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]

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!