Things I learned at #AAS2017, part2 (Friday, 17 March)

St James in the morningThis year’s conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Toronto (March 16–19), the first one I ever attended, was enormous. Still overwhelmed by the experience, I publish some of my notes on the various panels I attended and presentations I heard, interspersed with tweets I posted during the conference. Due to the volume, I organise the material in daily instalments – meaning that each post focuses on one conference day, I probably won’t be able to keep up a daily posting rate. In my listings, presentations in bold are those I heard myself, while those in italics refer to situations where I couldn’t hear a presentation as I had to leave early or came late.

This is the second part of my impressions at AAS 2017, from the presentations I attended on Friday, 17 March.

Things Fall Apart: Material Religion and the Problem of Decay with examples from Korea, Vietnam, and Myanmar

President’s Address, Fri, March 17, 9:00 to 10:15am, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Grand Centre

Presenter: Laurel Kendall, American Museum of Natural History


Things fall apart, but they do not do so at the same rate or in the same circumstances. Sacred images decay at different rates depending on their own innate material properties and as they interact with air, water, earth, fire, and with the variables of local practice—incense smoke, libations with ghee, the rubbing of human hands. The disintegration of a sacred image may be precipitated by human agency (iconoclasm) or postponed by it (acts of care and restoration). In recent writing, the instability or “vibrancy” of matter engages the attention of socio-cultural anthropologists (Tim Ingold) archeologists (Ian Hodder) and philosophers (Jane Bennett). In my own research on ensouled images—Korean shaman paintings, temple statues in Vietanm, and nat images in Myanmar—I encountered decay as a spectral presence. It lurked behind questions of how images are fabricated, why particular materials are selected, the relationships and obligations assumed by the human caretakers of sacred images, the different protocols for disposal, and the resuscitation of some discarded things to second lives as art commodities.
I am not offering a controlled comparison much less an argument for a particularly “Asian” approach to the dissolution of religious images. I am suggesting that when we draw the specter of decay out of the shadows it leads us to some local insights on how local actors navigate the inevitable deterioration of material things through their own understandings of the agentive spirit entities that sometimes inhabit them: What are the cautions that inform the refurbishment of statues in spirit medium temples in Vietnam? How is the relatively rapid deterioration of a Burmese nat image linked to Burmese understandings of nat-ness in relation to Buddhahood? How has the Korean shaman’s desire to give her deities a clean and pure seat abetted and frustrated a market in antique shaman paintings?

Laurel Kendall’s talk offered an engaging approach to the emphemeral material culture associated with religious acts in different Asian countries (Vietnam, Korea, Myanmar). With regard to Korea, she mentioned “ambiguous” aspects of shamanic rituals – on a given occasion, the gods may arrive or not, still the mansin (만신 萬神, a female shaman) acts as if divine intervention was imminent. The paper images she discussed also counter the gravitas of the situation. I’d be interested in a discussion of the performative aspects of these rituals and the roles that “props” play.

Hidden Traces of the Repertoire: Reconstructing Chinese Theatre Practice in the Maoist Period

Panel 66, Fri, March 17, 10:30am to 12:30pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Chestnut East

* Siyuan Liu (University of British Columbia), “Eliminating Scenario Plays in China in the 1950s”
* Anne Rebull (University of Chicago), “How to Act: Emboldening Theatricality in 1950s Performance Practice”
* Maggie Greene (Montana State University), “Navigating Bureaucratic ‘Gusts of Wind’: The Shanghai Theatre World, 1949-1966”
* Tarryn Li-Min Chun (University of Michigan), “Sent-Down Plays: Yangbanxi and Rural Performance in the Chinese Cultural Revolution”
* Discussant: Xiaomei Chen (University of California, Davis)

I don’t know much about theatre in China, and (almost) all I know I learned from two books… and these four presentations, that were enlightening in a very tangible way, by using much archival evidence.

All four presentations dealt with differents forms of theatre that were performed around the same time, during the years following Mao’s civil war victory in 1949.

  1. Tigangxi (“scenarios plays”), performances by improvising virtuoso actors based on roughly drafted “scenarios” (both in spoken and sung theatre, wenmingxi and xiqu) that gave way to director-centered productions of didactic drama under state ownership after 1949 (Siyuan Liu)
  2. Kunqu (崑曲), also known as “Kun opera”, a traditional performance genre; the highly successful production Fifteen Strings of Cash (1956) became a starting point for discussions on aesthetic aspects of “traditional” sung (kunqu, a form of xiqu, “Chinese opera”) and “modern” spoken theatre (huaju), popular and political drama (Anne Rebull)
  3. Yangbanxi (樣板戲) “model operas”, tradional music theatre about “revolutionary” themes, made as a replacement of traditional styles in the Cultural Revolution (1966–76); model operas were performed by stately sponsored troupes, following detailed model books, went on tour and performed under less than ideal conditions in the countryside (Tarryn Li-Min Chun, homepage)

Maggie Green (homepage), who studied archival records on theatre in Shanghai from 1949 to 1966 for alternative sources, highlighted the benefits of quantitative methods in comparison to typical genre distinctions. She noted a difference between the theatre discussed by contemporary activists and scholarship on the one hand, and actual performance attendance on the other. Evidence on the latter suggests that “traditional” performance styles dominated stages until well into the 1960s, while official records suggest otherwise.

This tour-de-force through a highly exciting era of Chinese theatre was just great – I learned so much in the short timeframe of a panel (unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the discussion). A similar in-depth, comparative, and evidence-based discussion of theatre in post-war Korea would make a very interesting panel – or book!

The next panel offered a glimpse on this possible project:

Entertainment in the Aftermath of the Korean War

Panel 88, Fri, March 17, 12:45 to 2:45pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, 2nd Floor, Elgin

* Benoit Berthelier (Yonsei University), “The North Korean Cultural Revolution: Popular Culture and Class Relations in North Korea (1945-1955)”
* Roald H. Maliangkay (Australian National University), “Occupied Korea Has Talent: Entertaining Americans in the Aftermath of the Korean War”
* Yunji Park (University of Southern California), “Masculine Girl Prince and the Sexual Transgressor in 1950s South Korea”
* Yusuke Wajima (Osaka University), “The Fake Sport by the Fake Japanese? (Trans)Nationalism and Americanization in Professional Wrestling in Japan and Korea”
* Discussant: Suk-Young Kim (University of California, Los Angeles)

A Korea-focused panel on things performative – wonderful! It was a tough decision, but I skipped the panel on food culture and identity (that took place at the same time across the Mezzanine) and went for the whole thing. First, Benoit Berthelier’s analysis of gendered construction of class-consciousness (spoiler: “male” workers, “female” farmers) through collective cultural activities in North Korea. A highlight was the evaluation sheet for literature reading circles, with empty fields for pre-scribed “opinions”.

Then the fascinating story of Rikidōzan or Yeokdosan in Korean (역도산 力道山), a professional wrestler from Korea who made it big time in Japan, as a “national hero” beating up Americans. Yusuke Wajima discussed several aspects of Rikidōzan’s career, including his fame as the “Hero of Plaza Viewing”, promoted in public viewings, his role in the pro-wrestling logic of “local hero vs. travelling villain”, and the respective reactions to his successes in both North Korea (an ethnic hero) and South Korea (a symbol of anti-communist-lead normalization with Japan). The eponymous 2004 movie by Song Hae-sung (성해성) might give another post-IMF-perspective on this border-bending performer – or a “Mystery File” (미스테리 사건파일) episode on his murder

Yusuke Wajima on Rikidōzan

Yusuke Wajima on Rikidōzan

Next, a topic that I’m particularly interested in: Gender transgressions in popular yeoseong gukgeuk (여성국극, “female national drama”) in the 1950s. I’ve read about this all-woman version of pansori-based changgeuk (창극, also formerly known as 국극, i.e. “national drama”) mostly in Killick’s In Search of Korean Traditional Opera]( (Univ. of Hawai’i Press 2010) and had seen one performance years ago on a Dano Festival at the Gugak Center. Park Yujin’s talk discussed some interesting predecessors (besides the obvious pansori-changgeuk-trajectory), such as “girls music plays” (sonyeo gageuk 소녀가극, see a paper by 백현미 on DBpia) in colonial Korea and the ongoing Takarazuka Revue founded in 1913 in Japan.

Finally, Roald H. Maliangkay’s talk on hired Korean musicians performing at US camps in post-war Korea – with castings, coversongs, and imported guitars – gave a good idea of the environment where later stars like the Kim Sisters or Shin Jung-hyeon (신중현), “godfather of rock”, took their first steps.

A common point between (at least three of) these topics is their celebration of “fake” acts: staged fights, women impersonating men, and Korean musicians standing in for American pop acts to expensive to be flown in. In any case, with their different implied Utopian dimensions, these popular practices are more than mere means for profit, but highly political. A performative perspective – e.g. on the undeniably enjoyable tension between performer and role (or phenomenal and semiotic body, see my take on the Cumberbitch-phenomenon) – might be another fruitful approach to these entertaining imitations and simulations.

Afterwards, I made a brief visit to the following panel, where I heard only the first presentation:

Cosmopolitan Configuration: “The World” in Korean Visual Culture

Panel 123 Fri, March 17, 3:00 to 5:00pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Cedar

  • Christina Klein (Boston College), “Theorizing/Historicizing Cold War Cosmopolitanism”
    * Hyun Seon Park (Yonsei University), “The Return of a Cosmopolitan Subject: Encountering the World of Violence in Ha Kil-chong’s 1970s Films”
    * Yun-Jong Lee (Dong-A University), “A Lonely, Struggling Cosmopolitan: Bae Chang-ho and the Global Cinema in the 1980s”
    * Sohl Lee (Stony Brook University), “The Global Circulation of Korea’s Democratic Avant-Garde Art in the 1980s: The Triad of Seoul, Tokyo, and New York”
    * Discussant: Steven Lee (UC Berkeley)

Christina Klein discussed the role of the Asia Foundation, a “CIA front” that was involved in cold war cultural politics, for example by attempting to integrate Korea into (non-Communist) “free Asia”. The Asian Film Festival, for example, sponsored artist travels and cultural exchange and promoted the resulting movies. A result of this meeting of US cold warriors and Korean cultural producers is the movie Because I love you (사랑하는 까닭에, directed by Han Hyeong-mo 한형모, 1958) that Klein discussed in detail. Interestingly, this “Korea-Malaysia friendship tourist film” features extensive scenes of traditional Korean dance, staging a spectacle of intercultural friendship among allies.

I know that in the world of Korean theatre in the 1950s and 60s, the Rockefeller Foundation played a similarly foundational role, for example by sponsoring artistic exchanges, academic publications, or infrastructure in Korea, maybe most prominently the Drama Center in Seoul. Different from the first and foremost commercially driven sphere of entertainment directly after the Korean War (see last panel), here cold war policies seem to have had the upper hand.

After I slipped out of the panel, I made at round at the book stands and met Barbara Wall from Hamburg, who had just arrived and was to host a cross-country panel soon:

The Construction of East Asian History on Screen

Panel 148 Fri, March 17, 5:15 to 7:15pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, 2nd Floor, Dominion Ballroom North

* Jose Montaño (Rikkyo University), “The Chrysanthemum and the Laugh: Questioning Japanese History through Contemporary Jidaigeki Films” (video presentation)
* Le-Na Dao (Vietnam National University), “National Identity in Conflict: The Reconstruction of King Ly Thai To on Vietnamese Screen”
* Barbara Wall (University of Hamburg), “The Construction of Crown Prince Sado as Symbolic Victim in the Fight against the Establishment in Films and TV dramas”
* George Guo (Royal Holloway, University of London), “From Serious History to Time-Travel TV: A Critical Study of Time-Travel Television Series on Contemporary Chinese Television” (canceled)
* Discussant: Donald L. Baker (University of British Columbia)

Unfortunately, two of the panelists could not attend, but at least one of them (Jose Montaño) had prepared a video presentation, a slightly ironic take on recent parodies of the samurai film genre.

Then Barbara herself presented her take on different depictions of crown prince Sado (사도 세자, 1735–62), from historical records to a memorial mural along Cheonggyecheon, as well as in different movies and drama series (The Throne 사도, Secret Door 비밀의 문). From a murderer to a victim, later to a rebellious reformer, the ways Sado has been interpreted often reflects the specific circumstances of the reception of this enigmatic character, making it difficult (or impossible) to distinguish between fact and fiction in retrospect.

Barbara also mentioned a play that deals with the Sado-plot and I vaguely remembered that Oh Tae-suk (오태석) had written something similar. Indeed, his 1987 play Intimacy between Father and Son (부자유친 父子有親) tells the well-known story from a close-up, intimate perspective. The play has been translated into English by Ah-Jeong Kim and R. B. Graves (in The Metacultural Theater of Oh T’ae-sok, Univ. of Hawai’i Press 1999) and into German (as “Nähe von Vater und Sohn”) by Lee Kyungboon and Kai Köhler (in Mumiengrab und andere Theaterstücke, Edition Peperkorn 2013)

I couldn’t find any other plays that deal with this famous – and highly dramatic! – historic episode. It would be interesting, though, to compare different productions of Oh Tae-suk’s classic, for example before and after the IMF-induced reorientation of cultural policies. I’m quite sure, though, that other dramatizations of this plot exist…

Le-Na Dao’s talk on cinematic representations of Vietnamese King Lý Thái Tổ was a great complement to Barbara’s. Le-Na discussed how famous acts of the first Emperor of the Lý-dynasty – such as moving the capital to today’s Hanoi and promoting Buddhism –, as well as legendary attributions (e.g. a dream of a golden dragon) are depicted in different movies. Interestingly, she also stresses the use of traditional arts as a means to evoke a national spirit.

Le-Na Dao on representations of King Lý Thái Tổ

Le-Na Dao on representations of King Lý Thái Tổ

Donald Baker, the discussant of the panel, stressed that movies, like (academic) historiographies, oversimplify matters – only to a higher degree. It is certainly true that movies, TV shows, and plays (as well as productions thereof) are a product of their time, thus more valuable as a historiographic source on the time they are produced than the time they depict.

Korea Foundation reception

Korean Foundation Reception

The day ended with some reception hopping (from AAS to Korea Foundation to University of Hawai’i), rushed buffet dinner, some old friends, some new ones, and a late-night meeting of the Committee on Korean Studies, on top floor (or so it seemed).


— 17 March 2017 (金)


About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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One Response to Things I learned at #AAS2017, part2 (Friday, 17 March)

  1. Pingback: Things I learned at #AAS 2017, part3 (Saturday, 18 March + Sunday, 19 March) | Seoul Stages

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