2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 295

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Flesh for Fantasy: Performing the Chinese Past in the Age of Digital Photography

Organizer: Yuhang Li, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Discussant: Angela Zito, New York University, USA

Since the 1980s, Chinese scholars have pondered the relation between tradition and modernity. Recently, a new variation on this theme has emerged. People perform the past through constructing the body and flesh to invoke historical figures. They manipulate images of bodily performance through Photoshop and circulate them. Such phenomena leave us with a question: Why, in the hyper modern age of globalization, are Chinese constructing, choreographing and representing their bodies to invoke fantastic images of the past? This panel investigates how embodied antiquarianism manifests itself through multi-media to enact fantasies. Yuhang Li and Zhange Ni study avant-garde art and youth culture, two strata of the Capitalist cultural market. Li examines how artists emulate masterpieces from the canon of Chinese painting through photographing choreographed bodies. Ni explores the collaboration of popular novelists and costume players in producing “historical photo books” for teenager readers. Huaiyu Chen and Keping Wu both study the Hanfu (Han costume) movement and the visualization of Chinese nationalism. Chen studies how college students rejected western-styled regalia and wore Hanfu instead when taking graduation photos. Wu focuses on the formation of cyber communities by Hanfu enthusiasts and highlights the role of photo sharing. Our distinguished discussant, Angela Zito, has extensively researched ritual and body performance in contemporary China. Antonia Finnane, a renowned scholar on the modern transformation of Chinese clothing, will serve as our chair. Together, our participants from different disciplines endeavor to inquire why the Chinese are avidly performing the past in the hyper modern age of globalization.

“Tableau Vivant” and Antiquarianism in Contemporary Chinese Experimental Art
Yuhang Li, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Since the end of 1990s, some Chinese avant-garde artists started a practice similar to tableau vivant which is to emulate masterpieces from the canon of Chinese painting through photographing choreographed human bodies. The restaging of these two-dimensional paintings also involves refashioning historical costume, hair and cosmetic design and stage settings. With the popularization of digital photography and photoshop, this revitalization of master pieces has become even more multifaceted. Scholars have discussed the importance of various artists’ historical consciousness, but have given insufficient attention to the complex mediations that emerge in these works. Specifically, these works first convert the two-dimensional painting into three-dimensional performance through mediation by the human body and then through the mediation of the photograph and Photoshop, convert three dimensional reality back into another form of two dimensionality. This second two dimensional space of course signifies the age of mechanical reproduction, but by invoking the earlier forms of representation, an aura of the past gleams through the photo. The mediation of the human body, which is at once negated and preserved through the photograph appears to bring the past back to life. And yet, the modern representation of the archaic painting constructs a past that has never been present. Through a close analysis of a number of artists’ works, I will ask why such embodied antiquarianisms have emerged in China and argue that they express multiple temporalities and spatialities, along with a longing for the past in highly industrialized and unevenly developed world.

“Historical Photo Book:” Antiquarianism in Contemporary Chinese Youth Culture
Zhange Ni, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, USA

The subject matter of this paper is a novel titled Vanishing Figures and Fanciful Chatters (yinzi mengduo). Published in 2009, this novel contains a collection of seven short stories and over forty illustrations, all of which were first serialized in the popular youth magazine Comic Friends (Manyou). When this novel was first advertised, a new term “Historical Photo Book” (lishi xiezhen shu) was coined and quickly attracted the attention of teenage readers, most of whom were girls. As a “historical book,” VFFC narrates the adventure stories of Ji Shao (253-304) and Ruan Zhan (312), the second generation of the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.” More interestingly, this historical novel is manufactured as a photo book at the same time. A “coser” (costume-play-er) was invited to perform the fictional characters; photos of his performance were further treated in Photoshop to achieve the effect of ink-paintings and then published side by side with the verbal text. In this paper, through examining the production and reception of this “historical photo book,” I aim to investigate the various social mechanisms that gave rise to the surfacing of antiquarianism in contemporary Chinese youth culture, and to highlight the alternative imaginations and appropriations of the Chinese past as produced by the younger generation. My tentative argument is that it is the individualism, commercialism, social fermentation, and gender reconfiguration experienced by the contemporary youth that breed their historical fantasy. Moreover, this historical other plays a significant role in the formation and transformation of their engendered/embodied selves.

The Reinvention of “Han" Robes and Rituals: Contextualizing Hanfu Movement in Urban Youth Culture
Huaiyu Chen, Arizona State University, USA

In presenting numerous visual materials, my paper aims to contextualize the Hanfu (Han costumes) movement in contemporary urban youth culture from cultural, historical, and global perspectives. First, I will analyze the nature of Hanfu, the cultural implications of Hanfu, and the related bodily practice, as well as the related rites of passage including adulthood rite, graduation commencement, and wedding ceremony. Second, I will trace the historical context of the rise of the Hanfu movement in taking account of the rise of the Guoxue (national learning) movement originated in 1990s. By identifying the Hanfu movement participants' misunderstandings and mis-interpretations of Hanfu colors, styles, and decorations, and traditional Classics and rituals, as well as other symbols of national identity, I argue that their reinventions of traditional Chinese tradition indicate Chinese tradition has become a distant past and also a foreign land for urban youth and they attempted to virtually create a new nation as an imagined community. Third, in the globalization context, the Hanfu movement appears to be a local movement for creating a local and national identity in terms of its emphasis on Han ethnic identity, which echoes the reviving of cultural nationalism in contemporary China as China becomes powerful in global economy. In other words, the Hanfu movement has an ambivalent nature as a local movement in a global context.