Digital Realities in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

How do we imagine digital realities? How do we measure time and distance in the aspatial everpresent of cyberspace and can we even begin to fathom the vast amounts of information being translated into binary data to circumnavigate the planet on a daily basis?

On december 3rd, at the 12th Annual Nordic NIAS Council Conference held at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University and entitled “Digital Asia,” I presented three examples of how contemporary Chinese science fiction writers deal with such complex questions in highly original and creative ways.

Inspired by Elana Gomel’s concept of “impossible topologies,” I analysed how contemporary writers engage with digital realities in spatial terms: From Liu Cixin’s (刘慈欣) use of virtual reality as world simulation in The Three Body Problem (《三体》 2008), over Tang Fei’s (糖匪) portrayal of an “ocean of data” as the source of all stories in “Call Girl” (黄色故事 2013) to Ma Boyong’s (马伯庸) Orwellian narrative “The City of Silence” (寂静之城 2005), where all interpersonal communication is carried out soundlessly via strictly censored online forums.

In Liu’s text, the virtual reality of a computer game serves as an exercise ground for dealing with real material problems as well as a means to probe and mould the minds and ideological convictions of the players. In “The City of Silence,” the role of the internet as an alternative reality unbound by physical limitations is turned on its head as the censorship applied to online forums begins to haunt the material spaces of the city through portable “listening devises” and electronic spies. Finally, in “Call Girl,” imagination itself is imagined as a vast sea of data, out of which stories emerge and take form and which in itself offers an escape from the constraints of reality.

In these stories, digital realities are presented as alternative, parallel spacetimes that afford imaginary arenas for experimentation, escape and control. Whether in the form of lightscapes, cityscapes or seascapes, the digital chronotopes evoked by these authors represent new and interesting ways of understanding the elusive and digital aspects of reality that have come to form such a large part of our everyday experiences.

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.

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)