Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The McDonalds of Ancient China

The McDonald's of Ancient China

I'm really glad I attended an early China talk at AAS, because it gave me a chance to think about what we learn from considering the earliest origins of culture once again. Culture spreads virally throughout all kinds of human societies. But not quite "virally," says, Sarah Allan, because it spreads from the centers of power to the fringes of power. People will copy and adapt the powerful culture to get the power themselves. "Just as an archaeologist finding the Golden Arches in Beijing two millennia from now could not assume that the United States exercised political authority in China, we cannot assume from the discovery of Shang-style ritual vessels in Anhui, Guangxi, or Guangdong that the political reach of the Shang extended so far." (Sarah Allan, "Erlitou and the Formation of Chinese Civilization," p. 471)

If culture is spread by means of cultural hegemony, then modes of identity -- the ways we think of ourselves as who we are and can be -- also must spread by means of cultural hegemony. The first example that comes to my mind is the modern homosexual male. My gay-boy friends in Taiwan go to the bar, listen to the loud music, and order alcoholic drinks. Not because this is a tradition of theirs, and not because they've discovered they like this. Rather, they are participating in a set of activities that makes up what it means for them to be gay. The gay activities just also happen to be Western.

Returning to early China again, I learned in Chicago that divination practices, especially the cracking and inscription of hot animal bones, or "Pyro-osteomancy," offers much more insight into early Chinese identity than I ever considered before. Just as a quick aside, presenter Adam Smith mentioned that many of the inscription texts are "personal." An effort to figure out what he meant by that has so far taken me first to a recent paper by archaelogist Rowan K. Flad, who reminds us that "the personality and charisma of independent diviners are a significant part of the effectiveness of their prognostications." This is so exciting! I want to present my students next year with a portrait of these diviners, suggesting that they represent very early ways of being. Sort of like the original Chicago McDonald's, I suppose. More to come...


Monday, March 30, 2009

The Old New Criticism

Kao and Mei 1971
I made a few revisions to my AAS paper, based on some last-minute edits onto the reading copy from last week. As I typed them in I thought back to my panel, and what I could understand of the other panelists' papers. They all had some kind of point, even the little mainland girls' that directed the listener's attention more toward her own career than towards any interesting history or literature. But my paper was one of few that contained such terms as "allegory," "irony," or "style," which is what I continue to believe are more basic to literary study than problems of nation, class, or other forms of identity. To prove this point to myself, I've decided to return to literary theory for a jaunt.

My advisor first recommended I read this essay back when I was an undergraduate. All I remember of it from those times was that it was exceedingly technical. I found it exciting to read, but I concentrated so hard on each individual sentence that I failed to make any basic judgement of the whole piece. Now the whole article seems a simple, if cunning, dissection of some Tang poems into their component parts. The relation of the part to the whole is actually the main theme of the entire piece. This is a theme, accompanied, also, with a very distinct tone, that reminds me of my favorite book, How to Read a Book, which was released the following year, 1972, and similarly from a pair of Ivy-league writers. Another title for Gao and Mei's piece could be How to Read a Tang Poem. Ah! What I wouldn't do to bring back the days when literature class was about advancing our ability to read!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Notes from the Field: AAS 1

“I want to apologize for being so disorganized. I’ve forgotten to introduce Lena Henningson, of Heidelberg University, who just finished speaking.”



Wednesday, March 25, 2009

No Self in the Guts

One night Chu got tipsy and went to bed first, leaving the Judge drinking by himself. In his drunken sleep he seemed to feel a pain in his stomach, and waking up he saw that the Judge, who was standing by the side of the bed, had opened him, and was carefully arranging his inside.

“What harm have I done you,” cried Chu, “that you should thus seek to destroy me?”

“Don’t be afraid,” replied the Judge, laughing; “I am only providing you with a more intelligent heart.”

He then quietly put back Chu’s viscera, and closed up the opening, securing it with a bandage tied tightly round his waist. There was no blood on the bed, and all Chu felt was a slight numbness in his inside.

From "Judge Lu" by Pu Songling, translated by Herbert Giles (read it at GoogleBooks). Strange medical conditions and medical practices are a major theme in Pu Songling's stories of the fantastic; a recent post on by an LJ friend on their medical conditions reminded me once again of this. I think I might actually use "Judge Lu" in my class next fall, because it can start a dialogue about where the "self" resides -- is it in the body, and if so what region of the body. This guy gets a new heart and so becomes smarter, and later on Judge Lu helps him get a new head for his wife. But unlike in, say, The Eye, neither husband nor wife get any of the "self"-baggage that their new body parts might have brought from their old owners. This story and this idea is apparently still active enough to deserve mention in a 2006 article in a Chinese technology magazine that debunked the idea that someday we will have "head transplants." (I found a couple of Chinese television versions of the story as well; this one looks good.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Remembering Helmut Martin

Martin, Helmut, and Jeffrey Kinkley, tr. and eds. Modern Chinese Writers : Self-Portrayals. Armonk NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1992.

Sometimes a scholar can aggravate me to no end because they seem blind to something that I can see plainly, and yet I still would admit that I reaped ample rewards for reading them carefully. Helmut Martin is a good example with his introduction to Modern Chinese Writers : Self-Portrayals:

Helmut Martin (d. 1999 in Taiwan)

The repercussions after June 1989 prove that China had not really advanced beyond the stage of mere preconditions for creative freedom. Any literary historian of the period must still concentrate largely on the struggle between the writers' demands for autonomy and the constraints imposed on them by the prevailing cultural policy -- instead of exclusively following literary developments.

I don't agree. I think that above all, it is to literary developments that have to attend to understand what the Chinese readership is doing. Specifically literary techniques, like irony, express worlds of critique and mental action that Martin is unwilling or unable to appreciate. If Martin honestly thought that literature of the 1980s was nothing more than hackish "scar literature" or "cheap entertainment fiction," he is sadly mistaken, as work on Wang Shuo, Yu Hua, or Yang Jiang will show (note: this list under construction). No wonder critic C.D. Alison Bailey says that in Martin's list writers , "A sense of irony is a rare commodity as are modesty and an internationalist standpoint." This may be partly China's fault, but Martin's own stubborn focus on political dissidents also leaves us with this bias.

Apparently Martin resided in Taiwan and often published in Chinese (I'll just bet he was friends Yu Guangzhong). The link above to a few memorials dedicated him contains an immense amount of disturbing and touching information. It's a fitting memoir to a man who accomplished so much in the humanities, and was apparently a true teacher, despite suffering from chronic depression that eventually seems to have led him to commit suicide. I can't help but want to picture myself memorialized like this, with speeches from my Taiwanese friends, who will call me (in Taiwanese) a true friend of Taiwan.

The Monster Lecture


A good theme deserves a good teacher

My advisor P. is always a great lecturer, a real master of the engaging, conversational style that was common at Harvard but rarer here at U of M. I really have learned a lot from watching him. Today he was in particularly good form with a totally new lecture on yokai culture in Japan. The term yokai refers to monsters like ghoulish women or demons, but also fears, like the fear of being watched. P. becomes a sort of tour guide through this world, and I was really impressed that he was able to introduce contemporary scholarship (he acknowledges his debt to the new book Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yôkai by Michael Dylan Foster), cultural practices, art and artists from Edo, Meiji and modern Japan, and even concluding on the topic of urban legends. His lecture really worked because it showed that the theme of yokai shows up again and again in Japanese history for reasons that are uniquely Japanese, although not at all alien or difficult to understand once they are explained clearly. Most importantly, I really felt that P. gets across the important point that we are always constructing ourselves and our history at the same time.

The morass of culture

Take the "slit-mouth woman" (Kuchisake-onna 口裂け女), for example. Lots of people firmly believe that this is a yokai from ancient Japan, but it seems more likely to have been a uniquely modern urban legend, sort of like the Donkey Lady or the Candy Man. But the nostalgic and playful artist Shigeru Mizuki has rendered the story of the slit-mouth woman (she kills kids, basically) into his own manga and sculpture and so on, lending credibility to the idea that the creature really does come out of Japanese history. I just think this is the most sophisticated way of looking at culture through art and literature that we have today, and it's a real treat to see P. deliver the message to undergrads. Examine his powerpoint presentation (read-only; opens in Google docs) if you wish; I don't think he would mind.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ah, Fellowships

Every graduate student has to compete for fellowship funding, and we usually resent this fact. As a humanities student, I particularly feel that there are not enough fellowships, and they all ask me to do a lot of work that I'm not really all that interested in.
But on the other hand, serving as a teaching assistant to my advisor, teaching Chinese language courses did turn out to be extremely beneficial. Only by working directly with other teachers and with undergraduates did I start to think of myself as a kind of professional. I feel that this kind of labor is really worth money, because it increases the overall value of the general population. I know some people might not agree that having local Minnesotans learn foreign languages and read stories, poems and history books from other cultures increases the value of local Minnesotans, but that just means that we need to do a better job showing and explaining clearly what we humanities people mean when we talk about value.

So I guess I'm in a stage of life where I can't be mad at having to write fellowship applications all the time any more. Writing the fellowship application is good practice at "playing defense" in my field. What do I add to my school? What do I add to higher education in general? How am I good for culture? I realize I've been avoiding those sorts of questions much more often than I've been tackling them, and I want to turn this around. I just saw an advertisement for a really awesome interdisciplinary doctoral fellowship at my school, and I intend to win one. Here's the criteria I have to fulfill, with what I think are the key terms put in bold:

Selection of recipients will be based on the following criteria: the importance of the research and the clarity with which it is conveyed to the non-specialist; the potential for the student to make an unusually significant contribution to the field; the degree to which the proposed or current research manifests the student’s independence, originality, and resourcefulness; the potential for the research project to incorporate methodologies from more than one discipline; the synergy that can be created by the student and faculty member working together around the interdisciplinary topic or problem; the comparative strength of the academic record; and the clarity and coherence of the program’s presentation. Special attention will be given to the interdisciplinary nature of the current or proposed dissertation research and the willingness of the particular center or institute and its faculty to host the student during the fellowship year.

In a series of entries to come, I'll tackle each of these key terms in turn. I hopeful that I can write an honest representation of what I'm already working on that will be an unbeatable fulfillment of all the criteria.

Friday, March 20, 2009

He's My Concubine

One of students in my advisor's course on "the Fantastic" asked if she could write a story in Chinese for the first paper. P. and I both said yes. Later, she asked me in Chinese, "Is it okay if I write a yaoi story? You know, that means two guys..."

And so I got my first glimpse of Chinese gay fantasy romance, called BL xiaoshuo (Boy-love fiction), GL xiao shuo (Girl-love fiction), and also shenmei xiaoshuo. Shenmei 沈美 is from the Japanese, tanbi, apparently meaning highly aestheticized homoerotic fiction. Searching these terms on Google takes you to BLGL.cn, which is a mixture of translated Japanese materials (including videos) and original Chinese stories. Most intrigued by these original stories, I started reading a random one called "He's my Concubine!" (Ta shi wo wangfei 他是我王妃).

"He's my Concubine!" features the love affair of Xiafeng, King of the Qilin (unicorn-type thingies), who lives in Outworld, but quickly comes over to the world of men in search of his favorite concubine, who apparently died and was reborn as a boy. The boy, Changsun Mingde, is a hot 17-year-old kungfu student. Xiafeng dresses up as a beautiful woman and sets out to woo his concubine once again. Various plot shenanigans ensue, in which boy meets "girl," strict Confucian parents force boy and "girl" to marry, and "girl" proceeds to basically bang the crap out of boy every chance she gets. (Boy eventually becomes preggers, which is a bit odd, but apparently has something to do with qilin blood..)

A wee bit o' translation:


After giving Changsun Mingde a kiss that all but throttled him, Xiafeng moved his head up and away so he could nibble furiously at Mingde's ears -- oh such sensitive ears! As he licked and kissed, the rhythmic movement of his lower body also quickened.

Hot! Now I'm finally gaining Chinese vocabulary for teh buttsex. It's about time!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tale of the Chicken Man

It's Spring Break, time for a little bit of extra pleasure reading. Just for fun, I'm reading translations of Chinese poetry that Arthur Waley did in the 1910s. For English readers of those days, it must have been like going your whole life without any knowledge of Chinese food and then suddenly getting a free pass to eat at a world-class restaurant featuring Western takes on Asian classics. Just read this one, it's outstanding:
Thank you, archive.org.

How does this poem sound in Chinese? Since we have the internet nowadays, we should be able to compare Waley's translations directly with Chinese texts, even as we sit in coffeeshops and sip our beers. The trouble with many of these particularly ancient poems is that "anon., 1st cent. B.C." is not the most helpful of citations. I'll be honest: I took over an hour to track this poem down. But it was a very interesting journey, a tour via Google through many odd corners of the web. I knew I was getting close when I located the phrase, Runan ji 汝南雞, lit. "the cock of Ru'nan [Ju-nan]" which many dictionaries online gloss as "In ancient times, a chicken that came from Runan, said to have a particularly good crow." From there I discovered that another common idiomatic phrase is Runan chen ji 汝南晨雞, "the morning cock at Ju-nan." Aha! From there it was a simple matter to track the poem back to a 12th-century text called the Yuefu shi ji 樂府詩集. This gigantic anthology of songs contains the Ji ming ge 雞鳴歌 "Cock-Crow Song." Commentary in this entry tells us that back in the Han dynasty, there were "chicken men" jiren 雞人, who were in charge of guarding the chickens on the palace grounds. When the roosters crowed just before dawn, the "chicken men" would also lift up their voices in song. The commentary does not explcitly say so, but I suppose this is what they sang.

Chinese Text:

東 方 欲 明 星 爛 爛 , 汝 南 晨 雞 登 壇 喚 。 曲 終 漏 盡 嚴 具 陳 , 月 沒 星 稀 天 下 旦 。 千 門 萬 戶 遞 魚 鑰 , 宮 中 城 上 飛 烏 鵲 。

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out

Mo Yan. Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out: A Novel. Translated by Howard Goldblatt. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2008.

This story of a Chinese village's trials and tribulations under Communism takes a common, even pedestrian set of themes and makes them totally fresh again with humor and healthy dose of the fantastic.

As in so many epic tales of China's age of revolution (think "To Live" or "The Last Emperor"), we see a group of characters doing the best they can in their little corner of Chinese world as they face first a brutal and extended period of war and deprivation, 1937-1949, then the grand experiments in Communism under Mao Zedong during the 1950s and 60s, and finally whole new kinds of transformations from the mid 1970s into the 1980s and 1990s. What Mo Yan brings to this familiar party is a snarky, earthy sense of humor that manages to bring together the roles of a whole village, Northeast Gaomi Township in Shandong province. A single character who witnesses events first as a landlord, then reincarnated as a donkey, then an ox, then a pig, and finally a dog, a monkey and a human being again, is a brilliant device that captures Mo Yan's beloved home village from all its most revealing angles. Yes, it covers the cruelty and waste of these years that have become standard history lessons even to Chinese students, but more importantly it shows us so many colorful characters, from the party secretary of the village to the poorest and weirdest citizens: China's last independent farmer; a former concubine who eventually became and innkeeper; a disturbed and impoverished man who just loves chopping animals' testicles off. We grow to feel something really deep for all of these characters -- not love exactly, though a little bit. Pity, at times, but overall a sense of deep connectedness. We are all governed by brutish little desires most of the time, most days. Only rarely do human beings achieve great good, or great evil, so whenever we do, it's bound to be good fodder for a story. A donkey can be as good as a man; a testicle-eater's needs make as much sense as a party secretary's if you take the right perspective.

I left the library copy lying around my house too long, and consequently had to turn it in before finishing. I only made it up to the end of pig in the wheel of reincarnations illustrated on the cover. But I'll be back to finish, probably with a few more notes.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Polar (2005)

Gibson, Dobby. Polar. Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2005.

Talking about the weather usually works

So, I'm taking a few dips into contemporary American poetry. For reasons I no longer remember, I picked up Polar from my local public library. Ideally, local poet Dobby Gibson would be a Minnesotan Du Fu for me, opening up worlds of the inner world of our thoughts and emotions with the noble symbols of the northern winter: the snow, the frost. Cold. Know what I mean? But it hasn't worked out, at least not too my satisfaction with this book. So much so that I may not have given it a fair reading. I did read all the poems aloud, but I could almost always feel my mind wandering off to a whole other topic, even as I returned to the beginning and started again and again. Why? Why is it so damned hard to read this stuff?

Poetic Difficulty: First thoughts

The back of this book has praise from what are presumably other American poets. One named Dean Young says, "In figures as elaborate and beautiful as frost, Dobby Gibson reinvents poetic argument, often as surprised and deligthed by its own wild and energetic means as it is by its wild and sometimes mordant conclusions." This comment clicked into place quite nicely for me, because I know just what he means by "figures." All of Gibson's poems are arranged into short units that have some kind of witty verbal trick to them. For example,
Always this body, though never its consequence,
the light which appears open and, therefore, impossible.
The shear complexity of this figure must be what good readers find interesting. I presume they also find it interesting to try to put the figures together into the "poetic argument." This poem, for example, is called "Upon the Pillsbury Poppin' Fresh Doughboy's First Visit to Mill Ruins Park, Minneapolis." As a general reader, and not a poetry reader, I must have failed from the first by wanting to see how the poet would portray the doughboy. I thought of the commercial and the cute little sound he makes when some unknown hand pokes him in the stomach ('hm-hm!'). But instead, what I got was, "Always this body, though never its consequence/the light which appears open and, therefore, impossible." It's very tight, very stylish, I'll give it that much. "This body," though...what body? My body? The poet's body? The doughboy? The Ruins? I'll presume for now that he wants us to ask this question and sort of merge all the images into one. "Always this body, though never its consequence." Huh? "Always this body, though never its consequence/the light which appears open and, therefore, impossible." Okay, I can't really read this, not in the sense of letting the words evoke a world, and also not in the sense of putting together a sequence of logical statements. But I guess that's not the point. Given that the thing must have some internal logic, though -- it is a "poetic argument," yes? -- the fun of the thing might be in the process of picking it apart, figuring it out.

Okay. I'm really gonna try here. I'm gonna read this poem, take it on its own terms, and I'm not going to become angry and give up.

"Upon the Pillsbury Poppin' Fresh Doughboy's First Visit to Mill Ruins Park"

Always this body, though never the consequence,
the light, which appears open and, therefore, impossible.

Dogs stumbling into us in their tenderness.
Like all the people we walked past today

and said nothing to, and the way all of it was ignored
by the tiny cameras--millionaires

sipping spritzers in their condos, medieval limestone,
the ghosts of flour dust, laughter exhaled like air

from a slashed tire. Memory is the one
word we have for this, memory of a sudden sweetness in a dream

that was the world as we thought we knew it,
disappearing in a fire that was never named.

Who would have thought the new order we created
to destroy the old order would now live among us

as yet another birthright? Everything about the end
had been rehearsed in advance, even the ribbons they let us cut

merely for reaching it. One river bank staring at another,
barges slipping downstream at a speed

mysteriously slower than the river's own. A strangeness
still soft in the middle, still desperate for touch.

Reading the whole poem, a certain understanding of the basic sense of the lines, combined with different levels of appreciation for their beauty, comes in patches, but then goes away. I suppose good poetry readers will have a greater capacity to listen and remember, and thus have fewer patches of nonsense floating in the mind's image of the poetic argument. But they will still fail to understand every single line, which means the good poetry reader must possess a sense of indulgence as well. If sense fails, then search for the beauty, and vice versa, I suppose. A few notes from my own process of sense-understanding and beauty-understanding.


Well I think I get the conclusion. I think the line "barges slipping downstream at a speed/mysteriously slower than the river's own" is a nice reflection on the sense we often get that we ought to be doing more in the world, that the world, like a river, seems to be full of strong, swift currents and eddies moving all around, but we feel sort of fat-in-the-head, unable to keep up, but perhaps also marveling at our own ability to feel distant from the world as well. The use of the word "mysteriously" evokes a first-person perspective of this image, the barge in the river, but it also makes us ask "why 'mysterious' and not another word, like 'strangely'?" Thus we put together the sense of the poem at this point. The final image is the long awaited portrait of the doughboy, which is by now clearly a symbol for the sense of self that the poet has crafted and wants you, the reader to recognize. So there is an internal logic to the piece, and does have something to do with articulating thoughts and feelings that we are all likely to have had, but not likely to have been able to state effectively.


"Always this body, though never the consequence,/the light, which appears open and, therefore, impossible." This is an extremely vague description of light, and I suppose it really does no more than state the setting. So I've firmly resolved to give up trying to analyze this couplet into sense value, and simply see "light" as the key term. Instead, I'd like to describe what is going on verbally in this part of the poem, but actually I'm unable to do that either. There's nothing like rhyme here. There is a rhythm, which has a sort of rolling structure: "Always," a trochee, begins the first line, while "the light," an iamb, the second line, so there you have something with just two beats to start the line. But clearly, both lines also grow complex quickly as the proceed from word to word. I'm very surprised that "and, therefore, impossible" does not sound too patronizing or just too angular and prosaic when I read it out loud. But it doesn't; it really does sound like poetry to my ears, even if I can't quite say why.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Alcoholic (2008)

Another dark confessional narrative from Vertigo comics. The Alcoholic is not more honest than The Quitter, but it is a stronger book overall. I think a sense of humor is the key element: when Jonathan Ames recounts how his crafted persona ended up with a horny old lady in a car, or passed out naked in a trash can, he is smartly realizing that it would be a mistake to play a story of addiction totally seriously. Dean Haspiel's art is certainly more effective overall, perhaps because Haspiel can serve up Ames' black humor as fast as Ames can dish it out.
As the title implies, addiction is a major theme throughout the book, but a surprise queer angle emerges as Ames remembers his best friend from high school, Sal. Since Sal and Ames spent all their high school weekends drunk together, it shouldn't come as a surprise that they also had a significant sexual experience together, one that would drive them apart forever. Ames shows with some skill how our sexual identities, our careers, and all the just plain bad stuff that we do is sort of connected in the end.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Trimming the Book List

There's just too much to read. How to narrow down what is worthwhile, what a waste? As I go into a more leisurely reading mode in the next week, I'll record some of my experiences choosing what I read, and what I don't.

Narrowing Your Scope With Reviews

Jeffrey Kinkley's translation of a memoir with similar themes and tropes as Yang Jiang's Six Chapters of a Cadre School immediately strikes this reader as a useful exercise in examining the technique of choosing, translating and introducing a Chinese autobiography. But the only review I've seen so far of the book convinces me that I should begin by looking at the book as mistake to ever have translated; quite possibly I'll only need to read the introduction and a few short excerpts to get all that I'll need from this volume. A better choice for full-scale study is Traveler Without a Map, a similar memoir Kinkley translated just the year before. More on that later.

Chen, Xuechao 陈学昭. Surviving the Storm: A Memoir. Translated by Jeffrey Kinkley. NY: M.E. Sharpe (Foremother legacies: Armonk), 1990.

Chen Xuezhao : Intellectually Dull?

Reviewer Sylvia Chan could hardly have harsher words for this book and its author:

The book is dreary, emotionless, and an unreflective account of all the events experienced by Chen since the early 1950s. So intellectually dull is she that she had nothing interesting to report even about the visit to China by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whom she escroted around. Even the most outrageous injustice done to her seems to have provoked in her no emotions or thoughts other than a resolve to study even harder the works of Marx, Lenin and Mao!

And in conclusion,

It stands as a testimony to the inhuman process whereby one of China's most spirited and talented artists has been driven to a 'slow self-willed death'. This would be the only plausible reason why the editor and translators should have wanted to introduce this otherwise dull and worthless book to English readers.

Ouch. But wait, don't forget my favorite part:

Chen Xuezhao....lacks the talent of a Yang Jiang.

Yay! Win. So it seems considerable skill is necessary to find memoirs that work for the target readership. What exactly is necessary? Once again, Ms. Chan:

A familiar story such as this would be well worth reading if the author could convey her complex inner feelings and personal reflections during the years of trials and tribulations.

How do we grade a work for conveyance of inner feelings? This is a much more complicated question I'll address in 'baby steps' in the next few weeks.


Fantastic Film

A revised draft of my AAS paper (links to a Word ".docx" file) is done. In other news:

This was our last film before spring break in the "fantastic" class. This is just good campy, fun from 1960s Hong Kong. I think it manages to bring to mind both Peking opera and the original Batman series at the same time. This sort of makes sense when you realize that all the percussion sounds are doing basically the same thing as "BLAM! BING! BOING!"

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


The first draft of my AAS conference paper is away. Whew!


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Taking a Li Bai Minute

I really need to finish up my conference paper. That's the next big task, and I've scheduled myself plenty of time for it. But, but....mwa, procrastination always ensnares me when I get near times that I have to finish papers. I'll do it. I will. But first, I'm taking a minute to look at a poem that one of my students brought up in his paper. He had one of his characters recite the following short poem by Li Bai (my translation admittedly reflects my mood as much as the Chinese text):

On a cloudy morning I said goodbye to Baidi,
Then rode a thousand miles, right on down to Jiangling.
A single screech of monkey, crying on both sides,
Peaks and peaks of mountains, I passed them in my boat.

Li Bai's Homecoming

A page from the Baidu web helped me understand what the deal is with this poem (there is an excellent wikisource page as well). Li Bai was actually on the wrong side of the famous An Lushan rebellion against the Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong. Xuanzong probably wanted Li Bai dead, but for some reason -- I guess because he was a famous poet? Or also that Xuanzong was no longer popular enough? -- Li didn't get the death penalty, just exile out to Baidi, which was back then a little fort-type structure out on the southwestern frontier (picture above; odd, isn't it?). Once Xuanzong died, Li Bai got an official pardon.

Ah, That's Better

So this poem is taken to express his happiness that he was able to leave Baidi and return to the more civilized Jiangling, an ancient county and town 'many leagues' down the Yangtze river, in Hubei province (above, the outlandish city walls; from HL Wang's flickr). I wonder if Li Bai put the name of this town because it was the first place he came to that looked like a decent, civilized area, which might have made him feel that he was finally leaving the undeveloped frontier behind, and coming to some place he thought of as home.

Oh Fickle Fame

It's funny, I've always sort of resented Li Bai. I feel like it is because he is so famous -- too famous, but I realize I don't feel the same way at all about Du Fu, even though he is even more famous. This particular poem is so famous that at least one undergrad at the University of Minnesota thinks of it as a typical Tang dynasty poem. Reading it in Chinese, I can certainly see that it has wonderful concision -- it's just four lines long, and yet does quite convey the general emotional state of "whoopee, I'm going home!" But apparently a Ming dynasty critic called Yang Zhen praised it in these terms: "Cool winds and rain do cry down upon the ghosts and gods!" 惊风雨而泣鬼神矣!Uhm...wtf? Does Yang mean that the elements of place and scene come together to express something truly sublime, and/or spiritual? If so, I fail to see that, at least for now. I'll keep reading though.

Better-than-pure Studio?

The Baidu page cites something called Chao chun zhai shi ci 超纯斋诗词 "Exceeding-Purity Studio Poetry" as the source of the Yang Zhen quote. What's that? Worldcat doesn't have any books with "Exceeding-purity" in the title. A few google searches took me to some very strange dead-ends, including a Chinese email-hosting site and a Chinese middle school site. Other pages also give notes to poems and cite the Chao chun zhai shi ci, though. Perhaps it was a website that started off with one host and then moved to others in turn? I found something that might be the source, or some re-incarnation of this source with the same name, on the website of a vocational high school in Taichung. Weird, huh? Chao chun zhai shi ci 超纯斋诗词 is an extremely popular but extremely ephemeral knowledge base that people in China and Taiwan are using to read classical poems. I wonder if these kinds of sources are actually more important than scholarly ones...

Back; Papers Graded

So I'm done grading the first papers for this class I'm the TA for, "The Fantastic in East Asia: Ghosts, Foxes, and the Alien." The first paper for this class could be either an essay on the readings or a story written in imitation of the readings.

Since our readings were mainly stories from the Chinese and Japanese tradition of fairy tales, with a special emphasis on tales of the supernatural, students who chose to write a story had to adapt characters, tropes and themes from fairy tales, and they had to write in a fairy tale idiom. For example, a common theme that many of the students seem to identify with is that of the young scholar who fails the exams. Oh, the shame! His life is ruined! But on his way home, the guy runs into something really weird -- usually some kind of beautiful girl who is more than she seems to be. One student creates a girl who is a bunny spirit:

While traveling on the road, he [a young man] saw a bunny. Since he was traveling alone, he took care of the bunny until it healed...[later the bunny goes away. Still later, he meets a girl.] Along the road, he found out her name was Ma, Yuanzhen. He also realized that the girl was really intelligence too. However, what he found awkward was that Yuanzhen only ate carrots.

Doesn't this make you want to write your own fairy tale? This is a great assignment because even the kids with sort of poor written English have a chance to show off what they've learned from the readings. I don't take points off for bad style unless it's really distracting. Here's some lines from various student-written stories that I liked:

"After Zheng nursed the wounds on the fox, he used his blade to cut down some branches to make a little hut so the little fox could stay for the day." Aww, kawaii!

"But Wu being a good confusion scholar felt it was his duty to bring his fellow officials back into the light..." A good confusion scholar? That's so my new band name.

"Mei Feng was a beauty among beauties but no man dared to woe her." Que lastima!
"Her pink dress was seductive as it seemed to flow after her when she glided about the garden as she showed him the house." I need a dress like that.

Down to the nitty-gritty:

“Why should such a handsome young man like yourself be alone at night?” she said. “It hardly seems right that anyone should undertake such lonely endeavors.” The student, having never taken a wife, could hardly believe his good fortune, and before long, they were making love on the observatory floor.

"As she looked at him he knew the spell worked and they fell into a state of copulation neither had ever experienced before."


Friday, March 6, 2009

Princess Iron Fan (1942)

My advisor P. showed an excerpt of this old war-era Chinese cartoon to his class:
It's actually pretty engrossing, even if you don't speak Chinese. Archive.org also has the complete film for free download, and there are English subtitles also available.

When I saw it, I was immediately reminded that Mao Zedong made a reference to Monkey in an agitprop piece from the same year the movie came out. He must have been drawing on the movie's popularity at the time! Mao wrote,

As for the question of how to deal with the enemy's enormous apparatus, we can learn from the example of how the Monkey King dealt with Princess Iron Fan. The Princess was a formidable demon, but by changing himself into a tiny insect the Monkey King made his way into her stomach and overpowered her.


From the Liberation Daily 《解放日报》, in Yan'an, September 7, 1942.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Willow Cotton

Willow Cotton

In my last post, I mentioned that Yu Pingbo quoted from a poem by "Zhou Meicheng." I should have realized he was referring to Zhou Bangyan 周邦彦, an influential author of 'lyric' (ci 詞) poems in the 11th century. With a little help from an interesting blog called "Poetry Life" (Shici rensheng 诗词人生), I've put together a preliminary translation:

Brook-swept blossoms are never content to stay,
Yet autumn's lotus will have its way.
There's no place to go on,
To be together, like back then, on the bridge with dark red rail.
So now I'm searching dead leaves in the dusty road;
Out of the smoke, peaks rise up, endless green.
Men are like clouds, windswept and washed to sea,
But love is like cotton willow, rain-swept and stuck to the mud.



Yu Pingbo Preface

Yu Pingbo 俞平伯. "Chong kan Fu sheng liu ji xu 重刊浮生六記序" (Preface on the re-issue of Six Chapters of a Floating Life), in Shen Fu, Fu sheng liu ji 浮生六記 (Six Chapters of a Floating Life). Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1980 [1923].

A Floating History of the Book

The memoir Six Chapters of a Floating Life was originally published in 1877; I'm guessing it was one of these 19th-century editions that Yu Pingbo remembers reading as a youth in Suzhou and then completely forgetting about. The great Chinese literary critic was only born in 1899, so it's a little funny to see him in 1923 consider his own "youth" as a time past -- did people of the early twentieth century generally consider themselves past "youth" by their mid-twenties? Or perhaps, since 1923 saw the publication of Yu Pingbo's first great thesis  the history of the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, he felt that was no longer a youth but a full-grown scholar. In any case, Yu recounts hearing about the book again while chatting with two other bookish friends (in this photo from 1921, Yu Pingbo is at the very right). They reminded him about it and lent him their editions, from which he prepared a new edition that came out from a Shanghai publisher called "shuangfengshe" 霜楓社 -- 'frosty maple' publishing. (Looks like he also put out a collaborative essay collection that same year from the same publisher: Jian qiao 剑鞘 (sword and sheath), together with Ye Shengtao.) I'm guessing that this edition became the standard one, and so probably the one Yang Jiang read. This edition in the University of Minnesota library was released by People's Publishing House in 1980, less than a year before Six Chapters of a Cadre School was itself published. Thus what we have here is literature from pre-modern China and a contemporary book written in the vein of, riffing off of, and adapting the 'tropes and topoi' of the older work. Both books were clearly intended for educated readers who wanted something stylized and reminiscent of traditional Chinese aesthetics. Yang Jiang's work, though, must have had a larger audience from the very beginning, because it tackles contemporary memory and is way, way easier to read.

No marks of its maker

Most of Yu Pingbo's short preface actually praises Six Chapters of a Floating Life for its stylization. That came as a surprise to me, because I thought Yu Pingbo would be more interested in personal character of Shen Fu, as well as the historical value of Shen Fu's record. But Yu prefers to describe the sublime beauty of the piece in various abstract terms. Yu emphasizes that Shen Fu was no elite intellectual, but a mere secretary, and you wouldn't expect this sort of man to produce something so perfect. Yu quotes a proverb: "You never find what you look for; don't look, and it can find itself" 求之不必得,不求可自得. Going even further to erase the author completely from his portrait of the work's beauty, he says that Six Chapters shows no marks of the craftsmanship, but is like a beautiful crystal, lacking in "scars of ax or awl" 斧鑿痕. This abstract notion of 'beauty' is something that Yu goes on about at surprising length: he quotes Lu Ji on connection between the interior mind and the exterior world, he quotes from a Zhou Meicheng poem on the 'cloudiness' of human lives in general, and he packs in a few dense formulations that test the limits of my own Chinese. At one point he says a line for which I tentatively have "the magic of the piece is not in the arfulness of the words, but in the creation of a negative space around them" 外境似無物. He hopes we won't see such comments as yimei 溢美, exaggerated praise of beauty; the lady doth protest too much, methinks.


Eine Kleine Hesse

Hesse, Hermann. The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse. Translated and with an introduction by Jack Zipes. New York NY: Bantam Books, 1995.
Every phenomenon on earth is symbolic,and each symbol is an open gate through which the soul, if it is ready, can enter into the inner part of the world, where you and I and day and night are all one.
Marginal Minds Unite

Not surprisingly, I was totally glued to this volume of short fiction culled from Hesse's jottings, 1900-1933. Readers with an inward turn of mind would probably enjoy at least some of the "tales." Actually somewhere in between the modern "short story" and what Jack Zipes calls "European and Oriental fairy tales," these stories adapt the "tropes and topoi" of the old traditions but end up showing us "the trauma, doubts, and dreams of the artist as a young man in Germany at the beginning of a tumultuous century." Translator Jack Zipes, who is a popular professor here (his office is downstairs from mine but we haven't met) supplies a tantalizingly short biography and reading that reminds me that there is definitely something in common between Yang Jiang, me, Hesse, Zipes, my teachers, and anyone that ever feels on the margins of society because of their own morbid concern with the inner workings of their own mind. Unable either to turn their brains off or to solve any of the many thorny issues they encounter, the turn to fairy tales and other traditional art forms is at least partly an escape mechanism.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Floating through a Floating Life

I find it difficult to read the work of any teacher I actually know. I both want and don't want to criticize, both want and don't want to learn from their texts. I think this reveals my own insecurities, which simply have to be conquered. With that in mind, I re-read:

Waltner, Ann. "Spatial Decorum, Transgression, and Displacement in Shen Fu's Six Records from a Floating Life," in Empire, Nation, and Beyond: Chinese History in Late Imperial and Modern Times - A Festschrift in Honor of Frederic Wakeman, edited by Joseph W. Esherick, Wen-hsin Yeh, and Madeleine Zelin. China Research Monograph no. 61, (Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 2006).

Floating Life: A Brief Intro

Six Chapters from a Floating Life is another book I've decided to really take my time with. A rare example of extended autobiography from late imperial China, Floating Life is the story of Shen Fu 沈復, a hapless painter-designer-writer type of guy. He was born into a Suzhou literati family, but not a particularly rich one. Shen Fu obviously deeply loved his wife, Chen Yun 陳雲, because he embeds her life story into his own, including many details of the things she did and said, and an empathy for her feelings, ambitions and disappointments that is striking and fresh -- especially so considering how rare this kind of writing is in China even today.

A Floating Story for a Floating Life

Professor Waltner first asks, and then answers, the question of "how to read" Six Records from a Floating Life. The piece is valuable social history, writes Waltner, and that social history is deeply embedded in its narrative structure. It's a weird, non-linear set of 'jottings' that tells some parts of the life story multiple times, yet leaves the reader guessing about much else. So the narrative, so the state of so-called 'traditional Chinese society.' We'd like to imagine that most Chinese "literati" lived lives like Shen Fu's parents: stable, professional, honorable, and rigidly adherent to the social mores of the day. But even though many families must have acheived this ideal, more of them may have been like Shen Fu and Chen Yun: married, in love, but "on the move." Alienated from the Shen Fu's parents, yet still in fear of them, they led lives of worry, uncertainty and a good deal of self-deception.

Ways of Being: Shen Fu's Little China Girl

In early 19th-century China, there were strict codes for what a person could do and be; yet, this is only half the story. If you were a woman, you were supposed to take care of the house and take care of your husband. But this might include needlework and embroidery, and if your husband couldn't get a good job then you might have to supplement his income from this kind of labor. In-laws would not approve of this practice, but bill collectors wouldn't care. In elite families, women often learned to read and write; in Shen Fu's family, women seem to have been in charge of correspondence, giving them the power to tell family members what has been happening and why. Marriage was as much a career for a young 19th-century Chinese woman as it was for any of Jane Austen's women. And much like Jane Austen's heroines, Chen Yun is always looking for ways to bend the traditional rules of behavior to help her husband along, to get their little household out of poverty, to give herself more authority, or even just for a bit of escape. Ever the reader, she tried to be the kind of pro-active woman she'd read about in literary works. This leads to a tragedy worthy of a very sophisticated novelist: she falls in love with the woman she pursues to be her husband's concubine, upsets her fearsome in-laws, and dies of a broken heart while her effete husband looks sensitively on, unable to imagine himself as the man who saves her.

Metafloat: From 1809 to 1980, and back again

Yang Jiang titled her 1980 memoir Six Chapters of a Cadre School, an obvious reference to Six Chapters of a Floating Life. Like her predecessor, Yang Jiang paints a moving portrait of a displaced couple who chafe against the social codes of their time. I think that Professor Waltner's insight about the memoir -- that it's structure really says something about the social history of the time -- is a great point from which to begin thinking of the terms in which we can compare these two works. As in Shen Fu's text, in Yang Jiang's we can readily identify "a tension between the world in miniature and the world beyond walls." Just as for Shen Fu and Chen Yun, for Yang Jiang and Qian Zhongshu "Defiance is a possibility, but criticism seems not to be." The point of both works is to document the lives of an ill-fated pair who defy the system they live in, but not for the same reasons that revolutionaries defy the system. It's not that these couples want to change society completely -- they just want to tweak it. They want a world where they can do what they do best -- where they can live off their own very clever minds. But compared to Chen Yun and Shen Fu, Yang Jiang and Qian Zhongshu speak for a segment of society who has experienced decades of revolution. Thus, to the degree that Yang Jiang imitates the form of the much older book, she is appealing to readers who have had enough of revolution, and just want something Chinese.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Reading Yang Jiang (IV):Yang Jiang's a Patriot

Qian Zhongshu and Yang Jiang: Romantic Nationalists?

Spring, 1973
Hunan, China.
The "May 7th" Cadre School in Minggang village.

Yang Jiang:

My mind wandered back to the days just before Liberation when so many people were fleeing overseas. Why hadn't we taken one of the many offers and left as well?

Though the couple was famous worldwide, and though they were sought after as lecturers in America and Europe, still, Qian Zhongshu and Yang Jiang in 1978 remembered agreeing not leave China in 1949. They loved being at home, together. Just as together, they can be patriots. How patriotic was Yang Jiang, really? And Qian Zhongshu -- did he really quote that rather sappy and romantic Liu Yong line?

My belt may grow looser all of my days; for her, I will wither away

I believe that the logic of Yang Jiang's reading is as follows: She wishes to tell us why and how she and Qian Zhongshu chose not to leave China in 1949. Or, to be more precise and accurate, she wishes to tell us what Qian Zhongshu thought of when she asked him why they hadn't left China in 1949. Apparently he would quote a rather trite line from a distinctly second-rate love poem, which seems uncharacteristic of the grandmaster, unless he be making some kind of joke at the poem's expense. Was it possible or even common for Qian Zhongshu to quote poems against themselves, to use a line of poorly set praise to effect a criticism? Perhaps I'm over reading here. Even if we settle whether Qian Zhongshu is up to some sort of game here, we also must ask ourselves whether Yang Jiang is up to one. If Qian Zhongshu means for the 'her,' of the poem to mean China, then it's quite natural to see the thinning, withering man as both Qian Zhongshu and the Chinese people. The generally romantic notion that national identity is like true love, and would not see reason, would not respect a sense of self-preservation may be a darkly witty comparison meant to criticize. Or it might be quite genuine. Other studies have linked nationalism, both generally and Chinese in particular, as related in the world of words to the terms of love, truth and eternity. Qian Zhongshu might be a bit of an old-fashioned romantic, as Stephen Owen has strongly implied in a series of objections to Qian's reading of the Rhapsody on Literature (Readings in Chinese Literary Thought).

The Romantic Patriot

Whether Qian Zhongshu's romanticism is genuine or not, in this passage, Yang Jiang's romantic notion of nation certainly is.

The simple fact was that we couldn't abandon our homeland, discard 'her' -- the only place in the world we could ever be part of that 'us'. Even though there are hundreds of millions of Chinese, members of the 'us' who we don't know, we are all still part of one entity. We feel as one, breathe as one, all undeniable, inseparable parts of China. I felt ashamed that I had believed the rumors and had hoped that Mocun would be going back to Peking to live with Ah Yuan in safety. It was selfish of me to think only of my own family without any regard for others. In the end, that's what it all had come to: despite the endless campaigns and injunctions to reform my thinking, I was worse than I had been before.

"The simple fact," "the only" -- Yang Jiang imagines in very concrete terms here the bond between the couple's identity and their identity as Chinese. With what is really, on close inspection, breathtaking directness (we "breathe as one"), Yang Jiang imagines China. The issue here is suddenly not that Yang Jiang is patriotic; it is that she writes a definition for patriotic, a beautiful and romantic way to imagine China as a life love, a destiny -- one's lungs. [To be...uhm? re-read?]

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We are all wanderers along the way.