Working Notes on Burmese Postcard Publishers

During the long period of British rule in Burma (modern Myanmar), the Imperial Post Office of India, established in 1837, oversaw all mail delivery across British India, which included a circuit in eastern-most Burma. Postcards were introduced through the British postal department in 1879 and were first marketed at the inexpensive rate of a quarter-anna. That same year, a popular Indian newspaper proclaimed, “Postal cards are now a rage all over India.”[1]

The immediate popularity of the mail system, and postcards in particular, was not the case in Burma, however. Few Burmese elected to use the colonial mail system (unlike in India, Burma had no native mail system previous to British occupation) and postal employees conversant in Burmese were difficult to recruit. By the 1890s, postcards were still a rarity in both Lower and Upper Burma. And while more then fourteen million letters and postcards were sent across the Burmese province in 1900, more than three quarters were written by non-Burmese.[2] Nevertheless, a viable commercial postcard market grew in the first decade of the twentieth century, centered in the provincial capital of Rangoon (modern Yangon). Most of the early Burmese postcard publishers operated professional photography studios and thus many postcard images can also be found in commercial tourist albums now in personal and private collections around the world. This included the work of Felice Beato, Philip Klier, D.A. Ahuja, and Frederick Albert Edward Skeen and Harry Walker Watts. A sizable collection of Burmese postcards can be found in the Pitt Rivers Museum archive at the University of Oxford, donated in 1986 by the Burma-born artist Noel F. Singer, and the wonderfully digitized collection of Sharman Minus.


D. A. Ahuja

Reverse of Ahuja studio carte-de-viste mounting card. Ahuja was at this address from approx. 1906-1920.

The firm D.A. Ahuja & Co. was the largest publisher of postcards in colonial Burma and continued operation through the early 1960s. Very little is known about the personal life of the proprietor, D.A. Ahuja (fl. early 20th c.), but he claims to have established his business in Rangoon in 1885. It is likely he immigrated from India, along with thousands of other Indians during the colonial period, but his family’s precise origins remain debated, with both Punjab and Shikarpur (in modern Pakistan) as suggestions. The earliest firm documentation comes in 1900, when he announced the change of his company name from Kundandass & Co. to his own personal name, located at 87 Dalhousie Street in Rangoon. The following year Ahuja published a photography manual in Burmese and in English translation, with the latter entitles Photography in Burmese for Amateurs. In a 1917 advertisement, pictorial postcards remained “a specialty” for Ahuja, but his business had expanded beyond photography and involved exporting a wide variety of Burmese goods.[3]

Ahuja produced some of the most distinctive and vibrant color postcards in South Asia. As is noted on the reverse of his cards, they were printed in Germany, then the commercial center of postcard printing. German printers used as lithographic-halftone hybrid process, first applying layers of color using a lithographic substrate and then applying a black halftone screen. Only the final key plate (i.e. black ink plate) carried the fine detail of the photograph. Several of Ahuja’s images were taken from his competitors, including Philip Klier and Watts & Skeen. While Ahuja apparently bought out the photographic stock of Watts & Skeen, Klier filed a lawsuit against Ahuja for copyright infringement in 1907. Klier won the claim, but it appears Ahuja paid for the rights to reproduce Klier’s photographs since he continued to print them years after the lawsuit.

I still remain uncertain when the colonial British post office allowed divided back postcards. This began in England in 1902, but thus far I have not confirmed if this was the case for the Post Office of India. Postcards were first introduced nine years later in British India, thus I assume there might be a lag in changes in Indian postal code.

Undivided Back

Type 1: This is the only undivided back design I have seen from Ahuja, printed in a distinctive evergreen color. It cannot predate his business name change in 1900. I have not seen any examples with a printed stamp box. Note that the design is similar to the undivide Klier card.
The obverse always leaves a small portion of the card on the bottom (for both vertical and horizontally oriented photographs) blank for correspondence. The photograph is otherwise bled to the edges of the card. The caption uses red ink with an italicized front.

Divided Back

Type 2: I presume this to be the earliest divided back design of Ahuja cards since it follows the undivided back design so closely. Again, I have not seen any examples with a printed stamp box. Significantly, there also appears to be a renumbering of the photographic stock numbers when compared to the same images on the undivided back cards.
In many cases a blank space with caption is retained on the obverse, just as we saw with the undivided back specimens. In a handful of cases, the photograph is bled to all edges of the card and the caption is printed directly atop the image.
Type 3: The black ink design signals an overhaul of the entire card design by Ahuja. The stock number is brought to the front of the publisher line. Ahuja’s use of the word “copyright” is very inconsistent. I have noticed, however, that he uses the term when his is copying a photograph of Klier, a rather unintuitive practice given a lawsuit was brought against him by Klier in 1907. The upper limit of stock numbers for the black-back design I have seen thus far is 155. The earliest cancellation date I have seen for this design is November 1907.
We now encounter Ahuja’s distinctive captioning style, a white label placed at the bottom of the image. There are slight variations in font, but I have not been able to trance out any rationale for the changes.
Type 4: A green ink is now used for the reverse design. “Printed in Germany” is marked in the stamp box. All notices of “copyright” are removed, even if the photograph was originally taken by Klier (I presume Ahuja obtained the rights after the lawsuit). The upper limit of stock numbers for the green-back design I have seen thus far is 614. The earliest date I have seen for this design is August 1912.
Type 5: This card design remains curious to me. It retains the older method of placing the stock number at the end of the publisher line, but still has the stamp box marking printing in Germany. The obverse design also has a white border around the photograph with the stock number as part of the caption.

Philip Klier

Reverse of Klier studio carte-de-viste mounting card.

Philip Adolphe Klier (1845-1911) first arrived in Moulmein, Lower Burma, in 1870 and established business that offered a range of services, one of them being a photography studio. By the late 1870s he created a large portfolio of photographs and moved to a new location in Rangoon, the bustling capital of British Burma. Klier’s business continued after his death for about another decade.

Klier produced large format albumen prints of various locations around Burma, focusing on the major cities of Moulmein, Rangoon, and Mandalay. His studio photographs would be inscribed with the name of the locaiton and a stock number while later photos from the late 1880s or early 1890s would also include his name. A large digitized collection of Klier’s work is housed at the National Gallery of Australia. It is difficult to ascertain when Klier started publishing postcards from his photography stock, but it was certainly sometime during the 1890s, perhaps as early as 1890. Noel Singer has suggested the well known German printer, Verlag v. Albert Aust, in Hamburg partnered with Klier to produce a series, Birma Series Asien.[4] The earliest issues (at least, imprinted with Klier’s name) were collages, typically of two or three monochromatic photographs with significant blank incorporated around the images for correspondence. Eventually, this style gave way to single photo cards and then colored cards.

The analysis below is preliminary – there appear to be a wide variety of variants in both the obverse and reverse design.

Undivided Back

Type 1: The reverse for the Birma Series Asien cards issued by Verlag v. Albert Aust.
In addition to the caption providing the location of the photograph, a series stock number was included.
Type 2: The reverse deign for the early monochromatic collage cards (see above). Except for the inclusion of the stamp box, this design is similar to the back of the undivided Ahuja cards. The collage cards backs are typically in red ink.
The obverse of the collage cards, in addition to the caption, would incorporate Klier’s name and address, and the word “copyright” – presumably in accordance with new trademark laws enacted in 1894 (see Berchiolly 2018: 98n.16).
Type 3: The reverse design for an unknown publisher that used Klier’s photographs, only identified by Klier’s inscription on the original photograph, not imprinted on the card. Not all cards with this reverse design have a photograph with Klier’s inscription in view, thus more research needs to be done on these issues.
Type 4: Similar to the reverse design above, the obverse bears a single image bled to three edges (the bottom or right side is left blank for correspondence). The image could be monochromatic or polychromatic. Some monochromatic images are printed in dark blue ink for both the obverse caption and reverse design. Colored images typically have black ink reverse designs, like above. I presume these to be later than the collage cards with red ink reverse designs.
The obverse bears Klier’s name and a stock number.

Divided Back

Type 5: A reverse design for monochromatic images bled to all four edges.
Type 6: A reverse design for monochromatic images bled to all four edges. I am unsure of the number in the bottom right.
Type 7: A reverse design for colored images. I am unsure of the number in the bottom right.

Notes

[1] Clarke 1921: 8.

[2] Frost 2016: 1059.

[3] Berchiolly 2018: 113. I am indebted to Berchiolly’s work for the life of Ahuja and Klier.

[4] Noted in Berchiolly 2018: 98.

References

  • Berchiolly, Carmin. 2018. “Capturing Burma: Reactivating Colonial Photographic Images through the British Raj’s Gaze,” MA Thesis, Northern Illinois University.
  • Birk, Lukas and Berchiolly, Carmín. Reproduced: Rethinking P.A. Klier and D.A. Ahuja. Vienna: Fraglich Publishing.
  • Clarke, Geoffrey. 1921. The Post Office of India and its Story. London.
  • Davis, G., and Martin, D. 1971. Burma Postal History. London.
  • Falconer, John. 2014. “Cameras at the Golden Foot: Nineteenth-century Photography in Burma,” in 7 Days in Myanmar: A Portrait of Burma by 30 Great Photographers, by John Falconer, Denis Gray, Thaw Kaung, Patrick Winn, Nicholas Grossman, and Myint-U Thant. Singapore: Didier Millet, pp. 27-29.
  • Frost, Mark. R. 2016. “Pandora’s Post Box: Empire and Information in India, 1854–1914,” English Historical Review, Vol. 131, No. 552, pp 1043-73.
  • Imamura, Jackie. “Early Burma Photographs at the American Baptist Historical Society,” Archives, Vol. 4, No. 1. [here]
  • Khan, Omar. 2018. Paper Jewels: Postcards form the Raj. Mapin Publishing Pvt. Limited. [also see website below]
  • Sadan, Mandy . 2014. “The Historical Visual Economy of Photography in Burma,” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, Vol. 170, pp. 281-312.
  • Singer, Noel F. 1993. Burmah: A Photographic Journey, 1855-1925. Gartmore, Stirling: Paul Strachan Kiscadale.
  • Singer, Noel F. 1999. “Philipp Klier: A German Photographer in Burma,” Arts of Asia, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 106-13.

Online Resources

A Visual Primer for Chinese Mountain Censers (Boshan lu)

Two centuries before the common era, ideas about distant mountains being home to immortal beings started to gain popularity in the Chinese imperial courts. The first emperor of a unified China, Qin Shihuang (r. 221 – 210 BCE), in his quest for an elixir that would extend his life, even sent a mission to investigate the location of the isles of immortals thought to exist off the eastern coast. Ideas like these reflect the social, political, and religious significations of mountains in the ancient Chinese imagination.

As a generic type, boshan lu 博山爐, often translated as “mountain censers,” represent a long East Asian artistic tradition of crafting incense burners in the shape of a mountain. The form first originated in the second century BCE and continued (with slowly lessening popularity) for hundreds of years. The apex production of mountain censers was during the Han Dynasty (202-BCE — 220 CE) when bronze foundries perfected the delicate craftsmanship necessary to create ornate mountainscapes crawling with people and fantastic creatures. Apertures, often hidden within the craggy rock face, would emit the smell of burning incense and animate the visual scene with curls of rising smoke.

After the Han, the mountain censer was more frequently made in ceramic and regional variations started appear, sometimes creating an object that bore only the faintest resemblance to the Han prototypes. Floral elements became increasingly common, sometimes completely replacing the mountain cliffs with petals. Abstraction became the norm as more regional kilns started to produce mountain censers in addition to a range of different censer designs.

Here I provide a simple visual narrative of the mountain censer with minimal comments in the captions. If you’d like more information about these censers there is plenty of other information online and I’ll leave a few recommendations at the end.

Too often, East Asian art history books, or even world art textbooks, show one among a handful of very early, and very ornate, mountain censer specimens. (It’s typically one of the first three below.) Those designs, all made for members of the imperial family, did not last very long, and the mountain censer form underwent significant changes throughout the centuries. This is meant to be a visual primer for the long history of the mountain censer form.

Each image below is made in a 16×9 slide format; feel free to download the images for classroom use. If you’d like better resolution images feel free to email me: pmr01ATucsbDOTedu. _/|\_

Standing at nearly 11 inches in height, this is an exquisitely crafted vessel. Small figures of humans and animal are included in the folds of the rocks. It has become customary for modern scholars to claim mountain censers depict the land of the immortals (xian 仙), mythic beings envisioned since the Han to occupy islands off China’s eastern coast . The mountain censer is most often believed to depict the immortal isle of Penglai 蓬萊 rising up from the sea.
Animal motifs were frequently incorporated into the decor of the mountain censer. The lower register of openwork around the lid here depicts fantastic beasts such as the dragon and phoenix. Many mountain censer have trays; their use has been in dispute since the Song dynasty. Some claim the trays were used to hold water to cool the device when in use (and also vivifying their representation of the isles of the immortals), while others claim it was for catching ash.
This censer has two inscriptions telling us that it was cast in 137 BCE and made to be housed in the imperial Weiyang Palace (Weiyang gong 未央宮). The censer body is held aloft by gilded bronze bamboo stem that terminates at the top with three dragons holding the basin.
Because mountain censers appear in the archaeological record rather suddenly, one scholar, Jessica Rawson, has proposed a hypothesis that older Central Asian censers with conical lids may have inspired Chinese artisans. The “Rawson hypothesis” is partly founded on a well known claim – that by the second century BCE, China had ongoing contact with regions further west.
Metal workers would sometimes embellish the stem of the vessel with creatures, here depicting a bird or phoenix standing atop a turtle while holding the censer basin in its beak. Above, we saw a man atop a beast holding the censer. Below, we will see two twisting dragons acting as the stem.
Chinese archaeologists unearth amazing finds every year. This mountain censer was recovered from a tomb discovered in 2011. The original excavation report claimed to find the residue of burned aromatics inside the vessel.
Many recovered mountain censers are more simple in design, sometimes rendering the mountain with less embellishments and less sculptural depth. Concerns with functionality are also expressed; this censer is fashioned with a hinge (seen on the right side) so the lid can be flipped open.
Through the Han and into the Jin, more mountain censers were made in ceramic. This one includes a bird at the top, a feature that also appears in earlier bronze mountain censer designs, as well as older Chinese incense burners that are shaped like chalices (i.e. ritual dou 豆 vessels).
Many ceramicists started to play with the basic design of the mountain censer, creating far more abstract renditions. Here the mountain cliffs resemble the petals of a flower calyx or even the fingers of a flickering flame.
Significant regional differences also start to manifest in ceramic mountain censer designs. The previous two examples were produces at kilns in modern Zhejiang, while this specimen was made in Jiangxi. Note, for example, the elongated rocky outcroppings and the overall taller profile.
While there was a native Chinese artistic tradition of depicting lotus flowers, the influence of Buddhist motifs, especially the frequent use of new lotus flower imagery, cannot be overlooked in later mountain censer designs. Curiously, we find a head protruding from the lotus placed atop this censer lid. The abstract horn shapes surrounding the body of the censer was popular in the kilns of Fujian.
Here we see the side of a lotus flower etched into the censer basin.
This ceramic censer is influenced by the Buddhist sculptural and architectural tradition of reliquaries, known in Sanskrit as stūpa. As was commonly seen in those forms, and here, a spire with discs was placed atop the structure.
One of the more common elements in later medieval censer design was to render the basin into a lotus by surrounding it with petals.
Similar to the above design, in addition to the lotus petals, the top of the lid was decorated with a flaming pearl motif, representative of the iconography of the Buddhist wish-fulfilling gem (in Sanskrit, cintamani).
The mountain censer design lasted into the Song, a full thousand years after it first appeared. By this time, the mountain censer was just one incense burner design among many and it no longer garnered the same social or religious significance of centuries earlier.
The Song was also a period of great trade in foreign incense, with frankincense and aloeswood being two of the more popular imports into China.
This simple, but elegant design that gained popularity in the Song was continued through to the Ming. You can see the faint design of lotus petals around the basin.
As late as one hundred years ago, before the widespread use of modern archaeological techniques, it was believed that mountain censers were the first type of incense burner in China. New finds have shown that incense burners go back to the third century BCE, if not one or two centuries earlier.
Arguably one of the more elaborate and beautiful mountain censers was excavated in Korea in 1993. Standing at over two feet tall, it is considered a National Treasure of Korea.




*There are hundreds of mountain censer designs, I tried to select versions where I could find a good resolution photograph and information about its provenance and current ownership. I claim no ownership of the original photos and only use them here for educational purposes. Unfortunately, for many of the censers, especially the ceramic ones, I did not readily find information about their sizes so I decided to omit that information. The censers noted as part of a private collection were found on Chinese auction sites with no indication of the identity of the final bidder.

**Like deleted scenes in a movie, this is bonus dissertation material – thoughts and ideas that will never make it into my finished work, but stuff I love to talk about nevertheless.

Further Reading [English Resources]

  • Erickson, Susan N. 1992. “Boshanlu: Mountain Censers of the Western Han Period: A Typological and Iconological Analysis,” Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 45, pp. 6-28.
  • Kirkova, Zornika. 2018. “Sacred Mountains, Abandoned Women, and Upright Officials: Facets of the Incense Burner in Early Medieval Chinese Poetry,” Early Medieval China, Vol. 24, pp. 53-81.
  • Laufer, Berthold. 1909 [1962]. Chinese Pottery of the Han Dynasty. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
  • Rawson, Jessica. 2006. “The Chinese Hill Censer, Boshan lu: A Note on Origins, Influences and Meanings,” Arts Asiatiques, Vol. 61, pp. 75-86.
  • Wenley, A.G. 1948/1949. “The Question of the Po-Shan-Hsiang-Lu,” Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America, Vol. 3, pp. 5-12.

2020 Protest Pedagogy/Black Lives Matter Selected Teaching Resources

Here’s a short list of resources for university instructors and students that have been published or initiated – or have belatedly appeared on my radar – over the past week. It’s purposefully broad in scope, some pedagogical development, some personal development, some general (essential) reading.

For a very thoughtful discussion about the limitations of sharing anti-racist reading lists without further pedagogical guidance, see What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For? by Lauren Michele Jackson. I think it strikes at the core mission of university instructors to foster new ways of thinking and cultivate new habits, not just deposit facts to those who are poorly prepared to think through them. [NB: There is a selection bias below for the humanities and religious studies.]


Syllabus Content/Readings

1. Institutionalized Racism: A Syllabus [JSTOR Daily]

“The United States has seen escalating protests over the past week, following the death of George Floyd while in custody of the Minneapolis police. Educators everywhere are asking how can we help students understand that this was not an isolated, tragic incident perpetrated by a few bad individuals, but part of a broader pattern of institutionalized racism…The following articles, published over the course of JSTOR Daily’s five years try to provide such context.”

2. 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: Selections from the Archives of City & Society on Racism, Policing, and Protest [“Virtual issue” of journal City & Society containing free access articles, edited by Julian Brash, Sheri Lynn Gibbings, and Derek Pardue]

“In keeping with our responsibility to cultivate a national and international community of critical scholars of urban life, the editors of City & Society offer this selection of articles, accessible to all, from our archives as a small act of solidarity with all of those outraged and bereaved by the unjust deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and so many others.”

3. Black History Month Library [Google Drive via Charles Preston]

A sizeable collection of black authors’ works (as pdfs) arranged by genre and author’s name.


Critical/Anti-Racist Pedagogy

1. Naming Resistance and Religion in the Teaching of Race and White Supremacy: A Pedagogy of Counter-Signification for Black Lives Matter [article by Martin Nguyen for Race & Pedagogy Journal, Vol. 4, No. 3]

“The need to bring religion into our teaching of race and white supremacy is critically important, but by simply naming it, we take the first step in inviting our students to understand the how’s and why’s of it. The pedagogy of naming described herein, which is inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is theoretically grounded in the theory of signification and counter-signification developed by scholars of religion, Charles H. Long and Richard Brent Turner…Specifically, the study draws upon teaching units from my Black Lives Matter course in order to address how a critical analysis of Christian privilege and Christonormativity, Islam, and religious history can figure into critical engagements with race and white supremacy.”

2. Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Roundtable on “Religio-Racial Identity” [Vol. 88, No. 2; six articles plus introduction, need institutional access]

“Religious studies has a race problem. If recognition of a problem is the first step in addressing it, then calling out our race problem should draw our attention to the seemingly self-evident categories, questions, and modes of analysis through which we study ‘religion.'” (Laura McTighe)

3. Scaffolded Antiracism Resources [Google Doc via Anna Stamborski, Nikki Zimmermann, and Bailie Gregory]

“This is a working document for scaffolding anti-racism resources. The goal is to facilitate growth for white folks to become allies, and eventually accomplices for anti-racist work.”

Chart used as part of an “Integration” activity in the above resource. Derived from Dwight Turner’s “‘You Shall Not Replace Us,’ White Supremacy, Psychotherapy, and Decolonization,” British Journal of Medical Psychology 18(1), pp. 1-12.

4. Essential BLM Reading [Google Doc]

A tightly curated and annotated bibliography (with links) to several influential authors, including works on pedagogy (Freire, Fanon, Baldwin, Davis, etc.)


Additional Resources

1. BLM Resources Master Doc [Google Doc]

Massive list of links to websites and other resources regarding potential donations locations, useful organizations, important petitions, protest resources, and general anti-racism resources.

2. How I’ve Implemented an Anti-racist Approach in My Teaching [Alyshia Gálvez, blog post]

One scholar’s practical approach to critically analyzing your syllabus


I have attempted to curate this list with new resources or items that speak directly to the current protest movements arising around the globe. There is a history of excellent research on anti-racist/decolonizing education that I do not attempt – nor would I have the requisite knowledge – to cover here; I suggest searching for phrases such as: “anti-racism syllabus,” “anti-racist pedagogy,” “decolonizing the syllabus,” and “protest as pedagogy,” among others, as a start. Endless gratitude to my friends and colleagues who alerted me to the existence of several of the resources above.

[An earlier post with resources about teaching with equity during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here: 2020 Pandemic Pedagogy: Selected Resources]



*Frontispiece: Local artists painting plywood boards in downtown San Diego, June 2020. Photo by Peter Romaskiewicz.


Map of Temples in San Francisco’s Chinatown 1850s-1906

Dedicated to Philip Choy (1926-2017)

About this Map and Urban Chinese Temples

This map locates many of the Chinese temples built in San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake and fire. Known generally as miao 廟 in the Chinese community, most of the non-Chinese public referred to these temples as “joss houses.” A principle function of these temples was to house Chinese religious icons, commonly called “joss” throughout the nineteenth century. Rarely, however, did urban temples occupy a whole building; they were more typically semi-public shrine halls located on the top floor of a multi-story structure. Moreover, these temples were not operated by religious institutions and almost all were owned and operated by various community organizations. Often the largest temples were operated by different district associations (huiguan 會館), while other temples were run by secret fraternal organizations (tang 堂) or various other associations organized around clan lineages or trades. Most temples housed numerous icons that would be worshiped for an array of reasons, but often a temple would be “dedicated” to a single figure who functioned like the patron deity of the association or guild. This icon was typically placed in the central shrine of the main shrine hall. The other floors of the building could have smaller shrines or be used as meeting rooms and work spaces for the organization.

About this Project

Much of the nineteenth and early twentieth photography and illustrations of Chinese religious sites remain unidentified because they are often labeled or captioned as generic “joss houses.” To facilitate identification, I compared contemporary written accounts with items from the visual record of Chinatown and cross referenced them with maps and listed addresses of known temples. The end product was the identification of many images of unknown religious sites and the location of several temples of which we only had a written description. I’m publishing here a basic map of the Chinatown temples I have identified. I used the 1885 San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors’ Map as the basis for the main map (directly below) and the 1887 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map and the 1905 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map to help track changes over time. Ultimately, this is the byproduct of a larger project I am currently working on regarding the material culture of early Asian American religions. If you have any questions or comments about this map or imagery, please contact me! Email: pmr01[AT]ucsb[DOT]edu.

Numbers on the map correspond to the temples listed in the key below. A “[?]” indicates that I have not been able to identify an exact address for the temple and its placement on the map is approximate. The last temple marked with an “X” was located on Pine Street which is not included on this map. I have decided to keep the Romanization for the organizational names as they appear today (even if they no longer operate temples in San Francisco) and provide the Pinyin with Chinese characters in parenthesis. Lastly, this map is syncretic, not all of the temples existed at the same time; please see individual temple descriptions below.

Map of Temples in San Francisco’s Chinatown: 1850s-1906

Highlights

The oldest temples in Chinatown are thought to be the Sam Yup temple [#7], more popularly known as the Tin How Temple (Tianhou miao 天后廟) and the Kong Chow temple [#X], both believed to have been constructed in the early 1850s. Waverly Place, the two-block road between Sacramento Street and Washington Street, was known among the Chinese as Tin How Temple Street (Tianhou miao jie 天后廟街) and became the home to the greatest density of Chinese temples by the 1890s. The most popular sites for tourists were the two locations of the Ning Yung temple [originally at #21, then at #4], the original Hop Wo headquarters and temple [#20], and the Yeong Wo temple [#19]. Among the sites listed on the map and which the central icon can be identified, three temples were dedicated to the semi-historical figure Guandi 關帝 [#21/#4, #20/#11, #X], two were dedicated to the Empress of Heaven (i.e. Tianhou), also known as the goddess Mazu 媽祖 [#7, #14], and one to the popular Buddhist figure Guanyin Bodhisattva [#10]. Another popular icon was the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heavens (Xuantian shangdi 玄天上帝), also known as the Emperor of the North (Beidi 北帝), whose icon may have traveled between three different locations [#12, #14, #8], apparently in addition to having his own temple in the 1890s [#5]. Among the numerous fraternal societies that operated temples [including #16, #17, #18], the Chee Kong Society [#9] and Gee Tuck Society [#8] operated two of the most popular.

Selected Temples (With selected Information and Imagery)

1. Lung Kong Association (Longgang gongsuo 龍岡公所)[9 Brooklyn Place]: the central icons were five glorified cultural heroes, Liu Bei 劉備 (center), Guan Yu 關羽 (center right), Zhang Fei 張飛 (center left), Zhao Yun 趙雲 (far right), and Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (far left)[for more on the image below, see here]

Main shrine of temple, from Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, April 1888, photograph by Iasiah Taber

2. Temple of Golden Flower (Jinhua 金花)[4 Brooklyn Place]: the central icon was Lady Golden Flower (Jinhua niangniang 金花娘娘), a figure known to protect the health of women and children

Interior of the Temple of Golden Flower, illustration from Masters’ “Our Pagan Temples” (1892)

3. Lord Tam Temple (Tamgong miao 譚公廟)[Oneida Place]: the central icon was Lord Tam, often considered a patron saint of seafarers, this temple was in existence in 1892

4. Ning Yung Association (Ningyang huiguan 寧陽會館)[25 Waverly Place]: constructed around 1890, the central icon was Guandi [see also #21]

Illustration of the second story balcony of the temple, from Masters’ “Our Pagan Temples” (1892)

7. Sam Yup Association (Sanyi huiguan 三邑會館)[33 Waverly Place]: also known as Tin How Temple, the central icon was Tin How (the Empress of Heaven, also known as Mazu); the temple is believed to have opened in 1852 and was operated by the Sam Yup Association until at least 1899 before changing hands

Photo of front steps of temple, photo by Arthur Genthe, from his Old Chinatown (1912)

8. Gee Tuck Society (Zhide tang 至德堂)[35 Waverly Place]: a central icon was the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heavens; this temple was in existence by the mid 1880s

Fritz Muller postcard of Tin How Temple with the Gee Tuck temple on top floor of taller building on right (c. 1905)

9. Chee Kong Society (Zhigong tang 致公堂)[32 (or 69) Spofford Street]: the central icon remains unknown

Photograph of second and third stories of the Chee Kong building by Adolph Wittemann, from his Chinese Customs (1892)

10. Guanyin Temple (Guanyin miao 觀音廟)[60 Spofford Street]: the central icon was Guanyin

11. Hop Wo Association (Hehe huiguan 合和會館)[840 Washington Street] the location of the Hop Wo Association headquarters in the mid-1880s, it remains unknown if they had a temple at this address as well [see also #20]

12. Eastern Glory Temple (Donghua miao 東華廟)[possibly 929 Dupont Street]: opened in 1871, a central icon was the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heavens

Central shrine of Eastern Glory Temple, stereoview photograph by Eadweard Muybridge (c. 1871)
Likely illustration of Eastern Glory Temple, Harper’s Weekly, 25 March 1871

13. Yan Wo Association (Renhe huiguan 和會館)[St. Louis Alley/933 Dupont Street]: the central icon was the Buddhist heavenly king Virūpākṣa (Guangmu tianwang 廣目天王), confused with Guandi in some sources

14. Jackson Street Temple/Temple of Li Po Tai [730 Jackson Street]: a central icon was the Empress of Heaven or possibly at one time the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heavens; the famed Chinatown physician Li Po Tai (Li Putai 黎普泰) may have owned this temple, thus tracing its opening to the early 1870s

Possible illustration of Jackson Street Temple or Eastern Glory Tempe [#12], from Shearer, The Pacific Tourist (1876)

19. Yeong Wo Association (Yanghe huiguan 陽和會館)[approx. 728 Sacramento Street]: the central icon was the semi-historical figure Houwang 侯王

Image of Houwang, photograph from “Cymbals Crash…,” San Francisco Call, 22 September 1903

20. Hop Wo Association (Hehe huiguan 合和會館)[751 Clay Street]: in existence by 1876 if not much earlier, the central icon was Guandi [see #11]

Shrine of Guandi, from Masters’ “Our Pagan Temples” (1892), photograph by Iasiah Taber

21. Ning Yung Association (Ningyang huiguan 寧陽會館)[517 Broadway Street]: constructed in 1864 and used until around 1890, the central icon was Guandi [see #4]

Illustration of temple interior, from unknown periodical [here]

X. Kong Chow Association (Gangzhou huiguan 岡州會館)[512 Pine Street]: constructed in 1853, the central icon was Guandi

Illustration of temple interior, from Loomis’ “The Heathen at Our Doors” (1870)

Online Resources:

Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (http://www.cinarc.org/index.html): This group published an initial map of Chinatown organizations in 2018 [here], upon which I have expanded and fine-tuned. I owe the initial impetus of creating a temple map to the outstanding editors of that website.

Weidner’s Postcard of the Five Idols of Lung Gong Temple

(Note: This post does not discuss Buddhist imagery, but examines the religious imagery of Chinese immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century)

Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco in the middle of the nineteenth century would be met at the docks by agents of various Chinese associations known as huiguan 會館. These agents would inquire about the newcomer’s place of origin and based on the response each immigrant would be assigned to a corresponding huiguan association. Because common geographic origins formed the organizational principle for the huiguan, these are often translated as “district associations,” referring to the shared native districts of its members as well as the shared regional dialect, local customs, and close family or clan ties among inhabitants of the same locality.[1] American press at the time often referred to these organizations as “companies,” such as the famous Six Companies confederacy, but district associations functioned in far more dynamic ways than as just brokers for Chinese labor. They would provide social support and economic aid for all of its members by providing room and board for new arrivals, lodging and medicine for the sick, loans for those in need, and even legal council for Chinese immigrants facing racial discrimination. Moreover, each district association constructed its own building to accommodate all of these important functions, often reserving the top floor for religious icons where worship could be performed and offerings could be made.[2]

Non-Chinese observers would frequently refer to these buildings as “Joss Houses,” with joss being an Anglicized reading of the Portuguese deus, “god.” Thus, in the minds of many Americans, a principle function of the district association buildings was to serve as sites of religious worship where incense sticks, then commonly known as joss sticks, would be burned and offered to enshrined religious icons. By the 1870s, white Americans would regularly visit the Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York where these temples, along with Chinese restaurants, theatres, markets and curio shops, and opium dens were considered the main attractions. Not surprisingly, local commercial studios took photographs of these same attractions and made them available for purchase in a variety of formats. Exterior architectural photographs showing the display of Chinese plaques and lanterns adorning the association buildings were relatively commonplace, while interior photographs of the shrine halls and religious icons were rather rare.[3] Furthermore, narrative ethnographic accounts given in newspapers, magazines, and guide books rendered these icons invisible in another manner, by regularly dismissing them as “heathen idols” and “grotesque figures.”[4] Given the American Protestant opposition to idolatry, the materiality of Chinese religious practice was often overlooked or, more commonly, openly denigrated.

Figure 1

Yet, the potential commercial appeal for Chinese religious imagery did not escape all professional photography studios. One of the most reproduced photographs of a Chinatown joss house altar, made as engravings in magazines and on books covers, and eventually as lithographic postcards at the turn of the century, was taken by the San Francisco-based photographer Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912).[5] Entitled “The Five Idols in the Holy of Holies in the Joss Temple of Lung Gong,” the photograph was taken in 1887. According to Taber’s 1889 catalogue, he sold the photograph in both 18×22 inch and 8×10 inch formats.[6] In the early 1900s, this image was licensed by two popular San Francisco-based postcards publishers, Edward H. Mitchell (1867-1932) and Charles Weidner (1866-1940) [Fig. 1], thus diffusing the photograph of Chinese religious icons to even wider audiences. The photograph of five similar altar figures with long beards, richly brocaded garments, and peacock feather headdresses undoubtedly played to the sensibilities that Chinese temples housed garish idols that deemed no further serious investigation.

Map 1

From “Official Map of ‘Chinatown’ in San Francisco” (1885), David Rumsey Collection

The identification of these five idols does not seem to be discussed in scholarly literature and will be examined here. The Temple of Lung Gong refers to the headquarters of the Lung Gong Association 龍岡公所 (Longgang gongsuo), now known as the Lung Kong Tin Yee Association 龍岡親義公所 (Longgang qinyi gongsui). According to the association’s own account, the Lung Gong Ancient Temple 龍岡古廟 was constructed at 9 Brooklyn Place, in an alley branching off Sacramento Street, in 1875 [Labeled “New Joss House” in Map 1] .[7] A nineteenth century source claims the construction cost over fourteen thousand dollars, and contained handsome carvings and embroidered decorations.[8]

Though similar in function to district associations, Lung Gong membership did not derive from native districts, but from familial clans, specifically serving members of the Lau/Lew 劉 (Liu), Kwan/Quan 關 (Guan), Cheong/Jeong 張 (Zhang), and Chin/Chew 趙 (Zhao) lineages.[9] The grouping of these four family lineages was not accidental, as each name can be traced to figures who played a prominent role in Chinese history during the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280), namely Liu Bei 劉, Guan Yu 關, Zhang Fei 張飛, and Zhao Yun 趙雲. Moreover, the stories surrounding these figures were dramatized and romanticized in the fourteenth century historical novel the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三國演義), further casting them as important Chinese cultural heroes. The historical origins of the association derive from a story preserved in the Pervasive Record of Guang[zhou] and Zhao[qing] (Guangzhao tongzhi 廣肇通誌). This tells of sacred hill named Lung Gong (Longgang, “Dragon Ridge”) that was located near the village of Kaiping 開平 which served as the ancestral home to the Liu clan. The hill was coveted by several powerful local clans, thus, based on the legends of faithful partnership in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Liu allied itself with the Guan, Zhang, and Zhao clans and constructed a temple on the hill to claim lasting ownership.[10] According to this record, the first Lung Gong Ancient Temple was constructed there in 1661/2. By 1827 a Lung Gong association comprised of these four clans was in existence in Singapore, a precursor to its expansion to America later in the century.[11] The San Francisco temple, along with it records, were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. A new building was constructed on Stockton Street in 1910 before the association moved to its current location on Grant Avenue in 1924.

Figures 2-6

Returning to the photograph of the Lung Gong altar, knowledge of the association’s history provides us some leverage in identifying the religious icons. One contemporary nineteenth century article claims the central figure raised above the others is Lau Pay, who we can identify with confidence as Liu Bei (161-223), the celebrated emperor of the southern Shu 蜀 kingdom during the Three Kingdoms period [Fig. 2].[12] To Liu’s proper left we find Guan Yu (d. 220), often deified as Guangong 關公 or Guandi 關帝, the famed military general who had several shrines dedicated to him across Chinatown [Fig. 3].[13] To the proper right of Liu we find Zhang Fei (d. 221), another general who along with Liu and Guan became sworn brothers as dramatized in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Religious iconography (shenxiang 神像) of Zhang often gives him bulging eyes, an attribute we can easily identify in the photograph [Fig. 4]. Sitting furthest to the right side of the photograph is Zhao Yun (d. 229), another lauded general who served under Liu [Fig. 5]. These four figures comprise the four family clans that formed an alliance under the Lung Gong organizational banner. Sitting furthest to the left of the photograph is Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234), a famed chancellor to the state of Shu. He is easily identified by the feather fan he holds [Fig. 6].[14] While each of these figures have origins as celebrated civil and military heroes of the early third century, their apotheosis took place over the succeeding centuries and were absorbed into what scholars sometimes term Chinese folk or popular religion. These icons, made of carved wood, hair, fabric, and feathers, would have reminded a Chinese immigrant of his or her nation’s rich history filled with tales of heroes exhibiting a conquering spirit.  

Sitting on the table in front of the five image we can see five urns for burning incense. Incense was among one of the most common offerings to religious icons, in addition to food and drink that would be given to nourish them. Faintly visible in front of the censers are canisters filled with thin slivers of bamboo used for divination. Typically these would be used in conjunction with two kidney-shaped wood blocks that would be tossed on the ground and interpreted to understand the will of the deity. Thus, as American commentators were often quick to note, immigrant Chinese had no fixed day or time for religious service, but instead came when they had a concern or problem they wished to resolve. Communication with the deities through offerings and divination practices formed the backbone of daily worship.

While seemingly documentarian in nature, this image emblazoned on Weidner’s postcard heightens the sense of Chinese religious practice as merely idolatrous. No context is given in the caption to identify the figures or state their importance to a Chinese worshiper. Even the specific location of the shrine is erased with the generic “joss house” employed instead. No nuance is given to the variety of Chinese religious icons or religious sites across San Francisco’s Chinatown or throughout the United States.[15] In some ways, this image becomes voyeuristic, a lurid glance into a religious life that was almost wholly mysterious.

Figure 7

Turning to our object’s materiality, Weidner chose to have his cards printed in Germany, the center for postcard production at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Auto-Chrom logo indicates that Louis Glaser of Leipzig was the printer [Fig. 7]. Glaser used a relatively complicated chromolithography process that required multiple lithostones, minimally between 4-6 printing substrates, with each printing a separate hue.[16] This process rendered a high quality print of vibrant colors and deep contrast. When the card was first issued, Weidner was still working with an unknown partner named Goeggel whose name disappears from cards issued around 1904. Weidner reissued his series of Chinatown views after the 1906 earthquake with an extended, and often provocative, caption. For example, his original card depicting a pair of young Chinese girls is captioned simply with “Chinese girls,” but his post-earthquake issue is re-captioned “Chinese aristocrats, reduced to poverty by earthquake and fire April 18,1906.” Several Chinatown street scenes are noted as being “destroyed by earthquake and fire,” while his card depicting the Lung Gong shrine is noted as being “smashed and reduced to ashes.” The wording is particularly evocative of iconoclastic sentiment, suggesting that divine providence caused the earthquake that ultimately halted the unwholesome heathen practices. Curiously, Weidner changed his role from publisher of the first card, to photographer of the second, even though he still used the same photograph taken by Taber two decades earlier.

Both cards bear an undivided back, dating the first to between 1901 and 1904 (when Goeggel departed), and the latter to between 1906 and 1907.


Notes

[1] Huiguan had their origins in sixteenth-century China when Cantonese merchants started these mutual aid organizations in various Chinese cities to help sojourning merchants and craftsmen originating from the same locality with room and boarding, among other forms of social and economic assistance. Huiguan were later instituted overseas as Chinese settled abroad, such as in Singapore and the Phillipines and eventually the United States. Because of their similar organizing principles and purposes, huiguan are often compared to German Landsmannschaft. For the Chinese origins of huiguan and associated craft guilds, see e.g. Moll-Murata 2018, esp. pp. 321-348. For the early history of huiguan in the US, see Armentrout-Ma 1983, Lim 1987, and the more recent Qin 2016.

[2] Some of these shrine halls were not open to the general public, but huiguan buildings would often have organizational halls for various secular functions that also housed small shrines, thus blurring clear demarcations in the use of these spaces for the visiting public. Independent temples, often open to the public, were also constructed around San Francisco, such as the structure at Lone Mountain cemetery constructed by the Six Companies for all Chinese to make offerings to the spirits of the dead, see Qin 2003: 228. Importantly, the distinctions between shrines, shrine halls, and temples is not emic. For example, the famous Tin How Ancient Temple 天后古廟 (Tianhou gumiao), the presumed oldest Chinese temple in California founded in 1852, likely occupied the top floor of the Sam Yup 三邑 (Sanyi) district association building on Waverly Place and was not its own building. Today, the temple occupies the top floor of the Sue Hing Benevolent Association 肇慶會館 (Zhaoqing huiguan) building that was reconstructed after the 1906 earthquake; for more on the worship of Tianhou in the US, see Kuah-Pearce & Huang 2012. Likewise, around 1853­, the Sze Yup 四邑 (Siyi) district association opened a temple dedicated to Guandi 關帝 on the corner of Kearny and Pine Streets, a location that matches its organizational headquarters at 512 Pine Street (address cited in Berglund 2005: 21). The multipurpose use of such buildings in San Francisco can also be found in New York City, where the Chinatown “city hall” at 16 Mott Street housed the Fan Tan Hong (“Fan Tan Syndicate”), the Quong Ying Lung Company (a mercantile establishment), the Sing Me Hong (a laundryman union), the meeting hall of the Mee Shing Kung Saw, and a shrine hall to Guandi on the top floor, see Maffi 1995. Nineteenth century maps and Chinatown guidebooks would often simply refer to these buildings as Joss Houses or temples, even though the activities engaged therein would vary considerably, see for example the 1885 “Official Map of ‘Chinatown’ in San Francisco” in the David Rumsey collection which depicts thirteen different Joss Houses of which only two are denoted as belonging to particular district associations. In 1892, Methodist pastor Frederick Masters counted a total of fifteen “heathen temples” in San Francisco, but more regularly assigned them to particular organizations, see Masters 1892.

[3] Eadweard J. Muybridge (1830-1904) was among the earliest photographers to take an interior photograph of a Chinatown joss house. The photographs were as part of a series of stereoviews of the Pacific Coast bearing the sequential numbers of 840-847. One stereoview (#843; held by the Getty Museum), dated to about 1870, shows three figures behind a joss house altar, with the central icon representing the Emperor of the North 北帝. The editors of the Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee website believe this photograph to depict the interior of the Tung Wah Temple 東華廟 (Donghua miao) once located on Dupont Street; see https://www.cinarc.org/Shrines.html#anchor_331. Carlton Watkins (1829-1916) was another professional San Francisco-based photographer who took another early stereophotograph of the entrance of an unknown joss house, see http://www.carletonwatkins.org/getviewbyid.php?id=1003485.

[4] Many of the more robust descriptions of nineteenth century Chinese temples in America were offered by protestant ministers such as Augustus Ward Loomis, Otis Gibson, and William Speer, see Maffly-Kipp 2005. The quote of “heathen idols” here was taken from the comments of Gibson, see Berglund 2005: 23. “Grotesque idols” was taken from an anonymous newspaper article entitled “The Joss-House,” see Anonymous 1878.

[5] The photograph was rendered into full page engraving accompanying “The Chinese Joss-House,” in Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, April 1888, p. 312. The article notes that Taber used a calcium light to produce sufficient interior illumination to make the exposure. It can also be found in Florence V. Hughes’ “San Francisco’s Chinatown,” in The Golden Rule, May 20, 1897, p. 688 (also see the illustration in Masters 1892: 735). The image was also used as the cover illustration for William Bode’s Lights and Shadows of Chinatown, see Maffly-Kipp 2005: 85-6.

[6] Taber 1889: 5-6. Taber also sold an interior photograph of the Hop Wo 合和 (Hehe) temple showing the image of Kwang Koong 關公 (Guangong).

[7] See Zhao undated. For further passing mention of this association, see Lim 1987: 31-2 and Qin 2016: 36. According to Masters, this temple was a few doors down from the Kum Fa 金花 (Jinhua) temple, also on Brooklyn Place, see Masters 1892: 737-9. Both of these temples are see on the 1885 Chinatown map in the David Rumsey collection, see footnote above.

[8] Masters 1892: 739. Taber took anohter photograph of the Lung Gong incense table [see here]. Regrettably, I have been unable to identify an exterior photographs or illustrations of this building.

[9] Since many Chinese villages were comprised of members of the same family linage and possessed the same surname, family associations and district associations were organized on similar principles in practice. For the minor differences between huiguan and gongsuo see Moll-Murata 2018.

[10] See Liu undated and Lim 1987: 48-9n.61.

[11] Lim 1987: 32.

[12] Masters 1892: 739.

[13] Known since the seventeenth century as the “Saint (or God) of War” (wusheng 武聖) and honored for his loyalty (zhong 忠) and bravery (yong 勇), a deified Guan Yu was widely celebrated among immigrant Chinese. The Ning Yeung甯陽 (Ningyang) district association joss house, widely described as the finest in Chinatown, was dedicated to Guangong, see Andrews 1870: 470 and Masters 1892: 728-32 (the temple apparently moved between these two descriptions, from Broadway to Waverly). The Hop Wo and Kong Chow (formerly part of the Sze Yup) associations also had shrines dedicated to Guangong, see footnotes above.

[14] Further information about the background stories and iconography of the images can be found in Stevens 1997: 145-50.

[15] This point is made more forcefully in Maffly-Kipp 2005.

[16] I estimate six or seven color lithostones were used in addition to the black key plate in our specimen. Chinatown is the subject in these Weidner postcards (using stock numbers printed on the obverse or reverse of the cards): 14, 15, 16, 21, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 140, 142, 156, 162, 190, 458, 459, 589, 590, 591, 592, 593, 596, 597, 598, 599, 600, 690, 694. The cards issued before the 1906 earthquake have at least four designs in total: 1) credit printed on obverse as “Goeggel & Weidner, Publishers”; 2) credit as “Charles Weidner, Photographer”; 3) added reference to earthquake in caption; 4) place credit on reverse (with divided back).

References

  • Andrews, Sidney. 1870. “The Gods of Wo Lee,” Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 25 (April), pp. 469-79.
  • Anonymous. 1878. “The Joss-House,” Chicago Daily Tribune (September 1), p. 16.
  • Armentrout-Ma, Eve. 1983. “Urban Chinese at the Sinitic Frontier: Social Organizations in United States’ Chinatowns, 1849-1898,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 107-135.
  • Berglund, Barbara. 2005. “Chinatown’s Tourist Terrain: Representation and Racialization in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” American Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 5-36.
  • Kuah-Pearce, Khun Eng and Huang, Yedan. 2012. “The Flow of the Traders’ Goddess: Tianhou in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century America,” in Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early US-China Relations, eds., Kendall Johnson. Honk Kong: Hong Kong University Press, pp. 163-76.
  • Lai, Him Mark. 1987. “Historical Development of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association/Huiguan System’, in Chinese America: History and Perspectives, ed. Chinese historical Society of America, San Francisco: San Francisco State University, pp. 13-51.
  • Liu Weisen 劉偉森. Undated. “Longgang shilüe ji sixing yuanyuan” 龍岡史略及四姓淵源 [A Brief History of Longgang and the Origins of the Four Families], May 20, 2020, https://www.palungkong.org/LK%20history.htm.
  • Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. 2005. “Engaging Habits and Besotted Idolatry: Viewing Chinese Religions in the American West,” Material Religion, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 72-96.
  • Masters, Frederick J. 1892. “Pagan Temples in San Francisco,” The Californian Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 2 (November), pp. 727–41.
  • Maffi, Mario. 1995. Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures in New York’s Lower East Side. New York: New York University Press.
  • Moll-Murata, Christine. 2018. State and Crafts in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
  • Qin, Yucheng. 2003. “A Century-old ‘Puzzle’: The Six Companies’ Role in Chinese Labor Importation in the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, Vol. 12, No. 3/4, pp. 225-254.
  • Qin, Yucheng. 2016. The Cultural Clash: Chinese Traditional Native-Place Sentiment and the Anti-Chinese Movement. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Stevens, Keith. 1997. Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.
  • Taber, Isaiah W. 1889. Catalogue: Pacific Coast Scenery. Alaska to Mexico. Views, Albums, Transparencies, Etc. Oakland: Oakland Tribune Publishing Company. [viewable here]
  • Zhao Zhengzheng 趙錚錚. Undated. “Meiguo yu sanfanshi longagn qinyi gongsuo jianjie” 美國與三藩市龍岡親義公所簡介 [A Brief Introduction to the Long Kong Tin Yi Association of American and San Francisco], May 20, 2020, https://www.palungkong.org/usa-sf%20history.htm.

Primer for Online Student Discussion Forums

Given the widespread preference for asynchronous low-bandwidth teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s a quick primer on trying to keep some person-to-person interaction in your not-really-designed-to-be-online online course.

In the hopes of being pragmatic, I discuss what I do and why I do it. There are other ways of running online discussion, this is only one example. A more theoretical, yet still highly informative, discussion of running online forums by Ester Trujillo can be found here. Another article with useful tips published recently in Inside Higher Ed can be found here.

The ideas I discuss below approach more of an ideal scenario with plenty of time for planning, but several different ideas here can be cobbled together for a completely serviceable experience for everyone. Lastly, I’ll admit I describe a fairly programmatic approach to running discussion forums, some may feel more comfortable with a more open-ended approach that suits their teaching style.

What software can I use?

All major college and university Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Canvas, Moodle, or Blackboard, are designed with a discussion forum where students can reply directly to one another.

Other chat-room or messaging software possibilities include Slack, Packback, Flipgrid, or Discord, among many others. Of these, I’ve only used Slack and it’s pretty great. Slack is available as a free desktop app or free mobile app and was designed for collaboration and project management across different groups. Because of this functionality Slack works perfectly well within an educational context where peer-communication is important. Students can interact in “channels” (essentially, discussion rooms) that are set up to handle specific topics, readings, lectures, etc. There is a very minimal learning curve and I know some instructors who prefer Slack over the discussion forums found in their LMS.

Packback is specifically designed for educators, while Flipgrid is a higher bandwidth option for interacting with short videos. Discord is popular among gamers and thus many students may be familiar with how it operates. I’ve also seen some instructors suggest using private Facebook groups, Reddit, or Twitter.

What about basic logistics, like frequency of assignments and due times?

In the past, I’ve had students post before every face-to-face (F2F) class meeting, including during summer sessions that met four days a week. Otherwise, to lessen some of the work burden when teaching a writing intensive course, I would not have students post on days when a writing assignment was also due. In an online environment, it is more likely these discussion posts will form the backbone of the virtual classroom experience and thus will be assigned with regularity.

When I use discussion forums in F2F classes, I use class time to have small group discussions. For online courses, this peer-to-peer interaction occurs by having students post comments on other students’ posts. Because of student workload, I would suggest allowing at least one full day, if not two full days or more for everyone to comment (certainly more than a few hours). For example, if an assignment is sent out Monday, the posts would be due by Wednesday and comments due by Friday. As I will discuss below, I think it is worthwhile for the instructor to provide some comments about the entire discussion at the end of the week, more-so than commenting on every individual student post.

I would also recommend dividing students into small groups (of 3-5 students), either for the duration of the course or for shorter intervals of time. This can be done easily with the software noted above and gives the opportunity to create a better sense of community among members of the small groups. This can also help develop deeper dialogues between students over the long run.

How can I assess students’ posts?

Providing guidance to student on how to think critically and share ideas in online discussion forums is important. The directions you provide should give insight to the kind of critical thinking you want your students to perform. Do you want students to synthesize information or analyze it? Do you want them to offer critiques of arguments or to ask questions? Do you want students to make connections to real life scenarios or to tie ideas back to integral course themes? Do you want students to exhibit creativity or to show command of the material?

Broadly speaking, your means of assessment must be transparent and clear, thus the directions you give should be chosen carefully. If the directions are clear, you can create an easy rubric for students as well. Here are a few considerations.

Quantity: You will likely want to establish a minimum number or words (or sentences, perhaps) that each student’s post will contain. Between 100 words and 250 words is reasonable, but this depends on your goals for the assignment. I would suggest the limit is equally about how much time you can devote to reading every student post on a regular basis – longer is not necessarily better.

Quality: While some may prefer to leave student responses more open-ended, I would strongly suggest having structure. For example, because cultivating citation habits are important in my courses, I require students to include the page numbers of the passages they comment upon. This is in addition to several other aspects I incorporate:

  1. “1BT”: If you are going to ask students to answer specific questions about a reading, try to make sure those questions are open-ended. Do not ask questions about specific content, this turns the entire exercise into a search for a few key terms in order to answer the prompt. I will often assign what I call the 1BT, the “1 Big Thing” (thanks, Scott Van Pelt), where I ask the students to comment on their biggest takeaway from the reading, what they think they will remember for a long time, or why they think I assigned the reading. Sometimes, I will reframe the 1BT as the “1 Big Theme” and I will ask the students to locate a course theme in the reading, often when it is not explicit in the reading.
  2. “3CQs”: In addition to the 1BT above, I will also ask students to answer the 3CQs, or “3 Critical Questions.” These are simply noting what information was new and interesting, what information was old or already discussed in our class (or elsewhere), and what information was odd or confusing. Each of these responses has to be justified or explained in some detail (X was interesting because Y). I would also encourage students to speculate answers to the questions they posed about what they found confusing. (Only in writing this did I discover that Jenn Stewart-Mitchell developed a similarly named “3C&Q model” in relationship to commenting on student posts, see here.)
  3. Other: One could also ask students to summarize the main points of a reading (synthesis), or identify the thesis or conclusion along with the main pieces of evidence (analysis), or isolate what they think is the weakest piece of evidence (critique). I’ve found asking students to make analogies to be the best conversation starters, namely asking student to link the reading to something in the real world, or something in their personal experience, or something they’ve learned previously.  

How can I assess students’ comments on posts?

In order to avoid simple compliments (Great idea!) or critiques (I disagree), some structure should also be given to comments.

Quantity:  You should decide the minimum number of interactions per assignment. Two or three comments per student is reasonable. The word count will typically be significantly less than posts, maybe 30 or 50 words.

Quality: I generally take the position that a comment should either add (agree), subtract (disagree), or clarify. By “adding,” I mean the comment explains how the post generated new ideas or helped create new links to other information for the commenting student. By “subtracting,” I mean the comment critiques the claims in the post in some manner or sets forth an argument for a different interpretation of the reading. By clarifying, I mean the comment poses a question about the post or asks if a certain interpretation of the post (explained in the comments) is what the original post author intended.

How can I grade students’ discussion posts? Do I need a grading rubric?

I would strongly suggest you use a simple 2-level grading scale, like pass/not-pass. The more intricate the grading system, the more time you will spend grading, so keep it simple. This is especially true if you will be grading hundreds of these discussion forum posts over the duration of the course. Many may still prefer a 3-level system, such as excellent/satisfactory/fail. This is fine, just make sure to clearly articulate the difference between an excellent and satisfactory grade.

I more typically use a mastery/redo scale. If the student does not meet all of my criteria for mastery, they have to redo, or in many cases refine, their work. Only if they do not redo the work will they fail that assignment. Of course, this means the first assignment or two requires close attention and more feedback on my part, but I’ve found that front-loading my efforts pays off in the long run.

If your expectations and directions are clear enough, a rubric will be simple enough to craft. And while you do not need a rubric, at least your expectations should be made clear. Below is what my discussion rubric looks like based on the discussion above.

What type of feedback should I provide?

Individual feedback for the first week or two is important to make sure every students knows how to properly engage with quality commentary in the discussion forums. This means making sure students are following directions or are interacting in appropriate ways. Otherwise, my commentary on individual posts is minimal. Sometime I will jump in to stir the pot, or to challenge a claim, or to offer praise, but more often I will let students discussions move forward naturally.

At the end of a block (or week, or module, or whatever), I would suggest making a few summary comments about the discussions that occurred. This means trying to find trends that cut across groups (if you use groups), highlight anything that stuck out as exemplary (and ask students to model, perhaps), and otherwise note how those discussions will build to the following week’s work. It’s also nice to point out when discussion moved in direction that you didn’t expect – what topic or themes emerged that were not originally obvious to you, or what ideas or concepts were not covered by the students that you thought were important.

What if students are rude to one another?

It’s definitely worth having a “netiquette” discussion early. If possible, have students themselves craft “rules of engagement.” Some ideas can be found here.

*If you are looking for other resources related to university teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, see my earlier post here.

2020 Pandemic Pedagogy: Selected Resources

[EDIT: Some may also be interested in these resources: 2020 Protest Pedagogy/Black Lives Matter Selected Teaching Resources]

Below is a short list of resources for university teachers and students to help plan the remainder of the 2020 academic year. We got this.

Disclaimer: While many of the resources are helpful for all disciplines, there is a bias towards the humanities in my selections. Additionally, if you are looking for more technical advice about using your school’s LMS or various online platforms, I’d suggest joining the new pedagogy communities forming in places like Facebook (see list at bottom of this post). One more housekeeping note: I’ve recently posted a primer about creating online student discussion forums.

First, the Fun Stuff…

Pandemic Pedagogy Meme [Renea Frey]

The Pandemic Pedagogy Theme Song [Michael Bruening, I Will Survive (Coronavirus Version)]

My Preferred Zoom Background [This Is Fine, KC Green]

Now, On to Business…

Crowdsourced Syllabus Content for COVID-19 and Related Themes

1. Treating Yellow Peril: Resources to Address Coronavirus Racism

“As we continue to track the development of the coronavirus, racial fears and anxieties have become a dominant frame in which people evaluate the concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus infection. This page is intended to gather textual and digital resources to provide easy access to material useful for teach-ins, talking points, and classroom teaching.” 

2. Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus

“To help us think and teach about contagion, global health, and community in a time of social distancing and fear, we are collecting contributions to this crowd-sourced syllabus, which focuses on literary, historical, philosophical/religious, and cultural aspects of current health crisis and its history.”

3. Teaching COVID-19: An Anthropology Syllabus Project

“This developing document is designed to collect and share resources for anthropologists and other social scientists teaching about COVID-19.”

4. Visual Culture of COVID-19 Syllabus

“This is a collection of resources about the visual representation of COVID-19 in the historical context of visualizing contagion.”

5. #coronavirussyllabus | a crowdsourced cross-disciplinary resource

6. Queering the Pandemic Syllabus

“This is a working/crowd-sourced document that originated from the facebook group Queer Ph.D. Network as a resource for those looking for scholarship that provides a queer analysis/response/context to the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.”

7. COVID-19 Left Perspectives

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Setting Student Expectations and Advice on New Learning Environments

1. Adjusted Syllabus – Brandon Bayne’s principles for his students during his American Religions class

2. The COVID-19 Online Pivot: The Student Perspective – Blog post offering general advice (and links) for students who are studying in a new learning environment

3. Tips for Learning During Disruption – A pragmatically-oriented slide presentation (with speaker notes) for students

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Advice for Instructors

1. Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online – By Rebecca Barrett-Fox, this blog post has quickly become the manifesto for fast transitioning to remote teaching [NB: the post is more constructive than the title suggests]

2. Inclusion, Equity, and Access While Teaching Remotely [really important!]

“Remote teaching presents a number of challenges for faculty, including the logistics–both pedagogical and technological–of how to transition course lectures, discussions, and lab or studio learning experiences online. One issue that needs particular attention is that of equitable access to the learning environment.”

3. Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All [Remember, not all students will have access to reliable internet]

4. Creative Assignment Ideas for Teaching at a Distance [one of my favorite resources here]

“Faculty still need to decide what we will actually do with our students online, asynchronously and at a distance — which is why we developed this list of assignment ideas, which offer ways of rethinking how students might meaningfully engage with course content under these differently mediated circumstances.”

5. National Communication Association: Online Learning Resources

“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more colleges and universities are shuttering their physical campuses and ordering instructional faculty to migrate courses online. NCA’s Teaching & Learning Council has developed this list of online teaching & learning resources; please return for updates and new resources in the days/weeks to come.”

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Helpful Facebook Groups

[Everything above was pulled from the groups below; there’s a great group of folks trying to make the best out of this tough scenario]:

  • Pandemic Pedagogy (group set to private, 20k+ members in March)
  • Pandemic Pedagogy (public [different from above], 3k+ members)
  • Teaching in the Time of Corona: Resources (private, 7k+ members)
  • Higher Ed Learning Collective (public, 16k+ members, formerly the Online Learning Collective, formerly the Spring 2020 Online Learning Collective)
  • Online Teaching Tips for the Plague-Averse (public 3k+ members)
  • Humane Humanities (private, 1k+ members, formerly #humanehumanities)
  • Remote Teaching Resources Group (private, 3k+ members)

Lastly, always remember the most important insight gleaned from this experience [New Yorker]

Nine Tips for In-Class Teaching

I once thought that a good university instructor was simply a captivating lecturer. Being a skilled orator is undoubtedly useful for teaching, especially for larger audiences, but I now see it as single tool in any instructor’s toolkit. A good university instructor is someone who has developed a whole repertoire of in-class teaching tools and uses them in the appropriate situation, depending on the instructor’s educational purpose and particular audience.

Below is a list of tips I’ve commonly referenced when working with early-career university instructors. Broadly they represent a move away from

  • Off-Load Heavy Lifting: This is based on a simple principle: those who do all of the conceptual work – the heavy lifting – make all of the mental muscle. Thus, effective teachers will strategically offload the cognitive work to students in a variety of in-class activities (or CATs). For example, have students offer the examples that illustrate the rule, or have them summarize and clarify the main issues, or have them create the links to the readings or other course materials. The key is patience and dialogue; student responses may not always be ideal, but that should be expected in the development of any skill, especially critical cognitive skills. The best way to build those habits of mind and ways of thinking is to have students actively engage with the material.
  • Scaffold and Model Out Loud: Learning a skill is not the same as memorizing a fact. If you are having your students learn a critical skill, such as solving a problem, analyzing a text, interpreting evidence, or creating an argument, it is important to model how that skill is done and attempt to break it down into individual, progressive steps. Mastery is becoming adept at a series of steps which combine into a larger skill, thus being able to articulate these steps clearly to novice students is important. Not only could this be accomplished through listing steps on a slide or writing them on the board or a handout, but also narrating your thought process when a student asks you a question (i.e. not just giving the student an answer); this includes questions you ultimately do not have the answer to.
  • Questions Drive Thinking: Knowing the final answer is often not as important as knowing how one got there. Remember to strategically ask students checking questions after they give their initial response to an inquiry. For example, give students a chance to clarify their own response if it wasn’t optimal, or ask them to justify their response, to explicate their rationale, or ask them to give an example that illustrates their idea. “What exactly do you mean here?” “Why, what’s your evidence or thought process?” “Can you give us an example?” Asking for clarification, justification, and exemplification are all effective checking questions that will allow students to think more deeply about the concepts you want them to learn.
  • Culture Starts on Day One: It is difficult to change a classroom culture halfway into a semester; you need to create a learning environment on the first day of class that will carry through the course. The initial class may be a “low stress” day, but that doesn’t mean careful planning is unnecessary. For example, if you want an active, engaged, and collaborative environment, those classroom expectations should be established on the first day. Thus, be prepared to ask your students probing questions, or have students respond directly to one another in conversation, or to engage in small group work. This will set the tone of how students should expect to interact with you and their peers throughout the semester.
  • Master your Time and Space: Try to make your classroom dynamic. For one, take advantage of your classroom space. If you can arrange seats, consider creating a circle or horseshoe (or double-horseshoe if you have more students) so students can more directly converse with one another. If you cannot move seats, do not hesitate to invite students to all sit in the front of the class, it will create a more intimate teaching environment. Furthermore, consider breaking you class into 15-20 chunks of time, sometimes referred to as “lectorials” or “lecturettes,” where lecture portions are followed by an activity, such as a discussion or group activity. These questions or instructions can be placed directly into your slides, and can help you plan out your overall lecture timing.
  • Rehearse Before Sharing: One of the toughest social aspects of learning is the fear of being wrong or sounding inarticulate in front of your peers. If you are looking for more student engagement, instead of cold-calling individuals, consider ways in which students can rehearse their answers before offering them to the whole class. This could be a simple as having students think and write down their response before sharing. Additionally, students could share their thoughts with a neighbor or small group first (the traditional “think-pair-share” method). You can also “warm-call” students by telling a few individuals you expect to hear from them after their small group conversations. Having the chance to clearly articulate a response or receive feedback can empower students who are less inclined, or simply not fully prepared, to participate.
  • Focus on the Ends: Consider starting and ending a class with an active learning activity or reflection. For example, to help activate the appropriate mental schema, start class with an “entrance ticket” by writing a challenging question on the board or distribute a handout with a passage to read and interpret. Or, have your students re-read their notes and select a concept they found confusing and share it with a small group. Likewise, at the end of class, have student reflect and complete an “exit ticket” or “muddiest point” where they note the most confusing idea of the day. This provides important information that can be revisited during the next class meeting. Active learning activities such as these need only be 5-10 minutes.
  • Learn Names: If the class is small enough try to learn names (30 students is certainly possible) and use them regularly when talking to students. You could practice by taking role verbally as well as personally handing back assignments, both of which can be done while students are working on an activity early in class. Some may prefer to use seating charts or name tents.
  • Teaching is a Skill, Not a Gift: In my experience, early-career instructors are often reluctant to talk with one another about their classroom experiences. This makes sense since we are trained to be researchers and scholars in our disciplines but are not necessarily formally trained or apprenticed in teaching. This means we should start by learning from each other, sharing our ideas for classroom activities, passing around drafts of our handouts or worksheets, thinking about how to build effective grading rubrics, and so forth. Like many things, teaching is a skill, and any skill requires practice, reflection, and an eye towards improvement. Share your successes and failures with your peers, it will benefit all of us.

Scholarly Writing: The Genre Scramble and the Genre Jigsaw

Under analysis, writing genres can be broken down into composite parts. Take a news article for example. Not only could we distinguish hard news, soft news, and fake news – which, for the sake of our class, I tell students to envision as separate genres – but we could also break down an article into its title, lede paragraph, photo caption, and so forth. Moreover, one could treat these as more than separate conventions that comprise the news article (macro-)genre, but (micro-)genres unto themselves, with their own specific purposes and intended audiences. This type of analysis helps students understand how genres are descriptive and analytical tools, not hard-and-fast prescriptive categories. In the end, genre theory helps give us an analytical leverage that can make our writing more effective.

I put this type of micro-analysis into practice when we first start to address scholarly writing in class. Students will often know the conventions of an academic paper, generally comprising an introduction, body, and conclusion. But do students realize these phases of a scholarly work each have their own functions and characteristics and, moreover, coordinate with one another to synergistically produce a more powerful rhetorical effect? In order to help suss out these distinctions, I’ve used the following activities to help students analyze and identify effective academic writing.

The Genre Scramble

Borrowing a practice from a colleague (Brian, Jackson, or someone else?!), I take an scholarly article or book chapter, print it out and cut it up into much smaller sections (maybe 20-30 sections depending on the selection). I then have students work in groups to piece the paper back together, using whatever clues they can find in the writing. In addition to subheadings, I try to find works that incorporate sequential language (first, second, third, on one hand, on the other hand, etc.), causal language (as a result, consequently, etc.) or self-referential language (as noted above, we will return to this point, etc.) to help in this process.

At one level, this helps students realize they already know a lot about the structure of scholarly writing. At another level, this helps train students to observe the usage – and practical utility – of transitional devices, or the numerous other linguistic cues that situate a phase of writing into an overall composition. This game, which I actively make competitive, is used as an opening activity for a class, getting students thinking and moving since most will clear out desks and arrange the slips of paper on the floor. (I typically allow 15 minutes for this activity, including a quick class discussion about what cues each group used to help them out. Depending on time, I will sometimes skip this activity and jump to the Genre Jigsaw.)

The Genre Jigsaw

This works in the broadest strokes by dividing up a selected scholarly work into smaller (micro-)genres and having students work in small groups to perform genre analysis on their segments. The divisions could include the abstract, introduction, two or three argument subsections (such as methods, results, discussion), and conclusion. For each sections students have to discuss the rhetorical purpose, the intended audience, and any identifying linguistic characteristics (the Genre Scramble help with this aspect).

To help model this kind of analysis, I first talk about the title as a (micro-)genre, an often overlooked rhetorical aspect of first year writing. As a class, we first brainstorm the potential purposes of an academic title (to summarize, to entice, to establish tone, to establish ethos?) and compare these titles to titles of other kinds of writing (how is it different from a news article or novel?).

Next, in a move that is sometimes confusing, we try to discuss audience and how it changes throughout an article. Since most folks intuitively think of audience demographically (age, gender, race, education level, etc.) it is hard to see how the audience may change in the process of reading. To start this discussion I have the class think about where they may just encounter a title of a work (bibliography, table of contents, in-text reference, etc.) and ask them to brainstorm about the mindset of a reader. For example, why would someone be looking through a bibliography? Maybe because they are looking for works relevant to their interests, thus the audience may be someone who is doing research and looking for key words or phrases. This gives us some information about the types of things we may want to include in our titles. Moreover, I guide conversation to how that audience may change when they shift to various phases of the essay (when are readers the most engaged, when are they most likely to read over sentences or passages, when are they the most critical or skeptical, when are they hoping for a summary of ideas?) This points to how the audience expectations change and how writing can accommodate that change.[1] They return to this point during their group discussions.

Lastly, we turn to a discussion about the language conventions of a title. Given what we analyzed about purpose and audience, what language could be included into a title? What can we notice about the language of the title of the work we are analyzing? I often end by noting how it’s pretty common in the humanities to structure a title with a colon in the center (the “colon construction”), looking something like this “Generality/Catchy Phrase: Specificity/Descriptive Statement.”

The Jigsaw Method

Using the analysis of the title as a model and applying the Jigsaw Method (I originally called this “Divide and Conquer” before learning of the Jigsaw) students then break up into Jigsaw groups, with one student taking responsibility for each phase of the scholarly work. I usually give an overview of the argument of the selected essay, since each student will only be reading a portion of the work (its possible to assign the essay as homework, too). Then students responsible for each phase meet with one another in Expert Groups to identify and discuss the audience, purpose, and specific linguistic cues. Armed with their insights for each phase, they then reconvene with their original groups and discuss the whole essay, trying to map out how the purpose and audience changes at the micro-level throughout the essay and attempt to create a bank of transitional words that appear in each phase. During class discussion, groups share their insights with one another.

While I’ve always enjoyed the analysis of my students, this can be a challenging exercise, especially if the scholar’s argument is complex or otherwise difficult. I’ve come to provide a decent summary of the article first so student can focus on genre analysis, not just comprehension. During class discussion I’ll have groups try to identify the thesis, or areas of strong or weak evidence. Overall, the purpose of this exercise is to have students work together to analyze different phases (or micro-genres) of scholarly writing and try to adopt certain strategies into their writing.

Notes:

[1] One example I like to give regards the use of personal anecdotes in writing. Scholarly readers are more likely to allow anecdotes in the introduction of the essay, since they know there may be an attempt to catch the reader’s attention. On the other hand, scholarly readers tend to not expect anecdotes in the body of an essay, especially when they hope to see formal argumentation regarding the main claims of the essay. In this case we can say reader are more critical and expect to see argumentation.

Varieties of Contemplative Pedagogy: The Transformative Camp and the Critical Camp

[This is an early draft of ideas for an upcoming paper – email pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu if you have any comments or questions.]

The past few years have seen a surge in literature promoting the use of contemplative practices in higher education. The suggestions offered by these advocates can appear bewildering, ranging from slightly modified classroom activities to more obscure Asian-inspired meditative techniques. In a seminal volume on contemplative pedagogy, Judith Simmer-Brown admits that “there is no single contemplative pedagogy and no single prototype of the contemplative professor.”[1] Anyone exploring contemplative pedagogy through published literature or online resources will quickly confirm this observation.

The nomenclature “contemplative pedagogy” (CP) functions as a broad and malleable umbrella for a wide range of teaching and learning strategies. This diversity is a result of CP’s origins in several educational trends that began as early as the 1960s, or depending on how one defines “origins,” extending back much further.[2] As an initial step to understanding CP, I try to distinguish between two main strains or camps which remained entangled in practice in complex ways.[3] Specifically, through examining both published and online resources, we will find divergent methods, goals, and institutional supports for the advocates of CP. Thus, in order to see an overarching picture of this experimental educational movement and its internal complexities, it will help to start by making generalizations.[4]

Critiques of CP often reduce the diversity of its practices to a select few – often Asian (or Asian inspired) meditation or mindfulness techniques – without realizing the overlap with more established educational practices. Additionally, some of the more vocal advocates of CP, in order to carve out a unique niche, also overlook the important intersections with critical pedagogical theory. This is often found in the rhetoric of advocates who disparage the impersonal modern educational system, but remain unaware of the sizable scholarship placing students at the center of the classroom experience.[5] The most charitable (though admittedly incomplete) analysis of CP would highlight the alignment with some of the most important advances in the scholarship on teaching and learning in the past few decades. In fact, it is impossible to untether CP from the larger trends in education, regardless of what advocates or critics claim. This essay is an attempt to analyze CP critically and to highlight some connections to contemporary non-CP practices.

The “Transformative” Camp

Arguably, one strain of CP more consciously foregrounds the importance of the introduction of Asian religious traditions into the US in the mid-twentieth century and the mainstreaming of meditation practice. These practices, especially the ones derived from Buddhism, are more commonly championed in their modernist, (pseudo-)secularized forms of “mindfulness.”

Among the long list of individuals and institutions who advocate the use of contemplative practices in educational contexts, the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society (CMind) and its academic arm known as the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE), are perhaps the most well-known and influential.[6] CMind promotes an array of retreats, workshops, and annual conferences on contemplative practices and the development of curricula for university settings. Since 2014, CMind has also published The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry and between 1997 and 2009 granted fellowships to 158 faculty to develop contemplative pedagogical approaches.[7] CMind, ACMHE, and other organizations, while diverse in their missions, value the personal and societal transformative potential of contemplative practices.[8]

Several figures whose scholarship has formed the early direction of the CP movement have notably helmed CMind, including Mirabai Bush, Daniel Barbezat, and Arthur Zajonc. Their approaches, unsurprisingly, reflect a socially engaged and personally transformative perspective and either draw from, or have an elective affinity with, a variety of other educational movements such as integrative education (of Ken Wilbur and Sri Aurobindo)[9], transformative education (of Jack Mezirow)[10], spirituality in education[11], and mindfulness in education.[12] Additionally, there are resonances with service learning[13] and the recently conceptualized compassionate pedagogy and the pedagogy of kindness.

The contemplative methods promoted by this strain of CP are diverse and not easy to characterize. Descriptive language tends to gravitate towards ideas of interiority, personal reflection, silence, presence, and transformation. As is noted by Patricia Owen-Smith, these practices are “solidly anchored in mindful attention, the sine qua non of all contemplative practices.”[14] Exercises such as deep listening or deep reading, also referred to as lectio devina from traditional Catholic monastic practice, embrace a slow, reflective pace that enables students to establish more meaningful connections with the material.[15] Furthermore, as noted in Barbezat and Bush’s introductory book on contemplative practices, the activities of introspection and awareness also “yield increased empathy for others and a deeper sense of connection to the world.”[16]

A diagram called the Tree of Contemplative Practices is used to represent the range of contemplative activities organized into several clusters: activist, creative, generative, movement, relational, ritual or cyclical, and stillness [Fig. 1]. A quick glance reveals that the specific practices outlined are far more diverse, and far more interdisciplinary than one would typically see in traditional university classroom settings.[17] They are rooted, literally in the case of this diagram, in communion, connection, and awareness. This is just one example of how CP is believed to impact both the personal and social domains.

2012-tree2-800x810v2.jpg
Carrie Bergman (illustrator) and Maia Duerr (designer), Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

An interesting comparison can be made to the taxonomy of student learning goals popularized by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues in 1956. While numerous modifications and re-conceptualizations of Bloom’s Taxonomy have been offered over the years, it remains arguably the most popular tool among instructional development (or teaching commons) departments across university campuses.[18] The version of CP stressed by CMind extends well beyond the cognitive skills expressed by Bloom, integrating both affective and psychomotor aspects. If Bloom’s Taxonomy can be seen to represent a traditional or normative educational approach, it is apparent how significantly CP recasts the mission of education and the techniques of pedagogy. In their totality, CP practices represent a wide spectrum of activities that address the personal transformative potential of contemplation in the broadest sense.

The “Critical” Camp

One might draw a comparison here to what might be characterized as a more critical approach to CP. Harold Roth is often cited as the main contributor to the first conceptualization and development of an interdisciplinary contemplative studies field in higher education, of which CP might be considered an expression.[19] Whereas advocates like Zajonc would frequently use terms like “interiority” to characterize contemplative practice, Roth, borrowing from Dutch psychologist Han de Wit, has popularized the concept of a “first-person discourse” that describes and explains the aims of a contemplative approach.[20] A subject first-person approach is held in contrast to a putatively objective third-person approach, which is often cast as the perspective par excellence into which students are intellectually socialized.

A critical contemplative practice would employ both perspectives, sometimes in conjunction with a more recently fleshed out inter-subjective second-person approach.[21] This particular language and framing is common to many CP advocates in both camps,[22] but because a point-of-view pedagogy is not the language traditionally used within educational psychology, instructional development, or the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL) it is worth examining in more depth.

Roth has proposed the disciplined use of first-person perspectives to investigate subjective experience. This held in contrast to normative Western epistemological biases that privilege “veridical cognition,” or the perspective proclaimed by a putatively disinterested and objective observer.[23] Bracketing the question if this reflects how most university instructors teach, the point that Roth raises is salient – should we not increase the value of our student’s own subjective experience and make that experience an object of critical inquiry?

This leads to interesting questions about what type of “experience” advocates of CP would like to investigate. Roth’s views sometimes clash with other figures who take this critical point-of-view approach. At times, Roth seems to advocate for the cultivation of a noetic, “pure experience,” in line with the insights proposed by religious mystics.[24] It is worth quoting Roth in his own words:

“By turning our backs on the systematic exploration of religious subjectivity from the inside out, so to speak, we have also cut ourselves off from a valuable approach to the many problems of human existence. We have ignored a valuable source of empirical knowledge that has been well developed in the contemplative traditions of Asia, and we deny ourselves a potentially valuable method for studying these traditions.”[25]

In making such assertions, Roth highlights a specific “contemplative experience” of which students attempt to cultivate a first-person knowledge. Roth ultimately hopes to incorporate these contemplative experiences into formal academic analyses that take a third-person perspective, most directly, into the fields of religious studies or contemplative studies.[26] Additionally, Roth envisions the critical combination of the first-person and third-person approaches in other fields as well, most notably the creative arts such as the visual and fine arts, creative writing, and the performance arts, although he does not discuss specifically how contemplative practices could be utilized in the classroom.[27]

Other scholars are not as ready to embrace Roth’s contemplative experience. Louis Komjathy also promotes a critical first-person method, but instead envisions the experience primarily as metacognition, requiring reflection on personally held assumptions, ingrained opinions, and unrecognized biases. These first-hand student experiences are all historically and socially constructed, as are the contemplative experiences of religious practitioners who are studied.[28] This critical first-person method challenges egotistical or culturally decontextualized perspectives and ultimately functions as a “complex negotiation between personal interiority, interpersonal engagement, and transpersonal concerns.”[29]

Komjathy’s vision of a CP point-of-view pedagogy is among the most encompassing and readily transferrable to disciplines outside of religious studies or contemplative studies because it appears to highlight the critical practice of metacognition – but, problematically from the perspective of comparison with more established pedagogical methods, Komjathy does not use this term.[30] Furthermore, Komjathy’s CP does not exclude the implementation of meditation-inspired or mindfulness practices, but if they are incorporated into a course they become an object of inquiry that are measured against primary textual sources, the insights of practicing religious communities, the arguments of trained scholars, and the ideas presented in conversations with student-peers. Consequently, contemplative practice is less focused on the “therapeutic” or “hygienic” aspects of mindfulness, e.g. stress reduction or enhanced focus, which tend to be more of a concern for CP advocates in the transformative camp. Yet, the transformative potential of critical meta-reflection must also be acknowledged, thus the difference between these camps is not necessarily expressed through their overarching goals (indeed, most would say that education should be transformative), but the privileging of certain methods towards certain ends.[31]

A Variety of Contemplative Methods

 There is a variety of discipline-specific, course-specific, or even exercise-specific approaches to the implementation of CP in a class setting. As with any pedagogy, attention must be given to how the course is designed, desired learning goals, student interest, the instructor’s personal values, and the institutional profile, among other concerns. Nevertheless, given the sheer variety of these experiential practices, it would be helpful to see how those practices might also be sorted or categorized. There has been no commonly accepted approach to this division among CP advocates, although several suggestions have been offered, which I collect and summarize below.

For example, one cluster of practices has been termed “hygienic” or “Jamesian” (from William James). This largely concerns the implementation of mindfulness techniques to cultivate focused attention and alleviate anxiety.[32] Defenders of these practices will often note the growing body of scientific literature that points to their efficacy and arguably these remain the most popular expressions of secularized meditation among the general population of students and teachers. The purpose of these techniques is to enhance overall student learning, and thus these are promoted by instructors from all disciplines and fields. Some university instructors, however, do not feel academic course work should involve what they see as therapeutic practice (or pastoral care) and consequently eschew this contemplative approach.[33] Notably, recent contraindications in meditation research have also caused some pause in the implementation of similar secular-oriented mindfulness practices.

The second cluster of practices has been termed “modes of inquiry” which includes the widest assortment of classroom practices, many having barely discernable relationships to traditional meditation techniques. This could be exercises such as freewriting, reflective journaling, deep listening, deep reading (lectio devina), “big questions” inquiry, and so forth.[34] It is possible to consider metacognition here as well, where students reflect on their “interpretive tendencies, theoretical (theological?) commitments, unquestioned assumptions, and…ingrained opinions.”[35]

Lastly, in what Anita Houck has termed the “contextualized’ approach, this involves the teaching of fairly straightforward religious practices, like traditional Buddhist forms of meditation. Not surprisingly, this is mostly limited to the fields of religious studies, contemplative studies, or theology. Recently, however, Candy Gunther Brown has questioned if there are legal hurdles for teaching these practices within a public school setting, a topic that will surely be revisited in the future as contemplative practices gain more mainstream attention.

Contemplative studies and its expression as CP in higher education has become strongly associated with several figures, groups, and institutions as discussed above. Notably, this includes the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society, the Mind & Life Institute, the Contemplative Studies Group at the American Academy of Religion, and several university programs, including the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University, started by Harold Roth. (Other important university programs are noted below.) Regardless of the diversity within CP, I believe the pedagogical focus on “interiority” and a “critical first-person approach” further reflects educational trends emerging in the 1990s which highlighted a move towards a student-centered classroom experience, of which reflection and metacognition played an integral role. The nuanced connection and different expressions of contemplative reflection remain an area deserving of more research.

Resources:

University Interdisciplinary Programs

Instructional Development Sites

CP & CP Related Journals (or special issues)

Notes:

[1] Simmer-Brown 2011.

[2] While many will trace the origins of CP to contemplative practices introduced to the United States by advocates of Asian religious contemplative practice, educational movements also played an important role. Some proponents of CP will incorporate figures like William James into their lineage of formative pedagogues, among others. Of course, one could be inclined to trace the origins of CP back to contemplative practices of Asian antiquity, but I think this would unnecessarily characterize, as some advocates of CP do, modern educational paradigms as devoid of contemplative, or meta-cognitive aspects.

[3] The metaphor of a spectrum may provide more clarity here as these two camps are positioned at the two furthest ends of this spectrum. It may be that these camps are more ideal types than actually represented by an individual or group of CP scholars.

[4] One can see that both critics and advocates of CP will sometimes reduce the complexity of the field down to more generalized identities. See, for example, the nature of Kathleen Fisher’s (2017) criticism of CP, as well as Louis Komjathy’s (Fort & Komjathy 2017) reply.

[5] Advocates of CP will sometimes trace intellectual lineages to iconic pedagogues like Maria Montessori, Horace Mann, John Dewey, or Paulo Frier, but gloss over the significance of the constructivist “student-centered” movement in pedagogy in the 1990s – of which I would place the modern origins of the CP movement.

[6] Other important non-academic organizations include the Mind & Life Institute, the Garrison Institute, the Fetzer Institute, and the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. One could include Naropa University here as well. For a history of CMind and contemplative education in higher education see Bush 2011 and Owen-Smith 2018.

[7] The Contemplative Practice Fellowship Program (CPFP) was funded by the Fetzer Institute and run through CMind in association with the American Council of Learned Societies (ALCS).

[8] Komjathy 2018: 31-2.

[9] See Barbezat & Pingree 2012: 179.

[10] Zajonc 2003.

[11] See Fort & Komjathy 2017: 25 and esp. Sherman 2014.

[12] This may be just a transformation of Spirituality in Education, see Komjathy 2018: 162. It seems the widespread popularity of mindfulness as a mental health treatment has spurred a conception among some that CP is simply teaching mindfulness techniques in a classroom setting, see Bonnardel et. al. 2018.

[13] See Owen-Smith 2018: 15ff.

[14] Owen-Smith 2018: 24-5.

[15] See especially Owen-Smith 2018: 42-8.

[16] Barbezat & Bush 2014: 5. A focus on interiority and attention is also noted in Owen-Smith 2018: 26-7. Barbezat also acknowledges the importance of “a type of intra- and interpersonal awareness, compassion, focus and discernment” (quoted in Owen-Smith 2018: 23). On the other hand, Kathleen Fisher remains skeptical that self-knowledge can lead to empathy, see Fisher 2017.

[17] It is worth noting that CP advocates from the other camp also perceive interdisciplinary benefits, see e.g. Roth 2007: 20-22.

[18] This is not necessarily because it is the best or the most complete, but because it is the simplest and easiest to use for conceptualizing and crafting learning objectives. There are many limitations of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

[19] Not surprisingly, Roth was a CMind fellow.

[20] Komjathy 2018. The phrase, “taboo of subjectivity” coined by Alan Wallace in 2000, is also another source of inspiration for Roth. See also Komjathy 2015: 10-11 for further comments.

[21] See especially Gunnalson 2009. Also see Komjathy 2018. The Contemplative Studies concentration at Brown University, started by Roth, formalizes the conjoined methodology of a third-person and first-person approach, see here. [https://www.brown.edu/undergraduateconcentrations/contemplative-studies-ab]

[22] See for example Owen-Smith 2018: 27 and Barbezat & Bush 2015: 105-6.

[23] Roth seems to suggest the origin of this epistemic stance stems from a religious, all-knowing, God-perspective, see Roth 2007: 2. I would suggest that Roth “strawmans” the study of religion by contemporary scholars; there is plenty of research which is self-reflective and avoids overly-broad, eminently stable claims of objectivity. I am not sure the commitment to a veridical cognition is due to a unrecognized assent to a Christian God-perspective, but to a methodology where scholars can analyze and critique the claims of another scholar. This is different from taking the perspectives of a religious practitioner seriously, see Komjathy 2015:11.

[24] Roth 2008: 5-6. After intoning William James, Roth characterizes the rejection of inner experience, the “very essence of religion,” as historical reductionism, see Roth 2008: 10. It remains unclear, at times, if Roth intends to equate inner religious experience with an unmediated mystical experience or merely the emic perspective of religious practitioners, or a mixture of both. Komjathy appears to interpret Roth as inferring a combination of both. Fran Grace prefers to use a guidebook metaphor, where the practitioner represents a person who has actually experienced the given contemplative terrain, see Coburn, et. al. 2011: 173.

[25] Roth 2008: 10.

[26] Roth 2008: 19-22. Specifically, Roth criticizes the rejection of religious practitioners’ views in the study of religion, see Roth 2008: 10. This reflects the scholarly debates around emic-etic perspectives. Komjathy also notes Roth’s focus on cultivating individual contemplative experiences, see Komjathy 2015: 11. Roth further comments that human subjectivity is the source for all cognitive models of the world, and goes on to quote Zhuangzi to support his views, see Roth 2008: 11-14.

[27] Roth 2008: 19-20. Roth unfortunately does not discuss at length how the personal “contemplative experience,” say, of a dancer, would be utilized in an educational context.

[28] See especially the comments in Komjathy 2015: 17. Of course, this does not mean that the perspectives of religious practitioners are disregarded, but neither are they privileged, see Komjathy 2015: 11.

[29] Komjathy 2018: 172. In his chapter on CP, Komjathy notes the challenges to both students and teachers in facilitating this critical perspective, see especially the box on Komjathy 2018: 169-10.

[30] Komjathy himself notes that his vision of CP is already in widespread use in education, Komjathy 2018: 170.

[31] Komjathy, too, acknowledges the benefits of methods such as relaxation techniques, but these do not appear to be a particular focus in his teaching, Komjathy 2018: 173.

[32] Owen-Smith 2018: 24, Houck 2019: 118-9.

[33] See the comments in Fisher 2017.

[34] Sadd 2018, Owen-Smith 2018.

[35] Fort & Komjathy 2017: 25.

[A full bibliography can be provided upon request]