The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making
by Lydia Liu
Harvard, 334 pages

As an avid reader of non-fiction books about East Asia it’s come to my attention academic works rarely cross over to enjoy the popularity of a Thomas Friedman bestseller or a Malcolm Gladwell paperback.

The most common complaint is academic books are dry, boring or hard to read.

While this may be true for some, it’s also increasingly the case I find works that are not only fascinating to read but are ferociously relevant to the present.

Lydia Liu’s The Clash Of Empires was published in 2004, but with its insights into the construction of ‘China’ in the 19th century it does astonish the reader with a completely overlooked episode in history.

According to Liu, mistranslation and appropriation of key Chinese words enabled European powers, and specifically Britain, to extract unfair treaties from relatively reclusive Qing China.

Through the reconstruction of the Chinese term ‘Yi‘ and misappropriating it into the false equivalence of the English word ‘barbarian,’ Liu argues that the diplomatically mediated British empire was able to bring Chinese writing under Western control.

It’s a flicker of an episode but one with catastrophic consequences for the Qing, because once philology was colonized even the Chinese elite was at the mercy of a new kind of control.

An event from such a distant past may not sound too relevant today but as Liu demonstrates that’s only because the hidden powers of political technologies have been kept out of view for so long.


Qingdao Beach | Katharina Hesse

by Liz on April 28, 2013

in Art & Design

About a year ago, I was immensely lucky to interview photographer Katharina Hesse for AsianTalks, and speak to her in length of her work with publications like TIME and Newsweek. Her projects have taken her to Bangkok, around Asia, and recently to China’s northeast where she has photographed North Korean refugees who are fleeing the DPRK.

For those of you in New York curious to learn more about Hesse’s work, there is a special exhibit at the Open Society Institute that will be on view through December 13, 2013. Hesse, along with several other globally situated photojournalists will be featured as part of the Moving Walls exhibit, with works addressing a “variety of social justice and human rights issues.”

I’ve always been a huge fan of Hesse’s work, because even beyond weighty subject matter she fluidly captures the essence of a place, and particularly China. These black-and-white photographs of an urban beach in Qingdao, Shandong province, were taken in August 2010, which I imagine is the height of some kind of beach season in China. To me, they exemplify what Hesse does best.

Hesse never subtracts from what’s already there, but neither does she embellish her subjects. For the photographer and her lens, subjects, light and composition are all sufficiently captivating, an observation that humbles a more blase viewer into renewed appreciation.

It’s been argued in some circles Chinese contemporary art is defining China and inflecting Chinese reality as much as it is being affected by it.

Here — I’d argue Hesse’s photography does the same for a quotidian beach in Eastern China.


Cultural Symbols and Nationalism

by Liz on January 29, 2013

in Opinion

Source: Tumblr

With all the buzz about the clash of nationalisms in Asia today, I found my attention slowly turning towards less newsworthy but visually arresting items.

Like this captivating photograph of a Japanese geisha, whose finery, grace, and beauty underscores an important point about gender: because in Japan, even if men are politically powerful, it is Japanese women, or at least their symbolic significance, who carry the charged aura of their nation.

Nationalism in Asia, of course, and the visceral discourse that it naturally gives rise to, is an unending conversation mired in a bit of modern absurdity.

The long forgotten logic of East Asia, or even the subjective notion that it is somewhere ‘in the East’ didn’t really enter the national vocabulary until the mid- to late 19th century, a pivotal historical period that I’ve been studying independently.

It was around this time both destruction and creation took place, starting in Japan, then moving along the Korean peninsula and Qing China.

Which kind of brings us back to the geisha.

When I look at this picture, I see a powerfully seductive image of not an actual woman, but rather an abstraction of femininity that may be a paragon of Japanese culture. (And please do correct me if I am wrong.)

But perhaps on a more subversive level, I also see an expression and vision of the Japanese nation that binds the collective imagination. It stays on, it lingers. We remember Japan because we remember the geisha.

And it’s images like these, or Korean pop music, or even the Beijing Olympics, that posits a near-superficial cultural unity or a source of pride for an East Asian national.

What we forget, though, is that limiting Asian identities to the cultural-turned-national symbol, in a way, also creates paradoxical dependencies on these potent concepts that now differentiate one population from another.

They fuel the nationalisms that make the headlines, and encourages the hostilities we see today.


Laowai-Foreigner | Kraine Gallery

by Liz on September 21, 2012

in Art & Design

At reception night at Kraine Gallery's exhibit 'Laowai-Foreigner,' visitors were allowed to touch and interact with some of the art.

What’s the latest connection between China and New York?

After visiting the ‘Laowai-Foreigner’ exhibit at Kraine Gallery in the East Village, the answer was pretty clear. It’s art.

Curated by Cory Dixon of the New York Academy of Art, the tiny corridor nestled on the second floor of a walk-up building on East 4th street showcased seven artists: four Americans and three Chinese who participated in what Shanghai-based curator Rachel Marsden called a “Micro Residency of Art programme” over the course of 11 weeks.

In China, the term ‘Laowai’ is often used to refer to foreigners, and specifically Westerners who take up residence in China. Depending who you talk to, the term has different connotations. An editorial in the People’s Daily online refers to it as a “good-humored nickname,” a Wikipedia entry considers it “a casual and fairly neutral word.” In other circles the word is a cynical slang when used to refer to an alien or a foreigner.

Sven Muentel, a German expatriate based in China, offered over Twitter that the term is “neutral…just what people here say. You get used to it.”

But perhaps to reclaim what to some is a debasing epithet, the ongoing exhibit puts this Mandarin word for foreigner front and center in what the curators call a “visual conversation…that span(s) the globe from East to West.”

As I walked through the short-lived hallway and its red walls, I couldn’t help but notice the transcultural nature of the works. Just as Marsden writes the works were a display of a “love of low tech, hand crafted, image-based practices,” Nicolas Sanchez’s Moleskine sketchbook (seen below), lovingly filled with precise, ballpoint drawings of various personalities – both Chinese and Western – provided a gratifying illustration of her words. The works of other student-artists also provided measured metaphors of the earliest stages of transcultural negotiation and exploration.

Beautiful drawing by artist Nicolas Sanchez

On September 19, opening reception night, the exhibit invited a young and eclectic crowd of artists and art lovers. The adjacent KGB Bar buzzed with a growing crowd waiting for the screening of Andy Warhol’s ‘Made In China’, filmed in 1992 when the New York-based artist traveled from Hong Kong to the Forbidden City in Beijing.

So while there remains a great deal of uncertainty wrapped around the word ‘Laowai,’ it’s also a universal kind of uncertainty that accompanies the change and shift of identities in our world.

And for these New York artists who traveled to China to be both inspired and challenged by their new environment, their art and reflections speak for themselves.

‘Laowai-Foreigner’ exhibit at Kraine Gallery is running from September 19 to October 19, and features the works of artists Nicolas Sanchez, Megan Ewert, Kristy Gordon, Wang Yi, Huang Zhe, Cory Dixon, and Ian Cao. For more information see Kraine Gallery.


(From L to R, top to bottom) ART HK 12, Seoul Diagonal Tower by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, The Chan-Zuckerbergs, China's War for Talent, Vintage Viet Cong Posters

@The Diplomat reports the Obama Administration has appointed its first Ambassador to Burma. Derek Mitchell, an inside-the-Beltway native, will be America’s ambassador to Burma, the first in 22 years. Or as President Obama put it poetically: “As an iron fist has unclenched in Burma, we have extended our hand.”

@TIME Magazine reports there’s a war for tech and engineering talent taking hold in China. Expect massages, foosball tables and other perks if they really want you.

@Can’t say I didn’t see this one coming. The Korea Times reports a survey of 3,600 people in nine countries shows K-pop Inc. will probably not see lasting success. Too much hypersexual dancing perhaps?

@Art sold well for an impressive swath of galleries represented at the Hong Kong Art Fair (ART HK 12). Even Arario Gallery reported selling an “undisclosed number of smaller pieces, ranging from USD 10,000-50,000.”

@Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan tied the knot at the end of a very eventful week: Chan earned her medical degree, Zuckerberg’s Facebook IPO was the largest in tech history, although it did disappoint a bit by closing 9.5 percent down from its opening price. It’s also something of a fairy tale ending for Mr. Zuckerberg.

@Looking to vacation in Southeast Asia? Know your fruits before you go.

@And if you are Southeast Asia-bound, you might want to rethink fish pedicures.

@On the other hand, if you’re headed to Beijing and looking for some bizarre eats, be sure to get your sneak preview here. (via Fili Nation)

@Are the Norks getting soft? I’m talking about their agreement to release 3 Chinese fishermen, who were detained for 12 days and at one point were held for ransom.

@And for South Korea, Dezeen has done a very nice job of rounding up the future of Seoul’s positively 22nd century skyline.


@Child of the Sixties Forever has a collection of Viet Cong posters from that decade. Which makes me wonder. Will we be looking back at today’s North Korean propaganda with equal bemusement?

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Live From New York, It’s Liu Bolin

March 17, 2012

True to form on a warm spring day, Chinese artist Liu Bolin disappeared into his background: toy shelves stocked with Disney characters manufactured in China. I’ve blogged about Liu before, so if any of you are curious about some aspects of his art, and why he keeps awing the world with his Invisible Man series, […]

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James Bollen is a Shanghai-based British photographer whose work was shown this year at SH Contemporary, one of Shanghai’s most talked about art fairs. He recently discovered my blog, and I thank him for this, because if he didn’t, I may never have had the privilege of seeing his portfolio online. Bollen, while technically not […]

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Earthly quarrels

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Look on a world map, and you’ll notice China is a vast country. Positively massive. I realize that now, but most of the time I don’t give China’s portly silhouette much thought. I just assume those have been her borders for some time, occasionally contested by an uprising in Tibet or tumult in Xinjiang. But […]

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Yang Qian | Eli Klein Gallery

August 25, 2011

I have never met Yang Qian, but if I do, I wonder whether he, too, metamorphoses under ultra-violet light, the way George Bush, David Beckham, and Tiger Woods does in a series of his works that were on display at Eli Klein earlier this year. Yang’s paintings occupied the lower level of Mr. Klein’s gallery […]

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Liu Bolin | Eli Klein Gallery

August 8, 2011

As I considered a blog post about Chinese contemporary artist Liu Bolin, my mind was at a loss. What could I possibly add to what’s been said about Liu’s Hiding in the City series? Liu is an artist known the world over for his ingenious body of photographs, a man willing to stand patiently for […]

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