April 8, 2004

Kroch Opens Tianjin Exhibit

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Behind yesterday’s keynote address by Prof. Brett Sheehan, history, University of Wisconsin-Madison, lay a unique story spanning over two years, thousands of miles and one discovery. Sheehan’s talk, marking the opening of the University Wason Collection of East Asia’s newest exhibit, 600 Years of Urban Development and Planning in and Around Tianjin, was mainly the result of the work by curator Thomas H. Hahn — and a finding that culminated in a celebration of a Chinese city built 600 years ago. As he looked through archive boxes about two years ago, Hahn found documents displaying plans for a building. After he identified them, he send the plans to a professor at the Academy of Social Sciences of Tianjin, where Hahn eventually found that the papers were actually architecture modification plans for a palace in Tianjin. The augmentations at the time were to be made for the Empress Dowager — who planned to visit Tianjin on occasion.

“It was an extensive building but they wanted to make it something more grandiose and sophisticated and upgrade the facilities,” Hahn said.

Hahn repaired and scanned the documents and put pictures on a website — a move which drew great interest from many in Tianjin. Ironically, according to one Tianjin Evening News journalist Hahn spoke to, the local government was thinking of rebuilding the palace which was destroyed by the Japanese in 1937.

In the summer of 2002, Hahn went to Beijing for a conference and stopped over in Tianjin, where he gave a lecture about the Cornell architecture program to members of Tianjin University. His visit also garnered great media attention in the city with a population of at least seven million people. The Tianjin Evening News, a publication with a circulation of 600,000, ran several stories on the front page on Hahn and his findings.

This is not the first connection that the University has to the Chinese city. Lu Yanzhi ’14, a famous Chinese architect, studied his undergraduate trade at the University and was the mind behind buildings such as the Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum in Guangzhou. Hahn, who has taken over a year in organizing the new exhibit, said that this is the largest one that the Wason collection has ever had. With 17 cases and approximately 120 items coming from a variety of institutions and groups, the exhibit hopes to portray Tianjin as a port highly influenced by foreign powers through its architecture, trade and finance. In addition, 2004 is Tianjin’s 600th birthday, since the city walls were constructed in 1404. “Tianjin is interesting in the sense that it has these different concessions by colonial powers,” Hahn said. “We look at Tianjin as a Chinese city and we look at Tianjin as a collage city — a city of patches.”

It is through these various identities in which Sheehan based his Kaufman Auditorium lecture yesterday afternoon. Evaluating the history of Tianjin, Sheehan drew parallels and comparisons with other cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Using a variety of descriptions to explain the evolution and character of Tianjin, Sheehan said its decline in relation to the other larger Chinese cities and its lack of a clear cut identity poses a substantial question for its future.

“Tianjin has very much the legacy of a second city and a second city that doesn’t know where it’s going in the 21st century,” Sheehan said.

Because many individuals do not know about the northern city, around 50 audience members including Kevin Gough grad, were extremely interested in Sheehan’s 40-minute lecture. Gough, who is going to Beijing for a summer architecture program, said that he now might consider visiting Tianjin because of its history and unique western influence on a variety of the city’s characteristics. Another student, Zhao Mingbo ’03, could directly relate to Sheehan’s depiction of the city since the Ph.D. candidate is from Tianjin. Although it is his hometown, Zhao was impressed by what he learned while visiting the new exhibit.

“I think it’s a great exhibit and it shows the Asian aspects of the Tianjin city that I did not know about,” Zhao said.

Although not as extensive or tangible as the ongoing “Bridging the Rift” project on the border of Israel and Jordan, or the Weill Medical School in Qatar, Hahn’s finding and interaction with the Tianjin community might lay the groundwork for future relations and further promote President Jeffrey S. Lehman’s ’77 vision of a “transnational University.”

Tianjin University has one of the four largest architecture programs in China, and Cornell has a large Chinese student population. With some work, Hahn said that a strong communication could be created between the Tianjin and East Hill.

“The University is well-advised to enter the relationship in a couple of interesting and innovative ways. I think it would be of mutual benefit [for the University and Tianjin],” Hahn said.

Hahn, who will travel back to China within the next few weeks, said that through these developments made in the finding of these plans, Tianjin benefits and gains a higher profile — especially considering the weighty focus on larger cities such as Shanghai or Beijing.

Hahn also hopes to organize a conference on Tianjin, which is scheduled for next year. With the help of a Tianjin steering committee consisting of professors and scholars from around the nation, Hahn said that to his knowledge, the Wason’s exhibit is the only place outside of China to celebrate the city’s 600th anniversary.

“It was this wonderful find [of the plans], this incredible connection [Hahn’s] made and the excitement it’s made between two countries [which makes this special],” said Marisue Taube ’75, director of external relations for the University library. “It’s a wonderful story.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Senior Writer