Ming Sun, University of Pennsylvania: “Speaking the Unspeakable: The Ineffability and the Solutions in Zhuangzi and Mādhyamika.”

In Chinese intellectual history, the notion of ineffability has formed a prolonged discourse, which has attracted voices from multiple traditions and schools of thought for thousands of years. The book of Zhuangzi 莊子 is a major work contributing to this theme in early China given its alarming frequency of mention and diverse ways of argumentation. In addition to indigenous Chinese teachings, the Mādhyamika school of Buddhism is another significant source of ideas for Chinese thinkers exploring the limit of language, as it is well known for holding that all dharmas are empty (śūnya) and beyond linguistic expressions. Paradoxically, the teaching that the ultimate truth is ineffable is conveyed exactly via words per se. For instance, Zhuangzi, which denies the power of language, is itself an excellent literary and argumentative piece. Similarly, the preaching of the religious Mādhyamika heavily depends on oral teachings and sutra studies. On the one hand, they admitted the ineffable nature of the ultimate, and on the other hand, they were optimistic that accessing the truth could be triggered by certain strategic uses of language. This is referred to as the spirit of speaking the unspeakable. This study investigates the view of language in the book of Zhuangzi and Mādhyamika Buddhism. By respectively introducing the ineffable nature of the Dao and that of Paramārtha, Zhuangzi and Mādhyamika offer the inadequacy of language a crucial position in their metaphysical constructions. While recognizing the pedagogical obstacle to transmitting abstract ideas between individuals, they took a positive stance in examining the possibility of using language to overcome such limitations in practice. The discourse on the ineffability and the solutions they offered greatly shaped the view of language of later generations, such as those who studied the Dark Learning (Xuanxue 玄學) in Medieval China and the ensuing Chan Buddhism.


Sophie Xi, University of Pennsylvania: “A Case Study of Fenyang Shengmumiao Mural and its Artistic, Religious, and Ritual Context.”

The majority of Buddhist temples and Daoist monasteries as well as the splendid religious wall paintings in situ survive today are in Shanxi province. Buddhism, Daoism, and folk religions have formulated mature and comprehensive iconographies and pictorial programs by late imperial China. Apart from the conventional male religious icons, female spirits were also widely worshiped in Shanxi, and several buildings dedicated to them are still in existence. There are more than ten architectural complexes or halls entitled Shengmumiao or Shengmudian, the Sage Mother Temple or Hall survive in Shanxi. Among, the Shengmumiao in Tian Village, Fenyang county, on the west of the Fen River, has been associated with two Daoist female deities: Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, and Houtu, the Goddess of the Earth. The original temple complex was believed to be built before Tang dynasty, and was reconstructed during Ming and Qing dynasties. Known for the extraordinary level of visual complexity, the mural on the east, west, and north walls respectively depict the scenes of departure, inspection tour, and preparation for banquet.

The wall painting in Fenyang Shengmumiao received neither governmental nor scholarly attention until the 1970s. The previous scholarships mainly address the aspects of iconographic reading, dating, and artistic style of the mural, and no western scholars have discussed this mural. Situated in a temple dedicated to a female deity and patronized by a female, the pictorial representation of the Sage Mother in Fenyang Shengmumiao provides a window for understanding the vernacular mentality of constructing a pictorial scheme of folk religious murals devoted to female spirits in Shanxi region. Instead of meticulously deciphering the iconography, this paper aims to investigate the portrayal of the identity of the goddess in artistic and religious contexts and unravel the temporal and spatial structure of the mural in architectural and ritual contexts. This paper argues that the artistic representation of the Sage Mother suggests a closer association with Houtu and indicates the trialist nature of her identity: she is a goddess, an empress, and a mother; the mural in situ serves as not only an illustration of religious roles and a demonstration of power and authority of the goddess but also a visual cue and aid for the ritual practices. The illusory and interactive nature of the mural enables viewers to mediate between corporeal and spiritual experience, revealing the interplay between painting, statue, architecture, and ritual.


Xiaoyang Ma, University of Pennsylvania: “Rethinking Cartouches, A Study of Visual-Verbal Dynamics of Filial Piety Illustrations in Qu Qing’s Tomb.”

On April 9th, 2020, An’yang Archeological Institute discovered a new burial site from the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE). The excavation team unearthed a funerary couch with 12 stone panels, a free-standing stone screen, two epitaphs for the tomb occupants, tomb guardians, and spirit articles including ceramics, architectural representations, and figurines. This paper focuses on the six filial piety illustrations at the stone couch’s rear, focusing on the specific problem of textual absence on the cartouches. I intend to offer explanations for the lacuna of texts in those images, providing a different approach to understand their iconographies. The paper opens with a pictorial analysis of the six panels and provides an overview of the extant sarcophagi with filial piety illustrations suffering textual absences. Then, the discussion segues into a summary of the previous approach adopted by scholars in regard to the textual absence and offers a new avenue for this specific case study. Instead of adopting normative approaches, I investigate the temporalities of the filial narratives and the underlying pictorial logic of their assemblage. My alternative explanation for this textual absence is that these blanks are left intentionally in order to form a linear, progressive narrative for the six panels. They act en masse to orchestrate a diachronic temporality in which three stages of a filial son’s life proceed through a seamless narrative. The meaning of such design is twofold: in the first place, the panels offer a visual summary of the three phases of life that a filial son must undergo. Secondly, this arrangement could be understood under the specific context of the tomb occupant whose epitaph sheds light upon this visual conceit. My paper concludes by suggesting the significance of textual absence for the viewing practices of the patrons. The departure from the epigraphic habit provides an incitement to rub off this thin line that separates the spectators and the agents in these spectacles so that viewers could insert themselves in each tableau.


Tianqi Zhu, Stanford: “Imagining the Landscape: Constructing Social Space through Poetry, Painting, and Buddhism in the Eight Views of Xiaoxiang.”

This paper examines the social significance of spatial imagination in the artistic representation of xiaoxiang (瀟湘) landscape in Song China. Specifically, I focused on the textual analysis of a group of poems and paintings titled the Eight Views of Xiaoxiang created by an array of poets, painters, and scholar monks in the literati circle led by the great poet Sushi since the eleventh century. I argue that the transmission, reception, and reproduction of the Eight Views of Xiaoxiang during the Song dynasty contributed to an aesthetic discourse that incorporated poetry, paintings, and religious thought to formulate an imaginative space for social interactions that transcends the boundaries of time and place.

On the one hand, endowed with rich literary traditions and political metaphors, the Eight Views of Xiaoxiang attracted patrons and artists with various backgrounds to exchange opinions and feelings in euphemism. Officials, literati, and monks leveraged allusions, metaphors, and metonymy to project each view of the xiaoxiang landscape as associated with their personal identity, experience, and ideology. Their lyric and pictorial representations of xiaoxiang complicated the relationship between the physical place and the artistic representation of it and contributed to a space of imageries and metaphors where people from different generations shared memories and feelings. At the same time, this imaginative space was not completely separated from the reality. Only through viewing the physical landscape of xiaoxiang could people reached the imaginative space. Poetry and paintings provided passage to it not only because their artistic nature, but also because that they functioned in the real society to help poets and painters acquired social status and established social ties, a ground for shared culture and emotions.

Through a close examination of the Eight Views of Xiaoxiang, this paper tends to illuminate the relationship between human and place through the lens of literature. The discoveries on xiaoxiang can be juxtaposed with other significant place in Chinese tradition, such as the Western Region (西域), the Southland (江南), etc. to outline a metaphysical map and reveal a different understanding of place and boundaries.


Runjie Wang, University of Washington: “Must Tibetan Filmmakers Speak about National Identity? Tibetan New Wave as an Alternative Framework.”

Along with the rising interest in Pema Tseden’s films, also known as the vanguard of “New Tibetan Cinema,” among arthouse moviegoers in China and elsewhere in the world is the increasing scholarly and media attention given to the Tibetan filmmaker, especially his ethnic minority identity and the authentic voice of Tibetan ethnic experience. Despite the fact that a critical discourse on shaoshu minzu dianying (ethnic minority cinema) is conducive to situating this new batch of films within the historical development of Chinese cinema (i.e. where and how they can be intervened), it also raises concerns about this notion.

Taking the opportunity of the recently surging interest in Tibetan films, the paper revisits the concept of ethnic minority cinema, a vehicle oft-employed to analyze films containing ethnic minority subjects. Nonetheless, the paper, by pointing out its porous and essentialist nature, cautions against placing New Tibetan Cinema under the ethnic minority cinema framework. As some scholarship underscore new Tibetan films’ abilities to articulate authentic Tibetan culture as well as old Tibetan films’ lack thereof, I argue that the understanding as such is no less than regarding ethnic minority filmmakers as the perpetual narrators of third world national allegories. Rather, it necessitates not so much a new demarcation of what’s new or old but an attempt to ask the question: must the new directly respond to the old? I suggest that this phenomenon be understood as a collective and rhizomatous creative effort and, as the paper will propose, a kind of new wave that is transnational and universalist. Through a close reading on films by Pema Tseden, Sonthar Gyal and Lhapal Gyal, I propose to reframe these films in a global new wave movement in order to disentangle them from the knotty concept of “ethnic minority cinema” on the one hand and to recognize their universalist concerns with modernity on the other. It also facilitates the opportunity to put them in a dialogue with other East Asian new wave auteurs and situate them in the arena of global arthouse cinema.

To this end, the paper opens up questions as follows: Must ethnic minority artists speak about and sublimate repressed identities? To what extent do we spontaneously invite identity politics into the conversation and incline toward an ethnicized hermeneutics of texts, artworks and films by artists from historically, geopolitically and socioeconomically subaltern communities? If “East Asia” is the “Other” to the west, must East Asian artists always articulate its otherized identities?


Marina Nascimento, University of Pennsylvania: “Embodying Modernity: A Historiography of the ‘New Women’ and the ‘Modern Girls’ in interwar China and Japan.”

The New Woman and the Modern Girl are symbols of modernity found in Asian countries during the consolidation of consumer and urban culture. In Japan, the New Woman, referred as atarashii onna (新しい女), emerges as an educated individual, politically conscious, and prolific in their writings. Modern girls, called modan gāru (モダンガール) and shortened to Moga, were their successors, free from the household ties and financially independent, they were avid urban consumers of foreign fashion and makeup, and avid goers to cafes, dance halls, and movie theaters. In China, the New Woman, or Xīn nǚxìng (新女性) represents the ideal female activist, she was assertive, worked for national causes, and broke from the oppressive family system. The Modern girl, modeng xiaojie (摩登小姐) or modeng gouer (摩登狗兒), appear as her dangerous, irresponsible little sister, fond of western clothes and looks, she was a seductive and independent embodiment of modernity. This paper analyses the scholarly debate on the political images of women manifested in the New Woman and Modern Girl figures in Japan and China and attempts to shed light in the similarities and differences of each archetype, how they were discussed in their time, and how they have been currently analyzed by researchers. First, I explore the beginnings of the New Woman ideal, and how the “A Doll’s House” from Henrik Ibsen is seen by scholars as one of the triggers of the first discussions about the new roles women could play in Japanese and Chinese society. Secondly, I attempt to understand why the New Woman debate had a female-centered feature in Japan and a male-centered characteristic in China, focusing on how researchers have studied print media sources in order to discuss the New Woman in both countries. In the last section, I examine the discourse on the Modern Girl, and how researchers have found ways to analyze her features despite the lack of self-representation. The New Woman and the Modern Girl might be archetypes and objects of continuous scrutiny since their first appearance, but also present actual examples of how women resisted and exercised their agency. This paper attempts to find new ways to interpret their symbolic existence and give new meanings to past perspectives.


Shirin Mikiko Sadjadpour, University of Chicago: “Creative Prints and the Making of Modernism(s) in Early-Twentieth Century Germany and Japan.”

Modernism, like modernity, has been viewed as a spatially and temporally linear movement born in the west and transmitted panoramically across the globe, often casting its marginal manifestations as hollow derivatives or blithe imitations of the normative, Euroamerican original. In an effort to challenge this misguided notion, this paper seeks to locate various Japanese artists and art collectives within the broader discourse of global modernism by placing them in productive tension with the social, political, and intellectual influences that drive their development. My research’s focal point is the Japanese-German relationship, the nature of which is in many ways unprecedented. Neither predicated on a colonial history nor bound to an imperialistic power dynamic, it can in fact locate much of its origins to the realm of soft power. In particular, the shared experience of a profound rupture between the expectation and reality of modernity found analogous expression in visual and literary art; this paper will bring the works of Germany’s Der Blaue Reiter and Der Sturm artists alongside those of Japan’s Fusain Society and Mavo into visual and historical dialogue to identify parallels, intersections, and departures. In short, I hope to reveal the ways in which distinctly Japanese aesthetic traditions—particularly ukiyo-e woodblock printing—defined the contours of early German expressionism, giving rise to a vibrant period of cultural recovery and reimagination as Sōsaku Hanga (“Creative Print”) became an instrument of self-expression and creative experimentation for pioneering Japanese modernists.


Chunhao Luo, University of Pennsylvania: “Knowledge and Conceptions of the Yunnan-Tai Frontiers: Changing Perspectives from Mongol-Yuan to Ming.”

From the 13th to the 15th century was a period when many Tai polities were in formation in the borderlands between Mainland Southeast Asia and the southwest of the dynasties that ruled the territories of nowadays China. This time period corresponded to Mongol-Yuan and Ming dynasties, both of which had the agenda of incorporating this frontier zone into their empire, but with divergent perspectives.

This paper argues that, though the rhetoric of “barbarians” was present, the primary agenda of the Mongol-Yuan dynasty was to control the Yunnan-Tai frontier nominally, making various peoples all serve the Mongol-Yuan court. As Mongol-Yuan was founded by the “barbarians” from a Han perspective, the emphasis on a binarism between the “civilized Han” and the “uncivilized barbarians” would damage their own legitimacy too. Thus, they chose to adopt a narrative that viewed the empire as consisted of many ethnicities united under the authority of the court. In the meantime, while having some knowledge regarding the various indigenous peoples residing there, Mongol-Yuan attention to the region was cursive. For Mongol-Yuan, the occasional disorders in the region were considered as negligible banditry. So long as the imperial infrastructure, which ensured the operation of trades, was not paralyzed due to these disorders, it was unnecessary to penetrate deep into the local administrations. We have seen that intra and inter conflicts of local tribes triggered a passive response by Mongol-Yuan. In these cases, the boundary between loyal subjects and disobeying bandits were made clear, often not along ethnic lines, as the court needed the indigenous peoples’ cooperation.

Moving to the Ming case, as Ming expansion in this frontier was more aggressive, the ideological rhetoric of civilizational discourse was stronger. In the case of Luchuan-Pingmian campaigns, Ming was obsessed in capturing or killing the chieftains of Mong Mao, demonstrating that the court was more concerned with its ideological dominance than merely suppressing the rebellions per se. On the one hand, Ming had the knowledge regarding the internal differences within the rebellious Tai polities, and indeed, was itself participating in forming the categories of ethnic identities in the region. On the other hand, the narrative concerning Mong Mao’s rebellions ignored these differences, as the court believed that capturing the ringleaders could fundamentally solve the problem of revolts. Friends and foes were again demarcated not on ethnic lines but based on the subscription to the imperial ideology. This case demonstrates that even after the aggressive policies abroad during the Yongle reign, the ideological framework embedded in the Ming imperial worldview continued to generate momentum on Ming’s perception of its frontiers.


Bibiana Tsang, University of Pennsylvania: “Ming Dynasty Jiehua: Architectural Elements in Paintings by Wen Zhengming and Qiu Ying.”

This paper studies architectural elements in paintings by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Qiu Ying (1494- 1552) to establish a foundation for art historical research of architectural paintings from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Jiehua 界畫, often translated as “boundary painting” or “ruled-line painting” can be construed as a painting technique that uses rulers, or a category of painting that depicts timber structures in meticulous detail. In most part of history, jiehua is an undermined genre in Chinese painting tradition and in academia. The reasons being there are very few jiehua artists who exceled at the craft and that the genre is often denounced for being associated with craftsmanship in a society that venerates literati culture. Despite the negative connotations related to jiehua, paintings by the literati artist Wen Zhengming and his peer, Qiu Ying illustrate a repeated usage of the jiehua technique. This paper takes the unconventional approach to study the art of the two Wu school painters as paradigms of Ming jiehua. The discourse mainly revolves around paintings by Wen Zhengming and Qiu Ying that are selected for their representativeness of popular taste over imperially-patronaged pieces. Visual analysis of paintings is cross-examined with art commentaries, collecting guides, architectural treatises and collectible objects with depictions of architecture. Conclusions drawn demonstrate that the number of jiehua artists has significantly reduced in the Ming dynasty. However, the quality of jiehua did not necessarily decline. The misconception of Ming jiehua being less refined than Song prototypes is largely due to a shift in the subject matter from ostentatious palatial-style architecture to modest gardens in the Ming dynasty. Moreover, with the diversification of the art market and garden culture on the rise, there was an increased interest in images of private gardens from a heterogeneous audience. Ming jiehua was a response to this phenomenon. In addition, jiehua painted by well-respected artists also conciliated the detestation towards the painting method that was once highly associated with craftsmanship. Finally, archaism in subject matter and composition, as well as literati gathering scenes in gardens are identified as two prevalent themes in Ming jiehua.


Lucien Sun, University of Chicago: “A Print in Flux: Rethinking the Print of Guan Yu from Khara-Khoto.”

During his expedition in 1907–1909, the Russian explorer P. K. Kozlov discovered a woodblock print of Guan Yu, a well-known general of the Three Kingdoms period, in a ruined city called Khara-Khoto bordering the boundless desert of western Inner Mongolia. Although this print has constantly been cataloged in passing as a masterpiece in Chinese printing history and a precursor of the large corpus of New Year pictures, it has received little scholarly attention regarding the composition and its connection to the broader pictorial network existing in north China during the Jin–Yuan periods. In this paper, I examine the print in a twofold state of flux: as a printed artifact, its mobility allowed it to circulate in cross-border trade networks; as a multivalent artwork, it is the locus where visual circuits converged. I first propose a new dating of this print to the early years of the Mongol Empire, most likely in 1250s prior to the reign of Khubilai Khan. By tracing the physical movement of the print from southern Shanxi to Khara-Khoto during the 13th–14th centuries, I reveal how deeply the pictorial composition of this print is embedded within multiple aspects of the visual culture of north China, including decorative tombs, popular religious icons, and stage performances. The Guan Yu print turns out to be a perfect starting point to reveal how images have not only traveled across geographical space but also transferred across various media through warfare, migration, and agency of artists prior to and in the wake of the Mongols.


Cynthia Chen & Zifan Yang, Stanford: “In the Name of Revenge: Suicidal Women in Contemporary Chinese Romantic Novels.”

Opening China’s search engine Baidu, you will find countless posts recommending online sentimental fictions (yanqing xiaoshuo) involving women’s suicides and men’s everlasting solitude. Many scholars, including Haiyan Lee, Paola Zamparani, and Paul Ropp, have discussed the significance of this trope in 19th and 20th century Chinese romantic novels. But why do contemporary women writers and readers still fervently embrace such a tragic narrative?

This research seeks to provide an interpretation beyond oppositional terms: either as the internalization of patriarchal moral ideals or the expression of unrestrained passion. Inspired by Nietzsche’s notion of “ressentiment” (a sentiment that includes revenge as well as ordinary ‘resentment’), we approach the suicidal acts as more than an extension of preexisting literary tradition. Instead, it becomes a form of revenge by imposing guilt upon male protagonists. In this way, the spectacle lies not in the dying women but rather in men’s expression of grievance. The popularity of suicidal stories thus calls forth for redefining “revenge” in contemporary Chinese literature: its completion no longer lies in the death of one’s “enemy” but in the death of oneself and the mourning of her simultaneous “lover” and “enemy.” Ultimately, it is through this lament that the living realize his true love. This paper will examine various literary sources from late-Qing sentimental fictions, Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School to online romantic novels. We will closely read three novels from a well-known online female writer, Fei Wo Si Cun: Chronicle in Life (2006), Too Late To Say I Love You (2006), Good Bye, My Princess (2010).


Inkyeong Chung, University of Pennsylvania: “Non-Human Forms in Contemporary Korean Literature.”

Posthumanism emerged as a philosophy of our time, as we went from Nietzsche’s “God is dead” in 1912 to Foucault’s “Man is dead” in 1970. Due to the growing recognition of the reductionist view that humanism holds, the notion of “human” from the human tradition is no longer relevant today. Ever since its conception in the Enlightenment, humanism has embraced only the white, able-bodied men under the category of “human,” excluding all the “others” – the sexualized other (women), the racialized other (people of color), the naturalized other (animals, plants, germs, Earth, etc.), and the artificial other (machines, inanimate objects like chairs). Therefore, a critical and creative deconstruction of the human narrative is called for.

At the turn of the century, the Korean writer Han Kang wrote and published “The Fruit of My Woman” (1997), a story that is commonly acknowledged as a straight antecedent to her internationally acclaimed novel, The Vegetarian (2007). In the ingenious story that features the posthuman metamorphosis of an ordinary wife turning into a plant, the untold narrative of the nonhuman “other” comes into view against the backdrop of the urban cityscape of modern-day Korea. Through a close reading of the text, this paper brings forward a multitude of entangled perspectives extant in today’s Korean society, which this paper argues, is an indispensable ground for the posthuman paradigm shift. Ultimately, it seeks to inform readers of the diversity of contemporary East Asian literature by inciting a meaningful reconsideration of the anthropocentric ontology of world literature.


Mingkang Hao, Duke University: “Rethinking Female Homosexuality in the Republican China: A Study Based on the Tao-Liu Homicide Case, 1932.”

Although gradually emerged in modern Chinese history, the existence of female homosexuality has not been officially recognized by the heterosexual-based judicial norms. This paper examines a female homosexual homicide case, the Tao-Liu case (“陶劉案”), to explore how marginal groups (i.e. Female same-sex lovers) self-narrated, interacted with different social powers, and challenged the norms and borders of the social system after the 1930s in modern China. Several legal historians have explored the criminalization of homosexual behaviors in Chinese history, but their research shed more light on the penalty for male homosexuality or sodomy. Research projects regarding female same-sex love in China focus more on literature, rather than historical events and their interactions with the legal system and the public. Female-centered case studies emphasize public passions, modern media, and their power of impacting the legal process, but situations could be different when it comes to the case that happened between female same-sex lovers in the Republic of China.

Around 600-700 news reports, social comments, and documents of legal trials and judgments are collected to conduct textual analysis regarding narratives of defendants, appealers, and different social groups in court and the public space. This paper first combs through the legal process of the rarely-explored case, which lasted for over three years. Next, it analyzes the complex role of the “space” where the case happened. Focusing on the narrating strategies of the case-involved subjects and the changing definitions of killing motives, this paper then researches the interplay and conflicts among legal expectations, female same-sex love, and heterosexual-based legal and social norms. Finally, it concluded with the significance of the Tao-Liu case. Accordingly, the Tao-Liu Case made homosexual desires and jealousy between females an acceptable motive to be taken into account by the court and the public. In other words, it potentially challenged the existing legal and social norms. The judicial system indirectly but unprecedentedly recognized the existence of same-sex love and relationship between females, expanding the scope of law application for better control.