Fictional Dictionaries

IMG_5934Currently I am busy working on my thesis on ‘fictional dictionaries’ in contemporary Chinese literature. Browsing of my supervisor’s affluent book shelves I accidentally noticed that around the turn of the century 3 novels by Chinese authors which all took the form of wordbooks, were published:

Han Shaogong: A Dictionary of Maqiao 马桥词典 (1996/ trans. 2003 by Julia Lovell) Based on his experiences and meditations upon language as an educated youth ‘send down’ to the countryside in the 1970s, the novel take the shape of a lexicon biography of the semi-fictional village of Maqiao. Through the formal break with linear narrative, Han Shaogong foregrounds the ambiguous yet powerful nature of language in shaping our understanding of history, the world and ourselves. More about Han Shaogong and language here.

Yu Hua: China in Ten Words 十个词汇里的中国 (First published in French 2010, Chinese version published 2011 in Taipei, English translation by Allan H. Barr 2011) Yu Hua aims at reappropriating China from communist sloganeering and Western generalization by redefining ten Chinese words. His word definitions consist of personal anecdote, critical essay and political analysis, blending the genres in a way that points to the context dependent status of language as well as the inherent paradox in trying to define language with language.

Guo Xiaolu: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Written in English 2007) Using the clashes arising in the cultural and literal translation between lovers as her point of departure, Guo Xiaolu probes the interconnectedness of language and cultural identity. Self exiled into a foreign context, the subject is forced to constantly translate her surroundings, while at the same time translating herself into her new reality.

IMG_5935The formal constraint of the wordbook or dictionary force a common thematic focus on language in all 3 novels, different as they do otherwise appear. Likewise the question of history, the right to write it, and the role of language in the communication of as well as the creation of it, is a topic of the first two. Cultural identity and translation is a theme shared by Han Shaogon and Guo Xiaolu, with the former presenting language struggles within Chinese territory and the latter between China and the UK.

Hope to have made some of you curious for more, all 3 novels are available in English, with A Dictionary of Maqiao as my personal favourite!

Sexualizing the Western ‘Other’: Wei Hui and Gao Xingjian

In her semi biographical novel Shanghai Baby from 1999 Wei Hui describes a sexual encounter between the Chinese female protagonist and her German lover: “His golden body hairs were like fine rays of sunlight, zealously and intimately nibbling at my body […] He penetrated my protective labia with deadly accuracy and located my budding clitoris. […] His huge organ made me feel swollen […] I imagined what he would be like in high boots and a leather coat, and what kind of cruelty would show in those Teutonic blue eyes. These thoughts increased my excitement.” (Translated by Bruce Humes. Simon&Schuster: 2001, pp.63)

This sexualization of the Western, in this case German, ‘Other’ is stereotype bordering on the comic with its images of blond hair, blue eyes and aggressive virility. The direct allusions to Nazism and the German reputation for accuracy, only increase the feeling of foreignness and thus desire in the protagonist.

Throughout the novel, as professor of comparative literature Sheldon H. Lu points out in his brief analysis of the book, the virile, aggressive European lover is contrasted with the protagonists artistic and intellectual but impotent Chinese boyfriend. (Lu, Sheldon H.: Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics, University of Hawai’i Press: 2007, pp.58)

This put me in mind of Gao Xingjian’s novel One Man’s Bible also from 1999, in the very beginning of which we find the male protagonist in bed with a German woman: “She sips the cognac and closes her eyes. She is a white German with very dark hair and long eyelashes. You get her to part her legs so you can see clearly and have her deeply imprinted in your memory.” (Translated by: Mabel Lee. HarperCollins: 2003, pp. 11)

Later they talk about how they first met: “‘I remember you, of course I remember you! As soon as you came through the door you took of your big padded coat and your scarf, and there stood a very beautiful young foreign woman!’ ‘With big breasts, right?’ ‘Of course, very big breasts. Blushing white skin and bright red lips even with no lipstick. Really sexy.'” (Ibid. pp. 14)

Again the foreignness is underlined and sexualized by images of white skin, big breasts, red lips, this time with a hint of irony, which does not however diminish the effect of the foreign body on the Chinese protagonist.

Later the plumpness and natural vigor of the German woman, as well as the protagonists open and bold investigation of her body, is contrasted with his nostalgic love for a very young and delicate Chinese girl: “‘It was special because a white German girl with bright red lips had suddenly arrived…’ ‘And there was also a bare foot little Beijing girl who was lovely and slender…'” (Ibid. pp.15)

In both cases it is the very foreignness of the Western ‘Other’, the points in which their body differs from the well-known and homely, that makes them sexually attractive. It is also interesting, albeit maybe coincidental, that these to instances both centers on the German physique as the one diametrically opposed to the Chinese, both when it comes to women and men. Both objects of desire are more over soaked in foreign and exclusive liquor, another forbidden, exotic and sensually intoxicating luxury.

What is Chinese about Chinese Literature?

What delimits Chinese literature?

I’m currently working on a critical analysis of the term ‘Chinese literature’ including my own role in the reproduction of it through for instance the title of this blog.

It involves asking a lot of questions, first of all: What is Chinese about Chinese literature? Who and what defines it?

Is it geography? If so, how to deal with overseas or exile writers? Is it Tu Wei-ming‘s notion of a ‘cultural China’? Or are might there be hybrids not answering to one cultural ‘root’ called China but to several roots? Is it about language? Current discussions in global Sinophone literature seems to be some of the most nuanced, but still fail to take into account ethnic Chinese who writes in other languages and foreigners writing in Chinese. And the Chinese language itself, even in its written form, is far from being a homogenous or easily limited subject.

Is this category of Chinese literature at all useful? For me at least, it sprung from a very practical wish to be able to access a lot of great novels and poems written in another language – Chinese. So it started with language, but from there it just grew. The best course for me now seems to be not to stop using the term ‘Chinese literature’ but to use it in a more nuanced and reflected way.

As Ien Ang puts it in her brilliant article “Can One Say No to Chineseness?”: “[A]ny intellectual investment in an object of study -say Chineseness- is not the innocent reflection of a natural reality that is passively awaiting to be discovered; rather the active quest for knowledge actively brings it into being, in the knower’s experience and understanding of the world, slices of reality he or she then calls and classifies as Chinese.”

Ai Wei Wei’s ‘Trees’ and the dead beetles – not about China

A few weeks ago I visited Louisiana to check out Ai Wei Wei‘s exhibition there. Like many others I wasn’t that impressed.

One thing that caught my eye and interest, though, was the amount of dead beetles locked in the tree-roots of the ‘Rocks and Trees’-installation (2009-2010) (whether or not it was intended, I care not).

For how long had the beetles survived in the installation, their artificial art-home through airports, gallery basements, packing and unpacking. Are they Chinese beetles or picked up in some storage room along the way, and does that make a difference? (they’re dead all the same) And how on earth did they get through airport security?

The little black bodies, lying belly up at the foot of the dead tree trunks nailed together to form a tree-figure, lend the interpretation of the work an extra dimension. The trees are obviously constructed, made up of different parts forcefully put together to form an ideal structure. The artificiality of the structure however, renders the single parts or branches unable to survive. Even the inhabitants of such an artificial construction will not last long.

To read ‘Trees’ as an allegory for the Chinese society, forcefully holding together very different geographical and ethnological communities to form an ideal united nation, is tempting. But it might be more fruitful, and even relevant, to look at the dead trees as a more general critique of ideology.

Few of us can get completely away from a desire for order and consistency, in which trees look like trees, cultures are recognisable as cultures, and Chinese art is about China.

What I got out of seeing Ai Wei Wei’s dead trees (and not least the additional dead beetles) was a feeling that this kind of thought hygiene might be very unfit to accommodate, or even take into consideration, real life.