Visualizing Culture at MIT

This is buzzing in the overseas Chinese newspapers (see, for example, Chinese News Net, Ta Kung Pao and World Journal) and Internet forums (see, for example, ChineseNewsNet).  From Associated Press

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has taken down a history course Web page after a 19th century wood-print image of Japanese soldiers beheading Chinese prisoners sparked complaints from Chinese students and led to an apology from one of the course's professors.  The "Visualizing Cultures" course, which uses images from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, was spotlighted Sunday on MIT's home page.  It was pulled late Tuesday afternoon, and the school hosted a forum Wednesday for students, particularly those in MIT's Chinese community, to voice concerns.  The course was created by Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor John Dower and linguistics professor Shigeru Miyagawa, who posted an apology on his Web page.  "I deeply regret that some of the images on the Visualizing Cultures website have offended you," Miyagawa said in a statement that was read at the forum. "This was never my intention. I am genuinely sorry that this has caused you pain." 

... The image that angered students depicts Japanese soldiers lining up Chinese prisoners to be beheaded.

Here is that particular image:

Caption on website: 
"Illustration of decapitation of Chinese violent soldiers"

More photographs in this pdf document along with the context (which is important in this debate because many people clearly never looked into it).

Now this appears to be the usual squabble over politcal correctness.  Here is the most politically correct position to my mind, and it comes from Professors Dower and Miyagawa:

One section of the project displays images of Japanese wood-block prints that were used as propaganda during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and are examples of how societies use visual imagery to further their political agendas. These historical images do not reflect our beliefs. To the contrary, our intent was to illuminate aspects of the human experience — including imperialism, racism, violence and war — that we must confront squarely if we are to create a better world. These complex issues are addressed in the long text that accompanies the images. We must learn from history if we are to have a better future.

So what is the fuss then?  If one follows the statements from the various involved parties in detail, one realizes that the above position is not being challenged at all.

First, Professors Dower and Miyagawa explained their current activities:

Many people who have seen the web site, however, have indicated that the purpose of the project is not sufficiently clear to counteract the negative messages contained in the historical images portrayed on the site. Acknowledging this, we have been meeting with members of the Chinese community and others here at MIT to discuss how we might present these materials in a way that more effectively fosters understanding across cultures. In the meantime, we have temporarily taken down this web site while these community concerns are being addressed. We wish to make clear that this is a scholarly research project, and there is no art exhibition associated with it.

Second, at the MIT OpenCourseWare website:

Professor Dower intended the images and text in this section to reflect aspects of the human experience that we must confront squarely if we are to create a better world. Some of the materials on the website show the atrocities of war and depict how societies have used the visual arts as propaganda to further their political agendas.

The response to this section of the Visualizing Cultures website indicates that the intent of the project has been misunderstood. The "Throwing Off Asia" section of the Visualizing Cultures project has been taken down temporarily, while the responses of the MIT community can be taken into consideration and while an accompanying study guide can be completed.

If you are interested in more information on the project and its purposes, please see the interview with Professor Dower posted at 

Third, from the Associated Press:

The MIT Chinese Student and Scholar Association, in a letter to MIT President Susan Hockfield, called for "proper historical context" at the top of the page, and asked for a posted warning that the images are graphic and racist.

"We do understand the historical significance of these wood prints, and respect the authors' academic freedom to pursue this study," the letter stated. "However, we are appalled at the lack of accessible explanations and the proper historical context that ought to accompany these images."

Fourth, from Phillip L. Clay, MIT's Chancellor:

One section of the web site — Throwing Off Asia — authored by Professor Dower, refers to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and displays images of Japanese wood-block prints that were used as wartime propaganda. Some of these images show the atrocities of war and are examples of how societies use visual imagery as propaganda to further their political agendas. The use of these historical images is not an endorsement of the events depicted.

Many readers, however, have indicated that the purpose of the project is not sufficiently clear to counteract the negative messages within the historical images portrayed on the site. Professors Dower and Miyagawa have been meeting with members of the MIT Chinese community to discuss their concerns and have temporarily taken down the web site while these concerns are being addressed.

The response from some outside the community, on the other hand, has been inappropriate and antithetical to the mission and spirit of MIT and of any university. This is not only unfair to our colleagues, but contrary to the very essence of the university as a place for the free exploration of ideas and the embrace of intellectual and cultural diversity. In the spirit of collaboration, MIT encourages an open and constructive dialogue.

So who are those "outside the community"?  The usual "angry young people" throwing "bricks" on the Internet.  Here are some vociferous (and not necessarily representative of the overall discourse) comments made at the ChineseNewsNet blog 图谋不贵 (note: the comments were moderated by the blogger, so the worst abusive items have been deleted already):

Little Japan is so savage!  I fuck his grandma!

I don't understand.  The pictures of the Nanjing massacre publicly exhibited in China are even more brutal, but why isn't that insulting the Chinese people?  The Chinese people ought to support the showing of these images, because they expose the aggressive nature of Japan.  When I was studying in 1987 at MIT, the compatriots were not like this.  Whatever happened to the MIT students today?  A tiny little thing happens, and it is an insult to the Chinese people.

Dower is obviously unfriendly towards China.  He may be a racist.  There are many such people in society, but there are fewer in universities.  Unfortunately, we ran into one.

We celebrate the unprecedented great victory in this history of Chinese diplomacy!  We salute the little soldiers of the Red Guards and Boxers at MIT!

(in English) The best resolution is China throwing a nuke to Japan then announcing we are deeply regretted.

(in English) These stupit MIT toadeater!

(in English)  
You said in your post that you are “deeply disturbed by these recent protests, because they threaten to destroy possibilities for productive dialogue.” Actually, what you wrote has threatened me because of your biased arguments. In your writing, you stressed the gracious terms of academic research, but the least ability an academic researcher should have is some sensativity of cultural propensity of the audience in their publication. For, example, dare you call an African American “Negro” now in America with African Americans present in your audiance?
What those professors had done online is a clear evidence of their neglectance of the existence of Chinese community in America. YOu surely don’t identify yourself as a Chinese, but there are thousands upon thousands in America as you can see in here if you are not blind. You may think that they are invisible, they have no identity although they work hard in restaurants, labs, China Town and what not.
MIT Chinese students have done a good thing to help the so-called academic professionals to start seeing things from a new view point, you should be happy that finally the civil right thought of Martin Ruther King has spread to to more people, including Chinese, a meekest group of human beings.
I deeply regret that MIT have hired such a group of libral arts professors with such low calibre. I gravely sorry that MIT as a famous technology school has hired these people who have such a low understanding of human and society to be in its Libral Arts faculty.

(in English)
发信人: ubc1220 (ubc1220), 信区: Boston
标 题: To all those who are still condemning Dr. Minigawa,
发信站: BBS 未名空间站 (Fri Apr 28 11:50:28 2006)
To all those who are still condemning Dr. Minigawa,
I am a MIT student who has also been protesting against this woodprints project. I am, however, completely confused about the Chinese community’s hatred towards Dr. Minigawa. I strongly urge all of you to first consider the following:
1) If you have not personally seen the online project and read the text with it, do not use your imagination to fill in the blank. NOTE: you should at least try to read all the official statements from CSSA, MIT, and the profs.
2) If you read the entire thing like I had, you would have realized that the project’s ultimate purpose is to portray the brutality of Japanese wartime. So do not insist that the authors are trying to discriminate against Chinese.
NOTE: I’m still protesting because of the presentation of these materials, and the fact that the authors did not pay careful attention to the cultural sensitivity of Chinese people worldwide.
3) If you read the entire thing like I had, you would have found overwhemling evidence that this work was solely written by Dr. Dower (only his name on almost all pages). Dr. Minigawa played a minor role in this unit (’Throwing off Asia’). Also note that I read this on Sunday, before the public outcry. So this is NOT a coverup by MIT and MIT is not just trying to put an American out to protect a Japanese.
4) Dr. Minigawa has already issued quite a few statements to the Chinese community, all for a minor role he played in the work.
5) Irrational behavior like threats and hate mail are simply barbaric and completely against everything Chinese culture stands for. Anyone who does so is helping discimination by painting an ugly picture of Chinese in the minds of the American public. (Contrary to what some suggested, any reporting of this incident by western media will simply paint an ugly picture of us, due to the irresponsible reaction from a few of our community.)
Having said all that, I am glad to have seen the numerous excellent suggestions from most of the Chinese community. I look forward to CSSA’s role in revising the project’s presentation.
- Ed
A very puzzled protestor at MIT 


Open Letter to Chinese Students at MIT

Peter C. Perdue

April 28, 2006

Recently, a group of Chinese students at MIT have protested pictures of the Sino-Japanese war which were posted on the MIT web site as part of the research project “Visualizing Cultures” conducted by Professors John Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa. The protest has included critical email messages addressed to Prof. Miyagawa, group discussion with the faculty and members of the MIT administration, and a list of demands passed out at a meeting on April 26.

Even though the protests are so far only verbal, they include extremely abusive messages directed at distinguished scholars of the Institute and demands for the suppression of free academic research. I am writing to you collectively in response to these activities.  I address my remarks primarily to the graduate students from the People’s Republic of China who have initiated these protests. I hasten to add that I am sure that not all the Chinese students at MIT approve of these activities, but I hope you will pay close attention to their implications. You are some of the best and brightest young people of China, who have come to MIT in order to pursue education mainly in scientific and technological subjects with the leading researchers in the world. Many of you, I am sure, plan to return to China to use the skills you learn here to help China become a truly modern country. 

I respect your dedication to your studies and your deep concern for the honor of your country. I have spent twenty-five years at MIT teaching East Asian history to Chinese and American students, trying to engage them in critical discussion of the complex relationships between China, Japan, and the world from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries. I have dedicated my professional life to improving mutual understanding of what are often very painful subjects on which people hold passionate views. But even the most painful events deserve reasoned, careful, and open discussion if we are to prevent future tragedies. Therefore, I am deeply disturbed by these recent protests, because they threaten to destroy possibilities for productive dialogue. Although some of you may find my views difficult to accept, I must present them honestly and directly. 

I will add that I write only for myself and do not claim to represent the opinions of Profs. Dower and Miyagawa or the MIT administration. The images posted on the “Visualizing Cultures” website were not put there in order to offend. They are an integral part of an ongoing research and educational project which includes lengthy textual explanations that accompany each picture. John and Shigeru have put many hours of their time over the past two years into making the meaning of these materials as clear as possible. They have very graciously expressed regret over the misinterpretation of this images, but they did nothing wrong in the first place. This is not a case of unintentional insensitivity, but of deliberate misrepresentation. In historical interpretation, context is everything. Some students ripped one picture alone out of hundreds of pictures and accompanying textual explanation and broadcast it on the internet. This highly irresponsible act is what caused the uproar in the first place. Those who perpetrated this act have not expressed any remorse for the pain they have caused, nor do they seem to recognize the implications of their acts.

The picture they took has the caption “Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers.” John Dower’s textual explanation paraphrases the Japanese writing on the image and analyzes it as follows: “The subject itself, however, and the severed heads on the ground, made this an unusually frightful scene—Even today, over a century later, this contempt remains shocking. Simply as racial stereotyping alone, it was as disdainful of the Chinese as anything that can be found in anti-Oriental racism in the United States and Europe at the time —as if the process of Westernization had entailed, for Japanese, adopting the white man’s imagery while excluding themselves from it. 

This poisonous seed, already planted in violence in 1894-95, would burst into full atrocious flower four decades later, when the emperor’s soldiers and sailors once again launched war against China.” John Dower explains very clearly that this is a racist, shocking image, that it mirrors Western racism against all Asians, and that it sowed the “poisonous seed” which led to the atrocious Japanese war in China.  Anyone who read these words could not possibly mistake the image for an endorsement of Japanese imperialism. Therefore I conclude that those who broadcast the image without its context had malicious motives. They intended to whip up anti-Japanese hatred in order to promote a political agenda. Since John Dower has been the most sensitive of all scholars of Asia to the pain of racism, the fact that they took his work as the tool of their project is especially despicable. There is no excuse for it.

Some of the students presented demands presented at the meeting on April 26 which are simply unacceptable by the ordinary standards of American academic life.  They include: removing the website on Visualizing Cultures, apologizing to the Chinese community, canceling academic workshops scheduled as part of this research project, and revising the text and images to accord with the preferences of the students. Email messages from some MIT alumni have even called for Professors Dower and Miyagawa to be fired. In order to calm the situation, the MIT administration and Professors Dower and Shigeru have conceded some of these demands, while insisting on their own integrity.

I respect their decision, but let me explain why, even though I understand your anger, I find these demands unacceptable. MIT hires to its faculty only scholars of the highest caliber. When I was the head of the History Faculty, we hired John Dower after a national search indicated that he was the most outstanding scholar of Japanese history in the country. He has won many prizes to confirm that judgment. No one I know is more deeply committed to the empathetic understanding of the peoples of Asia than John Dower. Professor Miyagawa deserves equal respect. 

You, despite your passion, are not specialists in East Asian history. Like any field in the sciences or engineering, historical study requires intensive concentration, acquisition of essential research skills, careful study of documents, and thoughtful, clear, writing. Those of you who think that you know the history of East Asian better than these distinguished scholars lack the authority to make this claim. No one so far has presented any evidence that the materials presented on the Visualizing Cultures are mistaken or biased. It is disrespectful of the dedication of serious scholars to make such emotional charges based on no evidence. 

Contrary to the accusations of the protesters, the materials on “Visualizing Cultures” do not glorify Japanese imperialism. The visual images and the textual explanation describe and analyze the power of Japanese propaganda about the war. But to describe is not to condone. The text by John Dower makes it very clear that these images are shocking, racist, and sadistic. They did, however, have a powerful impact on the Japanese public at the time. We cannot ignore their power, but we must explain it. Suppression will not help us to understand them. The American university is based on the fundamental principle of academic freedom.

Scholars must be allowed to engage in whatever research activities they find most challenging in their professional fields. Their work is subject to the judgment of their peers in their discipline, and they must respond to careful, reasoned criticism from professional colleagues. Scholars also engage in open dialogue with students and the general public in order to promote public awareness of their research. But ultimately, no one can tell them what to study, or demand that their work be suppressed. The Sino-Japanese war indeed raises many crucial issues about East Asian history, and I would encourage you to explore them further. 

Consider the following paradox, for example: after its defeat by Japan, the Qing government of China sent thousands of Chinese students to Japan for advanced study, to the very country that had committed atrocities against it. In fact, the Qing began the foreign study program that has brought you students to the U.S. today. Why did it do so? Because the Qing rulers realized that China was backward and weak in the face of Western imperialism, and Japan had mastered crucial aspects of industrial production, military organization, and technological skill. Japan was much less alien to the Chinese than were the United States and Europe. Japan had borrowed the Chinese writing system for its own language, and both countries shared the common cultural heritages of Confucianism and Buddhism. 

The Chinese students in Japan picked up many of the key concepts of Western industrial nations through Japanese. Many of the most common Chinese modern political terms, like “minzhuzhuyi” (democracy), come from Japanese (minshushugi). But Japan had created the term “minshu” from the classical Chinese terms for “people” (min) and “master (zhu).” This is just one illustration to show that the Chinese and Japanese peoples have been closely tied to each other for many centuries. The history of their relations cannot be reduced simply to a story of atrocities. To do so violates the historian’s responsibility to describe the entire truth of a complex relationship as best she can. 

Ironically, Lu Xun, China’s greatest modern writer, faced a situation very similar to ours. While in Japan 1905 to study medicine, he saw a lantern slide depicting a Japanese soldier executing a Chinese “traitor.”Shocked by this brutality and by the failure of his fellow Chinese to respond to it, he resolved to become a writer in order to arouse his countrymen to resist oppression. His brilliant short stories and essays are not melodramatic expressions of anti-Japanese hatred. They are deeply insightful, biting comments on the character of the Chinese people themselves. Lu Xun turned his anger to productive purposes, for which he deserves honor. 

You have a great responsibility as leading participants in China’s future. China faces huge challenges in its effort to become a wealthy, strong, democratic, and open nation. You should study not only technical subjects but also the crucial questions of social and historical change that will determine China’s future. There are many outstanding faculty at MIT and other universities who will gladly support your goals. Please open your minds to critical awareness of these most difficult questions in a spirit of reasoned, open intellectual discourse, not one of narrow, self-centered

I wish you well,


Peter C. Perdue

T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations
Professor of History

(Re-published at 薛涌:反智的书生)  May 19, 2006.







(Phoenix TV日本版画事件:应该对道尔教授说一声感谢   林达.  May 25, 2006.








我不得不说,道尔教授已经对这样一幅历史图画作出了足够充分的说明,其正义感和人道精神溢于言表。所谓“没有附加解释”,所谓缺少“相关历史背景” 的批评,只能说是对道尔教授的误读。这种误读,如果不是出于故意,就是出于无知和疏忽。道尔教授的这一学术工作,是对历史上侵略和杀戮中国人提出控诉的证据,作为一个史学教授,他一点没有做错,现在中国学生反过来却对道尔教授发起了一场抗议。事实就是事实,事实十分简单:中国留学生对道尔教授以及麻省理工的指责是没有道理的,此举对道尔教授等是不公正的。

(Southern Weekend值得反省的麻省理工版画事件林达.  May 25, 2006







  5月4日,麻省理工学院校长Susan Hockfield发表声明,表示坚定支持两位教授的学术工作,拒绝外界对该校学术自由的干扰。随后,麻省理工网站的“视觉文化”专题全面恢复。










  在恢复网站的时候,麻省理工学院校长Susan Hockfield在声明中说:“网页将包括原来所有的材料,以及我们根据学校各方深思熟虑的意见而添加的背景和导览说明。令人遗憾的是,在过去一周我们收到来自世界各地的意见当中,有的对项目作者加以辱骂或威胁;有的则要求将网页永久撤销并且或是要求学校对Dower教授和 Miyagawa教授采取惩罚措施。”












(Youth Weekend via Sina.com还原麻省理工辱华版画事件表象与真相.  May  25, 2006.

  文/本报记者 马军 实习记者 朱志鹏 图/MITBBS





  课程教授道歉 校方拒绝处分


  “误读”是因为 网民缺乏质疑精神



  记者进入“视觉文化”主页,看到第3章“throwing off Aisa”(脱离亚洲)中,引发争议的数十幅版画仍挂在上面。但在每个主要页面和每幅画的左上角,都有一个明显的粉红色长条提示,点击进入,就能看到这样一段话:














  “其实这个课程讲了有好几年了,只不过直到4月24日挂到学校首页之后,我们才发现。” 韩麟说。












  “今天,在美国麻省理工(MIT)的主页上出现约一百多幅上个世纪日本人屠杀中国人的画报,还美其名日本艺术。据查这些画报来源于一个任教于麻省理工的日本叫兽(原文如此——编者注)Shigereu Miyagawa的课程……如果你是中国人,请通过适当途径向这个日本人,以及MIT校方提出抗议。”




  或许因为中国留学生的抗议行为,当地时间4月26日,麻省校方和两位教授与近百名中国留学生之间,举行了一次见面会。“麻省的首席执行官克雷也到场。” 参加了这次见面会的韩麟说。











  新闻办公室的行政助理Patti Foley女士谨慎的表示,她需要了解一些情况后通过电子邮件回复记者。

  北京时间5月17日晚11点,记者收到了Patti Foley女士的回信。在信中,Patti Foley发给记者一个麻省官方声明的链接地址,这是署名分别为麻省校长、首席执行官的这两份官方声明。