Through your eyes: Cultures and emotions

Nanjing diary notes

A conversation between some of the most inspiring historians of emotions, published in the American Historical Review in December 2012, revealed quite forcefully that ethnocentrism is a limit of the historic profession and of the history of emotions as well. The prominent American Sinologist Eugenia Lean shrewdly observed that “the very question of ‘do emotions change over time’ more often than not results in a temporal mapping of emotions in the West”. Likewise, she had reservations about the growing attention historians of emotions are devoting to the life sciences, as these too generally reflect “a vision of medical science, and assumptions about the body, that are historically specific”. Significantly, Lean added, “the idea that emotions are to be located and managed by the brain is quite foreign to Eastern cultures”. In traditional Chinese medicine “the kidney—not the amygdala—is identified as crucial in governing emotions”.

My recent visit to the University of Nanjing as part of an exciting series of collaborative initiatives set up by the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne and the Nanjing History Department  proved an invaluable opportunity for stimulating debate about cases, concepts, and challenges in the history of emotions, with special attention being given to the associated risks of cultural bias, over-interpretation, and ideological fault lines, not to mention the failings of armchair comparativism.

1.Japanese earthquake prints from the final decades of the Tokugawa period featured depictions of mythical giant catfish (namazu) who, according to popular legend, caused earthquakes. Some prints show the ambivalent side of namazu. Here, they are seen rescuing people from the rubble © National Diet Library, Tokyo, Japan
Japanese earthquake prints from the final decades of the Tokugawa period featured depictions of mythical giant catfish (namazu) who, according to popular legend, caused earthquakes. Some prints show the ambivalent side of namazu. Here, they are seen rescuing people from the rubble © National Diet Library, Tokyo, Japan

My lectures focused on early modern Waldensian cartography, namazu-e prints (i.e. Japanese disaster prints from the final decades of the Tokugawa Era), and a late 18th-century Japanese hanging scroll illustrating the efforts of three different groups of countrymen to extinguish a fire consuming a multi-storey pagoda (probably a subtle metaphor of broader cultural and medical comparativism). I tried to show how cultural differences and cultural encounters profoundly influenced early modern emotional responses to natural disasters (earthquakes, fires, etc.), conflicts, and collective experiences of displacement and exile, and the enduring memories they produced. A visit to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial provided further and poignant awareness of the tension between the inner life of emotions and their public and collective expression, apprehension, and standardization.

In Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings (New York: Routledge, 2001) art historian James Elkins notes regretfully that for the most part professional scholars – perhaps worried they might comes across as unprofessional – claim to don a protective shell of earlier, preparatory readings when approaching a text or painting. This armour makes them invulnerable to any emotional faltering, laceration, or gushy sentimental involvement, which befit the ignorant, uneducated, or illiterate alone. Learning appears to kill emotion. (Elkins also relates how Ernst Gombrich once told him that despite writing a whole book about caricature, he had hardly ever smiled let alone laughed about it). And yet, Elkins concludes, history itself is an addiction and as such cannot be entirely unemotional. The meeting with graduate students at NJU, kindly organized by my delightful host Prof. Luo Xiaoxiang, provided the setting for a stimulating discussion about the emotional involvement of the researcher, in other words, the degree to which personal and identity-related motivations, and the feelings that attract us towards a particular area of research, as historians,, can take over and impact on the reliability of the research results themselves.

I am deeply grateful to Professor Antonia Finnane (the proactive coordinator of the Visiting Programme to NJU), to Professor Zhang Shen, Chair of the History Department at NJU, and to Professor Luo Xiaoxiang and all her colleagues and students for offering me such a wonderful opportunity for personal and intellectual development.

Fom left: MA student Zhan Shaowei, Prof Luo Xiaoxiang, Dr Giovanni Tarantino and MA student Zhao Yuqian
From left: MA student Zhan Shaowei, Prof Luo Xiaoxiang, Dr Giovanni Tarantino and MA student Zhao Yuqian

A brief report submitted by MA student Zhan Shaowei appeared in the NJU newsletter. Shaowei has kindly agreed to submit the following extended version in English for our Blog. His piece appears below.

Dr. Giovanni Tarantino’s Visit to Nanjing University

The “University of Melbourne Historians Forum” started at Nanjing University in November 2014. The theme of the lecture series was History and Memory. The first lecturer was Dr. Giovanni Tarantino from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at the University of Melbourne. During his visit to Nanjing, he gave two lectures, hosted by Prof. Luo Xiaoxiang from the History Department, entitled Early Modern Eastern and Western Emotional Responses to Fires and Associated Memories, and Emotions, Cartography and Memory. In the first lecture, Dr. Tarantino introduced his recent study about collective emotional responses to natural disasters, more specifically earthquakes and fires in Eastern and Western societies. Such responses, he showed us, are not merely instinctive, but are manipulated or influenced by social practice, cultural tradition, religious belief, or political propaganda. In both Western and Eastern societies, natural disasters were often interpreted in early modern times as divine punishment for corruption, disorder, or lack of morality in the secular world. In his second lecture, Dr. Tarantino introduced us to the “affective turn” in historical studies. We learned that the meaning of “emotion” has changed over time. Pleasure, pain, passion, and hatred have all played important roles in the historical process, and it is the historian’s job to find the “agency” of emotions, thereby adding a further dimension to our understanding of past society.

Besides the theoretical introduction to the history of emotions, the audience was also intrigued by the methodology of this new field. In his lectures, Dr. Tarantino showed us how prints and maps are interpreted and used in his studies. A scroll painted by Japanese scholar Shiba Kōkan, for example, shows, in the lower part, three men, respectively from Japan, China, and Holland, sitting around a table, while the upper part contains a representation of a burning pagoda. Different fire-fighting techniques – Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch – are also depicted by the painter. Compared to the buckets used by the Japanese and Chinese, the modern pump and hose used by the Dutch are obviously more effective. Shiba Kōkan seems to be acknowledging “Western” and “modern” techniques and knowledge. But in a small illustration in an anatomy book on the table, Dr. Tarantino also detected an element of parody of the Dutch. Self-criticism, we were reminded, does not mean self-denial. Tarantino offered a similarly thorough interpretation of Waldensian cartography. The illustrations, cartouches, and even the orientation of the maps are shown to have been carefully conceived by cartographers to convey important messages to viewers.

The lecture audiences were mostly graduate students and faculty staff from the fields of history and sociology. They expressed appreciation of the lectures and raised some interesting questions. The “history of emotion” is a very new concept for Chinese scholars and students, and the questions, content, and methods of Dr. Tarantino’s studies are completely different from traditional practices in Chinese academic life. As graduate history students, the two lectures gave us lots of food for thought, offering insight into one of the vanguard fields of historical studies, and encouraging us to interpret textual and visual materials in new ways.
3_Giovanni at NJUDuring Dr. Tarantino’s visit to our university, Prof. Luo Xiaoxiang also arranged a student meeting. About 10 graduate students from the field of Chinese history met Dr. Tarantino on Wednesday afternoon. The meeting started with an introduction to the “Robbers Cave Experiment” (an experiment in social psychology conducted in the United States in the 1950s). After showing us a marble similar to one found by a graduate student when visiting the site of the camp, and which she invested with a meaning that most likely reflected her feelings, Dr. Tarantino raised the question of subjectivity and objectivity in historical studies. The meeting then turned into a progress report. Each student introduced their research interest and master thesis topic. In turn, Dr. Tarantino made suggestions, especially about how to relate our topics and materials to emotion. The meeting provided a valuable chance for us to talk about our own researches and studies with foreign scholars. We were all grateful to our department and the University of Melbourne for having organized this academic exchange activity.

Zhan Shaowei
MA student, Department of History, Nanjing University

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