Associate Professor Weihong Bao appointed to prestigious chair in China studies

smiling woman in black stands with arms crossed in front of a painted cinema backdrop with bamboo

Weihong Bao. George Berticevich © 2023. Courtesy of the the artist. The painted backdrop is from May's Photo Studio, San Francisco, Chinatown, c. 1923. Painted by Mok Kug Ming, theatrical and photo studio set designer.

August 23, 2023

Weihong Bao, associate professor of Film & Media and East Asian Languages & Cultures, has been appointed to the Pamela P. Fong and Family Distinguished Chair in China Studies. Bao's appointment marks the first time the chair has been awarded to a faculty member from a humanities discipline.

Established by alum Pamela Fong (Optometry '77), the chair is a rotating five-year appointment supporting faculty members whose research interests focus on China or US-China relations across a range of disciplines including Asian-American studies, law, the environment, and education. Previous chair holders include Rachel Stern (Law and Political Science) and You-tien Hsing (Geography).

Bao is a scholar of Chinese film whose recent work addresses questions of environment and atmosphere in 20th-century Chinese cinema and theater. Her upcoming book, Background Matters: The Art of Environment in Modern China, analyzes the aesthetics of set design in film, theater, and television through the twin lenses of social reform and human influence on the environment.

Bao examines similar themes in the essays she contributed to two special issues she co-edited: "Climate/Media" (Representations) and "Medium/Environment" (Critical Inquiry). Her articles explore the ramifications of set design in 1920s to 1940's China. Set design, she explains, allows directors to script and build an atmosphere, one where exterior surroundings mirror and amplify characters' interior mood. Concepts of huanjing (environment) and sheji (design) were likewise applied to popular theater and education as literal staging grounds for social experimentation and reform.

By highlighting an instance where environment is viewed as a deliberately constructed atmosphere with both natural and social elements, Bao's work contributes to a global intellectual history of environment nuanced by different historical and cultural contexts. "In the Anthropocene discourse — which dominates contemporary environmental thinking — we tend to think about humans homogeneously. However, this erases geographical differences, class differences, the racial dimension, questions of labor, etc.."

She explains that the special issue of Critical Inquiry grew out of a graduate seminar, also titled Medium/Environment. The seminar drew students not only from the department of Film and Media but also from Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Cultures, Architecture and Urban Planning, and Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. After teaching the seminar twice, Bao, her colleagues Jacob Gaboury and Kristen Whissel, and graduate students planned a two-day conference that included a virtual reality session and an accompanying film series.

Bao's research inspires her teaching, and vice versa. "Research and teaching are so interconnected," she says. "They really energize me."

Bao was also instrumental in bringing the largest and most comprehensive Chinese film studies collection in North America to Berkeley. The Paul Kendel Fonoroff Collection for Chinese Film Studies — housed in the C.V. Starr East Asian Library — contains over 70,000 periodicals, posters, photographs, and ephemera documenting the development of the film and entertainment industry of greater China. Bao uses the collection for her graduate seminars on archival research. For her undergraduate students, she curates BAMPFA film series in relation to the archive — like a recent series on Shanghai — and has invited Paul Fonoroff as a speaker.

Bao is excited by the opportunities that the chairship offers. She may use the funding to curate a film series or an exhibition, or to leverage her connections in Europe and Asia to bring speakers to campus. Her plans illustrate one of the core benefits of endowed chairs: investing in a faculty member effectively becomes an investment in the inspiration and education of students

"It's a huge honor," says Bao.