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Reviewed by:
  • In Transit: The Formation of the Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere by Faye Yuan Kleeman
  • Emily E. Wilcox
IN TRANSIT: THE FORMATION OF THE COLONIAL EAST ASIAN CULTURAL SPHERE. By Faye Yuan Kleeman. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014. 320 pp. Cloth, $52.00.

What attracted me to this book was its final chapter, “Dancers of the Empire,” which provides one of the first English-language treatments of the history of concert dance in East Asia prior to 1945. The chapter follows somewhat parallel lives of two women, Choi Seunghee (Sai Shōki/Ch’oe Sŭng-hŭi 최승희/崔承喜, 1911–1969) and Tsai Juiyueh (Cai Ruiyue 蔡瑞月, 1921–2005), who became the leading figures of modern dance in colonial Chōsen (Korea) and Taiwan, respectively. It also details the early artistic trajectory of Ishii Baku (石井漠, 1886–1962), the founder of modern dance in Japan, as well as the larger context of the introduction of ballet and Western modern dance to Japan in the early twentieth century, in connection to the work of Japanese writer Tsubouchi Shōyō (1859–1935) and the development of the Imperial Theater in Tokyo.

In many ways, this chapter reflects the themes of the book as a whole, which traces the complex lives of individuals who traversed and existed between various parts of the Japanese empire. While many of these interstitial subjects became tools and casualties of the imperial project, they also paradoxically gained mobility and subjectivity from their participation in it, becoming media stars, cultural icons, and public figures both notorious and heroic. [End Page 648] In all of the cases—and this seems to be Kleeman’s central concern in the book—the intercultural connections these individuals helped to forge ultimately transcended both the standard histories of the empire and the popular images that settled upon these figures in the postwar era. Although careful to avoid romanticizing their lives, Kleeman nevertheless reveals aspects of idealism, tragedy, and individual agency that are often lost in accounts of the Japanese empire and its corresponding East Asian cultural sphere. It is significant, too, that nearly all of the figures Kleeman examines in the book are women. As she writes in the chapter on women writers and colonial Taiwan, “[These figures] provide feminine (and thus alternative) readings to the male-dominated racial and cultural discourse of the empire” (p. 185).

We see these themes play out in all of their complexity in the lives of the dancers Choi and Tsai. Both women grew up in the colonies under Japanese rule and traveled to study in a cosmopolitan but quickly transforming Tokyo of the 1920s and 1930s. There, they learned a Japanese form of German-inspired modern dance together with other students from across the empire, mentored by the then internationally known Ishii Baku. Both quite successful, Tsai and Choi toured extensively during the colonial period, Tsai with the Ishii troupe across Japan, South China, and Southeast Asia, and Choi on her own tours across the United States, Europe, Central and South America, as well as the northern regions of the Japanese empire, especially Korea, China, and Manchuria. Choi, whose career is better documented, was clearly shaped by Japan’s imperial policy. Although initially interested in modern dance, she was pushed both by Ishii and by the Japanese media to serve as an ethnic icon of Korean culture, becoming known mainly for her modern interpretations of Korean folk and traditional dance. Later, after Japan’s culture policy shifted to a mandate of assimilation under the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” Choi developed what she called “East Asian dance” and created many new works on Japanese and Chinese themes, also incorporating elements of Indian and Siamese dance, which she continued until the end of the war. In the immediate postwar period, both dancers returned to their homelands—Choi initially to Seoul and Tsai to Taipei—only to find themselves heavily persecuted by the postcolonial governments there. Tsai was jailed, put under surveillance, and prevented from accepting foreign performance invitations, while Choi was labeled a collaborator and finally moved in 1946 to North Korea. Both women continued their work but remained taboo topics in Taiwan and South Korea...