SOAS University of London

An Interview with Panpan Yang, New Lecturer in the Arts and Visual Cultures of Modern China

29 November 2021
An Interview with Panpan Yang

Panpan Yang recently joined the Department of History of Art and Archaeology at SOAS as a lecturer in the arts and visual cultures of modern China. She is currently completing her book manuscript, provisionally titled The Emergence of Animated Space, where she writes about the history of Chinese animation from the 1920s to the present. We asked her to tell us a bit about herself.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?  What are your areas of specialization, and what drew you to those areas?

My areas of specialization embrace visual and material cultures of the Sinophone world, modern and contemporary art, art theory, animation studies, and digital media studies. A specialist in the arts and visual cultures of modern China, as my current job title labels me, I find myself constantly roaming far afield, in both space and time. For my research, the sense of adventure is irresistible.

Richard Hylton, who joined SOAS around the same time as me, describes in his interview that ‘my journey into academia has been circuitous to say the least.’ I have to say that my path to become a scholar in the visual arts has been—at least in the eyes of many— rather straightforward. When I was six years old, my dad took me to a ‘star photo studio.’ Unlike most girls, I was not so much attracted to the flower fairy dresses on display. What excited my little soul was an academic regalia package. It was tiny, but it included a gown, a cap, and a hood. It is as simple as this: I never imagined making a living in other professions. 

I double majored in art and philosophy when I was an undergraduate student at Peking University. Similar to the School of Arts at SOAS, the School of Arts at Peking University embraces a ‘big tent’ approach: art theory, art history, film production, film studies, music, and creative industry management are all considered sub-fields within the big family of the arts. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why I felt immediately at home the moment I arrived at SOAS. 

I actually never did a course on animation in my undergraduate years. At that time, animation was too young to be considered a course subject, let alone an academic discipline. When we were given assignments of making short films, it went without saying that the ‘film’ meant ‘live-action film.’ I knew I could not make live-action fiction films or documentaries because I was too shy to talk to people. For me, the desire to make a film is the desire to create a world. The desire is fulfilled in the fullest sense when it comes to animation: it is a world out of nowhere, a world where eyeballs are detachable and a cat can always assume the shape of its container, a world apt to be either very sad or very happy, a world where its inhabitants elicit from us a painful tenderness. Animation allowed me to be a filmmaker while sitting at my own desk: a quiet celebration. 

The two-character Chinese word for ‘world’ is shijie, which, I was told, comes from ‘lokadhātu’ in Sanskrit. The first character shi (‘loka’) means time, while the second character jie (‘dhātu’) means space. My experience of making animation transformed my understanding of time and space in relation to the medium. For example, in the process of making one of the relatively early stop-motion animated shorts that I directed, tilted Biscuit, where all the built sets and ‘characters’ were cookies, I manually moved the cookies in miniaturized and incremental steps, took more than 3,000 photographs (as ‘frames’), and numbered each of the frames before putting them in a succession. While the stop-motion animation came out to be less than four minutes, the process of frame-by-frame photography took me three days and nights. While the movement of the ‘cookies’ in the video might be perceived as ‘slow’ for most viewers, it is in fact a ‘fast motion’ of the making process, a process wherein time has been folded into the crevices between frames. Any stop-motion animation sequence, even a short one, can be said to be a kind of cellar storing a great amount of time. More recently, I spent thousands of hours asking myself: what is (cinematic) animation? From the perspective of an animation practitioner, I found myself an answer; that is, animation is a mode of filmmaking in which a certain space is created first. In the so-called live-action film production, the moment the motion picture camera starts running, a temporal-spatial configuration is produced. This is, however, not the case in animation production. In stop-motion animation production, objects or puppets must be arranged in space (that is, a set) before the continual running of a succession of frames in time; in cel animation production, celluloid sheets need to be prepared first; in 3D computer animation, world-building is often the first step. In short, animation is a distinct mode of filmmaking where spatial construction is privileged.

My PhD was from the University of Chicago, where my whole dissertation on Chinese animation was written and successfully defended within nine calendar months. If I demonstrated some sort of academic productivity, the credits must go to my T-shirt with the reminder, ‘Keep calm and finish your dissertation.’ And yet, the central, theoretical issue that my dissertation tackles had been with me for more than a decade: how does animation think—not ‘think about’ or ‘think through’—space and time to a degree unimaginable in other artforms? What emerges in my investigation is an understanding of space that is neither completely geographical nor entirely graphic, and an understanding of time as nonlinear, convoluted, disruptive, and surprising.

During my PhD years, I was fortunate to work with a rare combination of distinguished scholars. It was through working with mentors with a multiplicity of disciplinary identities that I was transformed into a truly interdisciplinary scholar myself. Wu Hung, chair of my dissertation, animated my project with his erudition, visual acumen, and creative thinking. From the Palace Museum in Beijing to the studios of contemporary Chinese artists, he continuously taught me to see things anew. Tom Gunning, also chair of my dissertation, had significantly shaped my work by modeling a form of academic writing where history and theory complement each other’s undertakings. Tom Mitchell (known as W. J. T. Mitchell) remains a peerless source of theoretical insights. I often think nostalgically about the deep pleasure of the hours in his office where he read William Blake, line by line, to me, or played with the little flipbook in his The Last Dinosaur Book so as to show me how Gertie the Dinosaur would come to life under his fingers. Tom Lamarre generously availed himself as a reader when I was at the final stage of completing my dissertation. I worked with three Toms. Because of that, I was given the nickname of Jerry. 

What are your aspirations for the coming years at SOAS?

In terms of teaching, it is my hope that I can develop some new modules for the coming years at SOAS. At the graduate level, I have been thinking about the possibilities of designing and offering a new seminar called ‘The Multivalent Screen.’ The ‘screen’ here in the course title can be the painted screen in East Asian art, the movie screen, and the iPhone screen. I imagine it to be an interdisciplinary seminar at the intersection of art history, film studies, and new media studies. At the undergraduate level, I am interested in offering new modules such as ‘Feminine Space in Sinophone Cinemas,’ ‘Remapping the Hong Kong New Wave,’ and ‘Independent Animation in Contemporary China.’ 

It’s early days yet I hope to work with the SOAS library to grow its digital collection in the studies of modern China. I recently contacted Ludi Price, China and Inner Asia Librarian, and was delighted to learn that it might be possible for the SOAS library to arrange for a trial of Chinese Periodicals Database for the Republican Period 1911–1949. I am also trying to find out whether it is possible for the library to subscribe to a different version of the Shenbao database, in which scholars can access not only the written texts but also the high-definition images from the newspapers. I believe this would benefit my colleagues and students working on modern China across different departments at SOAS.