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
Soon Ai Ling’s short stories weave cultural trajectories from Guangdong, Hong Kong, the UK, Malaysia, and Singapore into a rich fabric of personal experiences and artistic passions. Each story centres around a particular craft, from which vantage point it explores the relationships between cultural heritage and innovation, and between past and future homelands. As each story generates its own pattern, the variety of Chinese-speaking diasporas is showcased, as well as the internal diversity of dynastic China and of the PRC today. In Diasporic, cultural influence is not a unilinear movement from an imagined core to a perceived periphery but rather a continuous process of artistic experimentation and cross-cultural inspiration that is inextricably entwined with personal histories of migration.
In the story “Batik Melody”, the protagonist comes to Malaysia to take over the family batik factory now run by his father’s second wife Aisha and her daughters, only to realise that the dreary old family business is actually an innovative cross-cultural playground: “it dawned upon me that they had inherited not only their mother’s cultural heritage, but also learned a lot from Father” (59). The marriage between Aisha and his father is also a symbolic union of two (or rather several) cultural traditions, bringing together a variety of approaches to artisanal work. On the one hand, Aisha—who is of Arab and Chinese descent—stands for the practical approach. She owns and runs the factory with her daughters, who are both highly creative and innovative when it comes to inventing new patterns and techniques. The protagonist’s father, on the other hand, was a craft historian working on a book about the history of batik. From his Miao-Chinese ancestors, he inherited an extensive knowledge of plant dyes and he represents the more intellectual aspects of batik production. Between his father’s historical interests and Aisha’s hands-on approach, the protagonist, who was educated in the UK, struggles to find his own place in the factory until he decides to focus on marketing. Like the colourful cloth they produce, the lives of the characters are coloured by many cultural influences and traditions, coming together to form new patterns and new stories.
Soon’s writing combines the subtle yet powerful pathos and social critique of Eileen Chang with a literary celebration of everyday life, peppered with glimpses of history with a capital H, reminiscent of Xi Xi’s plain leaf literature. Like Xi Xi, Soon foregrounds personal affairs but allows glimpses of momentous historical events slip through, such as the tide of emigration following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989: “On my way home, the sound of the nightly news wafted through from TV sets behind store windows, reporting that tomorrow the British would announce how many Hong Kongers would receive the permit to be UK citizens” (38). Yeo Wei Wei’s direct translation of wonderful nicknames like “Carefree Yu” and “Frost Liu” also add to the delightfully Xi Xi-esque atmosphere.
Soon’s stories honour the artistic and creative side of artisanal crafts using individual characters with a flair for, and loyalty toward, their work as the red thread through the fabric of the compilation. In “Jade Butterflies”, Soon takes advantage of the close association between craftsperson and crafted object to critique the commodification and exploitation of (often women) workers. By writing about the intangible cultural craft of opera, whose product—song—cannot be separated from the person producing it, she makes her point even stronger, as the protagonist puts it “We are not goods. Buy us out? You think you have so much power. If we don’t agree, you won’t be able to buy us out either” (123). Despite the culturally sanctioned practice of “buying out” singers to become concubines, the protagonist insists that she has, if not absolute choice, then at least the right of veto.
Later in the story, Soon uses the same symbolic identification of craftsperson and artwork to comment on the objectification of women as aesthetic ornaments of pleasure and entertainment. She lets the male protagonist and “philanthropic protector” of young opera singers realise that his singing concubines are not mere ornaments but whole persons: “‘I thought the two of you sang for enjoyment. How did singing a bit of opera lead to all these tears?’ ‘All of you think that opera is fun and entertainment. You don’t realise that our singing comes from our hearts” (111). The pretty face and pleasing voice of the opera singer hides a complex person with a life of pain, pleasure, and hard work. In this way, Soon reverses the objectification process so that the artist is revealed as more than a human knitting machine and the crafted artwork is understood to hold their passions and memories. The emotive power of lovingly crafted objects is a theme that recurs throughout the compilation, like the scene where a handful of jade butterfly buttons given at a lovers’ parting in Guangdong turns up in Singapore half a century later and helps the long-lost lovers reunite: “Ah! Those jade butterflies, those jade buttons, they were like spirits, drawing this relationship, which had spanned half a century, to a satisfying conclusion” (133).
Yeo Wei Wei’s translation combines the softness of the many moving stories with a sense of structural stiffness, like a piece of beautifully embroidered cloth. It also lends the stories a slightly old-fashioned air that is quite charming, like listening to your grandmother reminisce about her youth.
In Diasporic, processes of intercultural exchange are explored through chronicles of craft and reveal the inherent diversity of the misleadingly singular noun culture: “I learnt that embroidery started thousands of years ago. I learnt that the goods we made were sold not only in China, but also in other countries, that they were exported and even sent to competitions abroad. I learnt that apart from Guangdong or Yue embroidery, there is also Xiang or Hunan embroidery, Su or Suzhou embroidery, and Shu or Sichuan embroidery; Guangdong embroidery encompassed the embroidery produced in workshops like ours, as well as that of the women at home in the city and countryside, and the Li tribe on Hainan Island” (97). Like the artisanal crafts it celebrates, the craft of writing that Diasporic embodies is a cross-cultural product of multilingual experiences and multiple mutable translations that continues its journey into new languages and new lives.
The ancient pages of the book before me are rumpled by water damage, the lower right corner of each page is stained brown and all but torn off, it smells musty and would feel sticky were I allowed to touch it. This object is a product of repeated multisensory reading sessions. It is a volume of choral sheet music from the European Middle Ages and its pages are marked by the audible breath of the singers, as well as by the touch of their fingers, hastily turning the page in time for the next verse. Holding it in their hands, they viewed the sheet music with their eyes and translated it into sound with their brains and vocal cords. The temperature and moisture of the room and the bodies in it merged with the sounds and became a visual imprint, a tactile trace of a melody heard long ago.
As this description of one object from the small but wondrous exhibition “Sensational Books” (2022) at the Weston Library in Oxford shows, the boundaries between sensory categories—and between physical and social aspects of sensation—are as permeable as they are practical. What is “a sense” really? How many are there, and might they not differ between periods, cultures, bodies, and social contexts? These are some of the questions posed by contemporary sensory studies, a field that combines sociological, anthropological, and historical approaches to diversify and nuance our understanding of what sensation means, has meant, and can mean. It is highly fitting that Sensing China, a new and very welcome addition to this cross-disciplinary area of scholarship, begins with a deconstruction of the very term “sense.”
It is this flexible approach to multi- and cross-sensory realms that Shengqing Wu and Xuelei Huang instill in the reader by beginning the introductory chapter to their edited volume with a quote from Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書 that includes the lines “colour can appear to embody temperature, sound embody form, heat and cold have weight and smell solidity” (1). To Qian’s poetic rumination on synaesthesia (通感), Wu and Huang add that their own objective is to “offer a critical investigation of a variety of sensory phenomena, representations, and discourses in Chinese cultural history, and of modern transformations of sensory culture in particular” (3). With a mind firmly focused on sensory collaboration, transformation, and context, rather than sensory systematics, the reader can begin to explore the manifold methodological and disciplinary perspectives in the following eleven chapters.
The volume is chronologically arranged in four parts—Part 1: Understanding the Senses in Traditional Culture; Part 2: Reconfiguring the Senses and Modern Sensibility; Part 3: Socialist Corporeality, Sensorium and Memory; and Part 4: Senses, Media and Postmodernity—covering sensory culture in China from as early as 500 BCE to well into the 2000s (followed by an epilogue). This makes it easier for readers interested in specific periods to find their way. However, when reading all the chapters (and I encourage you to do so, because insights are not limited to historical facts but also include innovative methodologies and inspiring analyses), shared themes surface. Although a cursory inspection of the table of contents seem to reveal that many of the chapters focus on individual senses, most of them end up demonstrating that no sense works in isolation and that sensation is always social and quite often emotional as well. Instead of proceeding through the chapters in order, below I survey the chapters with an eye toward their shared themes and concerns, as well as highlighting key arguments and insights; to save space, I refer directly to the authors rather than the full title of each chapter.
Jane Geaney, author of the pioneering On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought, reminds us that the notion of “a sense” as a universal concept is the first obstacle we need to dismantle to gain a deeper understanding of sensory experiences, thoughts, and transformations across time. She begins by destabilizing any easy translation of the Chinese term 官 guan as “senses that inform and/or confuse the heart-mind (心 xin)” and goes on to “reassess the very idea of an early Chinese concept of ‘sense’” (19). Geaney shows that early texts were not very systematic in their use of the term guan and that although guan sometimes substitutes for specific sensory organs such as the eye or the ear, i.e., the physical forms by which we grasp the world, it is also used for less conventional “senses” such as happiness, form, name, and more, leading her to conclude that “we cannot infer that guan replaces a general category term like ‘sense’” (20). In short, when reading early Chinese texts, we tend to treat guan as a dead metaphor when, as Geaney demonstrates, it was still very much alive and flexible.
Like Geaney, Paolo Santangelo deconstructs the notion of a “sense” and adds an important affective dimension to our understanding of sensation when he notes that the modern term ganjue 感覺 “makes no distinction between mental and physical feelings” and that “social and moral effects of the senses remain the basis of debate on senses” in Ming and Qing sources (43). Sensation, according to Santangelo, is not exclusively physical but inherently social and emotional as well. He employs this position to delve into the social aspects of scent as a marker of cultural and gendered identity that “signals the unity of the physical and social body [and] transfers ideological and social distinctions to a visceral level” (52). Xuelei Huang continues Santangelo’s exploration of the relationship between scent and identity to analyse how specific fragrances not only set social groups apart but can also act as medium through which one may live out a fantasy of belonging to another class, gender, or ethnicity through a kind of “smell-voyeurism” (81).
Staying on the theme of emotions and sensory mediations, Carlos Rojas analyses mediated touch as an enhanced form of intimacy. He notes that because the sense of touch is surrounded and guarded by norms and taboos, visual mediation allows vicarious tactile interchanges where direct touch is not possible due to social convention—as between father and son in Song Dong’s 宋冬 artworks—or because of sexual normativity—as with the male lovers in Wong Kar-wai 王家衛 and Zhang Yuan’s 張元films. Shengqing Wu likewise examines the confluences between visuality and tactility in her study of how Chinese cinemagoers in the 1910s and 1920s learned a new way of kissing from the actors on the screen and went on to savor the smell and taste of the sweet (甜蜜) kiss that was the product of this multisensory mimesis. One could extend this historical survey backwards from the contemporary norms regarding men touching men that Rojas analyzes, through Wu’s description of the visual introduction of new heterosexual kissing standards in the early twentieth century, and on to premodern Chinese medicine, where, as Elisabeth Hsu has shown, rules regarding who could touch the female body required diagnostics on women to be performed through the medium of a silk cord to avoid direct skin contact.
In my own work on literary sensory studies, I have been inspired by the idea of whole-body sensation (身體感) proposed and developed in the anthology Body/Object Nuances: Research on Material Things and Bodily Sensations, edited by 余舜德 Yu Shuenn-Der.  It would have been exciting if more of the chapters in Sensing China engaged directly with the broader field of sensory studies, taking up comparisons with findings from other areas, disciplines, and periods as well as with new theories and conceptualizations of sensation.
Jie Li’s chapter stands out for its introduction of a new and radically cross-sensory concept, anchored in her literal translation of 热闹 renao (lively) as “hot noise”—a multisensory term that is “at once visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory, and haptic” (202). This brilliantly conceived analytical fulcrum allows Li to examine the whole-body experience of open-air cinema in Mao-era China from a variety of different and overlapping sensory perspectives. Above all, Li shows that the physical surroundings of open-air cinema were as important as the content of the film being screened. Even when a screening was suspended due to frequent breakdowns in the mobile equipment, the canvas screen itself, blowing in the wind, became a spectacle known as “white cloth film” (205). When in motion, the sensory symphony on screen was coupled with an equally entertaining sensory disharmony off screen, consisting of shouts, bickering, and laughter from neighbors all around. The “phantom commensality” (211) of filmic feasts was accompanied by the festive smells and tastes from homemade snacks and street vendors. As Lena Henningsen shows in her chapter, partaking by proxy is a theme that continues to resurface in the “spiritual feasts” of recalling past meals during times of hunger, which is given permanence through inscription in literary texts (178).
Returning to the hot noise of open-air cinema, Li describes how the film itself was bodily produced by people on manual generators, pedalling to provide the needed electricity, and consumed not only optically (with even the visual impression bracketed by the heads of other spectators) but corporeally and socially by the crowd as well. The very nature of open-air cinema led to an “intense awareness of one’s body between the sky and earth, vulnerable to wind, rain, snow, mosquitoes, heat and cold,” while the social dimension took center stage when film screenings were used for political purposes as well as for matchmaking (215-216). The communal nature of such sensory experiences is not only of academic interest, as Xiaobing Tang argues in his chapter, they have been instrumental in transforming Chinese society. Stressing the need for historians to understand the bodily experiences as well as the material circumstances of historical subjects, he concludes that when it comes to 1930s China, “unless we truly grasp the sensory implications as well as the affective power of mass singing, our understanding of a formative stage of modern Chinese culture may remain incomplete and inadequate” (143).
In open-air cinema, the social, contextual, and collaborative aspects of sensation naturally come to the fore. However, by using a multisensory analytical term like hot noise, other researchers could tease out more subtle but equally somatic dimensions of pursuits usually viewed with a visual bias. After all, even lone reading sessions in quiet rooms are bodily practises, situated in time, space, and language—affected by expectation, mood, paratext, room temperature, hunger, ambient noise, memory, and more.
Celebrating and employing multisensory frameworks, however, is not without hazards, as two of the chapters in this volume point out. In her chapter, Laikwan Pang analyses how Maoist romantic aesthetics, despite claiming to represent the materiality of everyday life, could be “understood as anti-material and anti-corporeal” (166) because of the priority given to the abstract ideological message that the graphic bodies were there to convey. In a similar vein, Kirk Denton cautions that, although involving more senses can help museums become more than “mausoleums,” the immersive quality of sensory exhibitions risk blinding the visitor to the constructedness of the narratives on display, their selectivity, and the things that are absent from them.
Despite such possible pitfalls, the value of Sensing China and its multisensory paradigm is (at least) twofold. First, it adds a new corpus of studies from Chinese languages and cultures to the ongoing global research on sensation and the social; second, the collective method of “(re)thinking through the senses” (3) may form an exciting and fruitful framework for future engagements with material grassroots history, comparative literature, and immersive fieldwork.
Although the Weston Library exhibition did display books chewed by toddlers, most of us have stopped tasting books in such a direct way. Yet there is no denying that books are more than just visual. That is why reading with a cup of coffee on a sunny bench is not the same as reading hungrily in a library sustained only by the musty scent of old pages or reading on a tram full of teenagers because you just have to finish this book you have for review. The Weston exhibition posed the question of what the growth of e-books might do to our reading habits and to the multisensory aspects of reading. Well, a few years ago I saw a young man on a bus in Shanghai flicking at the virtual page edges of his e-reader. Clearly, tactility was still a big part of his reading experience. Our bodies don’t just go away, despite all the screens we surround ourselves with. There is no question that sensory habits transform us just as we transform them, as Barbara Mittler appropriately observes in her epilogue to the volume, but often in inventive and unforeseen ways. There is always more to study, always more to sense.
 Geaney, Jane. On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002).
 The role that odor plays in creating and sustaining cultural hierarchies was emphasized by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott in their joint monograph Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (New York: Routledge, 1994).
 Hsu, Elisabeth. “Tactility and the Body in Early Chinese Medicine.” Science in Context 18, no. 1 (2005): 7-34.
 Møller-Olsen, Astrid. Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2022).
 Yu, Shuenn-Der 余舜德, ed., Ti wu ruwei: wu yu shentigan de yanjiu 體物入微/ 物與身體感的研究 (Body/object nuances: research on material things and bodily sensations). (Taipei: National Tsing-hua University Press, 2008).
In Of Forests and Humans, Monika Gaenssbauer and Nicholas Olczak present anglophone readers with the narrative experimentation, complex urbanism and literary variety of contemporary fiction from Hong Kong. The volume contains six well-chosen short stories published between 1992 and 2011 and introduces a variety of different literary styles, from Xi Xi’s 西西 surreal fabulations in “Elzéard Bouffier’s Forest” to Chan Lai Kuen’s 陳麗娟 science-fiction-flavoured urban labyrinths in “E6880**(2) from Block 6, building 20, wing E”.
Each short story is followed by a close reading by the editor-translators, which provides cultural and historical context, suggestions for relevant theoretical approaches, as well as their reading of the piece. This is meant as a pathway into the text rather than a definitive interpretation, for, as the editors rightly acknowledge, the “strength of many of the stories in this collection [is] that they might draw very different responses and interpretations from different kinds of readers”. For instance, where Gaenssbauer and Olczak were reminded of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s short story “The Tunnel” when reading Wang Pu’s 王璞 “Greek Sandals”, an image from “The Tunnel” in Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams instantly surfaced in my mind when I read the story. It is interesting that the symbolic structure of the tunnel often used to represent the link between conscious wakefulness and subconscious longings and emotions so readily solicits personal and immediate responses in different readers. If Hong Kong literature has a common denominator despite its plurality of forms and voices, it is the willingness to embrace and invite, at times even demand, multiple, contrasting and complicated readings.
As the editors note, Xi Xi’s story is intertextual in setting, writing itself into and through Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees”. It is a story of the cyclical withering and rebirth of a utopian forest, half-hearsay, half-imaginary, and slowly being translated, it forms the memory of the second-person protagonist’s father through the protagonist’s sensory experiences and onto the pages of the story. This situates the story firmly on the boundary between memory and fiction, and reality and imagination, allowing us to read it as a metafictional comment on how such processes become intertwined in literary narratives. The story also has an ecocritical aftertaste when, in the space of a single page, the utopian forest of the father’s recollections comes to life only to dry up again: “Elzéard Bouffier’s forest unfolded like a flower, this green sea of trees changed the area into a paradise where people lived peacefully […] The dried out well also came to life again […]” and a few lines further down, “the last drops of water had dried up, the river turned into a clay-grey canal. You did not know what had happened in the meantime to turn the gardens into a wasteland and make Elzéard Bouffier’s forest completely disappear.” Several utopian intertexts spring to mind, including Tao Yuanming’s 陶淵明 famous fable “Peach Blossom Spring”, which depicts a hidden site where human society has been preserved in its natural and unspoiled state. At the same time, it is also metatextual, describing how the reading experience brings to life the forest of memory that has all but disappeared with time. In the end, when the protagonist arrives at the barren memory of a long-gone forest and finds the last of Bouffier’s acorns, the cycle is ready to start over as the seeds sprout a new story, a new life.
Several of the stories experiment with the popular genre of urban romance, but they do so in completely unexpected ways by delving into darker aspects of city life. This includes depictions of deadly violence in Jessie Chu’s 朱艷紅 “Wonderland”, a story that flirts with the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction without giving in to any of the clichés. Instead, it uses the crime fiction format to explore contrasting yet intermingled experiences of alienation and proximity in a global big city.
Hon Lai-chu’s 韓麗珠 “Water Pipe Forest” is sublime in its depiction of the city-body, using as it does the image of plumbing to form a corporeal link between human interior and urban exterior. At the same time as the building across from the narrator-protagonist’s home is demolished due to faulty plumbing and bursting pipes, her grandmother is admitted to hospital with a gastric ailment establishing a symbolic parallel. On a more explicit note, the narrator identifies directly with her building through the similarity between water pipes and gastric tubes: “On the fourth day without water I still heard no noise in the water pipe. I felt restless, as if part of my body was missing.” Playing with sensory perceptions of watery noises gurgling through buildings and bodies, the story replicates and reverses the relationship between citizen and city in the relationship between reader and text. Just as the sound of water in the pipes recalls and affirms the protagonist own body, so does the watery symphony of the text resound in the body of the reader.
Of Forests and Humans promises to be a great resource for students of literature, Chinese studies, and/or translation studies, yet I can’t help wishing that the editors had opted for a bilingual text. This would have allowed curious anglophone readers to acquaint themselves with traditional characters while enjoying high-quality literature and to explore the paths chosen by the translators as a practical exercise in translation. Despite this omission, the fact that the original title and source of each story is given at the end of each translation is a terrific help that will permit readers to pursue analyses of the original texts or follow up on other works by the authors showcased in this collection. The bibliography at the end of the volume likewise provides a good starting point for readers who want to engage theoretically and historically with Hong Kong literature.
Read together, these stories are examples of innovative approaches to genres such as urban romance, science fiction, crime fiction and showcase the diversity and originality of Hong Kong literature. The editors have wisely included highly celebrated as well as lesser-known authors, ensuring there is something for both veterans and newcomers to explore. Some of the translations feel a little stiff while others offer a smoother read and in a few instances something appears to have gone wrong in the typesetting, baffling the reader with recurring light-grey bits of text.
The title Of Forests and Humans, as well as providing a thematic focus on the jungle-like qualities of urban life, creates an anticipation of narrative engagements with the spatial that are both organic and unconventional, an expectation the stories each fulfil in their individual way. Here, skyscrapers rise like huge tree trunks above the humans navigating the dynamic and metamorphous cityscape. People look at one another’s faces and see overlapping images of intimate strangers and alienated kinfolk. Readers get lost in unfamiliar storylines, only to glimpse their own memories at every fictional street corner. There is certainly enough to discover and celebrate in contemporary Hong Kong literature and now a little more of it is available in English.
We discussed sex as an arena for power struggles as well as a last expression of individual freedom under repressive conditions and forced collectivisation.
In particular, I read Wang’s focus on illicit sexualities that deviate from the perceived norm -such as non-monogamous or homosexual relationships- as cynical but in some sense hopeful explorations of bodily freedom in situations of extreme control, in this case prison (in ‘Gentle like Water’) and rural work camps for ‘educated youth’ 知青 (in ‘The Golden Age’).
Faraway is a story of transitions: between life and death, between losing a parent and becoming one. In Jeremy Tiang‘s able translation a further set of transitions take place: between reader and writer (the translator starts out as one and becomes the other), between one language and another.
The novel chronicles Taiwanese protagonist Lo Yi-Chin’s (the author’s fictionalized counterpart) struggle with health care bureaucracy as he does his best to bring home his comatose father who has suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while holidaying in mainland China.
The holiday was the elder Lo’s first return to his ancestral Jiangxi province (and to the Chinese mainland) since 1949 when he left his first wife and son behind and fled to Taiwan with the Kuomintang troops. After his stroke, the trip that began as a homecoming transitions into an awkward meeting between two long-separated branches of the Lo clan: the Taiwanese family and their mainland relatives.
Reading Faraway, I felt constantly curious about what the women of this drama felt. Did the abandoned first wife feel resentful towards her younger and more affluent successor? Or curios about her faraway lifestyle? How did she feel about having to recognize and treat as head of the extended family this man whom she had not seen for more than half a century? How did the Taiwanese wife feel about being confronted with a stepson only a decade younger than herself? And, perhaps most of all, I wondered about the protagonist’s own wife, left behind in the final stages of pregnancy in an echo of his father’s abandonment of his first wife.
But this is a story of fathers and sons. Of the life-changing transition from being someone’s son to being someone’s father. Of the baffling responsibility of suddenly finding yourself the stand-in for the debilitated patriarch, head of a large family you hardly know, much less understand.
One of the lingering tastes that characterizes Faraway is irony. The narrative exposes both the blatant prejudice that the urbane, Taiwanese protagonist feels for his hillbilly mainland relatives and the ambivalent emotions of indebtedness and contempt they evoke in him.
This theme is poetically mediated through continuous references to primeval lifeforms. Such imagery is used to signify the mental regression of the father after his brain hemorrhage – “this old man, so stuffed full of tubes, like a fossilized crawling bug” – as well as the protagonist’s mainland roots, so distant and primitive they seem almost prehistoric.
My overall impression of the novel is a very dense narrative, a paper river overflowing with a tremendous number of tedious details upon the waves of which glitter sudden bursts of simple and breathtaking literary beauty, confidently and delicately translated by Tiang: “I stood behind her, gazing at her profile, which was very like my wife’s but drawn with a thicker pencil. She told this story in the gloom, leaving indelible marks of sadness.”
And the boring and excessive details are there for a reason. Collectively they make up the form and shape of despair. Faraway is the fictionalized account of Lo Yi-Chin’s own experiences of the deep grief and eyewatering paperwork associated with a sudden and serious illness abroad. Rather than spelling out the emotional responses of the main characters, the narrative expresses the feelings of abandonment, meaninglessness, and Kafkaesque bewilderment through painstakingly detailed accounts of everyday consumption and bureaucracy.
Lo’s style is cinematic, a style that his fictional counterpart seems to share according to one of his friends, who asks him “Hey, Lo, how come your stories are so weird – all those characters with blurry faces running around huge, empty, ‘abandoned’ spaces?” Both author and narrator are drawn to “no-places” (such as airports or hospitals) where, outwardly, nothing much happens, but emotionally, everything is at stake. And they convey this duality through terse narrative teeming with supposedly unimportant little details floating upon, and concealing, an ocean of emotions beneath.
And the faces of the novel’s characters do seem blurred. If we get to know the narrator -the camera man of the cinematic narrative- at all, it is through his framing of the views we are presented with. Everything else remains a background of blurred faces.
The perfect filmic ending comes at page 227, when the narrator walks into the sunset with his son: “In this way, I led this beloved person sadly through a landscape of true emptiness, the outlines of our faces blurring into shadow in the faint light.” Here, all the metafictional elements come together in a shot of the father and son surrounded by emptiness, blurred into archetypes.
But the novel doesn’t end here. In reality, death is often messy, disgusting, boring, fatiguing, and drawn-out. And so, Faraway continues to tell the story of a fatherless man who struggles to be a father amidst the absurd chaos of everyday life, of a young boy for whom death is now a recurring part of life. The text ends in a horrible shopping mall, littered with grotesque animal corpses discarded as consumer goods. The transitions continue, hopefuly with more of Lo’s work in translation.
Despite spending a lot of my working hours with literary texts, my readings are not always as immersive as I would like. With the seven stories that make up the translated anthology Queer Taiwanese Literature, I couldn’t help myself. Each one sucked me into its wormhole rabbit hole and when I came out again, everything seemed subtly different.
Spanning the last 50 years, these seven short stories featuring Taiwanese queer experiences have been expertly selected by queer historian Howard Chiang and brilliantly translated. Under the banner of tongzhi literature (同志文学), they include sexual and social identities that are or have been perceived as deviant including asexuality, transgender, transsexuality, homosexuality, and other queer (non)categories.
The term tongzhi originally meant “comrade” in Sun Yat-sen’s usage and continues to do so in both Taiwanese and Mainland China formal political discourse. Wah-shan Chou traces the term back to the 3000-year-old Yijing (易經 Book of Changes) and writes that it was appropriated by activists for the first Hong Kong lesbian and gay film festival in 1989. He explains that “’homosexual’ was dropped as it was a medical term denoting sickness and pathology. Even positive categories such as ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ and ‘queer’ are Anglo-Saxon constructs with specific histories that fail to capture the indigenous features of Chinese same-sex relations” (Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies 2). He highlights that the term is not only about sexual preference but also about acknowledging non-hetero forms of kinship and family. Indeed, most of the stories in this anthology are not about sexual experiences, but about love and pain, about rejection and acceptance, about forging identities and making flexible (social) space.
I love (this anthology is wonderful, I can’t help starting each paragraph like this) how menstruation blood runs a track of living, red sameness that simultaneously disgusts and draws the sexually ambivalent protagonist towards her friend Ann in Li Ang’s “Late Spring” (1975, translated by Yichun Liu).
I love how the cityscapes of San Francisco and Taipei blend in Chi Ta-wei’s meandering, Ginsberg-inspired “Howl” (1998 translated by Yahia Zhengtang Ma) — a story of the terminally ill but irrepressible man Amoeba who prefers a stranger’s reluctant hospitality to his family home as he roams the streets on his final, lonely journey. The name Amoeba is apt as it denotes a single-cell organism with no fixed body shape that reproduces asexually and can be parasitic as this one seems to the narrator to be. It also recalls Chi’s earlier novella “The Membranes” from 1995.
I love the smoke-hoarsened and casually open-minded talk of the tribal mothers in Dadelavan Ibau’s “Muakai” (2001, translated by Kyle Shernuk) and its haunting of ancient myths from the present through queer reinterpretation.
I love the time-fuck of the eternal, futuristic stone age evoked in Hsu Yu-hsuan’s “Violet” (2008, translated by Howard Chiang and Shengchi Hsu) and the protagonist’s lifestyle cocktail of illegal drugs and fitness health foods needed to survive his white-collar working life.
I love the brutal naivete of Lin Yu-hsuan’s “A Daughter” (2014, translated by Shengchi Hsu) and the image of the young boy finally transforming into the young woman he always was. Through her own body work, she provides a space for both her dad and the text to transform into something unexpectedly complicated and gorgeous as well: “The gown’s zip is stuck halfway on Dad’s back, faintly revealing her blossoming age spots through the layers of lace.”
I love the conclusion to Chen Xue‘s jumble of queer and futuristic reproduction strategies, excess of ovaries, and phantom wombs in “A Nonexistent Thing” (2020, translated by Wen-chi Li and Colin Bramwell) that “what is important is that you can write. Write her out.” A fitting and hopeful end to an anthology of struggle, hurt, and haunting beauty.
Above all, I love all the poetic disillusionment coupled with the uncompromising individuality and bloody-mindedness of the main characters in Tsao Li-chuan’s novella “On Her Gray Hair Etcetera” (1996, translated by Jamie Tse). Just read it.
I would have liked to see the original titles for each work displayed alongside the English translation but appreciate that the date of publication and short context of each story is available in Howard Chiang’s introduction so that one can chose to read it before, after, or not at all. The many translators, the editor, and the editorial assistant are all duly credited and introduced at the end of the book.
If you expect to have an overview of Taiwan’s tongzhi literature after reading the anthology, you are mistaken. The term may unite against heteronormativity, but it also embraces heterogeneity. What you do get is a body dive into an ocean of multitudinous voices, of individual pains and perspectives, a promise that here is something here to explore in text, body, and social world, quite possibly for the rest of your life.
Introduction by Howard Chiang
1: Late Spring by Li Ang (translated by Yichun Liu)
2: On Her Gray Hair Etcetera by Tsao Li-chuan (translated by Jamie Tse)
3: Howl by Ta-wei Chi (translated by Yahia Zhengtang Ma)
4: Muakai by Dadelavan Ibau (translated by Kyle Shernuk)
5: Violet by Hsu Yu-chen (translated by Howard Chiang and Shengchi Hsu)
6: A Daughter by Lin Yu-hsuan (translated by Shengchi Hsu)
7: A Nonexistent Thing by Chen Xue (translated by Wen-chi Li and Colin Bramwell)
Sinopticonis the brainchild of Xueting Christine Ni who has done an amazing work of collecting, translating, and introducing 13 new SF stories from contemporary China. The stories span two decades and incorporate a variety of themes from galactic existentialism in Han Song’s “Tombs of the Universe” (宇宙墓碑 1991) to Ma Boyong’s hardboiled-style space age take on Chinese holiday traffic chaos in “The Great Migration” (大冲运 2021).
The overweight of male protagonists, casual gender stereotyping, and the odd dash of not too subtle patriotism made me a bit tired at times, but luckily several of the stories depart from this pattern. Jiang Bo’s “Starship: Library” (宇宙尽头的书店) combines a structure reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” with Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey to explore the difference between knowledge and learning. I prefer Ni’s evocative title over the more literal translation “the bookshop at the end of the universe” (the Douglas Adams reference is getting a little worn), and the idea of a roaming library piloted by a contemporary incarnation of an ancient Chinese goddess will excite bibliophiles of all galaxies.
Each story is followed by an anecdotal epilogue introducing the author and offering a mini-interpretation of the narrative, which, combined with foot notes explaining Chinese terms and idioms as well as a list of author bios at the end of the book, is a bit too much guidance for my taste. But who am I to talk, I’m offering up my own readings all the time including right now. Anyway, one can just skip on to the next story.
Other interventions are more fruitful, like the decision to title Anna Wu’s story “戴珍珠耳环的少女” (the girl with the pearl earring) in the original Dutch as “Meisje met de Parel” to avoid confusion with other literary and cinematographic works inspired by of Vermeer’s painting. Adding another language to the layers of time and pigments that envelop the story only makes the fabric of the narrative more intriguing. Each English title is subtitled by the original Chinese title, which, as well as being is enormously helpful for researchers, is also a simple and beautiful way of reminding the reader of the multiplicity of languages and people involved in bring these stories to them.
Recurring topics include a renewed appreciation for the cultural history of Earth stemming from a futurist and/or intergalactic perspective in Han Song and Tang Fei’s stories, posthuman explorations of the humaneness of cyborgs in Wang Jinkang and Nian Yu’s work, and new regimes for AI that include social intelligence (Hao Jingfang) and process-oriented learning (Jiang Bo). An interesting deviation from classic SF figures of robots and spaceships is A Que’s “Flower of the Other Shore” (彼岸花) – an ecocritical zombie story featuring a Rome and Juliet romance between an “uncontaminated” (not yet subjected to the zombie virus) human woman and a male protagonist who is a hybrid between a Chinese jiangshi (僵尸 stiff corpse/jumping vampire) and a Hollywood zombie. Xueting Christine Ni talks about this story in the most recent episode of the Sinophone Unrealities podcast available here.
I definitely enjoyed some stories more than others, but all in all, am delighted and grateful to Ni and her crew for all their work in making this beautiful collection of authors and stories available to an Anglophone audience: A new addition our collective starship library.
Foreword, Xia Jia Introduction, Xuenting Christine Ni The Last Save, Gu Shi Tombs of the Universe, Han Song Qiankun and Alex, Hao Jingfang Cat’s Chance in Hell, Nian Yu The Return of Adam, Wang Jinkang Rendezvous: 1937, Zhao Haihong The Heart of the Museum, Tang Fei The Great Migration, Ma Boyong Meisje met de Parel, Anna Wu Flower of the Other Shore, A Que The Absolution Experiment, Bao Shu The Tide of Moon City, Regina Kanyu Wang Starship: Library, Jiang Bo
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.
The Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China: From Dreamscapes to Theatricality, Ling Hon Lam (Columbia University Press, May 2018)
Ling Hon Lam encourages us to think of emotions in terms of space; when we sympathize with a character in a play or feel something for another person, that emotion takes place, for it moves us outside ourselves. In Chinese this relation between space and emotion is described by the term qingjing; a scenery of feeling or in Ling’s translation an “emotion-realm”.
In Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China, Ling presents a critical history of Chinese theatre evolving from early religious performances without human audiences, through the introduction of sympathetic spectatorship to a new understanding of theatricality in a Chinese context. Through his “genealogies” of various aspects of Chinese theatricality—often described in relation to their European counterparts—human emotions are recast as external events that take place between individuals rather than within a subject.
As a preliminary, Ling seeks to reconceptualize the foundation of modern drama in ancient religious rituals involving dream travel by shifting the European focus on ritual dream theatre as “making present” another world to the Chinese focus on dreamscapes of “deliverance” and thus repairing the “reduction of spatiality to psychology, [which has] unfortunately shaped the way we understand theatricality.”
Ling introduces to Anglophone readers the concept of emotion-realm (qingjing 情景) to describe this external emotive situation. The word qingjing, when used in daily language, refers simply to a situation or a state of affairs, but by breaking up the term and translating each character literally as qing = emotion and jing = realm or landscape, the resulting concept of “emotion-realm” enhances the focus on human feeling in relation to space. Historically, Ling explains, the connection between emotion and spatiality in theatre was brought about through the introduction of spectatorship and the construction of sympathy in the spectator. Where ritual dream theatre was performed only for the gods or the diseased, the introduction of human spectators who could recognize and sympathize with the events on stage created an intermediate space or “emotion-realm” between the dream world of the drama and the experiential world of the viewer.
Due to its ambitious scope and serious engagement with previous scholarship as well as its insistence on linking concepts of theatricality to ontological philosophical discourse, Ling’s book is an extremely demanding read, which requires some degree of patience, especially in the non-specialist reader, with long convoluted sentences of highly abstract meaning.
The four core chapters are very well-researched and combine critical readings of classical Chinese dramas with contemporary theories and concepts from object ontology and affect theory to gender and performance studies. Chinese terms and models are introduced and used in dialogue with English and German terminology in innovative and enlightening ways, for example in the deconstruction of the phrase sheshen chudi 设身处地 (putting oneself in the other’s situation) in comparison with Einfühlung and sympathy.
The prologue and parts of the final chapter, however, depart from the historically informed genealogies of the core chapters to engage in semi-philosophical discussions, in which Heideggerian arguments are used as premises for conclusions without being themselves critically assessed. While the connection of space and emotion in the term “emotion-realm” is both interesting and pioneering when used in concrete analysis, the prolonged abstract discussion of it in terms of 20th century European philosophy, but without the internal logic of philosophical argument, seems less useful.
Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China is a heavy read with rewarding and informative rabbit holes into the development of essential aspects of Chinese drama in comparison with their European counterparts. The book combines an extensive knowledge of theatre history with a creative use of contemporary theory to critically re-examine the formation of spectatorship and theatricality in a Chinese context.
Review of “Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers: An Anthology”, edited by Jonathan Stalling, Lin Tai-man and Yanwing Leung.
In his foreword to this anthology, Jonathan Stalling eloquently describes how “Taiwan literature, like its complex writing systems, exists as a palimpsest of the cultural contact points, overlapping languages, peoples, and histories that have paved the way for one of the most vibrant literary scenes in the Sinosphere and the world beyond.” The aptness of this delightful description is borne out by what follows, namely 11 diverse, yet eminently readable, short stories and essays written between 1976 and 2013.
If any single thing connects all these stories, it is intimacy. Each of these very different narratives (some are simple and anecdotal, others elaborately literary and still others read like personal reminiscences or diary entries) circles around human relationships. The array of intimate relationships include the emancipation of a meek young woman from her egocentric husband; the invention of a much longed for imaginary son by a single woman tired of playing the field; the extremely brief but life-changing mentor-student liaison between a successful fake socialite and an up-coming rich-husband hunter, as well as the parasitic mother daughter bond presented in sensuous and colorful prose—almost like a revolting yet fascinating surrealist painting.
These stories also possess a kind of sensuality, which begets a different type of intimacy—between reader and text this time—that is deeply satisfying and engaging: interior and private smellscapes in “A Place of One’s Own” share the protagonist’s sensation of how “body odor from Liang-ch’i floated up toward her, the faint smell of cigarette smoke and perspiration. She had never had a male in this room before.”
In “Taipei Train Station”, the mind’s eye of the reader is called upon visualize the public and exterior space of a city where “buses dashed over streets, their metallic sides aglow in the light. The shine and swish they left in their wake enveloped the city as if with fish scales that flashed with every move.”
These stories describe Taiwanese society from 1980s to 2010s (with the notable exception of the final story “The Fish”, which—dating from 1976 and dealing with the Cultural Revolution in mainland China—hangs on like an out of place appendix) and thus also touch on the tremendous changes in economy, politics and lifestyle that took place during those years.
A literary showcase of life in such transitional times is displayed by the generational conflict at the heart of Chung Wenyin’s “The Travels and Lover of a Junior High Girl”. Here, the protagonist’s mother, who was born in poverty and has finally risen to a life of wealth and luxury, refuses let go of her Gucci purse to go swim with her children. Her daughter, on the other hand, who has grown up in relative affluence and financial security, longs for untraditional love affairs and a simple life closer to nature: “I truly wished that my mother would come and see the fates of other women — take off her expensive shoes, tread barefoot on the earth, and feel the chill or heat.”
The cultural and linguistic amalgamation, which Stalling describes as characteristic of Taiwan literature, is exemplified in several of the stories: in “The Story of Hsiao-Pi” the Taiwanese Mrs Pi struggles to speak Mandarin with her Guomindang husband; in “Seed of the Rape Plant” the protagonist’s Japanese housewife schooling proves redundant in modern-day Taiwan; and the narrator in “The Party Girl” comes to realize that a knowledge of foreign languages is essential in order to crash and successfully shine at fashionable gatherings.
But why a separatist anthology of only female authors? Dr Olga Castro wrote last year in in The Conversation that “in an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s.”
Our world, however, especially when it comes to translated works, is far from ideal. According to Castro (who cites the VIDA Count of women in the literary arts), “generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies…”
This anthology therefore does its bit to redress the balance. And from a Sinophone perspective, it bears witness to the remarkably rich literary scene in Taiwan as well as to the fact that a not insignificant number of the island’s best authors happen to be female.
Fortunately, these stories have more in common than the fact that they are written by Taiwanese women. They are short and delicious samples of human curiosity, humor, suffering, politics and love. They are very well translated and well mixed as if for a literary buffet. The editors have thoughtfully provided bibliographical information on each story’s original publication so that the hungry reader can easily sample more of new discovered favorites.