There is a way to strategize conferences, and I call it the rule of thirds. There are three important reasons to travel to a city for an academic conference. One is to attend the workshops and panels. Another is to meet or catch up with important, influential, and interesting people in one’s field, especially when some of those people are your old friends. A third is to enjoy and learn from the city itself. So if you think of each of these as a piece of a pie, you can divide that pie roughly into thirds and spend a portion of your time focusing on each goal. Of course, you may wish to take a larger share of one of these three pieces, but this is a nice heuristic for managing one’s conference time.
Last fall I received an invitation from two young colleagues, Renren Yang and Junting Huang, to join them for a panel on sound and media for the Association of Chinese Comparative Literature (ACCL) conference. The conference took place in the city of Changsha in Hunan Province last week, from July 16-19. Although I have published a book of translations of short stories by the Chinese writer Mu Shiying, this was a rather special project, and I certainly do not consider myself an expert on Chinese literature, let alone comparative literature. As everyone knows, I’m much more of a historian than a lit crit type, although I also dabble in more contemporary ethnographic projects focusing on music and nightlife scenes in China. This was my first time attending the ACCL conference, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable and rewarding conference trip.
This would be my second time in two weeks traveling to Hunan from Shanghai. The week before, I visited the Zhangjiajie mountain area with a group of DKU students. Now I found myself traveling back to the province to visit its capital city, Changsha, or “long sands” if you translate the city’s name directly into English. I suppose this name refers to the long sandbars in the middle of the Xiang River, which have turned into islands. The river runs through the center of the city. I associate this river with the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century. The Taiping rebels traveled up the Xiang River during their long march of conquest in southern China, which led them to the Yangzi and eventually to the sacking of the southern capital Nanjing in the early 1850s.
I had been to Changsha only once before. This was back in 2007, when I accompanied the indie rock band SUBS on a train trip from Beijing to Changsha, where they performed at a “concert on the sands” along with rock legend Cui Jian. During that brief visit, I visited a bar and a nightclub with the band and met some local Changshanese people, but I did not get to see any of the city’s special sites.
After arriving in Changsha on the evening of the 16th and settling into the Fenglin Hotel 枫林宾馆 on the eastern side of the Xiang River, I took an evening stroll along the main road which leads to the campuses of Hunan University and Hunan Normal University, the conference sponsor. I also passed the eastern entrance to Yue Lu Mountain 岳麓山 , the famous mountain area in Changsha City. I then went to the local supermarket to pick up some provisions for my hotel room. I like to keep my room well stocked with food (breakfast and snacks), water, instant coffee, and beer.
The next morning I contacted Lucas Klein, a colleague in Chinese literature based at Hong Kong University who was attending the conference, and we met for coffee at a nearby Starbucks. After catching up over lattes, we decided to visit the Hunan Provincial Museum 湖南省博物馆 where we saw the new exhibition of the artifacts uncovered in the spectacular Mawangdui tombs 马王堆汉墓, which were excavated in 1972-74. Lucas pointed out the irony of this discovery taking place during the “Criticize-Lin Biao-Criticize-Confucius” 批林批孔 campaign, which also targeted Zhou Enlai during the Cultural Revolution period. It was Zhou Enlai himself, as the exhibition makes clear, who authorized and supported the painstaking excavation of this western Han dynasty tomb.
I have been fascinated by the Mawangdui tomb findings for decades now, but I had never had the chance to see them firsthand. These discoveries include many fine and valuable material artifacts and texts, though the highlight of course was finding the intact body of “Lady Dai”, the wife of the Marquis of Dai, whose coffin was encased in layers of charcoal, sand and other materials that ensured its preservation. This was one of the most incredible discoveries in the history of modern archeology. The technical and scientific know-how that allowed the makers of the tomb to preserve her body for thousands of years is still mind-blowing today. As for the exhibition, it is very modern, as are the artifacts themselves.
One comes out of the exhibition with a notion that the western Han nobility were living in a period of late modernity. Okay, slight exaggeration I know, but still it’s remarkable to see what sorts of things they were wearing, sleeping on, eating, painting, and reading in Changsha nearly 2000 years ago.
That evening I had dinner at a nearby Hunanese restaurant with my fellow panelists. I love Xiang Cai 湘菜 (spicy Hunanese cuisine named after the river that runs through the province) and even though I had plenty of it in Zhangjiajie the week before, I was happy to have more.
After dinner we checked out a live house that was just down the street, called 46 Club, but it was closed, so we headed across the river to Jiefang Lu which is a busy nightlife street in the middle of downtown Changsha. There, we met up with Lucas and his panel-mates, Tammy and Heidi, along with a few other conference attendees including a well-known Beijing poet named Jiang Tao. We ended up having drinks in a bar called Margarita Bar, which featured a live Chinese band who weren’t half bad—they even included a sax player. We shared a bottle of whiskey and sodas in a baofang (private room) in the club, and then called it a night.
The next day I was committed to attending panels and talks (the rule of thirds!). I spent the whole day in the conference rooms inside the Fenglin hotel. I attended three panels and one keynote speech. Suffice it to say that I caught up with some of the issues, trends, and people in the Chinese literature field.
That evening I joined Lucas and Heidi and Tammy along with my co-panelist Cedric for dinner. Because we enjoyed the Hunanese restaurant so much the night before, I recommended going there again.
After dinner, I was invited by some of our DKU students to have a nighttime stroll along the Xiang River. One of my students lives in Changsha, and she and the others were enjoying the sultry nighttime air. The rest were there for a special project organized by DKU. We met at the Du Fu Pavilion named after China’s famous Tang Dynasty poet. The place was hopping with local nightlife in the form of people singing songs and dancing in and around the pavilion area.
The following morning, we gave our own panel on sounds and media. Renren Yang gave a talk on Chinese rap music focusing on the local Changsha band C-Block. Junting Huang talked about Chinese reggae in Yunnan Province, noting that reggae was originally supported and even performed by Chinese living in Jamaica. Cedric gave a talk about a sonic exhibition that he designed in Hong Kong focusing on the experiences of Filipina workers in the city and the spaces they occupy in their leisure time. I gave my talk on Kunshan Soundscapes focusing on the live bars and Filipino rock and pop bands that I’ve come to know and love in the city. All in all I believe the panel gelled well although we ran out of time to have a general discussion and Q&A.
After the panel ended, I decided to brave the hot and humid day and take a walk over to Yue Lu Shan to see if I could climb it. I ended up taking a ski lift up the mountain to save time and trouble. That was a very good decision indeed, as the temperature was well into the 30s (90s F). I was paired on the lift with a young woman from Jiangxi Province, who chatted with me during the 20-minute ride up the mountain and told me she was a student in a Chinese medical school. On the way up, we could see the river and its islands below the mountain, but the view was largely obscured by a thick fog. Upon arriving at the top of the mountains, I had a quick and delicious lunch of cold noodles at one of many small restaurants atop the mountain, and then had a 30-minute jaunt down the mountain road and back to the hotel, where I hastily showered and checked out to catch my late afternoon flight back to Shanghai.
All in all it was a good conference and a nice balance of activities—the rule of thirds. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the city of Changsha better, enjoyed catching up with Lucas and meeting my fellow panelists and other attendees, and was glad to finally get a chance to see firsthand the treasures of Mawangdui. I’d love to spend more time in Changsha in future, preferably when the weather isn’t quite so hot and sultry