The Power of Mobility: Feet, Wheels, and Rails in Modern East Asia

AHA Session 124
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 501 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Jessamyn Abel, Penn State University
Kate McDonald, University of California, Santa Barbara

Session Abstract

In modern societies, mobility has often been a flashpoint for material and ideological conflict, as movement—whether across town, across the country, or across national borders—was invested with political meaning.  This panel examines the ways in which representations of mobility formed identities and promoted political goals in modern East Asia.  Studies of the history of mobility in East Asia are often structured around a presumed conflict between a fast/circulating/Western modernity and a slow/isolated/Asian tradition.  This panel challenges such a binary approach by exploring how people in China, Korea, and Japan negotiated and contested the meaning of modern mobility on local, national, and global scales.

Central to the work of the panel is our use of the methodologies of cultural history to expose the workings of mobility as a locus of political action.  Analyzing representations of mobility as political tools, the papers will show how cultural materials such as woodblock prints, travelogues, television shows, and films served both to internalize particular mobilities and to challenge dominant ideologies.  Kate McDonald will use literary, sociological, and official representations of rickshaw pullers to show how human-powered transport became a site of conflict over the role of the state and the future of society in modern Japan.  Similarly finding mobility performing a political task, but at a national level, Yajun Mo will examine the role of travel narratives of China’s Northwest in the nation-building project of Republican China.  Han Sang Kim will discuss the ways in which South Korea’s Park Chung-Hee government used cultural products to simultaneously mobilize public support for the dictatorial regime and instill consumerist desires that would bolster the nation’s fledgling automobile industry.  Finally, Jessamyn Abel will argue that the representation of Japan’s first bullet train in popular culture produced around the time of its debut served the purposes of protest and resistance against the political and ideological forces embodied in the new line.

In order to promote fruitful discussion with the audience, each presenter will speak for about 12 minutes, after which we will conclude the brief presentations by posing a few shared questions raised by the papers as a group.  We hope this panel will be of interest to historians studying various topics, such as mobility, technology, popular culture, nationalism, and modern East Asia.

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