Cannibals and May Fourth at 100

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

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

Vera Schwarcz and Monika Gänssbauer

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

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

Ming Dong Gu, Wang Ning, Jyrki Kallio

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

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

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

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

Literary Sensory Studies at ACCL Changsha 2019

This year’s conference for the Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature will take place at Hunan Normal University in Changsha July 17-19. Together with eminent scholars Michelle Yeh of UC Davis and Melinda Pirazzoli of University of Bologna, I’m hosting a panel on Sensory Literary Studies.

2096272747_cfc8b757eb_b‘What is that?’ you may well ask… Defining sensory studies, anthropologist David Howes writes that ”sensory studies involves a cultural approach to the study of the senses and a sensory approach to the study of culture. It challenges the monopoly that the discipline of psychology has long exercised over the study of the senses and sense perception by foregrounding the sociality of sensation” (Howes 2013).

What I should like to do, is apply some of the insights from this growing field of research to the study of literature as an important cultural practice where sensory vocabulary and concepts are codified and challenged.

14761272204_9b31c9166b_bToday, the cross-disciplinary field of sensory studies encourages us to acknowledge how “sensory experience is socially made and mediated” and to think that senses are “not simply passive receptors. They are interactive, both with the world and each other” (Howes 2013). By comparing culturally and historically diverse sensory modes and codes, as well as seeking to include internal senses such as sense of pain (nociception), of one’s own muscles and organs (proprioception) and temperature (thermoception), researchers are challenging the conventional pentagonal sensorium.

vintage-eye-examination-posterIn this panel, we want to continue the sensory discussion in the literary arena; to think and talk about the ways in which Sinophone fiction and poetry can portray, disrupt and re-conceptualise sensory experience. Our aim is to start an academic conversation about the possibility of ‘Literary Sensory Studies’ and suggest some of the interesting and fruitful paths such a subfield might take. By bringing together sensory analyses of classical poetry, modernist literature and contemporary fiction, we hope to show the concept’s wide-ranging applicability in terms of literary scholarship.

Ecologizing Taiwan: Cities, Sounds and Supersensitivity

On October 13th, the Taiwan Studies Workshop ‘Ecologizing Taiwan: Nature, Society, Culture’ organised by Michelle Yeh and David Der-wei Wang took place at University of California, Davis. Inspired by Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies, the workshop sought to “extend the definition of ecology to encompass social relations and human subjectivity, as well as environmental concerns”.

Ten scholars from across the US and one from faraway Sweden (basking in the Californian sun and finding it a bit hard to focus on academic pursuits) presented their work on aspects of contemporary Taiwanese culture and history in relation to various interpretations of ecology.

I was happy to note that several presenters engaged with sensory aspects of film and fiction, something I myself find particularly interesting:

Ling Zhang from SUNY-Purchase shared her research on aural strategies in Chen Yingzhen’s novellas, including narrative voice, ambient sounds and collective singing.

Pao-Chen Tang from University of Chicago presented an analysis of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film The Assassin from 2015, which focused partly on the animal qualities strived for in martial arts practice and partly on the autistic features of the film’s protagonist and how they enhance her professional prowess. However, it also touched on supersensitivity as a motif in hit man films as well as a stereotype in the representation of people with autism.

Under the title ‘Urban Ecologies: The Flora and Fauna of Fictional Taipei’, I presented my work on the role of plants as markers of place and ethnicity in Chu Tien-hsin’s 朱天心 ‘The old Capital’ 古都 together with the interspecies communities described in Wu Ming-yi’s 吳明益 short stories about Taipei.

My aim was to add an urban dimension to the flourishing discussion about ecoriticism in Taiwanese literature and to argue that the city presents not only a possible but an essential site for human engagement with the so-called ‘natural environment’. Furthermore, I think fictional narratives offer new and less discipline specific ways of engaging with human beings and their curious ant heap cities as part of, rather than anti-thesis to, nature and nature writing (自然写作).

All photos taken by me in Taipei, April 2017.

Intimate Stories from Taiwan

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.

First published for asianreviewofbooks.com

A Rainy Day in Shanghai

During spring 2017, I spent three wonderful months in Shanghai on a research exchange with Fudan University, which consisted mainly of buying a load of books, reading and meeting people and, last but not least, of walking around the city, absorbing all sensory input to my heart’s content.

As literary researchers, we are in grave danger of becoming armchair Sinologists because our entire field of study is brought to us through text: We can access it anytime from anywhere. So once in a while it’s worth the effort to get out there and experience first hand the smell of steaming baozi, the call of street peddlers among honking cars, the vista of the Huangpujiang and the feel of heavy spring rain that we otherwise only read about.

As you can see from this short film, Shanghai’s cityscape is an endearing mix of new and old, Chinese and European, marked by ubiquitous construction sites as well as the more benign Chinese parasol trees (wutongshu 梧桐树). While aggressive urbanisation is rapidly changing, and to some extend deforming, the city every day, examples of old lilong (里弄) lanes and unique Shanghai style architecture still remain to rejoice in.

Without falling into the trap of Shanghai nostalgia, which tend to idealise 1930s Shanghai as a utopian metropolis characterised by the effortless blending of East and West (in reality, the few percent of the population who were Europeans and Americans lived isolated in their own enclaves, while the considerable number of people from other Asian countries, who called Shanghai their home, are largely ignored in this nostalgic narrative), I still attest that the material cityscape of Shanghai itself can be viewed as an utterly enjoyable living display of historical and contemporary cultural diversity, conflict and curiosity.