This weekend, Dr. Ying-chen Peng will present a talk, titled “Alternative Gaze: Fin/de-Siécle Western Women’s Visual Documentation of Their Chinese Counterparts” at the annual conference of AAS (Association of Asian Studies). Here, she describes her talk:
“Images of women were a popular motif in Western publications and chinoiserie artworks since the seventeenth century. Lacking individuality, these images were types or icons feeding Western fantasies of a mysterious and exotic China. The romanticized, imagined beauty, however, was replaced by realistic anatomical photographs such as the bound feet of Han Chinese gentry women in fin-de-siècle documentation. These grotesque depictions also became convenient visual evidence supporting biased impressions of a backward, premodern China. It was also during this time that women missionaries and family members of business and diplomatic personnel first traveled to China in significant numbers. Unlike men, who were largely excluded from domestic spaces, some Western women were able to closely observe their Chinese counterparts’ daily lives. How did this female gaze differ from that of their male counterparts? How did the visual and textual representations of women in these Western documentation relate? Did they help increase Western understanding of Chinese society? This paper aims to answer these questions by focusing on the photographs and illustrations in Sarah Conger’s memoir, Letters from China (1909), and Katharine Carl’s With the Empress Dowager (1905), both popular reads at the time. As I will show, while the exoticizing tendencies prevailed, a greater sense of sympathy and appreciation can be clearly identified. These images therefore provided a gendered alternative to conventionally exotic, erotic, and awkwardly staged images of China.”
Best of luck at the conference, Dr. Peng!
illustration from Katharine Carl’s With the Empress Dowager (1905)