The Daoist Glutton: New article in CHAOS

My article on Daoism and eating in 棋王 (The Chess King) by Ah Cheng has been published in the latest theme issue of CHAOS Scandinavian Journal for Studies of Religion on ‘Religion and Literature’. (Unfortunately it is in Danish) Below is the abstract, click here for full article.

marts2012 024“Many critics have noted Ah Cheng’s extensive use of Daoist imagery and symbolism in his novella The King of Chess from 1984. The story refers directly to Daoist discourse of non-action (无为 wuwei) and the power of yielding/softness in its treatment of the Chinese Way (道 dao) of chess, and thus readings have focused on the metaphysical aspects of Daoism. Chess, however, is only one of the two great passions of the story’s protagonist Wang Yisheng: The other is food. This very material aspect of life and its relation to Daoist thought is the subject of this paper.

By comparing the attitude towards eating in The King of Chess with material aspects of Daoism as found in the Zhuangzi, this paper presents an analysis of how Ah Cheng uses food as a theme to communicate cultural values of early
rustic Daoism outside the discourse of traditionalism.”

More about food, Daoism and 棋王 here.

Sexualizing the Western ‘Other’: Wei Hui and Gao Xingjian

In her semi biographical novel Shanghai Baby from 1999 Wei Hui describes a sexual encounter between the Chinese female protagonist and her German lover: “His golden body hairs were like fine rays of sunlight, zealously and intimately nibbling at my body […] He penetrated my protective labia with deadly accuracy and located my budding clitoris. […] His huge organ made me feel swollen […] I imagined what he would be like in high boots and a leather coat, and what kind of cruelty would show in those Teutonic blue eyes. These thoughts increased my excitement.” (Translated by Bruce Humes. Simon&Schuster: 2001, pp.63)

This sexualization of the Western, in this case German, ‘Other’ is stereotype bordering on the comic with its images of blond hair, blue eyes and aggressive virility. The direct allusions to Nazism and the German reputation for accuracy, only increase the feeling of foreignness and thus desire in the protagonist.

Throughout the novel, as professor of comparative literature Sheldon H. Lu points out in his brief analysis of the book, the virile, aggressive European lover is contrasted with the protagonists artistic and intellectual but impotent Chinese boyfriend. (Lu, Sheldon H.: Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics, University of Hawai’i Press: 2007, pp.58)

This put me in mind of Gao Xingjian’s novel One Man’s Bible also from 1999, in the very beginning of which we find the male protagonist in bed with a German woman: “She sips the cognac and closes her eyes. She is a white German with very dark hair and long eyelashes. You get her to part her legs so you can see clearly and have her deeply imprinted in your memory.” (Translated by: Mabel Lee. HarperCollins: 2003, pp. 11)

Later they talk about how they first met: “‘I remember you, of course I remember you! As soon as you came through the door you took of your big padded coat and your scarf, and there stood a very beautiful young foreign woman!’ ‘With big breasts, right?’ ‘Of course, very big breasts. Blushing white skin and bright red lips even with no lipstick. Really sexy.'” (Ibid. pp. 14)

Again the foreignness is underlined and sexualized by images of white skin, big breasts, red lips, this time with a hint of irony, which does not however diminish the effect of the foreign body on the Chinese protagonist.

Later the plumpness and natural vigor of the German woman, as well as the protagonists open and bold investigation of her body, is contrasted with his nostalgic love for a very young and delicate Chinese girl: “‘It was special because a white German girl with bright red lips had suddenly arrived…’ ‘And there was also a bare foot little Beijing girl who was lovely and slender…'” (Ibid. pp.15)

In both cases it is the very foreignness of the Western ‘Other’, the points in which their body differs from the well-known and homely, that makes them sexually attractive. It is also interesting, albeit maybe coincidental, that these to instances both centers on the German physique as the one diametrically opposed to the Chinese, both when it comes to women and men. Both objects of desire are more over soaked in foreign and exclusive liquor, another forbidden, exotic and sensually intoxicating luxury.

Drowned in Shit: Scenes by Yu Hua and Mo Yan

In Yu Hua‘s 余华 best seller Brothers 兄弟 from 2005 (read Julia Lovell’s review here) he lets the father of one of his protagonists drown in the cesspool under a public toilet, while attempting to catch a glimpse of the behinds of the women doing their business in the next compartment:

“The scream scared the living day-lights out of Baldy Li’s father, making him lose his grip and fall head-first into the thick, viscous goo below. In seconds, the excrement filled his mouth and nose and then his lungs, and that was how Baldy Li’s father drowned.” (Yu, Hua: Brothers. Trans: Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas. London: Picador, 2010)

This scene instantly reminded me of a similar one of Mo Yan‘s 莫言 in his novel The Republic of Wine 酒国 from 1992, in which the detective anti-hero is likewise drowned in shit while dazed by drink and chasing the phantom of his lover the lady trucker:

“But before he got there, he stumbled into an open air privy filled with a soupy, fermenting goop of food and drink regurgitated by Liquorland residents, plus the drink and food excreted from the other end, atop which floated such imaginably filthy refuse as bloated, used condoms[…] The pitiless muck sealed his mouth as the irresistible force of gravity drew him under.” (Mo, Yan: The Republic of Wine. Trans: Howard Goldblatt. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000.)

kina 124The public toilet, a dying breed in my part of the world, would make an interesting topic for sociological analysis. The invisible rules of behavior and extensive taboos surrounding it, in opposition to its indispensability in our daily lives: The poetics and profanity of the excrement.

Made comical by our own embarrassment of having to excrete the waste products of our metabolism and coupled with the pathos of death, it makes a delicious, if at the same time nauseating, literary spectacle when treated by to of China’s best contemporary novelists. Well, I’ll continue thinking about it, maybe its just shit anyway.

Revolutionary Squares: Yu Hua’s Tiananmen and Tahrir

yu huaReading Yu Hua‘s 余华 China in Ten Words 十个词汇里的中国 I was struck (as many others must have been before me) with his nostalgic description of Beijing in the spring of 1989, a few months before what has since been referred to as the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ 天安门事件 or ‘June Fourth Incident‘ 六四事件.

He writes: “It was a Beijing we are unlikely to see again. A common purpose and shared aspirations put a police-free city in perfect order. As you walked down the street you felt a warm, friendly atmosphere around you. You could take the subway or a bus for free, and everyone was smiling at one another, barriers down […] Beijing then was a city where, you could say, ‘all men are brothers.'” (Yu Hua: China in Ten words, translated by Allan H. Barr. New York, Pantheon Books: 2011. pp. 7)

This description immediately put me in mind of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the early spring of 2011. Many protesters and commentators of the time wrote of the same feeling of brotherhood, the same symbolic power of the place and in the same romanticized narrative style as Yu Hua in his relation of the protests leading up to the Tiananmen Incident.

Slavoj Žižek wrote: The most sublime moment occurred when Muslims and Coptic Christians engaged in common prayer on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, chanting ‘We are one!’ […] the protesters’ call to the army, and even the hated police, was not ‘Death to you!’, but ‘We are brothers! Join us!'” (Slavoj Žižek in The Guardian, Thursday 10 February 2011)

Though these two cases vary very much in outcome, the urban square as a site for democratic protest links them together.  The square as a physical place for gathering, as well as a symbolic space for the creation of a common narrative, is a powerful democratic tool. No wonder the Bahrain government saw fit to demolish the Pearl Square to prevent protesters from gathering there.

Again I become aware how deeply the reader is part of the inter-human contract that we name literature, and how one’s immediate social and historical context cannot fail to determine or at least flavour the reading of a given text. And again I am forced to admit that there is no such thing as a pure text, nor an original meaning to be conveyed. All the more reason to read good books over and over again!

Mo Yan’s hometown seen from a fast train

Mo Yan in the media

It’s already over a month since Mo Yan 莫言 won the Nobel prize in literature, and all the news papers flared up with his image, discussions of ”why him?” and questions as to what he would do with the prize money. At the time I was so humbled by all the informed commentaries on the political aspects of the event that I didn’t feel like writing about it.

Recently however, as I was travelling from Qingdao to Beijing, going 300 km/h on a fast train, I had a glimpse of Gaomi 高密, the town where Mo Yan grew up and which have inspired many of his literary landscapes and it got me thinking of it again. (Apparently the town might soon be turned into a Mo Yan-theme park, but as I sped past I didn’t notice any sign of the approaching changes.)

At the time of the prize-giving many discussions revolved around questions as to why Lu Xun (the father of modern Chinese fiction) had never got it; why it had taken China so long to get one (Gao Xingjian who won the prize in 2010 is not recognized as a Chinese writer because he lives in France and has French citizenship, so though he is culturally Chinese – Huaren 华人, he is not a Chinese citizen – Zhongguoren中国人); and around Mo Yan’s status as party member.

Gaomi seen from train window

My favourite Mo Yan novel is Republic of Wine (酒国) from 2005, in which he compassionately and with great self-awareness investigates human weakness as expressed through corruption, pride and lust. Though he does not explicitly denounce the communist party in public or in his novels, his writings surely reveal some ugly truths about all of us. The interesting aspects of his works are general and relating to the human condition rather than a specific political situation.

The insistence of some western critics that all Chinese works must be about China, thus understandable only in a Chinese political context, and considering the label ‘Banned in China’ as the best recommendation is in my eyes an expression of a new kind of Orientalism. If only the politically correct authors should be awarded, political standpoint superseding literary quality, now that would be political censorship on an international level.

I’m not saying there is nothing to criticize, not saying that all Mo Yan’s works are brilliant, just that when enjoying a literary work, political correctness is not the first thing I look for. I also love Knut Hamsun’s work even though politically he supported the national socialist party.

Just like the landscape of Gaomi speeding past my train window, Mo Yan’s best novels present a blurred and slightly drunken image of a world governed by weak and complex human beings, always changing, never allowing us to stand still for one moment to get the whole objective picture. We are all part of it. Even we literary critics, who like to stand on the sideline and criticize everything, are part of it. Eating forbidden fruits, performing good deeds for ulterior motives, displaying kindness because of vanity, hurting people because of love, sometimes riding high above the world in brief spells of ecstasy, sometimes ending up throwing up in a ditch.

Regardless of political standpoint I would advise anyone to read some of Mo Yan’s works, even though they might be sold out at the moment. But I would also advice readers to look beyond the Nobel committee’s narrow lens, and start investigating Chinese literature on their own. There are several good platforms introducing Chinese literature in translation, including Renditions magazine, Paper Republic and MCLC Resouce Center.

A Hammet and a drink before breakfast

Just found Dashiel Hammet‘s The thin man on a summer flea market. After the first chapter it is already becoming my new favourite because of dialogues such as this one:

“She lived with him?” “Yes. I want a drink, please. That is, it was like that when I knew them.” “Why don’t you have some breakfast first? Was she in love with him or was it just business?” “I don’t know. It’s too early for breakfast.”

Sitting reading with a small glass of red wine in one hand, I feel embarrassingly sober, when the narrator has had five whisky and sodas in as many pages.

Though Hammet was born in the United States in 1894 his attitude toward drink reminds me of the poet 阮籍 Ruan Ji, who lived in China in the 3. century CE:

Fleet worldly matters: I laugh at the strain. Quiet, sad feelings are wasted pain.
How to cure sadness: call for wine! When drunk all day bad manners are fine.
Each day of my whole life through, I should drink great pots of brew.
It is such bliss, to cruise the Land of Booze;
Sober, then drunk; drunk and wild as I choose.
Once in the hills I forget big news.”

(Coulombe, Charles A. (ed.): The Muse in the Bottle. New York: Citadel Press, 2000)

What is Chinese about Chinese Literature?

What delimits Chinese literature?

I’m currently working on a critical analysis of the term ‘Chinese literature’ including my own role in the reproduction of it through for instance the title of this blog.

It involves asking a lot of questions, first of all: What is Chinese about Chinese literature? Who and what defines it?

Is it geography? If so, how to deal with overseas or exile writers? Is it Tu Wei-ming‘s notion of a ‘cultural China’? Or are might there be hybrids not answering to one cultural ‘root’ called China but to several roots? Is it about language? Current discussions in global Sinophone literature seems to be some of the most nuanced, but still fail to take into account ethnic Chinese who writes in other languages and foreigners writing in Chinese. And the Chinese language itself, even in its written form, is far from being a homogenous or easily limited subject.

Is this category of Chinese literature at all useful? For me at least, it sprung from a very practical wish to be able to access a lot of great novels and poems written in another language – Chinese. So it started with language, but from there it just grew. The best course for me now seems to be not to stop using the term ‘Chinese literature’ but to use it in a more nuanced and reflected way.

As Ien Ang puts it in her brilliant article “Can One Say No to Chineseness?”: “[A]ny intellectual investment in an object of study -say Chineseness- is not the innocent reflection of a natural reality that is passively awaiting to be discovered; rather the active quest for knowledge actively brings it into being, in the knower’s experience and understanding of the world, slices of reality he or she then calls and classifies as Chinese.”

Yu Hua: An orphaned ghost donates her eyes

Yu Hua‘s (余华 1960-) short story ‘This story is for Willow’ (此文献给少女杨柳) from 1989 is about an extremely shy young man living in a town called Smoke. He prefers to go out at night, pacing the streets when no one else is around, but one night a young woman walks towards him and that experience changes his solitary life.

The young man cannot get rid of the presence left by the woman. She starts to manifest herself from his thoughts, she moves in with him, becomes his semi-invisible ‘ghost’ wife.

Beijing willows. Photo: Astrid Mo

Talking to a stranger he calls ‘the traveller’, the young man explains his relationship with the girl thus: “One evening several days ago a girl came into my mind. In some way that is not at all clear, she spent the night with me. The next day when I woke up she did not leave, and I caught a glimpse of the look in her eyes. Her eyes had the same look that you are looking at me with now.”

The traveller in turn tells the story of how he once was blind, but had a cornea transplant from the eyes of a 17-year-old girl named Willow Yang, who had just died in a car crash. He came to Smoke to find her parents.

Later the young man himself is hit by a car, brought to a hospital in another city and has a cornea transplant from a 17-year-old girl called Willow Yang, who has died from cancer.

The young man travels back to Smoke and looks up Willow Yang’s father, who shows him her old room which has a drawing of a young man in it: “A long time ago, when Willow was still alive, one day she suddenly had thoughts of a young man, a stranger to her. She had never seen him before, but he appeared more and more and more distinctly in her imagination. This is the likeness she drew of him.”

Sitting with the traveller towards the end of the story, the young man recognizes him as the man in the drawing.

The two basic characters; the young man and the girl Willow, are repeated in different stories, which overlap each other so as to allow the young man to have a conversation with an offset version of himself; the traveller. Time is strangely and irregularly circular, revolving around the city of Smoke and the eyes of the dead girl, which binds together the ‘different’ characters.

It is interesting to note that in some stories of Chinese mythology, the ‘hun’ souls (魂) of the prematurely diseased are described as orphaned souls ‘guhun’ (孤魂) caught in the human world. They are to be pitied as well as feared, for they cannot join their ancestors before they find another soul to replace them, and so they seek to cause other people’s deaths.

The girl Willow Yang, has in one story line/time circle died in a car crash and in another from cancer, in both cases when she was only 17 when it happened. When her eyes are transplanted into the living young man/the traveller, the traditional ‘zhiguai’ (志怪 strange tale) takes on a contemporary dimension. She could be interpreted as a guhun, who causes the young man to be run over by a car just like her:

“[Guhun] devote themselves to leading others to their deaths: they draw the stroller towards the river’s edge, or cause automobile accidents on the very site of their own accidental death.” (Schipper, 1993: 38)

On the other hand Willow’s eyes give back the eyesight to those who have lost it and thus helps them to continue their life. This 1980s zhiguai illustrates how time can be experienced to move in unpredictable circles back and forth between the spheres of life and death, sometimes overlapping each other. And like all good zhiguai it revolves around the complex relationship between humans a ghost, which is never just a simple good vs. evil.

For more about the zhiguai tradition in contemporary fiction, including an analysis of different Yu Hua story, this article by Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg, University of Aarhus, is available online.

Cited works:
Schipper, Kristofer: The Taoist Body. Berkely: University of California Press, 1993.
Wang, Jing (ed): China’s Avantgarde Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Unexpected poems

In a small room with a big window in central Berlin I came across a translated volume of Tang-poet Bai Juyi (白居易 772–846).

Some of the poems bring to mind the familiar skizma between official employment in the city and a romantic tendency towards recluse in the country side. In this one, however, he seem to have achieved a possible symbiosis:

In the Palace

Gates massive, a ninefold silence;
windows darkened, the whole room still:
a perfect spot to practice mind cultivation.
What need to be deep in the mountains?

(translated by Burton Watson)

Though rightly famous for his social criticism (as in the poem Liao ling – Reflecting on the Toil of the Weaving Women) it is these short pieces like simple and sparkling still-leben from another time, that touch me the most. Reading them is like eating drops of semi crystallized moments. Still soft in the center, the first bite releases the sent of real moments lived by a real person in real time. Like this poem which seems to flow from the image of the well, melting sounds and light into a liquid stream of night keeping the poet company in his sleep:

Early Autumn, Alone at Night

Parasol tree by the well, cold leaves stirring;
nearby fulling mallets that speak an autumn sound:
I sleep alone facing the eaves,
wake to find moonlight half over the bed.

(translated by Burton Watson)

Thank you unknown person for leaving these unexpected poems fro me to find.

For more poems by Bai Juyi there is this website which has a few of his works online in both characters and translation, or the Burton Watson translation: Po Chü-I – Selected Poems. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Organized by chaos: Symposium on religion and literature

CHAOS logo

Just had an abstract accepted for the CHAOS symposium 2012: Religion and literature in Gothenburg in May. This is another cross-disciplinary symposium, so I’m very excited and looking forward to mingling with historians of religion and hearing their thoughts on literature. As we are all used to working with fiction in some form or other, from however different perspectives (secular or sacred), it should be interesting to exchange experiences.

The program has everything from the Icelandic sagas, through the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien to intergalactic Islam (curious to hear what that is). The symposium is organized by CHAOS (lovely antonymous effect) a Scandinavian academic journal covering the area of history of religion. All the presentations will be in Scandinavian languages.

This is my abstract:

Daoism and eating in Ah Cheng’s Chess King

Many critics have noted Ah Cheng’s extensive use of Daoist imagery and symbolism in his novella King of Chess from 1984. The story refers directly to Daoist discourse of non-action (wuwei 无为) and the power of yielding/softness in its treatment of the Chinese Way (dao 道) of chess, and thus readings have focused on the metaphysical aspects of Daoism. Chess, however, is only one of the two great passions of the story’s protagonist Wang Yisheng: The other is food. This very material aspect of life and its relation to Daoist thought is the subject of this paper.

Daoism is essentially a philosophy for engaging naturally and spontaneously with the world. Indeed Daoists view the body not as a mere vessel for a soul or a heart-mind, but rather as a whole entity; a landscape of organs. The body is our primary means of performing that role of intermediate between heaven and earth which is man’s lot. Following this logic food becomes extremely important as it is what sustains the body and powers the internal qi-circle, while eating very literally functions as a way of incorporating the world and thus effecting the constant transformation of matter that is life.

By comparing the attitude towards eating in King of Chess with the view of food and the body in early rustic Daoism, this paper presents an analysis of the ongoing reinvention and reinterpretation of Daoism in contemporary China.