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  • From Text to Context, from symbols to culture

    Posted on September 28th, 2014 hungyin 4 comments

    Geertz starts with Balinese cockfight to illustrate local culture in Bali; Darnton takes the story of cat massacre as the epitome of French society in 18th century. I believe they may be the good examples of, in Cronon’s word, “storytelling” as they are vivid and lifelike and keep to be informative. I especially enjoy the section about Geertz and his wife ran away from police, and locals pretended to have tea all day with them. (The cat massacre one is interesting as well, but as a cat owner who need to leave my kitten at homeland, I can’t really enjoy this one….) They both show the anthropological approach that can be applied to historical researches. However, as Chartier states in his article “Texts, Symbols, and Frenchness”, there are many questions for this approach needed to be considered, such as issues of materials sources, multiple meanings of a symbol, mobility of words and symbols.

    Although there are some questions, I think it is good to have those cats and cocks as “a point of entry that gives us access to the comprehensive of a culture in its entirety.” (p.685) because “culture” is omnipresent and thus it is hard to get. Just as Chartier says ““cultural objects” are not of the same nature as the serialized data studies by economic history or demographic history…Culture cannot be considered as a ‘level’ of some social entity resembling a three-story house because all interpersonal relationships are of cultural nature, even those we qualify as ‘economic’ or ‘social’” (p.683) I agree with Chartier’s concerns about anthropological approach, but I do think the way that starting with a thing and narratives around this thing, is an option to catch broader culture context.

    So for me, the question is, how to make an interpretation of a symbol as accurate and informative as possible as I can to avoid most questions which Chartier raises. For now, I think the answer of this question can track back to the degree of knowledge about the context of that symbol. Knowing the context more comprehensive may be helpful to make such a cultural work.

    In addition, the reading this week reminds me that I used to do a small similar study of a symbol: a wedding ring. Last year when I first met my classmates in the US, I noticed that some married females wear two rings on their ring fingers, and I never saw this way to wear rings as people usually wear just one ring in East Asia. I studied the meaning of wedding rings and found those little rings carry a board narratives about marriage, family and westernization. Long story for short, thousand years ago in China, imperial concubines wore rings to indicate “do not touch me” during their periods. Traditionally, Chinese people exchange jewelry ornament including bracelet, earrings, necklace and pendant for wedding; rings were not the symbol of marriage. The jewelry ornament was provided by mother-in-law to both daughter/son-in-law, in order to show marriage was not only to connect the couple but also to connect two family. Wedding ornament was not a marriage contract, but a symbol of family property. Quantity of ornament shows the degree of richness of the two family and the degree of how these two family care about this marriage. Starting from early 20th century, rings becomes the main symbol of marriage as a westernized fashion for young people, but jewelry ornament still plays an important role in traditional wedding ceremony. Thus, during the process of westernization, people in East Asia combine engagement ring  and wedding rings, and thus only wear one ring in daily life.

  • Theoretical commitment and doing researching

    Posted on September 21st, 2014 hungyin 4 comments

    Among the readings this week, I feel lucky that I started from Tosh’s The Pursuit of History. Tosh provides a frame to discuss the perspective of social history in Marxism approach. The relation between practically writing history and theoretical commitment is very interesting. As Tosh already mentions about social science such as sociology and economics, I would like borrow the argument from a sociologist Max Weber’s Science as a Vocation, because it clearly explains the dynamic between theoretical commitment and doing researching. Weber states that no one can do a study without existing ideas. People must have something they care, so that they can do researches. This is where passion comes from. Thus, researchers have their values, and organize their questions and studies by their values. However, it does not mean researchers can interpret data following this value. If the research results are contradict with their value, researchers can reflect more about their values.

    While in some cases, having a strong theoretical commitment or stating one’s self cannot bring productive results. For example, for a long time every research in China has to follow its “historical materialism”, for they put value over their researches. However, in the context this week, I agree with Tosh that it is good to see Thompson displays his value in the beginning of his research. Thompson’s statement makes audience know the starting point of his research and be aware of his interpretation of sources. There may be multiple interpretations of the same sources, but it will be helpful to know how these interpretations come from. In other words, stating one’s lens clearly will make others easier provide more correction and feedback. Thus, it connects with some topics of writing is Digital Age we discussed in the past few weeks – how to deal with information online and external audience in such an open online world. I think identifying others’ values can help to judge the information they provide, and illustrating my lens can help my audience judge mine as well.


  • New Form of Knowledge

    Posted on September 14th, 2014 hungyin 6 comments

    Both Weinberger and the authors of Writing History in the Digital Age discuss characteristics of Internet and how these characteristics apply to historical writing. They put much effort on openness of Internet, such as avoiding gatekeepers, increasing diversity and improving collaboration. The most interesting question for me is: as they all indicate Internet changes our way of understanding things into a flexible, nonlinear form, how do I write in this flexible, nonlinear form?

    “…hyperlinked works establish an ecology of temptation, teasing us forward. When the temptation diverge from our aims, we think of those links as distractions. But we could just as well consider the new form of knowledge to consist of content that simultaneously settles an issue for us and baits our further interest.” (Weinberger, 117)

    This new form of knowledge contains hyperlinks of relevant information around the topic. Thus, readers’ interest will be directed into these hyperlinks, not necessary the way that the author decides. Just like Wikipedia, readers today are used to start their learning from one thing, and then choose another relevant topic. They don’t have to follow any order of reading, like book chapters. For example, if I search Mao Zedong on Google and click his Wikipedia page. In the first paragraph, there are 8 hyperlinks and I can click anyone of them. The page provides lots of information about Mao Zedong as a person and the historical events he involved. However, what if I am the author who are going to write a book about Mao Zedong? What if I am an author who cannot predict or control my readers’ behavior as they may want to know different things like clicking on different hyperlinks?

    So I review many famous blogs and Facebook Pages about history, and find there is a common style among these blogs and Pages – most of contents are organized by events and there are just a few posts tried to write comprehensive history. In this way, the authors make their posts into hyperlinks for readers to choose what they want. The authors don’t even try to predict how audiences read the posts, but let the audiences “hyperlink” the posts by themselves. They may post a story of Mao’s family member, another post about his early life, and a post about his leadership. In other words, these authors try to make the readers themselves be the central site to understand Mao through these posts as hyperlinks, and they will not place an order for readers to understand Mao. The story of Mao has been cut into many pieces, but will be collected and re-organized in readers’ mind.

    This may not be the only way of writing a new form of knowledge in digital age, and I do think there are many possible ways to write in digital age. While I am reflecting myself as a blogger now, I think it won’t work well if I just post something online. I am still figuring out my own style to write digitally – as the new form of knowledge.

  • Drama and storytelling

    Posted on September 10th, 2014 hungyin 4 comments

    Today after class, while walking out of the building, I suddenly realize why the term “drama” caused misunderstanding. In Chinese, “drama” contains every kind of drama and “TV series” is called “TV drama”. Interestingly, the term “TV series” in Chinese usually refers to foreign TV series, not local TV series. So, terrible sorry for that. I think that is even an issue of philosophy of language about how different languages categorize dramas.

    Speaking about drama and storytelling, I would like to add something under this topic: model opera. Starting from 1952, a new kind of drama, model opera, emerged in Mainland China. During Culture Revolution 1966-1976, model opera was an important channel for political education and advertisement. Model opera was not a kind of historical drama, but it changed audience’s sense of history. Traditionally, Chinese dramas were either romances or historical stories about ancient elites, emperors and generals. Ordinary people, especially those illiterate persons (about 57% people were illiterate in 1964), learned history from dramas. Most people used to think themselves as descendants of ancient emperors. For the first time, farmers, craftsmen and soldiers became visible in dramas as that was a time of communism. Thus, although model opera was to promote current political leaders at that time, it shaped how people thought of their history and themselves.


    They are “revolutionary opera” on wiki but we usually call them as model opera.

    Some people said time-travel-dramas and historical fantasy were so popular, because model opera made people unfamiliar with traditional Chinese history. As traditional Chinese dramas “educated” people about history, time-travel-dramas and historical fantasy, as TV series, also served that purpose. However, time-travel-dramas were banned in 2012 because they were so popular but too far away from real world and real history. For laypersons, historical fantasy is still a channel of historical education now.


  • How to network knowledge?

    Posted on September 7th, 2014 hungyin 5 comments

    It is Internet age, and I do agree that one individual cannot know everything at this time since there is so much information. People co-working with each other and making knowledge become a networked thing is an effective way now, and it may be the most practical way to build professional knowledge, as Weinberger describes. However, while it is easy to find a solution from laypersons, it is also easy to get incorrect information.

    It is more important to know how to answer a question than only getting some facts. However, as Cronon states, “we are not permitted to argue or narrate beyond the limits of our evidences.”( p.10), how do we keep telling a good story while networked knowledge may be incorrect?

    Also like Weinberger says “we have so many facts at such disposal that they lose their liability to nail conclusions down, because there are always other facts supporting other interpretations.”(page.28), it is hard to distinguish facts and lies. I think Weinberger will say the more networked, the more it will be testified. The issue of authenticity is also mentioned by Tosh. In that case, it requires paleography to testify the medieval materials. That means, usually, to find out what material is fake, the researcher relies on supportive knowledge – knowledge is not directly relevant with that subject but can contribute to it. If one wants to justify networked knowledge, does he/she need to have more networked knowledge?

    If some historians are working on the Middle Age and they got some materials, they can examine these materials with each other, invite archeologists and paleographers to testify, and even apply people outside of academic community to help. But the question remains: if there are different descriptions about these materials, how do these historians pick one? If they need to have more evidence to make their judgment, how much evidence do they need to make this judgment?

    For me, it looks like networking never ends. Knowledge is now networked. And to know whether knowledge is authentic, it needs to be more networked. It is not only get everyone interested in one topic together in one virtual room and networked knowledge emerges. There must be more rooms connected with this room to make knowledge emerged. To what extent can we know something is true? To what extent can we trust others’ information and judgments?