The Wallace K. Ferguson Prize
Timothy Brooks, Jérôme Bourgon et Gregory Blue, Death by a Thousand Cuts, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2008.
At its most basic level, Death by a Thousand Cuts is the history of lingchi,an infamous form of imperial Chinese capital punishment. But the bookoffers so much more than that. It situates this unique cultural phenomenon, which Chinese authorities abolished in 1905 after nearly a millennium of use, within a complex cross-cultural dialogue. The book explores how westerners received lingchi and ascribed meaning to it in relation to how Chinese culture viewed torment and capital punishment. This makes the book valuable not only for legal historians, or historians of bodies and punishment, or for sinologists, but also for those who seek to understand historical representations of cultural alterity and their lasting significance for global dialogues. The authors draw on a rich documentary font to make their case. They resist relying entirely upon written primary sources and instead embark upon a nuanced analysis that includes illustrations from works of fiction, missionary paintings, and photographs distributed in the West at the turn of the twentieth century. The authors argue that Chinese practices of penal torment exist within longer judicial traditions, both within China and without. They acknowledge that these practices contribute to a global history of punishment but resist the temptation to see human history as progressive. Instead, they recognize the error of cementing depravity at one end of a progressive spectrum of civilization and compassion at the other. Their history finds evidence of both throughout. The quality of the research and methodology are evident in the book’s precise and intelligent prose, which is free of jargon and full of nuance. All of this makes Death by a Thousand Cuts, despite its gruesome subject, a unique and delightful discovery.
Joan Judge, The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2008.
Joan Judge’s important and original work helps us to understand and elucidate historical change in China at the turn of the twentieth century by looking at the role of women in the development of the nation. The author, who situates her subject within the passage to modernity, carefully examines the many intersections between China and the West since the middle of the nineteenth century. She uses her own categories, chronotypes, and the perspective offered by women’s biography in official documents, private journals, polemical essays, didactic materials, and textbooks. China’s contact with its history and the outside world, seen through women’s education, make it possible to see a past which the protagonists sought not to erase but to transform in their efforts to overcome present-day challenges. In Judge’s work, the reader finds a colourful mosaic of complex portraits: of a society, of historical change, and of women. This leads to a stimulating understanding of Chinese women’s virtues, talents, and heroism. Before The Precious Raft of History others attempted a seamless global history of women, but few have set chastity, education, and maternity within so wide an ideological register. And none has so skillfully shown the heuristic value of the raft.
Liz Millward, Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937, Montréal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.
Aviation is generally regarded as a male-dominated world. That, in 1922, the International Commission on Air Navigation felt the need to reconsider the place of women in commercial airspace reveals as much about this reality as about the mounting pressures to change it. Liz Millward, through her exploration of the feminization of British airspace between 1922 and 1937, pushes women’s history into a new arena, one previously dominated by biographies and less ambitious histories. More importantly, her book proposes a transnational approach that offers insights into pervasive western attitudes. The author shows how the effervescent interwar years and rapid development of aviation created space for women that transformed gender and imperial relations. Millward moves away from traditionalist approaches of her subject, often based on the biographies of heroines, to offer a broader, more novel, panorama that stretches from London to Auckland. Though we have a whole body of literature that explores gender and relational physical space, the idea of gendering air is very original. While references to female protagonists like Jean Batten, in 1936 the first individual to complete a direct flight between England and New Zealand, are inevitable, a variety of primary sources allow Millward to assess the historical significance of many other less famous flyers. The author successfully examines private, commercial, imperial, and national airspace before concluding with a chapter on the representations of female pilots’ bodies. The book’s main themes, properly situated within the context of the time, offer a fascinating look at the foundation of the new airspace as well as at the construction of newly gendered social relations.