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
The book is all about sensory engagements between body and city, so I’ve divided it into three sections:
SKELETON: theoretical foundations, literary spacetime, alternative sensoria, and triangular comparisons.
CORPUS: the literary analyses, thematically organised around extended sensory organs into 6 chapters.
EXCRETIONS: analytical comparisons, temporal typologies, and concluding remarks.
Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City
I begin by presenting the idea that the rapid and violent restructuring of cities like Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai from the 1990s onwards affects the way we think about space and time: “When entire building blocks are here today and gone tomorrow, or vice versa, space starts to shift and entangle itself with time as the elusive silhouettes of memory gain a new urgency and begin to shape how spatial reality is perceived.”
So I argue that we need to analyse urban spacetime as a unified concept and discuss some of the ways this has been done (from Bakhtin’s chronotopes to Elana Gomel’s impossible topologies) and could be done.
I also introduce the term time-space (inspired by Doreen Massey and Kevin Lynch) to designate discrete chunks of spacetime, such as “my shabby home-office on a February morning in 2022” or “the illuminated Shanghai Bund on his 103rd birthday.”
I extoll the approach that I call literary sensory studies, which is follows in footsteps of Cai Biming’s take on body-sensations (身体感) as well as sensory studies scholars’ call to examine and expand the traditional fivefold sensorium, but from the vantage point of literary analysis. Fictional narrative has a wonderful capacity for highlighting the cross- and multisensory foundation of almost all sensory experiences, as well as imagining and describing forth sensations of pain, hunger, temperature, and selfhood that are not part of the conventional sensorium.
Finally, I talk about the creative aspects of memory and use the metaphor of “memory knitwear” to highlight that “each time you rip up the fabric and reknit it following the same pattern, the result will be subtly different, paralleling the process of opening, reconfiguring, and re-storing memories described by neurobiology.”
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
The IBP was originally launched to bring a focus to academic publications on Asia; to increase their worldwide visibility, and to encourage a further interest in the world of Asian Studies. Organised every two years, together with the ICAS conference, the IBP has grown from a small experiment, to one of the largest book prizes of its kind. Along the way, we expanded to include, in addition to the English Book and Dissertation prizes, prizes for publications in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
Ground-Breaking Subject Matter Accolade for English-language dissertation in the Humanities
AUTHOR: Astrid Møller-Olsen
TITLE: Seven Senses of the City: Urban Spacetime and Sensory Memory in Contemporary Sinophone Fiction
Lund University, 2020
This dissertation investigates the narrative mechanisms and imagery that Sinophone fiction uses to narrate complex human experiences that were rooted in space, time and memory. It breaks new ground in engaging with sensory paradigms to show how this fiction creates civic histories.
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
We know that everything we experience is mediated -through the senses in collaboration with the brain- it is like there is a membrane between our selves and the world. But where does the membrane stop and reality begin? Can we even be sure that there is something on the other side? Or turn it around; where does the membrane stop, and the self begin? Is there even something at the core? These are the questions raised in Chi Ta-wei’s 紀大偉 novel The Membranes(first published as <膜> in 1995), a unique work of queer speculation, critical futurism, and cyber-psychology, superbly and lucidly translated into English by Ari Larissa Heinrich.
The novel is sometimes described as dystopian, but I see nothing in it that is not already out there, albeit in different forms: Is organ and tissue harvesting from androids worse than from other humans or animals? Is stealing people’s sensory experiences via extra layers of false skin all that different from the gathering of personal information that goes on every time you press your fingers against a computer keyboard to access the internet? Is the brutal class segregation between exposed land-dwellers and protected sea-dwellers unlike the way factories and garbage dumps are habitually constructed in the poorest areas of city and planet? As all good speculative fiction does, The Membranes draws attention to our own world by recreating familiar emotions in estranging environments, providing fresh perspectives on fundamental questions, in Chi’s case, in highly poetic and inventive ways.
The Membranes narrates a short time span around the 30th birthday of Momo, the owner of a skin treatment parlor named Salon Canary located at the ocean floor in the year 2100. Through Momo’s memories and experiences, we learn of her life history and of the many membranes that surround her: “Membranes filtered Momo’s every impression of the world. At thirty, she felt there was at least one layer of membrane between her and the world. Not the kind of membrane she applied to her clients receiving facials at work, obviously. The invisible kind. The kind that made her feel like at tiny water flea – a Daphnia encased in a cell, swimming alone out to sea” (1).
Momo feels separated from her peers and, outside her work, has difficulty engaging in any kind of intimate relations. Beside the psychological barrier (which has very material foundations as the novel reveals), other membranes separate the human Daphnia from the sea of reality. Quite literally, the city she lives in lies “safe under the purple sky of a waterproof and earthquake-proof membrane, deep beneath the ocean, people lived out their days like flowers in a greenhouse” (26).
The skin is perhaps the most immediate membrane, protecting us against illness, except in Momo’s case where it failed to prevent the LOGO virus from slowly destroying her body. This necessitated the construction of Andy -an android specifically (and cruelly) designed to be “compatible” with Momo, to become her first friend and later her organ donor. Elegantly playing with the reader’s gendered expectations, Chi describes the surgical union of the sterile android Andy (sexed as female and gendered feminine) and the human girl Momo, who possesses a penis and is named after a mythical Japanese boy: “Did these two hands belong to Momo or Andy? Whose belly was this? She didn’t have a pee-pee, so that delicate flesh below her belly must have belonged to Andy!” (78).
Recalling Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking 1985-essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Chi reminds us that cyborgs are good to think with, especially when it comes to questions of gender and identity politics, because they are made, just as genders are made, of many (un)natural things in specific contexts. Cyborgs are neither/both human nor/and machine -they represent a messier approach to identity reiterated by Momo when she asks, “whose belly is this?” After all, that belly is home to many hundreds of species of bacteria with each their specific DNA as well as Momo’s “own” cells.
The most persistent membrane, however, exists between Momo and her mother. This is not the cellular membrane of a crustacean in the sea, but of a fetus in a womb. It is not a human merged with an android, but a child disjoined from a parent. Together with the android theme, the theme of parentage explores what it means to be and individual. If one individual can emerge from another, then where and when does individuality begin within all those layers of blood and uterine fluids. And, as Momo points out, emerging from one membrane into the other, one is still a caged canary.
In her dermic treatment work, Momo uses a kind of cream called M-skin which settles into a second skin on the client’s body. This skin is able to record sensory information and replay it through a computer: “Put simply, imagine the body is an old-style tape recorder and M-skin is a cassette: every stimulus experienced by Tomie Ito’s body was recorded like a sound. When Momo got the cassette and made a copy, she could play it on the tape recorder of her own body” (59).
From this angle, the skin is not our ward against the world, but our gateway to it, the line of encounter between inner and outer, I and you. Momo uses M-skin to spy on her clients and, in effect, live through their bodies, problematizing the habitual understanding of the skin as the boundary of the self. If one can share memories, share sensory experiences, share the most intimate moments, what remains of the singular I?
The novel is not only concerned with individuality and identity politics. There are subtle hints at social and political critique in the very structure of Momo’s ocean world: “The new sea-dwellers also left behind unwanted structures like pollution-producing factories and nuclear power plants (which meant, however, that some key personnel were forced to remain on the surface to man the reactors). Also left behind were prisons and various tools of punishment, since governments universally recognized that leaving convicts on the surface was actually a convenient punishment in and of itself” (22).
In the end, membranes are inescapable, and perhaps they are the very location of life. Just as the skin act as the zone of encounter between self and world, so is this wet origin of humanity, “the ocean: just a membrane on the surface of a giant apple” (67). Like the membranes present everywhere, Chi’s novel in Heinrich’s translation presents a view of reality that is certainly layered but also porous. If membranes are everywhere, they are also pierced, smeared, breached and rewoven. By encouraging a closer look at surfaces, the novel suggests that this is where much of our identity (social, sexual, species) resides and is constantly reconfigured. The core, the brain, the mind, or whatever we call it, does not thrive in vacuum, but needs and feeds on sensory stimuli from the boundaries of the body.
The Membranes is a fascinating and beautifully conceived novel, deceptively simple and alluringly deep, smoothly mediated by the membrane of Heinrich’s excellent translation. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Chi’s work.
Zhu Tianxin’s (Chu T’ien-hsin 朱天心) novella The Old Capital (古都) narrates the process of slowly losing contact with the past through forgetting, loss and material erasure. Instead of completely eradicating the past, this process prompts a renewed interest, and, in a sense, a renewed presence of that past in conscious remembering, literary evocation and narrative attendance. Inspired by David Crouch’s conception of heritage as a journey, this paper looks at how the protagonist’s physical and mental voyage in The Old Capital incorporates several spatiotemporal layers of cultural heritage to help her – and the reader – understand the complexity of the living historical city of Taipei.
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.
Prof. 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:
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.
Last week， distinguished authors Ge Fei 格非, Bi Feiyu 毕飞宇, Yang Hongying 杨红樱 and Dong Xi 东西 visited the University of Copenhagen – for sinologists, students and literary enthusiast alike, it was a must go! The event was organised by the Danish Cultural Institute in cooperation with the Chinese Writers Association, the University of Copenhagen, Asian Dynamics Initiative and ThinkChina and was hosted by Mai Corlin.I had been reading Ge Fei’s novella 褐色的鸟群 (A Flock of Brown Birds), in which constant snow and rainfalls act like curtains on the world (or between worlds), through which persons from the narrator’s past as well as from his fantasies, materialise and vanish. At the event in Copenhagen, I seized the opportunity to ask him on his view of the relationship between memory and imagination, which I saw as a theme in the story.According to Ge Fei then, memory and imagination are deeply interconnected – in fact, much of what we think we remember, we partially make up (an observation he shares with cognitive psychologists). Furthermore, for him, the most important aspect of memory is not conscious recollection, but the sediment of unintentional memories that each individual carry.
Bi Feiyu extrapolated on Ge Fei’s point by underlining the role social expectations play in our remembrance and narration of the past. He told an anecdote (inspired by H. C. Anderson’s fable of how one feather, after passing through the grape-vine of gossip, becomes five hens) about losing a fist fight as a young boy, and retelling the defeat as a victory so many times, that he ended up believing his own false representation. The fiction became intertwined with memory and ended up reshaping it completely.
Outside the lecture room, the continuous Scandinavian rain made me feel like I was still inside Ge Fei’s story. I walked on, trying to remember the fictional narrative of the novella, while adding to it new memories from our recent conversation about it, as well as imagining what kind of persons from fictional or long past worlds might be waiting for me out there. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Seated between Shanghai-born US-based writer 薛海翔 Xue Haixiang and a ceaselessly belching young man, I immediately felt the peculiar mix of aesthetic appreciation and laid back familiarity, which, according to Chen Cun, characterises Shanghai of recent years.
Displaying his passion for the city in both word and manner, Chen Cun remarked several times upon the liveliness and aesthetic lushness of Shanghai as well as its capacity for accommodating people from very different walks of life, not least a multitude of writers and artist. Apart from his short stories, Chen Cun is famous for being among the first in China to seriously promote online fiction (see Michel Hockx recent bookInternet Literature in China for details), and under the name of 老鼠 (Mouse), Yu Jun is an active member of his literary online community Minority Vegetable Garden (小众菜园).
Quite a few questions from the audience centred on Yu Jun’s novel Red Light District (红灯区), about the hidden brothel quarters of Shanghai. Several local readers confessed their surprise at discovering that such areas existed within the boundaries of their own city. Others had, from the title, expected a novel about the Cultural Revolution (in China, yellow is the colour usually associated with sexual promiscuity, while red is the colour of luck and the Communist Party among other things, and red lamps especially are associated with the revolutionary opera Legend of the Red Lantern 红灯记).
(All photographs by Astrid Møller-Olsen, Shanghai 2017)
“With a number of twists and turns, the tram skirts Victoria Park and the Tin Hau Temple (one of Hong Kong’s oldest) on its way to North Point, Quarry Bay, and Shau Kei Wan at the eastern tip of the island. The ride is convenient, if not comfortable, and the panorama of buildings and people moving by in slow motion gives one the feeling of travelling backward through time – a nostalgic antidote for the stomach-churning, competitive pace of Central Business District.”
This is how literary scholar Leo Ou-fan Lee describes a ride on the Hong Kong tram (established in 1904 nicknamed the Ding Ding 叮叮) in his highly enjoyable introduction to Hong Kong history, culture and literature City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong. The idea that the pace of transportation itself, rather than the appearance of the tram cars which have changed a lot over the past 100 years, induces a sense of, and longing for, the past is fascinating.
Reading about nostalgia in Shanghai, it seems to me that the past is often evoked by imagery (think of all the reprints of old photographs, picture postcards, commercial posters), sometimes by audio (1930s jazz) and less commonly but very potently by smell (imported perfumes, hair oil, coffee). But thinking about pace should prove very interesting indeed, though not a simple case of then=slow, now=fast I should imagine.
For me, planning my first ever visit to Hong Kong, Lee’s narrative tram ride is a much more effective point of entry into unknown territory than any map would be. It reminds me of Michel de Certeau’s distinction between the two dimensional, ‘readable’ city space seen from above and the city space you ‘enunce’ when you walk its streets (‘Walking in the City’ in The Practice of Everyday Life). Perhaps the tram ride is somewhere in between: From the second story of a tram, you see watch the streets unfold beneath and before you, slightly elevated from the hustle and jostle, yet unable to see the whole picture as your line of vision in tantalizingly blocked by buildings, street signs and fellow passengers.
Would you like another ride? Take a Hong Kong tram from 1970s or 2015. South China Morning Post has made a history of the Hong Kong tram, but here you have to imagine the pace from still photos. In Shanghai, trams were in service 1908-1970s, then, in 2010, the Zhangjian/Translohr monorail trams were introduced. Some of these videos are really home videos, which just goes to show that there are still a lot of tram enthusiasts (and nostalgics) out there. (Quite a few of the are here: www.hktramstation.com)
Both Mao Dun’s canonical Shanghai novel 子夜 from 1933, translated as Midnight by Hsu Meng-hsiung, and Chen Danyan’s 成为和平饭店 from 2012, translated by Liu Haiming as The Peace Hotel, begin with an old man dying.
In Midnight the head of the Wu family, a pious country gentleman, expires on his very first day in Shanghai from sheer shock of its depravity. The city itself seems to him monstrous, while at the same time curiously ephemeral, and intent upon wrecking moral havoc on all who enter: “Good heavens! the towering skyscrapers, their countless lighted windows gleaming like eyes of devils, seemed to be rushing down on him like an avalanche at one moment and vanishing the next.” (15)
Signifying the quick demise of old traditions and values in the new world of the 1930s, with its unpredictable civil war and its extreme financial instability, the scene is set for a dramatization of a historical changes in China. The natural stage for such a scene is Shanghai, enabling professor Yu-ting, when a young lady asks him to describe contemporary society, to answer:
“It’s a tall order your question. But you can find the answer in the next room. There you have the successful financier and a captain of industry. That little drawing-room is Chinese society in miniature [中国社会的缩影].”
“But there is also a pious old man – a believer in the Book of Rewards and Punishments [太上感应篇].”
“Yes, but the old man is – he’s dying fast.” (29)
The dead man in Chen Danyan’s story (though true to a certain type of character in recent Shanghai history, being a dispossessed factory owner with children educated abroad) is more important for the sense of emotional loss his death induces. The loss of one personal version of the past.
Though saturated with nostalgia, the novel acknowledges that the object of nostalgia is itself elusive and highly subjective. To the dead man and his mourning family, the Peace Hotel witnessed the transformation of their family fortunes as the place where capitalists were to hand over their ill-gotten gains during the five antis campaign in 1952. To other characters in the novel, it signifies the colonial splendor of the 1930s, the international ties of socialism in the 1970s or the first glimpses of the dawning Shanghai nostalgia craze of the 1990s.
Chen Danyan’s somewhat eclectic “non-fiction novel” is a testament to the plurality of personal and emotional ties to the Shanghai of yore as well as to one of its most spectacular iconic spaces, the Peace Hotel: “Regret for it’s being ‘unlike how it was in the past’ welled up inside me, yet, interestingly; I found it hard to pin down the ‘past.’ The people I had interviewed and I myself couldn’t help talking about the hotel’s past, which often meant our respective first encounter with it.” (252)