I recently finished teaching a world history course this summer. I thought I would share the introduction on my syllabus. It elaborates on many of the sentiments relating to History that I have held for a few years now. It reads as follows:
World History: Global Connections
Globalization is more than a phenomenon in itself. It is a category which describes a variety of phenomena pertaining to intercontinental connectivity and interdependence, that confers both advantages and crises. In modern times, globalization as a category is frequently recognized in terms such as the advent of worldwide capitalism, intercontinental transit, international military and diplomatic engagements, the internet, terrorism, climate change, pervasive pandemics, and the like. Although the term “globalization” was not used prior to the 19th century, in earlier times, the general notion of interconnection that is associated with globalization was understood more modestly to involve the ability to transfer valued goods over a transcontinental distance from one location to another, or the capacity of an individual to travel intercontinentally (albeit over a longer period of time than it would take today), usually to fulfill some political, economic, or religious objective. In the premodern era, similar to modern times, societies and peoples had to contend, and continue to contend, with the tensions that political, economic, social, cultural, religious, racial, ethnic, gendered and sexual, linguistic, biological, and environmental diversity brings in a globalizing world. As communities, ideas, values, and institutions mix, persons and groups are sometimes confronted with challenges such as disease, armed conflict, discrimination, opression, and persecution.
Aversions stemming from the diversity manifested through globalization are sometimes a product of, and other times result in, projects by governing institutions to standardize the space that they administer. In other words, besides diversity, monolithization, a desire by a governing institution to craft a singular political, economic, social, cultural, religious, racial, ethnic, gendered and sexual, linguistic, biological, and/or environmental identity, is another oft-observed feature of globalization, especially in modern times.
An important implication is inherent in globalization as a category: it elucidates the reality that the notion of “the world” is an institutional term, not a geographic one. In essence, as the globe became increasingly interconnected- that is to say, historically, as a growing number of polities forged connections with each other and, over time, formulated large political, economic, and cultural networks- the concept of “the world” expanded to include a wider range of geography, political structures, economic systems, social constructs, cultural customs, religious traditions, racial backgrounds, gender expressions, sexual orientations, and more. As scholars continue to study globalization and its history, it becomes increasingly apparent that “the world” is not an objective and unchanging reality, but instead a subjective and evolving abstraction.
Realized manifestations of what “the world” is, and what “the world” can be are most often dictated by those who wield immense political and economic influence. The space one occupies which animates his or her life is not the result of natural events, but instead is the consequence, whether intentional or not, of the institutions, values, and ideas that were implemented by people who lived in prior generations; people who believed that such values, institutions, and ideas would shape “the world” into “the way that it ought to be.” Only after living within the framework of a set of values, institutions, and ideas for a substantive length of time do they begin to feel like a natural part of life. In this course, we will explore societies that crafted, and were crafted by, values, ideas, and institutions that played an important role in constructing the modern, globalized world that we live in today.
In this course, we will explore a number of questions:
What is the significance in studying world history?: World history is often misunderstood as a surface-level examination of the history of notable civilizations, and the general characteristics that defined them. This approach to studying world history is superficial, and it betrays the true utility of studying history on a global scale. Studying world history is valuable because it enables scholars to analyze and make sense of the ways that different societies conceived of “the world.” It also allows scholars to examine how different societies’ ideas of “the world” were shaped by phenomena such as trade, exploration, conquest, colonialism, and imperialism, and the consequences associated with them.
What is globalization, and what is its importance?: Globalization is a category that, in brief, describes a general inclination toward greater intercontinental connectivity and interdependence between societies around the globe. These associations between societies subsequently result in networks which act as spaces in which peoples who embody the diverse backgrounds from which they hail can engage with one another. While generally positive, these diverse venues sometimes subject groups of people to conflict, disenfranchisement, marginalization, and/or violence. It is difficult to charge globalization and its impacts as either positive or negative. However, it is generally agreed among scholars that despite its morally dubious nature, globalization has, by and large, made life more comfortable and enlightening for societies who participate in the networks of globalization.
What is modernity?: While globalization is not a production of the impetus of notions of modernity, globalization since the European industrial revolution certainly looks far different from globalization prior to the European industrial revolution. With the continual fashioning of faster means of transit, more advanced military capabilities, greater scientific prowess, more intricate communications systems, and other similar developments in the post-industrial revolution world, understandings of “the world” have undergone far more rapid and dramatic transformations than was experienced in the preindustrial era. These pronounced metamorphoses have led historians to deem this period of extraordinary scientific, technological, and epistemological change as the “modern era.” This term, however, is fraught with vagueness and strident debate among scholars of the humanities. Even today, scholars struggle to make sense of what it means to live in this staggeringly dynamic “age of modernity”.
Why is formal historical training important?: Often, the conventional argument emblazoned in students’ minds by grade school history courses is: “We need to learn history so that we don’t repeat it.” This paradigm, however, treats humans like automatons who, without history, would robotically engage in the exact same pattern of action perennially. Each historical occurrence, in fact, is a product of a unique confluence of factors, often political, economic, social, or cultural in nature. While a historical event may appear similar to a previous one, it is never entirely identical.
Historical instruction, rather, is meaningful because it enables students to develop their historical acumen. Despite that the environment one is born into may feel natural, it is, in fact, the outcome, deliberate or not, of the values, ideas, and institutions contrived by past individuals who were in positions of political, economic, and/or social authority; people who believed that these abstractions would transfigure the domain they administered into their view of an ideal society. In order for one to effectively articulate his or her affirmation or disapproval of the values, ideas, and institutions which define the space that he or she inhabits, and subsequently play an active role in sculpting society, one needs to have a firm understanding of the historical processes which have led to one’s contemporary moment. Otherwise, activism is difficult, and often futile.
Furthermore, it is important that historical discourse is a collective engagement that includes the maximal number of people possible so that the affirmations and critiques made of a set of values, ideas, and/or institutions are to the benefit of as diverse and broad an array of peoples as possible. If these discourses fail to be inclusive, the alterations to society that spawn from them may only benefit some peoples at the expense of others.
History itself is fiction. What we call “History” is, in actuality, a collection of events that a person or group has run a narrative thread through, connecting these events for some didactic purpose, whether political, economic, social, or cultural. Proponents of the values, ideas, and institutions that regulate society frequently utilize historical narratives to propagate them, and detractors employ historical narratives to denigrate them. In essence, historical narratives are not linear, objective renderings of events. Rather, they are subjective and political. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each of us to cultivate our historical acumen so that we may productively evaluate the validity of the historical narratives that underpin the values, ideas, and institutions inherent in the environments which we occupy. Otherwise, we run the risk of being taken advantage of by those in positions of power.
We will explore these questions in thorough detail by examining six significant areas of the world: The Aztec Empire, Africa and the Atlantic, The Ottoman Empire, China, Japan, and The United States.
Wen-Hsin Yeh's book, Provincial Passages: Culture, Space, and the Origins of Chinese Communism, is a valuable monograph because it decenters the May Fourth Movement from Beijing and Shanghai; a refreshing turn away from what much of the literature on the May Fourth Movement tends to focus on. Yeh alternatively concentrates on the counties of Hangzhou and, largely, uses this book to illustrate the life of Shi Cuntong. More specifically, Yeh pointedly highlights that the meaning of May Fourth in rural villages like Jinhua was centered more around the friction between fervent traditionalism and an emerging cultural iconoclasm than it was about the Treaty of Versailles.
Despite the critiques some make about the microhistory approach to writing historical literature, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in gaining more perspective on the May Fourth Movement in China. It's contributions in highlighting the periphery of the May Fourth Movement make it a meaningful contribution to the May Fourth corpus.
Praise for Hwang Dong-hyuk's Squid Game is well deserved. However, its overwhelmingly positive reception has overshadowed its shortcomings.
Before explaining my criticisms of the show, I will first discuss what are, in my view, some of its commendable qualities. I watched this show twice, finishing my first viewing in just 2 days, and re-visiting the first episode only about a week later. Squid Game engulfed my attention for three reasons. First, Squid Game is characterized by its striking harmony of captivating music, sound mixing, acting, and story pacing. Without these critical components, I doubt that the tension one feels in an initial viewing of this show would carry over well into subsequent viewings. Second, many viewers can find at least some relatability in one or more of the characters of the show. As someone who is still paying off an enormous amount of student debt, I can (on a less extreme level) connect with characters like Seong Gi-Hun and Cho Sang-Woo. Finally, the simplicity of the games that the characters engage in enabled me to picture myself in their position; while I watched their struggle in games like Red Light Green Light and Tug-of-War, I thought about how well I would fare if I were in the same situation.
Simplicity, which is one of the core strengths of Squid Game, manifests itself in other important ways in the show. Its music, while crafted with thought and intent, is still (at least in my view) simple, each character's motivation is simple, the overarching goal by which the games are played is simple, and even the uniforms of the staff and players are simple. The uncomplicated nature of Squid Game, in my mind, draws parallels with Chinese ink paintings. Many of these paintings, such as the ones shown below by Zhao Ji (1082-1135) and Bada Shanren (1626-1705) , are characterized not only by their monochrome color palette, but also, importantly, by their abundance of negative space. For artists such as Bada and Zhao who frequently employed negative space as a critical component of their art, these blank spots were intended to be areas where one's mind can wander, meditate, and get lost in the painting. In other words, the value of the negative space in these paintings is determined by what the viewer invests into it. In my mind, one major aspect of what makes Squid Game an enthralling experience is that the components of the show that I previously described as being simple, similar to Bada and Zhao's paintings, allow room for the viewer to intervene in the show with their own sensibilities and values. In this view, while Squid Game is still its own story, it leaves some room for the viewer to craft their own unique narrative within the crevices of the plot.
Squid Game's embrace of simplicity, while successful in the ways I have just described, also undermines its quality. This show joins a long list of media, such as Snow Piercer and Parasite, that paint an uninspired, reductionist image of the upper class as nefarious and/or one-dimensional. The upper class are by no means above criticism; there are no shortage of examples in the news of rich and powerful people abusing their power and money. However, Squid Game's social commentary that lower-class and working-class individuals are suppressed and manipulated by the ultra-rich is subverted by its cartoonish depiction of extraordinarily wealthy individuals as being so depressingly bored that seeing others die horrid deaths is the only experience that gives their own lives meaning.
Thankfully, unlike Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, Hwang does not make the claim in his show that lower-class individuals are moral simply by virtue of being lower-class. The presence of characters such as Jang Deok-su indicate that, for the director, one's moral status is defined by one's moral philosophy and actions as opposed to one's position in a society's socio-economic hierarchy. However, for me, Hwang's overarching message loses merit by implying that the very wealthy are, in fact, less moral by virtue of having too much. Rather than add dynamism to the characters in this series who posses great wealth, showing that, perhaps, in the past, there were wealthy individuals who opposed the idea Oh-Il nam's game, Hwang fully commits to his reductionist imagination of the highly wealthy by having Oh-Il nam note in his dying words that all of his colleagues felt bored with life, and that the only remedy he could concoct to sooth their boredom was to create a death game.
Squid Game implicitly argues that dehumanizing others is permissible if the subject of criticism is a person of great wealth and/or status. Furthermore, according to the director, it is uncontroversial to regard these people as inhuman individuals with inhuman desires who have no compassion for people of lesser wealth and status. Although Hwang had the opportunity to make a valuable point about the dubious morals and actions of some individuals of high wealth, power, and status, he instead settled for a bland narrative that individuals of high wealth are apathetically detached from society, don't understand struggle, and that they confer pain onto society with very little benefit in return.
Despite that Hwang acknowledges that there are individuals such as Seong Gi-hun (at the beginning of the show) who have a lower-class standing in large part as a result of their own reckless spending habits and poor work ethic, this point quickly gives way to Hwang's view that the root cause of society's ills are caused by the capitalist class. While Hwang does not explicitly express a proposed solution to absolving society of the ailments caused by capitalists, it seems implied that Seong Gi-hun's resolve to destroy Oh Il-nam's death game organization is a metaphorical call by the director the proletariat masses to topple capitalism; that is to say, Hwang believes that capitalism is a death game run by a sadistic bourgeoise that must be destroyed.
In my view, anti-capitalism and revisionist-capitalism are two distinct philosophies. While anti-capitalism seeks the demise of capitalism, revisionist capitalism argues for keeping an open mind to the ways in which capitalism can be configured more optimally in the institutions that support it. Hwang Dong-hyuk makes a number of important political points that deserve further discussion in the popular discourse. The abuse of migrant labor by some employers, exorbitantly high insurance rates, and low wages are important issues of discussion in both the U.S., where I am writing this blog entry, and in South Korea. However, Hwang's anti-capitalist message, laden with exaggeration and flair, ultimately presents itself as an immature narrative that, to far too great a degree overlooks the gains that merit and diligence incur despite a system that tilts in favor the capitalist class, and inflames what could otherwise have been a productive message about how to make capitalism better for more people.
In portraying the capitalist class as inhuman and detached from reality, he ignores the fact that many of the wealthiest people living in the world today did not inherit their wealth. Rather, their wealth was acquired through sleepless nights, depression, self doubt, anxiety, and an exhausting amount of preparation to strike at the right opportunity when it arises. In addition, he misses the opportunity to constructively discuss, instead of how to shatter capitalism, the role that government, society, and the capitalist class can better work in tandem to craft a system that benefits the greatest number of people. This conceptualization I have laid out may seem vague and irrationally idealistic, but I hold the view that a creative intellectual such as Hwang Dong-hyuk could have had, and still has, the opportunity to craft a compelling, and still, more optimistic and constructive story about capitalism, its many flaws, and its potential to engineer a brighter future.
Overall, is visually and auditorily innovative, and it has a captivating storyline, but it is thematically uninspired. Despite its shortcomings, though, Squid Game is a worthwhile view, if you are one of the few people who have not yet had the opportunity to see this show.
Kimi no Na wa (Your Name)
I recently took the time to (finally) watch Makoto Shinkai's Kimi no Na wa (Your Name). Before seeing this film, the only other work that I had seen by Makoto was his short film Hoshi no Koe (Voices of a Distant Star), released 14 years prior to Kimi no Na wa. Like Christopher Nolan, Makoto is interested in using time as an important storytelling device (at least in these two films), to the extent that time can be seen a character in it of itself. In fact, I wonder if Hoshi no Koe had an influence on Interstellar since the two stories share important story elements.
Overall, I would recommend Kimi no Na wa to both enthusiasts of Japanese film, as well as general audiences. Not only is it a refreshing and unpredictable romance film, but Makoto refrains from injecting sex and sexualization into the story, unlike what is often done in American love stories. Despite presenting itself on the surface as a body-swapping story, the film, in its full depth, challenges both the characters and the audience to question whether or not free will actually exists. Unlike Nolan who, in Tenet, leaves the question of free will unanswered, Makoto provides his take at the end of the film. However, just by cutting out and reordering a couple of scenes, Makoto could have changed his message to mean the opposite of what he argues about free will. To me, this is an indication that he may have been unsure of how to end the film, even when it was already in production.
While a compelling film, I'll just mention a couple of gripes. First, in my view, the film suffers from feeling a bit directionless in the first quarter. This time could have been dedicated to demonstrating the two main character's flaws and desires (Mitsuha's desires are developed to a large extent, but Taki's, outside of its relevance to Mitsuha, is much less clear). This point brings me to the second criticism: the main characters, in large part, feel static. Especially in Taki's case, because his flaws and desires aren't thoroughly detailed in the first act of the film, it is hard to know how much he grew as a person by the end of the film despite his selfless actions.
Looking beyond these critiques, however, Makoto was still able to craft an engaging story with sympathetic characters. This is because, regardless of its flaws, the characters' optimism and idealism, along with the beautiful animation, create a world and people that masterfully draws its audience into Makoto's imagination.
Making China Modern
I have just finished reading Klaus Mühlhan's Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping. If you have an appetite for learning more about modern Chinese History, I would highly recommend this book as a foundational survey text. Mühlhan favors using institutional theory over other frequent theoretical models such as Marxist theory to explain the features and trends that made China into a prominent modern nation. This unique theoretical model is refreshing because avoids the reductionist pitfalls that Marxist theory often brings when explaining the historical evolution of a region by emphasizing the political, economic, social, and cultural institutions and edifices that transformed China, not just between the Qing, Republican period, and CCP period, but also within those periods. Mühlhan, in my view, phenomenally demonstrates how the Qing, for example, was almost unrecognizable compared with the early years of the dynasty. An important way that the author demonstrates the perennially metamorphosing institutions that defined life in China since the early Qing is by dividing the chapters not by dynasty/ party reign period, but by time frames within those periods that are underlined by important themes which were expressed through China's institutions irreversibly changing it. This book has brought back to mind an argument I have mused over for some time now about whether or not it is more useful to teach Chinese History in terms of "turning points" in China's history as opposed to teaching Chinese History as a sequence of dynasties/ party reign periods, since teaching Chinese History through the lens of dynasties/ party reign periods carries the danger of painting generalizing images of those historical periods.
Shaping Modern Shanghai
I wish I had the time to write a full review of this book. However, with online Chinese classes starting up again, my attention has been turned singularly toward studying Chinese. In short, I wholeheartedly recommend Isabella Jackson's Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China's Global City. Especially for anyone interested in the colonial period in China, this is an important book for understanding the influence of the Shanghai Municipal Council not only on the whole of the International Settlement's institutions, but on the lives of individuals who lived in and around the Settlement.
Nakota L. DiFonzo