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!