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  • Imagining China in Tokugawa Japan: Legends, Classics, and Historical Terms by Wai-Ming Ng
  • Rebekah Clements (bio)
Imagining China in Tokugawa Japan: Legends, Classics, and Historical Terms. By Wai-Ming Ng. SUNY Press, Albany, 2019. xxvi, 262 pages. $85.00, cloth; $26.95, paper.

Wai-Ming Ng's study contains a wealth of information on the reception of Chinese texts and terms in Tokugawa Japan. Based on the author's articles in Chinese and in English, and appearing here in English in revised form, the book is divided into three sections covering the naturalization of Chinese legends, the appropriation of Confucian classics, and the redefinition of Chinese historical terms. Ng's aim is to provide what he describes as a new perspective on the understanding of China in Tokugawa Japan "by suggesting that China also functioned as a collection of building blocks … [End Page 467] to forge Japan's own thought and culture" (p. xiii). In this he hopes to encourage scholars to "think beyond the traditional dialectical framework of model and 'the Other'" (p. xxvi). Since it is based on a collection of articles, the book covers a wide range of topics. The unifying theme is given as Ng's "cultural building blocks" theory. Although the chapters themselves go into great detail on individual topics, the work's unifying theoretical focus, that theory's implications for our understanding of Tokugawa Japan, and its relationship with existing scholarship are not examined in depth.

The study opens with a chapter on the legend of Xu Fu, the quasi- historical figure recorded in the Shiji as having departed on a voyage to discover the elixir of immortality. While Xu Fu was regarded mainly as a Qin sorcerer in China, his legend took on greater importance in Japan with the idea that Xu had in fact traveled to Japan and settled there. Ng notes that interest in Xu Fu peaked in the Tokugawa period, coinciding with an era when Japanese intellectuals were questioning their relationship with China. He contrasts the writings of Hayashi Razan, Kumazawa Banzan, and Arai Hakuseki, who saw Xu as an important transmitter of ancient Chinese culture, with those of Matsushita Kenrin, Ono Takakiyo, and Satō Setsudō, who portrayed Xu as a political refugee who found his ideal nation in Japan and even became a Japanese deity. Ng argues that these two views may appear to simply represent the contrast between Sinophiles and nativists but that in fact "they were indeed only differing expressions of Japanese identity" (p. xxii), the former viewing Japan as a place that had preserved Chinese culture and the classics of the sages, and the latter rejoicing in Japan as an ideal nation. Thus, Ng argues, the Xu Fu legend became a "building block" and "Tokugawa intellectuals overcame the dilemma of accepting Chinese culture without compromising their national and cultural identity" (p. 3). Ng's textual coverage is extensive, but what is meant by "national and cultural identity" and the significance of his "building blocks" theory is less clear, because the space devoted to defining and exploring these concepts in light of Ng's factual findings is tantalizingly minimal.

The other chapters of part 1 ("The Naturalization of Chinese Legends") continue in the same vein. Chapter 2 examines the legend of the Chinese beauty Yang Guifei, who was seen as an unfortunate influence on the Tang Emperor Xuanzong in Chinese sources but was revered by some Tokugawa Japanese as a guardian deity and protector of Japan. Chapter 3 looks at the sage Wu Taibo, who was transformed by Tokugawa writers such as Fujiwara Seika, Hayashi Razan, and Nakae Tōju into the ancestor of the Japanese imperial family. Ng concludes that the images and legends of all three, Xu, Yang, and Wu, were different from their Chinese prototypes and "were used to glorify Japan rather than China, showing a rise of nativist consciousness among Tokugawa Japanese" (p. xxi). These chapters contribute fleshed-out examples to the study of how Tokugawa intellectuals dealt with Chinese [End Page 468] concepts in light of newfound confidence in Japan's position within the Sinographic cultural order, although Ng does not discuss what implications his study has for research...


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pp. 467-471
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