Pre-internet Fandom, Transmediality & Eco-SF with Hua Li

In this episode, Hua Li relates how modern Chinese SF was popularized as a transmedial practice in the 1980s. She explains the key role played by a kind of graphic novel format known as lianhuanhua 连环画 and gives examples from the illustrated works of Ye Yonglie 叶永烈. We then move on to fan culture before the internet age and end by discussing how early environmental SF from the 1950s presents a different perspective from today’s writings on the Anthropocene.

Learn more about lianhuanhua from the Association for Chinese Animation Studies or visit the collection at Princeton University.

You can read Hua Li’s fascinating article “Chinese Science Fiction and Environmental Criticism: From the Anthropocentric to the Cosmocentric” at the SFRA Review – it’s open access!

Lianhuanhua 连环画

Transmedial Guest: Hua Li is Professor of Chinese and the coordinator of Chinese program at Montana State University. Her primary research field is modern and contemporary Chinese literature. She has published two monographs, Contemporary Chinese Fiction by Su Tong and Yu Hua: Coming of Age in Troubled Times (Brill, 2011), and Chinese Science Fiction During the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw (University of Toronto Press, 2021). She has also authored numerous journal articles and book chapters on various topics in contemporary Chinese literature, cinema, and science fiction.

Host Fan: Astrid Møller-Olsen is international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has just published her first monograph Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Cambria Press, 2022). Other publications include analyses of fictional dictionaries, oneiric soundscapes, digital chronotopes in SF, ecocritical temporalities, and sensory urban spacetime. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism: https://xiaoshuo.blog/

Trees Keep Time: Ecocriticism and Chinese Literature

I’m tickled pink to be part of this new literary anthology brimming with interesting studies of urban ecologies, environmental SF and landscapes of emotion!

Møller-Olsen, Astrid (2022). “Trees Keep Time: An Ecocritical Approach to Literary Temporality.” Ecocriticism and Chinese Literature: Imagined Landscapes and Real Lived Spaces. Edited By Riccardo Moratto, Nicoletta Pesaro, Di-kai Chao. Routledge.

Plants have always been powerful symbols of place, rooted as they are in the local soil, yet in most almanacs such as the Chinese lunar calendar, flowers and plants are also core images for defining and representing time. Through a conceptualisation of qingjing (情境) that relates literary temporality to emotional interaction with the environment through the figure of the tree, this chapter executes a thematic comparison of arboreal figures in three works of contemporary Sinophone fiction, demonstrating how trees, as keepers of time, form an ecocritical approach to the study of narrative temporality.

In this chapter, I analyse the emotional topography (qingjing 情境) of human-tree relationships and their effect on narrative temporality. I begin by examining the various genera of trees that grow in Chu T’ien-hsin’s 朱天心 Taipei neighbourhoods and serve as organic intergenerational links to personal, familial, and historical pasts. Then, I move on to the urban parks of Dung Kai-cheung’s 董啟章 Hong Kong and the individual characters’ counterfactual, yet emotionally real, relationships with specific trees explored through the finite temporality of death. Finally, I travel with Alai 阿來 to the ethnically Tibetan areas of Sichuan and explore the temporal clash between scientific progress and the mytho-historical longue durée perspective provided by the ancient arboreal inhabitants.

Sinopticon: A Starship Library

Sinopticon is the brainchild of Xueting Christine Ni who has done an amazing work of collecting, translating, and introducing 13 new SF stories from contemporary China. The stories span two decades and incorporate a variety of themes from galactic existentialism in Han Song’s “Tombs of the Universe” (宇宙墓碑 1991) to Ma Boyong’s hardboiled-style space age take on Chinese holiday traffic chaos in “The Great Migration” (大冲运 2021).

The overweight of male protagonists, casual gender stereotyping, and the odd dash of not too subtle patriotism made me a bit tired at times, but luckily several of the stories depart from this pattern. Jiang Bo’s “Starship: Library” (宇宙尽头的书店) combines a structure reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” with Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey to explore the difference between knowledge and learning. I prefer Ni’s evocative title over the more literal translation “the bookshop at the end of the universe” (the Douglas Adams reference is getting a little worn), and the idea of a roaming library piloted by a contemporary incarnation of an ancient Chinese goddess will excite bibliophiles of all galaxies.

Each story is followed by an anecdotal epilogue introducing the author and offering a mini-interpretation of the narrative, which, combined with foot notes explaining Chinese terms and idioms as well as a list of author bios at the end of the book, is a bit too much guidance for my taste. But who am I to talk, I’m offering up my own readings all the time including right now. Anyway, one can just skip on to the next story.

Other interventions are more fruitful, like the decision to title Anna Wu’s story “戴珍珠耳环的少女” (the girl with the pearl earring) in the original Dutch as “Meisje met de Parel” to avoid confusion with other literary and cinematographic works inspired by of Vermeer’s painting. Adding another language to the layers of time and pigments that envelop the story only makes the fabric of the narrative more intriguing. Each English title is subtitled by the original Chinese title, which, as well as being is enormously helpful for researchers, is also a simple and beautiful way of reminding the reader of the multiplicity of languages and people involved in bring these stories to them.

Recurring topics include a renewed appreciation for the cultural history of Earth stemming from a futurist and/or intergalactic perspective in Han Song and Tang Fei’s stories, posthuman explorations of the humaneness of cyborgs in Wang Jinkang and Nian Yu’s work, and new regimes for AI that include social intelligence (Hao Jingfang) and process-oriented learning (Jiang Bo). An interesting deviation from classic SF figures of robots and spaceships is A Que’s “Flower of the Other Shore” (彼岸花) – an ecocritical zombie story featuring a Rome and Juliet romance between an “uncontaminated” (not yet subjected to the zombie virus) human woman and a male protagonist who is a hybrid between a Chinese jiangshi (僵尸 stiff corpse/jumping vampire) and a Hollywood zombie. Xueting Christine Ni talks about this story in the most recent episode of the Sinophone Unrealities podcast available here.

I definitely enjoyed some stories more than others, but all in all, am delighted and grateful to Ni and her crew for all their work in making this beautiful collection of authors and stories available to an Anglophone audience: A new addition our collective starship library.

TOC

Foreword, Xia Jia
Introduction, Xuenting Christine Ni
The Last Save, Gu Shi
Tombs of the Universe, Han Song
Qiankun and Alex, Hao Jingfang
Cat’s Chance in Hell, Nian Yu
The Return of Adam, Wang Jinkang
Rendezvous: 1937, Zhao Haihong
The Heart of the Museum, Tang Fei
The Great Migration, Ma Boyong
Meisje met de Parel, Anna Wu
Flower of the Other Shore, A Que
The Absolution Experiment, Bao Shu
The Tide of Moon City, Regina Kanyu Wang
Starship: Library, Jiang Bo

OSEH talk: Plant-human Hybrids

In a world where environmental concerns loom large in the media and classrooms alike, it is not only in apocalyptic or ecocritical fiction that we encounter ecological motifs and botanical characters. This talk examines three literary works, from three different generic traditions, that feature plant-human hybrids: Dorothy Tse’s 謝曉紅 speculative short story “Bitter Gourd” (苦瓜), science fiction writer Chi Hui’s 迟卉 “The Rainforest” (雨林, translated for Renditions by Jie Li), and Yan Ge’s 颜歌 cryptozoological mystery novel A Chronicle of Strange Beasts (异兽志, translated as Strange Beasts of China by Jeremy Tiang).

Time and place: Mar. 10, 2021 CET 12:15 PM–1:00 PM. Register here.

Recent scholarship in critical plant studies have highlighted that attention to botanical characters may help us understand, if not how plants communicate and sense the world, then at least how we imagine they do. Attempting to circumvent anthropocentrism, this radically non-human perspective, produces alternative visions of the planetary future as well as ecologically situated readings of human history. Combining ecocriticism with the figure of the monster (human-like, yet not human), this talk analyses literary plant-human hybrids in contemporary Sinophone fiction.

About the speaker

Astrid Møller-Olsen is postdoctoral research fellow in an international position between Lund University (Sweden), the University of Stavanger (Norway), and the University of Oxford (UK) funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has a background in both comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, urban forms of narrative memory, and sensory approaches to the study of literature. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism.

About the event series

The OSEH Environmental Lunchtime Discussion series consists of short, 15 minute presentations by invited guests, followed by a discussion. We invite speakers from a wide variety of fields, both academic and beyond. The presentations are accessible and are aimed at anyone with an interest in environmental issues. All are welcome.

Transtextual Sci-Fi and Hong Kong Ecotopias

Ficheiro:DLK.jpg – Wikipédia, a enciclopédia livre

Who knew: I’ve met up with more colleagues (online) during a month of self-isolation than I would normally see in a whole semester. Less uniformly productive effects of working from home include choosing to learn 日本語 and tlhIngan Hol at the same time (surprisingly, Japanese seems easier, but I suspect that Klingons are just not among the universe’s most pedagogical creatures) and cooking three times a day (also known as the Covid19 diet).

November has been a month of rainstorms, peSop! and amazing lectures on contemporary Chinese fiction.

As part of the University of Freiburg’s ReadChina lecture series, Lena Henningsen presented her analyses of the many instances of intertextuality in contemporary Chinese science fiction. She suggested that the term transtextuality (which Gérard Genette used as a kind of umbrella term for all textual relationships) might be used to talk about the textual space where text and intertext interact and affect one another just as transculturality focuses on practices across rather than between cultures.

At the University of Zurich’s Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, Winnie L. M. Yee (University of Hong Kong) presented ecotopian visions in contemporary Hong Kong film and fiction. She argued that Hong Kong eco-writing had moved from treating the botanical environment as a signifier for local identity, to investigating Hong Kong identity as an ecology beyond the local.

And next week, Carlos Rojas at Duke University combines these two hottest topics of the season in a workshop on Science Fiction and Ecocriticism with brilliant speakers like Mingwei Song, Robin Visser and Cara Healey:

Chinese Science Fiction Workshop

Plants in Sinophone Fiction

After crossing the North Sea, I am now in Stavanger – a place of windy beauty and clear waters (began my winter bathing project today – got to start early or it’ll be too shockingly cold).

I am here to pursue my project Green Ink: Plants in Sinophone Fiction in my capacity as International Research Fellow in a shared position between Lund University (Sweden), University of Stavanger (Norway), and University of Oxford (UK) funded by the Swedish Research Council.

In this project, I look at how contemporary Sinophone works of fiction use botanical characters, plant imagery and green environments to create alternative realities, explore possible futures and deal with traumatic pasts; colouring their writings, so to speak, with the green ink of literary plants. In a world where environmental concerns loom large in the media and classrooms alike, this project will help us understand how human beings imagine their plant others as monsters, saviours or parts of themselves.

During my time in Stavanger, I will be affiliated with some pretty awesome Norwegian research networks, namely The Greenhouse Environmental Humanities Initiative and the Monster Network. Yass! Read and eat your greens!

The Last Human Tiger: Review of Fang Qi’s Elegy of a River Shaman

In a fantastic blend of folk song, ecocriticism and historical fiction, the novel Elegy of a River Shaman chronicles four generations of the Tribe of the Tiger and their Tima (shaman) in the Three Gorges (san xia 三峡) region along he Yangzi River. It opens with the clan patriarch Li Diezhu’s decision to build a pioneer settlement in the fertile Lihaku ridge and moves on to relate how macro-historical events, such as the Japanese invasion of 1937 and the civil war between communists and nationalists, affected the lives and traditions of this local community.

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After trailing the fates and misfortunes of the dwindling tribe, the novel ends on a hopeful note, with Diezhu’s ageing widow assuring their great-grandson of the continued survival of his people and their totem animal: “when a tiger turns five hundred years old, its fur turn white. They can live a thousand years” (467).

In terms of genre, this almost 500-page long work is indebted to at least three Chinese literary traditions: root-searching literature (xungen wenxue 寻根文学), nature writing (ziran xiezuo 自然写作) and new historical fiction (lishi xiaoshuo 历史小说).

Firstly, Fang Qi, like the father of root-searching literature, Han Shaogong and Shen Congwen before him (Kinkley 1993), is concerned with the folkloristic remains of ancient Chinese civilization: “The first vestiges of human civilization can be traced to the banks of the Three Gorges” (vi). However, where Shen and Han were fascinated by the cultural and linguistic residue of Chu culture in Hunan, Fang focuses on Hubei, where, according to her narrator, “in ancient times, the mountain chain formed the boundary of the Ba State” (11).

forsideTrue to this literary tradition, delightful folk songs and shamanic chants weave in and out of the narrative, a pattern of poetic myths linking humans and nature through verse: “The wind so crisp, the sun co bright, / Tang of ginger pairs with hot peppers’ bite. / Crisp wind augurs a clear, fine day, / Come back, my love, and take me away” (81). It likewise shares the root-searchers’ tendency for ecological naiveté and sexualized exoticism: “In this desolate primitive wilderness, husband and wife nightly waged fierce sexual battles” (24), running the risk of romanticizing a society where women are primarily seen as baby-making machines: “A girl of eighteen commits suicide: fertile soil, abandoned land” (110) and endangered species are hunted and killed (37).

tiger-nature-zoo-wild-162306Secondly, it offers a kind of literary ecocriticism concerned with the destruction of the natural cohesion between human beings and environment as expressed by clan matriarch Tao Jiuxiang: “Earth swallows man, yet man depends upon the earth for his livelihood. Buried under the ground, man’s death is eternal, yet eating the fruits of the earth men have subsisted for countless centuries” (560). Just as famous writers like Ah Cheng, Jiang Rong and others lamented deforestation and disregard for wildlife (Thornber 2017). Fang Qi’s work is an elegy for the last shaman of Three Gorges, the loss of whom brings the land itself into demise: “With Xia Qifa’s [the shaman] nurture and solicitude, the fir tree on the dragon’s brow had gradually turned from yellow to green, coming back to life. But now, the tree’s needles had turned a brittle yellowish-red” (452).

The novel playfully accepts the animistic paradigm of shamanism, making use of allegorical wildlife scenes to hint at future events: thus, when the matchmaker Third Auntie, after having been turned away in disdain by the wealthy Xiang family, sees a pack of small but vicious dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) attacking and bringing down a moon bear, she (correctly as it turns out) interprets the episode as a good omen: “She, too, would claw back her honor like the fierce dhole” (35).

Thirdly, the novel employs the temporal scope and narrative perspective of the New Historical trend in contemporary Chinese fiction as represented most famously by Mo Yan (Lin 2005), which, with a postmodern wariness of grand narratives, retells famous historical events from the perspective of the individual and its influences on her or his emotions, fantasies and daily life. One example of this kind of micro-history is the conflict between regional and national loyalty experienced by Diezhu’s son Mawu: “Motherfucking Japanese devils! […] He wished he could head straight to the front to take revenge, but he couldn’t: Huangshui, this ancient town, needed him” (150).

Another conflict, brought into focus by the novels cross-generational timespan, is between tradition and progress: Diezhu wishes for his sons to be educated and knowledgeable, yet he is exasperated when their expanded horizon makes them want to leave home.

P1040074With its numerous and somewhat flat characters, the novel initially requires some perseverance on the part of the reader, yet as it unfolds its detailed and sensuous universe of sweet wine, cloud filled gorges and spiritual chants there is no turning back. Based on ten years of anthropological field work, Elegy of a River Shaman is a lush and generous (but also violent and tragic) tale of the last tiger and the last shaman of Three Gorges. It uses fictional narrative to celebrate the rich folk customs of this area of China and preserve them for the future.

Fang, Qi. 2016. Elegy of a River Shaman. Translated by Norman Harry Rothschild and Meng Fanjun. Portland, ME: Merwin Asia.

References
Kinkley, Jeffrey. 1993. “Shen Congwen’s Legacy in Chinese Literature of the 1980s.” In Ellen Widmer, and Der-wei Wang, eds., From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lin, Qingxin. 2005. Brushing History Against the Grain: Reading the Chinese New Historical Fiction (1986-1999). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Thornber, Karen Laura. 2017. “Wolf Totem and Nature Writing.” In David Der-wei Wang, ed., A New Literary History of Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Harvard.