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.

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