Hot Noise and Emotive Scents: Review of Sensing China

Sensing China: Modern Transformations of Sensory Culture. Shengqing Wu & Xuelei Huang, eds.. Routledge, 2022.

Reviewed by Astrid Møller-Olsen

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2023)

The ancient pages of the book before me are rumpled by water damage, the lower right corner of each page is stained brown and all but torn off, it smells musty and would feel sticky were I allowed to touch it. This object is a product of repeated multisensory reading sessions. It is a volume of choral sheet music from the European Middle Ages and its pages are marked by the audible breath of the singers, as well as by the touch of their fingers, hastily turning the page in time for the next verse. Holding it in their hands, they viewed the sheet music with their eyes and translated it into sound with their brains and vocal cords. The temperature and moisture of the room and the bodies in it merged with the sounds and became a visual imprint, a tactile trace of a melody heard long ago.

As this description of one object from the small but wondrous exhibition “Sensational Books” (2022) at the Weston Library in Oxford shows, the boundaries between sensory categories—and between physical and social aspects of sensation—are as permeable as they are practical. What is “a sense” really? How many are there, and might they not differ between periods, cultures, bodies, and social contexts? These are some of the questions posed by contemporary sensory studies, a field that combines sociological, anthropological, and historical approaches to diversify and nuance our understanding of what sensation means, has meant, and can mean. It is highly fitting that Sensing China, a new and very welcome addition to this cross-disciplinary area of scholarship, begins with a deconstruction of the very term “sense.”

It is this flexible approach to multi- and cross-sensory realms that Shengqing Wu and Xuelei Huang instill in the reader by beginning the introductory chapter to their edited volume with a quote from Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書 that includes the lines “colour can appear to embody temperature, sound embody form, heat and cold have weight and smell solidity” (1). To Qian’s poetic rumination on synaesthesia (通感), Wu and Huang add that their own objective is to “offer a critical investigation of a variety of sensory phenomena, representations, and discourses in Chinese cultural history, and of modern transformations of sensory culture in particular” (3). With a mind firmly focused on sensory collaboration, transformation, and context, rather than sensory systematics, the reader can begin to explore the manifold methodological and disciplinary perspectives in the following eleven chapters.

The volume is chronologically arranged in four parts—Part 1: Understanding the Senses in Traditional Culture; Part 2: Reconfiguring the Senses and Modern Sensibility; Part 3: Socialist Corporeality, Sensorium and Memory; and Part 4: Senses, Media and Postmodernity—covering sensory culture in China from as early as 500 BCE to well into the 2000s (followed by an epilogue). This makes it easier for readers interested in specific periods to find their way. However, when reading all the chapters (and I encourage you to do so, because insights are not limited to historical facts but also include innovative methodologies and inspiring analyses), shared themes surface. Although a cursory inspection of the table of contents seem to reveal that many of the chapters focus on individual senses, most of them end up demonstrating that no sense works in isolation and that sensation is always social and quite often emotional as well. Instead of proceeding through the chapters in order, below I survey the chapters with an eye toward their shared themes and concerns, as well as highlighting key arguments and insights; to save space, I refer directly to the authors rather than the full title of each chapter.

Jane Geaney, author of the pioneering On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought,[1] reminds us that the notion of “a sense” as a universal concept is the first obstacle we need to dismantle to gain a deeper understanding of sensory experiences, thoughts, and transformations across time. She begins by destabilizing any easy translation of the Chinese term 官 guan as “senses that inform and/or confuse the heart-mind (心 xin)” and goes on to “reassess the very idea of an early Chinese concept of ‘sense’” (19). Geaney shows that early texts were not very systematic in their use of the term guan and that although guan sometimes substitutes for specific sensory organs such as the eye or the ear, i.e., the physical forms by which we grasp the world, it is also used for less conventional “senses” such as happiness, form, name, and more, leading her to conclude that “we cannot infer that guan replaces a general category term like ‘sense’” (20). In short, when reading early Chinese texts, we tend to treat guan as a dead metaphor when, as Geaney demonstrates, it was still very much alive and flexible.

Like Geaney, Paolo Santangelo deconstructs the notion of a “sense” and adds an important affective dimension to our understanding of sensation when he notes that the modern term ganjue 感覺 “makes no distinction between mental and physical feelings” and that “social and moral effects of the senses remain the basis of debate on senses” in Ming and Qing sources (43). Sensation, according to Santangelo, is not exclusively physical but inherently social and emotional as well. He employs this position to delve into the social aspects of scent as a marker of cultural and gendered identity that “signals the unity of the physical and social body [and] transfers ideological and social distinctions to a visceral level” (52). Xuelei Huang continues Santangelo’s exploration of the relationship between scent and identity to analyse how specific fragrances not only set social groups apart but can also act as medium through which one may live out a fantasy of belonging to another class, gender, or ethnicity through a kind of “smell-voyeurism” (81).[2]

Staying on the theme of emotions and sensory mediations, Carlos Rojas analyses mediated touch as an enhanced form of intimacy. He notes that because the sense of touch is surrounded and guarded by norms and taboos, visual mediation allows vicarious tactile interchanges where direct touch is not possible due to social convention—as between father and son in Song Dong’s 宋冬 artworks—or because of sexual normativity—as with the male lovers in Wong Kar-wai 王家衛 and Zhang Yuan’s 張元films. Shengqing Wu likewise examines the confluences between visuality and tactility in her study of how Chinese cinemagoers in the 1910s and 1920s learned a new way of kissing from the actors on the screen and went on to savor the smell and taste of the sweet (甜蜜) kiss that was the product of this multisensory mimesis. One could extend this historical survey backwards from the contemporary norms regarding men touching men that Rojas analyzes, through Wu’s description of the visual introduction of new heterosexual kissing standards in the early twentieth century, and on to premodern Chinese medicine, where, as Elisabeth Hsu has shown,[3] rules regarding who could touch the female body required diagnostics on women to be performed through the medium of a silk cord to avoid direct skin contact.

In my own work on literary sensory studies,[4] I have been inspired by the idea of whole-body sensation (身體感) proposed and developed in the anthology Body/Object NuancesResearch on Material Things and Bodily Sensations, edited by 余舜德 Yu Shuenn-Der. [5] It would have been exciting if more of the chapters in Sensing China engaged directly with the broader field of sensory studies, taking up comparisons with findings from other areas, disciplines, and periods as well as with new theories and conceptualizations of sensation.

Jie Li’s chapter stands out for its introduction of a new and radically cross-sensory concept, anchored in her literal translation of 热闹 renao (lively) as “hot noise”—a multisensory term that is “at once visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory, and haptic” (202). This brilliantly conceived analytical fulcrum allows Li to examine the whole-body experience of open-air cinema in Mao-era China from a variety of different and overlapping sensory perspectives. Above all, Li shows that the physical surroundings of open-air cinema were as important as the content of the film being screened. Even when a screening was suspended due to frequent breakdowns in the mobile equipment, the canvas screen itself, blowing in the wind, became a spectacle known as “white cloth film” (205). When in motion, the sensory symphony on screen was coupled with an equally entertaining sensory disharmony off screen, consisting of shouts, bickering, and laughter from neighbors all around. The “phantom commensality” (211) of filmic feasts was accompanied by the festive smells and tastes from homemade snacks and street vendors. As Lena Henningsen shows in her chapter, partaking by proxy is a theme that continues to resurface in the “spiritual feasts” of recalling past meals during times of hunger, which is given permanence through inscription in literary texts (178).

Returning to the hot noise of open-air cinema, Li describes how the film itself was bodily produced by people on manual generators, pedalling to provide the needed electricity, and consumed not only optically (with even the visual impression bracketed by the heads of other spectators) but corporeally and socially by the crowd as well. The very nature of open-air cinema led to an “intense awareness of one’s body between the sky and earth, vulnerable to wind, rain, snow, mosquitoes, heat and cold,” while the social dimension took center stage when film screenings were used for political purposes as well as for matchmaking (215-216). The communal nature of such sensory experiences is not only of academic interest, as Xiaobing Tang argues in his chapter, they have been instrumental in transforming Chinese society. Stressing the need for historians to understand the bodily experiences as well as the material circumstances of historical subjects, he concludes that when it comes to 1930s China, “unless we truly grasp the sensory implications as well as the affective power of mass singing, our understanding of a formative stage of modern Chinese culture may remain incomplete and inadequate” (143).

In open-air cinema, the social, contextual, and collaborative aspects of sensation naturally come to the fore. However, by using a multisensory analytical term like hot noise, other researchers could tease out more subtle but equally somatic dimensions of pursuits usually viewed with a visual bias. After all, even lone reading sessions in quiet rooms are bodily practises, situated in time, space, and language—affected by expectation, mood, paratext, room temperature, hunger, ambient noise, memory, and more.

Celebrating and employing multisensory frameworks, however, is not without hazards, as two of the chapters in this volume point out. In her chapter, Laikwan Pang analyses how Maoist romantic aesthetics, despite claiming to represent the materiality of everyday life, could be “understood as anti-material and anti-corporeal” (166) because of the priority given to the abstract ideological message that the graphic bodies were there to convey. In a similar vein, Kirk Denton cautions that, although involving more senses can help museums become more than “mausoleums,” the immersive quality of sensory exhibitions risk blinding the visitor to the constructedness of the narratives on display, their selectivity, and the things that are absent from them.

Despite such possible pitfalls, the value of Sensing China and its multisensory paradigm is (at least) twofold. First, it adds a new corpus of studies from Chinese languages and cultures to the ongoing global research on sensation and the social; second, the collective method of “(re)thinking through the senses” (3) may form an exciting and fruitful framework for future engagements with material grassroots history, comparative literature, and immersive fieldwork.

Although the Weston Library exhibition did display books chewed by toddlers, most of us have stopped tasting books in such a direct way. Yet there is no denying that books are more than just visual. That is why reading with a cup of coffee on a sunny bench is not the same as reading hungrily in a library sustained only by the musty scent of old pages or reading on a tram full of teenagers because you just have to finish this book you have for review. The Weston exhibition posed the question of what the growth of e-books might do to our reading habits and to the multisensory aspects of reading. Well, a few years ago I saw a young man on a bus in Shanghai flicking at the virtual page edges of his e-reader. Clearly, tactility was still a big part of his reading experience. Our bodies don’t just go away, despite all the screens we surround ourselves with. There is no question that sensory habits transform us just as we transform them, as Barbara Mittler appropriately observes in her epilogue to the volume, but often in inventive and unforeseen ways. There is always more to study, always more to sense.


[1] Geaney, Jane. On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002).

[2] The role that odor plays in creating and sustaining cultural hierarchies was emphasized by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott in their joint monograph Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[3] Hsu, Elisabeth. “Tactility and the Body in Early Chinese Medicine.” Science in Context 18, no. 1 (2005): 7-34.

[4] Møller-Olsen, Astrid. Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2022).

[5] Yu, Shuenn-Der 余舜德, ed., Ti wu ruwei: wu yu shentigan de yanjiu 體物入微/ 物與身體感的研究 (Body/object nuances: research on material things and bodily sensations). (Taipei: National Tsing-hua University Press, 2008).

中华未来学读本 Sinofuturisms Chinese version

Thanks to Virginia L. Conn, Dino Ge Zhang +more, a selection of our collected essays on Sinofuturisms is now available in Chinese as 中华未来学读本 (I’m not sure where you can get it, but you can read the original English essays at SFRA Review):

SFRA Review 50(2-3): 2020


Sinofuturism and Chinese Science Fiction: an Introduction to the Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义) Special Issue  • Virginia L. Conn, editor

A Discussion between Two French Translators of Chinese Science Fiction  •  Loïc Aloisio and Gwennaël Gaffric

Photographesomenonic Sinofuturism(s)  •  Virginia L. Conn

Sinofuturism as Inverse Orientalism: China’s Future and the Denial of Coevalness  •  Gabriele de Seta

The Science-Fictional in China’s Online Learning Initiatives  •  Margaret A. Fisher

China’s Sonic Fictions: Music, Technology, and the Phantasma of a Sinicized Future  •  Carmen Herold

Empathy, War, and Women  • Amy Ireland

Capitalist Monster and Bottled Passengers: Political Stakes of Embodiment in The Reincarnated Giant and The Last Subway  •  Lyu Guangzhao

Data Narrator: Digital Chronotopes in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction  •  Astrid Møller-Olsen

Chinese Science Fiction: A Genre of Adversity  •  Yen Ooi

Images of Alternative Chinese Futures: Critical Reflections on the “China Dream” in Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui”  •  Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker

The Wandering Earth: A Device for the Propagation of the Chinese Regime’s Desired Space Narratives?  •  Molly Silk

Wondering about the Futures of the Wandering Earth: A Comparative Analysis of Liu Cixin’s “The Wandering Earth” and Frant Gwo’s Film Adaptation  •  Mitchell van Vuren

A Diagnosis of Sinofuturism from the Urban-Rural Fringe  •  Dino Ge Zhang

Oxford Plants and People

This autumn I’m visting scholar at the University of Oxford China Centre, hosted by the awesome prof. Margaret Hillenbrand. In between visits to Oxford botanic garden and arboretum, Rousham gardens, Waterperry gardens and Batsford arboretum, I met a lot of really interesting and knowledgeable people (as well as plants).

As part of Margaret’s lecture series ‘Visual Culture in Modern and Contemporary China‘ I listened to Jane Qian Liu talk about how, at the beginning of the twentieth century, creatively translated love stories blurred the boundaries between reader, writer and protagonist when people not only read but rewrote and even lived out the new romantic narratives.

I was absolutely fascinated by Coraline Jortay’s presentation of her ongoing research into Republican-era debates on gendered pronouns moving from 他 and 伊 over attempts at modernisation through the Japanese 彼女 or the latinized ta and taa to the 她 we know today and further into contemporary gender-neutral pronouns like X也 and ta們.

I also got to share my own ongoing research on how contemporary Sinophone works of fiction use botanical characters, plant imagery and green environments to create alternative realities, explore possible futures and deal with traumatic pasts – inclduing how plants figure as partly human monsters, planetary partners, or ecological avengers in works by Chi Hui 迟卉, Yan Ge 颜歌, Dorothy Tse’s 謝曉虹, Alai 阿来, Chu T’ien-hsin 朱天心, and Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章.

For more from my Green Ink project, see “Trees Keep Time An Ecocritical Approach to Literary Temporality” in Ecocriticism and Chinese Literature edited by Riccardo Moratto, Nicoletta Pesaro and Di-kai Chao (Routledge 2022) and stay tuned for my forthcoming chapter on plant-human chimeras in speculative fiction.

Finally, I got to explore the glorious, if somewhat muddy, Oxford countryside – here are a biased outsider’s best tips:

NATURE TIP: Ramble! Walk north along the Thames past Port Meadow and on to the Trout Inn or south past Christ Church Meadow to the Isis Farmhouse pub. For a longer walk, try the Oxford Jubilee Circular Walk up Boar Hill to the view that inspired Matthew Arnold to write about Oxford’s “dreaming spires.”

TIPPLE TIP: Try a pint of real/cask ale – it is allowed to continue fermentation in the cask at the pub and the result is a much more complex and mellow taste than the sharp fizz of ordinary tap beer.

BOOK TIP: If you are a student or faculty at a university in or outside the UK, you can apply for a Bodleian reader card and use all the fabulous libraries. There are also some tempting second hand bookshops like Last Bookshop Jericho, Book Stop by St. Mary Magdalen and Oxfam on St Giles.

Ghost Island: Supernatural Taiwan in Lyon

A most enjoyable gathering of Demons, Spirits and the Supernatural in Taiwanese Arts at Lyon Spotlight Taiwan 2022!

I finally got to meet fabled scholar-translators Coraline Jortay and Gwennaël Gaffric, learned a lot about the various supernatural beings that inhabit Taiwan, and am now deeply enthralled reading Kao Yi-feng’s 高翊峰 novel 2069.

I presented my work on spatiality, magic, and metafiction in 吳明益 Wu Mingyi’s 《天橋上的魔術師》 The Magician on the Skywalk (from my book Sensing the Sinophone and also from my article “Take the Elevator to Tomorrow” Prism (2022) 19 (1): 86–101.


Gwennaël Gaffric scholar, editor, and translator of Sinophone fiction – including Chi Ta-wei’s 膜 Membrane in 2015.

Corrado Neri – a passionate Sinophone film scholar and more than average cinephile.

Kao Yi-feng 高翊峰 – an author of speculative fiction, whose latest novel 2069 I’m reading with great delight.

Wafa Ghermani who knows everything about Taiwanese films.

Norbert Danysz who is writing a dissertation on contemporary Taiwanese comics – awesome!

Coraline Jortay – a brilliant scholar and practitioner of literary translation – and my guide to Oxford this Michaelmas term.

Marie Laureillard who studies and teaches history of modern art and aesthetics of China and Taiwan.

Michelle Bloom – a Professor of Comparative Literature/French and specialist in Contemporary Sino-French Cinema.

Ho Ching-yao 何敬堯 – a novellist who has just published a spectacular illustrated volume of Taiwanese supernatural beings.


« Taïwan, île-fantôme et île de fantômes »
Gwennaël Gaffric (Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3) et Corrado Neri (Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3)

Masterclass de l’écrivain Kao Yi-feng 高翊峰
interprétation et modération : Gwennaël Gaffric (Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3)

Projection de The Tag-Along (紅衣小女孩, 2015) de Cheng Wei-hao (程偉豪)
suivie d’une discussion avec Corrado Neri (Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3), Ho Ching-yao 何敬堯 (écrivain) et Kao Yi-feng 高翊峰 (écrivain)

Rencontre avec le producteur Stefano Centini autour du film A Holy Family (神人之家, 2022) d’Elvis Lu (盧盈良)
modération : Wafa Ghermani (Cinémathèque française)

Norbert Danysz (ENS de Lyon), « Les figures spectrales dans les bandes dessinées de Ding Pao-yen »

Coraline Jortay (University of Oxford), « Hanter le langage: spectres et rémanences linguistiques dans l’oeuvre de Li Ang »

Marie Laureillard (Université Lumière Lyon 2), « Les Yaoguai de Taiwan vus par Ho Ching-yao et Chang Chi-ya »

Astrid Møller-Olsen (Lund/Stavanger/Oxford Universities), “Above and Beyond: Topologies of Magic and Metafiction in Wu Mingyi”

Michelle Bloom (University of California), « Les fantômes de Tsai Ming-liang »

Masterclass et lecture de l’écrivain taïwanais Ho Ching-yao 何敬堯
interprétation et modération : Gwennaël Gaffric (Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3)

Projection de God man dog (流浪神狗人, 2007), de Singing Chen 陳芯宜
suivie par une discussion avec la réalisatrice Singing Chen, avec Michelle Bloom (University of California), Wafa Ghermani (Cinémathèque française) et Corrado Neri (Université Lyon 3)

Stories Grow in Hong Kong: 𝑂𝑓 𝐹𝑜𝑟𝑒𝑠𝑡𝑠 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝐻𝑢𝑚𝑎𝑛𝑠 review

My review was first publish in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal on September 1st, 2022.

Monika Gaenssbauer and Nicholas Olczak (editors). Of Forests and Humans: Hong Kong Contemporary Short Fiction. Edition Cathay, vol. 74, Bochum, Projekt Verlag, 2019.

In Of Forests and Humans, Monika Gaenssbauer and Nicholas Olczak present anglophone readers with the narrative experimentation, complex urbanism and literary variety of contemporary fiction from Hong Kong. The volume contains six well-chosen short stories published between 1992 and 2011 and introduces a variety of different literary styles, from Xi Xi’s 西西 surreal fabulations in “Elzéard Bouffier’s Forest” to Chan Lai Kuen’s 陳麗娟 science-fiction-flavoured urban labyrinths in “E6880**(2) from Block 6, building 20, wing E”.

Each short story is followed by a close reading by the editor-translators, which provides cultural and historical context, suggestions for relevant theoretical approaches, as well as their reading of the piece. This is meant as a pathway into the text rather than a definitive interpretation, for, as the editors rightly acknowledge, the “strength of many of the stories in this collection [is] that they might draw very different responses and interpretations from different kinds of readers”. For instance, where Gaenssbauer and Olczak were reminded of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s short story “The Tunnel” when reading Wang Pu’s 王璞 “Greek Sandals”, an image from “The Tunnel” in Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams instantly surfaced in my mind when I read the story. It is interesting that the symbolic structure of the tunnel often used to represent the link between conscious wakefulness and subconscious longings and emotions so readily solicits personal and immediate responses in different readers. If Hong Kong literature has a common denominator despite its plurality of forms and voices, it is the willingness to embrace and invite, at times even demand, multiple, contrasting and complicated readings.

As the editors note, Xi Xi’s story is intertextual in setting, writing itself into and through Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees”. It is a story of the cyclical withering and rebirth of a utopian forest, half-hearsay, half-imaginary, and slowly being translated, it forms the memory of the second-person protagonist’s father through the protagonist’s sensory experiences and onto the pages of the story. This situates the story firmly on the boundary between memory and fiction, and reality and imagination, allowing us to read it as a metafictional comment on how such processes become intertwined in literary narratives. The story also has an ecocritical aftertaste when, in the space of a single page, the utopian forest of the father’s recollections comes to life only to dry up again: “Elzéard Bouffier’s forest unfolded like a flower, this green sea of trees changed the area into a paradise where people lived peacefully […] The dried out well also came to life again […]” and a few lines further down, “the last drops of water had dried up, the river turned into a clay-grey canal. You did not know what had happened in the meantime to turn the gardens into a wasteland and make Elzéard Bouffier’s forest completely disappear.” Several utopian intertexts spring to mind, including Tao Yuanming’s 陶淵明 famous fable “Peach Blossom Spring”, which depicts a hidden site where human society has been preserved in its natural and unspoiled state. At the same time, it is also metatextual, describing how the reading experience brings to life the forest of memory that has all but disappeared with time. In the end, when the protagonist arrives at the barren memory of a long-gone forest and finds the last of Bouffier’s acorns, the cycle is ready to start over as the seeds sprout a new story, a new life.

Several of the stories experiment with the popular genre of urban romance, but they do so in completely unexpected ways by delving into darker aspects of city life. This includes depictions of deadly violence in Jessie Chu’s 朱艷紅 “Wonderland”, a story that flirts with the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction without giving in to any of the clichés. Instead, it uses the crime fiction format to explore contrasting yet intermingled experiences of alienation and proximity in a global big city.

“Water pipes on the side of a building on the Ap Lei Chau Estate” by Anne Roberts

Hon Lai-chu’s 韓麗珠 “Water Pipe Forest” is sublime in its depiction of the city-body, using as it does the image of plumbing to form a corporeal link between human interior and urban exterior. At the same time as the building across from the narrator-protagonist’s home is demolished due to faulty plumbing and bursting pipes, her grandmother is admitted to hospital with a gastric ailment establishing a symbolic parallel. On a more explicit note, the narrator identifies directly with her building through the similarity between water pipes and gastric tubes: “On the fourth day without water I still heard no noise in the water pipe. I felt restless, as if part of my body was missing.” Playing with sensory perceptions of watery noises gurgling through buildings and bodies, the story replicates and reverses the relationship between citizen and city in the relationship between reader and text. Just as the sound of water in the pipes recalls and affirms the protagonist own body, so does the watery symphony of the text resound in the body of the reader.

Of Forests and Humans promises to be a great resource for students of literature, Chinese studies, and/or translation studies, yet I can’t help wishing that the editors had opted for a bilingual text. This would have allowed curious anglophone readers to acquaint themselves with traditional characters while enjoying high-quality literature and to explore the paths chosen by the translators as a practical exercise in translation. Despite this omission, the fact that the original title and source of each story is given at the end of each translation is a terrific help that will permit readers to pursue analyses of the original texts or follow up on other works by the authors showcased in this collection. The bibliography at the end of the volume likewise provides a good starting point for readers who want to engage theoretically and historically with Hong Kong literature.

Read together, these stories are examples of innovative approaches to genres such as urban romance, science fiction, crime fiction and showcase the diversity and originality of Hong Kong literature. The editors have wisely included highly celebrated as well as lesser-known authors, ensuring there is something for both veterans and newcomers to explore. Some of the translations feel a little stiff while others offer a smoother read and in a few instances something appears to have gone wrong in the typesetting, baffling the reader with recurring light-grey bits of text.

The title Of Forests and Humans, as well as providing a thematic focus on the jungle-like qualities of urban life, creates an anticipation of narrative engagements with the spatial that are both organic and unconventional, an expectation the stories each fulfil in their individual way. Here, skyscrapers rise like huge tree trunks above the humans navigating the dynamic and metamorphous cityscape. People look at one another’s faces and see overlapping images of intimate strangers and alienated kinfolk. Readers get lost in unfamiliar storylines, only to glimpse their own memories at every fictional street corner. There is certainly enough to discover and celebrate in contemporary Hong Kong literature and now a little more of it is available in English.

How to cite: Møller-Olsen, Astrid. “Stories Grow in Hong Kong: A Review of Of Forests and Humans.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 01 Sept. 2022,

Bogreception: Sensing the Sinophone

Jeg holder en lille uformel bogreception for min nye bog Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction. Det bliver fredag d. 7. oktober mellem 16.30 og 18 i Storrs herlige antikvariat. Man behøver ikke komme til tiden.

Der vil være mulighed for at høre om bogen, bladre i bogen og snakke om bogen, men ikke købe bogen. Til gengæld vil der være gratis eks. af min afhandling om samme emne. Der vil også være lidt øl. Og hygge. Og tusindvis af andre bøger.

Storrs Antikvariat Frederikssundsvej 61, 2400 København NV (dejlige nordvest)

Fredag d. 7. oktober kl.16.30-18

(efterfulgt af fyraften i anti til kl.20)


“With a lineup of works drawn from contemporary Chinese and Sinophone communities, Astrid Møller-Olsen pays special attention to the articulations of senses in the texts under discussion, from audio-visual contact to melodious association, tactile sensation, aromatic emanation, and kinetic exercise, culminating in mnemonic imagination and gendered fabulation. The result is a work on urban synesthesia, a kaleidoscopic projection of sensorium in a narrative form. Her analyses of works by writers such as Chu Tien-hsin and Wu Ming-yi are particularly compelling. Sensing the Sinophone has introduced a new direction for literary studies and is sure to be an invaluable source for anyone interested in narratology, urban studies, environmental studies, affect studies, and above all comparative literature in both Sinophone and global contexts.” —David Der-wei Wang, Harvard University

“Evoking the language and logic of poetry, Sensing the Sinophone is a brilliant literary urban ecology that conjures cities, like texts, as open, dynamic, sensing, vital, enduring entities. How, Astrid Møller-Olsen asks, do characters experience sensory memories in six novels of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei, activated by architectural, botanical, and bodily presences in the city? With theoretical insights ranging from quantum mechanics to Confucian cosmology, this phenomenological elucidation of fictionalized cities as somaticized organisms with physiological functions is a remarkable intervention.” —Robin Visser, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“This is a nuanced, original study of literary representations of memory in relation to time, space, and sensory experiences in three contemporary global cities: Shanghai, Taipei, and Hong Kong. Not only does it break new ground in several fields (Chinese studies, comparative literature, urban studies), but it also makes a powerful case for the lasting human value of literature.” —Michelle Yeh, UC Davis

Fragments of Hong Kong in Napoli

This summer, I travelled to Napoli for one of the most enjoyable scholarly gatherings I’ve attended in a long time – a two-day symposium on Genealogies of Literary Form in Contemporary China beautifully organised by Marco Fumian.

I had a lot of amazing (vegetarian!) food plus inspiring (and entertaining) conversations on top of which I got to present my paper “Fragments of Hong Kong: Collage, Archive, Dictionary,” in which I trace a tendency towards fragmented formats in contemporary literary works from Hong Kong and relate it to ongoing identity politics in the city. Through narrative analyses of Sai Sai’s 西西 My City 我城 (1975), Dung, Kai-cheung’s 董啟章 Atlas 地圖集 (1997), and A Dictionary of Two Cities I–-II 雙城 辭典I-II (2012) by Hon Lai Chu 韓麗珠 & Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹, I arrive at a typology of fragmented formats that includes the collage, the archive, and the dictionary, and which represent different but related strategies for literary experimentation with polyphonic, anti-essentialist approaches to Hong Kong identities.

The Napoli All Stars:

  • Paola Iovene (University of Chicago), “Reading Beyond Books: Airing Lu Yao”
  • Marco Fumian (Oriental University, Naples), “Methods of Distancing and the Limits of Realism in Contemporary China”
  • Nicoletta Pesaro (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice), “From the Avantgarde to the Unnatural Narrative: Can Xue’s Fictional World and its Political Meaning”
  • Wendy Larson (University of Oregon), “Not Italian Opera: Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death and the Scourge of Western Literary Models”
  • Paolo Magagnin (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice), “Chinese Stories for Global Young Readers: a Look at the Cao Wenxuan Phenomenon”
  • Pamela Hunt (University of Oxford), “A Wider and Stranger Space”: Xue Yiwei’s World-Shaped Literature”
  • Astrid Møller-Olsen (Lund University and University of Stavanger), “Fragments of Hong Kong: Collage, Archive, Dictionary”
  • Jiwei Xiao (Fairfield University), “The Talk of the Town: Chitchats in Xijie xiaoshuo and Cinema”
  • Lena Henningsen (University of Freiburg) “Transformations of a Literary Giant: The Re-Writing of Lu Xun and his Works in Chinese Lianhuanhua Comics”
  • Daria Berg (University of St. Gallen), “Genealogy of Utopia and anti-Utopia in Chinese literature”
  • Martina Codeluppi (University of Insubria, Como), “What about Climate Change? The Underdeveloped Branch of Chinese Cli-Fi”
  • Mingwei Song (Wellesley College), “New Wonders of a Nonbinary Universe: Genders of Chinese Science Fiction”

Political Botany — ACLA 2022

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

Chronotopia: Urban Space and Time in 21st-Century Sinophone Film and Fiction

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.

My intro is available OA: and the whole grand spacetime shebang goes like this:

(Introduction) Chronotopia: Urban Space and Time in Twenty-First-Century Sinophone Film and Fiction by Astrid Møller-Olsen

Multiple Time-Spaces: Dialogical Representation of the Global City in Chinese New Urban and Rural-Migrant Films by Jie Lu

Ghostly Chronotopes: Spectral Cityscapes in Post-2000 Chinese Literature by Winnie L. M. Yee

Spatiotemporal Explorations: Narrating Social Inequalities in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction by Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker

Reconfiguring the Chronotope: Spatiotemporal Representations and Cultural Imaginations of Beijing in Mr. Six by Xuesong Shao and Sheldon Lu

Take the Elevator to Tomorrow: Mobile Space and Lingering Time in Contemporary Urban Fiction by Astrid Møller-Olsen

Space Oceans: SFRA 2022

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).

Looking forward to following the incredibly rich programme of Futures from the Margins including Multispecies Futures, Afrofuturisms, Queer Futures and more!

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. 

Artwork by @ArghaManna

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.