Zhu Tianxin’s (Chu T’ien-hsin 朱天心) novella The Old Capital (古都) narrates the process of slowly losing contact with the past through forgetting, loss and material erasure. Instead of completely eradicating the past, this process prompts a renewed interest, and, in a sense, a renewed presence of that past in conscious remembering, literary evocation and narrative attendance. Inspired by David Crouch’s conception of heritage as a journey, this paper looks at how the protagonist’s physical and mental voyage in The Old Capital incorporates several spatiotemporal layers of cultural heritage to help her – and the reader – understand the complexity of the living historical city of Taipei.
Seven Senses of the City:
Sensory Literary Studies
and the Aftertaste of Memory
In my research, I employ a framework of sensory literary studies to explore the connections between memory and materiality in contemporary Sinophone fiction from Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
I engage with themes of scented nostalgia, flavours in fiction, walking as method, literary cartography, the melody of language, gendered cityscapes, metafictional dreams and rhythmic senses of time to study how contemporary cities change the way we think about time, space and memory.
In this talk, I will introduce my ideas for sensory literary scholarship and present a few textual examples of what such a sensorially focused, thematical comparisons might bring to light. In particular, I will examine how memories taste and at how various (un)healthy appetites regulate recollection as a technology of the self in Dorothy Tse and Hon Lai Chu’s novel A Dictionary of Two Cities (雙城辭典) from 2012, in Ding, Liying’s novel The Woman in the Clock (时钟里的女人) from 2001 and in Chu, Tien-hsin’s novella The Old Capital (古都) from 1996.
After a short apology that my work (despite ostensibly constituting a multisensory approach to the study of memory and literature) did not include any perfume sniff pads, CD soundtracks or an eatable book cover, prof. Lu graciously introduced the main arguments and contributions of my dissertation. This took care of the first half hour.
Prof. Lu then asked me several critical questions to do with possible incongruities or alternative paths my research might have taken, producing a very rich and fruitful discussion of another hour. Finally the three esteemed scholars of the examining committee, Prof. Lena Rydholm from Uppsala Uni, senior lecturer Martin Svensson Ekström and prof. Rikard Schönström, presented briefly their comments on the dissertation and we all went out to await their decision.
In short, they liked it a lot and awarded me my doctoral degree and we all had sparkly wine or sparkly apple cider (and I had a beer) and hooray what a day.
Below, you will find a painfully short abstract of what is really a 260 pages long analytical kaleidoscope that took me more than four years to complete:
What happens when the city you live in changes over night? When the streets and neighborhoods that form the material counterpart to your mental soundtrack of memory suddenly cease to exist? The rapidly changing cityscapes of Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai form an environment of urban flux that causes such questions to surface in literary texts.
In this dissertation, I engage with themes of scented nostalgia, flavors in fiction, walking as method, literary cartography, the melody of language, gendered cityscapes, metafictional dreams and rhythmic senses of time to study how contemporary cities change the way we think about time, space and memory.
How do we imagine digital realities? How do we measure time and distance in the aspatial everpresent of cyberspace and can we even begin to fathom the vast amounts of information being translated into binary data to circumnavigate the planet on a daily basis?
On december 3rd, at the 12th Annual Nordic NIAS Council Conference held at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University and entitled “Digital Asia,” I presented three examples of how contemporary Chinese science fiction writers deal with such complex questions in highly original and creative ways.
Inspired by Elana Gomel’s concept of “impossible topologies,” I analysed how contemporary writers engage with digital realities in spatial terms: From Liu Cixin’s (刘慈欣) use of virtual reality as world simulation in The Three Body Problem (《三体》 2008), over Tang Fei’s (糖匪) portrayal of an “ocean of data” as the source of all stories in “Call Girl” (黄色故事 2013) to Ma Boyong’s (马伯庸) Orwellian narrative “The City of Silence” (寂静之城 2005), where all interpersonal communication is carried out soundlessly via strictly censored online forums.
In Liu’s text, the virtual reality of a computer game serves as an exercise ground for dealing with real material problems as well as a means to probe and mould the minds and ideological convictions of the players. In “The City of Silence,” the role of the internet as an alternative reality unbound by physical limitations is turned on its head as the censorship applied to online forums begins to haunt the material spaces of the city through portable “listening devises” and electronic spies. Finally, in “Call Girl,” imagination itself is imagined as a vast sea of data, out of which stories emerge and take form and which in itself offers an escape from the constraints of reality.
In these stories, digital realities are presented as alternative, parallel spacetimes that afford imaginary arenas for experimentation, escape and control. Whether in the form of lightscapes, cityscapes or seascapes, the digital chronotopes evoked by these authors represent new and interesting ways of understanding the elusive and digital aspects of reality that have come to form such a large part of our everyday experiences.
As most of you will know, this year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth or New Culture Movement in Chinese history. I was fortunate enough to be invited to two Swedish celebrations of the centennial with each its animated discussion of the movement’s legacy.
Zhang Longxi considered classical Chinese and European literary theory comparatively through the shared understanding of art as a product of, if not pain, then adversity in some form or other. He exemplified this through an examination of the image of the oyster, whose beautiful pearl is a product of the presence of a hard grain of sand in its soft interior.
Bonnie McDougall presented an original addition to our understanding of literary censorship as something that is not only political but also be aesthetic. By comparing Lu Xun’s published correspondence with Xu Guangping to the original letters, she was able to show that (contrary to how their relationship is presented in the version revised for publication) in the uncensored letters, Xu comes across as the more assertive and the one taking the initiative.
In October, we had a smaller symposium in Uppsala, where Mingwei Song presented his inspiring reading of Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary as a work of science fiction and traced Lu’s legacy of curing cultural ailments through literature to contemporary writers such as Han Song and Liu Cixin.
On both occasions, I presented my work on man-eating as a contemporary motif that has developed from Lu Xun’s use of various types of cannibalism as a way of criticising feudal society, over Yan Lianke and Mo Yan’s narrative invocations of vampirism and “meat-boys” to criticise political and economic corruption, to the representation of mega-cities as anthropophagus superstructures in contemporary urban fiction.
I specifically analysed the chapter “Swallow and Spit” (吞吐) from Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹 and Hon Lai Chu’s 韓麗珠 double novel A Dictionary of Two Cities 《雙城辭典》 from 2012, in which urban existence is represented through an alimentary vocabulary, with machines that “eat” coins, and pedestrians who are “eaten by the crowd.” In their fictional world, sexual intercourse becomes an act of “devouring” while babies are “vomited” out and education is seen as a process of digestion, where “raw” children enter, and processed citizens are excreted.
While certain themes of the New Culture Movement are still alive and thriving today, contemporary global society presents a changed environment that enable and demand writers to rediscover, reinvent and revolutionize modern motifs in new and enlightening ways.
‘What is that?’ you may well ask… Defining sensory studies, anthropologist David Howes writes that ”sensory studies involves a cultural approach to the study of the senses and a sensory approach to the study of culture. It challenges the monopoly that the discipline of psychology has long exercised over the study of the senses and sense perception by foregrounding the sociality of sensation” (Howes 2013).
What I should like to do, is apply some of the insights from this growing field of research to the study of literature as an important cultural practice where sensory vocabulary and concepts are codified and challenged.
Today, the cross-disciplinary field of sensory studies encourages us to acknowledge how “sensory experience is socially made and mediated” and to think that senses are “not simply passive receptors. They are interactive, both with the world and each other” (Howes 2013). By comparing culturally and historically diverse sensory modes and codes, as well as seeking to include internal senses such as sense of pain (nociception), of one’s own muscles and organs (proprioception) and temperature (thermoception), researchers are challenging the conventional pentagonal sensorium.
In this panel, we want to continue the sensory discussion in the literary arena; to think and talk about the ways in which Sinophone fiction and poetry can portray, disrupt and re-conceptualise sensory experience. Our aim is to start an academic conversation about the possibility of ‘Literary Sensory Studies’ and suggest some of the interesting and fruitful paths such a subfield might take. By bringing together sensory analyses of classical poetry, modernist literature and contemporary fiction, we hope to show the concept’s wide-ranging applicability in terms of literary scholarship.