A 2021-2022 Williams Prize for best essay in East Asian Studies was awarded to Isabella Yang (Saybrook ‘22) for her essay submitted to the Department of History, "Wang Xitian and the Chinese Experience in Imperial Tokyo, 1899-1923: Class, Violence, and the Formation of a New National Consciousness” (Daniel Botsman, Professor of History, advisor).
Drawing upon a remarkable array of sources in Japanese, Chinese and English, Isabella Yang, in her thesis “Wang Xitian and the Chinese Experience in Imperial Tokyo, 1899-1923: Class, Violence, and the Formation of a New National Consciousness,” has crafted a genuinely path-breaking account of an aspect of Tokyo's pre-war history that has been almost entirely neglected in English: the experience of Chinese students and workers in the city in the early decades of the 20th century.
Although the essay begins and finishes with a focus on one extraordinary individual, a Chinese student and activist, named Wang Xitian, who was brutally murdered by Japanese soldiers in the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, it offers far more than a simple biography. It begins by tracing the development of the now almost entirely forgotten "Kanda Chinatown" that formed in the center of Tokyo in the first years of the 20th century, as elite Chinese students began to flock to Japan to take advantage of opportunities to pursue higher education. That Chinese students, especially famous writers such as Lu Xun, came to Japan in this period is, of course, well known, but Yang’s contribution here is to ground the experience of those students in the history of Tokyo as a city, paying close attention to the specific neighborhoods where they studied and lived. The second part of the essay, which is even more impressive in its research, explores the development of a very different kind of Chinese community, one formed by poor laborers from Zhejiang in the Oshima-machi neighborhood of Eastern Tokyo in the years after World War I. Needless to say, this group is much less well documented than the elite students, but Yang was able to locate published collections of primary documents in both Japanese and Chinese to explore the history of this community, and she also scoured collections of pre-war Japanese newspapers to trace a series of police crack downs that targeted working-class Chinese migrants in the city in the years leading up to the 1923 earthquake. She then discusses how, in the aftermath of the earthquake, the Chinese residents of Oshima-machi became targets of a little-known massacre.
Telling the story of this reprehensible moment in modem Japanese history is an important contribution in itself. But to her credit, Yang is not only interested in exposing the facts of the Oshima-machi massacre and Wang's murder. She also builds a compelling argument about how Wang’s life, and activities as a social worker, show how the growing nationalist consciousness that took root among Chinese students in Tokyo, in some cases also created links across the class divide that, at an earlier point, would have separated the elite students of Kanda from the poorer migrant workers in Oshima-machi. Yang’s work is not only path-breaking, but it is also compellingly written and organized, with helpful maps to assist the reader navigate the relevant geographies of both Tokyo and Zhejiang. In short, it is a truly remarkable thesis in all respects.
Yang, Isabella Yihan, "Wang Xitian and the Chinese Experience in Imperial Tokyo, 1899-1923: Class, Violence, and the Formation of a New National Consciousness" (2022). Student Work. 13.