Event Date: 

Dissertation Proposal Defense: Chenchen Yan

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You are cordially invited to attend

the Dissertation Proposal Defense of Chenchen Yan 


Chinese Objects and the Transformation of Architectural Epistemologies, 1860-1946


To be held on


Wednesday, May 17th, 10 am ET

Room S-118



While there is an extensive literature historicizing and critiquing how Chinoiserie served as a paradigm that organized the cultural and social construction of all things Chinese in the West, this dissertation will argue that a new paradigm emerged with what I call “Chinese objects”—including, but not limited to, books, manuscripts, epigraphical and pictorial rubbings, artworks, photographs and documents of archaeological expeditions, and architectural elements—which started to appear during the late nineteenth century in the classrooms, libraries, and museums of American academic institutions. As these objects circulated—were looted or collected, sometimes commissioned, and eventually stored and exhibited—they became Chinese in ways that disrupted prevailing means of organizing knowledge. Having no place in the genealogies, libraries, museums, or other spaces of collection around which Western architecture was organized, these objects, as they traversed cultures and discourses, necessitated the redesign of these spaces and of the architectural epistemologies they claimed to instantiate. This dissertation will argue that the itineraries of these objects not only resulted in the invention of Chinese architecture but a corollary and unexpected shift in the epistemic structures of discourse on art and architecture in the US.


Moving beyond the important but nonetheless constraining framework of Orientalism, this dissertation endeavors to rethink cross-cultural exchanges between China and the West by investigating a series of “misbehaving” Chinese objects that once they arrived in spaces of teaching, learning, and display in the US, triggered a chain of anomalous reactions that bounced back and forth between different cultures and epistemologies. In tracing how these objects transformed the spaces in which they were categorized, cataloged, organized, displayed, and stored, this dissertation aspires to not only uncover the lives of those Chinese subjects who animated these objects and yet whose existences were blotted out by imperialist power structures, but also to historicize Orientalism in the specific context of US-China relations and examine the culturally and historically specific techniques and operations of American imperialism.




Sylvia Lavin (advisor), Jay Cephas, Spyros Papapetros, Anne Cheng (English)