2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 79

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Seeing is (Dis)believing: Visuality, Truth Claims, and Representation in Modern China

Organizer: Shengqing Wu, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Hong Kong

Chair: Jianhua Chen, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Hong Kong

Discussant: Carlos Rojas, Duke University, USA

This panel focuses on issues of viewing experience and knowledge, through the study of representations relating to different media (photography and cartography), as well as to Western art and ideas. With critical attention paid to the complex negotiations between belief and doubt in the epistemological value of seeing, this panel illustrates the polyvalent effects of visuality and its dissemination. Mingwei Song’s paper argues that science fiction writers function to envision the unseen or the exotic as strongly influenced by subjective experience and sublime imagination, which both endorses and contradicts scientific knowledge. By tracing two historical events surrounding the use of maps in international politics and discussing the subsequent fictional and cultural accounts, Enhua Zhang’s paper tackles the fabrication and failure of truth claims in visual and discursive representation. Song’s and Zhang’s papers both address fundamental problems in the modern subject’s dealings with scientific discourses and visions of futurity and history. Shengqing Wu’s paper considers poems written about dan actors’ cross-dressing photos, approached through a critical angle on visual verisimilitude and its interaction with gendered fantasy. Discussing the controversial case of female models in the 1920s, Jianhua Chen’s paper unravels the threads of the domestication of Western perspectivalism, and moral and cultural concern over nudity. These two papers reveal the contestation of a public visuality of spectacle and its dual capacity to empower and commodify gender, through disguised or “naked” truth. This panel promises an exciting intervention into current discussions about visuality and epistemology in modern Chinese culture.

To See a Devil in the Light: Visuality and Invisibility in Late Qing and Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction
Mingwei Song, Wellesley College, USA

This paper deals with the multivalent implications of visuality in Chinese science fiction, such as Xu Nianci’s “New tales of Mr. Braggadocio” (1904), Wu Jianren’s New story of the stone (1908), Liu Cixin’s The three-body trilogy (2006-2010). One essential novum (to borrow the concept of the Marxist SF theorist Darko Suvin) in science fiction is the representation of what is beyond ordinary human perception in a truth-claiming scientific discourse: what is usually considered invisible and fanciful is validated by cognitive logic and instrumental rationality. Since the late Qing, Chinese science fiction has been populated by various advanced or imagined scientific instruments and explorations that serve to visualize the unseen: exotic lands, the underwater realm, outer space, the microcosm, the hidden qualities of objects and humans, and the extra dimensions of the universe, as well as visions of utopia, dystopia or heterotopia as the alien other or the extension of self. This paper contends that these efforts both illustrate and contradict the instrumental reason of enlightenment, and thus complicates the significance of science fiction as a literary genre of modernity. What is visualized is not only the objectivized unknown but also an overwhelming, sublime, and excessive subjective experience. As found in the contemporary works of Liu Cixin, in the depiction of the wonders of science fiction, the more details the picture presents, the more inconceivable it becomes. What is captured in the light with which we see is a devil that transcends the logic of perception.

The Purloined Map: Cartography and Politics in Modern China
Enhua Zhang, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA

This paper tackles the issue of mapping politics and politics of map based on two cases. First, in 1892, in a dispute between Tsarist Russia and the Qing government over the Pamir Mountain region, Russia used a map that had been issued by the Qing government to support its territorial claims. This map, bought in Germany and based on a print produced in Russia, labeled some Chinese areas along the northwestern border as Russian territory. Thanks to diplomatic intervention by other countries, Russia never gained ownership of the disputed land. This problematic map raises even more intriguing issues when interwoven with narrative in the canonical novel A Flower in the Sea of Sins (Nie hai hua). Seven decades later, during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, the National Postal Bureau released a postage stamp inscribed with a map of China and entitled “the Nation is All Red” to commemorate the grand founding of Revolutionary Committees all over the mainland China. This postage stamp was recalled because of its political incorrectness: the inaccurate boundaries in the south and the exclusion of Taiwan in the “Red China.” By focusing on the interrelatedness of the significance of maps in international politics and its cultural representation, this paper addresses such critical questions as: how Chinese conceptualized maps and their representational power in politics; the ways in which cartography as a modern visual medium can convey or conceal the truth; and how visual images and their textual representation became contested sites of knowledge practices.

The Topography of Desire: Classical Poetry, Photography, and Male Bonding in 1910s China
Shengqing Wu, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Hong Kong

This paper deals with the interaction between photography and poetic genres in the 1910s. It first addresses the representational power of photography, as revealed in the poetry of the era. While Chinese poets expressed their awe at the visual verisimilitude of photography, they also added theatricality to the photographing and viewing experience. Various performative aspects of photography, e.g. cross-dressing or custom photos, create “trick effects” (to use Roland Barthes’ term) by taking advantage of the credibility of this new media to make coded or constructed images appear natural. By allowing the subject to recreate his or her self-image using various disguises, photography helped to destabilize gendered or social identities to fulfill fantasies. Further, this paper analyzes the function of heterosexual desire in male bonding that involved the circulation and exchange of poems inscribed on photographs of gendered images. Primary examples include the artistic life of Su Manshu, and the compositions of members of the Southern Society written on photos of Feng Chunhang and Lu Zimei, who were two female impersonators in the Beijing Opera. By tracing the circulation and consumption of “female” images by male intellectuals and revolutionaries, this paper stresses the significance of new visuality, intertwined with qing (love or desire), as a compelling force for cultural transformation in China at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Model Polemics and Visual Modernity: Art Education, Gender, and Media in the Republican China
Jianhua Chen, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Hong Kong

During the late Qing, the model of fine art was introduced in China via verbal communication and visual texts, along with the tensions between commercial production and art education, male voyeurism and women’s liberation, tradition and modernity. Female models, adopted by Liu Haisu’s art pedagogy to modernize Chinese culture and yet banned by the authorities, drew public attention in the mid-1920s. Outside of the classroom, images of female models were proliferated by mass media, in forms such as photography, paintings, cartoons, film, and fiction, arousing disputes in the courtroom, art academies, families, newspapers, and magazines over issues of the nude and nakedness, aesthetic ideals and sexual consumption, women’s professions, and class stratification. This paper will explicate how the model rooted in Western perspectivalism and the “natural attitude” was transformed into an urban spectacle charged with sensual perception and cultural politics in modern China, how the mass media engaged with entertainment and enlightenment functioned in sustaining and modulating the public ethos for visual modernity, and how the female model in line with modern girls empowered feminine publicness and freedom. This paper will contend that rather than a symbol of urban evil, female models were realistically represented as victims of the metropolis or as women worriers in the national revolution in literary works of the time.