Organized by chaos: Symposium on religion and literature

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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.

The Way to Eat: Food and Daoism

In Ah Cheng’s novel 棋王 (Chess King) from 1984, the protagonist Wang Yisheng is controlled by two great passions: playing chess and eating. In his Chinese Way of playing chess he is very indebted to Daoist symbolism: “‘Softness isn’t weakness – it is taking in, gathering in, holding in’ he said. ‘To To hold and assimilate is to bring your opponent within your strategy. This strategy is up to you to create; you must do all by doing nothing. To do nothing is the Way, and it is also the invariant principle of chess.” (Ah Cheng: The King of Trees. Bonnie McDougall transl. New York: NDP, 2010. pp. 75)

This advocacy for Daoist 无为 non-action in chess-playing (The ‘Dao’ 道 in Daoism literally means the Way) appears along with reference to the complementary principles of yin and yang, nicely evocative of the black and white aesthetics of a chess board, so important in the Daoist world view.

The discourse of Daoism might likewise provide a significant angle to understanding Wang Yisheng’s attitude toward food, so at the moment I’m looking into the role of food and eating in Daoism. Today I came across this slightly eco Daoist article (published in World Religions in Education 2009) by former professor of philosophy at Durham University David Cooper, in which he states that:

“Spiritual traditions in which eating and food figure as significant issues will need to be ones where no dualism is posited between soul and body and where physical desires are not peremptorily condemned as obstacles on the spiritual path. […] But the clearest example, perhaps, of a major spiritual tradition that meets these conditions, and in which the importance of food has always been acknowledged, is Daoism. For the Daoist, the mental is not a realm set apart from the physical: rather, it is characterized by a refinement of the very same energy that flows through all existence.”

Though one might protest that food also plays an important role in the Abrahamic religions (just check out Jordan Rosenblum’s study of food regulations in early Judaism), a thing Cooper seems to rule out,  I agree very much with Cooper in his accentuation of the importance of food in Daoism.

Eating is how humans incorporate their surroundings, and take part in the constant change and transformation that characterizes the Daoist understanding of the Universe. The next step is to compare Daoist eating prescriptions and practises with Wang Yisheng’s obsession with food.

Alcohol and identity in Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine

I will be giving a presentation on Alcohol and Identity in Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine at the workshop: Commensality and Social Organisation at the University of Copenhagen 6.10.2011 – 9.10.2011.

“Commensality, the social context of sharing consumption of food, drink and sometimes drugs, is of great importance for societies on all levels. Food, globalisation and identity play an important role in the social make-up of society.”

– Organised by ToRS (Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies), University of Copenhagen.

Read my abstract here
Read more about the workshop here

(Photo by avlxyz@flickr)