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.

 

 

Cannibals and May Fourth at 100

As most of you will know, this year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth or New Culture Movement in Chinese history. I was fortunate enough to be invited to two Swedish celebrations of the centennial with each its animated discussion of the movement’s legacy.

The first was held at the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities in Stockholm in September. Our two-day symposium was organised by Torbjörn Lodén, Lena Rydholm and Fredrik Fällman and included addresses from Xu Youyu 徐友渔, Vera Schwarcz, Zhang Longxi 張隆溪, Jae Woo Park 朴宰雨, Bonnie S. McDougall, Jyrki Kallio, Monika Gänssbauer, Qin Hui 秦晖, Wang Ning, Erik Mo Welin, Ming Dong Gu, Liu Jiafeng and myself.

Vera Schwarcz and Monika Gänssbauer

Zhang Longxi considered classical Chinese and European literary theory comparatively through the shared understanding of art as a product of, if not pain, then adversity in some form or other. He exemplified this through an examination of the image of the oyster, whose beautiful pearl is a product of the presence of a hard grain of sand in its soft interior.

Bonnie McDougall presented an original addition to our understanding of literary censorship as something that is not only political but also be aesthetic. By comparing Lu Xun’s published correspondence with Xu Guangping to the original letters, she was able to show that (contrary to how their relationship is presented in the version revised for publication) in the uncensored letters, Xu comes across as the more assertive and the one taking the initiative.

Ming Dong Gu, Wang Ning, Jyrki Kallio

In October, we had a smaller symposium in Uppsala, where Mingwei Song presented his inspiring reading of Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary as a work of science fiction and traced Lu’s legacy of curing cultural ailments through literature to contemporary writers such as Han Song and Liu Cixin.

On both occasions, I presented my work on man-eating as a contemporary motif that has developed from Lu Xun’s use of various types of cannibalism as a way of criticising feudal society, over Yan Lianke and Mo Yan’s narrative invocations of vampirism and “meat-boys” to criticise political and economic corruption, to the representation of mega-cities as anthropophagus superstructures in contemporary urban fiction.

I specifically analysed the chapter “Swallow and Spit” (吞吐) from Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹 and Hon Lai Chu’s 韓麗珠 double novel A Dictionary of Two Cities 《雙城辭典》 from 2012, in which urban existence is represented through an alimentary vocabulary, with machines that “eat” coins, and pedestrians who are “eaten by the crowd.” In their fictional world, sexual intercourse becomes an act of “devouring” while babies are “vomited” out and education is seen as a process of digestion, where “raw” children enter, and processed citizens are excreted.

While certain themes of the New Culture Movement are still alive and thriving today, contemporary global society presents a changed environment that enable and demand writers to rediscover, reinvent and revolutionize modern motifs in new and enlightening ways.

Drinking with Mo Yan

 

P1020587

The Chinese writer Mo Yan (莫言 1955-) is often categorised as belonging to the new historicist trend in fiction (新历史主义小说). This literary current, which evolved in China in the 1980s and 1990s, viewed fiction and history as related subjects and merged them into a genre characterised by subjective realism, as a reaction to the official and idealised macro-narratives of the Cultural Revolution.

Mo Yan often uses food symbolism to exemplify the material connectedness of humans to society, while exposing the cultural web of meaning attached to certain foods and certain situations. In his 1992 novel Liquorland (酒国) he writes both symbolically and directly about the function of alcohol in Chinese society.

 

mo yan (2)
I was in Beijing in 2012, when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize

In this study I have limited my field of research to the role of alcohol in Chinese literary history, with fictional, poetic and philosophical writings as my main sources. Inspired by Roland Barthes I have discovered three separate alcohol ‘institutions’ relevant to the analysis of Liquorland: 1) The commensal drinking culture, 2) The poetic drinking culture and 3) The heroic drinking culture. Through my analysis I will show how the characters’relationship to the alcohol institutions can be read as a critique, not only of the same institutions, but as part of a broader critique of idealism.

 

9780857857361This is an excerpt from my chapter ‘Dissolved in Liquor and Life: Drinkers and Drinking Cultures in Mo Yan’s Novel ‘Liquorland’,’ written more than five years ago – before he won the Nobel Prize. Bloomsbury has now kindly permitted me to share the chapter (Published in Kerner, Chou, Warmind (eds.): Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast. Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou, Morten Warmind (Eds.). London: Bloomsbury, 2015) full-text via academia.edu.

Re-reading stuff you’ve written years ago is always a perilous task (I’ve already discovered tons of things I want to change), but there it is, and still quite interesting I think. Cheers!

Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast – New publication with Bloomsbury

My first book chapter is now officially out there, and I just got my copy! I must confess myself fittingly proud and excited.

The book Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast was published by Bloomsbury in February and is based on the conference ‘Commensality and Social Organisation‘ held at University of Copenhagen in 2011.

The volume is edited by Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou and Morten Warmind and include a wide range of fields and topics, ranging from bronze age feasts over the culinary triangle in antiquity to contemporary Vegan activism.

My chapter is about alcohol and drinking cultures in Mo Yan‘s novel Liquorland (Jiuguo 酒国, translated by Howard Goldblatt as The Republic of Wine in 2000) from 1992, with references to historical social and artistic uses of alcohol in China. It investigates how established Chinese drinking norms – such as the hierarchical toast ritual, the poetical connotations of drinking alone and the heroic feat of drinking without getting drunk – are described and subverted in the novel.

Immortal drinkers

The popular Daoist stories of the Eight Immortals (baxian 八仙) are believed to have developed sometime between the Tang (618-906 CE) and Sung dynasty (960- c. 1260 CE). These folk tales often depict poor but righteous people aided in their struggle against corrupt earthly and heavenly officials by the wise yet unpredictable immortals.

Text in painting: Mr. Iron Crutch (Tieguai Xiansheng)

With regards to alcohol the most interesting of the immortals is Li Tie Guai (Iron Crutch Li). Forced by accident to assume an ugly old beggar’s body, eccentric and prone to drink, this Daoist saint is a complex character. According to legend he has attained immortality by continuously resisting Laozi’s (the deified founder of Daoism) attempts to lure him away from the study of the Way (Dao) with money and women in order to try his determination. Yet in most of the other stories he is the more impulsive and even aggressive of the eight, boldly defying even the Jade Emperor.

In several of the stories water in wells and streams is turned to wine for the benefit of righteous people. In one such account Li Tie Guai befriends a farmer at Nine Crooked Stream, who makes the most fragrant and delicate wine. The farmer’s wine is so good, that when Li is later invited to a feast in heaven he refuses to drink the ‘inferior’ wine served there. He raises the host’s anger by his drunken deprecations, but in the end farmer’s wine is send for and everyone agrees that it is superior.

After the feast, when Li scavenge the grounds for one last sip, he accidentally cracks a jar full of the fragrant liquid. The jar falls to earth, turns into a hill from the crevices of which the remains of the wine slowly trickles down into the Nine Crooked Stream, henceforth making it fragrant with the smell of sweet wine.

[Wine has inspired Chinese poets and philosophers since ancient time. I am currently doing research on the role of alcohol in Chinese literature, trailing the line of famous imbibers from literati-poets like Tao Qian 陶潛 – also known as Tao Yuanming (365-427) and Li Bai李白(701-762) through wine gods and celestial drinkers to the drunken protagonists of contemporary fiction]

The Daoist Glutton: New article in CHAOS

My article on Daoism and eating in 棋王 (The Chess King) by Ah Cheng has been published in the latest theme issue of CHAOS Scandinavian Journal for Studies of Religion on ‘Religion and Literature’. (Unfortunately it is in Danish) Below is the abstract, click here for full article.

marts2012 024“Many critics have noted Ah Cheng’s extensive use of Daoist imagery and symbolism in his novella The King of Chess from 1984. The story refers directly to Daoist discourse of non-action (无为 wuwei) and the power of yielding/softness in its treatment of the Chinese Way (道 dao) of chess, and thus readings have focused on the metaphysical aspects of Daoism. Chess, however, is only one of the two great passions of the story’s protagonist Wang Yisheng: The other is food. This very material aspect of life and its relation to Daoist thought is the subject of this paper.

By comparing the attitude towards eating in The King of Chess with material aspects of Daoism as found in the Zhuangzi, this paper presents an analysis of how Ah Cheng uses food as a theme to communicate cultural values of early
rustic Daoism outside the discourse of traditionalism.”

More about food, Daoism and 棋王 here.

Drowned in Shit: Scenes by Yu Hua and Mo Yan

In Yu Hua‘s 余华 best seller Brothers 兄弟 from 2005 (read Julia Lovell’s review here) he lets the father of one of his protagonists drown in the cesspool under a public toilet, while attempting to catch a glimpse of the behinds of the women doing their business in the next compartment:

“The scream scared the living day-lights out of Baldy Li’s father, making him lose his grip and fall head-first into the thick, viscous goo below. In seconds, the excrement filled his mouth and nose and then his lungs, and that was how Baldy Li’s father drowned.” (Yu, Hua: Brothers. Trans: Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas. London: Picador, 2010)

This scene instantly reminded me of a similar one of Mo Yan‘s 莫言 in his novel The Republic of Wine 酒国 from 1992, in which the detective anti-hero is likewise drowned in shit while dazed by drink and chasing the phantom of his lover the lady trucker:

“But before he got there, he stumbled into an open air privy filled with a soupy, fermenting goop of food and drink regurgitated by Liquorland residents, plus the drink and food excreted from the other end, atop which floated such imaginably filthy refuse as bloated, used condoms[…] The pitiless muck sealed his mouth as the irresistible force of gravity drew him under.” (Mo, Yan: The Republic of Wine. Trans: Howard Goldblatt. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000.)

kina 124The public toilet, a dying breed in my part of the world, would make an interesting topic for sociological analysis. The invisible rules of behavior and extensive taboos surrounding it, in opposition to its indispensability in our daily lives: The poetics and profanity of the excrement.

Made comical by our own embarrassment of having to excrete the waste products of our metabolism and coupled with the pathos of death, it makes a delicious, if at the same time nauseating, literary spectacle when treated by to of China’s best contemporary novelists. Well, I’ll continue thinking about it, maybe its just shit anyway.

A Hammet and a drink before breakfast

Just found Dashiel Hammet‘s The thin man on a summer flea market. After the first chapter it is already becoming my new favourite because of dialogues such as this one:

“She lived with him?” “Yes. I want a drink, please. That is, it was like that when I knew them.” “Why don’t you have some breakfast first? Was she in love with him or was it just business?” “I don’t know. It’s too early for breakfast.”

Sitting reading with a small glass of red wine in one hand, I feel embarrassingly sober, when the narrator has had five whisky and sodas in as many pages.

Though Hammet was born in the United States in 1894 his attitude toward drink reminds me of the poet 阮籍 Ruan Ji, who lived in China in the 3. century CE:

Fleet worldly matters: I laugh at the strain. Quiet, sad feelings are wasted pain.
How to cure sadness: call for wine! When drunk all day bad manners are fine.
Each day of my whole life through, I should drink great pots of brew.
It is such bliss, to cruise the Land of Booze;
Sober, then drunk; drunk and wild as I choose.
Once in the hills I forget big news.”

(Coulombe, Charles A. (ed.): The Muse in the Bottle. New York: Citadel Press, 2000)

CHAOS Symposium 2012: Potatismos, Comics and Islandic sagas

Last weekend I attended the CHAOS symposium 2012 in Göteborg on Religion and Literature together with a nice blend of Swedish and Danish historians of religion, literary scholars and other interested parties.

Between rock climbing and potatismos I had the good fortune to enjoy lectures on a variety of subjects: From Lars Lönnroth’s talk on the noble and the not-so-noble heathen in the Icelandic sagas, through Claus Jacobsen’s presentation of the British wave introducing action gods into American comics, to Tao Thykier Makeeff’s introduction into the labyrinthine universe of Jorge Luis Borges where “anything is possible, even the holy trinity” (Borges).

At dinner I had an interesting discussion with Lars on the function of skjaldemjød (bards mead) in Icelandic poetry compared to the role of drinking in the school of Chinese drinking poets (a topic I’m very interested in, see Dissolved into Wine and World).

I also briefly talked with Ulrika Lagerlöf Nilsson about the interesting project ‘Skönlitteratur som historisk källa’ (fiction as historical source) that she is a part of. It seems to me that fiction, with all its particularity and inherent self-contradiction, could provide a nice counter balance to the more generalizing aspects of history writing.

I presented my paper on the material aspects of Daoism found in A Cheng’s novella 棋王 (Chess King) through an analysis focusing on the role of food and eating. (See abstract here)

Organized by chaos: Symposium on religion and literature

CHAOS logo

Just had an abstract accepted for the CHAOS symposium 2012: Religion and literature in Gothenburg in May. This is another cross-disciplinary symposium, so I’m very excited and looking forward to mingling with historians of religion and hearing their thoughts on literature. As we are all used to working with fiction in some form or other, from however different perspectives (secular or sacred), it should be interesting to exchange experiences.

The program has everything from the Icelandic sagas, through the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien to intergalactic Islam (curious to hear what that is). The symposium is organized by CHAOS (lovely antonymous effect) a Scandinavian academic journal covering the area of history of religion. All the presentations will be in Scandinavian languages.

This is my abstract:

Daoism and eating in Ah Cheng’s Chess King

Many critics have noted Ah Cheng’s extensive use of Daoist imagery and symbolism in his novella King of Chess from 1984. The story refers directly to Daoist discourse of non-action (wuwei 无为) and the power of yielding/softness in its treatment of the Chinese Way (dao 道) of chess, and thus readings have focused on the metaphysical aspects of Daoism. Chess, however, is only one of the two great passions of the story’s protagonist Wang Yisheng: The other is food. This very material aspect of life and its relation to Daoist thought is the subject of this paper.

Daoism is essentially a philosophy for engaging naturally and spontaneously with the world. Indeed Daoists view the body not as a mere vessel for a soul or a heart-mind, but rather as a whole entity; a landscape of organs. The body is our primary means of performing that role of intermediate between heaven and earth which is man’s lot. Following this logic food becomes extremely important as it is what sustains the body and powers the internal qi-circle, while eating very literally functions as a way of incorporating the world and thus effecting the constant transformation of matter that is life.

By comparing the attitude towards eating in King of Chess with the view of food and the body in early rustic Daoism, this paper presents an analysis of the ongoing reinvention and reinterpretation of Daoism in contemporary China.