By Shu Wan
Teaching with primary sources is challenging for American college instructors of Asian history and culture. US History teachers could easily arrange class visits to special collections in their home institutions’ libraries and museums nearby. Their peers in Asian studies predominantly rely on digitized primary sources and edited sourcebooks. With a few exceptions, Asia-themed archival materials are “rare” in most college libraries in North America, including my home institution, the University at Buffalo. In Fall 2022, I worked as a teaching assistant in Dr. Yan Liu’s course “Asian Civilization I.” I collaborated with archivists Jessica Hollister and Dr. Alison Fraser on arranging a class visit to the university library’s Special Collections and University Archives. This essay aims to explore the primary sources displayed during the visit and to identify how instructors in institutions with small Asian archival collections may prepare for the exhibition, especially providing rare opportunities for students to hand-touch the historical materials produced hundreds of years ago.
On October 28, students were invited to tour the special collections. Jessica, Dr. Fraser, and I began this activity by introducing the special collections and the history of displayed items. The two archivists spoke about the routine and rules of how to use archives and background information of those exhibited items, and then I recommended students consider the connection between the items and the knowledge they had taken from the class. Following this, we guided students to circulate among the exhibition tables.
The paintings included on the bottom of this picture are Chinese folkloric artwork retrieved from “Box 1- Chinese and Polish paper cuttings” in the “William Huff paper cuttings collection.” This collection contains artworks that UB retired art history professor Dr. Huff collected from trips throughout the world. The displayed collection represents the common paper-cutting arts in contemporary rural China. As a Chinese student said during the visit, “my grandma also knows how to cut the paper into the best shapes.” While the paper cuttings are familiar to him, they still intrigue most of the students in the class, all of whom have no Chinese heritage or experience of living in China. These folkloric materials facilitate their understanding of Chinese culture in a general sense.
Aside from the folkloric arts, we also exhibited textual materials in Asian languages. The manuscript in the below picture is a “Book of Japanese Print,” which includes “12 colored Japanese prints mounted on rice paper during Edo Japan.” These materials supplement Dr. Liu’s visual presentation of the cover and contents of Kojiki and Nihongi in the lecture. Here we can illustrate the unreplaceable advantage of class visits. While the development of information technology makes the exhibition of digitized materials much more convenient, the sense of touch accompanying visiting the archive in person cannot be replicated.
Furthermore, the exhibition also included some manuscripts in non-Asian languages. The archivists and I chose and curated some materials documenting cultural exchange between European and Asia, including Historia Osrhoena at Edessena (1734), Recueil de plusieurs relations et traitez singuliers & curieux (1679), and A new history of China (1688). While their years of publications are out of the scope of this course (up to 1600), these books in the Latin and French languages represented early modern Europeans’ orientalist perceptions of Asia. In addition to Dr. Liu’s introduction of Edward Said’s orientalism in his lecture, the exhibition of these historical books could further students’ knowledge of how orientalism shapes the Westerners’ perception of East Asia.
After the exhibition, I invited students to take an after-visit survey. The results show that most students– 88.9%– agree that they “enjoy the visit to UB Library’s Special Collections. ” The majority of students responded “yes” to the question, “Do you think it is an interesting experience with historical objects and documents?” Their positive feedback encourages me to make a similar attempt in the future.
While these materials exhibited may not be available to non-affiliates of the University at Buffalo, this class visit may encourage more college instructors to integrate this type of class activities into their accounts. Teaching Asian history in special collections is not a new idea. However, unlike the universities with the prestige to allow them to preserve significant Asia-related archives and rare books, my home institution’s library holds only a small number of collections of Asian-related archival materials. I took the strategy of closely collaborating with archivists in preparation for the exhibitions. While not always experts in Asian history, archivists always have the best knowledge of how to locate certain collections in the archives. I sincerely appreciate Jessica and Alison helping me to find “needles in a haystack” and exhibit them to my students. Reviewing the procedure of the class to the archives at the University at Buffalo, I recommend other Asian history instructors make similar attempts.