Experiencing ‘China’ at the World’s Fairs

Title: 1325 | Experiencing ‘China’ at the World’s Fairs
Area: China and Inner Asia
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).

Panel Abstracts:
A Century of Pagodas: Displaying Architecture, Religion, and the Nation in San Francisco
This paper focuses on a set of pagoda models made at the Tushanwan Orphanage in Shanghai and compares their presentation and reception at two exhibitions that took place in San Francisco. Originally presented at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) as part of the Palace of Education, these models were made by Chinese orphans at the Tushanwan workshops operated by the French Jesuit missionaries in Shanghai. As some of the earliest examples of scientific models from China, they were an early attempt to visually narrate a history of this particular form of Chinese architecture. Through the guidance of European missionary teachers and in the tiny hands of Chinese orphans, a particular modern vision of China and the country's future were presented. The viewing public, however, were attuned only on the subjective and Orientalist tropes of fantasy and playfulness found in these miniatures, seeing and treating them as mere toys. A century and several owners later in 2015, the set of pagoda models returned to San Francisco as part of an exhibition that celebrated and commemorated the centennial of the PPIE at the terminals of the city’s busy international airport. Re-presented in a world where a powerful and confident China could and often have dictated their own representations, the display took on different visual rhetoric that seems to undo and even contradict the pagodas’ original purpose. The public reception of the exhibition similarity echoes these sentiments.

Coming to the New World from Across the Pacific: The 1871 San Francisco Industrial Exhibitions and Its Guests from East Asia
With the establishment of ocean mail-steamship service to Asia and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, ambitious business leaders in San Francisco were eager to connect California (particularly San Francisco) with the Pacific Rim countries to make it “Golden Gate of Commerce.” The first international fair was successfully organized by the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute in August 1871, although much smaller in scale compared to other earlier world exhibitions. China and Japan were invited to attend this exhibition for the first time and their appearance was highly anticipated. The paper focuses on a diary recorded by the Japanese delegation leader Hosokawa Junjirō (1834-1923) that describes and documents his personal experience and mission at the fair. Based on the close reading of the diary, the report from the Mechanics’ Institute and some San Francisco’s newspaper articles at that time, the paper tries to reconstitute the perceptual spectacular and activities at the fair that participants from across the Pacific might share, as well as different experiences that China and Japan had in their representation at this exhibition and the impact on the future.

International Expositions and the Shaping of the Chinese Concept of the "State" During the Late Qing Dynasty
By studying the Chinese impressions and activities at international expositions in the late Qing Dynasty, this paper mainly focuses on the uniqueness of the shaping of China's modern state. Chinese representatives frequently used the word “state” in discussions and speeches at such fairs, while strongly protesting against acts that were humiliating to China. The connotations of “state” in these utterances and protests were a reflexively conceptual transplant from the modern West charged with emotion, and it was very unlike the traditional image of China purposely promoted by the Qing government - an empire of culture and agriculture. Although it did not have the true meaning of a modern state, the concept offered a valuable goal for building a strong and prosperous modern state. Therefore, the more rapidly the concept of “state” took shape, and the more it took hold in society, the sooner plans could be made for the overthrow of the Qing and setting up and establishment of a new “state.” The paper concludes that the modern West used external pressure to influence the shaping of the Chinese concept of “state” through international expositions during the late Qing Dynasty.

Spontaneity, Leisure, and Youguan: A Localized Experience of World's Fairs in Late Qing Shanghai
Youguan enjoys deep roots in Chinese cultural history. Its meanings range from the sublime experience of the emperors roaming in mountains to leisurely sightseeing activities during seasonal festivals. In the increasingly urbanized and crowded late nineteenth-century Shanghai, writers began to evoke the concept of youguan to express the importance of roaming while observing without physical confinement. The most fascinating, however, is how this ever-evolving concept of youguan also started to denote learning new and unfamiliar—specifically Western—practices in a leisurely way. Particularly popular occasions for youguan were bolanhui (fairs for broad observing) or saiqihui (competitions of rare and curious objects), referring to world’s fairs or early Chinese adaptation of such events. Instead of emphasizing the impact of imported practices in late Qing port cities, this paper takes Chinese worldviews as the starting point and consider how youguan functioned as an experiential basis that allowed one to engage with newly introduced activities. I will specifically focus on the “International Fair and Fête” that took place in Zhang Family Garden in Shanghai in 1907, a large-scale three-day event considered by contemporary intellectuals as one of the first predecessors of world’s fairs in China. Through analyzing illustrations, photographs, newspaper editorials, and guidebooks, my paper will explore visitor’s experience from strolling through national stalls to viewing Egyptian mummies in the picturesque garden landscape. This case study will address how a sense of leisure, spontaneity, casualness, and movement characterized the involvement of native visitors in grassroot fairs that represented Chinese culture within a global framework

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