Asian Studies in Asia

A review of Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization, Kuan-Hsing Chen, Duke University Press, 2010.

Asia As Method.jpgThere are two kinds of Asian studies on North-American campuses. The first, area studies of Asia, grew out of the Cold War and of the United States’ need to know its allies and enemies better. It is politically neutral, although some critics would consider it conservative in essence, due to its modalities of topic selection, standards of scholarship, sources of research funding, and practical applications. It focuses on the production of experts on a specific region of the world which is of strategic interest for the United States. It usually requires the mastery of at least one Asian language, acquired through years of painful learning and extended stays in the country being studied. Great scholars have contributed to the field and have led distinguished careers that have brought them into positions of leadership within and outside academia.

The two kinds of Asian studies in the United States

Faced with a general crisis in area studies that may be linked to the decline of America’s Cold War commitments, the discipline was reinvigorated by renewed interest in Asia-Pacific as the new center of global economic growth. A number of social scientists who learned their trade in sociology, political science, or sometimes even literature studies, reinvented themselves by turning into business consultants and management specialists, offering to unveil the mysteries of Asian capitalism in its successive reincarnations (from Japan Inc. to China’s global reach). In addition, whereas other fields became highly compartmented, it is still possible to pass as a “Japan specialist” or an “expert on China”, covering all aspects of a country’s culture, economy, and political situation, in a way that is no longer possible for countries like France or Germany, let alone for Europe as a whole. Outside academia, one may even earn the reputation of an “Asia hand”, as one experiences successive postings in diplomacy or corporate management in various Asian capitals. As Benjamin Disraeli said: “the East is a career”.

The second kind of Asian studies in the United States, cultural studies of Asia, is very different in its nature and its applications. It is born out of the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, the claim of ethnic or sexual minorities, and campus politics. It bundles together a set of disciplines sometimes referred to as “critical humanities”: literary criticism, media studies, cultural anthropology, women studies, and the ethnic curriculum reflecting the distinctive identity of Asian-Americans. Theoretically, it is grounded in or influenced by various kinds of post-isms (postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, posthumanism), as well as by feminism, queer theory, subaltern studies, deconstruction, and critical theory. It is also closely linked to practices of political militancy, social activism, human rights advocacy, and experiments in the performing arts. The focus of cultural studies of Asia is on transnational flux, diasporic mobility, immigration challenges, and shifting identities, as opposed to the centralizing state structures and fixed identities favored by area studies.

American cultural imperialism and Asian resistance

According to Kuan-Hsing Chen, a Taiwanese cultural critic, the second form of Asian studies is no less imperialistic than the first. It considers Asian countries only in relation to the US, and it uses American or European authors, concepts, and points of reference in order to “frame” Asia. Western scholars look to Asia from afar, and with concerns close to home. Not only do they present their partial view as the only legitimate one, but by monopolizing speaking positions they also block the emergence of alternative voices coming from Asia. It is by invoking the right to difference, to cultural identity and to affirmative action, that America exerts its cultural hegemony on a global scale. By promoting multiculturalism, it draws the best elements from the rest of the world into its universities, and dictates the terms of the cultural debate in foreign academia as well. America’s multicultural imperialism gives birth to a new generation of local informants and academic brokers, which Kuan-Hsing Chen labels as “collaborators”, “opportunists”, and “commuters”. In Asia as elsewhere, the staunchest advocates of cultural identity generally come from the diaspora: it is through exile and distance that they come to overemphasize the importance of small differences.

Knowledge production is one of the major sites in which imperialism operates and exercises its power. Kuan-Hsing Chen gives several examples where the West is used as “method” without it even being acknowledged. The existing analytical distinction between the state and civil society cannot account for democratic transformation in places like India, Taiwan, or South Korea. As Professor Chen explains, India does not possess the condition required to develop civil society in the Western European sense, because only a limited part of the Indian population, mainly social elites, could enter such a space. Instead, critical historians like Partha Chatterjee show that subaltern classes and groups have been able to invent alternative spaces of political democracy to ensure their survival and livelihood. Similarly, in Taiwan and Korea during their democratic transition, civil society virtually became the state, as major figures associated with the civil-society camp acceded to power or were coopted by the regime.

The demise of the nation-state is a luxury only the West can afford

Another issue with “the West as method” is the academic insistence on the demise of the nation-state and the advent of post-nationalism. For Kuan-Hsing Chen, this is a luxury only the West can afford: “at this point in history, a total negation of nationalism is nothing but escapism.” As he comments a documentary on Singapore made by an independent filmmaker, “one has to sincerely identify with the nation, genuinely belong to it, and truly love it in order to establish a legitimate position from which to speak.” His relation with Taiwan is itself ambivalent. He refuses the rigid binary structure that demands a choice between unification with mainland China and independence from it. He tries to sketch a “popular democratic” alternative, based on grassroot movements, anti-imperialism, and local autonomy. For that, he recommends an effort to liberate from the three-pronged grip of colonialism, cold war, and imperialism. But if attempts to engage these questions are locked within national boundaries, it will not be possible to think beyond the imposed nation-state structure and work toward genuine regional reconciliation.

Kuan-Hsing Chen wants to contribute to the emergence of the new field of Asian studies in Asia by proposing a radical alternative: Asia as method. “Using the idea of Asia as an imaginary anchoring point,” he writes, “societies in Asia can become each others’ point of reference, so that the understanding of the self may be transformed, and subjectivity rebuilt.” In a lecture given in 1960, the Japanese critic Takeuchi Yoshimi intuitively proposed the notion of Asia as method as a means of transforming the Japanese subject. But he concluded aporetically to the impossibility of defining what such a transformation might imply. Mizoguchi Yûzô, a recently deceased scholar, took up from where Takeuchi left and proposed “China as Method”, by which China or Asia ceased to be considered as the object of analysis and became a means of transforming knowledge production. In this sense, the emerging field of Asian studies in Asia will have a very different historical mission than the Asian studies practiced in Europe and North America. Studying Asia from an Asiatic standpoint is a means of self-discovery and collective emancipation. As Chen puts it succinctly, “the more I go to Seoul, the better I understand Taipei.”

Using Asian frames of reference

A first step in pursuing “Asia as method” is by using Asian authors and frames of reference. This is what Kuan-Hsing Chen does, noting that “Asia as method is not a slogan but a practice. That practice begins with multiplying the sources of our readings to include those produced in other parts of Asia.” His references include classic thinkers such as Lu Xun and Gandhi, or more recent critics like Mizoguchi Yûzô and Partha Chatterjee or Ashis Nandy. He borrows from Lu Xun a certain critical tradition that addresses broad political issues by responding to concrete events, such as a campaign to expand Taiwanese investments in South-East Asia, or the claim of a group that wishes to register Taiwan as America’s fifty-first state. The non-violent philosophy of Gandhi is mobilized to broaden the concept of civil society and to discuss the emergence of subaltern classes in conjunction with the Chinese concept of minjian. Takeuchi Yoshimi complements these references by suggesting that Japan has gone through the opposite direction of India and China, and that its cultural dependence toward the US prevents it to build a more penetrating critical subjectivity at the societal level.

Professor Chen also uses foreign authors who have become common references in postcolonial studies, in order to design “a methodology specific to the colonized third world.” The central figure here is Franz Fanon, a Martinique-born French psychiatrist, writer, and militant of decolonization, whose work inspired many revolutionary leaders from the Third World. His basic affirmation, “the black man wants to be white”, suggests that Asian people also want to become American, and end up wearing the same masks and fetishes. The psychic dimensions associated with colonialism have also been studied by Octave Mannoni, who showed that the colonizer and the colonized are bounded together by a relationship of mutually constituted subjectivity, and Albert Memmi, who posited that the alienation of the colonized cannot be reduced to the question of individual subjectivity: it has to be addressed at the level of the social structure, which conditions the collective psyche. The use of these sources and others allows Kuan-Hsing Chen to build an alternative narrative of decolonization, deimperialization, and “de-cold war” that stands at variance with North American academic references.

Decolonization, deimperialization, and “de-cold war”

The author goes farther. Asian scholars have been doing “Asian studies” all along without realizing it, “just like Europeans, North Americans, Latin Americans, and Africans have also been doing studies in relation to their own living spaces.” “That is,” Chen insists, “Martin Heidegger was actually doing European studies, as were Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jürgen Habermas.” The choice of names is not insignificant, and quite ironic as well. Thinkers who attempt to “provincialize Europe” and call into question Western philosophy’s pretense to universality usually find themselves at home in the philosophy of Heidegger, that quintessential provincial who never left his Heimat and had only contempt for science and technology. Similarly, Michel Foucault dreamt of other horizons without ever using non-Western sources. “If a philosophy of the future exists,” he wrote, “it must be born outside of Europe, or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe.” Kuan-Hsing Chen does not rule out the possibility of a synthesis, but he sees universalism as the end of a process as opposed to a starting point. “Universalism is not an epistemological given but a horizon we may be able to move toward in the remote future, provided that we first compare notes based upon locally grounded knowledge. Universalist arrogance serves only to keep new possibilities from emerging.”

Anthologies, Literary Prizes, and the Production of Literary Value

A review of Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature: Publishing, Prizes, and the Ascription of Literary Value, Edward Mack, Duke University Press, 2010.

mackThere was a change in the perception of literature’s social role in Japan between the Taishô and the Shôwa periods. According to Maruyama Masao, Japan’s foremost postwar critic, the average parent and teacher at the end of the Taishô era thought that “a middle school student who spent all his time reading novels was doing one of two things: avoiding his studies or corrupting his morals.” Progressively however, reading literature became a more respectable cultural pursuit, tolerated and even encouraged by schools and families. The social status of writers and the novel improved markedly: they became embodiments of the national spirit, and symbols of Japan’s entry into modernity. The possession of a national literature became a point of pride for citizens who wanted to see Japan ranked among the greatest nations of the world. A mass market for literary productions turned writing from an insecure occupation into a potential source of wealth, and transformed select authors into celebrities.

Bringing modern Japanese literature to the home of ordinary Japanese

Although many factors influenced the shift in the general public’s perception of literature’s value, one cause had a disproportionate influence: the publication, between 1926 and 1931, of the Complete Works of Contemporary Japanese Literature (gendai nihon bungaku zenshû). The series marked a watershed in the production, reception, dissemination, and preservation of modern Japanese literature. Thanks to its reasonably low price–only one yen per volume–, the series reached a much wider audience than the traditional readership of modern literary texts, clustered around Tokyo’s literary circles and coterie magazines. For many readers, the series was the first access they had to actual literary texts assembled systematically into a cultural entity known as modern Japanese literature. In many ways, the series created and defined the very entity it purported to describe. The anthology brought Japanese modern literature to the home of ordinary Japanese: it became a familiar presence, and the bookcase offered to customers who completed the entire series was used as a decorative piece of furniture in many living rooms.

Maruyama Masao describes the impact that the publication of this series, as well as other “one-yen book” anthologies, had on young students of his generation: “Whenever the latest volume of the series arrived, everyone was talking about it, even during recess at school (…) That might have been the case only because it was a middle school in a large city. Still, it was the case for everyone–not just students–that, whether you had read them or not, you had to at least know the names of famous Japanese and world authors and their works.” Many writers from the early Shôwa period confessed the central role the collection played in their early literary education. One publishing historian wrote: “literary anthologies were the fundamental materials through which world and national literatures–centered on the novel–were systematically absorbed in Japan.” As an example, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was published in the first volumes of the Anthology of World Literature, and became widely known through the translation by Toyoshima Yoshio under the title “aa mujô” (Ah, No Mercy).

A commercial enterprise

Advertising was central to this commercial enterprise. In addition to posters, leaflets and banners, the publisher sponsored nationwide lecture tours in which prominent writers were mobilized. Akutagawa Ryûnosuke was quoted as complaining that he “had been made to stand before the audiences in place of a billboard.” The exhaustion from his tour may well have hastened his mental and emotional collapse that led him to commit suicide in 1925. Akutagawa’s reputation, bolstered by his inclusion in the anthology, was strengthened further when a critic established in 1935 the Akutagawa Prize in recognition of a major work of literature published during the year by a Japanese novelist.

The promoters of the series were also interested in the “noise” (zawameki) of the period, not just by a narrow band of highly polished literary productions. Their anthology included minor genres such as juvenile literature or travel essays, as well as texts not usually classified as literature, such as newspaper columns or “domestic fiction”. But by the finite nature of the list of published authors, the anthology created a “static canon”, a closed shop of consecrated authors and works. The act of creating such a series demanded a ranking of writers, a banzuke as in a sumo tournament, even when the head editors were consciously trying to create as inclusive a collection as possible. Minor authors were consecrated, and prominent ones were left out. The choice of published material often had more to do with the ease of negotiating copyright or other extraliterary factors than the simple consideration of their literary value. Even when literary considerations came into play, they were more often inspired by whim and fashion, or by personal likings and dislikes, than by objective factors and rational arguments.

The influence of the Complete Works of Contemporary Japanese Literature was not limited to the Japanese territory. Immigrants to Brazil or to the US took the volumes with them so as to keep a connexion with the homeland’s national culture. The one-yen book series also sold well in the colonies and in the territories under Japanese influence. Uchiyama Shoten, a Japanese bookstore in Shanghai that opened in 1920, was a popular spot not only for Japanese expatriates but also for Chinese intellectuals such as Lu Xun, who had lived in Japan as a foreign student before becoming a figure of the May Fourth Movement. The poet Kaneko Mitsuharu, who lived in Shanghai in 1928 before moving to France, wrote that Uchiyama Shoten was the “teat from which Chinese received their intellectual nourishment.” In Korea, even before the Japanese imposed a strict policy of forced assimilation, some Korean intellectuals were drawn to the model of expression offered by modern Japanese literature, and chose to write in Japanese instead of in their national language.

Pure literature vs. popular literature

The history of Japan’s most popular prewar anthology forms only one chapter of Edward Mack’s Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature. Other chapters include the consequences of Tokyo’s 1923 earthquake over the publishing industry; the literary debates by which Tokyo intellectuals struggled to define the nature of literary value; the creation of the Akutagawa Prize for pure literature and the Naoki Prize for mass literature; and theoretical discussions on the history and sociology of literature. Edward Mack’s basic idea is that “the ascriptions of value that attend works are neither natural nor inevitable because they do not emanate in any simple way from the texts themselves.” In the anthologies, in the Akutagawa Prize selection process, or in the literary debates about the “I-novel” as a specifically Japanese form of literature, a variety of both literary and extraliterary factors were at play in deciding which works would enjoy consecration and which would not. A few individuals, such as the critic Kikuchi Kan, possessed a disproportionate amount of influence on the course of literary production. Of particular importance in the formation of literary value was the rhetorical opposition between “tsûzoku“(vulgar, mundane) novels and “junbungaku” or pure literature. What was considered pure or vulgar changed over time and was a matter of personal appreciation, but the binary opposition structured the forces at play in the literary field.

Although reading this book does not require previous knowledge of modern Japanese literature or of literary theory, it is an extremely rewarding experience on both counts. The text begins with the most mundane–the material conditions of literary production such as printing presses, movable fonts, paper sheets–and ends with the most speculative–deconstructing the categories of “modern,” of “Japanese,” and of “literature.” Prominent figures of Japanese literature are featured, such as Akutagawa Ryûnosuke or Kawabata Yasunari, along with minor authors and critics. Mack exhibits a mastery of Japanese texts and of epistemological tools that is rarely found with such balance in a Western scholar. The author borrows from Pierre Bourdieu the notions of symbolic capital (resources stemming from talent, prestige, or recognition) and of the literary field (defined as “the constellation of competitive relationships among literary producers and consumers who struggle for various forms of capital”). Mack draws inspiration from cultural studies and post-colonialism by questioning the link between literature and the nation-state, and by placing Taishô democracy in the context of the Japanese empire. He avoids the trap–conspicuous in the writings of Harry Harootunian, the editor of the series in which this book is published–of pure speculation that loses sight of empirical material. Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature opens avenues for future research–some suggested, some implicit–, and should be read by all readers interested by Japanese literature or by literary criticism.

Do You Speak Te reo Ma’ori?

A review of Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Maori, and the Question of the Body, Tony Ballantyne, Duke University Press, 2014.

ballantyneCultures from the South Pacific have provided anthropologists with a rich array of words and concepts: “mana” (power, charisma), “hau” (life’s energy), “tapu” (taboo) and its antonym “noa”, “hara” (a violation of tapu) and “wairua” (spirit) all originate in the languages of Polynesian cultures. These terms first came to the attention of western anthropologists through the reports of missionaries in the Pacific islands. Armchair theorists like James Frazer or Marcel Mauss used the observations of the first ethnographers to lay the foundation of their discipline. Their theories were built on the idea that it is possible to isolate cultural traits from their social context and bundle them together to draw comparisons and infer anthropological laws. Surveying the practice of gift-giving, Marcel Mauss famously came to the conclusion that it involved belief in a force binding the receiver and giver, which he labeled “hau” after the word used by the Māori. Such concepts derive their theoretical potential precisely from the lack of equivalence in common language. But as Claude Levi-Strauss later argued, the indiscriminate use of indigenous categories hampers the analysis of symbolic systems, which he proposed to process through the description of unconscious structures. Anthropological words have nonetheless entered common language, from totem to taboo and to tattoo, while anthropologists still use words like mana and hau as specialized vocabulary in their profession.

Māori loan words in New Zealand English

More recently, many Māori words or phrases that describe Māori culture have become part of New Zealand English, and have even entered global English. “Tā moko”, or tattooing, has become a globalized symbol of Māori’s cultural reach, with rock stars and football players exhibiting intricate design patterns on their legs and shoulders. So has the rite of the haka, the war song and dance popularized by the All Blacks rugby team. Young New Zealanders learn to “show their pūkana in the haka” by rolling their eyes and sticking out their tongue, or to practice “hongi” by pressing together their noses as a greeting. “Kia ora” (literally “be healthy”) is a Māori term of greeting that is often used in Aotearoa (New Zealand). According to Kiwitanga (“Kiwi” culture), we can all claim Te Ao Maori (the Maori world) as part of our identity, regardless of the color of our skin, where we were born or what our passport says. As long as we walk the talk and speak the language (Te reo Māori).

According to Tony Ballantyne, the incorporation of native words into everyday vocabulary has become a hallmark of New Zealand’s state ideology of biculturalism. So has the narrative of the first encounter between natives and missionary settlers in the Bay of Islands. The early activities of the mission stations provide a kind of national prehistory of Māori and Pākehā (European) coming together. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, has acquired the status of the nation’s founding document, and marks the start of its official history. There is a black legend and a rosy version to this period’s history. The dark narrative postulates that missionaries were the “advanced party of cultural invasion” and that they committed nothing short of an ethnocide by undermining Māori communities and their cultural traditions. The white fairy tale is framed in terms of “first encounter”, “inter-cultural exchange” and the birth of “biculturalism”. This version postulates two homogeneous groups coming into contact and adding their “differences” to form a distinctive whole. New Zealanders have even found their Pocahontas in the figure of Hongi Hika, a local chief or rangatira who travelled to England and met with King George IV and who later assisted the missionaries in developing a written form of the Māori language.

First encounters between Māori and Pākehā

Tony Ballantyne takes issue with both versions of the national narrative. Both produce the cultural difference that seem to separate the evangelized from the evangelizers, the natives from the settlers, the colony from the empire. Both versions too readily conflate missionary work with the project of empire-building and also offer misleading assessments of the sources, directions, and consequences of cultural change. Both use the colony to illuminate European history, either as the cradle of genocidal imperialism or as the crucible of multicultural Enlightenment. The colonized counts as little in these narratives: they are reduced to the receiving end of imperial projection, or to the role of the spectator (the native’s “gaze”) of a destiny on which they have no hold. According to Ballantyne, much of the recent work on encounters between Māori and Europeans in the late eighteenth century and earlier nineteenth has seen these cross-cultural engagements as anticipating the bicultural social formations that have become central to state policy and national identity in New Zealand. This conventional image of New Zealand’s past has been cultivated by the state through agencies such as the Waitangi Tribunal (aimed at national reconciliation between Māori and Pākehā) and Te Papa Tongarewa (the national museum).

To the tropes of “contact”, “meeting”, “collision” or “exchange” between “two worlds”, Ballantyne prefers to develop the metaphor of “entanglement”, showing that Protestant missionaries and Māori tribes were enmeshed in “webs of empire”. He portraits the British empire as “a dynamic, web-like formation, a complex and shifting assemblage of connections that ran directly between colonies.” The words “web” or “entanglement” refer to something that is complex, intricate, involved, interlaced, with each part connected with the rest and dependent on it. Webs or threads entangled in a fabric have long been a metaphor of history. Think about Penelope in the Odyssey, untangling the webs she spun during the day to delay the time she would have to give in to her suitors. Think of the Bayeux tapestry, an embroidered cloth nearly 70 meters long which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, and which hasn’t revealed all its mysteries. Similarly, spiders make webs which are nearly invisible until the dew fall on them. They are made with threads stronger than steel and take their shape from the surrounding circumstances and from the spider herself. History is not made by stable and discrete cultural formations coming together in a “clash of civilizations” or a bicultural exchange: it is composed of forever shifting realities, composite cultural patterns, and identities in flux. History is an accumulation of threads, pathways and contingencies that embed human action over time. It doesn’t have any ultimate directionality; it is simply the sum of a long series of inventions, actions, interventions, and accidents over decades or centuries.

Protestant missionaries and Māori tribes were enmeshed in “webs of empire”

From the beginnings of the mission on the ground in the Bay of Islands in December 1814, missionaries and Māori were linked by complex, shifting, and often unpredictable forms of connection. Europeans visiting or living in the Bay of Islands entered a world that remained governed by Māori ritenga (customs, practices) and tikanga (rules, protocol). The missionaries were not only dependent on the ability of the people and chiefs of the northern alliance to furnish them with basic foodstuffs, but also dependent on them for labor. They were unable to undercut the authority of leading rangatira, such as the great warrior-chief Hongi Hika, or to effectively challenge local customs such as polygamy or the centrality of slavery in Maori social formations. The great rangatira were able to administer justice though traditional methods, make war, trade with European vessels for weapons, procure, and if they wished, kill slaves in open defiance of the missionaries. At the same time, they enjoyed the benefits of close association with Europeans, gaining access to new skills (like reading and writing), as well as tools, seeds, livestock, and weapons. They adopted some of the missionaries’ beliefs and practices, turning them into domestic institutions by blending them with native concepts. For instance, Sunday became known as “ra tapu”—the day that is set apart or the sacred day—and working on the Sabbath was seen as a “hara”, a violation of tapu, or in the language of the missionaries, a “sin.”

The “threads of association” between the British Empire and its South Pacific outposts were also webs of texts and documents. Textual production and circulation helped lay the foundation for the making of empire itself. It was the dense body of information collated on James Cook’s first and second voyage that fed the imaginations of imperial visionaries. They were excited by the potential role that New Zealand might play within the empire in the future—whether as a site for refitting and resupplying, a source of “naval stores”, a site of colonization, a destination for convicts or even a purveyor of tea. Later on, the missionaries’ writings, maps, sketches, engravings, and reports emphasized the commercial acuity of Maori, as well as the potential of the islands of New Zealand for imperial activity and future colonization. In their celebration of mission stations, both missionary propaganda and the narratives of European travelers in the 1830s offered very partial readings of the development of missionary work. These narratives tended to underplay the uneven progress of missionary settlements and marginalized the role of Māori in the genesis of mission stations. Mission archives were also littered with gossip, rumors, innuendo, allegations, and outraged reports of wrongdoing. In one chapter, Ballantyne recaptures the story leading to the dismissal of William Yate in 1836, from his arrival when his coreligionists “were sorry to learn that there was no Mrs. Yate” to his spectacular accusation with “the crime alluded to in Romans I.27.”

Like a mosquito caught in a spider’s web, the incorporation of peripheral territories into empires had vast consequences. Once communities were connected to these webs of interdependence, it was often hard for them to assert control over the direction and consequences of the cultural traffic that moved through these meshes of connections. While Māori still typically exercised control over such encounters on the ground in Te Ika a Maui, their ability to ultimately direct the long-term consequences of these relationships was heavily constrained by British commercial power and military capacity and the sheer scale of British society (when measured against te ao Maori. The narratives, handwritten reports, journals, letters, maps, and sketches that laced Maori and New Zealand into the empire created knots that could not be undone. Metropolitan publications tended to produce the cultural differences that were seen to separate the evangelized from the evangelizers. Social practices such as slavery, whakamomori (suicide), the execution of slaves, the taking of head as trophies, war-making, and cannibalism were read as emblematic of the moral corruption of “natural man” and evidence of Satan’s hold on Maori. In the 1830s, humanitarian campaigns painted an alarming picture of social crisis and population decline among the natives, produced by the combination of alcohol, tobacco, venereal disease, prostitution, and infanticide. This image of an indigenous society in a state of crisis induced through contact with Europeans was pivotal in prompting British intervention in 1840.

Reading the archives against the grain

By reading the archives against the grain, Ballantyne is able to convey the anxieties, uncertainties, and even fear that were an integral part of empire-building. There were profound limits to the missionaries’ ability to remake Māori beliefs and practices, or even to recreate European conditions of living in their settlements. Missionaries not only found that it was hard to get Maori to follow new modes of thinking, but that it was difficult for their own families to maintain many of the practices that they understood as routine parts of “civilized” life. For instance, burial practices on the mission stations diverged from practices in Britain. Christians were buried in close proximity to missionary homes, a practice that reversed British trends where there was a growing separation between the worlds of the living and the dead. It was often those Māori attached to missions—as workers, converts, or even chiefly patrons—who were the most potent critics of the old gods and old ways of doing things, a dynamic entirely glossed over by arguments that attribute cultural change to the “cultural imperialism” of missionary work. Although the presence of missionaries precipitated cultural change, Māori were primary agents in the actual spread of Christianity. These “entanglements of Empire” show the complexity of the early history that modern New Zealand obfuscates by peppering its modern culture with Māori words and cultural traits. Neither a melting pot nor a salad bowl, the British empire as experienced from its Pacific edge was a spaghetti plate.