A Myriad of Lights: Report from the AAS Annual Meeting
This year’s Association of Asian Studies (AAS) Annual Meeting, held in downtown Chicago, was a massive exhibition of intellectual exchange, featuring nearly 250 panels and over 1300 presenters. As my first visit to AAS, it was an excellent opportunity to finally meet many scholars with whom I’ve corresponded about Chinese cinema over the past year, and familiarize myself with the exciting work of many others.
Among the thousands of attendees and multiple event options at a given time, it was easy to feel overwhelmed. How fortunate that by pure coincidence the first person I met at the conference was Peter K. Frost, former Chair of Asian Studies at my alma mater, Williams College, and now with the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi. I also met Jim Cheng, who manages the largest East Asian Studies media library in the country at UC San Diego. He introduced me to several of his esteemed colleagues and shared exciting news about his upcoming follow-up to his 2004 Annotated Bibliography on Chinese Cinema, this time focusing on Taiwanese cinema.
I focused my panel attendance on topics most relevant to those represented in dGenerate’s film offerings, to see how those issues were being discussed among academia. My first panel was perhaps most relevant, as it concerned contemporary documentary film culture in China. Chaired by Robert Chi (UCLA), the panel featured a startling variety of perspectives. Xinyu Lu (Fudan University) contemplated theoretical frameworks for understanding Chinese documentaries; Paola Voci (U. of Otago) examined the sub-genre on animated documentary; and Paola Iovene (U. Chicago) analyzed the aesthetic implications of visual testimony behind the social documentary Before the Flood by Li Yifan and Yan Yu. Seio Nakajima (U. Hawaii-Manoa) and Yingchi Chu (Murdoch) both invoked Jurgen Habermas to discuss the effectiveness of Chinese documentary culture as social discourse, Nakajima focusing specifically on the phenomenon of urban Chinese film clubs. Presenting at another panel, Tami Blumenfield’s report on film festivals in Yunnan, such as the Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival and the Moso Film Festival (which she helped to organize), would have fit perfectly among these presentations.
On my last day at the conference, I was faced with a dilemma familiar to attendees: two very interesting panels occurring simultaneously. Fortunately (or unfortunately), “Beijing in the Shadow of Globalization” and “Representing Childhood and Youth in Modern China” were a few doors from each other, so I decided to shuttle back and forth glean as much as I could from both; given that it was my first conference experience, I decided I was better off going with breadth than depth. All the same I enjoyed a good deal of the presentations on youth in China, including Weihong Bao (Columbia) on “Performing the Colonial Child: Gender, Nature and East Asian Colonial Modernity” and Lanjun Xu (National University of Singapore), who discussed one of my favorite Chinese films of the 1940s, San Mao liulang ji. At the Beijing panel, Sheldon Lu (UC Davis) illustrated how the Olympic Games have utterly transformed public and private spaces in Beijing, and Zhang Yue reported on the travesty of the city’s historical preservation efforts. I especially enjoyed a slide show by Jerome Silbergeld (Princeton), who compared the theme park properties of Beijing both during and following the Olympics with the cinematic depiction of a comparable phenomenon in Jia Zhangke’s film The World. It made for a vivid illustration of life imitating art, an art which itself is concerned with a society consumed by imitation: of the West, of prosperity, of culture.
There were other panels that I caught snatches of, and many more that I missed altogether, but all in all it amounted to massive exposure to a wealth of great minds and ideas. I’m looking forward to familiarizing myself to them over time.
Other attendees of this year’s AAS are invited to post their own highlights and memorable presentations in the comments section!