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
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 toshare 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
“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
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”
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’).