a brain fart on historiography and pedagogy
This is part of a series called Margin Letters, where I write open letters to fictional characters of content I love. This is my first installment, and let me know what you think!
Note: This post has been living in my drafts since last year, and finally, I have the brain cells to finish it. Since I would rather do something badly than not do it at all, I’ll publish this as soon it’s done and just revise it afterwards. Please leave a comment for feedback! Anything that can help me improve is super appreciated ❤
Master Yim is the professor of history at Sinegard, a military academy and THE top school of R. F. Kuang’s trilogy The Poppy War. This letter covers events of the first book only, as I am too much of a wimp to dive into The Dragon Republic (Book 2) without getting everything off my chest. Also, I’ve read an ebook version, and I would love to reread Book 1 with the rest of the trilogy in hard copy. There’s just too much going on. TOO MUCH.
Dear Master Yim,
Writing this letter has not been an easy task, mostly because I had no idea from what role I can approach you. Think of me as a student teacher shadowing you for practicum or an entry-level faculty observing your class, perhaps? You are an established authority of your field, and though I don’t have enough credibility to write to you like this, I am hoping for your kind consideration.
You are probably one of the pillars of the Sinegard faculty room. You are well aware that you are not one of the flashier student favorites whom everyone tries to court and impress, but I do know that if you happen to take a sabbatical and cancel your classes, Sinegard will fall.
You are, after all, the reason why Sinegard exists.
Plotwise, you and your freshman History class exist as a vehicle for lore dump–no offense to Jiang, of course. A lot of events have been alluded to in past chapters, but it is in your class that the world of the trilogy is fully fleshed out and where the stakes are clearly defined. As much as I love Jiang’s eccentric classes or Irjah’s brain puzzles, I enjoyed your class the most because of its commentary on historiography.
Historiography deals with the writing of history. It brings to mind a lone bearded figure, hunched over scrolls and books and hidden away dutifully noting each detail and headline, as though he were not a part of time. As though he were not a human himself–ever-changing, subjective, and deeply flawed. As though what he writes remains in the past with him.
History books in your time have probably been written in a similar environment, and it is deeply seen in how these books are viewed as cut and dry facts to be memorized, swallowed whole, and regurgitated on the Keju test booklets. Entire lives and eras are reduced to names and dates and titles, and many lives do not even get a footnote at all. Is this what history is? Is this all that it should be?
Your class has managed to challenge that notion, and your discussions have been some of the most memorable scenes in such a tightly-packed, pain-wrought, and fast-paced book. You stood in class and asked them what they knew about the Second Poppy War. I was expecting the usual fanfare I have seen in other fantasy novels: a long lore dump in the form of a mentor droning on about the fate of the world. The mentor spouts information on a need to know basis, and the only questions the hero has are “What should I do? Why me???” And it ends there. The reader nods and moves on, with no expectation they should interrogate the credibility and biases of that narrative.
Instead, history here was presented as a class discussion. It is a living, active thing that cannot be pinned down into neat bullet points that can be easily memorized. What I love the most about every time your class is given page space is that you interrogate each source of information that your students present in class. Rin recites facts straight from a Keju primer? You recognize them as government propaganda, and caution that anything that is published for the masses is not the whole story. Han mentions the urban legend of the Trifecta? You broaden the perspective by providing more information. You yourself have little patience for hasty historiography, so even if the discussion veers into a different topic, you will whip out maps and force everyone to consider all aspects of a historical account.
Most importantly, you frame these discussions as fundamental to a Sinegardian graduate. Your students are expected to be generals, to be shapers of the Empire–expectations that have been set during Master Jima’s orientation. Knowing their history–especially considering political, geographic, and economic factors–can give a general a HUGE advantage in winning the war. If someone fails your class, a whole country can fall. That’s how crucial you are to Sinegard, and even if your students would shine more under Irjah or Jima or even Jiang, your influence is significant.
I strongly believe that your students recognize that you are good. After all, they have the audacity to interrupt your perfectly prepared lecture on the Non-Aggression Pact by asking about Speer (thanks, Kitay). You are sensitive to class atmosphere–that “Am I lecturing to a graveyard?” gets me every time–you recognize why they asked, and you are willing to throw out your notes just to seize a teaching moment. Students wouldn’t do that if they didn’t see you as an authority on the subject or like you enough to approach you about it. I feel your pain, and I also hate wrangling with my academic budget too, but I hope that knowing this is good teaching day consoles you.
I love how while attending your class, my image of a lone historiographer disappears and is replaced with a bunch of rowdy, egotistic teenagers with something to prove. They have in their hands military reports and pieces of information handed down by adults, and it is up to them to reshape them in a way that makes sense. Still, we have you at the center and head of the entire chaos: maintaining “order”, directing the flow of discourse, and directing which parts are considered important.
In Tagalog, we have a more accurate term for such a process: kasaysayan. It is defined as such: “Ang kasaysayan ay isang salaysay hinggil sa nakaraan na may saysay para sa isang grupo ng tao” (Navarro 1998). Roughly translated (because I translated it), it means “Kasaysayan is a narrative about the past that holds meaning for a particular group of people.” History is not a mere chronicle of past events–neutral, permanent, and isolated.
It is a narrative that makes the most sense for a group of people, and naturally, it carries the beliefs and biases of that group. My own freshman history drilled this into our heads by making one little tweak to the definition of kasaysayan: ito ay may saysay (has sense, holds meaning) para sa pinagsasalaysayan (for its audience). A salaysay or storytelling looks very different from our hermit historian; rather, the term brings to mind an elder, surrounded by young students, passing on the wisdom of his generation through stories that they must remember by heart.
In essence, your history class is kasaysayan in play. And in every kasaysayan, it is not inherently neutral. It is a narrative shaped largely by institutions and interests at play, and even if you are a wonderful professor, you still bring your biases into your classroom and influence generations and generations of rulers in the Empire.
Even if it’s considered impertinent under Sinegard culture, it is only fair to interrogate the very history that you teach: What narratives do you privilege in your discourse? Rin, like the masses, only knows government propaganda. Others partly know the truth because they are privy to secrets whispered around dinner tables, a privilege granted only to those who are already born into power. Perceived hurts to reputation and glory, legitimate concerns of farmers and fisherfolk… which of these make it into history books? Which of these are considered important enough to start a war?
The truth is a weapon you wield with expertise, Master Yim, and woe to those who take you for granted.
One glaring mistake is your refusal to consider myths as part of history. You laugh at the Trifecta. You dismiss the more supernatural elements of Speerly’s history. Fire shamans? Absurd. You treat these as mere fabrications of people who do not know any better, and by closing your mind to ways of knowing that are not immediately compatible with your empirical historiography, you miss out on another dimension crucial to the narrative. You downplay ways of knowing practiced in other provinces, and ironically, the more well-read you are, the more you are trapped in your ivory tower.
Another is your low opinion of Speerlies. You have the moral authority to correct what Nezha might have heard and internalized growing up, but no, you validate his opinion by deeming a whole people as a “barbaric, war-obsessed race”. You quibble over language and say Speer is a tributary and not a slave colony. These are all damaging ideas, and you left them to fester. Perpetuated them, even, as graduates become generals and repeat your words: some people do not have the capacity of sophisticated thought, and they do not deserve to live. Some people are not worth mentioning at all.
Without this mindset, do you think we would have lessened the number of wars we have to fight? Do you think that with a corrected history, some wars would not have to exist at all? Would we need to train so many generals, year after year? Would we need to maintain a prestigious academy such as Sinegard?
Would Sinegard continue to be relevant, or would it fall?
Kitay is therefore your most successful student. He is well-meaning and has a great handle on all information needed for a good military campaign, but he is sorely blind to supernatural forces that are also at play. He sees a puppet show as harmless entertainment and an utterly false take on history, all without realizing that others like Rin have no other access to information. Nezha may not be as good as Kitay, but his actions echo your historical biases and uphold the old guard. Two legacies, both good on paper and destructive on the nation.
And of course, we also have Fang Runin. Rin, no matter how fed up you are with her, is actually a good student. Her questions and her anger have been present before she entered Sinegard, but it is in your class that she is able to put these into words. She saw through the false narratives and was able to accurately conclude that Nikan gave up and not lost Speer. She used the skills of historiography you taught and modeled in class to turn the tables against your institution, and you were left exposed and squirming.
If you’d listened to her in the first place whether or not you had any answers, would the tides of war change?
Hindsight, like with history, is a lesson in humility. You’re a great teacher, Master Yim. But you’re not perfect. I know everything I have written might not be news to you anymore after the War ended, and I have no solutions but to sit with you and echo your thoughts: If you had the ability to turn back time and face Rin’s batch in a normal classroom, what would you have done differently?
Like any teacher, we stare at our students in equal love and horror: What have we unleashed on the world? I wish I do not repeat your mistakes, but there is only so much that we can do in the present.
I just hope I can do enough in time.
In honor and excellence,
Eleennae Ayson, 2012-71125
- Have you read The Poppy War? If you were to write a letter to any character of The Poppy War, to whom would you write?
- How did you learn history? Would you like Master Yim as your history professor?
- How much does your knowledge of history guide your actions today?