Report on Kunshan Digital City of Arts and Culture

By Anisha Joshi

Class of 2022

In the rush and uncertainty with which many of us vacated campus as COVID-19 was taking shape as an epidemic in China, few of us had anticipated how much we would miss Kunshan and beloved DKU. Some of us left, afraid but also hopeful that we could return to campus, or China, safely, hopeful that we would be able to resume at least part of the semester on campus.

And yet, here we are, most of us, five months later still pining for Kunshan, our shining campus with its pristine waters, the trees and lakes most of us have come to recognize as a home away from home. Luckily, students collaborating with the Humanities Research Center under the Kunshan Digital Humanities have been hard at work over last year, carefully archiving unique ways of experiencing this beautiful city.

While initially the student artworks were meant to be displayed in a curated exhibition on campus in spring semester, given the circumstances the projects were presented in an even more innovative way—students who worked on the projects gave Dean James Miller a virtual guide around Kunshan’s many attractions over the course of a day through the ArcGIS StoryMap interface, taking Dean Miller (and the audience) through each of the locations and what was special about them. The student artists’ exploration of Kunshan took place through a variety of mediums, ranging from photography and documentary film making to even performance art.

Before industrializing, much of Kunshan’s lifeblood ran along the aqueous veins of its water towns. Eldar Wang, Class of 2023, took performance art to the streets of Bacheng, one of China’s oldest water towns. Walking through the streets of Bacheng with ice from the fridges of DKU cupped in her hands (in the middle of Kunshan’s cold and humid January), Eldar communicated with local residents, talking about the history of the town. Experiencing the streets of Bacheng through her performance, she was even able to meet and interact with the oldest resident of this historic town.

Huang Bihui, Rachel Darius and Remington Gillis from the Class of 2022 worked on a documentary about one of Kunshan’s most famous exports: hairy crabs from Yangcheng Lake. The documentary gives an insider’s view into the workings of Xie Di Lou, a hairy crab restaurant that has brought the Kunshan specialty to the taste-buds of locals and tourists alike for over ten years.

Yinan Du, also Class of 2022, worked on stop-motion graffiti representing Kunshan’s long and extensive history. Spanning over hundreds of years, to show how it is a place that has been forever evolving, she talked over how she brought Kunshan’s history to life in her hand drawn graphics, and her future vision for the same project.

These are just some of the projects and media included in the archive. Words cannot bring justice to the plethora of projects and art created by students included in the StoryMap. From the first episode of  a historic reenactment of snippets from the life of one of Gu Yanwu (also known as Gu Tinglin, after whom one of Kunshan’s loveliest parks, Tinglin park is named) to a project through which students were able to interact with housing in Kunshan, the student artists have worked with a diversity of media, themes and time spans to bring to life their representations of Kunshan.

What is Kunshan, what does it mean to live in this place, to be one of its people? Creating an archive of Kunshan was just one of the outcomes of the project. It was also a space for DKU students to interact and engage with Kunshan and its people, to learn about Kunshan and get to know the city beyond what just meets the eye. With the support of the HRC and Professors who co-directed the project, students were able to capture these perspectives and interact with the history, culture, people and daily life of Kunshan in ways they might not have otherwise. In interacting closely with the city to make art, participants learned about what really makes Kunshan the place it is, and what it means to live in Kunshan, while creating a rich archive and map of artworks that encapsulate the expected and unexpected of what it means to be in Kunshan.