2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 216

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Modern Media, Material Pasts: Photography and the 'Object of Culture' in Early 20th-Century China

Organizer and Chair: Catherine Stuer, Denison University, USA

Discussant: Richard K. Kent, Franklin & Marshall College, USA

This panel explores the interactions of photographic and other modern media with representations of the past in Republican China. We ask if and how these mediations reconfigure the experience and representation of the past in material traces at a time when perspectives on the future underwent fundamental change. As such, we examine how visualization in modern media inflects constructions of these remains as subjects of contemporary public and academic discourse. Integrated under such common denominators as ‘objects of culture’, past remains were equally assigned to emergent disciplinary and discursive fields, including archaeology, art history, cultural history, and heritage preservation. By critically re-inspecting the convergence and divergence of so-called 'traditional' and 'modern' modes of representation of the past around its material traces, our papers actively engage with relevant discussions across the humanities. The panel confronts these questions in four case-studies that range from official to private and professional to amateur productions, and are led by preeminent thinkers and activists of their time, including Gu Jiegang, Chen Wanli, Tang Yongbin, Zhu Xie, and Liang Sicheng. We parse such representational practices at the hand of a photoessay of 1922 that introduces Buddhist statuary into the field of historical discourse, a folio volume of 1935 that officially reconfigures Beijing’s monuments as collection of historical artifacts, a publication of 1936 that contests the modern construction of the new capital with a total representation of its past traces, and via the complex strategies of visualization deployed during the 1940s in the first history of Chinese architecture.

Not Doubting the Image: Gu Jiegang and Chen Wanli’s Photoessays of Tang Dynasty Buddhist Temple Sites
Shana J. Brown, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

This essay investigates the 1922 journey taken by Gu Jiegang (1893-1980) and Chen Wanli (1892-1969) to Baoshengsi, a Buddhist temple near Suzhou which preserved works by the Tang Dynasty painter and sculptor Yang Huizhi (fl. c. 713-741). Their resulting photoessay marked a new discursive and visual process which defined temples as sites of historiographic and aesthetic value. When their Baoshengsi project was underway, Chen and Gu were Beijing residents. Later a specialist in ceramics at the National Palace Museum, Chen helped found the pioneering Guangshe photography society in 1924. Gu Jiegang was not yet widely known for his research on ancient history and society, and was strongly influenced by trends in the definition of material culture as historical sources. Gu’s essay on Yang Huizhi in Xiaoshuo yuebao (Fiction monthly), accompanied by Chen Wanli’s photographs, was consistent with elite interest in Buddhism that had been percolating since the late nineteenth century. Gu’s essay can also be read within the context of the nationalist desire to protect unique cultural sites. At the same time, this journey marked a watershed attitude towards artifacts of religious and popular culture, which had only recently been categorized as historical materials. Gu encouraged fellow historians to appreciate religious material culture, while Chen Wanli’s photographs highlighted Yang Huizhi’s sculptural forms as aesthetic objects. Their pioneering treatment of Boashengsi helped redefine Buddhist temples as places of historical research and aesthetic enjoyment, and contributed to increasing appreciation for the importance of their preservation.

Collectable Artifacts: Cultural Beijing of the 1930s in Photographs
Wei-Cheng Lin, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

Published in 1935, Jiudu wenwu lue, or A Compendium of Cultural Relics in the Former Capital, was the first official undertaking in modern China to document important historical remains of Beijing, the longtime political and cultural center until 1928 when Nanjing was designated as the new capital of the Republican China. With its text composed in classical language that imparts a definite erudite feel, the Compendium nonetheless includes over 400 photographs, intended to provide “true views of old Peking.” On the surface, the Compendium was part of the attempt from the government to officially define cultural relics by illustrating what and how the city’s cultural past ought to be perceived. I will argue, however, that in the larger context of China’s nation-building project, it was photography that played a crucial role in mediating concepts such as cultural property, heritage, and relics with its capacity of turning material reality into portable imagery. Resonant with the city’s renovation plan, for instance, photographs in the Compendium captured the renewed beauty of the former capital, yet diluted its symbolic ambience. This photographic disenchantment was due in part to the visual objectivity associated with photography, but more importantly was due to the deliberation that turned the material remains into historical artifacts—appreciable at present while foreclosing their temporality in the past. As such, cultural Beijing of the 1930s was a collection of past artifacts, whose significance was essentialized visually, not to evoke nostalgic sentiments, but to reinforce the nationalistic tenor in its trajectory of modernization.

The Rhetoric of the Trace: Zhu Xie’s Photographic Record of Nanjing, 1936
Catherine Stuer, Denison University, USA

This paper discusses an expansive photographic project undertaken by Zhu Xie (1907-1968) to record and publish Nanjing’s material remains at a time when the city was redesigned as the modern capital of the new republican state. Conceived as a total representational project of the city’s past, this publication integrates over three hundred photographs taken in situ by the author into a geo-historical study of Nanjing. I unpack how Zhu’s camera links modern metropolitan construction to the destruction of historical traces in a project that is explicitly activist in intent. As professor at the Central University in Nanjing and son of the prominent historian Zhu Xizu (1879-1945), Zhu Xie’s work is situated on the forefront of intellectual and ideological debates of his time. I show how the author actively engages with pre-modern representational genres and projects, while framing his subject at the center of contemporary public and academic discourse. I argue that Zhu Xie deploys these discursive and representational strategies to locate Nanjing’s past traces unapologetically in their fragmented present while rhetorically reconstituting them into an integral vision of Nanjing as temporal and spatial whole. His work thus represents a move against the grain of photographic constructions of the city since the turn of the century, when Nanjing became subject of heightened foreign and factional strategic desires, and ultimately instituted as capital of the modern nation-state. I parse this difference in relation to pre-modern visualizations of the city’s traces, and vis-à-vis contemporary scenic, archaeological, military, propagandistic, and documentary photography of Nanjing.

Mediating Evidence: Liang Sicheng’s Representation of Ancient Chinese Architecture
Delin Lai, University of Louisville, USA

In his A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture, which was completed in the 1940s but published posthumously in 1984, Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), the most influential architectural historian of twentieth-century China, used four different methods, both separately and in combination, to illustrate ancient Chinese monuments. These are photography, ink-rendering, sketching, and measured drawing, all learned during his architectural training in the West. Each method plays a unique role in the representation of architectural remains as material evidence in his narrative of Chinese architectural history. The photos can be seen as recording the present status of historical relics and providing evidence of the discoveries and investigations of Liang and his fellow researchers. The ink-renderings articulate his imagination or reconstruction of the past glory of architectural monuments. His sketches, in part traced from photos taken by other scholars, reflect his reinterpretation of those photographs and his own observations of the objects or of the sites. The measured drawings, which formed the key part of his representational project, were his scientific analysis of plans, sections, elevations, details, that is, the construction principles of Chinese architecture. My paper will analyze Liang’s representation of Chinese architecture in the context of his competitive relationship with foreign peers, his writings on Chinese architecture, which aimed to justify it in a global architectural system, and two goals he set up for studying Chinese architecture, which was to preserve its historical remains and to develop it in the modern era.