Are Human Rights Universal?

A photograph of Michael Ignatieff

This is a photograph of Michael Ignatieff, the man who wrote the article that is my main focus here. He is a Canadian politician who has worked as a historian and a university professor.

In the first sentence of “The Attack on Human Rights,” Michael Ignatieff calls human rights language “a source of power and authority.”  Though he could have described it in terms of empowerment of those without authority or in terms of imposing authority upon those without power, he decides instead leave his characterization relatively neutral.  By describing human rights as a wellspring of ‘power’ and ‘authority’ Ignatieff implies that it could either be tapped into or imposed upon others, depending on the disposition of whoever uses and manipulates the human rights language.  In so doing, he draws a dichotomy between imposition and empowerment in order to argue that – at least as a kind of language – human rights empower much more than they impose.  Such a claim suggests a series of inquiries: Is this human rights empowerment universal? Could it be? And in what spheres or senses would this universalism enact itself? Finally, Ignatieff’s thesis suggests that we might compare human rights empowerment to that of a system like Shari’a law or to the PRC’s “harmonious society” rhetoric.  Does any one of these systems offer a better ‘universal’ law or language than the others?[1]

“Human rights are universal not as a vernacular of cultural prescription but as a language of moral empowerment,” states Ignatieff in a claim about the nature of the ‘universal’ in human rights. (113)  He uses the terms ‘vernacular’ and ‘language’ to describe the medium of human rights, shifting his focus away from a discussion of law or ideology – media that would invoke stark boundaries of jurisdictions and local cultures – and instead places the locus of discussion upon language.  This choice of medium thus enables him to make the claim that human rights can be made universal – if they are not already – merely by translating them into the languages of the world.  In his concluding sentence, this thesis reaches its idealistic apex:

“In such a future, shared among equals, rights are not the universal credo of a global society, not a secular religion, but something much more limited and yet just as valuable: the shared vocabulary from which our arguments can begin, and the bare human minimum from which differing ideas of human flourishing can take root.” (116)

File:United Nations Human Rights Council Logo.svg

Since 2005, the United Nations has had a Human Rights Council to actually act on this vocabulary of empowerment

His claim that human rights are not a ‘universal credo of a global society’ or ‘a secular religion’ is well thought out.  After all, were we define these rights in terms of religion, ideology, or politics, they would abound with obvious failures and boundaries between various countries and cultures.  In the preamble to the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” after all, there is no statement to derive these ‘freedoms’ and ‘liberties’ from any deity whatsoever.  As such, they suggest a secularism that would make them difficult for any religious person to adopt as ideological credo.  The only mention of ‘faith’ in the preamble comes in the phrase, ‘faith in fundamental human rights,’ making it highly questionable for those of non-secular religious persuasion. In addition, articles like number 16 make claims about marriage that would entirely undermine a system of arranged marriages:  “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”  If statements like this one were to be interpreted as law or as ideology they would result in a sort of cultural imposition, placing the power of the document over the power of local cultures.

If we instead interpreted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” as merely a language document, it loses many of these implications of imposition, and instead offers a universal remedy to whoever utilizes its ‘language of moral empowerment.’  Ignatieff argues that this interpretation offers “something much more limited and yet just as valuable,” but he neglects the fact that even language could act as a double-edged sword – at once empowering and also imposing.  After all, human rights discourse has not always existed as such – in the Far East, Europe, or in theU.S.For the sake of comparison, let us now turn to Shari’a law.


This "shared vocabulary" already encounters problems when we try to translate it into an Islamic worldview that favors Shari'a Law

In “An Introduction to Islamic Law,” Wael Hallaq draws a distinction between Shari’a law and the nation-state.  Because Pre-Modern Muslim rulers’ military and political power rarely extended to the farthest bounds of their territory (if they could even be said to have boundaries in the first place), a system of ‘self-rule’ arose, placing day-to-day court decisions in the hands of judges, muftis, fatwa assemblies, and teaching circles who made local decisions about legality and morality based on three central unifying elements: the Quran, the Sunna of the Prophet, and consensus. (7, 21)  In direct opposition to the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which bases much of its tenets upon the rational ‘Enlightenment’ thinking, Hallaq tells us, “Since the first century of Islam, Muslim legal thinking has had to wrestle with the problem of the extent to which human reason can guide humankind in conducting its material and spiritual affairs.” (14)  Even those who supported the use of rational thinking often argued that “rational thinking is a gift from God and that we should fully utilize it.” (15)  Thus, were the Shari’a system to contain a preamble like the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” God would certainly have been included in any claim for rational thought or individual liberties.  The very language of these legal debates circles around a religious faith that informs their every conclusion.

In addition, because Shari’a law places emphasis on consensus and community interpretation, it is not a monolithic ideology; rather, Shari’a is malleable across both time and place.  Even a so-called ‘universal’ document like the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” does not contain within it justification for change over time, rendering it frozen in the half-century since its composition.  In Article 16, for example, the document defines marriage as that between “men and women,” perhaps reflective of a hetero-normative ethos more prevalent in 1948 than in the present.  The lack of recourse to amend the Declaration creates temporal boundaries for its universality. In the Shari’a system, by contrast, the emphasis on consensus lends Muslim law a universality that changes to adapt to different times and locales.  As Hallaq notes, however, a resulting ‘legal pluralism’ arises to complicate matters: “For every eventuality or case, and for every particular set of facts, there are anywhere between two and two dozen opinions, if not more, each held by a different jurist.” (27) With some of these conflicting opinions held within the same communities, a paralyzing overlap of jurisdictions would ensue – in much the same way that human rights law might contradict shari’a law or national laws – creating a confusing hodgepodge of competing authorities.


Arjun Appadurai, currently a Professor at NYU and a brilliant thinker in the realms of globalization and modernity, offers us a framework through which we might try to find further understanding of Human Rights

Michael Ignatieff opposes the claim that human rights might be a sort of ‘globalism.’  His opposition makes sense: were legal or ideological systems to be globalized, just this sort of contradiction and overlap of competing jurisdictions would place each competing legal system at odds with the others; multiple systems would compete for authority within the same space.  To prevent confusion and chaos, an exported legal system would have to be ‘glocalized’ to its particular locale – either fit into an existing hierarchy or placed at the top of a new one.  Although he focuses on the international movement of cultures, Arjun Appadurai provides an interesting framework for these global flows. In a chapter of Modernity at Large titled “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” Appadurai describes cultural flows in terms of five ‘landscapes’ (ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes).  If we were to apply these landscapes to Shari’a law and human rights, we might divide the elements of their universality into flows or ‘landscapes’ of ideology, culture, media, and language.  The ‘universal’ elements of each system would be an amalgam of these related layers. The language of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” might influence ideology, which in turn creates a rhetoric that affects political systems, and in turn may result in a play of powers interpreted as either cultural imposition or liberation.

File:National Emblem of the People's Republic of China.svg

What would Ignatieff Say to those like China's Hu Jintao who favor a stable government and basic levels of welfare over human rights?

Thus, when Michael Ignatieff confidently states that human rights provide “the shared vocabulary from which our arguments can begin,” (116) he posits that this linguascape[2] would be a less intrusive medium for carrying human rights across international boundaries than were they to be implemented forcefully as ideology or as law.  His conclusion is not without its own problems and boundaries, though.  The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” would only carry weight in those languages and cultures in which individual rights-based language held authority over religious language or “harmonious society” rhetoric. Other linguistic models can also be universalized, after all.  The rhetoric of the Shari’a system would likely only carry weight for those of a Muslim religious persuasion.  Likewise, “harmonious society” rhetoric would carry weight only for those who value stability over freedom.  All might be ‘universalized,’ ‘globalized,’ or ‘glocalized,’ in varying degrees, but this does not stop their vying for authority and their competition for the dominant rhetoric.  To Ignatieff’s opening statement, I would append Shari’a law, “harmonious society” rhetoric, and other legal/ideological languages – all of these systems are “source[s] of power and authority” and all might form the backbone for a “shared vocabulary from which our arguments can begin.”

[1] This final question, though I feel it is important to ask, will elude my answer in the bounds of this five-page paper.

[2] If the reader would permit me to expand Appadurai’s framework to include the ‘landscape of language.’

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“I think I saw a UFO!”

This came out when I was sitting in a boring lecture, with a dry lecturer, with a boring PowerPoint, and in a room with many people and no AC.  The lecturer said something about UFO’s and needing evidence – probably in a point that was tangentially related to what she was talking about – and my wandering attention span perked up from its reverie to catch a strange quote and turn it into a story.  Here goes:
“I think I saw a UFO!””I don’t believe you.  I want evidence.””Well just look at these burns on my chest!” [rips off shirt, exposing two large scorch marks in a rectangular checkered pattern]”See!  Look what they did to me! Burned me with their rocket blasters when their spaceship took off.””Marvin, those are waffle iron burns.  You were drunk again last night.  You don’t remember when you tried to make ‘man-meat waffles’ for the entire party? No?  I didn’t think you would remember that.””First of all, I wasn’t drunk.  How many times do I have to tell you that tipsy is different from drunk.  And irregardless of drunk or not, I remember what I remember.  There were bright lights and then steam and then burns on my chest.  It was a goddamn UFO!””No Marvin.  The lights were from the stage you set up for your little stunt.  you had us videotape it.  And the steam?  That was from the beer you poured all over the waffle iron.  Your ‘Alcoholic syrup.'””No.  No way.  It was those goddamn aliens!  Why the hell would I do that?  Stop fucking with me!  Stop it right now!  If you’re so smart, answer me this: where did this splitting headache come from?  The aliens stuck a probe in there.  You can see the stitches!” “Need I even remind you?  Your hangover.  And your stitches are from Baptist Medical Center from when you hit your head with a hammer while trying to get some cherries to put on top of the waffles you were making.”

“You think he believes it?””Yeah, definitely.” “This kind of stuff always works best on alcoholics. We did such a good cloning job of the wife that he’ll probably never even notice.””Job well done.  Now you wanna go makes some circles in a cornfield?”

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Imagined Worlds in “Spirited Away”

Spirited Away is a highly imaginative film in which we watch several characters plunged into a land of their own imagination. Like most Miyazake films, this one attracts adults as much as it does children.  A far cry from something created in a Disney studio (though Disney did dub the film, poorly, and bring it to the U.S.), Spirited Away has enough thematic richness to make it a contender at film festivals and to withstand the most intellectual exegesis of film critics.  In the following essay, I will attempt just such an analytical approach, to see just what Miyazaki is trying to tell us about imagination and reality.

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International Film Poster for "Spirited Away"

At the beginning of Spirited Away, a girl named Chihiro enters the spirit world only because she is forced to follow along with the curiosity of her parents who insist on entering a creepy passageway. When her father first approaches the gateway that forms the entrance to this world, he remarks that it is made of plaster – and thus only a façade meant to look like an architectural construction from an earlierJapan.  Already there seems to be some sort of a sham associated with this otherworldly world.  As the three move further across this spatial boundary, the father remarks that the world they’ve walked into must be a theme park that went out of business when the economy faltered in the 1990’s. His statements position this world as something designed for another time – whether it be the late 80’s or far earlier.  As the film progresses, a bathhouse appears, along with animist-like spirits, all reflective of some earlier Japan severed from the modern world by the rapid progress of economic modernization.  Even the river spirit – clogged as he is with the pollution and debris of human activity – reflects a kind of harmful neglect in the relations between the human and the spirit worlds.

The boundaries between these two worlds are not instantaneously crossed.  Nor are those crossings easily reversed.  In fact, the first 10 minutes of the film moves in several gradations of plausibility and dislocation: from the car ride to a new home to a construction of plaster in the woods, then from an abandoned train station into an empty theme park.  Finally, this theme park takes a strange sinister spin when the lights begin to go out, an unknown boy cautions Chihiro to leave and the parents turn into human swine.  These changes introduce a new set of rules, outside the bounds of cause and effect that operate in the outside world.  Chihiro must escape before the sun goes down or she will be stuck.  Then, when she tries to batter the world out of her mind, pleading, “This can’t be! I’m dreaming! I’m dreaming! Wake up! […] Go away. Disappear. ” Strangely, she does begin to disappear; her hands and feet become faintly transparent.  Then, the unknown boy has her eat a small bit of food to reverse this process.  All of these strange rules – none of them wholly explained – require even greater leaps of the imagination to maintain any shred of plausibility.  The viewer must either identify with Chihiro, calmly welcoming the ‘magical world’ in all its peculiarities – or must maintain a boundary of skepticism between the self and the screen, remaining in the ‘real world’ by rationalizing and labeling the sights and sounds of the film as those created by a studio of animators.

In the final portion of the film, Chihiro leaves the bathhouse, reunites with her parents and bids farewell to Haku, the boy she has saved because she has helped him discover his name.  In their final conversation, she asks if they will reunite in the ‘real world.’  He promises that they will, suggesting that perhaps his existence there will be symbolic, perhaps as an actual river, as a memory of this imagined experience, or in some other journey into an imagined world.  Once all of Chihiro’s trials are completed, she returns to unknowing parents who have not shared the same imaginary experiences.  Her fright is parallel to that at the beginning of the movie, clinging to parents unaware of the world they are moving into.  Strangest of all, bits of leaves and dust cling to the car when they return to it.  Perhaps the director is here suggesting that they did pass into some other world for a length of time.  Perhaps this time was only equal to the duration of the movie, or perhaps it lasted several days.  Because we never follow them to their new home and the moving crew, we will never know exactly what happened within the diegesis of the film.  If we take these details as symbolic of the viewer’s experience, though, Miyazake suggests that we have somehow entered the ‘image, imagined, imaginary’ – to use Arjun Appadurai’s phrase – and participated in a social practice of the imaginary.

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Kobayashi’s Use of the Frame to Denote Restriction and Conflict in Samurai Rebellion

Kobayashi begins his 1967 film with a shot that tracks slowly against a rocky surface.  Throughout the opening credits, the camera cuts between several lengthy takes of a samurai compound, each time organizing the architecture of the building into frames that emphasize its geometric patterns.  In all of these shots, the viewer feels forcibly pinned to the surface of the screen, never given the breathing room of sweeping camera movement or of open frames of organic shapes.  With this opening sequence, Kobayashi establishes a sense of claustrophobia extends through the duration of the film.  As with nearly every other shot in the film, the cinematography works in tandem with the themes and relationships in the plot.  A family conflict finds its visual counterpart in an intentionally unbalanced framing of that family.  The oppressive nature of bushido manifests itself in closed frames that only open into a narrow doorway.  Indeed, in reviews of Samurai Rebellion, critics rarely fail to mention “Kobayashi’s ability to comment through composition, to mirror what he is showing by the way in which he shows it.”[1] Throughout Samurai Rebellion, Kobayashi utilizes the frame to bolster themes of restriction and rebellion and to provide visual representations for conflicts between characters.  In nearly every shot, the framing reflects a latent theme or conflict.

The thematic framing in Samurai Rebellion manifests itself most ostensibly in the tripartite structure of the film.  With the exception of two sequences of outdoor shots – one at the beginning of the film and one at the end – most of the action in Samurai Rebellion takes place indoors, pinned against geometric forms framed symmetrically by an unmoving camera.  Even in the outdoor shots, the camera frequently cuts out the sky and pins the upper edge of the frame against the top of a building or a compound wall.  These claustrophobic frames trap Isaburo within a path of little choice, with an inevitable conflict against the clan that kidnaps his daughter-in-law.  With the notable exception of the initial and final sequences set outside of the compound, Isaburo’s path is set in stone, both by the narrative and by the walls the frame pins him against.

As oppressive as these themes seem to be, the film begins with a sequence notably outside the confines of the compound. The claustrophobic architecture prevalent through most of the film is totally absent here.  In shots far removed from the stone walls and rigid architecture of the credits sequence, Kobayashi captures organic shapes in the rolling hills and swaying trees, frequently set against a backdrop of open sky or outdoor terrain that extends into the horizon.  The dialogue reflects the same sense of openness as suggested by the frame.  Isaburo says that he is searching for a bride for his son.  Little does he suspect that this matter will soon be decided for him.

Less than ten minutes into the film, as Isaburo converses with the messenger of the clan leader, we catch our last glimpse of the outside air in an open frame until the final sequence of the film. “Perhaps you want a grandchild?” the man suggests to Isaburo.  As he reveals his situation to this messenger, a conniving smile creeps across his face.  With Isaburo’s admission that desires a daughter-in-law, he has, in a sense, sealed his fate.  From this moment onward, he and his family become victims of the clan leader’s whims.  The messenger will relay this desire for a son-in-law to a clan leader who will force a son-in-law upon him.  As the conversation ends, the camera cuts to a high-angle shot of an entrance into the compound.  Isaburo enters the single entranceway seen in the shot, his path determined by the symmetrical frame and the single opening it has placed in the center.  Until his son has been killed, Isaburo’s path is now predetermined by the plot and by the geometrical forces of the camera’s frame.  With no other choice, Isaburo grudgingly accepts his predetermined path.

The viewer is then pinned by a virtually immobile camera against geometric shapes inside the compound. Not until the last fifteen minutes of the film will we see another frame opened to the sky or the outside of the compound.  During this middle portion in the film’s tripartite structure, Kobayashi gives us visual clues that not only denote the presence of restriction, but its particular quantity and qualities in a given scene or portion of the plot.  For instance, in his first meeting with the steward of the clan leader, Isaburo and the steward face each other, sitting on opposite sides of the frame.  Between the two, a doorway opens to the outside of the building, letting in light and creating an open space between the two. “I’ll return for an answer in a few days,” says the steward, “But Sasahara, it is our lord’s decision, so bear that in mind.”  He has thus offered Isaburo an irrefutable proposal, a command ironically woven into the façade of a question.  Though his decision is already made, the open doorway provides the illusion of a choice.  In a second meeting with the steward, when he returns for an answer, the conversation takes on a much more bitter tone.  Isaburo’s attempt at refusal meets with the anger and misunderstanding of the steward.  The composition of this latter scene is identical to the earlier one, save one detail: the doorway to the outside is now closed.  As if the illusion of choice has now been replaced by an irrefutable command, all pathways of escape seem to be cut off for Isaburo.  Only when his son opens a door into the room does the frame once again crack open.  Yogoro’s decision to accept the marriage not only opens up a thematic doorway (i.e. the solution offered by his decision) but a visual doorway as well (the closed frame opens once again).  Even within the claustrophobic world of oppressive architecture and closed frames, Kobayashi provides visual cues for illusions of choice, one-way decisions in which the characters choose to follow orders and cannot disobey.

Much of the film looks like this: actors deliberately placed in a claustrophobic frame.

The architectural and compositional claustrophobia in Samurai Rebellion, while certainly utilized by Kobayashi, were also emblematic of many films in the postwar jidaigeki genre, as well.  According to Isolde Standish, “Gone are the flat, kabukiesque studio-built sets filmed in widescreen […]. In their place are the architectural structures – walls, courtyards, labyrinths of internal corridors and external alleyways – that trap the characters within their internecine battles. “[2] The cramped visual style of Kobayashi’s film thus reflects not only the restrictions placed on Isaburo, but a shift in the stylistic conventions of the jidaigeki genre, as well.  While it may not be entirely useful to read Samurai Rebellion as representative of this entire genre, its use of oppressive architecture and its themes of individuals trapped within internecine conflicts indeed mirror those cited by Standish.  The main characters, Isaburo, his son, and his daughter-in-law, all face an irrefutable and oppressive authority.  They must choose either to honor the traditional hierarchy or to rebelling in pursuit of humane ideals.  Kobayashi places our protagonists in direct conflict with forced ‘social restraint’ both in the visual elements of the film and in the narrative themes of oppression.  Throughout this battle, there is little question of which side the director is taking.  Kobayashi himself said, “all of my pictures … are concerned with resisting entrenched power.  I suppose I have always challenged authority.”[3]

Much of the force in Samurai Rebellion’s plot comes in the form of building tension, helplessness against that ‘entrenched power’ that cannot resolve itself until Isaburo finally rebels against the clan in the final portion of the film.  Much of this tension might be lost on a modern Western audience unfamiliar with the social forces that made this rebellion so unthinkable.  “Why not just leave the compound? Or resist the clan leader without so much suicide and killing?” one might ask.  Central to Kobayashi’s plot is the compelling force of the bushido code.  As a member of his clan, Isaburo must never disobey an order from his superior.  Though he first attempts to deny the leader’s marriage offer by calling it “too great an honor,” the steward gives him a puzzled look in return.  Implicit in the plot of the film is the undeniable nature of hierarchy.  “Because Bushido – which existed, all questions of ethics aside, on a sociological level to support a hierarchical feudal system – values loyalty in the extreme, it willingly recruits anti-animistic and anti-free will philosophies.”[4]  While the oppressive frame and threats of death provide enough reason behind these characters’ inability to disobey orders, the inhumane nature of bushido lurks behind the themes of the film.  Although the clan leader ostensibly seems to be the antagonist of the film, the incontrovertible hierarchy implicit in bushido too seems to form a sort of antagonist.  Isaburo not only rebels against his clan, fighting and killing those who stand in his way, in addition he rebels against bushido and the hierarchy it represents.

This resistance to bushido, forms another emblematic resonance with the post-war jidaigeki genre.  According to Standish, “In these films the ethic of bushido (the moral code of the samurai) is deconstructed as an outdated ideology of oppression in a society centered on material rather than humane principles.”[5]  Kobayashi utilizes this struggle with bushido to engage in a social commentary, exposing the perils of blind allegiance to authority.  Though he never tells us whether that authority takes the form of nationalism in 1960’s Japan, the feudal philosophy in Meiji era Japan, or of a more general individualism in the face of authority, Kobayashi nonetheless gives us a powerful portrayal of an individual rebelling against all odds.

Only in the last fifteen minutes of the film, after Ichi and Yogoro have been killed, does Isaburo again emerge into the open frame and the bright outdoors.  In this final portion of the tripartite structure of the film, he once again emerges into open frames that capture organic shapes and views of the sky.  Now that he has broken the bushido code, and placed himself in direct opposition with the traditional hierarchy of his clan, the frame symbolically opens up to the outside world.  Though he will soon be killed by the clan he has defied, the camera uses his reemergence into the open world to suggest a heroism in Isaburo’s actions.  Despite his imminent death, Kobayashi uses the bright sky and open frame to suggest that his struggle was not in vain. By declaring his son’s love of greater importance than the arbitrary loyalty toward a cruel lord, our hero has declared his allegiance to humanism above all else.  Symbolically, both Isaburo and the frame of the camera have declared humanism superior to blind nationalist-like allegiances.

The final portion of the film does not, however, reflect naïve idealism on the part of the auteur. There exists some sense of ambivalence in the closing sequence of the film. Isaburo has clearly made the right choice, as coded by the frame of the camera, but the frame is not as open as one might expect it to be.  In one shot of Isaburo facing his old friend at the gate of the compound, an open frame of a wide field meets a harsh line in the gate that Isaburo will never cross.  Even in shots of the skyline, Kobayashi frequently eclipses half of the otherwise open frame with a mountain obstructing our view.  There is no romanticism in Isaburo’s rebellion.  Though he stands alone, cutting through hordes of pursuers, he eventually dies, and the effectiveness of his rebellion is brought into question.  Though Isaburo has escaped the sense of cruel fate coded in the seeming inevitability of the plot and framing earlier in the film, he fails to bring his grandson to Edo and escape the attacks of his pursuing clansmen.  According to one review of the film, “if the hero cannot win (for Kobayashi is much too honest a director to let him), then he makes a grand display of his own immolation.”[6]  Isaburo indeed makes a grand display of his demise.  Though Kobayashi will not let him win against insurmountable odds, the audience will surely feel attached to his valiant cause.

In the final shot, the frame captures a vast view of the outdoors, halfway eclipsed by mountain.  The shot is an ambivalent one.  Though it depicts a vast reach of the outdoors, a mountain obscures the other half of the frame.  Our desire to finally see Edo, the coveted escape from oppressive hierarchy, is never satisfied.  Instead, we get an ambiguous shot that contains both a glimpse of freedom and an insurmountable obstacle keeping us away from it.  This same shot has appeared several times earlier in the film, previously shrouded in the dark shadow of the mountain.  Now that Isaburo has rebelled against the bushido, however, the open view of trees and mountains in the distance have been illuminated in the glow of the sunlight.  Though our hero has died, the camera suggests a sense of hope in his actions.  Loyalty has been defied for the sake of love, and perhaps Tomi will live to reenact a similar rebellion.  The success of Isaburo’s rebellion is still questionable, but its necessity has been encoded in the expansive frames that have broken free of the closeted compound.  Isaburo may have failed to escape the reins of authority, but Kobayashi certainly admires his attempt.


Richie, Donald. “Samurai Rebellion: Kobayashi’s Rebellion.” Criterion Collection: 25

Oct. 2005 <>

Silver, Alain.  The Samurai Film. Woodstock: Woodstock, 2004.

Standish, Isolde.  A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film.

New York: Continuum, 2005.

[1] Richie, Donald “Samurai Rebellion: Kobayashi’s Rebellion”

[2] Standish, Isolde. A New History of Japanese Cinema: A Century of Narrative Film. (287-88)

[3] Richie

[4] Silver, Alain. The Samurai Film. (25)

[5] Standish (288)

[6] Richie

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Language Nation and Literacy: Visions of Chinese Language Reform from 1895-1919

In 1909, Ezra Pound published the essay, co-written nearly two decades earlier by Ernest Fenollosa, entitled “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.”  Enraptured with the Chinese language and writing with the characteristic enthusiasm of overeager orientalists, Pound and Fenollosa suggested that English poetry be reformed to mirror the writing style of Tang Dynasty Chinese poets.  Somewhat ironically, the enthusiasm of these writers emerged just as language reform was reaching a peak in the opposite direction in China.  While these Western writers sought to adapt elements of Chinese grammar and move away from their own phonetic system of writing, Chinese reformers like Qian Xuantong and Chen Duxiu sought to adapt elements of Western grammar and phonetics to promote literacy and to break free from their Confucian roots.[1]  As these Chinese reformers and others set to the task of reforming their language they faced a series of problems that arose in both their rhetoric and their experiences: How might Chinese be standardized? Should it be standardized? Could it be standardized?  And lastly, how would these reforms affect the Chinese people and the Chinese nation?

The language reforms of the early 20th century China arose amidst a flurry of rhetoric on both sides of the East/West divide.  Beginning in the mid-18th Century, a series of Western linguists and intellectuals, including James Burnett, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and William Dwight Whitney produced scholarship about the Chinese language that almost always condemned it as ‘primitive’ or ‘ancient.’ Whitney went so far as to state that English, with all its highly evolved elegance, might form an intellectual constraint on a very small number of speakers, but that “there will be others whose meaner powers would be more in harmony with some lower form of speech, as Chinese or Malay.”[2]  With such a negative view of the Chinese language coming from accepted scholarship in the West, it is little wonder that Chinese intellectuals might be influenced by these writers and approach their own language with little self-esteem and an openness toward linguistic reform or revolution.  Lu Kan-Chang, for example, adopted a similar attitude toward the Chinese language as an impediment to progress.  He saw science as the precedent for modernity and the spread of literacy as the precedent for science. He wrote about the people of a “strong nation” that “their ability to have a love of learning and a knowledge of theory depends on using a phonetic system of writing.”[3]

The writing of these two authors, while far from representative of the entire discourse of language reform before the 20th Century,[4] highlight some of the central problems related to language reform.  A desire to modernize, along with a social Darwinist desire to compete with the West, most likely fueled Lu’s desire to pursue phonetic reforms.  By promoting literacy, “how can there be any fear that our country will not be rich and strong?” he argued.  At the same time that such reformers felt a desire to model reform after ‘Western’ schemes like phoneticization, many also felt a desire to compete with the West, placing it in the simultaneous position of both exemplar and nemesis.  When Chinese scholars began contemplating language reform, the obvious examples of precedents came from Western missionaries such as Matteo Ricci, Elijah Bridgman, and John Gibson, who had made various attempts since the 16th Century to simplify and phoneticize Chinese for the purposes of proselytism.[5]  This phenomenon of looking to the West as both example and enemy raised issues of national identity and traditional culture.  By modeling Chinese phoneticization after English, these reformers risked abandoning Confucian ideals and becoming culturally colonized.  (Or conversely, they proceeded toward liberation from those elements of their culture that impeded modernization.)  At a missionary conference in 1890, Rev. E.J. Eitel anticipated just such a struggle in language reform: “Take away from the typical Chinaman his written language, and you not only denationalize him but destroy his Confucianism.”  Precisely these possibilities, whether spun through a rhetoric of fear or a rhetoric of liberation, would form the backbone of the debate over language reform for at least the next three decades.

In the last decade of the 20th Century, Kang You-wei submitted a memorial to the Qing court stating that “eight-legged” essays should be removed from the imperial examination system.  His action came motivated by an idealistic desire to “[remove] an evil which had stultified the mind of the people.”[6]  In a characteristically radical style, Kang laments that the civil service examination system was not eliminated entirely, but nonetheless, the “eight-legged” essays had met their end.  With this reform, however, came a linguistic consequence: the standard measure for formal, written Chinese had been eliminated, leaving an ambiguous absence in the standardization of literature and literacy in China. This vacuum of linguistic standards would remain unresolved in the realm of popular literacy until a national languge (guoyu) was adopted in 1913.  After all, no precedent existed for standardized literacy outside of the Confucian Classics.[7]  In the realm of literature, a similar issue of standardization would remain unresolved for over two decades until Hu Shi addressed the issue with a shift away from classical Chinese (wenyan) and a move toward vernacular writing (baihua).  The issue of what these standards would be, and how they would be determined, however, remained hotly debated at the time.

In “The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei,” the same man who addressed the pragmatic reform of eliminating “eight-legged” essays above describes here his utopian vision of language reform.  He envisions an international, universally-spoken language that has gradually supplanted the national languages of the world, saving an enormous amount of time that would otherwise have been spent on learning languages.  Central to his vision are ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity.’  He writes, “Uniformity should be brought about so as to facilitate intercourse and to avoid the incalculable amount of studying [that must be devoted to languages] throughout the world [at the present time].”[8]  Interestingly, he ignores all possibilities that there might be some valuable culture or history intertwined with one’s language.  Perhaps he acknowledged this fact, but decided that this linguistic history was expendable in the name of progress toward an international world free from the bonds of nationalist sentiment. Regardless, the idealism of such a statement bears a clear relation to the idealism that fueled decisions like Kang’s memorial to end the “eight-legged” essays of the civil service examination system.  His central goal takes the name “uniformity” and his vision takes the form of an internationalized world with no national boundaries.  Thus, even though his pragmatic reforms were far removed from the idealism of such utopian writing, these goals of internationalism and universality enacted themselves in Kang’s elimination of the “evil” (to use his own word) of “eight-legged” essays.

Later in his description of utopian language, Kang writes:

“so long as individual states coexist and the boundaries between states have not been abolished, then in the education [of its youth] every state will continue to use its own national language so as to inculcate patriotism and the foundation of the national existence.” [9]

He concludes that national languages may not be abolished instantaneously.  Instead, through a gradual process of adopting an international second language, nations could be weaned away from their native languages. Though idealism runs rampant in Kang’s utopian writing, his vision for practical reform emerges as well.  If languages were inextricably intertwined with the nations that spoke them, somehow these ties must be severed, but in a way that was humane to the speakers of the language, and sensitive to forces of nationalism and patriotism.  Some took an even more idealistic and drastic approach than Kang.  Wu Zhihui, for one, called for the adoption of Esperanto, which he called “the new language of the world” (wanguo xinyu).  Such a reform seems to fall precisely in line with the “international second language” Kang calls for in his utopian writing.  Wu’s motivation lie not only in the elimination of national boundaries, though, but rather in the “barbarian” nature of the Chinese language (hanyu) and because, “Han writing is family writing, not that of a society.  It is the writing of aristocrats, not that of the common people.”[10]  In this complicated bit of rhetoric, a self-effacing description of his own language as “barbarian” meets with the inequality inherent in a system in which only the aristocrats are literate.  Thus, Wu Zhihui sought not only to eliminate national boundaries, like Kang You-wei, or to increase literacy and free up time for the study of sciences, as Lu Kan-chang did, but also sought to purge the Chinese culture of those elements that brought about class-based inequality.[11]

On the opposite end of this debate, reformers like Zhang Binglin took the position that Chinese language was integral to the survival of the Chinese nation.  In Kai-wing Chow’s words, Zhang believed

“To abandon one’s own language, whether spoken or written, is to forfeit one’s subjectivity and throw oneself at the feet of the users of an alien language.  Without linguistic autonomy, there will be no authorial power and one only exists as an object of discourse imagined and prescribed as ‘knowledge’ for consumption.”

Ironically, Zhang Zhidong’s nationalism motivated his reforms in the exact opposite direction of those like Liang Qichao and Lu Kan-chang, who also placed nationalism at the forefront of their impetus for reform.  For Liang and Lu, language reform and the switch to a phonetic system would help increase Chinese literacy, and help the nation compete with Western nations, becoming (in Lu’s words) “rich and strong” enough to compete with them in a social Darwinist sense.  For Zhang Zhidong, on the other hand, preserving Chinese nationalism meant preserving “national essence” (guocui) and maintaining “linguistic autonomy” and “authorial power” as a part of that essence.  If the Chinese people were cut off from their own history and their own literature, he seems to argue, they lose those essential elements that make them Chinese.  In his book on nationalism and language reform, De Francis paraphrases another conservative reformer who argued that “the ideographs should be retained as a unifying force because they have a temporal span of thousands of years and a geographic span of thousands of miles.”[12]  Such a statement brims with exhortative rhetoric, but this statement implies that this unifying force runs strong in all regions of China (and with Chinese nationals across the globe) as well as throughout the entire history of language in the country, both claims that could be easily disputed.  Though he does not give precise data on the issue, De Francis argues that “rough statistics tell us merely that only ten or fifteen per cent of the population now and only one or two per cent throughout most of Chinese history have been bound together by literacy in the ideographic script.”[13]  De Francis makes a strong argument that this ‘unifying force’ was only illusory, but (as he seems to neglect) regardless of its force in the linguistic realm, such declarations of ‘national essence’ nonetheless function as powerful exhortative rhetoric.  By arguing that there is some underlying ‘guocui’ behind ideographs, these reformers not only resisted the language reforms suggested by their radical counterparts, but established a basis for Chinese national identity as well.

In his own words, Zhang argued that he pursued national essence not just because of a desire to revere Confucianism, “but because I want people to cling to the history of our Han people.  I speak of history here in its broad sense, which can be divided into three parts: the written language, institutions, and the records of men.”[14]  As this speech continues, Zhang enumerates just what he means by “the history of our Han people.”  In the linguistic realm, this history takes the form of philology and etymology, elements of the language that have altered throughout the course of their respective histories.  Zhang not only creates a narrative in which certain words have passed through various classifications in the Tang and Song dynasties, but turns that narrative into a mythology.  He draws a parallel between the neglect of philology in the Song dynasty to language losing its force and “totally lacking the power to move men.”[15]  When he does this, his narrative gains a polemic quality, warning readers not to neglect the history of words.  When he states that some scholars have observed new phenomena in the ‘Modern World’ and decided to “create new characters to attach to them,” an unspoken parallel places these actions under the same criticism that he ascribes to the Song dynasty.  Later, he describes another ‘unifying’ force around the Chinese language: “For us, of course, the writings of our own ethnic group are superior.”[16]  Here his mythology takes another shift.  Not only is the language a unifying concept, but it somehow relates to the ethnicity of Chinese speakers.  The Han language (hanyu) is also the language of the Han ethnicity (hanzu) he seems to argue.  Needless to say, such rhetoric would fall flat on the likes of radical reformers like Kang You-wei who envisioned a world where ethnicity (i.e. hanzu) gradually faded away along with nations and national languages.

With the establishment of the republican government, the idealistic rhetoric of these reformers met with pragmatic reforms.  The Ministry of Education established committees to debate standards for pronunciation and writing, passing resolutions to adopt a national language (guoyu) based on the mandarin dialect and the de facto language of government administration (guanhua).  Both De Francis and Ramsey relate an anecdote in which tempers flared between Southern and Northern factions in the debate over which regional dialect to adopt: confusion over whether Wang zhao had heard another committee member say “wangbo ts’o” or the Mandarin curse “wangba dan” caused him to fly into a rage and attack his fellow committee member.[17][18]  Neither of these authors cites a source for this anecdote, but both use it as evidence that tempers flared over which regional dialect to attempt.  For all I know, the story may be completely apocryphal.  If not, each of these authors uses it as a sort of mythologization to illustrate to the reader just how heated was the debate over the issue of standardizing pronunciation.[19]  The issue at hand was, in fact, an important one; if the reformers were not delicate in their actions, they risked the destruction of the Chinese nation into regionalism or factionism, divided across linguistic barriers.  As Zhang Zhidong and Lu Kan-chang both articulated – in starkly different ways – the unity and identity of the Chinese nation were at stake.

After these reforms were enacted, shortly after the Republican Revolution, Qian Xuantong wrote an open letter to Chen Duxiu: “If you want to abolish Confucianism, then you must first abolish the Chinese language.”  Somewhat ironically, this desire to create a linguistic revolution resonates with the Confucian tenet to attain to the true names of things (zhengming) as well as the tenet of ‘self-cultivation.’  The desire to look closely at oneself, and purify those (linguistic) elements which were out of place in a functioning state seems to be precisely the desire behind Qian’s suggestion.  The very ideas of a language revolution or a ‘literary revolution’ ring of this Confucian self-purification and attention to language.  In their histories of language, many linguists – John Ramsey[20] and Ping Chen[21] included – place the language as the central character in a narrative in which the agents of change are geographic features, regimes, and broad populations.  We might describe this kind of narrative as one of the evolution of language.  When reformers like the ones discussed in this paper attempt to place some human control over the change of language, on the other hand, this narrative becomes one of a language reform or of language revolution.  These processes of ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ do not occur exclusively of one another.  As Hu Shi writes,

“There are two kinds of historical progress: one is completely natural change, and the other is change that accords with natural tendencies but which is enforced by human effort.  The first may be called evolution, the latter may be called revolution… A thousand years of pai-hua literature has sown the seeds of the recent literary revolution [which has] only marked a brief stopping-off point in a long history.  Henceforth Chinese literature will have left behind it forever the old road of blind and natural change and will travel instead upon the new road of conscious creativity.”[22]

In this passage, Hu creates a framework in which revolution is possible without resorting to ‘self-cultivation’ or the desire to create a new naming of things (zhengming) in line with the ‘Modern World.’  As he has described the situation, these shifts away from bygone ideologies have already occurred in the history of vernacular (baihua) literature.  In Hu Shi’s mythology of ‘baihua’ literature, vernacular had gradually supplanted classical Chinese in the writing of great 17th and 18th century novels, and had even been articulated by writers such as Huang Zunxian, as early as the mid 19th Century: “wo shou xie wo kou” (“My hands write as I say with my mouth.”)[23]  Thus, within Hu Shi’s rhetorical framework, a ‘literary revolution’ was simply the last step in something that had already been done.

Although the “new road of conscious creativity” takes on a romantic and convincing tone in Hu Shi’s dramatic rhetoric, the phrase seems to me more complicated than Hu suggests.  After all, was not Zhang Binglin engaged in some “new road of conscious creativity” as he struggled to maintain “authorial power” and “linguistic autonomy” in the ‘Modern World?’  And what would Hu Shi say about the experience of Qian Mu, who both clung to old literature, “I had already decided to immerse myself in the old books, so I was not caught up in the new wave,”[24] and encouraged his own students to write in baihua, “I told the students that when it comes out of the mouth, it’s called speech, and when it comes off the pen, it’s called writing.  Writing is just like speaking.  However you would say it, write it.” [25] If Qian Mu was engaged in this process of evolution and revolution, then what was his role?  Was he part of the “blind and natural change” or a part of the “new road of conscious creativity?”  Even Hu Shi’s own writing seems somewhat hypocritical.  Though he acknowledges the necessity of a linguistic revolution, his articles about the literary revolution utilized the same ‘wenyan’ he wished to abandon.[26]

This confusion underlines precisely the problem with both writing a linguistic narrative and enacting a linguistic revolution.  The central event spans from the ‘oracle bone script’ 3,000 years ago to the present, in which Romanization and language reform take on new meaning with modern technologies like computers.[27]  Along this endless timeline, countless changes in language occur, both intentional and accidental, intertwined with issues of literacy, national identity, social Darwinism, and the divide between pragmatism and idealism.  In addition, the reform of language extends from the realm of intellectual rhetoric all the way to the everyday experiences of those like Qian Mu, who struggled to create a system beneficial to students by defying both sides of the rhetorical debate.  Lastly, the experiences of illiterate Chinese like Ning Lao Tai-tai seem conspicuously absent in the rhetorical debates that took place in the intellectual sphere. In her autobiography, transmitted orally to a proxy writer, Ning expresses her own subjective experience when she expresses thankfulness that her son could read to her: “Surely it is good to be able to read.”[28]  Though Ning certainly never participated in any of the rhetorical debates recounted above, her experiences remain just as central to the debate as any other speaker of Chinese.  And now, articulated, they become a part of that historical narrative.  Both Literate and not, Chinese speakers in the first two decades of the 20th century faced a paradoxical task: to use their language in order to change the language that they used.

[1] Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. (3-5)

[2] Ibid. (49-51)

[3] De Francis, John. Nationalism and Language Reform in China. (35)

[4] Obviously, that would extend beyond the bounds of a 10-page paper. See De Francis, Chapters 1-3. for an  account of this discourse.

[5] Ibid. (15-25)

[6] In his own words: K’ang Yu-wei. (Lo, Jung-Pang, trans.) Chronological Autobiography of K’ang Yu-wei. (101)

[7] Rawski, Evelyn Sakakida. Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China. (1)

[8] Kang Yu-wei. (Thompson, Laurence G., trans.) Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei. (93-94)

[9] Ibid. (93)

[10] Chow, Kai-wing.  “Narrating Nation, Race, and National Culture: Imagining the Hanzu Identity in Modern China” from Constructing Nationhood in Modern East Asia. (73)

[11] Or that made China into a “barbaric” nation, whatever that means.

[12] De Francis. (221)

[13] Ibid. (222)

[14] Zhang Binglin. “Zhang Binglin’s Speech in Tokyo, July 15,1906” from Shimada Kenji. Pioneer of the Chinese Revolution: Zhang Binglin and Confucianism. (36-37)

[15] Ibid. (39)

[16] Ibid. (39)

[17] Ramsey. (8)

[18] De Francis (58)

[19] As far as I’m concerned, this mythologization seems to be of a rather benign kind.  Although it does not create a deeper knowledge of the related history, it serves to peak interest, to entice the reader to discover the degree to which tempers flared, and over what issues. Unlike some mythologizations that lead a reader to vote or act a certain way, this one seems only to illustrate the precarious and explosive nature of these debates – something which might otherwise fall flat on the ear of a non-Chinese reader.

[20] Ramsey. (19-26)

[21] Ping Chen. Modern Chinese: History and Sociolinguistics. (7-13)

[22] Grieder, Jerome B.  Hu Shih and the Chinese renaissance: liberalism in the Chinese revolution, 1917-1937 (83)

[23] Ping Chen. (70)

[24] Dennerline, Jerry. Qian Mu and the World of Seven Mansions. (47)

[25] Ibid. (52)

[26] Ping Chen.  (72-73)

[27] Ramsey. (154)

[28] Pruitt, Ida. (From the Story Told Her by Ning Lao T’ai’t’ai) A Daughter of Han:  The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman. (244)

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Similar Veins – A Mary Jo Salter Imitation

A shiny, bald head protrudes
From seersucker wrapping
Filling the room with slow-motion
Chuckles. My oldest uncle,
Alabama-born, catches me
With his half-nelson stare:
“Looky here – A pointy-headed Yankee
Come back down to see his kin.”

My uncle, whose head is quite round,
Whispers some time-worn
Dictum about working hard.
Unfortunately, my two out of three,
“Sweat and Tears,” makes for a
Much less manly combo.
It’s just as well. I can’t
Stand the sight of blood.

Passing the communion plate on hands
Sweating with anticipation
Or tame anxiety, I visualize the
Veins of Christ pumping out
Swimming pools of grape juice.
I cleanse my stale palate
On stale crackers and feel my sins
Washed away on a mouthful of Welch’s.

Years prior, having a yearly checkup,
I fall victim to nurse hands
Coated in cruel latex, skewering
That fat worm inside my arm.
“Medical anxiety,” I whisper
Through the static buzz, which
Moves from my ears to my eyes to…
I wake on the floor, cold, covered in sweat.

My uncle’s voice comes booming back
Saying something about blue-blooded
Southern Boys. I wonder if he’s
Had a little too much ‘grape juice.’
Bourbon in his sweat and sweat
And tears and juice and blood.
And all my work has been in vain.
When I wake, cold, covered in sweat.

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Boundaries Re-imagined in “Vermeer’s Hat”

In narrating Vermeer’s Hat, Timothy Brook emphasizes three distinct layers of agency. On the one hand, there is the world. This agent may seem like the most obvious of the three, but it entails a sort of global consciousness (or “collective heritage” (222)) which, he seems to say, did not exist before sometime near the beginning of the 17th Century. Second, there are individual people, such as Champaign and Vermeer, whose actions inevitably affect (and are affected by) their individual conceptions about that world. Finally, between these other two, comes the ‘nation-state’ – a large, conglomerate entity organized by the Peace of Westphalia in Europe, but also developed elsewhere with Brook calls “a similar intensification of state operations.” (224) So how then do these conceptions of ‘actors’ or ‘agents’ affect the way we narrate history?

Each of the higher agents, “the world” and “the state,” has ties with a rather nebulous process of drawing boundaries. Much like the classic ‘heap paradox’ in which a heap of sand is composed of many smaller grains – and the distinction between ‘grain’ and ‘heap’ becomes confused, our definitions of ‘nation-states’ ‘civilizations’ or other mass group identities likewise become blurred when we take into account the multifarious factors of language, culture, history, economics, among many others. Thus, when Brook uses the word “collective heritage” to suggest something we should strive for as unified ‘humanity’ the numerous dichotomies become even more blurred. Is this concept of unification a Western phenomenon? What about those who reject the idea? Are they excluded from the heritage?

The word that immediately comes to mind in this discussion is a recent neologism in the academic world: ‘Glocalism.’ The word implies a complex relationship between actions taken by individuals whose effects reach out to the nation-state, to the world, and then back to more individuals whose actions are influenced by the ‘global’ in a heterogeneous and fluid interplay. Vermeer himself makes the perfect example for Brook’s exploration into this ‘glocal’ hybridity. His paintings include layers of agency and consciousness that extend from the individual to the nation-state and finally to the global in a truly heterogeneous amalgam.

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