Shanghai Story: A conference

East China Normal University has been home to two conferences this week; one, on the Cold War, I already wrote about, and the other, held December 19-20, was about history and visual culture in the making of modern Shanghai. The topics were quite diverse, although (mostly) centered around cultural history. Along with a lot of new information that helps us to understand modern Shanghai, the participants were able to engage in some extremely important theoretical debates.
The conference was titled "Shanghai Story," implying an attempt to illuminate how Shanghai came into being the epicenter of modern China's genesis, politically, economically, and culturally. But, as Professor Yeh Wen Hsin pointed out in the round table discussion that ended the conference, even the title "Shanghai Story" is problematic. She claimed that stories, in essence, have a beginning, middle and end. But when and where does this story start? That is a historical question that is difficult to determine.
The purpose of this conference was to look at Shanghai's story from the perspective of visual culture. One of the main topics was photography. Three great presentations that stuck out in my mind were by Professor Gu Zheng and Professor Sarah Fraser. Professor Gu's presentation outlined a photography project, commissioned by the Japanese government in 1937-1938, that was meant to show wartime China directly after the invasion. The photographs, which showed Shanghai people in a sympathetic state, was meant to be wartime propaganda, demonstrating to both Japanese and Chinese that the Japanese invasion should be welcome. However, through these photographs, Shanghai was essentially "visually reproduced" during the war, for both Japanese and Chinese, and many of the pictures emphasized China's colonization by the West and the necessity of an Asian rescuer. Professor Fraser's presentation explored photographs of Chinese people taken by Europeans in the late 19th century, and then compared them to later photographs taken by Chinese photographers of ethnic minorities in Western China. Fraser's argument is that the style, subject matter, and purpose behind both of these types of photographs were strikingly similar. While Western people took photographs of Chinese people to show their backwardness, primitiveness, and static and unmodern status. Similarly, the Chinese Republican government reused these similar types of photographs in their anthropological studies of the Tibetans, Yi, and Miao races in Western China. She claims that through these photographs, a clear understanding of the "modern citizen" was born through representation of the "other." The third presentation by professor Jin Tao was about photographs of women . She looked at photos of sing and dance girls from the 1920s and 1930s and attempted to argue their main purpose: to fulfill men's desires or to promote a healthy body image for women? She argues that there are two elements that a woman should strive for in her physical appearance: health and beauty, and sex and desire. At the same time, many of these photographs also gave a visual perception of the modern, which embraced visual examples of health and sex.
A lot of important theoretical ideas can come from these presentations. First, in a larger sense, the importance of photography as a medium should be explored (which it was at this conference). At the round table discussion, Professor Thomas Bender explained how photography can have many purposes: the can allow us to recognize what we already know, allow us to discover things missing in texts, and most importantly, they can be performative, in the sense that they make things happy. Professor Gu's presentation represented this, in that the publishing of the Shanghai wartime photos recreated Shanghai in the minds of Japanese and Chinese, giving new justifcations for war and a new self image. I also thought that professor Fraser's argument was quite compelling because I see similarities in the way that minorites are photographed today. Advertisements in China do not show them as backwards and primitive, but do maintain a certain amount of "tradition" and at the same time, appeal through the exotic and the sexual. Just like Geisha and female hostesses were photographed and advertised in the West as an exotic and beautiful reason to visit Asia, now beautiful minority women are photographed in their traditional clothes and put on display for Chinese tourists. Even the pictures advertising the Olympics and (more visible to me) the Shanghai Expo show minorities greeting the world and the Expo with traditional gifts in traditional clothes, while the Han people greet them with a modern background in expensive Western clothing. I find this somewhat echoes Dr. Fraser's argument, although I admit, I have not done enough research on ethnic tourism to completely substantiate my argument.
Another medium that was explored was film. Dr. Pickowicz did a presentation on 1920's Chinese films (which he claims have been largely neglected, which is a mistake) and Professor Jin Jiang presented on the play/movie Stage Sisters. Professor Pickowicz argued that the 1920's films, while not being particularly political, were important because of their statements about modern marriages. The three films he looked at, Oceans of Passion, Orphan in the Snow, and A String of Pearls, show that modern marriages, while being a much better alternative to traditional marriages, did not have one particular model to follow. Instead, the movies showed that the modern marriage still had a lot of problems, and that it was largely dependent on both emotional and material needs of both the women and the men. Professor Jiang's presentation explored the 1965 movie Stage Sisters and its 1998 adaptation. She argues that while the former was largely political and worked with a revolutionary discourse, the latter works backwards, eliminating the political elements and looking more closely at female and sisterly love.
Dr. Pickowicz's presentation explored some extremely important theoretical and methodological ideas. First of all, as both he and professor Bender explored, the medium of film itself is unique among many visual mediums. It is with film that an audience can more actively participate in the action, and vicariously play out their own fantasies. He called this "fantastical participation," and for a film to be popular, it had to reach people, and especially women, on this level of allowing them to actively participate in the character's struggles and positions. The ability to reach people on this level makes films unique, and it is unique to the modern world. Another concept that Professor Pickowicz explored is the importance of the national and international. He showed that in all of his films, this place called "China" was essentially absent; also, all three of these films were extremely popular throughout Southeast Asia. Therefore, these themes and ideas, as well as the possibility for audience fantastical participation, spanned across national lines. As Dr. Bender noted, oftentimes city culture can travel in a way that national culture does not. Dr. Pickowicz argued that perhaps, instead of only looking to the past 30 years for examples of globalization, we can see it much earlier than that in the ability of cultural models to transfer on an international stage. Thus, when we explore things like magazines, movies, and photographs, we should look beyond pointing to the beginnings of nationalism and look at both the global and the local levels.
Many other presentations looked at other interesting historical sources. Professor Christian Henriot presented on the creation of space through novels, an idea that I had never thought about but was incredibly revealing. He argues that in novels, time and space are created in order to both facilitate a story and to make a point about geography itself. In essence, by carefully choosing which events occur where and when, an author can make a powerful statement about his own understanding of geographic space. Professor Henriot explored 3 novels written about Shanghai, all three of which made statements about the author's understanding of the city geography and cultural construction. As another historical medium, Professor Andrew Field explored dance halls and caberets in modern Shanghai as a creation of urban modernity. Field traced the beginnings and subsequent popularization of dance halls in China from the 1910s into the 1930s. While making a series of really interesting arguments about the reformation of jazz for the Chinese setting and the politicization of dance halls, I found most interesting his thesis concerning the orientalizing transfer of dance halls from the West. Originally, dance halls in the West were meant to be sources of lewd behavior made acceptable by the presence of "oriental" women. The first dance halls in Europe were filled with Turkish harems and other women from the east, making the more sexualized behavior appropriate because of the inclusion of the "other." However, when caberets and jazz bars were imported to the east, they were packaged as the epitome of class and society in the West. In essence, the East comes to the West and then circles back to the East as a Western import. I believe this happens a lot, if not through popular cute toys and even cheesy souvenirs now sold in the East only to Western tourists.
Another interesting topic was the creation and architecture of public parks, as presented by Dr. Dorothee Rihal. She explained that parks are "purely Western and modern." They have a variety of purposes: recreation, relaxation, aesthetic beauty, and a recreation of natural landscape. But, as Professor Rihal pointed out, in China they inhabited a unique space. They became a symbol not only of Western modernity but also of racial and colonial tensions, as their purpose of "public" space brought them to the forefront as far as racial tensions. Similarly, they became a method for Western colonial powers to absorb space which were not included in the original concession; many of the parks lay outside the international concession boundaries. To that effect, they also were important to budding artists at the time, as while they had recreational purposes, they were also aesthetic, offering an ideal natural landscape in the modern city.
These are only some of the "精彩" (a word used by almost every Chinese professor or student who asked a question) presentations, and of course there were more. These presentations stuck out in my head because of some of the issues they raised: the performative role of photography, the tension between the local, national, and global, important non literary sources, new ways of looking at literary sources, etc. I also think that these presentations stuck out in my mind because I found them as related to both my past and present research. It also opened my mind to sources yet to be fully explored. I wish I could have understood more of the discussion, and I wish I had had more time to talk to all of the professors. But I guess I will have time for a lot of this in grad school.

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