Robert André LaFleur
Professor of History and Anthropology
Chair, Asian Studies and History
Updated 1 August 2010
- Current Projects
- Current Teaching
I am a cultural historian and anthropologist at Beloit College, where I teach a wide variety of courses on the intellectual, cultural, and political history of China, Japan, Korea, and aspects of South and Southeast Asian civilization. My area of specialization is Song Dynasty China (960-1279), and the flowering of historical writing during that period. I also have deep interests in early-modern cultural and comparative history, as well as cultural theory and research methods. I have a BA degree with majors in anthropology and history from Carleton College (1985) and a doctorate from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought (1996).
When my nose is not in a dusty text, I like to spend my time cycling, thinking and reading about cycling, or watching cycling (my life shuts down every July for the Tour de France, and I follow European professional racing from February to November with an interest bordering on the obsessive). I also love to read and travel, and enjoy having my boots on dusty trails that hint of verticality. I am married to Patricia Zody, a program manager with American Councils for International Education. We live in Washington D.C., and I “commute” to work. I enjoy opera and country music (draw your own conclusions), and love poetry, chess, baseball, sashimi, and dimsum, in no particular order.
My teaching and research have allowed me to travel a great deal in the past decade, and those trips have taken me almost yearly to Japan and China, as well as to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Greece, and France. In 2002-2003, I lived in Tokyo as resident director of the Japan Study program at Waseda University, and my several trips back to Japan have inspired me to offer more classes on Japanese history and culture, to gain further proficiency with the erudite tradition of Japanese scholarship on China, and to continue my travels and language studies there.
I have also been fortunate in the last decade to be associated with two of the country’s most impressive Centers of higher education and public policy. I have spent a half-dozen stints—ranging from several weeks to several months—at the East-West Center in Honolulu, and have always appreciated the helpfulness of the staff and scholars there, the research access to Hamilton Library’s fine East Asian language materials, and the beauty of the setting in the Manoa Valley on the south side of Oahu. The East-West Center has for the last fifty years been truly a meeting ground for policy makers and scholars from all over the world, and what I have learned there has contributed mightily to my teaching and research.
I have also had the enormous good fortune to spend five different academic years as an honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research in the Humanities. The nation’s first academic institute devoted to scholarship in the humanities, IRH celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in the autumn of 2009. I spent the 2003-2004 academic year there as a visiting fellow, where I continued my work on the culture of historiography and management thought in Northern Song China (work that is appearing now in The Emperor’s Teacher). I returned to the Institute for the 2006-2010 academic years under a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and have been able to present different aspects of my research on Chinese cosmology, mountain aesthetics, and French ethnographic thought.
I am currently finishing three different projects that are the culmination of several years of teaching, research, and writing. Each began in 2007, and together they represent my attempt to reach audiences at all levels of specialization—from generalists to researchers in history, anthropology, and Asian studies.
The first, which was published in November 2009, is a substantially revised second edition of a book originally published in 2003. This survey of China is a joint effort that I undertook with many Beloit College colleagues, as well as several others with whom I worked while at the East-West Center and Colby College. It contains chapters on geography, history, politics, economics, language, literature, art, music, society, popular culture, and contemporary issues, and is a testament to the talent that Beloit College’s Asian Studies program has in the area of Chinese studies.
The only real drawback is the price. ABC-Clio sells mostly to libraries, but, before I signed the contract in 2007, I said it had to be on condition that they would consider a paperback version of the volume in due time. They said they would consider it, and I have some hope that, once the library run is over, it will be available for under twenty dollars in bookstores. In the meantime…check your local library. I am very grateful to John Rapp, Warren Palmer, Shin Yong Robson, Daniel Youd, Anita Andrew, and Tamara Hamlish for showing the excellence that has marked the Beloit College Asian Studies faculty now and in the past.
I am preparing another book for non-specialists, and it has led me in fascinating directions in the last few years. The Emperor’s Teacher is a volume that presents to a management audience (by which I mean the “management” of everything from a family to a classroom to a corporation) one of the greatest managerial works in all of Chinese history. Compiled and edited over the course of almost twenty years by a scholar named Sima Guang (1019-1086) and five able assistants, the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling was the text that leaders in China studied as they rose to the height of their ambitions and influence. I have made the argument that this is the book that “follows” study of the Art of War, the Classic of the Way, and other texts that make up the bulk of “intercultural” managerial teaching in the United States. This is the book that Mao Zedong studied intently while riding on a donkey during the Chinese Communist forces’ Long March across China. It was such a powerful influence on his “managerial” thinking that he studied it even though he disagreed with the political perspectives of its author. I always imagine, in a sort of reverse comparison, Dwight Eisenhower reading Das Kapital.
The Emperor’s Teacher is divided into five chapters that flow from one core teaching to another, and provide the reader with a perspective on management that has been lacking (from my perspective) in too much business education in the West. It begins where Sima Guang opens the Comprehensive Mirror, with a discussion of roles and hierarchy before moving on to one of the key ideas in the entire Chinese philosophical system—remonstrance, the obligation of junior members of a hierarchy to speak up in the interest of the family, the group, the corporations, as well as the concomitant obligation of leaders to listen, heed advice, and then to use their range of position and skill to exercise leadership. I have included .pdf files of the book proposal, writing sample, and table of contents below, and will update this site as the work progresses.
The most ambitious project that has occupied me is in its third full year of research, and is quickly moving through the draft stages. As part of the Millicent C. McIntosh Fellowship that I received from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in 2006, I have been preparing a study of Chinese cosmology and French scholarship on the “ethnographic other.” That, in turn, has led me to do research on China’s five marchmounts—the cosmologically integrated mountain system linking the “five directions” in China, east, south, center, west, and north. The order is important. The early sage kings (先王) were said to have sacrificed to each mountain according to the proper seasons, thus reintegrating time and space as they created perfect rule. The Book of History contains the following excerpt about the sage emperor Shun’s (traditional date: c. 2300 BCE) early itineraries.
In the second month of the year, [Shun] made a tour of inspection to the east as far as Mt. Tai, where he made a burnt offering to Heaven and sacrificed to the mountains and rivers…He received the eastern nobles in an audience and put their calendar in order, standardized the musical notes and the measures of length and volume, as well as the five kinds of rituals…After finishing his tour of inspection he returned to the capital. In the fifth month, he made a tour of inspection to the south, as far as the Southern Sacred Peak, to which he sacrificed in the same manner as he did at Mt. Tai. Likewise, in the eight month, he made a western tour of inspection as far as the Western Sacred Peak. In the eleventh month, he made a tour of inspection to the north, as far as the Northern Sacred Peak, where he sacrificed as he had in the west. Upon his return to the capital, he went to the Temple of the Ancestor and offered up an ox (to complete the cycle of the year and the realm).
My book is intended to merge travel writing, literary study, and historical study in a blend that returns to anthropology and history something of the “experiential-analytical flow” that I have admired in a few books over the course of my education—Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile and Julie, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Démocratie en Amérique, and, one of the great works of the twentieth century, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes tropiques. If such an enterprise appears to lack modesty, my only response is that I wish others would have taken it up. For the most part, they have not, and there remains a troubling gap between popular and academic writing about China. I crave the fiercely intelligent book that is nonetheless written for ambitious readers beyond the academy (there is no better example of this in the last sixty years than Tristes tropiques, a lively travelogue and ethnography that might well be translated as “Ah, alas…the Tropics”). Academic writing has been rather too preoccupied with the monograph for my tastes, and it is time that a few academics stepped up (quite literally, in this case). I think of my work, in the precise meaning of the phrase, as an essay—an endeavor, an attempt… something, in short, that is worth a try.
Round and Square is so named because of the Chinese idea (seen on traditional coinage, in the smallest form, and in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, in one of its largest) that heaven is round and earth is square. Westerners from St. Anselm to Kant have taught that round and square are opposites—never successfully to be linked. Chinese cosmological thinking has always linked them, and the traditional imperial fengshan sacrifices are among its greatest examples. Imperial travelers such as the sage emperor Shun in the quotation above, were said to have sacrificed at each mountain’s base in the proper season, climbed (or were carried) to the summit for the climactic sacrifice, and then descended the mountains—linking high and low, near and far, in an intricate dance of ritual and cosmology.
Round and Square takes the reader on a travelogue up and down the five marchmounts and around the lunar calendar—a full circuit of all of the mountains, including a return to Mt. Tai to “start time over again” in a new year. It traces not only my travels through the mountain corridors, and up the stone paths (and under the traces of two or more millennia of rock-carved poetry), but also through a changing China during a half-decade surrounding its Olympic (2008) and Expo (2010) years, 2007-2012. The choice of the years and events was never arbitrary. When I was starting the planning, I thought to myself what might be the difference between a book on, say, Japan’s mountains written in the 1990s (just an example) and one written in the mid-1960s, when Japan hosted the Olympic Games and quite self-consciously sought to make a new place in the world? I would still want to read that today. Or, to use an older example, a book on travels in Germany in the mid-1930s…or Greece in the 1890s. The years leading up to and through the Olympic Games have been transformational in China and events “on the ground” play into the mountain narrative without dominating it.
Equally important to the narrative are the echoes of Western sinologists who studied Chinese cosmology in a way that influenced several generations of Western and Chinese scholars. The central figure in this is Marcel Granet (1884-1940), and it is fair to say that I make the trip with him—carrying his writings with me and thinking them through anew on the mountains and in the months between my climbs. By extension, his teachers and colleagues also “accompany” me—especially the two to whom he dedicated his first book, Fêtes et chansons de la Chine ancienne [Festivals and Songs in Ancient China], Edouard Chavannes and Emile Durkheim. Round and Square is, then, a travelogue with characters (the pun is intentional)—some accompanying me in their books, others carved into the rock face over the centuries, and still others (living, talking, gesticulating hikers) whom I have met on the paths of these pilgrimage mountains.
This is because the book—for all of its perambulations and hidden paths—has a powerful theme running all of the way through it. Anthropology must “rediscover the text” if it is to reach to the very heart of the Chinese tradition, and not be just the mouthpiece for spoken culture. It is as though, since the publication of the first great ethnographic works in the 1920s, anthropologist of China have been searching for the Trobriand Islands in the Chinese countryside, barely noticing the oceans of text all around them. My travels up and down the mountains present me with an overflowing abundance of “fieldwork” and spoken culture, as well as thousands of stone poetic inscriptions, tens of thousands of commemorative steles and temple carvings, and hundreds of thousands of pages of texts, written about the mountains themselves over the course of three millennia. I climb—a solitary fieldworker—through a sea of text, connecting the Chinese past with a vibrant present (five sacred mountains, five Olympic rings, and five tumultuous years), returning with a message for the fields of anthropology and history.
History 210: Chinese History and Culture
This course examines Chinese history and culture in the context of the wider East Asian world. We begin with early Chinese history and the influence of the Yellow River valley on the development of Chinese institutions. We then examine the development of Chinese philosophical, literary, political, and economic traditions during the imperial era. The second half of the course deals with modern Chinese history and culture, paying equal attention to historical and ethnographic materials, and taking a careful look at the development of a strong Chinese state from the challenges of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Throughout the course we use examples from the Chinese language—Chinese characters and their etymologies, idiomatic phrases, and classical allusions—to analyze Chinese history and culture in linguistic context.
History 210: Japanese History and Culture
This course examines Japanese history and culture in the context of the wider East Asian world. We begin with early Japanese history and the influence of both Korea and China on early Japanese institutions. We then examine the development of Japan’s indigenous traditions during the Heian (794-1185), Kamakura (1185-1333), and Ashikaga (1336-1568) periods. The second half of the course deals with modern Japanese history and culture, paying equal attention to historical and ethnographic materials, and taking a careful look at the development of the Kanto and Kansai regions in modern Japanese history and culture. Throughout the course we use examples from the Japanese language—spoken phrases, the two major syllabaries (hiragana and katakana), and kanji, or Chinese characters—to analyze Japanese history and culture in linguistic context.
History 150: Education and Acculturation in East Asia
This seminar introduces the world of East Asian education to students through a variety of historical and contemporary materials. In particular, students work with the elementary, middle school, and high school education texts used in China, Taiwan, and Japan (in translation), and investigate the manner in which language, history, and ethics are conveyed to children and young adults in East Asia. These primary documents are supplemented by a number of contextual readings dealing with Chinese and Japanese education in the past, as well as the plethora of strategies that have been used to acculturate children in East Asia. Toward this end, the instructor makes extensive use of his own research in China and Japan on these topics. In particular, we consider the role of various levels of government in China and Japan in the educational process, and the central role of various school systems in shaping these societies.
History 150: Calendars, Almanacs, and Popular Culture in China and Japan
This first-year history seminar begins with an examination of a Chinese folk classic—the Chinese almanac—that has been published annually for the past millennium and reflects the popular Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian religious traditions that are central to an understanding of Chinese social life into the twenty-first century. Students gain a deeper understanding of the lunar calendar, key festivals, and important life cycle rituals as they work through the text of the almanac (in translation), and learn to “read” the Chinese calendar with the aid of supplementary materials. We spend a significant amount of time comparing Chinese and Japanese calendars, as well as cultural practices that are linked to them in each society. Students read a wide range of literary, historical, and ethnographic works to supplement their study of calendars and almanacs, and the instructor makes liberal use of his own field experience to give context to the readings.
History 150: The Medieval Manager in East Asia
This first-year history seminar begins with an examination of the management themes at the heart of the Chinese historical tradition. Running the world’s largest empire was a practical and theoretical challenge for generations of Chinese leaders, and the tradition contains some of the finest works ever to deal with organizational structure, hierarchy, and social interaction. In particular, we will examine the manner in which one of China’s most influential historians, Sima Guang (1019-1086), articulated the relationship between case studies and management action. We will also study management models in the Chinese tradition from early social organization to today’s multinational corporations. The core management texts of the Chinese tradition will be windows onto ways of understanding complex historical, social, and even cognitive issues in Chinese political and economic life.
History 150 Topics: Memoirs and Travelogues
This course explores the personal reflections of a wide variety of writers who lived and traveled in East Asia between the eighth and sixteenth centuries. We study the personal histories and memoirs of individuals in China, Japan, and Korea, as well as the accounts of travelers in each of these countries—including an occasional European in East Asia and East Asian traveler in Europe. Ultimately, our focus is upon the connection between personal memory, reflections upon one’s homeland, and contemplating “the other” in ways that will expand our understanding of history and culture.
Anthropology 100: Society and Culture
This course introduces students to a wide range of approaches to social and cultural analysis, and gives a broad overview of the field of cultural anthropology. The course is designed to introduce students to the methods, theories, and concepts of cultural anthropology, as well as several examples of sustained ethnographic prose. Drawing on ethnographic materials from all parts of the world we investigate how people define themselves and others, make sense of their world(s), and organize their lives. We look at past and contemporary ways that anthropologists have thought about culture, and use anthropological perspectives to examine the ways in which the “culture concept” is used by a variety of people and groups. Throughout the course, we investigate the manner in which the study of other peoples (whether in the form of academic anthropology today or as part of the intellectual arsenal of peoples the world over—from the North American Northwest Coast to Papua New Guinea, and from Herodotus and Sima Qian to Marshall Sahlins and Pierre Bourdieu—shapes the identity of the observer, and look carefully at the ways in which various cultural groups relate to one another in times of peace and in conflict.
Anthropology 200: Theory and Technique in Cultural Anthropology (Ethnographic Methods)
This course is designed to introduce students fully to the field of cultural anthropology. It assumes a foundation in the study of society and culture, which can be fulfilled with Beloit College’s prerequisite course, ANTH 100: Society and Culture. The prerequisite can also be fulfilled with a comparable course at another college or university or, in some cases, with the consent of the instructor. Building upon the introductory foundations students have gained, this course will focus on doing cultural anthropology—from learning to read (with great care) the seminal works in the discipline’s history to developing skill in listening, note-taking, writing fieldnotes, and crafting full ethnographic reports. Throughout the course, we will stress the importance of reading in the development of ethnographic skills. Writing fine ethnographic prose is far more than a mere matter of “gathering data” and “writing it up.” Skill in reading contributes to skills in field research, and both contribute to ethnographic writing (the redundancy here is intentional). Students will read some of the masterworks of ethnographic literature, even as they pursue their own research projects. Their work will build toward a final review essay that combines careful reading and textual analysis with their own ethnographic prose.
History 210 Topics: Cosmology and Historiography in Early China
This seminar explores the intersection of cosmological and historiographical perspectives on the Chinese past through a lens of several classics of Chinese historical thought. Covering the Spring and Autumn period through the Former Han (the eight century BCE to the beginning of the Common Era). The course contrasts an event-by-event narrative with broader issues of cosmology that figured in a wide array of Chinese writings on nature and human history. Topics include utopian frameworks in early China, the five “sacred peaks” of early Chinese cosmology, and the combination of mythical imagery and detailed narratives in early Chinese historical works. The course provides a window of understanding of early Chinese history that will give students both a solid grounding in the events of an important millennium in the Chinese past and a sophisticated perspective on the intellectual approaches taken by prominent Chinese writers seeking to understand their own history.
History 210 Topics: Medieval and Early Modern Japan
An intensive introduction to premodern Japanese civilization, this course examines social, intellectual, and cultural history from the tenth through seventeenth centuries—Heian times to the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate. Topics include court life, shogunal government, gender roles, family life, Buddhism as a political and religious force, and the emergence of a warrior ethic. Students read historical as well as literary texts on the Japanese court, the lives of aristocratic women, and battlefield tales from the provinces.
History 210 Topics: Historical Research Methods—China and Beyond
This course, which is open to all students interested in historical research, begins with research methods that all historians share. After building a solid base of general research skills, the course moves toward a more direct inquiry into the specific ways that Chinese historians approach their research. By carefully studying Chinese materials, we achieve a better understanding of the challenges of historical research than we might by using a more eclectic approach. The course concludes with a series of reflections on how our investigations might help historians doing research on American, European, Asian, African, or Latin American history.
History 294 Topics: Claude Lévi-Strauss at 100
[The course was offered while Lévi-Strauss was still alive; the material below has been adjusted to reflect the present].
Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1908-2009) career spanned a century that saw two world wars, a changing university system in France and abroad, and the development of anthropology as a discipline that examines the other even as it focuses on the anthropologist’s own society. Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual influence was extraordinary, and we will study his writings from his early works to his later work on structural anthropology and mythology. In particular, we take a historical look at the vibrant and perplexing century in which Lévi-Strauss lived and worked, and the changing ways that the disciplines of history, anthropology, comparative literature, and philosophy have engaged the study of culture.
History 310 Topics: The World in Miniature—French Studies of Chinese Culture
These seminars focus on “the other” studying another—French scholars of the early twentieth century who spent their lives trying to make sense of Chinese civilization. French scholarship on China presents a fascinating blend of deep textual analysis and fertile imagination. In particular, we read the works of three masters of French sinology (Chinese Studies): Paul Demiéville, Marcel Granet, and Rolf Stein. One of the key linking ideas for them is the idea of the microcosm in Chinese art, architecture, and social thought. The perspective these seminars embrace is that Chinese culture is not a static object merely waiting to be “translated” by Western scholars. There is a confrontation involved, and the result—at least if it is done well, as it was by our authors—is a distinctive intellectual and literary creation in its own right. By better understanding the creative processes of these French sinologists, we gain a deeper understanding of our roles as interpreters of history and culture. French Sinology-1 French Sinology-2
History 310 Seminar: Itineraries
In this advanced seminar we examine the ways in which various thinkers and travelers have articulated their journeys—from planning to careful observation and, finally, to writing about their experiences. The course examines forms of travel writing in East Asia and the West, and seek to understand the persistent allure that travel (and writing about it) has had on a number of important genres—including several within history and anthropology. Toward that end, we discuss not only travelers’ journeys but also their engagement (from varying distances) with “the other,” from Herodotus’s Persians and Sima Qian’s Xiongnu to the subjects of historical and ethnographic research in the last century.
We begin by examining “itineraries” in classical Western thought (Homer, Herodotus, and the Bible). We then turn to two distinctive French templates of a journey through a life (Rousseau’s Emile) and through a strange country filled with even stranger ideas (Tocqueville’s Democracy in America). The first half of the course concludes with two classics of historical writing, Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada and Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail. The second half of the course closely examines the foundations of ethnographic knowledge and questions the applicability of those models for other parts of the world. Our focus is on an area of the world that remains in popular consciousness “exotic” to this day, and (this may not be coincidental) is one of the most deeply studied areas of the world among professional anthropologists—New Guinea. We read from some of the best ethnographic material published over the past eighty years in that region, and focus on the role that place played in the development of anthropology in the twentieth century.
History 310 Seminar: Structure, History, and Culture (Marshall Sahlins at Eighty)
This seminar looks systematically at several of the key theoretical and methodological issues in the study of human society, past and present. We begin with the concept of structure and the ways that it has been interpreted by thinkers in and beyond the fields of history and anthropology. In particular, we will consider the entire oeuvre of Marshall Sahlins—arguably the most persistent and articulate theorist dealing with these matters. The theoretical and methodological focus of the seminar will give students insight that will be useful in projects ranging from history theses to research in a wide range of disciplines.
History 310 Seminar: Encountering the Other in History and Anthropology
In this advanced seminar, we investigate the manner in which two “total” disciplines (each considering all aspects of human life their purview) have engaged “the other”—different cultures, social classes, and economic groupings, to name just a few. The seminar will begin with an overview of the history of significant cultural interactions from earliest times (particularly Homer, Herodotus, and Sima Qian) to the present. The bulk of the seminar is devoted to careful study of French engagement with the outside world, as well as the disparate elements of a growing and changing French countryside in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Students will use the skills that they develop in their study of French anthropologie et histoire to prepare their own essays on specific traditions of engaging the other.
History 310 Seminar: History and Landscape
This seminar explores the conceptions of space, place, and landscape that appear in historical writings. How do historians configure space in their accounts? How do they portray “movement” between places? Is describing a landscape a “literary” portrayal independent of historical analysis? These are just a few questions that we discuss as we read even familiar historical works from the perspective of “imaginative geography.” Students have weekly readings on topics common to all members of the seminar. They also do independent research projects on historiographical conceptions of space that culminate in a seminar paper and formal presentation at the end of the term.
History 310 Seminar: Rhetorics of Fate and Future
In this course we examine the way in which various cultural traditions have come to terms with the unknown—particularly the “fates” of individuals and societies—in the course of planning for the present and negotiating the challenges of everyday life. The heart of the course consists of a close reading of a number of key texts from the Chinese tradition that have been misunderstood (and even misused) by scholars over the centuries. We give context to these readings by examining a wide range of historical and ethnographic materials that analyze the language of fate and future in China and beyond. We conclude the course with a set of comparative analyses of “fate discourse,” including Greek conceptions of morality and luck and medieval European cosmology.
History 310: Seminar: Round and Square—Negotiating “Reality” in East Asian Cultural History
A common conception among Chinese thinkers is that heaven is round and earth is square, and that the merging of the two creates a sense of wholeness in the universe. In this seminar, we discuss the multi-faceted ways in which historians and anthropologists engage seemingly opposed concepts such as “ideal” and “real,” as well as many related categories. These concepts often lie unexamined in scholarly works, and can create enormous interpretive challenges for readers. For example, historical primers have traditionally encouraged students to “separate the wheat from the chaff” in their source materials, yet such seemingly sound advice is fraught with difficulties that affect arguments about historical action, intention, causation, and significance. We focus, in particular, on a number of key historical texts that have been used by Chinese, Japanese, and Western interpreters as sources for their own historical writing. By examining the manner in which historians have used their own primary sources, we will learn a great deal about historical methodology and the philosophy of history, and develop new paradigms for negotiating the complex terrain of the “ideal” and “real.”
For more information contact Robert LaFleur at email@example.com