Saturday, January 16, 2021

Rebecca Wragg Sykes on Neanderthals

This is a topic that I know absolutely nothing about, so I'm not sure who this article, "Sheanderthal," was pushed to me. (Maybe it's because my six-year-old is constantly asking me how to spell the names of dinosaurs and other words about the prehistoric world, and I have to look the words up on Google!) But this was a pretty fascinating read about what scientists know, and what they speculate, about the lives of female Neanderthals. I was particularly struck by the interdisciplinarity of the work, combining archaeology, genetics, anthropology, biology, and probably a couple of more disciplines I've not noticed. 

I'm now watching a conversation between Michael Shermer and her about her book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art. Shermer talks a little too much, in my view (sorry, dude!), but it's pretty interesting to listen to.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Wenchang Jun Figurine (文昌君公仔)

In last semester's Travel Writing class, I asked students to write about a "souvenir" that they had acquired (or hoped to acquire) in their travels. I asked them to describe the item, to explain where they had acquired it, to discuss its meaning to them, and to consider how the souvenir might be metonymic (based on the article by Morgan and Pritchard that I cite below). I thought I'd share what I wrote in response to that assignment for anyone who might be interested. (It's not likely to be published anywhere else!) We wrote our assignments as letters to each other, which as I explained to them at the beginning of the semester has long been one of the main forms of travel writing.


Hi everyone,

I acquired this little figurine of the 文昌君 (Wenchang Jun), or “God of Literature and Culture," in a bookstore in Taichung back when I was working on my doctoral dissertation. This god, who is also called by other names like 文昌王 (Wenchang Wang) and 文昌帝君 (Wenchang Dijun), has historically been associated with learning and literacy; he was traditionally called upon by people who were preparing for the Civil Service examinations in Imperial China. Even today, students who are preparing for the university entrance exams or other important tests will go to Wenchang temples (Wenchang Ci, 文昌祠) to ask for the god’s blessing. 

Photos of my 文昌君 figurine (公仔) taken by myself (August 22, 2020).

Obviously, the figurine above is the "cute” version of the god. A more “serious” version can be found in temples like the Wenchang Temple in Xinzhuang, New Taipei City (see image below). 

Wenchang Dijun (文昌帝君), taken at the Xinzhuang Wenchang Temple (新莊文昌祠), Taiwan. (Photo taken by Pbdragonwang, CC BY-SA 4.0)

One place in Taiwan where the Wenchang Dijun can be found is in academies established to teach children (typically boys) and train scholars to pass the Civil Service examinations during the Qing Dynasty. Back in 2006, my wife and I visited the Huangxi (or Huangsi) Academy (磺溪書院) in Dadu, Central Taiwan, which, according to a sign in front of the school, had been established on the site of a Wenchang temple around 1887. (If you want to know more about the temple and academy, check out this post on Alexander Synaptic's blog.) 

Photo of the Huangsi Academy taken by myself (Dec. 29, 2006).

Although I do not worship Wenchang Dijun and never (consciously) asked for his blessing on my dissertation work, I couldn’t resist picking up the figurine when I saw it in the Nobel Bookstore. The name of the bookstore itself calls up several associations--besides sounding a little like Barnes and Noble, it also suggests a promise that customers can become successful scholars like Yuan Tseh Lee (李遠哲), a Taiwanese scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1986. Even more than Barnes and Noble, Nobel, like many bookstores in Taiwan, devotes much of its space to stationery and test-preparation materials in addition to selling popular and scholarly books, gifts, and manga. 

This souvenir isn’t an expensive, hand-crafted art object. It cost me NT$85 (less than US$3) with my Nobel membership card. To me, though, it signifies something important about the place I was in at that time, both literally and figuratively. Sitting in the stationery section of that multi-storey bookstore, it reminds me of the important role examinations play in the lives of Taiwanese and the various methods they might use to do well on those exams (from attending exam prep classes at night to visiting a Wenchang temple to ask the god for help getting into their “first-choice” school). I imagine the meaning of the “100 分" on the paper Wenchang Jun is holding is clear to anyone in this context--you can imagine how having this on your desk as you study might encourage you in the middle of those late night study sessions. That was also a reason that I bought this--to motivate me as I worked on my dissertation, a long drawn-out process that didn’t seem to want to end. Seeing him sitting there, brush in one hand, the promise of a perfect score in the other, gave me a feeling that this was a marathon I would finish. 

The figurine also speaks to Morgan and Pritchard’s assertion that “souvenirs are rhetorical, socially incarnated signs, registering a complexity of acquisition and signalling complex social messages” (41). At one point, I had the figurine in my office, and it acted as a “cute” conversation piece that simultaneously indexed my own “authenticity” as someone who understood the meaning and significance of Wenchang Jun. I also probably hoped that it would remind people of my (self-perceived) status as a scholar through its association with the long tradition of Wenchang temples and academies in Chinese culture. 

Now the souvenir acts as a touchstone for memories of a previous place in my life--the waning years of my formal studenthood and the culture in which I was trying to immerse myself. 

Works Cited

"新莊文昌祠" (Xinzhuang Wenchang Temple). Wikipedia, Accessed 22 August 2020.

Morgan, Nigel, and Annette Pritchard. "On Souvenirs and Metonymy: Narratives of Memory, Metaphor, and Materiality." Tourist Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2005, pp. 29-53. doi:10.1177/1468797605062714.

Friday, January 08, 2021

"Interesting times" redux

A Twitter posting from Ketagalan Media (why oh why am I still looking at Twitter postings?) reminded me that I started this blog almost 17 years ago in the context of Chen Shui-bian's win over Lien Chan, who called the election a fraud. As the Twitter post says, "Rioters set fire on the streets and rammed down the gates to Kaohsiung's courthouse." I recall that former KMT legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅) was one of the instigators of that. Ugh. Anyway, the US seems to have outdone Taiwan by having a sitting president instigate a violent riot/coup attempt. Maybe this is what is meant by "American exceptionalism."

[Edit: Struck those words because I don't want anyone to feel like they have to give me a history lesson.]

Thursday, December 31, 2020

End of 2020

It's the end of 2020, but I can't say I have a lot of hope for 2021. Despite having some vaccines, COVID-19 is still raging--particularly in the US, where "toxic individualism" and governmental corruption/incompetence have combined to give the US the dubious honor of accounting for almost a fifth of the world's COVID deaths, despite accounting for only 4.25% of the world's population. Hard to be proud of that statistic. And it's hard for me to be optimistic at this point. Maybe I'll feel better tomorrow.

Monday, December 21, 2020

End of the semester

Turned in my grades last night, wrote up some final emails, filled out a couple of surveys that were sitting in my inbox, and now have until January 19 to rest, connect, and prepare for the upcoming semester. I'll be teaching all online courses again in the spring, by choice (and by necessity, since my son will continue attending school remotely, too). 

Our spring semester starts about a week late this term because the school has canceled spring break, which seems like a reasonable decision to me although it means students will be more worn out by the end (as will I!).

I don't have much to say at this point, since I'm worn out from life shoveling snow grading. Just thought I needed to get a posting in before the end of December. I do want to work on a writing project, so I was glad to stumble across this Twitter thread by Kathleen Lubey about a writing hack. That might come in handy...

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Stephen J. Hartnett, et al., "Postcolonial Remembering in Taiwan: 228 and Transitional Justice as “The End of Fear'"

Number six in an occasional series of summaries of articles related to communication practices in Taiwan.

Hartnett, S. J., Dodge, P. S.-W., & Keränen, L. B. (2020). Postcolonial remembering in Taiwan: 228 and transitional justice as “the end of fear.” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 13(3), 238-256, DOI: 10.1080/17513057.2019.1614206

I just saw that Hartnett has a book coming out next July taking a communications perspective on the US-China-Taiwan relationship, which reminded me that I had this article in my files, waiting to be summarized. I'm interested in this article also because although it's found in an intercultural communication journal, it's one of the few published works about Taiwan in rhetorical studies.

The authors begin with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen's 2017 Facebook post addressing China on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre and China's response to that, arguing that the way both sides marshaled arguments about the June 4 and February 28, 1947 massacres demonstrates that "public memories about China’s TSM and Taiwan’s 228 serve as sites of bitter contestation about historical events, their political legacies, their resulting communicative patterns, and what they foreshadow for both Taiwan’s emerging democratic life and China’s rise to global power" (p. 239). The authors want to add to the scholarly conversation about 228 by "examin[ing] the rhetorical work of postcolonial remembering, an anti-authoritarian reclamation project wherein confronting the damage caused by past atrocities fuels Taiwan’s emerging discourse of democracy, multiculturalism, and national autonomy" (p. 239).

Readers might feel this kind of topic isn't typical of an article in a journal focused on intercultural communication, and the authors acknowledge this by pointing to prior research that calls for more postcolonial perspectives in intercultural communication. They argue that their study can also "extend a line of research asking how postcolonial remembering in Asia can help drive both contemporary politics and collective imaginings of possible futures" (p. 240).

The authors also raise a few points that I have been thinking about lately: one has to do with the delicate balance between demonstrating allyship and participating in what Teju Cole has called "the white savior industrial complex." Part of my own worry about writing about Taiwan, besides "getting it wrong" (though to be honest, if you write anything about Taiwan's place in the world, someone is going to say you're wrong), is that my motivations will be questioned in terms of my identity as a white American male. (And perhaps rightly so.) Hartnett, et al. (I'm not sure how all of the authors identify racially, ethnically, and otherwise) deal with this by briefly referencing Linda Alcott's famous article, "The Problem of Speaking for Others," then referencing A Borrowed Voice: Taiwan Human Rights through International Networks, 1960-1980, by Linda Arrigo and Lynn Miles. Folks familiar with the history of Taiwan's democratization probably know of Arrigo (艾琳達) and Miles (梅心怡), who used their international connections to advocate for Taiwanese political prisoners and more generally for human rights in Taiwan. Their book, which depicts the work of Arrigo, Miles, and other international advocates for Taiwan, lends to Hartnett, et al., the idea of "lending a voice." As the authors put it, "Our work, then, is offered in the spirit of solidarity with our local collaborators--not speaking 'for' but 'with' and 'alongside' them--and with the hope of supporting the ongoing process of transitional justice in Taiwan" (p. 242).

That last quote alludes to another issue I've been thinking about and have asked some people in Taiwan Studies about--the relationship between academics and advocacy. Different disciplines, of course, treat this question differently. When I asked about this during an online session with some senior Taiwan Studies scholars (part of the 2020 Taiwan Studies Summer School), though, the response was generally to the effect that doing rigorous scholarship was the best way to advocate for Taiwan (my memory might be faulty on this, so if you were there and remember differently, let me know!). The quote at the end of the above paragraph takes a more activist stance that, if I'm not mistaken, is more typical of rhetorical studies--it implies that scholarship can (should?) consciously be a social justice project. 

A third issue, then, concerns the disciplinary perspective. In addition to the activist stance I have suggested above, where the authors align themselves both with advocates like Arrigo and Miles and with their own "local collaborators," the article takes on what is to people who study Taiwan a familiar story, telling it partially in the language of rhetorical studies so as to introduce Taiwan's history to a new audience. There's a need for this, I think: what I call the "shaped roughly like a tobacco leaf" approach to writing about Taiwan for people who don't have much idea about the place. Kerim Friedman wrote about this on the Anthro(dendum) blog. While it can be annoying to have to explain KMT governance of postwar Taiwan (how many synonyms can you find for "incompetent and corrupt"?), Kerim notes that

the real problem is that nobody would demand these histories if it wasn’t for the fact that Taiwan’s own government (until the end of Martial Law in 1987) and the government of the People’s Republic of China both had a shared interest in sowing confusion about the history of Taiwan in order to portray Taiwan as part of China.

So a lot of this article is necessarily pretty obvious to anyone knowledgable about Taiwan: there's the narrative of 228 and the White Terror, the story of the rise of the dangwai that led to establishment of the DPP and the end to martial law, and descriptions of the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum and the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park. These familiar/unfamiliar elements are made relevant to communication studies scholars by reference to transitional justice, postcolonial remembering, public memory work, and other concepts often used in the field of rhetoric (and, to be honest, other fields of study). If I have the opportunity, I would like to show this article to a colleague who doesn't know much about Taiwan and see what they think of it. Does it give a new perspective on those topics that I mentioned above? Does it give a new perspective on Taiwan, which, thanks to the news media, I'm guessing a lot of people think "split with the mainland in 1949?" This could be the value of this article: if it can begin to bring Taiwan on its own terms into the orbit of rhetorical studies, if it can begin to make Taiwan's fascinating history a relevant part of the field on its own, then it will be serving a valuable purpose even if its content might be "old hat" to those in Taiwan Studies. (And selfishly, I look forward to citing it in my own work rather than having to repeat the whole "shaped roughly like a tobacco leaf" narrative!)

Well, I haven't summarized this article as much as I have analyzed (possibly critiqued) it. I recommend it, though, and if you are not a Taiwan Studies person, let me know what you think of it!