Professor Cheng-Hua Wang Brings Students to a British Museum Exhibition and Associated Conference
Professor Cheng-hua Wang, along with graduate students Mengge Cao, Shing-Kwan Chan, Yixu Eliza Chen, and Yutong Li, visited London in June to view the British Museum’s China’s Hidden Century exhibition and participate in the associated conference, "China's 1800s - Material and Visual Culture."
"Nineteenth-century Chinese art has been understudied, and both the exhibition and the conference will change the course of the field – landmarks in terms of the scope of the issues raised and discussed. Without a moment lapsing, our experiences at the exhibition galleries and the conference venue were equally exhilarating and rewarding," said Wang.
The group spent four days examining not only the objects in the exhibition but also their interpretation. Li highlighted a stitched photo-realistic portrait and a series of albums depicting various military exercises, likely painted by non-Chinese artists in Guangdong. “Works like this were rarely known to me before this trip,” she said.
For Chan, the silk robes of the Empress Dowager Cixi were enchanting. “Their fine details and lavish embroidery reflected the opulence of the Qing court, while also hinting at the complexities and political significance of such imperial garments,” said Chan. “I marveled at how these objects, once symbols of power and diplomacy, were now on display for attendants to witness and understand the lives of individuals who inhabited this distant era.”
Chan also admired the cloisonné vases. "With their intricate designs and vibrant colors, [they] stood as a testament to the creative brilliance of that era," he said. "Learning that they were gifted to King George and Queen Mary for their coronation in 1911 added an intriguing layer of historical context to these remarkable objects."
The group also learned from the exhibition’s unconventional curatorial approach which included projecting silhouetted figures onto thin white fabrics and looping audio tracks in galleries to narrate or imagine the voices of the depicted subjects. “These innovative approaches provided fresh perspectives on museum visits,” said Li, “and encouraged us to reflect on the challenges inherent in our modern attempts to recover the voices of premodern subjects and the problématique concerning ethnographic presentations in Euro-American museums.” The treatment of historically sensitive materials and events related to 19th-century Sino-European encounters and conflicts, such as the Treaty of Nanking that marked the end of the first Opium War, was also of particular interest to the group.
With over 30 speakers from around the world, the conference offered a wide range of topics and approaches. Wang chaired a panel for the conference titled 19th-century Chinese decorative arts including furniture, glass, ceramics, and cloisonné enamelware. The conference attracted more than three hundred attendees including scholars, curators, students, collectors, and art dealers. Of particular relevance to Li’s research were the panels on vernacular painting and prints and on commerce and fashion. “Attending the conference in person provided us with a valuable opportunity to meet and engage with scholars from various institutions worldwide,” she said. Chan agreed “The exchange of ideas, perspectives, and research findings was invaluable and will undoubtedly influence our future scholarly pursuits.” For him, a highlight of the conference was Professor Susan Naquin’s keynote lecture titled “Reconsidering China’s Nineteenth Century.” “Her thought-provoking insights challenged our preconceived notions and opened up exciting new avenues for research and exploration,” said Chan.
"Nineteenth-century Chinese art has been understudied, and both the exhibition and the conference will change the course of the field – landmarks in terms of the scope of the issues raised and discussed. Without a moment lapsing, our experiences at the exhibition galleries and the conference venue were equally exhilarating and rewarding."
– Professor Cheng-hua Wang