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
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
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.
Plants have always been powerful symbols of place, rooted as they are in the local soil, yet in most almanacs such as the Chinese lunar calendar, flowers and plants are also core images for defining and representing time. Through a conceptualisation of qingjing (情境) that relates literary temporality to emotional interaction with the environment through the figure of the tree, this chapter executes a thematic comparison of arboreal figures in three works of contemporary Sinophone fiction, demonstrating how trees, as keepers of time, form an ecocritical approach to the study of narrative temporality.
In this chapter, I analyse the emotional topography (qingjing 情境) of human-tree relationships and their effect on narrative temporality. I begin by examining the various genera of trees that grow in Chu T’ien-hsin’s 朱天心 Taipei neighbourhoods and serve as organic intergenerational links to personal, familial, and historical pasts. Then, I move on to the urban parks of Dung Kai-cheung’s 董啟章 Hong Kong and the individual characters’ counterfactual, yet emotionally real, relationships with specific trees explored through the finite temporality of death. Finally, I travel with Alai 阿來 to the ethnically Tibetan areas of Sichuan and explore the temporal clash between scientific progress and the mytho-historical longue durée perspective provided by the ancient arboreal inhabitants.
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 beasts 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”
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.”
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.