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
In this themed cluster of PRISM: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, we encounter wandering flats, ghostly spaces, and nostalgic fantasies that foster an interpretation of space and time as fundamentally entangled in the city.
Sensory perception, identity, and time: Yesterday, I was part of an amazing paper-session discussing ominous sounds (Bo Ærenlund Sørensen), representations of gender (Zhou Danxue), and chronopolitics (Erik Mo Welin) in contemporary Chinese SF.
I talked about the oceanic origins and possible futures of life – and about how astro-nautical realms are used as fruitful settings for narratives that explore postcolonial ecocriticism and posthuman understandings of being (see full abstract below).
Space Oceans: Astro+nautical convergences in Chinese SF
Since the beginning of the space age, the universe has been envisioned as a huge, mysterious ocean upon which the vessels of human explorers could continue their expansion of the known world into the future. Indeed, one of the most influential writers of 20th century science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, wrote just as captivatingly of earth’s oceans as of outer space, and compared the two as frontier regions of knowledge and resources.
In both Chinese and English, nautical terminology is used to describe interstellar travel: spacecrafts are flying ships (飞船), with the wind-sails of ocean vessels exchanged for solar sails, and the people who pilot them are star sailors (astronauts) or universe-boat attendants (宇航员), while the Chinese name for the Milky Way, Silver River (银河), highlights the connection between the vast aquatic realm and the galactic void. This maritime vocabulary has spilled over into literary criticism, when Darko Suvin describes how science fiction contains “a curiosity about the unknown beyond the next mountain range (sea, ocean, solar system…)” and “the planetary island in the aether ocean,” or when historical periodization of both American and Chinese science fiction is being described as “waves.”
In this paper, I look at how contemporary Chinese writers tackle themes of colonialism and exploitation of natural resources, humanoid aliens and space-dwelling humans, as they explore the oceans of outer space. First, I look at how Hu Shaoyan 胡绍晏 imagines the universe itself as an intergalactic ocean. I read the human encounter with astro-jelly fish in her story “Submerged in a Flame Sea ” 火海潜航 as an example of what Astrida Neimanis calls the “hydrocommons of wet relations” albeit on an interstellar scale. Second, I turn to Chi Hui’s 迟卉 “Deep Sea Fish” 深海鱼 and the alien seascapes of Titan composed not of water but of methane. Here, I analyse colonialism of terrascaping and how the environment shapes the mind of the inhabitants even as they try to shape their environment. Finally, Regina Kanyu Wang’s 王侃瑜 “Return to Mi’an” 重返弥安 highlights the problematic notion of the frontier itself, with its violent ignorance and erasure of earlier inhabitants. I read the return of the surgically humanized protagonist to her own original ocean planet as an expression of human space travel as both a search of new frontiers and a longing for a homecoming to the ocean that spawned us.
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.
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/
In this episode of the Sinophone Unrealities podcast, we discuss three types of resistance found in post-80s Chinese SF: resistance to social inequalities, to political repression/censorship, and to gender stereotypes. Frederike gives examples from her research into works by Hao Jingfang, Ma Boyong, Zhang Ran, Chi Hui, Gu Shi, and Chen Qiufan and comments on the innovations and limitations of science fictional narratives when it comes to engaging with the sociopolitical issues of contemporary society.
Rebellious guest: Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker (she/her) is an assistant professor at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Heidelberg University. She received her PhD in Chinese Studies from the Free University of Berlin in June 2021 with a thesis on socio-political discourses in contemporary Chinese science fiction literature. She has participated in numerous international conferences and co-hosted events and talks with Chinese SF writers in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Heidelberg. Apart from Chinese science fiction, she is also interested in Chinese queer culture. When not sitting in front of her computer or behind her books, she explores nature by hiking or horse riding.
Agitated host agitator: Astrid Møller-Olsen is international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has published on fictional dictionaries, oneiric soundscapes, digital chronotopes in SF, ecocritical temporalities, and sensory urban spacetime. Her first monograph Sensing the Sinophone will be out in early 2022 by Cambria Press. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism: https://xiaoshuo.blog/
Sinopticonis 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.
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
In this episode, Xueting Christine Ni introduces the new anthology Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction (out 9 November 2021) that she has compiled and edited, and shares thoughts on the diversification of the genre. She interprets literary internet fora as modern-day versions of the interactive storytelling tradition of the teahouse. We also discuss how popular global and classical Chinese influences that converge in stories like A Que’s “Flower of the Other Shore”, which feature walking dead reminiscent of both Chinese Jiangshi (僵尸 literally “stiff corpse” but often referred to as “hopping vampire”) and Hollywood zombies.
In this episode, Zhange Ni introduces us to some of the myriad fantasy genres proliferating on Chinese internet platforms and beyond. She describes and contextualises recent subgenres such as qihuan 奇幻 and xuanhuan 玄幻 (and their relationship with wuxia 武俠 Les mer …
Visiting Storyteller: Xueting Christine Ni has a degree in English Literature from the University of London. After graduating, she began a career in the publishing industry, whilst also translating original works of Chinese fiction. She returned to China in 2008 to continue her research at Central University of Nationalities, Beijing. Since 2010, she has written extensively on Chinese culture and China’s place in Western pop media. Her first book, From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao, is published by Weiser Books. Her new anthology Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction, is out on the 9th of November. Xueting currently lives just outside London with her partner and their cats, all of whom are learning Chinese.
Teahouse Host: Astrid Møller-Olsen is international research fellow with the Universities of Lund, Stavanger, and Oxford, funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has degrees in comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, urban forms of memory, and sensory approaches to the study of literature. Her first monograph Sensing the Sinophone is forthcoming with Cambria Press. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism: https://xiaoshuo.blog/
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.
How does writing in a foreign language help authors think beyond their own perspective and imagine other beings, other identities, other species? In this episode, Regina Kanyu Wang talks about her research into environmental SF, her own use of English to experiment with a non-human narrative voice, and about The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, a new anthology of Chinese science fiction and fantasy, written, edited, and translated by women and nonbinary creators.
Enjoying a sunny day from each our separate Norwegian coast, we also discuss the delightful gender ambiguity of literary pseudonyms, the manyfold human machine of literary publishing, and the limits of genre.
Visiting Symbiont: Regina Kanyu Wang is a PhD fellow of the CoFUTURES project at the University of Oslo. Her research interest lies in Chinese science fiction, especially from the gender and environmental perspective. She is also an awarded writer who writes both science fiction and non-fiction who has won multiple Xingyun Awards for Global Chinese SF (Chinese Nebular), SF Comet International SF Writing Competition, Annual Best Works of Shanghai Writers’ Association and others. She has co-edited the Chinese SF special issue of Vector, the critical issue of BSFA and The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, an all-women-and-non-binary anthology of Chinese speculative fiction, forthcoming in 2022.
Host Organism:Astrid Møller-Olsen is postdoctoral fellow in an international position between Lund University (Sweden), University of Stavanger (Norway), and University of Oxford (UK) funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has a background in 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: https://xiaoshuo.blog/
We know that everything we experience is mediated -through the senses in collaboration with the brain- it is like there is a membrane between our selves and the world. But where does the membrane stop and reality begin? Can we even be sure that there is something on the other side? Or turn it around; where does the membrane stop, and the self begin? Is there even something at the core? These are the questions raised in Chi Ta-wei’s 紀大偉 novel The Membranes(first published as <膜> in 1995), a unique work of queer speculation, critical futurism, and cyber-psychology, superbly and lucidly translated into English by Ari Larissa Heinrich.
The novel is sometimes described as dystopian, but I see nothing in it that is not already out there, albeit in different forms: Is organ and tissue harvesting from androids worse than from other humans or animals? Is stealing people’s sensory experiences via extra layers of false skin all that different from the gathering of personal information that goes on every time you press your fingers against a computer keyboard to access the internet? Is the brutal class segregation between exposed land-dwellers and protected sea-dwellers unlike the way factories and garbage dumps are habitually constructed in the poorest areas of city and planet? As all good speculative fiction does, The Membranes draws attention to our own world by recreating familiar emotions in estranging environments, providing fresh perspectives on fundamental questions, in Chi’s case, in highly poetic and inventive ways.
The Membranes narrates a short time span around the 30th birthday of Momo, the owner of a skin treatment parlor named Salon Canary located at the ocean floor in the year 2100. Through Momo’s memories and experiences, we learn of her life history and of the many membranes that surround her: “Membranes filtered Momo’s every impression of the world. At thirty, she felt there was at least one layer of membrane between her and the world. Not the kind of membrane she applied to her clients receiving facials at work, obviously. The invisible kind. The kind that made her feel like at tiny water flea – a Daphnia encased in a cell, swimming alone out to sea” (1).
Momo feels separated from her peers and, outside her work, has difficulty engaging in any kind of intimate relations. Beside the psychological barrier (which has very material foundations as the novel reveals), other membranes separate the human Daphnia from the sea of reality. Quite literally, the city she lives in lies “safe under the purple sky of a waterproof and earthquake-proof membrane, deep beneath the ocean, people lived out their days like flowers in a greenhouse” (26).
The skin is perhaps the most immediate membrane, protecting us against illness, except in Momo’s case where it failed to prevent the LOGO virus from slowly destroying her body. This necessitated the construction of Andy -an android specifically (and cruelly) designed to be “compatible” with Momo, to become her first friend and later her organ donor. Elegantly playing with the reader’s gendered expectations, Chi describes the surgical union of the sterile android Andy (sexed as female and gendered feminine) and the human girl Momo, who possesses a penis and is named after a mythical Japanese boy: “Did these two hands belong to Momo or Andy? Whose belly was this? She didn’t have a pee-pee, so that delicate flesh below her belly must have belonged to Andy!” (78).
Recalling Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking 1985-essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Chi reminds us that cyborgs are good to think with, especially when it comes to questions of gender and identity politics, because they are made, just as genders are made, of many (un)natural things in specific contexts. Cyborgs are neither/both human nor/and machine -they represent a messier approach to identity reiterated by Momo when she asks, “whose belly is this?” After all, that belly is home to many hundreds of species of bacteria with each their specific DNA as well as Momo’s “own” cells.
The most persistent membrane, however, exists between Momo and her mother. This is not the cellular membrane of a crustacean in the sea, but of a fetus in a womb. It is not a human merged with an android, but a child disjoined from a parent. Together with the android theme, the theme of parentage explores what it means to be and individual. If one individual can emerge from another, then where and when does individuality begin within all those layers of blood and uterine fluids. And, as Momo points out, emerging from one membrane into the other, one is still a caged canary.
In her dermic treatment work, Momo uses a kind of cream called M-skin which settles into a second skin on the client’s body. This skin is able to record sensory information and replay it through a computer: “Put simply, imagine the body is an old-style tape recorder and M-skin is a cassette: every stimulus experienced by Tomie Ito’s body was recorded like a sound. When Momo got the cassette and made a copy, she could play it on the tape recorder of her own body” (59).
From this angle, the skin is not our ward against the world, but our gateway to it, the line of encounter between inner and outer, I and you. Momo uses M-skin to spy on her clients and, in effect, live through their bodies, problematizing the habitual understanding of the skin as the boundary of the self. If one can share memories, share sensory experiences, share the most intimate moments, what remains of the singular I?
The novel is not only concerned with individuality and identity politics. There are subtle hints at social and political critique in the very structure of Momo’s ocean world: “The new sea-dwellers also left behind unwanted structures like pollution-producing factories and nuclear power plants (which meant, however, that some key personnel were forced to remain on the surface to man the reactors). Also left behind were prisons and various tools of punishment, since governments universally recognized that leaving convicts on the surface was actually a convenient punishment in and of itself” (22).
In the end, membranes are inescapable, and perhaps they are the very location of life. Just as the skin act as the zone of encounter between self and world, so is this wet origin of humanity, “the ocean: just a membrane on the surface of a giant apple” (67). Like the membranes present everywhere, Chi’s novel in Heinrich’s translation presents a view of reality that is certainly layered but also porous. If membranes are everywhere, they are also pierced, smeared, breached and rewoven. By encouraging a closer look at surfaces, the novel suggests that this is where much of our identity (social, sexual, species) resides and is constantly reconfigured. The core, the brain, the mind, or whatever we call it, does not thrive in vacuum, but needs and feeds on sensory stimuli from the boundaries of the body.
The Membranes is a fascinating and beautifully conceived novel, deceptively simple and alluringly deep, smoothly mediated by the membrane of Heinrich’s excellent translation. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Chi’s work.