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Kallie Szczepanski

Kallie's Asian History Blog

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Comparative Dragons

Friday May 30, 2014

Korean dragon in Seoul

Quite by chance, this morning I ran into a website that tells the following story: Chinese dragons have five or fewer claws. The Imperial dragon has five, other Chinese dragons have four, Japanese dragons three, and if a dragon were to move too far from China, it would not be able to walk because it would lose all of its claws.

The dragon is the symbol of China's emperors, and of the male force or yang, so it's quite important in Chinese culture. According to the website, sly Korean rulers decided to have a seven-clawed dragon installed on the ceiling of Gyeongbukgong Palace in Seoul, in a quiet assertion of superiority over the Chinese emperors.

Asian dragons, interestingly enough, had quite different personalities from European dragons.  Dragons in European mythology were fearsome monsters that devoured maidens and even entire villages.  They are always associated with fire, which they breathe to roast their victims.

Dragons in Asia, on the other hand, are associated with water - the sea, rivers, lakes.  They are seen as wise and powerful, symbols of imperial power.  The dragons also provide blessings for the people, including critical rain to nourish crops.  As the eleventh century Chinese scholar Lu Dian said, "None of the animals is so wise as the dragon...  He can be smaller than small, bigger than big, higher than high, and lower than low."

Photo of a Korean dragon by Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images.

The Buraku - "Untouchables" of Japan

Sunday May 25, 2014

This print from the 1860s shows an outcast actor playing a samurai.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate's rule in Japan, the samurai class sat atop a four-tier social structure. Below them were farmers and fishermen, artisans, and merchants.

Some people, however, were lower than the lowest of merchants; they were considered less than human, even.

Although they were genetically and culturally indistinguishable from other people in Japan, the buraku were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods, and could not mingle with any of the higher classes of people. Buraku were universally looked down upon, and their children were denied an education.

The reason? Their jobs were those designated as "unclean" by Buddhist and Shinto standards - they worked as butchers, tanners and executioners. Another type of outcast, the hinin or "sub-human," worked as prostitutes, actors, or geisha.

I used to consider the plight of the buraku just a part of history. However, a few years ago, the New York Times ran an article about the discrimination that descendants of buraku face even today.

According to this article, buraku families still live in segregated neighborhoods in some Japanese cities. Denied many basic rights, some try to change their names to conceal their origins. Others join the yakuza, or organized crime syndicates; approximately 60% of yakuza members are from burakumin backgrounds. Nowadays, however, a civil rights movement is having some success in improving the lot of modern-day buraku families.

It's just amazing to me, that even in an ethnically homogenous society, people will still find a way to create an outcast group for everyone else to look down upon. Sometimes, I can't help but wonder about our species...

Print of a hinin actor from the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection.

Where Is the Line Between Asia and Europe?

Sunday May 18, 2014

The Eurasian landmass, which is pretty clearly just one continent.

Recently I've been pondering the definition of an "Asian country."  It seems that every expert has a slightly different take on which countries belong in Asia, and which are European.

For example, Russia. The majority of Russia's area is within Asia, yet most of the population lives west of the Urals - that is to say, in Europe, by the traditional demarcation.

Or consider Turkey.  Most of its land mass is in Asia Minor, with just a small area on the European side of the Bosporus.  Yet before the Oghuz Turks arrived, it was a Byzantine Greek land and part of the Roman Empire.  As a historian of Asia, therefore, I arbitrarily include post-Turkic invasion Turkey in Asia, and exclude the same land during earlier times.

What about Georgia? From an historical point of view, I consider it a European nation, since it is ethnically, culturally and linguistically Slavic. However, our About.com Geography Guide, Matt Rosenberg, lists it as an Asian country. Which is it?

Of course, there is a simple answer to this dilemma. In fact, Eurasia is one continent. There is no line between the two; the peoples, cultures and languages of Eurasia shade into one another imperceptibly.

Our arbitrary division of Europe and Asia is just an artifact of Eurocentrism, in my opinion. However, it's so deeply engrained in the thinking of people on every continent that it's unlikely to vanish anytime soon.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Genghis Khan, Not Such A Bad Guy

Friday May 16, 2014

Ask most people in Europe, the Middle East, or the Americas about Genghis Khan, and they probably will describe a blood-thirsty mass murderer who delighted in razing entire cities just for fun.

In Mongolia and throughout Central Asia, however, he is seen as a hero, a home-town boy who made good. When I worked as a teacher in Turkmenistan, I taught boys named both "Chinguz" and "Timur," after Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

Why this great disparity? In part, it's the Khan's fault. He did make a habit of razing cities if they resisted him, as a lesson to other towns down the road. Usually, he would spare the scribes and scholars, who would write horrific (and often wildly exaggerated) accounts of the destruction. This made tactical sense, as it encouraged other nearby cities to surrender without a fight. However, many of these writings have survived, coloring perceptions of the Mongol conquest to this day.

In fact, modern-day scholars have tallied the number of people "slaughtered" in those fanciful accounts, and compared it with the census data and archaeological evidence. Astonishingly, according to the ancient scribes, Genghis Khan killed ten times more people than existed in the conquered lands! It's an incredible feat, even for such a great warrior.

If you would like to read more about the great Mongol leader, I highly recommend the 2004 book "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" by anthropologist Jack Weatherford. This account is based in large part on the "Secret History of the Mongols," an ancient manuscript that was rediscovered and translated only after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Photo of Genghis Khan statue in front of memorial in Ulaanbator, Mongolia, by Steve Burt on Flickr.com.

Japan's Warrior Class, the Samurai

Monday May 12, 2014

In the pages of history, few groups have attracted as much fascination and admiration as Japan's samurai warriors.

Samurai, with their code of bushido that emphasized honor and fearlessness, epitomize strength and valor for many people even today. The pull of the samurai legend has extended far beyond Japan, as evidenced by the 2003 Hollywood film "The Last Samurai," starring Tom Cruise. Within Japan, modern day re-enactors replay famous samurai battles, and worshipers make offerings of incense at the graves of famous samurai warriors.

The idealized picture of these fighting men (and occasionally women) is alluring, of course, yet the samurai were only human. Some were noble and brave, without a doubt, but others were cruel, cowardly, or greedy. Nonetheless, it's fun to read about the exploits of the samurai, and imagine them all as perfectly cultured and honorable warriors.

Woodcut print, "Ronin Fending Off Arrows," by Yoshitoshi Taiso (1869), from the Library of Congress Prints Collection.

Tambora's 1815 Eruption Linked to Opium, Cholera

Friday April 11, 2014

Mt. Sinabung in Sumatra, Indonesia erupts in 2013.

Mt. Tambora's super-colossal eruption (really, that's the scientific term) in 1815 is famous for causing the "Year Without a Summer" all around the northern hemisphere.  A recent article in Slate, however, points out a couple of the massive eruption's lesser known effects.

For one, the cataclysmic eruption in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) cooled the waters of the Bay of Bengal, off British India's coast, where the deadly cholera bacterium flourished. Under these new conditions, a novel strain of cholera emerged - one that people in India and across Asia had no resistance to. For the rest of the 19th century, medical science around the world struggled to contain a global cholera that would kill tens of millions of people. The bug wiped out 15,000 pilgrims to Mecca in 1846, 200,000 people in Mexico in 1849, and US President James K. Polk, also in 1849, among millions of others.

The second surprising effect of the Tambora eruption was the development of the famous "Golden Triangle" opium producing region in mainland Southeast Asia. Farmers in the Yunnan Province of southwestern China suffered rice crop failures for three years straight after the eruption; a terrible famine left people eating clay just to fill their stomachs.  Rather than rely on rice, which had let them down so badly, farmers there turned to a hardier cash crop - opium poppies.  Opium cultivation and processing then spread south into the mountains of Burma, Laos, and Thailand, and the region became known as the Golden Triangle.  Today, it is second only to Afghanistan in opium and heroin production, despite concerted efforts by local governments to crack down on the illicit trade.

The lesson we can take from the amazing effects of Mt. Tambora's eruption is that a temperature change of just a few degrees around the world will cause organisms - from bacteria to rice to people - to react, and the knock-on effects are completely unpredictable.

Photo of the 2013 Mt. Sinabung eruption on Sumatra (obviously a much smaller event) by Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images.

Sunken Portuguese Carrack Full of Stolen Gold Found?

Wednesday April 9, 2014

A treasure chest surrounded by gold

Legend holds that she is the richest shipwreck anywhere in the world. In November of 1511, the Portuguese carrack Flor de la Mar ("Flower of the Sea") sank off the coast of Sumatra, now in Indonesia. The ship was reputedly loaded with 60 tons of gold plundered from the Malacca Sultanate of what is now Malaysia. In addition, it bore exotic marvels like two life-sized brass lions with precious jewel inlays, and a magical bracelet taken from the Maharaja of Shahbandar, a Sindhi port city in present-day Pakistan.

Portuguese captain Alfonso de Albuquerque was trying to bring the creaky old ship back to Portugal in order to present the treasure to the court. The ship ran into a storm, however, and quickly sank, taking more than 400 sailors and the treasure to the depths. Albuquerque himself managed to make it to shore on a make-shift raft.

For hundreds of years since that fateful day, treasure hunters have been trying to locate the Flor de la Mar and her precious cargo. American Robert Marx announced in 1992 that he had found it, but then retracted that statement. On Monday, Malaysia's Star newspaper reported that the ship has been found by a drone, operated by some unnamed underwater exploration entity. If the Flor has indeed been located, prepare for major legal battles over the treasure, between the divers who bring it up, the Indonesian government within whose seas it rests, the Malaysians who were robbed of it in the first place, and the Portuguese, who owned the ship and did the robbing.

Photo by Image Bank via Getty Images.

The Amazingly Long History of Nintendo

Thursday March 20, 2014

Handmade hanafuda playing cards were Nintendo's original product

Wait, Nintendo is how old?

I confess, if you had asked me this question a month ago, I would have guessed that the video game giant Nintendo was probably founded around... 1982? And I would have been way, way off. Did you know that Nintendo actually got its start in Kyoto, Japan back in 1889?  That's right, Nintendo is from the Meiji Era.

The company, founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi, began as a playing card company. It specialized in handmade hanafuda cards, which are beautiful playing cards decorated with flowers, birds, and deer. The cards can be used to play a number of different games, much like western decks, including gambling games. That explains Nintendo's name, which roughly translates as "leave luck to heaven."

Nintendo launched its first video game console in 1983. In 2013, its annual profits were over $70 million US. It is the world's largest video game company. Not bad for a firm that started out hand-painting beautiful flower cards in Kyoto!

Photo from Photodisc via Getty Images.

Did Myanmar's 8888 Uprising Finally Succeed?

Wednesday March 19, 2014

Young fans of the National League for Democracy at a 2012 election rally in Myanmar

More than 25 years ago, students and other pro-democracy activists in Myanmar (Burma) put their lives on the line to protest against the military rulers of that country.  Their movement, called the 8888 Uprising since nationwide strikes started on August 8, 1988, ended up being crushed by the government, and the activist leaders were jailed.

The protests did bring Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence. She spoke at a large rally in Yangon during the demonstrations, and became the opposition candidate in presidential elections held two years later. When she won, the government invalidated the results and threw her in prison.

It seemed like the military rulers had well and truly defeated the people and their pro-democracy yearnings. However, today, there have been relatively free and fair elections, most of the jailed activists have been freed, and Aung San Suu Kyi is not only free but also a member of parliament. It seems as though the 8888 Uprising finally did succeed, a quarter of a century later. I suppose each individual participant would have to decide now whether it was all worth it.

Photo of 2012 election rally by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.

Amazing Photos of 1950s South Korea

Tuesday February 25, 2014

South Korea in 1910, 1953, and 2005

A reader who worked as a civilian for the U.S. Army in South Korea just sent me a link to some of her pictures from that time, taken between 1956 and 1959. These amazing images look much more similar to Korea in the early 1900s than South Korea today. It's amazing how quickly the country has changed!

Collage photo, left to right: 1910 photo from Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection, 1952 photo from Homini:) on Flickr.com, 2005 photo by Chung Sung-Jun on Getty Images.

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