Chinese, Sinophone and Comparative Literature: narrative spacetime, botanical monsters, literary sensory studies, urban memory, plant-human hybrids, ecocriticism across genres & a hovercraft full of eels
Zhange Ni shared her entangled reading of The Little Mushroom (Xiao Mogu 小蘑菇) by Yishisizhou 一十四洲, a danmei (耽美) male-male romance in which humanity is fencing itself in against infection from the non-human Other in the form of mushrooms that can shapeshift to look like humans. In this novel, humanity’s only chance of survival is to unite into a single being becoming the kind of collective lifeform that fungi represent, yet without the vital cross-species interaction that characterises fungal symbiosis with trees and other plants via mycorrhiza. Hearing prof Ni’s talk, I cannot help but wonder: if humans must adapt to a more fungal way of life and mushrooms can successfully impersonate humans, wherein lies the essential difference that the people of the novel are so eager to safeguard?
Corey Byrnes outlined Zhou Zuoren’s interesting progression from pre-evolutionary beasts (兽 shou) over animals (动物 dongwu) and on to humans (人 ren). I find this positioning of beasts as a human Other outside a shared evolutionary history interesting because they become a kind of organic antipode to the AI of contemporary SF. Beasts and AI both function as literary anti-images to the humanism of humans. Where AI are essentially electronic reproductions of the human brain, and beasts represent the physical drives and desires beyond the mind’s control, both lack the moral imperative of the human species. Yet as much SF and speculative fiction explore, the beasts and the AI are all too often more human (and more humane) than the human.
I talked about human-plant chimeras in works by Chi Hui 迟卉, Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹, and Yan Ge 颜歌, and how their duality of being challenge the centrality of the human body and brain in defining (intelligent) life, the taxonomic boundaries of single species, and the notion of individuality. In my essay written for the workshop, I begin by analysing Chi Hui’s迟卉 short story “The Rainforest” (雨林), in which classical antagonisms of plant horror are given a sharp twist when the human protagonist is able to merge with the botanical Other with the aid of nanotechnology. Secondly, I consider the appearance of bitter gourds on the pale skin of several curiously immobile and silent girls found on a building site in Dorothy Tse’s 謝曉虹 “Bitter Gourds” (苦瓜), and how they spread through the narrative as bodily manifestation of the repressed memories, sexualities, and political protests. Finally, I look at the commodification of gendered tree-people in Yan Ge’s 颜歌 “Flourishing Beasts” (荣华兽) as chimeras that fundamentally challenge the logic of anthropocentric classifications, highlight the posthuman question of what really constitutes a species, and presents taxonomic gatekeeping as a form of ontological violence.
Panel 1-Flora & Fauna
11:00 AM—12:30 PM (EDT)
Astrid Moller-Olsen, “Growing Together: Plant-human Chimeras in Contemporary Fiction”
Zhange Ni, “The Mushroom beyond the End of the World: Posthumanism and the Sci-fi Romance The Little Mushroom”
Corey Byrnes, “The Limits of Posthumanism and the Sempiternal Animal”
(Chair and Discussant, Carlos Rojas)
Panel 2-Humanism & Posthumanism
2:00-3:30 PM (EDT)
Carlos Rojas, “Dung Kai-Cheung’s Beloved Wife and Fungible Consciousness”
Nathaniel Isaacson, “Symbiosis and Synesthesia in the Fiction of Chi Ta-wei”
Hua Li, “Affirmation of Humanism amidst Posthuman Episodes in Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide and Balin”
Discussions and collective ramblings touched upon the difference between dolls and robots as literary figures, the gendered temporalities of futurism, the fruitful (vegetal) convergences between feminism and posthumanism, and whether the doll house of gendered expectations still persists even “after Nora leaves home.”
In recent years, Chinese and Sinophone science fiction has gained new popularity, not only among devoted readers, but within the scholarly community as well. As part of the emerging field of ‘global science fiction studies,’ such research contributes to a diversification of literary scholarship by including hitherto neglected cultural and linguistic areas. This panel grows out of these postcolonial endeavours and adds a gender dimension to the ongoing academic discussion of how works of speculative and science fiction envision global futures and challenge present ideas.
By analysing and comparing narrative negotiations of what it means to be a woman, a plant, or something in-between, the presentations in this panel examine the variety and complexity of futurist visions in Chinese language fiction. Far from being concerned solely with technology and space travel, contemporary science fiction is a multifaceted genre that is equally taken up with questions of human societies and identities. By virtue of a shared focus on gender, this panel introduces the original and wildly imaginative ways in which contemporary authors contest, reinforce, or hybridise conventional concepts of gender.
From contemporary feminist reinterpretations of Lu Xun’s and Henrik Ibsen’s “doll houses” to the alienated female workers of the future in Han Song’s 2012 novel Gaotie, from Chi Hui’s feminist utopia to plant-woman hybrids and environmental criticism, this panel investigates the manifold ways in which literature crafts and questions gendered landscapes for a global future.
Roots to the Future: Gender and Plant-human Hybrids in Contemporary Fiction. Astrid Møller-Olsen – Lund University.
Dwindling Doll’s Houses: Surreal Gendered Futures in Contemporary Fiction from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Coraline Jortay – University of Oxford.
Gender Issues in Han Song’s Novel Gaotie (The High-speed Railway). Hua Li – Montana State University.
Emancipatory Futures: Transgressing Gender Boundaries in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction. Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker – Heidelberg University.
A monster plant is a sinister thing, it thwarts knowledge and reverses the rules – you don’t eat it, it eats you; despite its roots, it moves about. A monster plant is monstrous because it behaves like a human; in it, we see the worst sides of ourselves: our greed, lust, violence. Or so it used to be…
But in our age of human-made climate change and environmental unpredictability, the so-called Anthropocene, plants have morphed from the radical (pun intended) ‘Other’ who can destroy us, to the one who might save us. Significant botanical others are not confined to the pages of Nature writing – vegetal characters are not only a subject for science fiction but walk abroad in a variety of literary contexts.
What can we learn from these unruly creatures? Can being curios about what it means to be a plant help us understand what being human might come to mean in the future? (Already there is an imbalance in this question – estimates calculate that this planet is home to nearly 400.000 plant species – clearly, being a plant is a lot of things).
Can thinking and writing with the green ink of botanical organisms help us reimagine the individual in an entangled world where no one is an island, where every body crawling on the ripples of the planet is itself a landscape for other, smaller beings? What can plants tell us about the ways in which we know –the shape and the form of knowledge? Might writing in green ink change the meaning of that writing all together?
In my project “Green Ink,” I am inspired by the monster as a figure that devours the organised realm of definable concepts and boundaries and excretes a fragmented, yet strangely interlinked, world view. I combine theories of the monstrous with critical plants studies’ insistence on the vegetal perspective in an impossible, but productive, attempt to bypass the patterns of prejudice inherent in the human mind.
I examine human-vegetal interactions and interrelationships, dissect plant-like humans and humanoid plants, as well as explore the completely new fictional species that populate contemporary Sinophone writing. Such monsters are rooted in both local and global traditions, they participate in a variety of discourses from genre fiction to ecocriticism, and they disrupt and outgrow every tradition, discourse, and genre they inhabit.
In the study of literature, plants have traditionally been categorised as either poetic metaphors or providers of exotic or romantic backdrops for narrative action. Although this strictly aesthetic perspective may have been adequate in the past, the contemporary global changes to the environment –and the consequent renewed literary interest in botanical and natural structure and modes of being- –demand a more nuanced and theoretically informed approach. Fortunately, such work is emerging from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives such as critical plant studies, monster theory, feminist posthumanism, and science fiction studies.
In 2013, a group of American literary scholars published the pioneering anthology Literary Plant Studies introducing Rodopi’s Critical Plant Studies Series, the aim of which was to “initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue, whereby philosophy and literature would learn from each other to think about, imagine, and describe, vegetal life with critical awareness, conceptual rigor, and ethical sensitivity” (Marder). The volume, edited by Randy Laist, first cast the green light on plant characters and plant narrators in (primarily Anglophone) literature from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park over Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. In 2017, The Language of Plants edited by Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan and Patrícia Vieira further explored “a biocentric form of literary criticism” that would “seriously regard the lives of plants in relation to humankind in terms that would look beyond the purely symbolic or ‘correlative’ dimension of the vegetal” (xii) from an interdisciplinary angle, and in 2020 Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari published their joint monograph Radical Botany, adding a Franco-American perspective to the discussion.
Parallel with these endeavours in botanical literary criticism and philosophy, the study of botanical monsters in horror fiction constitutes another important strand in the project of critical engagement with literary plants. In this growing subfield, researchers find that horror plants naturally tick many of the monstrous boxes described by Jeffrey J. Cohen in his influential text “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” from 1996. Horror plants seek Frankensteinian revenge for the ill we have done their home planet, they portray deviant sexualities, indulging in excessive auto- or multi-partner reproduction, and they inhabit the limits of knowing as their way of perceiving the world will always illude us despite the best efforts of critical plants studies.
Monster plants fracture the logic of human mastery over nature and expose the Anthropocene as an “epistemological crime-scene stained with erasures of plant consciousness” (Bishop 2018, 7). By blending vegetal, human, and animal characteristics, they force us to abandon the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being that situates plants at the bottom of a ladder that rises through various “lesser” animals to human beings at the top (Miller 2012, 466). As a subgenre, plant horror “marks humans’ dread of the ‘wildness’ of vegetal nature – its untameability, its pointless excess, its uncontrollable growth,” and function as an unwelcome memento mori reminding us that “while humans may occasionally become food for predatory animals, we all, whether buried in the ground or scattered on the earth, become sustenance for plants” (Keetley 2016, 1).
Inspired and informed by this corpus of literary plant research, my project looks at vegetal-anthropomorph characters that have come out of the closet of horror as a genre and as a type. Such characters can still usefully be approaches as monsters because, even without the horror, they retain an ability to complicate preconceptions and probe what it means to be human, to be plant, or just to be. Some of my monsters are still vengeful, on behalf of the planet or against the imperialism of taxonomy. Some are benevolent, seeking to reintegrate humankind into the natural world we believe to have abandoned. Some are just beings, going about their business, nurturing plants, and falling in love with humans, or the other way round.
Bishop, Katherine E. (2018). “’When ‘tis Night, Death is Green’: Vegetal Time in Nineteenth-Century Econoir.” Green Letters 22, no. 1: 7-19. DOI: 10.1080/14688417.2017.1413990
Cohen, Jeffrey J. (1996). “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gagliano, Monica; John C. Ryan; Patrícia Vieira (2017). “Introduction.” The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Laist, Randy (2013). “Introduction.” Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Meeker, Natania and Antónia Szabari (2020). Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction. New York: Fordham University Press.
Miller, T.S. (2012). “Lives of the Monster Plants: The Revenge of the Vegetable in the Age of Animal Studies.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 23, no.3: 460–479.
Keetley, Dawn (2016). “Introduction: Six Theses on Plant Horror; or, Why Are Plants Horrifying?” Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film, edited by Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.