Featured Research: Changing Perspectives | National Humanities Center

Featured Research

Featured Research: Changing Perspectives

April 1, 2024

This month we highlight the research of Fellows from the class of 2023–24 whose projects reexamine historical actors, events, and eras by shifting the perspectives through which they’ve previously been viewed.

Richard M. Jaffe

Project: Spreading Indra’s Net: A Biography of D. T. Suzuki

Richard M. Jaffe specializes in the study of Buddhism in early-modern and modern Japan. In particular, he has focused his research and teaching on the transformations that took place in Japanese Buddhist practice in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These changes include the abandonment of mandatory celibacy for Buddhist clerics and the growing awareness of South and Southeast Asia as loci for Buddhist practice. Jaffe’s current research centers on the role of D.T. Suzuki in the globalization of Japanese Buddhism in the twentieth century.

D.T. Suzuki at his writing desk
D.T. Suzuki at the Open Court Press in La Salle, Illinois, circa 1900. Courtesy of the Hegeler-Carus Foundation. Suzuki’s first stay in the United States lasted from 1897–1908, when he was 27–38 years of age. Suzuki’s stay was funded by the zinc ore processing magnate, Edward Hegeler, and he worked with Hegeler’s son-in-law, Paul Carus, who ran Open Court Press. While in the US, Suzuki honed his English, observed turn-of-the-century American customs, and embarked on his mission to explain Buddhism to people outside Japan.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

For my last book project I was doing research on D.T. Suzuki’s Zen teacher, Shaku Sōen. In the course of conducting interviews with the Zen teacher who was Sōen’s last living Japanese acquaintance, I learned a great deal about Sōen’s most famous disciple, Suzuki. The interview prompted me to look into Suzuki’s work more closely. When I listened to audiotape of a lecture Suzuki had given on September 11, 1955 in New York City, I was so impressed by the understanding of Buddhism he conveyed, that I decided to focus my energy on reconsidering Suzuki’s life and work. This has included serving as general editor for four volumes of his selected works and, now, a full biography.

In the course of your research, have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

D.T. Suzuki led a long, productive, amazing life that affected people’s understanding of Buddhism globally. Born in 1870 in Kanazawa, Japan, Suzuki lived through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, carving out his career at the intersection of rising Japanese and US empires. He began writing in the 1890s and did not cease until his death in 1966, but despite all the changes he lived through, Suzuki managed to remain au courant in religious and intellectual circles. In addition, Suzuki tirelessly met with people who came to him with questions about Buddhism, changing many lives through those exchanges, some of which went on for decades. Almost unfailingly those who spent time with Suzuki found their encounters memorable and even transformative.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

Since the 1990s, many scholars of Buddhism, religious studies, and Japanese studies have held a negative view of Suzuki. The picture of him as an ultra-nationalist and distorter of the Zen tradition and Buddhism has almost indelibly affected how many in the academy approach his legacy. I believe a more careful assessment of Suzuki’s life and career will correct the numerous inaccuracies undergirding these earlier perspectives on his work. In particular, I believe we need to abandon the position that there was some pure Zen that Suzuki was distorting and fully accept the sort of twentieth-century developments in the Buddhist tradition that Suzuki helped catalyze as another stage in the long evolution of Buddhism in its global spread.

Wanda S. Pillow

Project: Troubling Intimacies: Sacajawea and York as National Subjects

Wanda S. Pillow is professor of gender studies in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation at the University of Utah and coeditor of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. An interdisciplinary feminist scholar with training in the humanities and social sciences, Pillow publishes theoretical and methodological essays that provide critical interventions in cultural studies, policy studies, and qualitative studies; conducts socio-historical analyses of race/gender/sexuality and American identity; and has written on the history of Title IX and pregnant students, including the book Unfit Subjects: Educational Policy and the Teen Mother. Pillow’s current research examines how narratives about Sacajawea and York, captive and enslaved participants of the 1804 Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition, inform understandings of colonialism, race, and gender in America.

illustrated US postage stamp
This 1954 three-cent stamp depicts an image of the Lewis and Clark expedition featuring a boat on a rocky river embankment with Lewis, Clark, and Sacajawea featured in the foreground. The image identifies the mission of the expedition to find an east-west waterway passage across the United States; exemplifies the kind of representations common to the 1920s–1970s; and is an example of keen public and political interest in the expedition.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

It began with a school worksheet that asked “how were Sacajawea, a young Indian maiden, and York, a black man, friends to Lewis and Clark?” The expectations of this question sparked me to look at how the 1804–1806 Lewis and Clark expedition was being taught. I read popular history, viewed documentaries, and identified gaps in scholarship—gaps specifically about Sacajawea and York. I visited archives looking for Sacajawea and York and found their dual presence, as captive and enslaved members, has complicated how the expedition is narrated, taught, and marketed. It became apparent that looking for Sacajawea and York is about big questions of American history and identity. Who are we? What are we willing to remember? What can we learn from the past?

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

There are several surprising findings—from the many myths about Sacajawea and York to what becomes visible when looking at the expedition through their dual presence—but overall, the strength and longevity of interest in the expedition is astounding. Lewis, Clark, and three enlisted men kept journals during the 28-month, 8000-mile journey and editions of these journal continue to be read. By the 1890s, media and novels established the expedition as an American adventure story and the 1905 Centennial Exposition created a consumer market for the expedition unveiling the first Sacajawea statue. Popular interest grew with the production of postcards, stamps, coins, and collectibles; a 1955 Hollywood film (with Donna Reed playing Sacajawea); bestselling books and documentaries; and a flourishing tourism industry that continues today.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I am indebted to the insights of critical archive, decolonial feminisms, and middle-passage works because looking for Sacajawea and York—missing and misrepresented subjects in primary records, popular culture, and scholarship—requires novel analytics. Colonialism and slavery occurred in relations of intimate proximity and I analyze where power, violence, sex, leisure, illness, and daily domesticity co-existed on the trail. Once I turned to daily intimacies of Sacajawea and York—what they were doing, where they bathed and slept—new ways of seeing and writing them opened up and this writing exposes power dynamics on the trail. I hope my work stimulates conversation about how US history is narrated, challenges assumptions and myths about the expedition, and provides new ways to perceive Sacajawea and York.

David M. Robinson

Project: Ability and Difference in Early Modern China

David M. Robinson is the Robert H.N. Ho Professor in Asian studies and professor of history at Colgate University. His most recent monographs include In the Shadow of the Mongol Empire: The Early Ming Court in Eurasia (2020), Ming China and its Allies: Imperial Rule in Eurasia (2020), and Korea and the Fall of the Mongol Empire: Alliance, Upheaval, and the Rise of a New East Asian Order (2022). His current work explores ability and difference in early modern China.

15th century Chinese certificate
“Iron Certificate in Gold Script” 金书铁券. Held at Qinghai Provincial Museum 藏于青海省档案馆. Total Length 37.5 cm. Height 21 cm. Issued in 1458 by the Tianshun Emperor to the military commander Li Wen. The inscription reads in part: “Without fail, the state grants titles of investiture to military officers who have rendered meritorious service in order to elevate their status. This is a sacrosanct protocol of rewarding merit and encourage ability.” The certificate then details the titles, salary, and automatic pardon for any capital crime (with the exception of treason) granted to the recipient. The image illustrates in material form how the imperial throne tried to encourage people of ability to use their talents on behalf of the dynasty through prestigious titles, material incentives, and legal privileges.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

The initial spark for the project came from a residential fellowship at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin (2020–21), where I joined a research group that was exploring ability and authority in Chinese history led by Dagmar Schäfer and Sarah Schneewind. I had long been interested in difference, but the exciting work by fellow group members opened up a whole new set of questions that allowed me to rethink things. My project centers on the intersection of two questions: 1) how did empires like the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) identify, cultivate, evaluate, and reward ability and 2) how did they address issues of ethnic, social, and political difference, not only in general conceptual terms but also in the nitty-gritty of imperial institutions.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

One of the things that most surprised me was sheer volume of ink that Ming rulers, senior ministers, ordinary bureaucrats, military officers, and educated people outside the government spilled on issues related to talent and ability. It was discussed in the obvious places like letters of appointment and formal performance evaluations, but also in poems and letters that praised colleagues and friends for their great talent and commiserated about unappreciated talent, in funerary epitaphs lauding the transformative ability of women in the family and men in office, and in memorials brutally criticizing those of mediocre or poor ability. It’s everywhere. The Chinese state really created the first and longest assessment culture in human history!

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I hope that the research will encourage others to continue a very productive line of recent research that explores of the experiences of more diverse groups in Ming society. Study of imperial eunuchs, palace women, military commanders, and prominent families in the provinces has already enriched earlier work that focused on emperors, senior ministers in the capital, and cultural elites. Attention to craftsmen, navigators, textile workers, translators, doctors, military officers, indigenous rulers, and more provides opportunities both to better capture the enormous diversity of the Ming dynasty and to better see how those various elements interacted with each other, the state, and, in some cases, peoples and polities beyond the Ming dynasty.