Be What You Want to Be

July 17, 2020

In this audio recording, graduate student Jingyi Li describes how a late twentieth-century academic study of the book in Japan upended her expectations by rejecting the Eurocentric and Orientalist bias of many comparable scholarly works. Her experience with this text inspired her to move beyond her own linguistic insecurities and to continue with her research on premodern Japan.

My Humanities Moment is with my favorite book: The Book in Japan, written by Peter Kornicki, a former professor at the University of Cambridge. This book was published in 1998, but his research began in the 1970s when he visited archives in Japan to collect materials on rare books that were made in pre-modern Japan, which is roughly before 1868. It was a time when Orientalism was highly popular in the West, the 1970s, and you have all kinds of elite white men marching to Asia to write about exotic and mysterious cultures of Asia. They enjoyed all kinds of white privilege in Asia, they were welcomed everywhere. And Peter Kornicki was one of them.

So honestly what I had expected from the book was what I got from many other books produced around that time: Eurocentric Orientalist bias from elite white men. But I was so surprised to find that the book was almost free of any kinds of such bias. Peter Kornicki treated books of pre-modern east Asia as they were. It was shocking to see what an amazing job he had done.

When I was reading the book, I was getting my MA in Japan, and I was under a lot of pressure. The field was very hierarchical, and I constantly faced doubts from scholars around me, because I was not a native Japanese speaker. I still am not. I didn’t know how far I could go pursuing a career in pre-modern Japanese studies as a foreigner, but Peter Kornicki’s perfect book on the book history of Japan, made me realize that my skin color, my nationality, my gender, they do not matter. All of those cannot define me as a scholar. And this is probably true with a lot of other things in my life. The only thing that matters is what kind of person I envision myself to be as a scholar and as a human being. And that was my Humanities Moment.