Spatiality of Emotion Review

The Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China: From Dreamscapes to Theatricality, Ling Hon Lam (Columbia University Press, May 2018)

97802311879471Ling 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.

This review was first published October 2018 on asianreviewofbooks.com

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.

Xiaoshuo.blog

erwai tushuguan (2)For some time, it has been dawning on me that what I am really interested in is not so much what is written in and about China (as the old name of this blog writingchina would seem to suggest), but rather all sorts of narrative fiction written in the Chinese script(s). (I dare say the intelligent reader will have noticed this long before I did).

Taiwanese nature writing, postcolonial Hong Kong concept lit, Sinophone fantasies from European backwaters, Southeast Asian urban fables, Shanghai quotidian novels, borderless online scribleries in simplified character slang: I want to investigate and celebrate all of it!

IMG_2441The term xiaoshuo 小说 – which today means any kind of narrative fiction writing, from novels (long fiction 长篇小说) to novellas (medium fiction 中篇小说), short stories (short fiction 短篇小说) and flash fiction (tiny fiction 小小说) – has a long and complicated history in Chinese culture. The essentially diminutive term xiaoshuo (literally small talk), used traditionally to refer (somewhat derogatorily) to “minor philosophical discourse or a type of unofficial, inferior history” (Lu: 39), with strong negative connotations of rumour and gossip rather than of pure fabrication and artful creation as in the latin fictio.

Several scholars (see below) have written fascinating accounts of how the xiaoshuo genre (as well as the attitudes toward it) developed from Confucian warnings against its deceitful nature and the notoriety (and popularity) of the strange and supernatural zhiguai tales to the canonised masterpieces of Ming/Qing serial fiction and today’s cyber romances.

So – in an effort to make it simple and do what it says on the tin – welcome to the new cleaned up & ad free (I hope!) version of my blog on fiction in Chinese: xiaoshuo.blog

 

Lu, Sheldon Hsiao-peng (1994): From Historicity to Fictionality – The Chinese Poetics of Narrative.

Zeitlin, Judith (2006): ‘Xiaoshuo’ in Moretti, Franco (ed.): The Novel: History, geography, and culture.

Why are Chinese authors more Chinese than authors?

This Monday I met Chinese author Mai Jia 麦家, who’s novel 》解密《 (Decoded) from 2002 has just been translated into Danish by Susanne Posborg. I was pleasantly surprised that the work of this so-called ‘king of the Chinese spy novel’ (中国谍战小说之父王) is less about secret agents and more about the emotional and intellectual development of its characters. Mai Jia seemed to experience the same kind of gratified surprise when our conversation turned to literary topics – topics which to me it seemed only natural to discuss with a writer. Later I was to understand why.

That same evening, Mai Jia gave a public interview with a Danish journalist at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. This journalist asked only one question about the novel itself, most of which is set during the Cultural Revolution. The question was why Mai Jia did not give a more detailed account of the different forms of political repression and limitations of movement during that era, and not only the ones relating to the plot of his novel. Why, in short, he hadn’t written a different book. The remainder of her questions focused on the challenges she perceived to exist for a Chinese author and about the China she read into the book. Both in terms of historicity and actuality, she had read his work as documentation and not as literature.

mj3
Mai Jia and I in conversation in Copenhagen

I do not think that an interviewer should avoid all sensitive questions or questions pertaining to matters not literary. But I do think that she should at least acknowledge that the author is more an expert on literary issues and his own work than on current and historical Chinese politics. I wonder how many American or European novelist are forced to explain how their art relates to the refugee crisis or if they feel under surveillance from the NSA.

 

This attitude is reminiscent of Fredric Jameson‘s (in)famous allegation in relation to Chinese and African novels, that “All third-world texts […] are to be read as what I will call national allegories,” (Jameson, 1986: 69). Even though China has since entered the realm of capitalism, it seems that some powerful readers are doing their best to continue to read novels from China as nothing more than documentation of a specific ‘Chinese reality’.

I think it is more fruitful to look at literature (especially in translation) as affording a meeting place. Just as translation constructs a bridge between two languages with material from both sides, so is literature, unlike statistics and other documentative formats, something that happens between the author and the reader. It includes as well as frustrates personal and cultural pre-understandings, and that is why we learn from reading.

References:
Jameson, Fredric (1986): ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’ Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn), pp. 65-88.

Mai Jia (2016): Afkodet. Trans. Susanne Posborg. København: Møllers Forlag.

Mai Jia (2014): Decoded. Trans. Olivia Milburn & Christopher Payne London: Penguin Random House.

In the winter, I write poems for Haizi

With this beautiful poem on winter by the great 20th century poet Haizi 海子, I wish you all the best for the coming year:

在黑夜里为火写诗
在草原上为羊写诗
在北风中为南风写诗
在思念中为你写诗

In the dark of night, I write poems for fire

In the open grass plains, I write poems for sheep

In the heart of the north wind, I write poems for the south wind

In my longing, I write poems for you

första snön! (16)

The poem was written in 1988 and can be found in 》海子诗全集《 (The Complete Poems of Haizi). Beijing: Zuojia chubanshe, 2009, which is a lovely huge blue book, a pride to any book shelf. I took the liberty of translating it myself because it made me happy. A published translation into English by Dan Murph can be found here (from this book). More translations of other Haizi poems into English can be found here, here, and here.

Further reading: ‘Hai Zi – cult figure of modern Chinese poetry’ by Hanna Virtanen; ‘Missing Haizi’ by Xi Chuan 西川, translated by Deliriumliberty.

Blogs on Chinese Literature beta version

IMG_2004I am adding a section with links to other blogs dealing with Chinese fiction to this site.

You can find it in the right sidebar below the tag cloud.  Below are some that I have come across so far, but more will follow.

Suggestions more than welcome!

Ghosts gathering in Shanghai: ACCL Fudan 2015

Tales of snake women, cinematic phantoms and apocalyptic comets filled the small meeting room at one of the top floors of Fudan‘s Guanghua Towers, when I took part in a panel on the role of the Uncanny in Chinese literature and film organized by Charles Laughlin and Zhange Ni at this years ACCL conference in June. Our aim was to discuss how fictional narratives might make use of uncanny elements to push the limits of scientific and enlightenment discourse.

First speaker Jessica Imbach from University of Zurich, talked about ambiguous gender roles in republican era ghost stories from Shanghai writers such as Zhang Kebiao and Xu Xu. Kenny Ng from City U. of Hong Kong showed us beautiful film clips from 1930s Hong Kong ghost movies, Yizhi Xiao from Brown University found supernatural elements in the otherwise rational and scientific comet writings of early 20th century Chinese sci-fi and I presented my analyses of uncanny places as sites of both trauma and self-realization in the works of Can Xue (read abstract).

Other presenters included Ping Zhu on Lu Xun and the ‘Ghost question,’ Shuyu Kong on ghosts in Liu Suola, Heng Chen on Anti-rationalism and Lu Xun’s take on fiction, Liang Luo on the legend of the White Snake, Vivien Wei Yan on Qing detective stories, Mengxing Fu on Wang Tao’s Zhiguai writing, Peng Liu on Buddhism in Lü Bingcheng’s writing and Lei Ying on the transformations of Guanyin in Li Yu’s fiction.

I want to thank the organizers (not least Shengqing Wu and the student assistants!) and participants for a wonderfully inspiring conference.

ACCL Fudan

Can Xue’s Uncanny Places at ACCL Fudan

Currently I am rereading Can Xue’s amazing short stories with a focus on uncanny places: Places where quotidian life has an unnerving backside and insects crawl within the dilapidated walls of home.

The research is for a paper I am going to present at this years conference for The Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature, to be held June 18-20, 2015 at ICSCC Fudan University, Shanghai. I am really looking forward to join the panel ‘Modern Chinese Culture and the Uncanny: “Superstition” as a Critique of Enlightenment’, organised by Charles A. Laughlin and Zhange Ni, and see what eerie and interesting discussions come out of it.

For more information about the conference, please go here (scroll down for English).

Read my full abstract here.

Xi Chuan, Fan Wen and Wang Gang in Copenhagen

This years Copenhagen international literature festival Cph Interlit had a Chinese theme arranged in collaboration with China Writers Association, and thus I was fortunate enough to attend this brief interview with three of China’s foremost writers and poets; Xi Chuan, Fan Wen and Wang Gang. The following is published with their consent.

Xi Chuan 西川 (1963-)

Author of 蚊子志, translated as Notes on the Mosquito by Lucas Klein in 2012.

on STYLE: Earlier I wrote lyrical poems, now I just write texts embodying something not poetic. It’s more like poetic notes. I call it ‘poessay’ (散文诗), because it’s somewhere between poetry and essay.
on CHINESE AND EUROPEAN LITERATURE: I once met Doris Lessing. She asked me about the Cultural Revolution and I in turn asked her about European literature. She said that after 1989 it had become less experimental because of the need to deal with real social problems. I also feel that I can’t follow others, but my work has to relate to reality even if that reality is a disaster.
on TRANSLATION: When I translated the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, I didn’t use a dictionary, instead I asked my Polish friends whenever there was something I didn’t understand.
on THE UNIVERSAL POET: Being a poet means you have to make sacrifices. Both in China and Denmark. As the American poet Robert Frost has it: “To take the road less travelled by.”

Fan Wen 范稳 (1962-)

Author of 水乳大地, a trilogy on Catholics in Tibet, translated as Une Terre de Lait et de Miel by Stéphane Lévêgue 2013.

on TIBET and RELIGION
I write about Tibet out of love. For most Chinese people it is a place of dreams, and thus a fitting pursuit for a writer.
When you write about Tibet, you have to write about religion. Buddhism permeates the Tibetan society, so you have to get to know Buddhism in order to understand Tibet.
I had the good fortune that my first visit to Tibet took place during a catholic missionary effort. I think that this kind of cultural exchange is a beautiful thing, and so I write about it. For instance I found a missionary’s grave deep in the mountains. That was a most inspiring experience, starting me asking questions like ‘why did he come? What did he do? Why did he die?’
My work was translated into French because the area I write about has connections to France. During the period 1850-1950, 15 missionaries were killed in Tibet.
I don’t know how my books have been received in France, because I can’t read French. But my publishers think they help remind the reader about a part of history forgotten by Chinese and French alike, but which none the less is meaningful and valuable.
It’s hard to say who are good and bad in the novel, the French or the Tibetans. It’s more complicated than that. Tibet was Dalai’s land, so when the missionaries entered, there was a conflict. We cannot decide who is right and who is wrong. Everyone fights to protect their own religion.

Wang Gang 王刚 (1960-)

Author of 英格力士 2004, translated as English by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan.

on HIS NOVEL ENGLISH
My novel is set during the Cultural Revolution. It is about a boy who has little opportunity and little interest in studying and learning new languages. One day an English teacher from Shanghai is sent to Xinjiang as a punishment, and he and the boy become friends. At this time there is only one English dictionary in all of Xinjiang’s capital. There is also a beautiful female teacher who once a week visits the public bathhouse followed by the boy, who spies on her showering. The English teacher is however in love with the female teacher, and the story turns out to be sad and terrible because in the end the boy and his parents help send the English teacher to prison.
The boy feels guilty for sending his friend to prison. Certainly I write to remind people of the terrible Cultural Revolution, but also to show how it was experienced by a child. It is an admittance of guilt. Too many Chinese today won’t recognize their own part in the Cultural Revolution. I want to arouse their memory because if we forget, then maybe it can happen again. I am afraid of that.

Immortal drinkers

The popular Daoist stories of the Eight Immortals (baxian 八仙) are believed to have developed sometime between the Tang (618-906 CE) and Sung dynasty (960- c. 1260 CE). These folk tales often depict poor but righteous people aided in their struggle against corrupt earthly and heavenly officials by the wise yet unpredictable immortals.

Text in painting: Mr. Iron Crutch (Tieguai Xiansheng)

With regards to alcohol the most interesting of the immortals is Li Tie Guai (Iron Crutch Li). Forced by accident to assume an ugly old beggar’s body, eccentric and prone to drink, this Daoist saint is a complex character. According to legend he has attained immortality by continuously resisting Laozi’s (the deified founder of Daoism) attempts to lure him away from the study of the Way (Dao) with money and women in order to try his determination. Yet in most of the other stories he is the more impulsive and even aggressive of the eight, boldly defying even the Jade Emperor.

In several of the stories water in wells and streams is turned to wine for the benefit of righteous people. In one such account Li Tie Guai befriends a farmer at Nine Crooked Stream, who makes the most fragrant and delicate wine. The farmer’s wine is so good, that when Li is later invited to a feast in heaven he refuses to drink the ‘inferior’ wine served there. He raises the host’s anger by his drunken deprecations, but in the end farmer’s wine is send for and everyone agrees that it is superior.

After the feast, when Li scavenge the grounds for one last sip, he accidentally cracks a jar full of the fragrant liquid. The jar falls to earth, turns into a hill from the crevices of which the remains of the wine slowly trickles down into the Nine Crooked Stream, henceforth making it fragrant with the smell of sweet wine.

[Wine has inspired Chinese poets and philosophers since ancient time. I am currently doing research on the role of alcohol in Chinese literature, trailing the line of famous imbibers from literati-poets like Tao Qian 陶潛 – also known as Tao Yuanming (365-427) and Li Bai李白(701-762) through wine gods and celestial drinkers to the drunken protagonists of contemporary fiction]