Robert Tuck on Transnational Kanshi Exchange in Meiji Japan

Our last 2015 article for Sino-Japanese Studies is by Robert Tuck, ‘”All Men Within the Four Seas are Brothers:’ Transnational Kanshi Exchange in Meiji Japan.” The work looks at Sino-Japanese poetic interaction between private citizens of the Qing and Meiji Japan. Below, Professor Tuck was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work. – Konrad Lawson

You focus in on three Chinese poets in the Meiji period who interacted with their Japanese counterparts at the time. What led you to select these three?

Two reasons, really. First, each individual is fascinating in his own right, and deserves a lot more attention, but there’s really not much that’s been written in Chinese or Japanese (and virtually nothing in English) on any of them. Ye Songshi, for instance, is someone whose name you can’t avoid coming across in early Meiji kanshi media; seeing his name so frequently rather made me wonder who this fellow was and what he was doing in Japan. Ou Hunan I came across by accident; I was reading the Chōya shinbun newspaper, looking for something unrelated, and came across Ōtsuki Bankei’s later response to Ou’s poem. At the time I was writing up my dissertation and didn’t have the time to fully pursue the lead, but a year later I was lucky enough to get funding from the AAS North-East Asia Council and from the U of Montana to go to Japan and do the archival work needed to track him down. And the case of Li Zihu and Suzuki Ryōsho struck me as a great story in itself; a text, in the shape of Kaitō shōshū shū, that came into being through shipwrecks, chance meetings in Hong Kong, and a chain of poetic correspondence that lasted ten years – and all of this even though Li never met any of his Japanese interlocutors. And then, to cap it all, we have the untimely death of both of the main protagonists within a year of one another. It seemed like a story (and a text) that should be better known, both for its own sake and within the context of early Meiji Sino-Japanese relations.

The second reason is that the figures involved balance out and extend our understanding of Sino-Japanese relations during this period, mainly because none of them are diplomats. A lot of previous discussion of Meiji Sino-Japanese poetry exchange has focused on the Qing legation, people like Huang Zunxian and He Ruzhang, and how they interacted with Japanese poets like Ōkochi Teruna. So by covering these three poets and a series of exchanges that were not conducted in a formal diplomatic arena, I was trying to broaden our understanding of how and where kanshi might be used in the 1870s.

Your article examines in detail the “rhetoric of a shared culture” and friendship between the two sides, but also the way in which this relationship manifests its instability. Can you comment a bit more on how you think the poetry you have looked is particularly helpful for this task?

Sinitic poetry works particularly well as a window onto these issues because it is so often social and dialogic; that is to say, a poem is both an individual’s utterance and an invitation for others to respond. The way I see it, a Sinitic poem is never a closed, completed object; it always contains within it the possibility of sparking an ongoing chain of discourse, even across time or across space. When Li Zihu, for instance, “matches the rhymes” of Ryōsho’s verse (that is, retains Ryōsho’s original rhyme graphs to structure his own poem), he retains some of the original’s language and imagery, but creates his own, somewhat different poem; the same thing happens with the Japanese poets’ response to Ou Hunan. And precisely because it is social in this way – poets adapting and responding to other poets’ language – such exchanges foreground issues of interpersonal friendship (or tension) in a way that’s quite unique, certainly very different from other literary genres or forms of writing.

At the same time, the transnational practice of Sinitic poetry raises a host of much larger-scale questions because of its status as a highly prestigious literary genre in both cultures. For instance, what does it mean for someone who is not Chinese to show that they value and are proficient in this prestigious genre? Does this confirm the configuration of what Josh Fogel calls the Sinosphere, or does it challenge it?

You have contrasted the approach you take in this article to earlier works on Sinitic poetry in Japan that suggest a “static” and “hierarchical relationship” – can you elaborate a little on why these interpretations fall short?

I think that during the 1870s in particular, any model that assumes a consistent, stable polarity in cultural relations between Japan and China is going to run into trouble. Japan and China are still figuring out how they are going to relate to one another at this stage, all against the larger background of the encroachment of the Western powers. Just to give a few examples: in 1867 you have the Yabe Junshuku incident, then in 1870 the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Trade, then the next few years from 1871-74 are clouded by the Taiwan incident, and then you have the dispatch of the Qing legation to Tokyo in 1877. All of these contribute to an unstable cultural and political landscape, one in which there seems to be a lot of room for intellectuals on both sides to re-think how Japan and China might relate to one another. Against this backdrop, I think it’s productive to understand notions such as cultural or national hierarchy, “civilization,” and so forth, as being equally in flux. For instance, it might seem intuitive that Chinese poets would be seen as having a greater claim to “authenticity” than their Japanese counterparts, and it’s certainly true that there were Japanese poets who acted in a deferential manner when engaging with Chinese poets, but not all Japanese poets necessarily thought this way. Exactly who can lay claims on the Sinitic poetry tradition is very much up for discussion at this time. I think understanding this helps us to better grasp what is going on in these poetry exchanges, and also provides a more nuanced portrait of literary relations.

I was drawn to your point that when contemporaries speak of the “same writing” between Japan and China, they meant different things in, say, the 1870s than in later decades. Can you give an example of the evolution of this term?

I wouldn’t claim at this point to be doing a complete excavation of the resonances of the term, but I do think some broad patterns emerge. One of the most interesting things about the Ye Songshi exchanges in particular is that we have the participants talking about “same writing,” but claims to broader ethnic affinity – that is, “same race” – are conspicuous by their absence. In fact, little of the rhetoric from the Japanese poets suggests that they see “same writing” as implying kinship between both national groups in toto. Matsuoka Kiken, for instance, seems to praise “same writing” as being important precisely because so many other things are different when he says “Though our customs are different, conversation is easy / And the reason is the marvelous power of the brush of shared writing;” and Kawada Ōkō writes that “Though all men in the four seas are brothers / Those who read the same writing have the highest form of friendship.” I’d argue that the work that “same writing” is doing here is marking the boundaries of an intellectual group that’s not necessarily coterminous with ethnic or national groups. So at this point, it’s actually a quite narrowly defined concept, certainly in comparison to the implicit claims of the later “same writing, same race.” I also think that the “writing” in question is understood more narrowly as well, referring primarily to poetry and scholarly writing, not necessarily script as a whole.

As an intermediate transition point: the earliest example in Japanese public discourse that I have been able to find of the complete phrase “same writing, same race” is a little later, in 1885, and comes in the aftermath of the Sino-French war. It appears in a piece in the Jiyū shinbun newspaper where the author actually argues the opposite of what we might expect; although France, he says, may be a country of “different writing, different race (ibun ishu),” that doesn’t matter; the fact that China may be “same writing, same race” doesn’t constitute an argument for solidarity with the Chinese, and France is the model to follow. So even within a relatively short space of time, less than a decade after the exchanges I talk about, “same writing” is starting to seem like an historical relic, rendered obsolete by the presence of European colonial powers in East Asia.

Then, by the time we see it again in the early 20th century, it’s changed once more, to be a kind of two-part argument as to why Asian peoples should accept the idea of solidarity with Japan. By this point, of course, it’s become fully embedded in Japan’s colonial project; the Tōa dōbun shoin college in Shanghai, for instance, trained Japanese “China hands” for that very purpose. I’d suggest that by the early 20th century, certainly by the 1920s, “same writing” had come to be defined more along the lines of script in general, not just canonical texts or the poetic arts; the ideological work that “same writing, same race” is supposed to be doing needs, after all, to frame its claims as broadly as possible.

The strong bonds of friendship come through clearly in the translated poetry you include in this article but much of the language from the Chinese side, beyond a general warmth, seems to primarily celebrate the respect and mastery by their Japanese counterparts of a form of mutually shared – or rather universal – civilization and culture, and less on particular personal virtues – much like a teacher complimenting a good student. I wonder if this connects to the “unspoken assumptions concerning the relative positions of the countries in question” that you mention later in the article. Would you say that it went beyond this? 

To some extent, that might be because the protagonists of two of the three exchanges never met in person; there thus was little to build this “spiritual friendship” on other than what might be extrapolated from their poetry. The metaphor of teacher-pupil relationship is certainly an interesting one; Li Zihu’s allusion to Ma Rong, “my way has travelled east,” could certainly be read in those terms. When Li writes to his Japanese counterparts, his appreciation does seem to go beyond praising ability in poetry to include acknowledgment of Japanese investment in a much larger Chinese textual tradition, as in his reference to the preservation in Japan of several texts that had been lost in China. I’d say it’s more a matter of surprise and delight at finding that there are those who seem to share his sense of what’s important even “beyond the seas.”

As to whether it went beyond that, it’s impossible to know with any certainty, but it does seem that Ye Songshi (the one poet who actually met his Japanese counterparts) was received with considerable warmth; the variety of gifts bestowed upon him, as well as the continued correspondence after his return to China and the later second trip to Japan (as well as his own decision, even ten years after his second trip, to edit and publish Fusang lichang ji) do suggest that Ye genuinely valued his relationships and considered several of the Japanese poets to be his friends. Though I didn’t really get into it in the article, I think there’s maybe a bit of a social class issue at work here; Ye’s predecessor at the academy, Zhou, clearly didn’t fit the mold of gentleman-scholar, and one wonders whether the fact that Ou Hunan had no official position or prestigious diplomatic status (and was apparently a (mere!) shoe merchant, though likely the readers wouldn’t have known that initially) might have encouraged some of his Japanese respondents to adopt a more hostile attitude.

In the last part of your article you talk about the Japanese response to a poem by Ou Hunan critical of Japan’s Taiwan expedition. The response, seen by some Japanese as an affront to the nation comes in a variety of forms: Sinitic poetic responses, others merely ridiculed him and his “babbling tongue,” while others composed Japanese poems in answer – What would you say is the most important thing to take away from the set of exchanges you describe?

A lot of the responses do suggest a desire to use Sinitic writing as a way to take him down a peg or two, but I think it’s equally important to note that quite a few of Ou’s Japanese readers seemed to find much in what he wrote to agree with, and certainly shared his sense of skepticism with regard to the advisability of the Taiwan expedition. So though there’s undeniably hostility within the exchange, and though the circumstances in which it takes place might be thought to encourage the expression of highly nationalistic sentiments, the exchange as a whole doesn’t necessarily resolve neatly to two clear national blocks of “Japan” vs. “China;” the range of positions available to the participants seems to be rather more diverse than that. I don’t explore this point fully in the article, but newspapers in 1874 were still relatively recent introductions to Japan, and it seems to me that the process of creating the imagined national community that (for example) Benedict Anderson highlights as a major role for print media has yet to fully take place at this point in Japan.

Robert J. Tuck is Assistant Professor of Japanese at the University of Montana

New Resources Page

The re-launched SJS journal is moving along nicely. We have had almost a dozen articles and translations in the 2009 volume 16 of SJS. At the close of the year we’ll write up an overview of the year’s publications and post a link to that here on the news page.

In addition to articles, however, we have decided to launch a “resources” page here at SJS which will host a number of reference and interactive online resources of use for students and scholars of Sino-Japanese studies.

Our first contribution are two charts, reprinted with permission of Harvard University Press, from Joshua Fogel’s Aticluating the Sinosphere: Sino-Japanese Relations in Space and Time which list Japanese embassies to the Ming and Tang dynasties.

You can find these and, in future, other materials, on the SJS Resources page.

Announcing the relaunch of Sino-Japanese Studies online

For fifteen years Sino-Japanese Studies (1988-2003) was published in hard form and distributed throughout the world. It was the only journal of its kind in content, bringing together Chinese and Japanese studies—irrespective of discipline or time period. The relaunched journal will be available open access online and will continue to be the only journal of its kind. It will contain original, refereed articles, translations, reviews, and news from the field. Interested readers and contributors may find further details on making submissions to the journal as well access the full online archive of back-issues here at

They may also contact the editor directly.

Joshua Fogel (fogel at, editor
Konrad M. Lawson (konrad at, web technician

Volume 3 Issue 1 and 2 Added

PDFs for articles in the two issues of volume three are now available from the journal archive.