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.

Is the Author back from the Dead?

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Heidi Yu Huang’s lecture ‘Worlding Hong Kong Literature: Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas’ at the University of Gothenburg’s Bernhard Karlgren seminar series.

One of the interesting side issues that cropped up during question time was the relevance of biographical information in academic literary analysis. Dr. Huang confessed herself fascinated by Dung Kai-cheung’s private life as well as his creative work, and was able to point to many direct influences (Dung wrote his dissertation on Italo Calvino, a fact that will surprise no one familiar with his work) and amusing anecdotes (Dung’s fictional universe is highly geographical and apparently certain sites in his works correspond to places where important events in his own life took place).

File:Roland Barthes Liburutegiko plaka Ahurtin.jpgIf, like me, you have received an education heavily influenced by the structuralist dictum “the author is dead,” you will find yourself shrinking from engaging with any kind of biographical reading. However, in the case of Dung Kai-cheung (and perhaps many postmodern writers), his writing self-consciously portrays literature of any kind as an invented reality that mirrors not the ultimate reality but a conglomerate of personal realities.

Even academic readings always take place from a personal perspective (albeit, hopefully a rigorous and well-informed one), so does writing for that matter, as well as any kind of communication, which is, I think, partly what Dung’s stories make so clear; reality is always already mediated.

So in the spirit of Dung’s pseudo-academic literary style, where do we draw the line between fiction and life? I’m still to brainwashed to do biographical readings, but I’ve stopped discouraging my students from doing so (with the added factor that biographical criticism is much stronger in the Chinese academic tradition).

File:Reading-jester-q75-760x753.jpgAs long as what we are seeking from the author’s life is not a fact sheet (any search for intentionality still seems both impractical and pointless to me), but rather just another perspective, which, along with socio-historical context, literary theory and previous scholarship might help make our independent analysis more interesting, it might not be such a bad thing to include.

As Paris-Sorbonne professor of English literature, Frédéric Regard puts it in a humorous but rather apt essay on this conflict between inclination and indoctrination: “I therefore find myself in an awkward position: I am in desperate need of a theory capable of reconciling my degenerate tendencies [reading literary biographies] with my enviable filiation [as part of the academic establishment]. At the same time, I find myself unable to support nostalgic attempts at reintroducing the ideal of a fixed, ‘authorised’ meaning: the recovery of the author’s ‘intention’ as the unique source of the text is not on my agenda.”

 

Barthes, Roland (1977): ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image—Music—Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Dung, Kai-cheung 董啟章 (2014/1997): Dituji 地圖集. Taipei: Linking Press.

Dung, Kai-cheung (2011): Atlas: The archaeology of an Imaginary City. (Translated by Dung Kai-Cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall). New York: Columbia University Press.

Regard, Frédéric (2000): ‘The Ethics of Biographical Reading: A Pragmatic Approach.’ The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume XXIX, Issue 4, 1.

 

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.

 

Qiu Xiaolong: Crime Fiction Between Languages

On May 3rd, I attended a charming lecture by poet and crime fiction writer Qiu Xiaolong 裘小龙 at New York University’s Shanghai campus. Born on the Puxi side of Shanghai, Qiu embraced the opportunity afforded by his visit to the campus to walk around – and have his famous Inspector Chen walk around – Pudong’s futuristic vertical landscape. A graduate from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, Qiu Xiaolong was studying in the US when the aftermath of the June 4th incident of 1989 (also known as the Tiananmen Massacre) made it untenable for him to return to China. His decision to start writing in English was prompted by an announcement from his Chinese publisher that his works could no longer be published in China.Between 1988 and 1996, Qiu remained in the US, but since then he has returned to his native city of Shanghai at least once a year, only to be amazed at the changes and transformations he observes. While humbly acknowledging that he is now much less familiar with Shanghai than local writers, and much less familiar with the English language than native English speakers, Qiu suggested that his unique position as an ‘outside insider’ might be part of the recipe for his hugely successful novels.Another interesting product of Qiu’s in-between position is his approach to literary discourse. He described how, while composing in a second language, one need not necessarily shot out completely one’s first language, but rather use it to creatively combine and reshape linguistic thought patterns. As he puts it “a cliché in one language might be an innovation when translated directly into another one.”This approach breaks with practises of composition and translation that seek to ‘domesticate’ foreign idioms and phrases to secure what translation theorist Lawrence Venuti has called ‘the translator’s invisibility’. So, while Qiu’s lack of ‘domestication’ might risk sliding into auto-Orientalism, it more importantly serves to call attention to the text’s conception between languages.

(All photographs by Astrid Møller-Olsen, Shanghai 2017)

 

Yu Jun and Chen Cun on Shanghai Memories and Illusions

While in Shanghai, I attended a very relaxed and intimate conversation between painter/author 郁俊 Yu Jun and author/photographer 陈村 Chen Cun, at the Old China Hand Style coffee-house 汉源汇 at 374 Shaanxi Road South.

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 book Internet 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)

Straight Baby Talk: Children of Shanghai’s International Settlement

In the 1920s Shanghai was divided into three administrative zones: The International settlement 公共租界 around Suzhou creek and along the north bank of the Huangpu, the French Concession 法租界 inland from the South end of the Bund and the Chinese old walled city 老城厢 on the South West bank of Huangpu jiang.

1920px-shanghai_1935_s1_ams-wo

In the international settlement, three of the largest groups of foreign residents (along with the Portuguese and after 1922 the Russians) were the Japanese, the British and the American. The children of these families were sometimes thrown together, if not through the urbane internationalism of their parents (despite Shanghai’s cosmopolitan image, racial prejudice was still prevalent), then due simply to physical proximity.

41dgiq8docl-_sx343_bo1204203200_In the satirical tidbits of American journalist Elsie McCormick’s The Unexpurgated Diary of a Shanghai Baby from 1927, we see the ‘Paris of the Orient’ through the eyes of an American toddler. Most of the baby’s revealing observations satirize the foreign settlers’ ignorance of everything beyond their own small social sphere (including the everyday life of their own child). The baby itself has an even more limited social life: Apart from its amah, its only social intercourse is a distance aquantainship with a Japanese baby – perambulators that pass in the night… One might compare the baby’s mix of awe and resentment towards the ‘fresh Jap baby’ to the American attitude to the growing Japanese militarism of the time:

“May ninth

Went to Hongkew Park and saw fresh Jap baby wearing white apron on top of kimono and little flat red hat on head. Silly getup. Jap famility excited because baby could step alone. Awfully stuck on itself. Have decided not to throw wooden elephant, as didn’t know Jap baby could walk.” 61

In a much later novel by Japanese born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, we likewise view 1920s Shanghai through the eyes of two children of the international settlement. This time, the two neighbour kids, one British the other Japanese, are both equally cut off from the world outside the settlement:

“I for one was absolutely forbidden to enter the Chinese areas of the city, and as far as I know, Akira’s parents were no less strict on the matter. Out there, we were told, lay all matter of ghastly diseases, filth and evil men.” (When We Were Orphans, 2000: 54)

shanghai_municipality_flagSeen through the eyes of its (fictional) younger inhabitants, the international community of 1920s’ Shanghai reveals itself to be not so much decadent and cosmopolitan as suffering from ineffectual self isolation and quite a lot of prudish village atmosphere. If the settlement was itself a little ethnically confused (witness the municipal flag), the important part was that it was not Chinese. The arbitrariness and impotence of these lines drawn in the sand become humourously apparent when narrated from a child’s perspective. After reading quite a lot of literary descriptions of Shanghai as “the adventurers’ paradise” towards the undoing of all good men and women, it is quite liberating to see that image messed up a bit.2079718218_d736b7b10c_b

Finally, should you wish to discover the real Shanghai outside your own comfort zone, I recommend the strategy of this baby flâneur:

“April twentieth

Went out this morning with amah and wooden elephant. Elephant very nice to bite tooth on, but always falling out of perambulator into street. Amah kind about picking it up and giving it back to me. Know taste of every street in Shanghai.” 25

Dying in Shanghai

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.

img_25361In 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)

waitan-40Signifying 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)

waitan-18The 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.

Waitan (24).JPGChen 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)

Written 80 years apart, the two novels convey an image of Shanghai as a city of tremendous change tinted with loss. For those of you feeling nostalgic, Christian Henriot and co.’s amazing Virtual Shanghai project with photographs from the late 19th century till today is always worth a visit. .