LRCCS Community Spotlight: Wang Qingsong (English Version)

The LRCCS Community Spotlight is honored to introduce Artist-in-Residence Wang Qingsong.  Wang Laoshi started off as an oil painter, and later went on to become one of the most influential photographers in China.  His work is full of humor and profundity, and also serves to document contemporary China.  During this interview, Wang Laoshi explains his path to becoming a renowned artist, and some of his insights from that world.

This interview was edited by Erzhan Xu and conducted/translated by Eric Couillard.  You can read the original interview in Chinese here.  

Wang Qingsong at the University of Michigan

Wang Qingsong at the University of Michigan

Couillard: When did you first start to study and practice art?  Did you learn it as a child?

Wang Laoshi: No.  My family worked in the oil industry, so we were always moving around to different oil fields.  My family was never very stationary.  As I recall, I only ever had an art teacher for one year when I was little.  It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I discovered I liked it.  I started to make crude drawings and paintings.

Couillard: So when did you decide you wanted to become an artist?

Wang Laoshi: After I graduated from high school, one of my mom’s colleague’s kids entered a local art school.  My mom knew I loved to paint, so she told me about it.  At the time I thought, “What?  There’s schools just for making art?”  After I knew that was an option, I decided to study there.  Once I graduated, I went to the art school to formally study how to make art.  Actually the school was more like a club from another high school; there were no classes until after the normal school got out.  Even though I was taking professional courses, I had no idea where I was going with it.  At the time I never dreamed I’d become an artist.  I just wanted to continue my hobby.  It wasn’t until 1993 that I decided I wanted to pursue art as a career.  This was after I graduated from the art school and moved to Beijing.

Couillard: What happened in ’93 that made you decide to move to Beijing and become an artist?

Wang Laoshi: In ’92 the National Art Museum of China in Beijing had a very important exhibit in collaboration with a Japanese art museum.  It was a collection of western art ranging from egg tempera, oil, impressionism, and other works from many famous artists throughout history.  I went to see it, and though the art wasn’t especially exciting for me, what surprised me was the people who came to see it.  So many of them brought notebooks to take notes, write down their reflections, study the composition, even make some sketches of the pieces!  This inspired me!  I suddenly realized there’s quite a large interest in art, even among older people.  So I thought Beijing must be a very cultured place.  Where I was living and working at the time, you never saw anything like it.  For the most part everyone was all about doing business, earning money.  So after that Beijing exhibit, I decided I had to move there.  I moved the next year.  Looking back, now it doesn’t seem like Beijing was so cultured back then.  But the curtain had been raised for me, and I was hooked.  So I went for it.

Couillard:  So how did you make a living when you first moved there?

Wang Laoshi: When I first moved to Beijing, I was painting a lot.  It was almost like writing in a diary.  I painted things from my heart, certain feelings and experiences.  Personal experiences, I didn’t too much bother with the outside world.  I thought art only needed to express oneself.  Later I slowly changed.  Maybe it was because society was changing.  The first one or two years there were difficult.  I couldn’t make a living off art.  And it was then that housing prices started to rise.  I remember one winter, I think it was ’96, it was so cold!  I had rented a cheap place, it didn’t have glass windows or a door, just holes in the wall that we covered with some plastic.  The pipes were frozen.  That winter was almost unbearable!  At the time I thought, it’s been about three years, and I still have nothing.  I was depressed and thought, “Will it be like this forever?  Is this hopeless?”  But the depression passed suddenly.  After winter, the trees started to bud, the pipes melted and started working again, and I felt full of hope.  In the 90s I always felt supported by my hope.  Hope is bigger than any difficulty.

Couillard: How did you maintain hope for those three long years?

Wang Laoshi: One was that I saw my friends doing better and better.  Another piece was that I had already burned my bridges – there was no turning back.  I figured I could take it for 3-5 years.  But if went on too long, if I didn’t have any shows or sell anything, maybe that hope would have disappeared.  People need hope to persevere.  I pushed on until 97 or 98, and around that time my work started to get recognized.

Couillard: When did you make the transition from painting to photography?

Wang Laoshi: 1996

Couillard: Why the change?

Wang Laoshi: When I first got to Beijing I was focused on painting.  But I was seeing so many unthinkable changes happen before my eyes – the rent prices were surging, more and more people were flooding the city.  I thought society was so different, maybe we were in the midst of a historic transformation, and I had no idea where we were headed.  I just knew things would never be the same.  So I thought there must be a better way to draw attention to this change.

One World, 2014 (Taken from

One World, 2014 (Taken from

Couillard: To document it.

Wang Laoshi: Yes, exactly.  So I thought, if I want to document this, of course I’ll use art.  Photography is the most direct medium.  So in 96 I started out, but it wasn’t until 97 that this became my main medium.

Couillard:  So when you create your art… would you say you have a goal or purpose?  What impact do you want it to bring to the world?

Wang Laoshi: To record and document.  China is changing too fast.  It just needs to be recorded, I’m not so interested in commentary.  Of course I bring my own views to the things I choose to photograph – I’m not just taking pictures at random.  I’ve always thought of myself as a reporter.

Couillard:  By recording and documenting all this, what do you hope will happen?

Wang Laoshi: I hope that my work will serve as an illustration to sociology.  I hope people researching contemporary Chinese society can use my work to learn about the times or use them as photos in textbooks.  Actually my photography is like a compressed history, it takes large issues and compresses them into one photo.  In one photo, you can find many stories being told, many layers.  So they cover a lot of territory in a very limited space.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more interviews.

LRCCS Community Spotlight: 王庆松(中文版)

LRCCS 博客很荣幸向大家介绍来自中国的艺术家王庆松老师。王老师学油画起家,是中国很具影响力的当代摄影艺术家。王老师的作品充满幽默而深刻,同时带有很强的新闻效应。在采访中,王老师向我们介绍了他是怎样一步步走向艺术之路,以及作为中国当代艺术家的感悟。

本此访问由 Eric Couillard(一毛)负责访谈,许尔瞻负责转录与编辑。






王庆松:高中毕业以后,因为我妈妈的一个同事儿子考上了我们当地的一个美校。而她知道我喜欢画画,她就跟我妈说。然后我妈妈就告诉我。我当时想,诶?怎么还有专门的美术学校?我知道这个事情后,就让她介绍我去她儿子学画画的地方学习。所以我高中毕业后就在那里跟老师、同学正规的开始学。那个学校其实是一个中学的美术组。放学的时候,爱好美术的同学、大家专门找一个房间,请一个老师来教画。虽然那个时候教学已经是很专业了, 但学这个东西,将来会怎么样也不知道。 当艺术家,当时一直没有这个奢望。只是说能够把这个爱好持续下去 。真正可能觉得自己相当艺术家,从事这个行业的时候,是一直到93年了,毕业以后到北京的时候了。 


王庆松:当时92年,北京中国美术馆有一个很重要的展览,是一个日本的美术馆,它收藏了西方的,从最早蛋清画、油画开始,一直到印象派很多大师的收藏。当时我参观的时候,觉得作品本身并没有让我那么激动,但我激动的是观看这些作品的人。因为他们很多人拿了笔记在做笔记,记看这些画的感想啊,构图色彩啊,甚至画一些草图啊!这个让我很感动!我突然就发现,居然有那么多人在看艺术展览?而且很多人年龄很大!我就觉得北京这个地方可能很有文化。而在当时那个环境中在我们原来工作的地方,好像说很难见到这种景象,基本都是商业,赚钱啊。所以这个北京展览后,我决定一定要到北京去。所以第二年就到了北京。。。但回想起来,当时北京的文化氛围其实也不那么明显优越多少。 只不过那时候就是说你看到了这一幕,它把你吸引了,就过来了。


王庆松:最早来北京的时候,画了很多画。画画呢还是更多的是像记日记似的。画一些自己内心的一些东西、一些感受了。纯粹个人感受,不太关心外面的人物---我觉得艺术表达自己就行了。之后就慢慢变了。 可能因为社会已经发生变化,就改变了这种方式。在北京的头一、两年其实是很困难。因为靠艺术是不可能挣钱的。而且那个时候物价开始上涨了。我记得有一年冬天,大概是96年,天气太冷!因为租房子便宜,没窗户,也没门,就拿塑料布一挡。然后水管子也被冻了。那个冬天特别难过!因为那个时候,到96年的时候,已经觉得来了差不多三年了,好像也没有出什么大成绩。。。有时候情绪还会低落,觉得有困难,怀疑自己是不是就这样了?也许不会有什么希望了?但这些情绪很快就过去了。那个冬天一过,树发芽了,水管子水也出来了,我就又觉得希望有了,很有希望的春天来了。我觉得90年代,我可以经常感觉到有种希望支撑着我,希望大于困难。


王庆松:一个是看到身边有一些朋友做的越来越好。还有一个就是觉得没有退路了—从湖北到北京来,就不想再回去。这个时候,就会觉得绷着那个劲。我觉得三年五年是可以绷住的。但一旦太长,如果还不能解决,没有个展览啊,或者卖一张东西啊,可能希望就会慢慢消逝。 人总得感觉有希望才可以坚持下去。我可能是撑到97、98年之后,就发现我的作品慢慢开始被认可了。




王庆松:因为我刚开始来北京时,只专注个人画画。但画着画着,觉着身边有种不可思议的变化,比方说物价上涨得很快,然后有越来越多从事不同行业的人涌入北京。 就觉得这个社会好像不太一样了,有可能社会会有大变化,也不知道将来会变成什么样,至少说跟过去肯定会不一样。所以我当时就觉得好像应该用另外一种方式来关注。

同一个世界 2014年 来自于

同一个世界 2014年 来自于



一毛:那你做你的艺术的。。。可以说有目标吗? 你想用你的艺术来给世界带来什么转变?

王庆松:来记录就很好。 因为确实中国变化太快。而应对的最好方式就是记录,不用表太多的态。 当然肯定要带自己的观点去记录,不能说是随便架个东西就去拍。 所以我一直也认为自己就像记者似的在记录。




王庆松: 我一直在准备一个剧本,关于一个电影,是一个故事片。就是准备拍一个数字电影。 反映难兄难弟,就是讲这种兄弟之间的情感,我想从兄弟之间的情感中折射出社会的这种变化。







Association for Asian Studies Conference Review - Richard Reid

Richard Reid LRCCS PhD Student Historian of the Ming Dynasty, Contested Borderlands, Government, Autonomy, and Local History

Richard Reid

LRCCS PhD Student

Historian of the Ming Dynasty, Contested Borderlands, Government, Autonomy, and Local History

The 2017 Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Conference went from March 16th - 19th in Toronto, Canada.  In this series of posts, several LRCCS students share their experiences there.  This post is written by Richard Reid, LRCCS PhD student.

I had a fantastic time at my first yearly AAS Conference.  While Toronto is a great city and its wonderful to be in such a cosmopolitan place, the highlight of my time here is clearly the avalanche of scholars from so many different fields all interested in Asia.  I’ve met people from all over the world in less than 24 hours and have made many connections that I couldn’t have made anywhere else.  Here’s a brief outline of the panels I went to today.

Panel 62 : Visualizing Ming Urban Spaces, Kenneth Hammond, Anne Gerritsen, Desmond Cheung, Stephen McDowall
What a fantastic way to start a day!  This was a fascinating panel that will be directly useful to my research on Ming Dynasty spatiality.  For example, Kenneth Hammond’s analysis of gazetteers in relation to different types of maps in the Ming was a good reminder that not all pre-modern maps were the same.  Hammond argues that maps in the Ming had specific arguments to make and therefore some were highly detailed, others stylized, and still others imagined spaces.  

These papers touch on issues of popular and print culture.  It is easy to lose sight of how significant this development was in changing life for everyday people during this period.  As China became more urbanized life dramatically changed and people began to travel (both physically and figuratively) as detailed in Cheung’s paper about travel writing and famous spaces.  Even though it was so long ago, the Ming seemed very near to modern life.
Panel 101: Tang-Song Transition, Megan Bryson, Thomas Mazanec, Bo Liu, Xin Wen

The most pleasant surprise of the entire day for me was how well attended this panel was.  I was worried prior to attending that the Song Dynasty (and other earlier period) panels would be scarcely attended in favor of more modern panels.  To my surprise, there were more than 75 people at this panel and there was great discussion after the panel was done; pre-modern Chinese studies is still alive and kicking!

These presentations were much more specific and focused on particular historical puzzles than did the previous panel.  For me, the most interesting was Bo Liu’s talk on the transformation of images of women from the Tang to the Song Dynasties.  Liu successfully argued that during the Tang, women were depicted in the purest and best form as first and foremost beautiful; intellectual qualities were secondary.  A transformative shift happened during the transition to the Song and by the mid to late Song women were portrayed not due to their beauty but rather their intellectual merits and place and society.  All of these papers focus on change and help us remember that we need to be explicit with how we think about pre-modern imperial China.

Panel 147: Power, People, and Animals in Asia, Hang Lin, Petya Andreeva, Lianming Wang, Jianfei Jia

This was the first panel this year I attended that dealt with transnational history rather than specifically Chinese history.  One of my goals during my Ph.D. here is to expand my research from merely Chinese history to a broader world history.  In this sense, this panel was immediately relevant to what I hope to achieve in my research.  Additionally, I have not yet run into people who explicitly study animal history but I believe this is such an important new area for research that will become very prominent over the next few years.  

These papers had no direct chronological comparison, but they all dealt with how animals can help us understand how people viewed their place in the world.  Hang Lin, for example, made an excellent presentation that argued that the use of Manchurain gyrfalcons was an example of how animals could be used in presentation of imperial authority and majesty.  Lianming Wang argued something similar with the depictions of hounds in Qing official portraiture.

Importantly, all of these panels were interested in the ways that animals help us understand people, rather than the other way around.

Panel 156: Animals and Empires, Jakobina Arch, Lisa Yoshikawa, Joseph Seeley

This was a panel that dealt explicitly with Japan’s imperial past and their use of animals.  Arch argued that following whales and the historical specifics of how Japanese whaled led them to change the places where they exercised imperial power, Yoshikawa looked at how Japan became part of a larger modern trading network of animal specimens that linked east and west, and Seeley showed how zoos built by the Japanese in the colonies of Taiwan and Korea became imagined in the historical consciousness of those that were colonized.

Like the last panel, the focus was on humans rather than on animals, which was a comment that some people in the crowds made at both panels.  I think this is an interesting distinction; while I wish it would be possible to have animals as the actors in a historical study, I wonder if that is even possible.  Animals leave no written records and they appear in historical contexts only as they are useful to the people that interact with them.  One commenter in this panel, however, mentioned that we could examine animals with similar theoretical frameworks that we have begun to use to understand colonized peoples.  I think this is an interesting perspective and may reveal more about both humans and animals than our current discourse currently allows.


Overall, this has been an enlightening and fantastic day of panels.  I have really enjoyed being able to experience so many different topics and I was impressed with how well-attended all of them were.  For my two China panels, I will take away the importance of understanding historical purpose when looking at manufactured maps and other visual materials and rethink how I understand the transition from the Tang to the Song Dynasty.  With regards to the second two panels, I really believe that a more in-depth consideration of animals in their relations with humans can be a useful analytical tool going forward.  Overall, I had a fantastic time today and only wish that I was able to all the panels I couldn’t due to time conflicts!


Weihang Wang LRCCS MA Student Social History of China; Chinese Gender History; Migration.

Weihang Wang

LRCCS MA Student
Social History of China; Chinese Gender History; Migration.

The 2017 Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Conference went from March 16th - 19th in Toronto, Canada.  In this series of posts, several LRCCS students share their experiences there.  This post is written by Weihang Wang, LRCCS MA student.

Grassroots Documents and PRC History Methods

Doing archival research in China can be a difficult challenge for scholars of PRC history, especially during the recent years the Chinese government has restricted and even closed some historical archives for scholarly access. However, the market of grassroots documents continues to grow when more and more scholars shift their focus from the study of elite politics to the field of everyday history.  “Garbology”, collecting grassroots documents, such as dairies, police files, and self-criticisms, from online individual sellers and flea market, becomes a possible alternative to official archives in the field of PRC history. 

I’m interested in archives and the use of garbology in historical research. Therefore, I’m glad that I found this gem, a panel titled “Grassroots Documents and PRC History Methods,” in those 370 AAS panels. In this 2-hour roundtable discussion, the five panelists as well as the audiences shared their experiences on gathering grassroots documents in China and discussed the various challenges they met when dealing with document sellers. One of the panelist talked about the gender issue that she noticed when searching for documents in those Chinese flea markets, where most of the documents sellers were middle-aged men and the way that this sort of “transaction” was conducted, according to one PhD student, felt like buying drugs from a drug dealer. 

Ontario Art Gallery, photo by Weihang Wang on her trip to AAS

Ontario Art Gallery, photo by Weihang Wang on her trip to AAS

Many grassroots documents in China are in fact, discarded records and documents from danweis of different governmental branches. Therefore, legality was another major topic in this discussion. From a legal perspective, these documents exist in a grey area, in which the Chinese government still has the rights to recall and confiscate them. One of the panelist remembered that one time when his taxi was halted by a police in China, he thought it was the end of the world because all the documents he had just collected would be discovered and confiscated by the police. However, he felt so relieved afterwards when he found out that the police officer was in fact, traffic police. Fear and a sense of guilt have troubled most scholars who have done garbology in China. As one of the panelists said, he would return these documents if the Chinese government eventually decided to preserve them in an archive. 

All of the panelists were willing to share their grassroots documents with other scholars. Professor Pickowicz from UCSD introduced his collection: diaries of a north China peasant between 1944 and 1990. This collection is ready for scholarly use. Professor Leese and his team from University of Freiburg are working on a project of analyzing “how the CCP dealt with the legacy of the Maoist past." Professor Cao Shuji introduced various collections of the local government documents, such as 地方历史文献数据库 and judicial documents 中国司法档案数据库 and Historical Maps of China 民国军事地图档案 that are available in Shanghai Jiaotong University. 


Marilyn Evenmo LRCCS MA Student Art and Architecture of Medieval China

Marilyn Evenmo

LRCCS MA Student
Art and Architecture of Medieval China

The 2017 Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Conference went from March 16th - 19th in Toronto, Canada.  In this series of posts, several LRCCS students share their experiences there.  This post is written by Marilyn Evenmo, LRCCS MA student.

One of the things that stood out to me when I was looking at the panels offered at the AAS conference was the number of panels that touched on the theme of cross cultural contact or border crossing. Since border crossing is the major theme of one of the seminar classes I'm taking this semester, I made a point to go to a panel that related to this theme. The panel "Spaces and People in Between: Gender, Politics and Market along China’s Western Borders" had three different presentations that specifically focused on the experiences of people living along China's western borders. The talks in this panel were useful for understanding what border crossing looks like for individuals and how these borders shape their identities and lives. 

In addition to providing opportunities to expand on things I have been learning in my classes, going to AAS also allowed me to learn about new discoveries and research being done in my field. For example, I learned about recent archaeological discoveries and how they are being studied in "Fresh Glimpses at Ancient Splendor: New Buddhist Archaeological Discoveries." In "Changing Image, Changing Concept of Ta: Critical Terms of Pagoda in Chinese Buddhist Art and Architecture" I learned about new research being done on pagodas. Finally, in "Revisioning Word and Image in Early China"  I got the opportunity to hear about various research projects that touch on the interaction between word and image, such as that which occurs on Western Han bronze mirrors. 

In addition to going to the conference, I also went to the Aga Khan museum in Toronto and was surprised to find connections to China in their collection! For example, they have a basin made in China during the Ming dynasty which may have been made for a Chinese Muslim at the court or for export to a Muslim country. 

Association for Asian Studies Conference Review - Deanna Kolberg

The 2017 Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Conference went from March 16th - 19th in Toronto, Canada.  In this series of posts, several LRCCS students share their experiences there.  This first post is written by Deanna Kolberg, LRCCS PhD candidate.

Deanna Kolberg PhD Candidate History Comparative Politics; Authoritarian Institutions; Regime Change in Asia

Deanna Kolberg

PhD Candidate
Comparative Politics; Authoritarian Institutions; Regime Change in Asia

What more could a grad student want than good food, a cool city, and the chance to hear the newest work in Asian Studies! This year’s Association for Asian Studies Conference was held in Toronto - a city particularly known for having great authentic Japanese, Korean, and Chinese food. In addition to stuffing my face with Ramen, Jianbing, and Japanese Cheesecake, I attending panels on topics of democratization in Asia, street-level bureaucracy, opposition to authoritarianism, and others. 

In this post I’ll describe one panel presentation that I particularly enjoyed during the conference and how two of these presentations on the panel can serve as a jumping-off point for further research. I’m really excited about the work in Chinese studies that focuses on the subnational level. My personal affinity in political science research leads me to believe that we can gain more traction on interesting questions by looking at local bureaucracy and the provision of goods and services: the bread and butter of authoritarian resilience. It’s telling that arguably the largest challenge to President Xi Jinping’s rule was Bo Xilai, a politician who operated far away from Beijing and drew power from decentralization. In general, I think some of the most interesting questions in Chinese politics today deal with decentralization in an authoritarian regime. We all know that China is really, really big and so an authoritarian state must employ strategies to compel their local agents to follow instructions, and likewise these local agents have some freedom to deviate from the central plan. 

Vivian Zhan, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, addressed Xi Jinping’s famous anti-corruption campaign in a different light. Usually political scientists like to discuss the fly and tiger approach to corruption cleanup as a way for Xi Jinping to root out his enemies across the country and throughout the deep bureaucratic state in China. This publicly denigrates and politically demolishes people accused of corruption and warns others that their tenure is easily cut short, says the authoritarian resiliency literature. Vivian’s work however shows that anticorruption may be used to stimulate growth. A massive dataset of work reports of central and local prosecutors from 1999-2009 show patterns in where the state goes after corruption and issue areas that general work reports highlight as priorities in that year. Roughly, her work suggests that corruption prosecutors are working in tandem with economic growth targets. While her brief presentation never addressed the connection between her work and Yuen Yuen Ang’s I think the crossover is really interesting. Yuen’s book How China Escaped the Poverty Trap shows that much of China’s industrialization can be attributed to the successful usage of “bad” institutions already existing in China. Corruption and Patronage are generally thought to prevent economic growth but Yuen suggests they instead help to build markets, and “good” institutions free of corruption and patronage sustain markets after they are built. Combining their work, I would expect to see a geographic range based on levels of development: root out corruption in the booming markets on the East Coast, and keep corruption, for a limited time, inland to help build markets.  

I also really enjoyed hearing about Sara Newland’s audit experiment in Taiwan. She sent out requests through local government online request boards and varied only the name of the requester: some emails were sent using a Han name and others were sent using an indigenous name. While her work didn’t demonstrate much systematic bias, the method of her research is intriguing. She suggests that local level bureaucrats in Taiwan have an immense database of requests for help with public service complaints disaggregated to the county level. This data could be used on research on a central tenet of political science: resource distribution, political responsiveness, and bureaucratic capacity. I hope to see more research using this type of data in Taiwan! 

Stay tuned for more insight into AAS 2017

Interview with Hughes Scholar Zhang Fang

Zhang Fang LRCCS Hughes Scholar

Zhang Fang
LRCCS Hughes Scholar

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, I sat down with LRCCS Hughes Scholar Zhang Fang.  She discusses her journey to becoming a highly influential cultural attaché in the Chinese contemporary art world, her relationship with her husband, contemporary artist Wang Qingsong, and some of her work at UM.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: I’m curious to know about your early life.  Where do you call home?

Zhang Fang: I was born in Shandong province, and in ’72 my family moved to Inner Mongolia.  I stayed in Inner Mongolia for two years after graduating from college in 1992.  I call where my mind and soul stay as my home. So my home is kind of celestial and spiritual, though close to my family. Nowadays social media is so convenient. You don’t feel the spatial and temporal differences. 

Couillard: What did you do right after college?

Zhang Fang: I was working as a teacher in Inner Mongolia Poly-technic University.  We were assigned 24 hours weekly of teaching.  I had more than 100 students at a time, teaching in big auditoriums – with no microphone or anything, just my voice.  I got really fed up by that work – I couldn’t teach the things I wanted, just had to teach what the school required of me.  It was incredibly repetitive, and many of the students would copy off their friends taking the same class with different teachers.  I was so bored that I couldn’t take it.  So in ’94 I went to Beijing for graduate studies at Foreign Affairs College.

Couillard: What did you study for grad school?

Zhang Fang: I studied translation for foreign diplomacy.  Due to constraints by the former university, I decided to come to the US in ’98 for pursuing another M.A studies in international affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

Couillard: How do you answer the question “What do you do?”

Zhang Fang: It’s tough to say.  I’m a mother of three children.  I’m the wife of a well-known artist, Wang Qingsong, so I do a lot to help him.  So I am a professional in many ways. But I always rely on myself.  I’m proud of myself because I never quit.  Ever since college I’ve worked all kinds of odd jobs so I could remain independent – I stopped relying on my parents when I was 21.  I do translating and interpretation – sometimes for big companies like Bausch & Lomb, or for art magazines.  I teach contemporary Chinese art to foreign students from American universities during their summer programs. Editor's note - Click here to find the first six pieces of Zhang Fang's essay series titled "China’s Long March: Ten essays on Chinese contemporary art"

Couillard: Are you teaching a class right now at UM?

Zhang Fang: Yes, I created a new course at Stamps on Chinese contemporary art.  I really enjoy teaching here, and there’s so many great resources, especially the library.  

Couillard: What else are you doing at UM?

Zhang Fang: There’s a major biennial celebration in Chongqing happening in April 2017, and I’m helping to find foreign artists, working with one of the chief curators, a Nigerian-based women, and developing an outreach program for the Biennial to promote it internationally.  Locally, I’m working on organizing a show for Wang Qingsong and He Yunchang, which should be happening in the fall.  Both artists are very different – He Yunchang is a performance artist who deals with private explorations of endurance, whereas Qingsong works with large sets, models, and installations for his shoots. So I am collaborating with Robert Adams on this exhibition, entitled China in Its New Hat: Private vs. Public. There will also be a symposium.

Couillard: When did you meet your husband?

Zhang Fang: When I was in the foreign affairs college in Beijing in ‘96, I had a job interpreting for a group of people who wanted to interview Chinese artists for an exhibition in Denmark.  I was the lucky one to be chosen. Within a month, we visited about 50 well-known artists spread around Beijing, and Qingsong was one of them.  

Couillard: Were you interested in art before then?

Zhang Fang: I always had a creative inclination, but this interpretation job really got me started in that world.  I had come from a relatively tame background, and meeting all those artists opened up my eyes.  Wang Qingsong was painting people nude, faces wrapped in plastic, with these bright red backgrounds.  And he told me these paintings were like his life, being restricted from speaking up, though seeing clearly through the plastic what's going on.  These paintings were representing his ideas. And I found it very true to myself.  

Some of Wang Qingsong's early paintings, as described by Zhang Fang above

Couillard: Did the two of you hit it off right away?

Zhang Fang: It took some time, because at the time we met, I was already planning to come to the US.  We started dating about two months after our first encounter. And a year after that I came to the US to get a master’s degree in peace studies at Notre Dame. I stayed another year at Notre Dame for my Ph.D program in Economics, but in 2000, I came back to help Qingsong.

Couillard: It seems like your life is very unique and interesting.  What do you think shaped you to be that way?

Zhang Fang: Well, firstly I enjoy this kind of life. Freedom and flexibility are the two dominant forces that keep me interested in art. Character-wise, I owe much of my temperament to my mom – she’s very positive and happy, but she also taught me to be on alert at all times.  She grew up as a farmer and was illiterate, and was incredibly hard working.  She built our house from the ground up when we moved to Inner Mongolia. So I can enjoy a very simple life and make complex things work within the possibilities. 

Couillard: What would you offer to people who want to live similarly non-mainstream lives?

Zhang Fang: I think the important thing is to trust yourself.  If you trust yourself, you’ll find a means to support any lifestyle.  Growing up, I was never rich and had to work hard to support myself, but I never worried about money.  I knew that in the end it would work out, and that’s how I was able to keep going.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for an interview with Wang Qingsong, coming up next.

Spotlight on LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow Kyoungjin Bae

Dr. Kyoungjin Bae LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow History

Dr. Kyoungjin Bae

LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight series, I sat down with Kyoungjin Bae, LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow.  In it, Dr. Bae talks about her research on material culture, particularly the furniture trade, and the importance of unorthodox types of knowledge

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.  Transcribed by Erzhan Xu.

Couillard: I like to start with people’s background. Where do you call home? 

Dr. Bae: I grew up in South Korea, and I moved from Seoul to New York to pursue my PhD training in 2009.

Couillard: What do you think initially drew you to China? 

Dr. Bae: Before the Ph.D., I mostly studied early modern European history.  When I was a child, I fancied Europe because that region seemed so exotic to me. After I became more serious about my scholarship during my Masters study, I wanted to bridge my study of European history with the social and cultural contexts of East Asia in which I grew up. I realized that there were numerous cultural and material interactions between Europe and China in the early modern period, and that was how I became drawn to China. 

Couillard: So what are you primarily working on now? 

Dr. Bae: I am working on my book manuscript that’s building on my dissertation. It’s not entirely based on my dissertation, so I have to do more research and write two more chapters.  My dissertation was about Sino-European culture exchanges through the furniture trade. I looked at the production, distribution or shipping, and consumption of furniture in both China, especially southern China, Guangzhou, and Britain over the course of the 18th century. 

Couillard: So why furniture? 

Dr. Bae: I was very interested in material culture from the beginning. I found working with objects as primary sources was an interesting complement to working with texts. 

There were many reasons why I chose furniture over other things – it’s understudied yet really essential in our material life.  I’m interested in everyday experiences, and furniture is a great medium to look into this subject. 

Couillard: What interests you about this? 

Dr. Bae: I am very interested in how what we call knowledge is produced through various channels. There’s knowledge in the form of text, like books. But there are other kinds of knowledge, for example, like embodied knowledge, like handicrafts, and the nature of this embodied knowledge is that it is very difficult to articulate verbally. When you ask an artisan, “What kind of knowledge are you practicing or creating?” he or she would not be able explain clearly.  An increasing number of scholars in science and humanities pay attention to the ways in which artisanal practice in order to understand the production and transmission of tacit, embodied knowledge. 

We can consider making of furniture is also a form of embodied knowledge. Cabinetmakers learn to make furniture through repetitive practices rather than from studying textbooks, and such knowledge is transmitted also through embodied forms. 

Couillard: How do you approach studying that kind of knowledge?

Dr. Bae:  I learned from anthropology useful methods to approach embodied practice. While I was conducting dissertation research, I worked with a master cabinetmaker in Guangzhou who was specialized in making Cantonese furniture. I worked with him, visited his factory, and interviewed his workers.

Another method is looking very carefully at the objects. I learned about the joinery of Chinese furniture and its reverse engineering. This skill enabled me to read how a piece of furniture was crafted, and what kinds of skills and techniques were incorporated into it. 

Editor's note - click here to check out a fascinating collection of GIFs portraying some traditional Chinese joinery

Couillard: What kind of an impact do you hope this will create?  

Dr. Bae: One part is about having a broader understanding of history from different angles. I also think interdisciplinary work is important, because it enables us to collaborate more and venture into different areas of human society and knowledge both in the past and present.    

LRCCS Spotlight: Postdoctoral Fellow Will Thomson

Dr. Will Thomson LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow Anthropology

Dr. Will Thomson

LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight series, I sat down with Will Thomson, LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow.  In it, Dr. Thomson talks about his time working as a construction worker in China and about rethinking architecture

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: Where do you call home?

Dr. Thomson: I grew up near Boston, but my family moved from Arkansas, and we returned every summer to visit my grandparents.

Couillard: How did you initially get interested in China?

Dr. Thomson: I took a poetry class in high school, where there was a Chinese exchange student who spoke very little English. Our teacher involved her by working together to translate Tang dynasty poetry. We read them in class, beginning from the original Chinese characters, moving to a direct phonetic transcription in pinyin, then reading the literal word-for-word translation, and finally the more literary interpretation. Something amazed me about watching the poem’s meaning emerge out of incomprehensible Chinese characters and forming something beautiful.

The next year, in college, at UMass, I enrolled in Chinese language as a major. I also studied journalism and started an independent college radio station. 

Couillard: When did you decide to become a scholar?

Dr. Thomson: After graduating, I worked in media, first at a digital video startup and then in online reporting for the NPR station in Boston. I like talking to people, so having conversations and capturing people’s stories was fascinating work. However, I wanted to develop a career related to China. When I left Boston, I started a writing project on food and culture in rural China. I quickly realized that I lacked the tools for the kind of project I had in mind. That is when I started considering returning for grad school. Though I didn’t have any background in anthropology, it seemed to me to be closest to journalism, as a discipline where you go out and engage with people. And it is true that the best anthropology and the best journalism start to converge. I want my work to be comprehensible and non-jargony, and also to describe cultural dynamics without losing subtlety and accuracy.

Couillard: Sounds like a difficult balance.

Dr. Thomson: It can be, but I think that if you treat your audience with respect, everyone can understand complicated topics when explained carefully. For me, the fun part of long-term research was discovering how you end up being led in different directions. In my current project, I started off with questions about migrant workers and urbanization, but the deeper I got, the more I turned towards the outside conditions that affect and define those workers, in this case, architecture and design.

Couillard: Tell me more about your current research.  What was your field work?

Dr. Thomson: My fieldwork was in Xi’an, one of the first places in China I lived in and a city that I watched grow over the years.  The project focuses on the lives of rural construction workers who build the cities’ infrastructure but then are prevented from making the cities their homes.

Couillard: How did you research that?

Dr. Thomson: I started off with an elegant, almost poetic design for research, but like most plans made from far away, reality never conforms to your imagination. I planned to get to Chinese construction sites through architects to study interactions among workers, designers, and management.  The problem was that sporadic site visits with architects wasn’t enough to make for deeper relationships.  There’s no space on a construction site for someone who doesn’t have a technical role. After months trying to gain access, I met a construction boss who “hired” me as his construction worker – which was not part of the original plan. I ended up installing steel frames on a high-rise building for three months.

Couillard: You were a construction worker?  Like with the 6 day weeks, living in a dorm, that sort of thing?

Dr. Thomson: Yeah. I figured construction would be heavy labor, but actually, I discovered that the work was physically easier but also more tedious than I expected. Mostly, I just prepared frames and handed tools to others.  We lived together in a dorm in an urban village across the street from the construction site, six to a room, two to a bed.

Couillard: So you didn’t just share a room, you shared a bed?

Dr. Thomson: Yes—and I also went back with them to their hometowns for harvests and the Spring Festival.  For 11 months of the year, they work in the city, putting their life on hold, in some ways, sacrificing to earn money to improve the future for themselves and their families. 

Dr. Thomson harvesting wheat with one of his coworkers from the construction site

Dr. Thomson harvesting wheat with one of his coworkers from the construction site

Couillard: How did this happen?  How did you get that job?

Dr. Thomson: I suspect the construction boss was bored and thought that having a foreign worker might change things up.  On first day I showed up, I was kicked out. A site inspector saw me and asked, “Who are you?  You can’t be here.”  And I thought to myself, of course I can’t be here. It ended up working out, and I was back at work the next day. I was really thankful to the boss and the crew who I joined. I learned a lot from them and my experience there. 

Couillard: What were some interesting stories that happened during your research?

Dr. Thomson: Well, we were working 19 floors up on a platform like a window-washing cart, and I’m afraid of heights. I put all my trust in the safety gear. Then, one day, the motor on our cart malfunctioned, and we had to remove our harnesses to climb in through a window. To the other workers, it was nothing. I realized how accustomed they were to bodily risk, but I was terrified. 

The view from Dr. Thomson's work site

The view from Dr. Thomson's work site

Couillard: What kind of an impact would you like for your research to have on the world?

Dr. Thomson: I want my ethnography of construction to start a conversation within architecture that could help change the design-labor relation.  Right now, there’s no space in architecture for labor, and that’s a curious absence.  Consider the word ‘architecture’ in English. It refers both to the design process and to the completed product, but the intermediate phase of construction–that’s not considered part of architecture.  There’s a big gap.

But, the Chinese language suggests a different relationship—a continuum of designing and building.  An architect is 建筑师and a construction worker is 建筑工 (Editor’s note – for those who don’t read Chinese, both words contain the same root 建筑, the only difference is the character that follows: for architect, that word is 师, or master, and for construction worker that word is 工, or worker).  

The tendency in western architecture has been to commodify and objectify labor. My hope is to help people see workers in a different light by rethinking architecture from the construction site.

Construction workers are not seen as authors with any claim on the finished form. If architects instead thought more about the social collaboration between design and labor, they could improve working conditions for construction workers. 

For all of us, when we go around thinking of the world as a product of design, we marginalize laborers. On the other hand, if we look at the world as the combination of design and of physical labor, we will start to see workers in a different light as well.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more