Ecologizing Taiwan: Cities, Sounds and Supersensitivity

On October 13th, the Taiwan Studies Workshop ‘Ecologizing Taiwan: Nature, Society, Culture’ organised by Michelle Yeh and David Der-wei Wang took place at University of California, Davis. Inspired by Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies, the workshop sought to “extend the definition of ecology to encompass social relations and human subjectivity, as well as environmental concerns”.

Ten scholars from across the US and one from faraway Sweden (basking in the Californian sun and finding it a bit hard to focus on academic pursuits) presented their work on aspects of contemporary Taiwanese culture and history in relation to various interpretations of ecology.

I was happy to note that several presenters engaged with sensory aspects of film and fiction, something I myself find particularly interesting:

Ling Zhang from SUNY-Purchase shared her research on aural strategies in Chen Yingzhen’s novellas, including narrative voice, ambient sounds and collective singing.

Pao-Chen Tang from University of Chicago presented an analysis of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film The Assassin from 2015, which focused partly on the animal qualities strived for in martial arts practice and partly on the autistic features of the film’s protagonist and how they enhance her professional prowess. However, it also touched on supersensitivity as a motif in hit man films as well as a stereotype in the representation of people with autism.

Under the title ‘Urban Ecologies: The Flora and Fauna of Fictional Taipei’, I presented my work on the role of plants as markers of place and ethnicity in Chu Tien-hsin’s 朱天心 ‘The old Capital’ 古都 together with the interspecies communities described in Wu Ming-yi’s 吳明益 short stories about Taipei.

My aim was to add an urban dimension to the flourishing discussion about ecoriticism in Taiwanese literature and to argue that the city presents not only a possible but an essential site for human engagement with the so-called ‘natural environment’. Furthermore, I think fictional narratives offer new and less discipline specific ways of engaging with human beings and their curious ant heap cities as part of, rather than anti-thesis to, nature and nature writing (自然写作).

All photos taken by me in Taipei, April 2017.

Intimate Stories from Taiwan

Review of “Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers: An Anthology”, edited by Jonathan Stalling, Lin Tai-man and Yanwing Leung.

In his foreword to this anthology, Jonathan Stalling eloquently describes how “Taiwan literature, like its complex writing systems, exists as a palimpsest of the cultural contact points, overlapping languages, peoples, and histories that have paved the way for one of the most vibrant literary scenes in the Sinosphere and the world beyond.” The aptness of this delightful description is borne out by what follows, namely 11 diverse, yet eminently readable, short stories and essays written between 1976 and 2013.

If any single thing connects all these stories, it is intimacy. Each of these very different narratives (some are simple and anecdotal, others elaborately literary and still others read like personal reminiscences or diary entries) circles around human relationships. The array of intimate relationships include the emancipation of a meek young woman from her egocentric husband; the invention of a much longed for imaginary son by a single woman tired of playing the field; the extremely brief but life-changing mentor-student liaison between a successful fake socialite and an up-coming rich-husband hunter, as well as the parasitic mother daughter bond presented in sensuous and colorful prose—almost like a revolting yet fascinating surrealist painting.

These stories also possess a kind of sensuality, which begets a different type of intimacy—between reader and text this time—that is deeply satisfying and engaging: interior and private smellscapes in “A Place of One’s Own” share the protagonist’s sensation of how “body odor from Liang-ch’i floated up toward her, the faint smell of cigarette smoke and perspiration. She had never had a male in this room before.”

In “Taipei Train Station”, the mind’s eye of the reader is called upon visualize the public and exterior space of a city where “buses dashed over streets, their metallic sides aglow in the light. The shine and swish they left in their wake enveloped the city as if with fish scales that flashed with every move.”

These stories describe Taiwanese society from 1980s to 2010s (with the notable exception of the final story “The Fish”, which—dating from 1976 and dealing with the Cultural Revolution in mainland China—hangs on like an out of place appendix) and thus also touch on the tremendous changes in economy, politics and lifestyle that took place during those years.

A literary showcase of life in such transitional times is displayed by the generational conflict at the heart of Chung Wenyin’s “The Travels and Lover of a Junior High Girl”. Here, the protagonist’s mother, who was born in poverty and has finally risen to a life of wealth and luxury, refuses let go of her Gucci purse to go swim with her children. Her daughter, on the other hand, who has grown up in relative affluence and financial security, longs for untraditional love affairs and a simple life closer to nature: “I truly wished that my mother would come and see the fates of other women — take off her expensive shoes, tread barefoot on the earth, and feel the chill or heat.”

The cultural and linguistic amalgamation, which Stalling describes as characteristic of Taiwan literature, is exemplified in several of the stories: in “The Story of Hsiao-Pi” the Taiwanese Mrs Pi struggles to speak Mandarin with her Guomindang husband; in “Seed of the Rape Plant” the protagonist’s Japanese housewife schooling proves redundant in modern-day Taiwan; and the narrator in “The Party Girl” comes to realize that a knowledge of foreign languages is essential in order to crash and successfully shine at fashionable gatherings.

But why a separatist anthology of only female authors? Dr Olga Castro wrote last year in in The Conversation that “in an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s.”

Our world, however, especially when it comes to translated works, is far from ideal. According to Castro (who cites the VIDA Count of women in the literary arts), “generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies…”

This anthology therefore does its bit to redress the balance. And from a Sinophone perspective, it bears witness to the remarkably rich literary scene in Taiwan as well as to the fact that a not insignificant number of the island’s best authors happen to be female.

Fortunately, these stories have more in common than the fact that they are written by Taiwanese women. They are short and delicious samples of human curiosity, humor, suffering, politics and love. They are very well translated and well mixed as if for a literary buffet. The editors have thoughtfully provided bibliographical information on each story’s original publication so that the hungry reader can easily sample more of new discovered favorites.

First published for asianreviewofbooks.com

Xiaoshuo.blog

erwai tushuguan (2)For some time, it has been dawning on me that what I am really interested in is not so much what is written in and about China (as the old name of this blog writingchina would seem to suggest), but rather all sorts of narrative fiction written in the Chinese script(s). (I dare say the intelligent reader will have noticed this long before I did).

Taiwanese nature writing, postcolonial Hong Kong concept lit, Sinophone fantasies from European backwaters, Southeast Asian urban fables, Shanghai quotidian novels, borderless online scribleries in simplified character slang: I want to investigate and celebrate all of it!

IMG_2441The term xiaoshuo 小说 – which today means any kind of narrative fiction writing, from novels (long fiction 长篇小说) to novellas (medium fiction 中篇小说), short stories (short fiction 短篇小说) and flash fiction (tiny fiction 小小说) – has a long and complicated history in Chinese culture. The essentially diminutive term xiaoshuo (literally small talk), used traditionally to refer (somewhat derogatorily) to “minor philosophical discourse or a type of unofficial, inferior history” (Lu: 39), with strong negative connotations of rumour and gossip rather than of pure fabrication and artful creation as in the latin fictio.

Several scholars (see below) have written fascinating accounts of how the xiaoshuo genre (as well as the attitudes toward it) developed from Confucian warnings against its deceitful nature and the notoriety (and popularity) of the strange and supernatural zhiguai tales to the canonised masterpieces of Ming/Qing serial fiction and today’s cyber romances.

So – in an effort to make it simple and do what it says on the tin – welcome to the new cleaned up & ad free (I hope!) version of my blog on fiction in Chinese: xiaoshuo.blog

 

Lu, Sheldon Hsiao-peng (1994): From Historicity to Fictionality – The Chinese Poetics of Narrative.

Zeitlin, Judith (2006): ‘Xiaoshuo’ in Moretti, Franco (ed.): The Novel: History, geography, and culture.

Is the Author back from the Dead?

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Heidi Yu Huang’s lecture ‘Worlding Hong Kong Literature: Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas’ at the University of Gothenburg’s Bernhard Karlgren seminar series.

One of the interesting side issues that cropped up during question time was the relevance of biographical information in academic literary analysis. Dr. Huang confessed herself fascinated by Dung Kai-cheung’s private life as well as his creative work, and was able to point to many direct influences (Dung wrote his dissertation on Italo Calvino, a fact that will surprise no one familiar with his work) and amusing anecdotes (Dung’s fictional universe is highly geographical and apparently certain sites in his works correspond to places where important events in his own life took place).

File:Roland Barthes Liburutegiko plaka Ahurtin.jpgIf, like me, you have received an education heavily influenced by the structuralist dictum “the author is dead,” you will find yourself shrinking from engaging with any kind of biographical reading. However, in the case of Dung Kai-cheung (and perhaps many postmodern writers), his writing self-consciously portrays literature of any kind as an invented reality that mirrors not the ultimate reality but a conglomerate of personal realities.

Even academic readings always take place from a personal perspective (albeit, hopefully a rigorous and well-informed one), so does writing for that matter, as well as any kind of communication, which is, I think, partly what Dung’s stories make so clear; reality is always already mediated.

So in the spirit of Dung’s pseudo-academic literary style, where do we draw the line between fiction and life? I’m still to brainwashed to do biographical readings, but I’ve stopped discouraging my students from doing so (with the added factor that biographical criticism is much stronger in the Chinese academic tradition).

File:Reading-jester-q75-760x753.jpgAs long as what we are seeking from the author’s life is not a fact sheet (any search for intentionality still seems both impractical and pointless to me), but rather just another perspective, which, along with socio-historical context, literary theory and previous scholarship might help make our independent analysis more interesting, it might not be such a bad thing to include.

As Paris-Sorbonne professor of English literature, Frédéric Regard puts it in a humorous but rather apt essay on this conflict between inclination and indoctrination: “I therefore find myself in an awkward position: I am in desperate need of a theory capable of reconciling my degenerate tendencies [reading literary biographies] with my enviable filiation [as part of the academic establishment]. At the same time, I find myself unable to support nostalgic attempts at reintroducing the ideal of a fixed, ‘authorised’ meaning: the recovery of the author’s ‘intention’ as the unique source of the text is not on my agenda.”

 

Barthes, Roland (1977): ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image—Music—Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Dung, Kai-cheung 董啟章 (2014/1997): Dituji 地圖集. Taipei: Linking Press.

Dung, Kai-cheung (2011): Atlas: The archaeology of an Imaginary City. (Translated by Dung Kai-Cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall). New York: Columbia University Press.

Regard, Frédéric (2000): ‘The Ethics of Biographical Reading: A Pragmatic Approach.’ The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume XXIX, Issue 4, 1.

 

More than Words: Translation Chinese – Danish

20170226_155646Some literary works excite us because their linguistic fabric is so rich; each sentence describes not only an event or an action, but a way of thinking through language and narrative, a way of looking at, living in and representing the world, full of cultural residue, philosophical implications, personal memories and associative capacity.

20170416_144219How can we as (would be) literary translators encompass both syntactic melody, narrative pace, semantic connotations, metaphoric content and intertextual aspects of our source texts while rendering them at all readable in our target language? Last week, I attended a workshop organised by Rakel Haslund-Gjerrild and Mai Corlin Bagger-Petersen at University of Copenhagen, featuring experienced and new translators of Chinese fiction into Danish, which addressed these daunting questions.

Professor emeritus of Chinese language and literature, Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg used Franco Moretti’s allegory of translation as waves that bring new life to the shores of national literatures, while the renowned Danish translator of James Joyce and Herta Müller, Karsten Sand Iversen stressed the importance of integration rather than  assimilation as a method for translation. This strategy includes avoiding what Iversen referred to as ‘normalisation’; the act of trivialising inventive and even weird literary language, in order to satisfy editors and the perceived cultural laziness of prospective audiences.

20170305_162352Danish translator of Haruki Murakami’s works, Mette Holm described the collaborative efforts of translators around the world to deal with the complexity as well as the specificity of fictional narrative: On the one hand, translators must understand and retain the literary ambiguity of Murakami’s texts, his fantastic elements, his literary subconscious, while on the other, they struggle to incorporate his use of highly specific brand names, sometimes unknown or unnamed in the target language.

20170302_172518Most translators from Chinese, including Susanne Posborg and Sidse Laugesen, agreed that the issue of dialects, idioms and jargon represented a huge hurdle in terms of translation. One cannot simply interpolate Danish dialects for Chinese, as the whole fictional geography clearly does not conform to the cultural sphere known as Denmark. Conversely, more subtle differentiations might go unnoticed by the casual reader.

20170503_144334Despite all the difficulties and challenges to good translation practice raised by the speakers (a commercial book market with, according to Klim publishers‘ representative, an active readership of only about half a million was another factor that was mentioned), the all-day workshop was very well attended by old hands and young students alike, a fact that seems to raise hope for the future of literary translation from Chinese in Denmark.

High Kicks All the Way: Review of Jin Yong’s A Hero Born

Thirteenth-century China is a time of mayhem, when wandering heroes and martial masters must choose their side in a conflict between the Jurchen Jin invaders from the North and the dispersed and submissive remains of the Song dynasty.

The protagonist of A Hero Born, Guo Jing, is stirring in his mother’s womb when, during a snowstorm, a Daoist called Qiu Chuji arrives at the village of his father Skyfury Guo. During his brief visit, this martial monk manages to name and bless the Guo offspring in utero, thus acting as the catalyst for the legend about to begin, while killing off the entire Jin search party chasing him:

“Before he had landed on the horse’s back, he had already slices his sword straight through the officer’s back to the base of his spine. Qiu Chuji threw the body from the horse, grabbed hold of the reins, and started to chase the others, his blade dancing silver against the grey-white of the storm.”

After the monk leaves, another military search party arrives, the families of Guo and his sworn brother Yang are scattered, the men presumed dead, and the pregnant women flee into the frozen night. This snowy scene, with its hints of legends to come and its effortless and terse account of breathtaking bravery and consummate violence is typical of the entire novel, which chronicles the birth and early boyhood of Guo Jing, the son of Skyfury Guo, as he grows up, exiled with his mother to Mongolia.

Decorative screen, Jin Yong Gallery, Hong Kong Heritage Museum (photo: Wpcpey)

In these post-postmodern times where nothing is simple and even the superheroes of our childhood struggle with emotional traumas (Spiderman—and indeed any man—has the right to a god cry now and then), it is refreshing to meet literary characters that are so completely and uncomplicatedly heroic. This does not mean that there is no romance: A Hero Born contains several examples of pacts made in love and death as well as martial couples such as Zhang Asheng and Jade Han of the Seven Freaks of the South, or Copper and Iron Corpse—also known as Hurricane Chen and Cyclone Mei—the two evil masters of necromantic Nine Yin Skeleton Claw kung fu:

“‘My dear harpy, are you alright?’ Hurricane Chen called over. ‘They blinded me!’ Cyclone Mei growled back from where she was slumped against a tree. ‘Bastard husband of mine, if you even let one of these scoundrels go, I will kill you myself.’”

What could be more romantic than that?

While Jin Yong (pen name of Louis Cha) remains one of the best-selling authors on the Chinese language market, he has yet to reach the same fame in an anglophone context, despite the translation into English of several of his works (The Book and the Sword, The Deer and the Cauldron, Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain). There are instances, however, where parts of Jin Yong’s fictional universe have already entered global popular culture. One such example is the technique of qinggong or lightness kung fu:

“Sabre, spear, ship and axe; Guo Jing’s eyes darted between them. His only weapon was his lightness kung fu as he danced between the blades.”

Through the medium of Hong Kong martial art films, for which Jin Yong and other wuxia (martial heroes) writers were a major source of inspiration, the concept of qinggong has entered the global visual arts sphere, and has most recently appeared in the Hollywood production of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where Legolas the elf uses it to jump between falling rocks. The Hero Born has in turn been compared to Tolkien’s novels, and while there are of course no direct inspiration either way, brilliant and much-loved works like these can be said to engage in a kind of post-publication dialogue through their readers and their reception in global popular culture.

Illustration from The Water Margin

Jin Yong situates his epic in a context of classic Chinese vernacular fiction, referring to his protagonist Guo Jing as “a descendant of Prosperity Guo, one of the heroes of the Marshes of Mount Liang,” thus designating his own novel a literary descendant of the Ming dynasty novel The Water Margin (shuihuzhuan), one of the four great literary masterpieces (sidamingzhu ).

Despite the simple plot and the inconsistency of some of the characters, this read fascinates and delights the reader with the complexity and variety of martial techniques as well as the piled on awesomeness of weird and amazingly accomplished shifus (masters), each with their own strange and almost unbeatable style of kung fu.

Holmwood has elected to use transliteration and translation of many wuxia terms interchangeably: “Woodcutter Nan was more practised in neigong inner strength, however, and Jade Han looked as if she still had some energy.” This is a thoroughly good thing as some readers will be already familiar with Jin Yong’s universe and those who aren’t will be only too keen to immerse themselves in the land of knight errant fantasy and learn the local lingo.

This smooth and highly readable translation of a wuxia classic is a cornucopia of Chinese martial arts and Mongolian equestrian archery that will satisfy and charm the nerd as well as the newbie.

Jin Yong (2018): A Hero Born. Translated by Anna Holmwood. MacLehose Press.

(This review was first published on Asian Review of Books)

A Rainy Day in Shanghai

During spring 2017, I spent three wonderful months in Shanghai on a research exchange with Fudan University, which consisted mainly of buying a load of books, reading and meeting people and, last but not least, of walking around the city, absorbing all sensory input to my heart’s content.

As literary researchers, we are in grave danger of becoming armchair Sinologists because our entire field of study is brought to us through text: We can access it anytime from anywhere. So once in a while it’s worth the effort to get out there and experience first hand the smell of steaming baozi, the call of street peddlers among honking cars, the vista of the Huangpujiang and the feel of heavy spring rain that we otherwise only read about.

As you can see from this short film, Shanghai’s cityscape is an endearing mix of new and old, Chinese and European, marked by ubiquitous construction sites as well as the more benign Chinese parasol trees (wutongshu 梧桐树). While aggressive urbanisation is rapidly changing, and to some extend deforming, the city every day, examples of old lilong (里弄) lanes and unique Shanghai style architecture still remain to rejoice in.

Without falling into the trap of Shanghai nostalgia, which tend to idealise 1930s Shanghai as a utopian metropolis characterised by the effortless blending of East and West (in reality, the few percent of the population who were Europeans and Americans lived isolated in their own enclaves, while the considerable number of people from other Asian countries, who called Shanghai their home, are largely ignored in this nostalgic narrative), I still attest that the material cityscape of Shanghai itself can be viewed as an utterly enjoyable living display of historical and contemporary cultural diversity, conflict and curiosity.