partly based on the Mbh: a law-based national state, where law represented the codified will of God. Many Bengali intellectuals imagined the Indian nation on the basis of dharmarajya, the ideal ancient kingly state, unified by one king, one God and one law. From the 1910s, the Mbh became a source for political theories of social contract, as Indian thinkers demanded democratic rights on the basis of (supposedly ancient) constitutionalist ideas. Simultaneously, the epic inspired peasants and anti-colonial revolutionaries in their class-fight and struggle for political freedom. Bengali feminist writers and dramatists also re-interpreted the Mbh from the 1970s onwards, to seek women’s autonomy. Banerjee argued that the political interpretations of the Mbh opened up a gap between sovereignty and justice in their very attempt to locate what was right and just; it was through this epistemic opening that new notions of autonomy and demands for social progress could arise. Banerjee rounded up the discussion by noting how Bengali thinkers associated with the Subaltern Studies and postcolonial thought – especially Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – have brought the MBh into conversation with Hegel in recent decades, to produce new horizons of critical political and social theory.
In his presentation, Simon Cubelic (Heidelberg University) described the “political idiom in Nepal’s time of crisis” during the first half of the 19th century, a period often wrongly portrayed as “prepolitical”. Considering the struggles in Nepal due to unstable politics, infant monarchs, territorial expansion, and British colonial politics, Cubelic examined how Nepalese intellectuals responded to the crisis through the lens of the Mbh. The royal preceptor and later prime minister Ranga Nath Poudyal alluded to the Sanskritic state theory of the saptangas, describing the ideal qualities of the king and his ministers, to justify the restoration of the righteous monarch. He propagated his ideas of kingship based on descriptions from the Mbh; later the same text was used to determine the relationship between Brahmins and the king, and to reject polemics against Brahmins and to provide justification for their status, in a political situation when land-giving to Brahmins was problematized. Both presentations, by Banerjee and by Cubelic, described how the ancient classic was used on purpose to justify and re-define political concepts and relationships in modern South Asia.
Finally, Shuvatri Dasgupta (University of Cambridge) chose to combine the overlapping angles of literary studies, ethics, anthropology and history. She used the Mbh to raise the question of how the representation, translation, the selective reproduction, and adoption of a text like the Mbh shapes the reception, understanding, and function of the text. The Mbh exists in manifold versions, from being a popular love-story for a broad audience to a modern, educational version as “Gita for Girls”, or “Mahabharata for Boys” in the 20th century. Drawing specific attention to the obliteration of Draupadi’s menstrual politics in these retellings of the Mbh, Dasgupta indicated ways to rethink the concepts of the ‘political’ in the Mbh. Through constant and ever-changing re-creation, Dasgupta argued, a text leaves its past behind in the process of constant re-invention and re-interpretation. This ultimately dissolves the binary between the reader and the author within the larger discursive space.
The idea of taking into account different aspects and new angles on the Mahabharata was constantly present throughout the workshop. Its significance was discussed in terms of political, literary, and gender- or class-based terms, even though only a fractional amount of its extensive modern representations and reception could be covered. However, the task at hand was primarily to highlight the benefits of studying the Mbh in the broader context of Global Intellectual History, rather than providing sufficient answers. To invite the academic audience to join in and further develop this research on the Mahabharata, a publication is currently being planned.
Michael Kinadeter is a PhD student in Japanese studies and Buddhist
studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. His research interests are Japanese history and East-Asian religions (Shinto, Buddhism). His current dissertation project is a comparative study of Buddhist commentaries and their reception, based on Medieval manuscripts of the Buddhist Sanron school in Japan. You can reach him via email to email@example.com.
By Contributing Editor Kristin Buhrow
Most commonly associated with Medieval Europe, the term “serf” is commonly used to describe a certain type of peasant class with a particular set of living conditions. From the European Middle Ages, academic discourse in English has imposed the term “serf” onto populations of landless peasants in nineteenth century Russia (Melton, 1987), early twentieth-century East Africa (Huntingford, 1931), and beyond. This essay will explore the application of the term “serf” to peasants of a particular social and political context: the mi ser class within Pre-Modern Tibet, the political and social effects of the modern use of this term, and the importance of recognizing the politicized use of terminology in academic and political discussions more generally.
While each of the cultural contexts mentioned above exhibits a different sort of peasant class affected by unique conditions, resources, and norms, the designation of these as “serf” classes is dependent upon the existence of an interminable relationship with a particular member of the higher class—a “lord”. According to Melvyn Goldstein’s multiple treaties on the application of the term “serf,” a class’ designation as such indicates a “hereditary superordinate-subordinate relationship in which the subordinate possesses a legal identity independent of the superordinate” (Goldstein, 1971 p.522), the subordinate’s lack of legal right to terminate the relationship (Goldstein, 1971 p. 522), and “a degree of judicial control” by the superordinate over the subordinate (Goldstein 1986 p. 82). Whatever the other conditions experienced by a peasant class, these criteria serve to determine which social classes may be designated a “serf” class (as opposed to a slave or more general peasant class) regardless of culture.
Based on the principles above, some academics and political personages have recognized Pre-Modern Tibet (1642-1959) a culture practicing serfdom. More complex than a simple array of lord and serf relationships, however, the taxonomy of Pre-Modern Tibetan social classes involves several branches. Firstly, Pre-Modern Tibet might be divided into two social classes: the monastic population and the laity. Focusing on the laity, this category could be divided into two clear classes: the landed aristocracy, sger pa, and the peasants, or mi ser (Goldstein, 1971 p.522-3). Despite both sger pa and mi ser contributing children to the monastic population, those who remained part of the laity were obligated to fulfill unequal social roles. Far outnumbering the sger pa, who constituted only about 200-350 aristocratic families, the mi ser were a more diverse population in terms of wealth, lifestyle, and location on the Tibetan plateau.
While responsive to a particular sger pa family, the condition of the Tibetan mi ser diverges with that of other global peasantries classified as serfs with regard to their ability to challenge their social superiors, accumulate resources, and even change locations. Unlike their feudal European counterparts, Tibetan mi ser were not only able, but publicly encouraged to appeal to other members of the aristocracy and even the central court system to challenge or prosecute nefarious or unjust members of the aristocracy (Goldstein, 1971 p. 523; Bischoff, 2013 p. 12). This access to the court system and the influence of other aristocrats allowed mi ser a more powerful role in their social relationships than “serfs” in other cultural contexts. In addition to providing peasants with prosecution rights, premodern Tibetan lords were less powerful than their medieval counterparts because they could not unilaterally alter the amount of taxes required or the amount of land serfs held (Goldstein, 1971 p.522), lords often provided minimal oversight so long as corves were met (Goldstein, 1971 p. 526). Perhaps related to a standard of minimal oversight, Tibetan mi ser did not necessarily live in destitute conditions. The status of mi ser then, were not analogized to serfs because of high levels of poverty or total incapability to challenge the will of their lords; instead, mi ser have been analogized to serfs due to a lifelong bond to the land of one aristocratic family, extending to the lives of their descendants for multiple generations.
Within the social category of mi ser is an allowance for an alternative lifestyle which further complicates the discussion of mi ser as land-bound serf: the geographically mobile mi bogs. Translated to “human lease,” mi ser who obtain the status of mi bogs were leased to work on other estates. This status was usually taken on voluntarily by the mi ser with approval from their sger pa landowner to allow for more freedom as to geographic location as well as the ability to travel. Some Tibetologists claim that the existence of a status like mi bogs indicates that mi ser were free to travel, not bound to the land of a sger pa family, and therefore not able to be categorized as serfs at all (Alice Travers going as far as to assert that mi bogs were “a masterless sect of people—people without land, without master, and without a servant” [2013 p.151]). However, while the availability of the mi bogs path does differentiate the experiences of Tibetan mi ser from other groups of “serfs,” it is important to note that even while away, mi ser still had to respond to their original sger pa family’s commands, pay an annual fee to the sger pa, travel where the sger pa commanded, and return home upon his order (Goldstein, 1986 p. 94). As such, even with the allowance of a certain number of mi ser to attain the status of mi bogs and live away from the immediate lands of the sger pa, the social relationship between mi ser and sger pa remained not only extant, but influential. Even in cases of geographic removal, mi ser were still responsive to the owners of the lands they were obligated to work. In this context, the term “serf” may render a fairly accurate picture of certain aspects of the lives of mi ser in Pre-Modern Tibet.
Despite its application to the Tibetan peasants of more than sixty years ago, the modern description of mi ser as a “serf” class has functioned in support of a narrative condoning the communist party’s occupation of and Sinicization efforts within Tibet. Since entry of the communists in1959, Chinese political publications have emphasized the parallels between the mi ser – sger pa relationship and the serf – lord relationship. This emphasis includes making direct reference to the mi ser population as “serfs” in English language publications. Taking one popular example, the word “serf” occurs some thirty-five times in the 2001 edition of the English language Chinese government public relations leaflet “100 Questions on Tibet” (Barnett, 2008 p. 81). While it is true that some aspects of the Pre-Modern Tibetan peasant experience allow the mi ser to be categorized alongside serfs according to loose, culturally relative definitions, it is also likely that associating Pre-Modern Tibetan peasants with a historical system known for oppression of laborers was a conscious choice by the Chinese Communist Party to illicit support for the seizure and Sinicization of Tibet.
This support from admirers of the Chinese Communist Party and Communists worldwide was sought by appealing to a Marxist perspective of linear societal development. In the Marxist view, a feudal society is considered less “evolved” than an industrial society; this perspective allows communists to deduce that any cultural operating on a system similar to feudalism is inferior to the more developed China. While a necessary stepping stone to reach the higher evolutions of social structure, the stark differences between the landed and laboring classes in feudalism render the system, in the Marxist eye, “inseparable from extreme abuse” (Barnett, 2008 p.82). This narrative of Pre-Modern Tibet as a society characterized by violently abusive inequality is propagated to justify its seizure of Tibet and excuse some of the human rights abuses which take place there today. As noted by Travers in her 2013 article, this Marxist narrative has been reinforced by the Chinese Communist Party and Western observers with communist backgrounds since 1959 (p. 143). Understanding this politicization of historical social hierarchies, while the term “serf” is technically accurate, its use legitimizes a construction of Tibetan history which marginalizes traditional Tibetan norms and allows the Communist Party to take the role of a savior society.
In the quest for honest and fruitful discourse, it is important that all discussants be aware, not only of the historical realities of the past, but also the political context of the present. A responsible contributor must therefore be able to earnestly describe the likely difficult conditions for life among Pre-Modern Tibetan mi ser and must acknowledge that mi ser did live within a system which could be easily abused by their sger pa counterparts. Simultaneously, an informed discussant can not act as if openly associating the conditions of the mi ser with medieval serfdom does not have a history of politicization. Under conditions such as these, academic and political discussions must remain open, with the choice to analogize the mi ser with serfdom available for those who have no qualms with the modern connotations. Likewise, the choice to refrain from making the analogy or to argue against the appropriateness of the analogy should be regarded as a form of academic activism by those who wish to knowingly partake.
By Contributing Editor AJ Hawks
I first started studying taekwondo when I was in high school, partially because of the movies (“Can he really do that?!”) and partially to please my Korean grandmother who had handed me a flier about Korean weaponry that was a tad on the intimidating side. My studio occasionally hosted seminars on a weaponry martial art called Modern Arnis, which I eventually decided to pursue. Serendipitously, Modern Arnis, an indigenous Filipino art, would unexpectedly intersect with my academic study of Muslim minority groups via the Moro Muslims in the Southern Philippines.
The academic study of the history of martial arts is underdeveloped. This is surprising if only because of martial arts’ deep cultural roots in a wide variety of societies around the globe. Here I want to specifically suggest that Modern Arnis offers a unique and critical framework by which to consider postcolonial theory.
“Arnis” refers to a variety of styles of martial arts that deal with the use of two rattan wood sticks called “escrima” as well as a variety of Southeast Asian machetes. It formed as a blend of “systems from all over the world: Thailand, China, Spain, Indonesia, Japan and India [that] reached the islands as the people of the Philippines interacted, traded and fought with these diverse nations” (Horwitz).
When the Spanish occupied the Philippines, they banned the study of these martial arts (then called Kali among other things) with one exception. They allowed fights between Filipino Moros for Spanish entertainment and dressed fighters in ceremonial Spanish armor (the old Spanish word for armor being “Arnes”) (Wiley). Before the Spanish, Arnis was largely practiced by peasants (a divide further underscored by its association with the Muslims of the Philippines).
The tradition of stage fights among Moros were continued under American occupation with less emphasis on the “clash of religions”, instead intended to shore up a distinct American vision of the Moros. Indeed, Hawkins has argued persuasively in his work “Making Moros” that the present significance of the term was actually forged under American occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.
The Americans were committed relatively early to two things: (1) They wanted a unified Filipino government that eventually could manage independence and (2) they wanted to incorporate the highly resistant “Moros” into Western civilization. The American government, like the Spaniards before them, put great effort into suppressing Moro attempts at rebellion- much of which has been glossed over in the popular memory (Gowing, 325). Oddly enough, however, the US also displayed an almost romantic affinity for the rebellious Moros (Hawkins, 125). As such, they put great efforts into romanticizing Moro wildness which they saw as analogous to the untamed West. Americans created exhibitions similar to the exhibitions under the Spanish without the explicitly religious flavor. They were intended to showcase “Moro culture” and in particular their status as “brave and ferocious fighters… Most Filipino Muslims gladly accepted opportunities to reaffirm narratives of Moro gallantry and autonomous ethno-religious identities” (Hawkins, 47). And what was being used for this purpose? Yet again, the martial art broadly described by the term Arnis.
Early on, then, this singular population began to embrace their place in American narratives. They also held highly publicized carnivalesque shows intended to establish a particular narrative about the US-Moro relationship, central to this being the United States’ preeminence and Moro potential. Hawkins spends time discussing at length Moro efforts to “reorient and appropriate discourses and symbols of imperial control” (incidentally, this offers an interesting parallel with Catholics in the North resisting the Spanish) (Hawkins, 71). Thus, long before any particular social movement organization came onto the scene, there were conscious efforts by local leaders to develop a particular narrative about the Moro people and their aims, efforts which continued to include the practice and performance of Arnis.
Modern Arnis was developed by the now world-famous Grand Master Remy Presas. Presas was trained in a local variety of Arnis by his father Jose Presas. According to his interview with Black Belt Magazine, “Presas refined and blended the important aspects of tjakele, arnis de mano, karate, jujitsu and dumog into the art he named modern arnis” (Horwitz). Presas indicated that he wanted to unify these arts to help the “diverse systems of [his] country… feel the connection” (Horwitz). He also explicitly chose the term “arnis” over others such as “kali”, arguing that with other terms, “not many people in the Philippines will know what you are talking about. Arnis best reflects the Philippine culture because it is a Tagalog word” (Horwitz). His efforts in the Philippines were immensely successful, and in 1975 he was sent on a “good-will tour sponsored by [the Filipino] government to spread information about modern arnis techniques around the globe” (Horwitz). Thus, at each of these stages of development in Arnis history, we see an intentionality by practitioners to take advantage of Western interest and preserve their sense of local identity. It’s also worth noting that much of the history of Arnis is recited orally in the martial arts studio. Like other martial arts, the sense of cultural belonging and history is considered an important part of becoming a practitioner and eventually a master.
As the United States was following the Spanish imperial tradition of hosting Moro cultural demonstrations, something similar was happening on the other side of the world: the French imperial exhibitions. Zeynep Çelik and Leila Kinney offer a probing look at the mechanisms behind the “enactment of the eroticized mystique of the Orient, the belly dance… a myth of Islamic culture” (Celik and Kinney, 286). They argue that the expositions’ planning principles were designed to demonstrate French material superiority and “enhance supremacy through representation” (Celik and Kinney, 290). Moreover, these displays interacted with French class relations in the press and “elaborated and promoted fantasies about working-class women” (Celik and Kinney, 300). In short, the French constructed exhibitions to create the image of a coherent “orient”, one that underscored French superiority and interacted with the local French cultural context to reinforce class distinctions. In sustaining this imagined oriental other, imperialism was justified.
It seems logical, then, to consider martial arts in a way similar to imperial exhibitions. And yet, the study of these exhibitions has not substantially been connected to the history of martial arts. This is likely tied to the simple facts that many East Asian societies (highly associated with martial arts) did not experience formal colonialism and because orientalism proper has a strong geographical referent (Burke and Prochaska, 42). Nonetheless the general mode of approaching “othering” discourses has been shown by scholars to be helpful in understanding cultural representation in East Asia (Dirlik). And more critically, the Philippines did experience formal colonialism.
Thinking about the history of the Filipino martial arts, and Arnis specifically, in this way suggests two things. First, it situates the Western consumption of martial arts in a broader imperial cultural framework, much like belly dancing. Unlike belly dancing, as already pointed out, many cultural groups that are considered originators of martial arts never experienced colonization to any degree remotely similar to other parts of the world. Thus, it might make more sense to see the cultural imperialism of the martial arts as an incomplete project. Martial arts’ widely known multiplicity of origin sources and broad acceptance in a variety of social and class contexts made it far more resistant to simplified appropriation.
Second, Arnis illustrates a case where the colonized voice broke through. While it is true that the Spanish (and eventually Americans) tried to utilize Arnis in their imperial narratives, it is also true that Filipinos were willing and able to use this platform to protect a substantial portion of indigenous culture under the guise of preparing for exhibitions. Eventually they, knowingly or otherwise, were able to tap into Western exoticism to continue to propagate traditions, oral histories, and a sense of self not directly beholden to imperial narratives.
In the context of critical theory and subaltern studies, Spivak posed a now famous epistemic question:
Let us now move to consider the margins of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence, men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat… We must now confront the following question: on the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?
Spivak’s answer was no. But in considering martial arts as a sort of historical knowledge, I wonder if the answer should be a highly qualified “yes” or at least “in part”. While it is true that imperial power used martial arts to their own ends, it is also true that practitioners were able to take advantage of this and preserve at least some of their artistic integrity and frame their historic experience through oral and physical training in a way that is still passed on today. Moreover, many if not most of the practitioners throughout Spanish and American rule in the Philippines were in fact of the “peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat”. Perhaps ironically, one of the few voices that were protected in this colonial context were the subaltern. Sadly, adequately addressing the history of women in the martial arts will have to wait for another article.