Posthuman Fabulations

Yesterday, we had an amazing first workshop of posthuman fabulations at Duke University organised by Carlos Rojas and Mingwei Song, including our panel on flora and fauna (and fungi!):

Posthuman Fabulations

Zhange Ni shared her entangled reading of The Little Mushroom (Xiao Mogu 小蘑菇) by Yishisizhou 一十四洲, a danmei (耽美) male-male romance in which humanity is fencing itself in against infection from the non-human Other in the form of mushrooms that can shapeshift to look like humans. In this novel, humanity’s only chance of survival is to unite into a single being becoming the kind of collective lifeform that fungi represent, yet without the vital cross-species interaction that characterises fungal symbiosis with trees and other plants via mycorrhiza. Hearing prof Ni’s talk, I cannot help but wonder: if humans must adapt to a more fungal way of life and mushrooms can successfully impersonate humans, wherein lies the essential difference that the people of the novel are so eager to safeguard?

Corey Byrnes outlined Zhou Zuoren’s interesting progression from pre-evolutionary beasts (兽 shou) over animals (动物 dongwu) and on to humans (人 ren). I find this positioning of beasts as a human Other outside a shared evolutionary history interesting because they become a kind of organic antipode to the AI of contemporary SF. Beasts and AI both function as literary anti-images to the humanism of humans. Where AI are essentially electronic reproductions of the human brain, and beats represent the physical drives and desires beyond the mind’s control, both lack the moral imperative of the human species. Yet as much SF and speculative fiction explore, the beasts and the AI are all too often more human (and more humane) than the human.

I talked about human-plant chimeras in works by Chi Hui 迟卉, Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹, and Yan Ge 颜歌, and how their duality of being challenge the centrality of the human body and brain in defining (intelligent) life, the taxonomic boundaries of single species, and the notion of individuality. In my essay written for the workshop, I begin by analysing Chi Hui’s迟卉 short story “The Rainforest” (雨林), in which classical antagonisms of plant horror are given a sharp twist when the human protagonist is able to merge with the botanical Other with the aid of nanotechnology. Secondly, I consider the appearance of bitter gourds on the pale skin of several curiously immobile and silent girls found on a building site in Dorothy Tse’s 謝曉虹 “Bitter Gourds” (苦瓜), and how they spread through the narrative as bodily manifestation of the repressed memories, sexualities, and political protests. Finally, I look at the commodification of gendered tree-people in Yan Ge’s 颜歌 “Flourishing Beasts” (荣华兽) as chimeras that fundamentally challenge the logic of anthropocentric classifications, highlight the posthuman question of what really constitutes a species, and presents taxonomic gatekeeping as a form of ontological violence.

Panel 1-Flora & Fauna

11:00 AM—12:30 PM (EDT)

Astrid Moller-Olsen, “Growing Together: Plant-human Chimeras in Contemporary Fiction”

Zhange Ni, “The Mushroom beyond the End of the World: Posthumanism and the Sci-fi Romance The Little Mushroom”

Corey Byrnes, “The Limits of Posthumanism and the Sempiternal Animal”

(Chair and Discussant, Carlos Rojas

Panel 2-Humanism & Posthumanism

2:00-3:30 PM (EDT)

Carlos Rojas, “Dung Kai-Cheung’s Beloved Wife and Fungible Consciousness”

Nathaniel Isaacson, “Symbiosis and Synesthesia in the Fiction of Chi Ta-wei”

Hua Li, “Affirmation of Humanism amidst Posthuman Episodes in Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide and Balin”

(Chair and Discussant, Mingwei Song)

Gender and Speculative Fiction in Chinese

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Last week I was joined by my wonderful and knowledgeable fellow literary scholars Dr. Coraline Jortay, Prof. Hua Li, and Dr. Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker for the amazing panel “Writing Women in the Future Tense” at the 12th International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS 12) in online Kyoto 24-27 August 2021.

Discussions and collective ramblings touched upon the difference between dolls and robots as literary figures, the gendered temporalities of futurism, the fruitful (vegetal) convergences between feminism and posthumanism, and whether the doll house of gendered expectations still persists even “after Nora leaves home.”

Background

In recent years, Chinese and Sinophone science fiction has gained new popularity, not only among devoted readers, but within the scholarly community as well. As part of the emerging field of ‘global science fiction studies,’ such research contributes to a diversification of literary scholarship by including hitherto neglected cultural and linguistic areas. This panel grows out of these postcolonial endeavours and adds a gender dimension to the ongoing academic discussion of how works of speculative and science fiction envision global futures and challenge present ideas. 

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By analysing and comparing narrative negotiations of what it means to be a woman, a plant, or something in-between, the presentations in this panel examine the variety and complexity of futurist visions in Chinese language fiction. Far from being concerned solely with technology and space travel, contemporary science fiction is a multifaceted genre that is equally taken up with questions of human societies and identities. By virtue of a shared focus on gender, this panel introduces the original and wildly imaginative ways in which contemporary authors contest, reinforce, or hybridise conventional concepts of gender.

From contemporary feminist reinterpretations of Lu Xun’s and Henrik Ibsen’s “doll houses” to the alienated female workers of the future in Han Song’s 2012 novel Gaotie, from Chi Hui’s feminist utopia to plant-woman hybrids and environmental criticism, this panel investigates the manifold ways in which literature crafts and questions gendered landscapes for a global future.

Lineup

Roots to the Future: Gender and Plant-human Hybrids in Contemporary Fiction. Astrid Møller-Olsen – Lund University.

Dwindling Doll’s Houses: Surreal Gendered Futures in Contemporary Fiction from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Coraline Jortay – University of Oxford.

Gender Issues in Han Song’s Novel Gaotie (The High-speed Railway). Hua Li – Montana State University.

Emancipatory Futures: Transgressing Gender Boundaries in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction. Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker – Heidelberg University.

Sensing the Sinophone

My first monograph is underway! Haha! It will be published as part of Cambria Press’ wonderful Sinophone Worlds series of which I already have many amazing titles on my bookshelf including Wilt L. Idema’s Insects in Chinese Literature, Chia-rong Wu’s Supernatural Sinophone Taiwan and Beyond, and Isaac Yue’s Monstrosity and Chinese Cultural Identity.

Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction combines narratological tools for studying time in fiction with critical concepts of spatiality in order to establish an analytical focus on narrative voice and reliability (including the inaccuracy of memory), structural non-linearity (such as mental time travel), and the construction of fictional parallel cities as loci for plot development. In this study, the conventional sensorium and its role in recollection is explored and amplified to include whole-body sensations, habitual synesthesia, and the emotional aspects of sensations that produce a sense of place or self.

By analyzing narratives that make use of and encourage multisensory, spatiotemporal understandings of reality characterized by permeable boundaries between material, social and imaginary domains, this monograph shows how contemporary cities change the way human beings think and write about reality.

Blurbs

Some very kind reviews have already been posted on Cambria’s page:

“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

More about the book

Since the 1990s, extensive urbanization in East Asia has created a situation in which more people identify themselves as citizens of the city where they live, rather than their ancestral village or nation. At the same time, this new urban identity has been under constant threat from massive municipal restructuring. Such rapidly changing cityscapes form environments of urban flux that lead to narrative reconfigurations of fundamental concepts such as space, time, and memory. The resulting contemporary urban fiction describes and explores this process of complex spatial identification and temporal fluctuation through narratives that are as warped and polymorphic as the cities themselves.

Building on previous scholarship in the fields of Chinese/Sinophone urban fiction, sensory studies, and comparative world literature, Sensing the Sinophone provides a new city-based approach to comparativism combined with a cross-disciplinary focus on textual sensescapes.

Through an original framework of literary sensory studies, this monograph provides a comparative analysis of how six contemporary works of Sinophone fiction reimagine the links between the self and the city, the past and the present, as well as the physical and the imaginary. It explores the connection between elusive memories and material cityscapes through the matrix of the senses. Joining recent efforts to imagine world literature beyond the international, Sensing the Sinophone engages in a triangular comparison of fiction from Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei—three Sinophone cities, each with its own strong urban identity thatc comes with unique cultural and linguistic hybridities.

Sensing the Sinophone is an important addition to several ongoing discussions within the fields of comparative literature, urban studies, memory studies, geocriticism, sensory studies, Sinophone studies, and Chinese studies.

TOC

Part I. Skeleton

Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City

Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works

Part II. Corpus

Chapter 3. Sense of Place: Walking or Mapping the City

Chapter 4. The Nose: Flora Nostalgia

Chapter 5. The Ear: Melody of Language

Chapter 6. Sense of Self: The Many Skins of the City

Chapter 7. The Mouth: Balancing Flavors

Chapter 8. The Eye: Fictional Dreams

Part III. Excretions

Chapter 9. Sense of Time: Everyday Rhythms

The City Remembers: Concluding Remarks

Bibliography

Index

Monster Plants in Sinophone Fiction

First published via The Monster Network blog 24 June 2021.

A monster plant is a sinister thing, it thwarts knowledge and reverses the rules – you don’t eat it, it eats you; despite its roots, it moves about. A monster plant is monstrous because it behaves like a human; in it, we see the worst sides of ourselves: our greed, lust, violence. Or so it used to be…

But in our age of human-made climate change and environmental unpredictability, the so-called Anthropocene, plants have morphed from the radical (pun intended) ‘Other’ who can destroy us, to the one who might save us. Significant botanical others are not confined to the pages of Nature writing – vegetal characters are not only a subject for science fiction but walk abroad in a variety of literary contexts.

What can we learn from these unruly creatures? Can being curios about what it means to be a plant help us understand what being human might come to mean in the future? (Already there is an imbalance in this question – estimates calculate that this planet is home to nearly 400.000 plant species – clearly, being a plant is a lot of things).

Can thinking and writing with the green ink of botanical organisms help us reimagine the individual in an entangled world where no one is an island, where every body crawling on the ripples of the planet is itself a landscape for other, smaller beings? What can plants tell us about the ways in which we know –the shape and the form of knowledge? Might writing in green ink change the meaning of that writing all together?

In my project “Green Ink,” I am inspired by the monster as a figure that devours the organised realm of definable concepts and boundaries and excretes a fragmented, yet strangely interlinked, world view. I combine theories of the monstrous with critical plants studies’ insistence on the vegetal perspective in an impossible, but productive, attempt to bypass the patterns of prejudice inherent in the human mind.

I examine human-vegetal interactions and interrelationships, dissect plant-like humans and humanoid plants, as well as explore the completely new fictional species that populate contemporary Sinophone writing. Such monsters are rooted in both local and global traditions, they participate in a variety of discourses from genre fiction to ecocriticism, and they disrupt and outgrow every tradition, discourse, and genre they inhabit.

In the study of literature, plants have traditionally been categorised as either poetic metaphors or providers of exotic or romantic backdrops for narrative action. Although this strictly aesthetic perspective may have been adequate in the past, the contemporary global changes to the environment  –and the consequent renewed literary interest in botanical and natural structure and modes of being- –demand a more nuanced and theoretically informed approach. Fortunately, such work is emerging from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives such as critical plant studies, monster theory, feminist posthumanism, and science fiction studies.

In 2013, a group of American literary scholars published the pioneering anthology Literary Plant Studies introducing Rodopi’s Critical Plant Studies Series, the aim of which was to “initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue, whereby philosophy and literature would learn from each other to think about, imagine, and describe, vegetal life with critical awareness, conceptual rigor, and ethical sensitivity” (Marder). The volume, edited by Randy Laist, first cast the green light on plant characters and plant narrators in (primarily Anglophone) literature from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park over Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. In 2017, The Language of Plants edited by Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan and Patrícia Vieira further explored “a biocentric form of literary criticism” that would “seriously regard the lives of plants in relation to humankind in terms that would look beyond the purely symbolic or ‘correlative’ dimension of the vegetal” (xii) from an interdisciplinary angle, and in 2020 Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari published their joint monograph Radical Botany, adding a Franco-American perspective to the discussion.

Parallel with these endeavours in botanical literary criticism and philosophy, the study of botanical monsters in horror fiction constitutes another important strand in the project of critical engagement with literary plants. In this growing subfield, researchers find that horror plants naturally tick many of the monstrous boxes described by Jeffrey J. Cohen in his influential text “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” from 1996. Horror plants seek Frankensteinian revenge for the ill we have done their home planet, they portray deviant sexualities, indulging in excessive auto- or multi-partner reproduction, and they inhabit the limits of knowing as their way of perceiving the world will always illude us despite the best efforts of critical plants studies.

Monster plants fracture the logic of human mastery over nature and expose the Anthropocene as an “epistemological crime-scene stained with erasures of plant consciousness” (Bishop 2018, 7). By blending vegetal, human, and animal characteristics, they force us to abandon the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being that situates plants at the bottom of a ladder that rises through various “lesser” animals to human beings at the top (Miller 2012, 466). As a subgenre, plant horror “marks humans’ dread of the ‘wildness’ of vegetal nature – its untameability, its pointless excess, its uncontrollable growth,” and function as an unwelcome memento mori reminding us that “while humans may occasionally become food for predatory animals, we all, whether buried in the ground or scattered on the earth, become sustenance for plants” (Keetley 2016, 1).

Inspired and informed by this corpus of literary plant research, my project looks at vegetal-anthropomorph characters that have come out of the closet of horror as a genre and as a type. Such characters can still usefully be approaches as monsters because, even without the horror, they retain an ability to complicate preconceptions and probe what it means to be human, to be plant, or just to be. Some of my monsters are still vengeful, on behalf of the planet or against the imperialism of taxonomy. Some are benevolent, seeking to reintegrate humankind into the natural world we believe to have abandoned. Some are just beings, going about their business, nurturing plants, and falling in love with humans, or the other way round.

Works cited

Bishop, Katherine E. (2018). “’When ‘tis Night, Death is Green’: Vegetal Time in Nineteenth-Century Econoir.” Green Letters 22, no. 1: 7-19. DOI: 10.1080/14688417.2017.1413990

Cohen, Jeffrey J. (1996). “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gagliano, Monica; John C. Ryan; Patrícia Vieira (2017). “Introduction.” The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Laist, Randy (2013). “Introduction.” Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Marder, Michael (n/d). “Critical Plant Studies.” Brill.comhttps://brill.com/view/serial/CPST. Accessed 9 Aug. 2019.

Meeker, Natania and Antónia Szabari (2020). Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction. New York: Fordham University Press.

Miller, T.S. (2012). “Lives of the Monster Plants: The Revenge of the Vegetable in the Age of Animal Studies.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 23, no.3: 460–479.

Keetley, Dawn (2016). “Introduction: Six Theses on Plant Horror; or, Why Are Plants Horrifying?” Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film, edited by Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

OSEH talk: Plant-human Hybrids

In a world where environmental concerns loom large in the media and classrooms alike, it is not only in apocalyptic or ecocritical fiction that we encounter ecological motifs and botanical characters. This talk examines three literary works, from three different generic traditions, that feature plant-human hybrids: Dorothy Tse’s 謝曉紅 speculative short story “Bitter Gourd” (苦瓜), science fiction writer Chi Hui’s 迟卉 “The Rainforest” (雨林, translated for Renditions by Jie Li), and Yan Ge’s 颜歌 cryptozoological mystery novel A Chronicle of Strange Beasts (异兽志, translated as Strange Beasts of China by Jeremy Tiang).

Time and place: Mar. 10, 2021 CET 12:15 PM–1:00 PM. Register here.

Recent scholarship in critical plant studies have highlighted that attention to botanical characters may help us understand, if not how plants communicate and sense the world, then at least how we imagine they do. Attempting to circumvent anthropocentrism, this radically non-human perspective, produces alternative visions of the planetary future as well as ecologically situated readings of human history. Combining ecocriticism with the figure of the monster (human-like, yet not human), this talk analyses literary plant-human hybrids in contemporary Sinophone fiction.

About the speaker

Astrid Møller-Olsen is postdoctoral research fellow in an international position between Lund University (Sweden), the University of Stavanger (Norway), and the University of Oxford (UK) funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has a background in both comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, urban forms of narrative memory, and sensory approaches to the study of literature. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism.

About the event series

The OSEH Environmental Lunchtime Discussion series consists of short, 15 minute presentations by invited guests, followed by a discussion. We invite speakers from a wide variety of fields, both academic and beyond. The presentations are accessible and are aimed at anyone with an interest in environmental issues. All are welcome.

Transtextual Sci-Fi and Hong Kong Ecotopias

Ficheiro:DLK.jpg – Wikipédia, a enciclopédia livre

Who knew: I’ve met up with more colleagues (online) during a month of self-isolation than I would normally see in a whole semester. Less uniformly productive effects of working from home include choosing to learn 日本語 and tlhIngan Hol at the same time (surprisingly, Japanese seems easier, but I suspect that Klingons are just not among the universe’s most pedagogical creatures) and cooking three times a day (also known as the Covid19 diet).

November has been a month of rainstorms, peSop! and amazing lectures on contemporary Chinese fiction.

As part of the University of Freiburg’s ReadChina lecture series, Lena Henningsen presented her analyses of the many instances of intertextuality in contemporary Chinese science fiction. She suggested that the term transtextuality (which Gérard Genette used as a kind of umbrella term for all textual relationships) might be used to talk about the textual space where text and intertext interact and affect one another just as transculturality focuses on practices across rather than between cultures.

At the University of Zurich’s Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, Winnie L. M. Yee (University of Hong Kong) presented ecotopian visions in contemporary Hong Kong film and fiction. She argued that Hong Kong eco-writing had moved from treating the botanical environment as a signifier for local identity, to investigating Hong Kong identity as an ecology beyond the local.

And next week, Carlos Rojas at Duke University combines these two hottest topics of the season in a workshop on Science Fiction and Ecocriticism with brilliant speakers like Mingwei Song, Robin Visser and Cara Healey:

Chinese Science Fiction Workshop

Plants in Sinophone Fiction

After crossing the North Sea, I am now in Stavanger – a place of windy beauty and clear waters (began my winter bathing project today – got to start early or it’ll be too shockingly cold).

I am here to pursue my project Green Ink: Plants in Sinophone Fiction in my capacity as International Research Fellow in a shared position between Lund University (Sweden), University of Stavanger (Norway), and University of Oxford (UK) funded by the Swedish Research Council.

In this project, I look at 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; colouring their writings, so to speak, with the green ink of literary plants. In a world where environmental concerns loom large in the media and classrooms alike, this project will help us understand how human beings imagine their plant others as monsters, saviours or parts of themselves.

During my time in Stavanger, I will be affiliated with some pretty awesome Norwegian research networks, namely The Greenhouse Environmental Humanities Initiative and the Monster Network. Yass! Read and eat your greens!

Seven Senses of the City

On Tuesday January 21st I defended my doctoral dissertation “Seven Senses of the City: Urban Spacetime and Sensory Memory in Contemporary Sinophone Fiction” at the Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, Sweden.

defenseIn Sweden, the defense is a public event, a critical dialogue between the doctoral candidate (me in this instance) and an external opponent (the wonderful prof. Jie Lu from University of the Pacific).

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.

happy drProf. 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:

20200128_104017[1]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.

 

 

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.

The Last Human Tiger: Review of Fang Qi’s Elegy of a River Shaman

In a fantastic blend of folk song, ecocriticism and historical fiction, the novel Elegy of a River Shaman chronicles four generations of the Tribe of the Tiger and their Tima (shaman) in the Three Gorges (san xia 三峡) region along he Yangzi River. It opens with the clan patriarch Li Diezhu’s decision to build a pioneer settlement in the fertile Lihaku ridge and moves on to relate how macro-historical events, such as the Japanese invasion of 1937 and the civil war between communists and nationalists, affected the lives and traditions of this local community.

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After trailing the fates and misfortunes of the dwindling tribe, the novel ends on a hopeful note, with Diezhu’s ageing widow assuring their great-grandson of the continued survival of his people and their totem animal: “when a tiger turns five hundred years old, its fur turn white. They can live a thousand years” (467).

In terms of genre, this almost 500-page long work is indebted to at least three Chinese literary traditions: root-searching literature (xungen wenxue 寻根文学), nature writing (ziran xiezuo 自然写作) and new historical fiction (lishi xiaoshuo 历史小说).

Firstly, Fang Qi, like the father of root-searching literature, Han Shaogong and Shen Congwen before him (Kinkley 1993), is concerned with the folkloristic remains of ancient Chinese civilization: “The first vestiges of human civilization can be traced to the banks of the Three Gorges” (vi). However, where Shen and Han were fascinated by the cultural and linguistic residue of Chu culture in Hunan, Fang focuses on Hubei, where, according to her narrator, “in ancient times, the mountain chain formed the boundary of the Ba State” (11).

forsideTrue to this literary tradition, delightful folk songs and shamanic chants weave in and out of the narrative, a pattern of poetic myths linking humans and nature through verse: “The wind so crisp, the sun co bright, / Tang of ginger pairs with hot peppers’ bite. / Crisp wind augurs a clear, fine day, / Come back, my love, and take me away” (81). It likewise shares the root-searchers’ tendency for ecological naiveté and sexualized exoticism: “In this desolate primitive wilderness, husband and wife nightly waged fierce sexual battles” (24), running the risk of romanticizing a society where women are primarily seen as baby-making machines: “A girl of eighteen commits suicide: fertile soil, abandoned land” (110) and endangered species are hunted and killed (37).

tiger-nature-zoo-wild-162306Secondly, it offers a kind of literary ecocriticism concerned with the destruction of the natural cohesion between human beings and environment as expressed by clan matriarch Tao Jiuxiang: “Earth swallows man, yet man depends upon the earth for his livelihood. Buried under the ground, man’s death is eternal, yet eating the fruits of the earth men have subsisted for countless centuries” (560). Just as famous writers like Ah Cheng, Jiang Rong and others lamented deforestation and disregard for wildlife (Thornber 2017). Fang Qi’s work is an elegy for the last shaman of Three Gorges, the loss of whom brings the land itself into demise: “With Xia Qifa’s [the shaman] nurture and solicitude, the fir tree on the dragon’s brow had gradually turned from yellow to green, coming back to life. But now, the tree’s needles had turned a brittle yellowish-red” (452).

The novel playfully accepts the animistic paradigm of shamanism, making use of allegorical wildlife scenes to hint at future events: thus, when the matchmaker Third Auntie, after having been turned away in disdain by the wealthy Xiang family, sees a pack of small but vicious dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) attacking and bringing down a moon bear, she (correctly as it turns out) interprets the episode as a good omen: “She, too, would claw back her honor like the fierce dhole” (35).

Thirdly, the novel employs the temporal scope and narrative perspective of the New Historical trend in contemporary Chinese fiction as represented most famously by Mo Yan (Lin 2005), which, with a postmodern wariness of grand narratives, retells famous historical events from the perspective of the individual and its influences on her or his emotions, fantasies and daily life. One example of this kind of micro-history is the conflict between regional and national loyalty experienced by Diezhu’s son Mawu: “Motherfucking Japanese devils! […] He wished he could head straight to the front to take revenge, but he couldn’t: Huangshui, this ancient town, needed him” (150).

Another conflict, brought into focus by the novels cross-generational timespan, is between tradition and progress: Diezhu wishes for his sons to be educated and knowledgeable, yet he is exasperated when their expanded horizon makes them want to leave home.

P1040074With its numerous and somewhat flat characters, the novel initially requires some perseverance on the part of the reader, yet as it unfolds its detailed and sensuous universe of sweet wine, cloud filled gorges and spiritual chants there is no turning back. Based on ten years of anthropological field work, Elegy of a River Shaman is a lush and generous (but also violent and tragic) tale of the last tiger and the last shaman of Three Gorges. It uses fictional narrative to celebrate the rich folk customs of this area of China and preserve them for the future.

Fang, Qi. 2016. Elegy of a River Shaman. Translated by Norman Harry Rothschild and Meng Fanjun. Portland, ME: Merwin Asia.

References
Kinkley, Jeffrey. 1993. “Shen Congwen’s Legacy in Chinese Literature of the 1980s.” In Ellen Widmer, and Der-wei Wang, eds., From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lin, Qingxin. 2005. Brushing History Against the Grain: Reading the Chinese New Historical Fiction (1986-1999). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

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