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Explore History: Objects from Asia

Discover history and culture through objects from Asia! This a corner exhibition curated by faculty members, students, and community members to share their unique culture and heritage.

Display your own cultural heritage or personal experience in this collaborative crowd-sourced exhibition! With contributions from students, faculty, and community members, we explore Asian histories, cultures, and experiences through everyday objects. A piece of crockery might teach us about a region's culinary culture or about a family's (im)migration; a cherished doll or figurine might teach us about international styles of dress or about childhood experience; a mass-produced souvenir might teach us about a shifting economy or a life-changing holiday.

Selected objects are on view both at the Charles B. Wang Center and website.
Please visit the Charles B. Wang Center to see the actual objects!

Do you have an object that should be part of this exhibition? Please see the Explore History Call for Proposals and Preliminary Submission Form for details about how to make your contribution!

Object for the Month of May 2014
Moon Cakes and Their Wooden Molds

Moon cake molds
Installation view, Photo by Zifei Wu

The Chinese adore and eat moon cake delicacies. They consume them as a slice or a small wedge of one moon cake, and they enjoy them shared with family and friends during the important holiday they know as the Mid-Autumn Festival; Zhongquijie in Chinese. This event is one of their most important celebrations, second only to their New Year holiday that is also known as Spring Festival. Both of these festivals are Lunar calendar holidays.

During this festival they eat these thick dense pastries that can be filled with lotus seed, red bean paste, red date paste, or five different nuts and seeds. Each moon cake is wrapped in a thin crust, its center often are filled with the yolk of a salted duck egg. The top of this delicacy can be imprinted with Chinese characters that can say ‘longevity’ or the name of the filling. Some of these moon cakes might have a picture of Lady Chang-e. She is the Moon Goddess of Immortality, or it might be a rabbit; that animal is the symbol of the moon. Made and stuffed in these wooden molds, they are shaped and banged out of them, then set on a baking sheet. Their tops are brushed them with oil, then baked. Different regions of China do make different fillings. Their skins or outsides are made with lard. These days they even have vegetarian ones.

This Mid-Autumn holiday festival is celebrated on its 15th day of the 8th lunar month. It was named during the Song Dynasty, circa 420 CE. Some say these cakes were used during the Yuan Dynasty; at that time they were used with messages smuggled in them. Their purpose was to overthrow the country’s Mongolian rulers.

Not just limited to China, some other Asian countries use these pastries. The Vietnamese use them often, the Chinese most often. The Chinese buy them in beautiful boxes of four, the Vietnamese in boxes of two. People rarely make their own moon cakes. Why do they purchase them more often, because it is complicated to do make ones own, also very time consuming. Rare, also, is the person who carves their own moon cake mold. Special visitors can be honored with beautiful carved ones as gifts. Many in the ones I own were, and I have had most of them my entire adult lifetime.

The wood they are made with is heavy and dense, as are the pastries shaped in them. Most are made with hawthorn or litchi wood, some of olive wood. We know only two cookbooks that solely feature stories about and recipes for this pastry. One is by Alan Ooi, the other by Ms. Choong Su Yin; and both are paperbacks. Each has about one hundred ages, they are in Chinese and English, and they include recipes for cookies and moon cakes made in them. They share how to make their exteriors called skins and their fillings, too.

The first bakery in the USA to make this Autumn holiday food was in San Francisco and called Eastern Bakery. Nowadays, many Chinese and other Asian bakeries sell them year-round. One finds the greatest variety of moon cakes in the Fall. Do buy and try them sliced in small pieces as the Chinese do.

Jacqueline M. Newman, Editor of Flavor and Fortune

Object for the Month of April 2014

North Korean Comic Book: Mighty Wing!

North Korean comic books of the Mighty Wing era were produced quite explicitly to teach children the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung’s ideology of Juche, or “self-reliance.” North Korean writers and artists, since they must work under state supervision, are all required to apply the rules of Juche in their work by state mandate.

Mighty Wing was published in 1994, the year Kim Il Sung’s death. At that time, the drought conditions in North Korea were becoming common knowledge in the outside world and the DPRK was receiving hundreds of thousands of tons of food and tens of millions of dollars in aid. The famine in North Korea was devastating. The consistent pattern flooding and drought caused by climate change ultimately resulted in the deaths of more than a quarter of a million people as reported by the DPRK (some estimates say the true figure is up to three million). By the late 1990s, only half the population had safe drinking water.

The allegorical story in Mighty Wing is about heroic bees surviving through cooperation and resource preservation, despite the constant threat of outsiders. It shows that the DPRK was well aware of the necessity for irrigation and for replenishing a depleting food supply—so much so that it became a theme in a popular children’s comic book. Since the publication date is 1994, it is likely that the book was produced in 1993, reflecting the concerns of the regime just prior to Kim Il Sung’s death in July of 1994. That time period is also especially significant, because it means that Mighty Wing was probably one of the comic books most influential on the young Kim Jong-un, Kim Il-sung’s grandson, the current leader of the DPRK. Perhaps examining it can give us insight into some of the ideological content of his mind.

Heinz Insu Fenkl, Associate Professor of English, State University of New York, New Paltz

   explore history exhibition
Mighty Wing!
Published in 1994 by Gold Star Children’s Press
Cho Pyŏng-Kwon (Story) / Im Wal-Yong (Art)

  • Mighty Wing exhibit: Installation View
  • Mighty Wing exhibit: Installation View
  • Mighty Wing exhibit: Installation View
  • Mighty Wing exhibit: Installation View
  • Mighty Wing exhibit: Installation View
  • Sample page: "Mighty Wing"
  • Sample page: "Mighty Wing"
  • "Mighty Wing" Cover (Original)
  • "Mighty Wing" Sample Translation
  • "Mighty Wing" Sample Translation
  • "Mighty Wing" Sample Translation
  • "Mighty Wing" Sample Translation
  • "Mighty Wing" Cover (Translated)

Object for the Month of March 2014
Veils: A Multiplicity of Meanings

Head coverings, for both men and women, are an important part of tradition and traditional dress for many international cultures. Among these head coverings, however, none has been the focus of more debate in recent years than the veils and other head coverings worn by Islamic women. Carrying with them the weight and value of social, cultural, political, religious, and even nationalistic codes and taboos, the veil often elicits responses of curiosity, confusion, or fear from Western, non-Muslim observers. Even in some predominantly Muslim countries, the veil has been at the center of complex mainstream debates. As early as the 1920s in Turkey and Egypt, for example, modernization and advancement were associated with European values and practices, and women were therefore encouraged to unveil as a sign of progress and "civilization." In that context, "to veil" was perceived as implying inferiority or "otherness."  

Historically, secular societies have interpreted the veil as representing confinement, repression or exclusion. Contrary to these interpretations, however, many women now wear the veil as a matter of choice rather than of obligation. For these women, to wear the veil is to resist perceived Western encroachment, to express their faith, and to participate in society and the workplace. In the United States, this very visible symbol affirms the wearers' connections to specific communities, geography, heritages and people, sometimes challenging our notions and perceptions of what it is to be a diverse, inclusive society.

Lauren Kaushansky, Department of History, Professional Education Program 

   explore history exhibition
 

Stony Brook Student Aneela Ashraf with the March 2014 Objects from Asia Exhibit
 
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Charles B. Wang Center

Stony Brook University
100 Nicolls Road, Suite 302
Stony Brook, NY 11794-4040

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Phone: (631) 632-4400
Fax: (631) 632-9503
WangCenter@stonybrook.edu
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