A Three-City Problem: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei

The first section of my new monograph Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Cambria 2022) I call the SKELETON because it provides the structure for the book. It consists of 1) the theoretical foundations for the analyses inlcuding an introduction to literary spacetime and alternative sensoria and 2) my triangular approach to comparative literature and an introduction to the six primary texts analysed throughout the book.

Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works

I begin by borrowing Liu Cixin’s Three-Body problem (which he, in turn, has borrowed from mathematical physics) and convert it into a three-city problem. While the interaction between two bodies poses a relatively simple problem, the addition of a third body of approximately equal mass complicates calculations immensely. Likewise, a literary triangular comparison creates more junctions and convergences than a twofold one. Furthermore, “it frustrates any tendency towards binarism (be it East-West or North-South) and complicates notions of internal homogeneity by centering on cultural interchange as constitutive for our understanding of place” (Sensing the Sinophone, 24).

I then sketch out recent discussions on the form and content of Sinophone literature and add my own triangular urban approach – focusing on the three cities of Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai that are all (to various extents) culturally and linguistically hybrid cities with (semi)colonial pasts. These three cities constitute sites of negotiation between strong urban identities and (contested) ties to mainland China, and act as individual anchors for both regional and international networks.

Finally, I introduce the six literary works that I analyse comparatively throughout the book (rather than relegating each to its own chapter), namely:

Shanghai: Chen Cun 陈村. Xianhua he 鲜花和 [Fresh flowers and] and Ding Liying 丁丽英. Shizhong li de nüren 时钟里的女人 [The woman in the clock].

Taipei: Chu T’ien-hsin 朱天心. Gudu 古都 [The Old Capital] and Wu Mingyi 吳明益. Tianqiao shang de moshushi 天橋上的魔術師 [The magician on the skywalk].

Hong Kong: Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章. Ditu ji 地圖集 [Atlas] and Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹. Shuang cheng cidian I–II 雙城 辭典I–II [A dictionary of two cities I–II] (written jointly with Hon Lai Chu).

The CORPUS of the book is then dedicated to the study of the countless fictional cities nestled within the six literary works written by authors from the 3 real-world metropoles Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai. In the following readings, “I turn my attention away from each real-world city as a center of gravity and toward the analytical interactions between these three bodies of equal mass. For the sake of intelligibility, and to foster such interactions, I impose a theoretical and thematic framework characterized by a high degree of flexibility.”

Part I. Skeleton
Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City
Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works
Part II. Corpus
Chapter 3. Sense of Place: Walking or Mapping the City Chapter
4. The Nose: Flora Nostalgia Chapter
5. The Ear: Melody of Language Chapter
6. Sense of Self: The Many Skins of the City Chapter
7. The Mouth: Balancing Flavors Chapter
8. The Eye: Fictional Dreams
Part III. Excretions
Chapter 9. Sense of Time: Everyday Rhythms
The City Remembers: Concluding Remarks

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.

Literary Sensory Studies, Urban Spacetime & Memory Knitwear

My first monograph Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (Cambria 2022) is coming to a library near you! So I guess it’s only polite that I introduce you to one another.

The book is all about sensory engagements between body and city, so I’ve divided it into three sections:

  1. SKELETON: theoretical foundations, literary spacetime, alternative sensoria, and triangular comparisons.
  2. CORPUS: the literary analyses, thematically organised around extended sensory organs into 6 chapters.
  3. EXCRETIONS: analytical comparisons, temporal typologies, and concluding remarks.

Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City

I begin by presenting the idea that the rapid and violent restructuring of cities like Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai from the 1990s onwards affects the way we think about space and time: “When entire building blocks are here today and gone tomorrow, or vice versa, space starts to shift and entangle itself with time as the elusive silhouettes of memory gain a new urgency and begin to shape how spatial reality is perceived.”

So I argue that we need to analyse urban spacetime as a unified concept and discuss some of the ways this has been done (from Bakhtin’s chronotopes to Elana Gomel’s impossible topologies) and could be done.

I also introduce the term time-space (inspired by Doreen Massey and Kevin Lynch) to designate discrete chunks of spacetime, such as “my shabby home-office on a February morning in 2022” or “the illuminated Shanghai Bund on his 103rd birthday.”

I extoll the approach that I call literary sensory studies, which is follows in footsteps of Cai Biming’s take on body-sensations (身体感) as well as sensory studies scholars’ call to examine and expand the traditional fivefold sensorium, but from the vantage point of literary analysis. Fictional narrative has a wonderful capacity for highlighting the cross- and multisensory foundation of almost all sensory experiences, as well as imagining and describing forth sensations of pain, hunger, temperature, and selfhood that are not part of the conventional sensorium.

Finally, I talk about the creative aspects of memory and use the metaphor of “memory knitwear” to highlight that “each time you rip up the fabric and reknit it following the same pattern, the result will be subtly different, paralleling the process of opening, reconfiguring, and re-storing memories described by neurobiology.”

Part I. Skeleton
Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City
Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works
Part II. Corpus
Chapter 3. Sense of Place: Walking or Mapping the City Chapter
4. The Nose: Flora Nostalgia Chapter
5. The Ear: Melody of Language Chapter
6. Sense of Self: The Many Skins of the City Chapter
7. The Mouth: Balancing Flavors Chapter
8. The Eye: Fictional Dreams
Part III. Excretions
Chapter 9. Sense of Time: Everyday Rhythms
The City Remembers: Concluding Remarks

Sensing the Sinophone

My first monograph is underway! Haha! It will be published as part of Cambria Press’ wonderful Sinophone Worlds series of which I already have many amazing titles on my bookshelf including Wilt L. Idema’s Insects in Chinese Literature, Chia-rong Wu’s Supernatural Sinophone Taiwan and Beyond, and Isaac Yue’s Monstrosity and Chinese Cultural Identity.

Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction combines narratological tools for studying time in fiction with critical concepts of spatiality in order to establish an analytical focus on narrative voice and reliability (including the inaccuracy of memory), structural non-linearity (such as mental time travel), and the construction of fictional parallel cities as loci for plot development. In this study, the conventional sensorium and its role in recollection is explored and amplified to include whole-body sensations, habitual synesthesia, and the emotional aspects of sensations that produce a sense of place or self.

By analyzing narratives that make use of and encourage multisensory, spatiotemporal understandings of reality characterized by permeable boundaries between material, social and imaginary domains, this monograph shows how contemporary cities change the way human beings think and write about reality.

Blurbs

Some very kind reviews have already been posted on Cambria’s page:

“With a lineup of works drawn from contemporary Chinese and Sinophone communities, Astrid Møller-Olsen pays special attention to the articulations of senses in the texts under discussion, from audio-visual contact to melodious association, tactile sensation, aromatic emanation, and kinetic exercise, culminating in mnemonic imagination and gendered fabulation. The result is a work on urban synesthesia, a kaleidoscopic projection of sensorium in a narrative form. Her analyses of works by writers such as Chu Tien-hsin and Wu Ming-yi are particularly compelling. Sensing the Sinophone has introduced a new direction for literary studies and is sure to be an invaluable source for anyone interested in narratology, urban studies, environmental studies, affect studies and above all comparative literature in both Sinophone and global contexts.” —David Der-wei Wang, Harvard University

“Evoking the language and logic of poetry, Sensing the Sinophone is a brilliant literary urban ecology that conjures cities, like texts, as open, dynamic, sensing, vital, enduring entities. How, Astrid Møller-Olsen asks, do characters experience sensory memories in six novels of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei, activated by architectural, botanical, and bodily presences in the city? With theoretical insights ranging from quantum mechanics to Confucian cosmology, this phenomenological elucidation of fictionalized cities as somaticized organisms with physiological functions is a remarkable intervention.” —Robin Visser, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

More about the book

Since the 1990s, extensive urbanization in East Asia has created a situation in which more people identify themselves as citizens of the city where they live, rather than their ancestral village or nation. At the same time, this new urban identity has been under constant threat from massive municipal restructuring. Such rapidly changing cityscapes form environments of urban flux that lead to narrative reconfigurations of fundamental concepts such as space, time, and memory. The resulting contemporary urban fiction describes and explores this process of complex spatial identification and temporal fluctuation through narratives that are as warped and polymorphic as the cities themselves.

Building on previous scholarship in the fields of Chinese/Sinophone urban fiction, sensory studies, and comparative world literature, Sensing the Sinophone provides a new city-based approach to comparativism combined with a cross-disciplinary focus on textual sensescapes.

Through an original framework of literary sensory studies, this monograph provides a comparative analysis of how six contemporary works of Sinophone fiction reimagine the links between the self and the city, the past and the present, as well as the physical and the imaginary. It explores the connection between elusive memories and material cityscapes through the matrix of the senses. Joining recent efforts to imagine world literature beyond the international, Sensing the Sinophone engages in a triangular comparison of fiction from Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei—three Sinophone cities, each with its own strong urban identity thatc comes with unique cultural and linguistic hybridities.

Sensing the Sinophone is an important addition to several ongoing discussions within the fields of comparative literature, urban studies, memory studies, geocriticism, sensory studies, Sinophone studies, and Chinese studies.

TOC

Part I. Skeleton

Chapter 1. Literary Sensory Studies: The Body Remembers the City

Chapter 2. The Three-City Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Six Works

Part II. Corpus

Chapter 3. Sense of Place: Walking or Mapping the City

Chapter 4. The Nose: Flora Nostalgia

Chapter 5. The Ear: Melody of Language

Chapter 6. Sense of Self: The Many Skins of the City

Chapter 7. The Mouth: Balancing Flavors

Chapter 8. The Eye: Fictional Dreams

Part III. Excretions

Chapter 9. Sense of Time: Everyday Rhythms

The City Remembers: Concluding Remarks

Bibliography

Index

Heritage and Memory in Zhu Tianxin’s The Old Capital

This article forms part of a special issue of International Journal of Heritage Studies edited by Laurajane Smith, Marina Svensson and Oscar Salemink, but is also available open access.

The City is a Journey

Zhu Tianxin’s (Chu T’ien-hsin 朱天心) novella The Old Capital (古都) narrates the process of slowly losing contact with the past through forgetting, loss and material erasure. Instead of completely eradicating the past, this process prompts a renewed interest, and, in a sense, a renewed presence of that past in conscious remembering, literary evocation and narrative attendance. Inspired by David Crouch’s conception of heritage as a journey, this paper looks at how the protagonist’s physical and mental voyage in The Old Capital incorporates several spatiotemporal layers of cultural heritage to help her – and the reader – understand the complexity of the living historical city of Taipei.

cropped-taipei-228.jpg

Møller-Olsen, Astrid. “The city is a journey: heritage and memory in Zhu Tianxin’s novella The Old Capital.” International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2020, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2020.1731839

Ecologizing Taiwan: Cities, Sounds and Supersensitivity

On October 13th, the Taiwan Studies Workshop ‘Ecologizing Taiwan: Nature, Society, Culture’ organised by Michelle Yeh and David Der-wei Wang took place at University of California, Davis. Inspired by Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies, the workshop sought to “extend the definition of ecology to encompass social relations and human subjectivity, as well as environmental concerns”.

Ten scholars from across the US and one from faraway Sweden (basking in the Californian sun and finding it a bit hard to focus on academic pursuits) presented their work on aspects of contemporary Taiwanese culture and history in relation to various interpretations of ecology.

I was happy to note that several presenters engaged with sensory aspects of film and fiction, something I myself find particularly interesting:

Ling Zhang from SUNY-Purchase shared her research on aural strategies in Chen Yingzhen’s novellas, including narrative voice, ambient sounds and collective singing.

Pao-Chen Tang from University of Chicago presented an analysis of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film The Assassin from 2015, which focused partly on the animal qualities strived for in martial arts practice and partly on the autistic features of the film’s protagonist and how they enhance her professional prowess. However, it also touched on supersensitivity as a motif in hit man films as well as a stereotype in the representation of people with autism.

Under the title ‘Urban Ecologies: The Flora and Fauna of Fictional Taipei’, I presented my work on the role of plants as markers of place and ethnicity in Chu Tien-hsin’s 朱天心 ‘The old Capital’ 古都 together with the interspecies communities described in Wu Ming-yi’s 吳明益 short stories about Taipei.

My aim was to add an urban dimension to the flourishing discussion about ecoriticism in Taiwanese literature and to argue that the city presents not only a possible but an essential site for human engagement with the so-called ‘natural environment’. Furthermore, I think fictional narratives offer new and less discipline specific ways of engaging with human beings and their curious ant heap cities as part of, rather than anti-thesis to, nature and nature writing (自然写作).

All photos taken by me in Taipei, April 2017.