AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 199

[ China and Inner Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 199: Historical Representation of China

Organizer: Karen Christensen, Berkshire Publishing, USA

Chair: Eddie Chen-Yu Kuo, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Discussant: Colin Mackerras, Griffith University,

Images of China have always been complex, fluid, and controversial, and China’s rapid rise in recent years has not led to significant improvement in how the country is perceived abroad, especially in the Western media. Joshua Ramo recently observed that China’s image abroad could become her “strategic threat.” With the continued emergence of China as a global power, especially in the wake of the Olympics and in the context of the current global economic slowdown, it is more important than ever before to improve the understanding between China and the world. With this in mind, this panel series “Global Representations of China” examines important factors in the way China is understood, represented, portrayed, and explained in the international world, including the mass media. The media are particularly important because popular perceptions of China are largely shaped by the mass media. Popular perceptions in turn influence the actions of government and corporations. This panel series brings together scholars who reflect on global representations of China, contemporary and historic. It aims to present critical analysis on key issues that affect global perception and portrayals of China, as well as to explore how understanding between China and the world could be improved. The panellists present papers that are historical, theoretical, or practical, using specific case studies from different disciplinary areas. There are three panels in this series: (1) Western representation of China, (2) Global representation of China, (3) Western media on China, and (4) Historical Views of China.

Journey to the East: Western Construction of the Image of China from Marco Polo to "2012"
Eddie Chen-Yu Kuo, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

The paper traces the changing images of China constructed (and imagined) in the West since the time of Marco Polo. The stories of the Cathay told by Marco Polo fascinated the West throughout 13-15th centuries. These early images were replaced by reports from missionaries, especially Jesuit priests, who took the journey to the East from 16th century onward. From 19th century onward however, the images of China took a humiliating dip, earning itself the title “Sick man of East Asia”. Into the 20th century, national images have been shaped by mass media of communication dominated by the West, reflective of its cultural hegemony. Especially powerful are the movies from Hollywood. This paper chronicled the changing images of Chinese male and female characters created by Hollywood since the 1930’s, from Dr. Fu Manchu (1932) and The Dragon Lady (1931), to Good Earth (1937) and The World of Susie Wong (1960). And from Enter the Dragon (1973) to Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon (2001), to 2012 (2009). In analyzing the changing images of China and the Chinese in the West, it becomes clear such constructed images tend to be partial, selective and stereotyped. They change over time, reflective of the shifting international relations and world politics. Equally important are the market and economic forces in image construction and its transformation. Into the 21st century, with the trend of globalization, we will see more cross-cultural fusion and cultural hybridity, leading to pluralism and multi-dimensionality of the images of China and the Chinese.

Sino Turkic Relations Through Historical Perspective
Aybike Seyma Tezel, Independent Scholar, Turkey

China has always been in close contact with Central Asia due to its geopolitics. Nomadic tribes of Central Asia were the closest neighbors of China and even sometimes in history they have ruled over the Chinese soil. China usually paid tribute to the nomads in exchange for security of her borders. Moreover, the Silk Road which was the most vital source of economy for China, were passing through the lands of the Central Asian nomads and that was leading to trade relations established between two parts of the (Great) wall. Confrontation of China and the steppe nomads is one of the most important determinants of the history of China as well as the present societies which claim to be descended from those nomadic tribes, such as Turks. The Turkish history is dated back to the date that the nomads of the Central Asian steppes had got in touch with the Chinese population, thus, the Xiong Nu is considered to be the first Turkic state in history and the pre Islamic history of Turks is almost based on the historical records of Chinese dynasties. In this paper, the historical relation between the Chinese dynasties and the northern nomadic tribes will be elucidated on the basis of the frontier concept which determines the very basic route of the relationship. The importance of Chinese historical records as sources for the pre Islamic Turkish history will also be discussed.

The tradition of Chi confronts Newtonian optics: strategic assimilation in late Edo in Japan
Tomoko Onabe, Ritsumeikan University, Japan

Chi is the Chinese system of energy and life that rules the physical universe as well as the metaphysical world. Although it was imported to Japan much earlier, in Edo Japan, Chi became the official concept for all academic branches. While some aspects of Chi were not fully understood or incorporated into Japanese contexts, different fields assimilated the Chi concept variably into existing Japanese systems. In this paper I examine natural scientific aspects of Chi imported to Japan to show the historical interpenetrations of Chinese and Western ideologies refracted through Japanese nascent modernization. Chi was imported without questioning to Japan. However, in late Edo, Japanese scientific practitioners faced a threatening theory for the first time--the popular interpretation of Newtonian physics. There was friction continuously as it was assimilated. I would like here to discuss two major reinterpretations of Chi. In order to find a compromise between Chi theory and particle light theory, one method was to respect the tradition of Chi with some compromise. The other was to pursue consistency to create a revised theory of light as a kind of Chi. The version of Newtonian theory introduced to Japan at this period entailed theoretical inconsistency: But a popular version of this early theory, John Keel’s book, hinted that the particle theory of light inevitably leads to the conclusion that the difference of refrangibility stems from the difference of their gravity. Thus solving Newton’s inconsistencies led Japanese to revise further the Chi concept as a fundamental principle.

British Representations of Chinese Idiosyncrasies in Nineteenth Century Travel Writing
Stephanie Villalta Puig, , Hong Kong

For William Percival, everything about the Chinese was idiosyncratic, even their bodies seemed to lack nerves and pain. In 1889, he wrote how: ‘[t]he men appeared perfectly nerveless, and, without flinching or making any movement whatever, they quietly submitted to such treatment as few Europeans would think of undergoing without the beneficent use of chloroform.’ Chinese history was equally as idiosyncratic as the Chinese body. It was: ‘[a] period of rapid conquest, and the next of triumphal ease, tyranny and luxury succeeded by indolence, incapacity, and national decay’. The task of translating the experience of China and the Chinese in attractive but familiar terms to a disengaged audience was impossible without representation. Many commentators consider travel writing to have been a mouthpiece of British imperial ideology. David Spurr points out that travel writing is part of ‘the entire system by which one culture comes to interpret, to represent, and finally to dominate another.’ (The Rhetoric of Empire). This paper examines how, historically, the role of travel writing has been attacked as an ideology of imperial power and defended as a necessary representation. China, then, was a space of extravagant idiosyncrasy. Using the writings of British travellers to China in the nineteenth century, I argue that it was in this period that China’s representation as an idiosyncratic space and the representation of the Chinese as unprincipled, effeminate, filthy, distasteful, yellow, hairless, ugly and sick became enduring images of China to the World for the present.

Re-imagined Modern Western History: The Interplay of Media Discourse and Politics in Contemporary China
Qing Cao, Independent Scholar, United Kingdom