Chinese, Sinophone and Comparative Literature: narrative spacetime, botanical monsters, literary sensory studies, urban memory, plant-human hybrids, ecocriticism across genres & a hovercraft full of eels
At this year’s ACLA conference, I participated in “Political Botany” a 3-day panel of thinking with plants and the human languages that are used to approach, understand, control, and enageg with them in text:
Seminar organizers: Jan Mieszkowski and Julia Ng
Day One (Thursday, June 16) The Soft Life of Plants: Toward a New Politics of Place — Anthony Curtis Adler “Chosen Shape”: Ruskin’s Bulbs as Critique of the Market Economy — Ayşe Çelikkol In the Forest, A Gnarled Tree: Benjamin, Brecht, wuyong — Julia Ng The Understory: The Overstory and the Arboreal Abject — Robin Blyn
Day Two (Friday, June 17) Poetic Resistance of African Vegetation — May Mergenthaler Post-Colonial Botany — Jan Mieszkowski Plants at the Margin — Anne-Lise François Algorithmic Flowers and the Politics of Classification — Markus Hardtmann
Day Three (Saturday, June 18) Désœuvrement, Singularity, and Naming: The Imperative of Unworking in Rousseau and Nancy — Saul Anton Companion Plant Reading: Vegetal Voices Across Languages — Astrid Møller-Olsen Garden Songs — Dominik Zechner Fruitonomy, Fruitography — Simon Horn
In this themed cluster of PRISM: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, we encounter wandering flats, ghostly spaces, and nostalgic fantasies that foster an interpretation of space and time as fundamentally entangled in the city.
Sensory perception, identity, and time: Yesterday, I was part of an amazing paper-session discussing ominous sounds (Bo Ærenlund Sørensen), representations of gender (Zhou Danxue), and chronopolitics (Erik Mo Welin) in contemporary Chinese SF.
I talked about the oceanic origins and possible futures of life – and about how astro-nautical realms are used as fruitful settings for narratives that explore postcolonial ecocriticism and posthuman understandings of being (see full abstract below).
Space Oceans: Astro+nautical convergences in Chinese SF
Since the beginning of the space age, the universe has been envisioned as a huge, mysterious ocean upon which the vessels of human explorers could continue their expansion of the known world into the future. Indeed, one of the most influential writers of 20th century science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, wrote just as captivatingly of earth’s oceans as of outer space, and compared the two as frontier regions of knowledge and resources.
In both Chinese and English, nautical terminology is used to describe interstellar travel: spacecrafts are flying ships (飞船), with the wind-sails of ocean vessels exchanged for solar sails, and the people who pilot them are star sailors (astronauts) or universe-boat attendants (宇航员), while the Chinese name for the Milky Way, Silver River (银河), highlights the connection between the vast aquatic realm and the galactic void. This maritime vocabulary has spilled over into literary criticism, when Darko Suvin describes how science fiction contains “a curiosity about the unknown beyond the next mountain range (sea, ocean, solar system…)” and “the planetary island in the aether ocean,” or when historical periodization of both American and Chinese science fiction is being described as “waves.”
In this paper, I look at how contemporary Chinese writers tackle themes of colonialism and exploitation of natural resources, humanoid aliens and space-dwelling humans, as they explore the oceans of outer space. First, I look at how Hu Shaoyan 胡绍晏 imagines the universe itself as an intergalactic ocean. I read the human encounter with astro-jelly fish in her story “Submerged in a Flame Sea ” 火海潜航 as an example of what Astrida Neimanis calls the “hydrocommons of wet relations” albeit on an interstellar scale. Second, I turn to Chi Hui’s 迟卉 “Deep Sea Fish” 深海鱼 and the alien seascapes of Titan composed not of water but of methane. Here, I analyse colonialism of terrascaping and how the environment shapes the mind of the inhabitants even as they try to shape their environment. Finally, Regina Kanyu Wang’s 王侃瑜 “Return to Mi’an” 重返弥安 highlights the problematic notion of the frontier itself, with its violent ignorance and erasure of earlier inhabitants. I read the return of the surgically humanized protagonist to her own original ocean planet as an expression of human space travel as both a search of new frontiers and a longing for a homecoming to the ocean that spawned us.
Last week, I participated in an exciting cross-disciplinary seminar on the Hong Kong protest at the University of Copenhagen. The blend of historians, film-, media- and literary scholars made for some interesting and fruitful out-of-the-box discussions about parallel and collaborative media spheres, eclecticism versus canonic imagery, and about silence as a polyphonic form of dissent.
“The current political situation in Hong Kong has left many unknowns for the future of Hong Kong. The introduction of the national security legislation June 30th 2020, became the final death blow to the protest movement that had been sweeping through Hong Kong since the summer of 2019. Visible public unrest have had to take on new forms as traditional routes for protesting are cut off. Hong Kong is changing, leaving the futures of many people in a new and uncertain situation.
The situation in Hong Kong is affecting the entire world as Hong Kong’s newfound position as an exponent of the authoritarianism of the Chinese state requires reaction from the international community. Hong Kong society is no longer the same and the questions of the direction Hong Kong is taking lingers in the horizon. Where is Hong Kong heading? And how have the developments these past years affected the direction Hong Kong is taking
This seminar explores different aspects of contemporary Hong Kong society through the lens of cultural production, image politics, protest aesthetics, documentary filmmaking and social and political perspectives.”
We discussed sex as an arena for power struggles as well as a last expression of individual freedom under repressive conditions and forced collectivisation.
In particular, I read Wang’s focus on illicit sexualities that deviate from the perceived norm -such as non-monogamous or homosexual relationships- as cynical but in some sense hopeful explorations of bodily freedom in situations of extreme control, in this case prison (in ‘Gentle like Water’) and rural work camps for ‘educated youth’ 知青 (in ‘The Golden Age’).
In this episode, Zhange Ni introduces us to some of the myriad fantasy genres proliferating on Chinese internet platforms and beyond. She describes and contextualises recent subgenres such as qihuan 奇幻 and xuanhuan 玄幻 (and their relationship with wuxia 武俠 wandering warrior/martial arts fiction) before zooming in on xiuzhen 修真 (immortality cultivation) tales that effortlessly mingle contrasting realms of (the idea of) ancient Daoism and contemporary computer games. Finally, we discuss the danmei 耽美 (tanbi) boys’ love romances predominantly produced and consumed by women readers as well as these transmedial genres’ implications for our understanding of what literature is.
Magical Guest:Zhange Ni（倪湛舸）is an associate professor of religion and literature at Virginia Tech currently posted as a research fellow at the Nantes Institute for Advanced Study (France). She received her Ph.D. in religion and literature from the University of Chicago Divinity School, did postdoctoral work at the “Women’s Studies in Religion Program” at Harvard Divinity School. She is currently working on a book project tentatively entitled The Cult of Fiction in the Age of the Internet: Chinese Religions, Digital Capitalism, and the Fantasy Boom in Contemporary China.
Host under Cultivation: Astrid Møller-Olsen is the author of Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Cambria Press, 2022). She is currently international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council working on a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism. She hosts the xiaoshuo.blog and has published on arboreal temporalities, fictional dictionaries, oneiric soundscapes, digital chronotopes, and sensory urban spacetime.
In this episode, Hua Li relates how modern Chinese SF was popularized as a transmedial practice in the 1980s. She explains the key role played by a kind of graphic novel format known as lianhuanhua 连环画 and gives examples from the illustrated works of Ye Yonglie 叶永烈. We then move on to fan culture before the internet age and end by discussing how early environmental SF from the 1950s presents a different perspective from today’s writings on the Anthropocene.
Host Fan: Astrid Møller-Olsen is international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has just published her first monograph Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Cambria Press, 2022). Other publications include analyses of fictional dictionaries, oneiric soundscapes, digital chronotopes in SF, ecocritical temporalities, and sensory urban spacetime. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism: https://xiaoshuo.blog/
Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works
I begin by borrowing Liu Cixin’s Three-Body problem (which he, in turn, has borrowed from mathematical physics) and convert it into a three-city problem. While the interaction between two bodies poses a relatively simple problem, the addition of a third body of approximately equal mass complicates calculations immensely. Likewise, a literary triangular comparison creates more junctions and convergences than a twofold one. Furthermore, “it frustrates any tendency towards binarism (be it East-West or North-South) and complicates notions of internal homogeneity by centering on cultural interchange as constitutive for our understanding of place” (Sensing the Sinophone, 24).
I then sketch out recent discussions on the form and content of Sinophone literature and add my own triangular urban approach – focusing on the three cities of Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai that are all (to various extents) culturally and linguistically hybrid cities with (semi)colonial pasts. These three cities constitute sites of negotiation between strong urban identities and (contested) ties to mainland China, and act as individual anchors for both regional and international networks.
Finally, I introduce the six literary works that I analyse comparatively throughout the book (rather than relegating each to its own chapter), namely:
Shanghai: Chen Cun 陈村. Xianhua he 鲜花和 [Fresh flowers and] and Ding Liying 丁丽英. Shizhong li de nüren 时钟里的女人 [The woman in the clock].
Taipei: Chu T’ien-hsin 朱天心. Gudu 古都 [The Old Capital] and Wu Mingyi 吳明益. Tianqiao shang de moshushi 天橋上的魔術師 [The magician on the skywalk].
Hong Kong: Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章. Ditu ji 地圖集 [Atlas] and Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹. Shuang cheng cidian I–II 雙城 辭典I–II [A dictionary of two cities I–II] (written jointly with Hon Lai Chu).
The CORPUS of the book is then dedicated to the study of the countless fictional cities nestled within the six literary works written by authors from the 3 real-world metropoles Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai. In the following readings, “I turn my attention away from each real-world city as a center of gravity and toward the analytical interactions between these three bodies of equal mass. For the sake of intelligibility, and to foster such interactions, I impose a theoretical and thematic framework characterized by a high degree of flexibility.”
Part I. Skeleton Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works Part II. Corpus Chapter 3. Sense of Place: Walking or Mapping the City Chapter 4. The Nose: Flora Nostalgia Chapter 5. The Ear: Melody of Language Chapter 6. Sense of Self: The Many Skins of the City Chapter 7. The Mouth: Balancing Flavors Chapter 8. The Eye: Fictional Dreams Part III. Excretions Chapter 9. Sense of Time: Everyday Rhythms The City Remembers: Concluding Remarks
Plants have always been powerful symbols of place, rooted as they are in the local soil, yet in most almanacs such as the Chinese lunar calendar, flowers and plants are also core images for defining and representing time. Through a conceptualisation of qingjing (情境) that relates literary temporality to emotional interaction with the environment through the figure of the tree, this chapter executes a thematic comparison of arboreal figures in three works of contemporary Sinophone fiction, demonstrating how trees, as keepers of time, form an ecocritical approach to the study of narrative temporality.
In this chapter, I analyse the emotional topography (qingjing 情境) of human-tree relationships and their effect on narrative temporality. I begin by examining the various genera of trees that grow in Chu T’ien-hsin’s 朱天心 Taipei neighbourhoods and serve as organic intergenerational links to personal, familial, and historical pasts. Then, I move on to the urban parks of Dung Kai-cheung’s 董啟章 Hong Kong and the individual characters’ counterfactual, yet emotionally real, relationships with specific trees explored through the finite temporality of death. Finally, I travel with Alai 阿來 to the ethnically Tibetan areas of Sichuan and explore the temporal clash between scientific progress and the mytho-historical longue durée perspective provided by the ancient arboreal inhabitants.
In this episode of the Sinophone Unrealities podcast, we discuss three types of resistance found in post-80s Chinese SF: resistance to social inequalities, to political repression/censorship, and to gender stereotypes. Frederike gives examples from her research into works by Hao Jingfang, Ma Boyong, Zhang Ran, Chi Hui, Gu Shi, and Chen Qiufan and comments on the innovations and limitations of science fictional narratives when it comes to engaging with the sociopolitical issues of contemporary society.
Rebellious guest: Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker (she/her) is an assistant professor at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Heidelberg University. She received her PhD in Chinese Studies from the Free University of Berlin in June 2021 with a thesis on socio-political discourses in contemporary Chinese science fiction literature. She has participated in numerous international conferences and co-hosted events and talks with Chinese SF writers in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Heidelberg. Apart from Chinese science fiction, she is also interested in Chinese queer culture. When not sitting in front of her computer or behind her books, she explores nature by hiking or horse riding.
Agitated host agitator: Astrid Møller-Olsen is international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has published on fictional dictionaries, oneiric soundscapes, digital chronotopes in SF, ecocritical temporalities, and sensory urban spacetime. Her first monograph Sensing the Sinophone will be out in early 2022 by Cambria Press. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism: https://xiaoshuo.blog/