“Of Crickets and Gourds: Pokemon as Ancient Chinese Folk Game”


Full disclosure: I love Pokemon. For some people, being passionate about a topic invalidates research by destroying objectivity. I don’t find this particularly bothersome for two reasons: 1) I would rather be fully honest and open than worry about portraying myself as a sort of uber-professional and 2) the scholarly insight that one is supposed to gain by embedding with a community seems as if it would be hampered by ignoring the personal feelings to which participant observation naturally leads. After all, how can one hope to interpret a community predicated on an activity of enjoyment without, well, enjoying the activity? With that caveat, here is the story of a cultural phenomenon that people have been sharing with one another for over 1800 years, almost entirely because of personal enjoyment.

History: China

(Gourd Cricket Containers; Cultural Entomology Digest 3)

People in China have been keeping crickets as pets since before recorded history. Gourd cages for carrying around these musical companions have been found that predate most of the established ancient empires (see links below). The tale really begins in the Tang period (600-900 C.E.). At that time it became high fashion for courtiers to carry around decorative boxes and gourds with various species of cricket inside. The different species were prized for their songs and the more expensive containers were even shaped to optimize acoustics. This is a practice that continues today, in fact, as a great many people in China how been known to use recordings of insect songs as their ringtones.

To wit, you can’t fix a critter fight.

One of the distinguishing features of the Tang dynasty was the influence it had on surrounding cultures. China has gone through alternating phases of isolationism and extroversion (historian Valerie Hansen calls it the “open empire”), with the Tang being one of its most outgoing periods. At the same time, it’s often seen as a golden age for the creative arts and, thanks to some pretty savvy domestic policies and robust foreign trade, leisure activities flourished at all levels of society. Among these were pursuits that may strike modern Western readers as… distasteful. They included cockfighting, goose fighting, ram fighting, and, of course, cricket fighting. All of these were enjoyed by different classes of people, but it’s safe to say that three broad categories will suffice: men who looked to profit by gambling on the matches; upper class scholars and bureaucrats; and children. As will become important later, all of these people mixed together at the contests, which served as a social leveling mechanism since victory could never be fully assured for any given bout. To wit, you can’t fix a critter fight.


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Deep Multiplayer: Pokemon’s 2000-Year History and Social Impact

Just a brief introduction here: this is a lecture given by Jared Miracle on the cultural history behind Pokemon. Tomorrow we’ll be posting a piece by Jared expanding on this material, but this video gives a great overview of his research in this area. /NM

Jared Miracle holds a doctorate in anthropology from Texas A&M University, where his research has focused on transnationalism and folklore between East Asia and the West, especially where violence and the fighting arts are concerned. His professional interests include popular culture, martial arts, East Asia, archives, narrative, masculinity, violence, the supernatural, human exploration of space, and foodways. In addition to anthropology and folk studies, he has experience working in archives and document curation, is fluent in Japanese, can read Mandarin, and is a popular guest speaker on topics involving the martial arts and Japanese popular culture. He is currently seeking a publisher for a manuscript exploring the history and social role of Japanese martial arts in the United States. Jared is also at work on a book about Pokémon from a social scientific perspective. He is available for guest talks and happy to travel or tele-lecture.


The Weekly Geekout: My Little Pony FIM

A little over a year ago,  I decided I wanted to understand what the buzz was about over My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP: FIM). Why were so many adults, and so many men, fans of the show? Having read about bronies and pegasisters, I was intrigued: were these people truly into the show or were they making fun of it? So one night, my husband and I pushed play on the first episode while having dinner. Out of curiosity. Without expecting anything.

Today we own matching Rainbow Dash t-shirts and we know the lyrics to most of the songs on the show. Welcome to the herd indeed.

Welcome to the Herd by Astanine on Deviantart

Welcome to the Herd by Astanine on Deviantart

We instantly liked the show. While I have introduced my other half to several TV shows I love, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stargate SG-1 and Doctor Who (11th), MLP: FIM is the first show we are both equally enthusiastic about. (Since then I have convinced him to watch Fringe, which he adored, but that is a discussion for another Weekly Geekout post).

So why do I love MLP: FIM so much? Here are the mane 6 reasons why!

1. The characters are compelling and relatable

The mane six, the six main (pony) characters of the show, and Spike the dragon, have very distinct personalities. Pinkie Pie, Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity  and Spike, complete each other perfectly and are the best of friends.  They evolve and grow, face their fears, develop new interests, and yet their personalities are developed coherently through the seasons.

2. Lovely Songs

The episode which really got me hooked on the show is ”Winter Wrap Up” (S1E11): it features one of the many wonderful songs of the show, which bears the same title as the episode. My other personal favorite is the song Smile. Look these up online, as sadly Hasbro has yet to produce an official MLP FIM soundtrack.

3. Quality, Quality, Quality!

The animation, the voice acting, and the writing on the show are of a high standard. Of course, some episodes and the movie Equestria Girls leave much to be desired, but each series has bad apples. In MLP FIM‘s case however, most of the apples are great. Like the Apple family. This makes it a show both kids and parents can enjoy. Or, you know, 20 something adults with no children.

All Good Apples! The Apple Family by Stell-e on Deviantart

All Good Apples! The Apple Family
by Stell-e on Deviantart

4. Happy, Happy, Happy!

Feeling a little blue? Have the cold? Can’t deal with all the work you still have to do before the end of the semester? Watching the Mythbusters blow stuff up isn’t cutting it anymore? Then MLP FIM might be your remedy, with its bright colors, hopeful and positive lessons, good laughs and upbeat songs, it will make you smile, smile, smile, grin, grin, grin…

5. The Fandom

Several fans of MLP FIM advocate against bullying, homophobia, sexism and the idea that some hobbies, media or activities are meant exclusively for persons of a certain gender. The fandom came together to support Micheal Morones after his attempted suicide and denounced bullying of men and boys who enjoy media labelled as being targeted at girls and women. They also expressed support for Grayson Bruce who was bullied for liking the show and who initially received no support from his school.

Most of the fans I know or follow on YouTube or blogs celebrate differences between people and advocate for tolerance. The picture isn’t perfect however, and it is rather interesting to note that so many males in the fandom have chosen a male-centric name for the fandom: bronies (brothers+ponies).

6. Easter Eggs and… Duck Faces?

Those who pay close attention will notice there are several easter eggs and popular culture references in MLP FIM. The show would be funny without them, but a Pokémon reference or a pony doing a duck face in a photo are pretty funny.

I hope I have conviced you to give MLP FIM a chance! Trust me, resistance is futile. You will join the herd. Hoof bump!


Freaks & Geeks: Freedom from the Outside

In the previous Freaks and Geeks articles, we examined the origin of the geek concept in culture through its etymology and associated millieu. Next, we considered the term through consumptive patterns and the communities that form around those patterns. Most recently, we considered the place of geeks through the study of pop culture – another term for consumption (see Azuma (2009) for a discussion on this) – and its place in Anthropology as a whole. After watching the television show Video Game High School, I’d like to take traditional gender roles and consider them through a few logical leaps through both gamer and geek culture (see Cassell 2002 for clarification).

Specifically, I’m interested in the old adage that concepts like gender are erased by the losses accrued through computationally-based interaction (Blank, 2013). While we traditionally view concepts like these as antiquated, there is something left there to discuss. Perhaps it isn’t that gender or race are erased insomuch that we gain new tools, ones not couched in history, through which we can challenge these concepts. (more…)


The Weekly Geekout: Reflections from #AAA2014

They are an unusual tribe: gathering in small, clandestine clusters, hugging or kissing over common cohorts and academic rituals, speaking in a discourse particular to the profession, yet full of insider jokes, misgivings and idiosyncracies. As I wended my way through the throngs of anthropologists swaddled in shawls and theoretical quandaries, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed, thinking about all the panels and presentations I wanted to attend. Although I missed out on presentations by Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, Emily Martin, Lila Abu-Lughod, Vincent Crapanzano, Thomas Csordas, Mary-Jo Delvecchio Good, and Didier Fassin, I did get to see Summerson Carr, Charles L. Briggs, Judith Farquhar and have a minor fan-girl moment over Nancy Scheper-Hughes. I was summarily impressed with the variety of panels that put different groups in dialogue with one another, attended to incipient digital communities and methodological strategies, and confronted the new political and public roles that anthropologists are increasingly adopting. AAA was even handing out Anthro Geek ribbons, so naturally I took an Anthro Geek selfie.

While protests and marches erupted around Chinatown and DuPont Circle, groups like the Association of Black Anthropologists helped stage a “die in” on Friday, December 4, in response to the Ferguson ruling. Other groups circulated information about the conflict in Palestine and Israel, police brutality, the politics of violence, and the prison industrial complex. I was privy to impassioned speeches demonstrating a level of emotionality you don’t often see in “academic” settings and watched as anthropology professors, professionals and students alike debated moral relativity and justice, a praxis of activism, and a personal commitment to the politics of the people they studied and served. As an individual who works on gender-based violence research, intervention and prevention, I was thrilled to attend panels like “Anthropology and Sexual Violence in Marriage,” “Gender, Sexuality and (Dis)-placement,” and “Navigating Representation: Producing Ethnographies of Gender-Based Violence Organizing,” where presenters grappled with the contingencies of transitional justice, culturally coded attitudes toward rape, applications of anthropology to public policy, and the stories anthropologists have the “authority” to tell. Although the presentations on engaged anthropology and coordination with humanitarian organizations for social justice all point to a paradigm shift in observation versus responsibility, I still felt like the panels I saw veered sometimes impractically toward theory rather than pragmatism. Whereas cultural relativity and a heterogeneous approach to legal policy may be more salient and palatable within the discipline of anthropology, I would argue that anthropologists need to be willing to make compromises, engage with the public in a way that is both accessible and easily digestible (rather than intimidating and sometimes, frankly, alienating), and think practically about whether certain ethnographic methodologies could hurt more than they help.

Anthropological "die in" which took place in the Marriot Wardman Park hotel.

Anthropological “die in” which took place in the Marriot Wardman Park hotel.

Considering that I’ve been out of school now for a year and a half, though, the conference reminded me how much I truly love anthropology. Anthropologists have the incredible capability to rhapsodize about the most banal, prosaic occurrences and practices, rendering them into exquisite, meaningful experiences with far-reaching consequences. The theoretical, explanatory power of anthropology remains, to my mind, truly transformative and revolutionary, simultaneously poetic and keen, perceptive and lyrical to a point of almost intellectual conversion. They are a curious tribe precisely for their curiosity and their incredible interpretive acumen. As an anthropological convert and sometimes effusive proselytizer, however, I wish that there had been more opportunities to network with young anthropologists like myself. While I was able to strike up conversations in the brief moments before panels, the American Anthropological Association did not provide a space or event for nascent, aspiring anthropologists. Much as the community seems outwardly concerned with anthropological education, legacy and disciplinary futures, practicing anthropologists today could put more concerted effort into cultivating the community of fledgling anthropologists like myself and  nurturing their passion in the field. Even though our practice is oriented around social interaction, the discipline can often feel lonely and insular. We were all, in our own way, geeking out about anthropology and yet we retreat to our villages, campuses and own private ontologies, with the perniciously vague sense that we should be doing anthropology yet are still uncertain with what we want to get done.