Experiencing ‘China’ at the World’s Fairs

Conference: AAS-in-Asia2020 (AAS-in-Asia2020)
Title: Experiencing ‘China’ at the World’s Fairs
Stream: Art/Art History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
William Ma, Louisiana State University, United States (organizer, presenter, chair)
Jianye He, University of California at Berkeley, United States (presenter)
Zhenqiang Hong, Central China Normal University, China (presenter)
Jinyi Liu, Bard Graduate Center, United States (presenter)


Though much has been written about the relationship between China and modernity through its participation and presentation to the world in various international expositions, none have reconstituted the actual experience of being at those gatherings. Taking cues from recent works on sensory and memory studies, these papers aim to reexamine and resituate the personal experience of seeing, hearing, touching, and sensing China at different world’s fairs at the turn of the last century. The focus will be on the connection and differentiation between the collective and the individual as they relived and remembered their visits to these fantastically carnivalesque yet politically charged spaces.

In Zhenqiang Hong’s paper, he notes that Chinese representatives to early international expositions struggled to maintain a dignified image of China, and the Chinese concept of "nation" lacked the same meaning as the modern “state” in the West. Through a close reading of the diaries and other writings of the Japanese reformer Hosokawa Junjirō (1834-1923), Jianye He takes his position as an outsider to look comparatively at how China and Japan, both historically agriculturally dependent countries, approached smaller expositions that centered around the question of industrializing agriculture. Taking as subject a large collection of pagoda models made in Shanghai by Chinese orphans at a French Jesuit orphanage, William Ma compares the strategies and receptions of their presentations at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition and one hundred years later at the San Francisco Airport Museum to highlight the persisting power of racial stereotypes despite the promise of scientifically and educationally motivated displays. Instead of focusing on exhibitions overseas, Jinyi Liu brings it home to Shanghai and explores how native visitors experienced “Chinese” and other foreign cultures in one of the first locally initiated “world’s fairs” in 1907 through the long-established cultural practice of youguan (roaming and observing).