2013 Conference on Biography in East Asia, 1400-1900

Geiss Foundation was pleased to have helped sponsor the Conference on Biography in East Asia, 1400-1900, held 28-29 June 2013 at St. John’s College and the Institute of Asian Research of the University of British Columbia.  The conference was organized by Adam Bohnet, King’s University College at Western University, Ihor Pidhainy, Marietta College, and Leo K. Shin, University of British Columbia.


Left to right: George Zhao, Leo Shin, Joe Denis, Tim Sedo, Ihor Pidhainy, Adam Bohnet, Sinae Park, Elizabeth Kindall, Roger Des Forges, Grace Fong, Sixiang Wang, Jolan Yi

This conference, which explored the different types of the genre, biography, in East Asian countries from 1400 to 1900, challenged the traditional position maintained by past studies that the biography in China and Korea was simply a means to compartmentalize individual lives into pre-established moral categories.  Papers presented and panel discussions examined the ways in which various standard biographies, public or private, actually treated their subjects.

Organizers used this forum to challenge currently perceived approaches to East Asian traditions of biography in imperial China, and to demonstrate that biographies during late imperial China were not a moribund collection of official resumes.   Conference organizers wanted to present more recent approaches to this genre, which include consideration of history, politics, aesthetics, and gender.

The organizers report the conference was successful so plans are underway to collate and publish a volume of the papers presented as well as some additional manuscripts from other researchers.  Adam Bohnet, Roger DesForges (University of Buffalo SUNY), Grace Fong (McGill University), and Ihor Pidhainy will edit this volume and a potential publisher has been identified.

Fourteen participants gave papers; speakers were separated into smaller panels in threes for further discussion.  Organizers used a dropbox, which permitted participants of a group to upload and download individual papers for review before the conference.   Pre-conference review and extensive informal socializing among the participants helped to ensure the exchange of ideas during the conference.

A three-page summary of the conference can be found in the most recent issue of Ming Studies (2013, issue 68).

Also discussed were other forms of biography, from epitaphs to popular tales.  A full schedule of speakers and topics can be downloaded here.  Other conference photos can be viewed here.

Brief Overview of Biography in East Asia Conference, 1400-1900:  A Report from the Organizers

Organizers  Ihor Pidhainy, Adam Bohnet
Host and UBC Facilitator  Leo Shin
Conference Highlights and Proposed Conference Volume

  • Roger Des Forges’ paper showed the changing understanding of the minor Ming rebel figure Li Yan in the last 40 years.
  • Saeyoung Park and Grace Fong explored biography through the perspective of gender; Fong discussed Chinese women who wrote zhuan biographies.
  • Elizabeth Kindall demonstrated how an album of landscape paintings could be interpreted as biography or autobiography.
  • Ken Hammond examined the variety of biographies in the oeuvre of Wang Shizhen (1526-1590).
  • Wang Sixiang, Si Nae Park and Adam Bohnet discussed intertwining aspects of late Ming – early Qing and Choson culture, politics and history.
  • George Zhao, Tim Sedo, Leo Shin, Roger Des Forges, Ihor Pidhainy and Ken Hammond showed a variety of approaches and revisions that involved state sponsored works.
  • Joe Dennis and Jolan Yi wrote on the political and gender implications of name changes in the Ming dynasty.

For more information, link to UBC webpage and Adam Bohnet’s webpage.