Fictional Dictionaries

I am utterly delighted to announce that my article ‘Fictional Dictionaries: Power and Philosophy of Language in Contemporary Chinese Fiction’ is now in print in the 2017 fall issue of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (29, 2). Here follows a short excerpt to whet your appetite:

Language is one of humanity’s most efficient mediums for expressing thoughts, sharing knowledge, and connecting. At the same time, language is difficult to contain because it changes over time and can vary in use from one context to another. The very meaning of words depends, to a large extent, on historical usage, cultural connotations, and specific contexts. Language is public and conventional, on the one hand, and individual and personal, on the other. Thus, any examination of the way we use language in literature, everyday discourse, philosophical meditation, or ideological propaganda—to give but a few examples—can reveal much about how we see the world.

Language has long been a subject of philosophy, but it can also be a subject in fiction writing. One way of explicitly drawing the reader’sattention to the language of a novel, and to just how much the power of linguistic definition influences our understanding of reality, is by writing that novel in the form of a dictionary. Ambrose Bierce knew this when, in 1881, he began writing the essays that later came to be known collectively as The Devil’s Dictionary, redefining chosen words to satirically comment on language and society.

Perhaps the most comprehensive example of the use of the dictionary format is Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars, from 1988. The novel reads like a specialized encyclopedia on the Khazar polemic and invites the reader to jump between entries when new and unknown terms appear in the text. The theme is the linguistic representation of history, and the dictionary’s polyphonic structure reveals how narrative accounts of the same historical event can differ dramatically depending on the ideological and religious perspective of the narrator. David Grossman has also used the dictionary format to explore Jewish ethnic identity in his See under Love (1989), and Walter Abish pursues formal prose experiments in his Alphabetical Africa (1974).

In the period around the turn of the last millennium, three China-born authors published literary works that adopted the dictionary format. In 1996, Han Shaogong wrote A Dictionary of Maqiao (Maqiao cidian), depicting the life, regional history, and local identity of a fictional village in southern China through its use of words. Xiaolu Guo used the dictionary format to point to intercultural relationships as a form of translation in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers from 2007. Finally, Yu Hua, in 2011, made use of the inherent connection between language and reality construction when he took it upon himself to rewrite recent Chinese history by redefining certain Chinese key terms in his China in Ten Words (Shige cihuili de Zhongguo). As I argue later, this last work, although published as nonfiction, incorporates many traits of fiction writing, thus justifying my labeling it a fictional dictionary.

Inspired by the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin’s lectures, both of which define the meaning of a word as its use in language, as well as by certain passages in Zhuangzi that are similarly preoccupied with language use, I investigate how the dictionary format affects the way language is used, presented,and understood in these three literary works.

The essay is in three parts. In the first and longest part, the focus is on Han Shaogong’s novel; it includes analyses of speech acts and propaganda as a kind of linguistic magic, of how unstable words can create alternative historical narratives, and of the complex connection among language,fiction, and reality. The second part looks at the power of canonized words and phrases, the importance of relexicalization, as well as the role and goal of fiction writing as discussed in Yu Hua’s work. The third part analyzes the role of translation and linguistic sedimentation in everyday life and love in Xiaolu Guo’s novel.

The method is comparative, taking Han Shaogong’s novel as the point of departure and comparing it to the two other fictional dictionaries, with the aim of investigating how similar literary constraints—that is, the demands of the lexicographical format to select and give precedence to certain words—can produce very different narratives, each with their own representation of the role of language in our understanding of the world.

Drinking with Mo Yan

 

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The Chinese writer Mo Yan (莫言 1955-) is often categorised as belonging to the new historicist trend in fiction (新历史主义小说). This literary current, which evolved in China in the 1980s and 1990s, viewed fiction and history as related subjects and merged them into a genre characterised by subjective realism, as a reaction to the official and idealised macro-narratives of the Cultural Revolution.

Mo Yan often uses food symbolism to exemplify the material connectedness of humans to society, while exposing the cultural web of meaning attached to certain foods and certain situations. In his 1992 novel Liquorland (酒国) he writes both symbolically and directly about the function of alcohol in Chinese society.

 

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I was in Beijing in 2012, when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize

In this study I have limited my field of research to the role of alcohol in Chinese literary history, with fictional, poetic and philosophical writings as my main sources. Inspired by Roland Barthes I have discovered three separate alcohol ‘institutions’ relevant to the analysis of Liquorland: 1) The commensal drinking culture, 2) The poetic drinking culture and 3) The heroic drinking culture. Through my analysis I will show how the characters’relationship to the alcohol institutions can be read as a critique, not only of the same institutions, but as part of a broader critique of idealism.

 

9780857857361This is an excerpt from my chapter ‘Dissolved in Liquor and Life: Drinkers and Drinking Cultures in Mo Yan’s Novel ‘Liquorland’,’ written more than five years ago – before he won the Nobel Prize. Bloomsbury has now kindly permitted me to share the chapter (Published in Kerner, Chou, Warmind (eds.): Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast. Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou, Morten Warmind (Eds.). London: Bloomsbury, 2015) full-text via academia.edu.

Re-reading stuff you’ve written years ago is always a perilous task (I’ve already discovered tons of things I want to change), but there it is, and still quite interesting I think. Cheers!

Archipelagic Literature: Review of Brian Bernards’ Writing the South Seas

The following is my review for newbooks.asia of Brian Bernards (2015): Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Archipelagic Literature: Beyond a Concentric Conception of Culture (Review)

In his recent study, Brian Bernards analyses the motif of the Nanyang (the South Seas) in postcolonial fiction from Malaysia, Thailand, Borneo, Singapore and Taiwan. Through a focus on the integration, assimilation and confrontation between (descendants of) Chinese settlers and the local populations, Bernards’s analyses reveal the internal heterogeneity of each perceived group. This book reminds us, through concrete examples, that any ethnic group, national culture or language is always already ‘contaminated’ – a term he uses in a fittingly positive sense; after all it is contamination not sterility that brings life.

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Sidelong glances
Bernards begins his book with two chapters that present the Nanyang motif as an integral, if not major, part of modern Chinese literature. He writes: “Not to be written off as New Literature’s detour into exoticism, the impressionistic South Seas color in the short fiction of Xu Zhimo and Xu Dishan … suggests a broader conception of and enquiry into ‘the world’ than typically attributed to the New Culture movement” (p. 30). The positive effects of structuring the book in this way, is that the early chapters provide a historical context for the Nanyang motif and thus set the scene for the later postcolonial analysis. Just as importantly, they bring to light lesser known aspects of the New Literature movement as well as non-canonized works of famous Chinese writers such as Lao She. On the downside, rooting the whole study in the context of modern Chinese literature does not further Bernards’s bold and otherwise successful project of shifting analytical focus from a cultural centre to a network of cultural connections.

Thus situating his innovative analytic focus in the well-known context of modern Chinese literature, he goes on to provide a short literary history of the Nanyang motif as an expression of the combined pride and despair felt by Chinese writers of the 1920s and 1930s towards their own culture: Bernards’s description of how Yu Dafu championed Sinophone Malayan literature as a literature in its own right, only to go on telling the Malayan writers how best to develop this genre (p. 77), calls to mind the strange mix of arrogance and fascination that characterised the ‘primitivism’ popular among European painters from the late 19th and early 20th, who sought artistic (and sometimes sexual) liberation from so-called ‘primitive’ cultures in the colonies.

Though I find Bernards’s translation of baihua as ‘pure speech’ (p. 33) rather than for instance ‘plain speech’ somewhat misleading, his argument that the enlightenment project of the New Literature movement was not simply a vernacular liberation, but also led to cultural homogenisation, is an important and often neglected one.

No margins no centre
The single greatest contribution this book makes is, in my opinion, that it turns our way of thinking about and analysing literature away from a supposed centre by creating a kind of empty centre (the sea) from the vantage point of which every literature, culture and language is an island in an archipelago of other interconnected islands. This is a brilliant and a much-needed step in literary studies. While I fully recognise the debt to Shu Mei-shih’s work on Sinophone fiction, Bernards’s book adds a new archipelagic focus and, as most pioneering studies, it suffers from a few weak points. Firstly, the very structure that allows multiple geographic points of departure also proves quite challenging to a reader less familiar with the mosaic of southeast Asian colonial and national histories. Bernards does his best to remedy this in the text, but a timeline or some other visual historic overview (such as the very helpful map provided in the introduction) might help the reader navigate between chapters.

Another issue is how the term Nanyang itself simultaneously makes possible and defeats the aim of the book to move beyond national or linguistic literary boundaries. The term ‘the South Seas’ presupposes a point that one is south of; in this case, that point is inescapably China. I do not see how Bernards could have done otherwise, but this dilemma helps to remind us that we are still struggling to get beyond notion of centre-periphery.

While generally thrilled with the works and authors presented, I could wish for more methodical congruity in the literary analyses. Some chapters provide biographical interpretations, other offer sociopolitical readings and one gives a comprehensive narrative analysis. Personally, I find this last instance – which includes a diagram of the author Pan Yutong’s ‘concentric narratology’ – absolutely fascinating, and I can’t help feeling that a consistent comparison of either narrative patterns, character development or literary reception of fiction dealing with postcolonial Nanyang identities might be a highly interesting continuation of the project.

Archipelagic literature
Brian Bernards’s enjoyable and illuminating book successfully diversifies the way we think about national literatures as well as about Sinophone literature as essentially a diaspora phenomenon, for, as Bernards excellently puts it, “rarely (if ever) are the terms ‘British diaspora,’ ‘French diaspora,’ ‘Spanish diaspora,’ and ‘Portuguese diaspora’ applied to communities in the New World of the Americas” (p. 198). Bernards’s study shows that not only are such concepts challenged by hybrids and misfits at the margins, but the so-called margins themselves reach the centre and affect/hybridise it to a degree that renders such concentric vision impractical. With an unswerving eye for the role language plays in creating literatures as well as for the innovate power of fiction in creolising language (and with due attention to original terms available in an extensive glossary), this book will prove an eye-opening read, not only for scholars and enthusiasts of Sinophone and southeast Asian literatures, but for linguists and literary scholars everywhere

Memory and Imagination: Meeting Ge Fei and Bi Feiyu

Last week, distinguished authors Ge Fei 格非, Bi Feiyu 毕飞宇, Yang Hongying 杨红樱 and Dong Xi 东西 visited the University of Copenhagen – for sinologists, students and literary enthusiast alike, it was a must go! The event was organised by the Danish Cultural Institute in cooperation with the Chinese Writers Association, the University of Copenhagen, Asian Dynamics Initiative and ThinkChina and was hosted by Mai Corlin.I had been reading Ge Fei’s novella 褐色的鸟群 (A Flock of Brown Birds), in which constant snow and rainfalls act like curtains on the world (or between worlds), through which persons from the narrator’s past as well as from his fantasies, materialise and vanish. At the event in Copenhagen, I seized the opportunity to ask him on his view of the relationship between memory and imagination, which I saw as a theme in the story.According to Ge Fei then, memory and imagination are deeply interconnected – in fact, much of what we think we remember, we partially make up (an observation he shares with cognitive psychologists). Furthermore, for him, the most important aspect of memory is not conscious recollection, but the sediment of unintentional memories that each individual carry.

Bi Feiyu extrapolated on Ge Fei’s point by underlining the role social expectations play in our remembrance and narration of the past. He told an anecdote (inspired by H. C. Anderson’s fable of how one feather, after passing through the grape-vine of gossip, becomes five hens) about losing a fist fight as a young boy, and retelling the defeat as a victory so many times, that he ended up believing his own false representation. The fiction became intertwined with memory and ended up reshaping it completely.

Outside the lecture room, the continuous Scandinavian rain made me feel like I was still inside Ge Fei’s story. I walked on, trying to remember the fictional narrative of the novella, while adding to it new memories from our recent conversation about it, as well as imagining what kind of persons from fictional or long past worlds might be waiting for me out there. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Glorious Noise: Zhou Family Band

Tireless clappers rattling like swords and suonas imitating bird calls and opera singers with amazing and hilarious accuracy are characteristic of the Zhou family band 周家班, who visited Malmö in July.

During the performance, the band of brothers and uncles constantly switched instruments. Some specialised in tantalising jazzy solos, while others excelled in conjuring tricks like playing the suona with a lighted cigarette or two inside their mouth.

The result was something between a concert and a circus act, with an audience of all ages clapping, laughing, dancing and occasionally holding their hands over their ears. The brassy, golden noise was both overwhelming and liberating in the open air.

The Zhou family band, who takes pride in being the loudest orchestra at any festival, introduced their Swedish audience to a tradition of wedding and funeral tunes from Anhui. Suona virtuoso Zhou Benming 周本明 and music researcher Mu Qian 穆谦 explained to me how this music was originally (and still is) played in processions through the village – thus the importance of being heard far and wide. They are definitely invited to my funeral!

Suona (唢呐): A woodwind instrument with a brass bell – of arabic origin.

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)