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

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.

Ah Cheng selling his father’s books

Sometimes biographical sequences (more or less authentic) can form kind of apocryphal chapters in the bibliography of a writer.
I am thinking of continuous retellings (sometimes by the authors themselves) of important occurrences in the formative period of the writer’s life, such as Lu Xun’s epiphany when watching a film of Japanese soldier beheading seemingly passive Chinese. (See preface to 呐喊 Call to Arms 1923)

Just now setting out on my new project of exploring the writings of Ah Cheng (Zhong Ahcheng 钟阿城) I discovered a similar story in Bonnie S. McDougall’s afterword to the English compilation of the three king-novellas (Ah Cheng: The King of Trees. New Directions publishing Corp. New York: 2010):

As his academic father is deemed a rightist and sent to be reformed, the young Ah Cheng is given the task of selling the father’s library to support the left mother and five children left behind. Before selling a bundle of books however, he reads all of them through and thus, at the age of 7, begins his acquaintance with literature.

This information is be no means necessary in order to appreciate the works of Ah Cheng, nor have I any way of proving or falsifying its authenticity. To me it is just a supplementary, or as I said apocryphal, chapter in the work of Ah Cheng, evocative of a specific period in Chinese history as well as of that fatal first encounter with the world of books, which I think many of us can recognize.