Imagining a Watery World

Aquatic Animals, Water Calamities, and Bathing Rituals in Chinese Literature and Cinema
Thursday
9:00 am – 10:45 am
Room G

  • Hui-Lin Hsu, Chair
  • Yuqing Liu, “Fantasising Women in the Bathhouse: The Imagery of Water and the Gender Space in the Film Shower (1999)”
  • Bo-Yan Chen, “Waterways, Disasters, and Knowledge Construction: Narratives of Aquatic Animals in Tang Stories”
  • Yiwei Zhang, “The Calamities of Water in Journey to the West
  • Einor Cervone, Discussant

This panel explores the lasting importance of the literary and visual representation of water in premodern and modern China. Water is, of course, a natural element that has long been used as a metaphor in literature and a symbol of philosophical concepts. How has the experience of encountering, managing, and consuming water influenced the arts in China? Focusing on the theme of water, this panel investigates the epistemic, ecological, and gender issues in literary and visual production from the Tang dynasty to contemporary China. Bo-Yen Chen examines narratives of river cruises and voyages in the early Song collection of stories, showing how knowledge of aquatic animals and spirits was represented in Tang tales. Yiwei Zhang explores the idea of nature in The Journey to the West by analysing the writing of water calamities and the significance of water control in religious and cross-cultural contexts. Focusing on the reworking of the traditional aesthetic theme of the “bathing beauty,” Yuqing Liu investigates the role of water in the construction of gendered relationships in contemporary Chinese cinema. Art historian and Discussant Einor Cervone will enrich the discussion with her research on the “waterscapes” of late imperial aquatic theatre. Chair and literary historian Hui-Lin Hsu, who studies the relationship between floods and literature in late Qing China, will place the aesthetic concerns of the panel into a longer and broader literary-historical context.

Yuqing Liu, “Fantasising Women in the Bathhouse: The Imagery of Water and the Gender Space in the Film Shower (1999)”

This paper looks at cinematic nostalgia and the reworking of the traditional aesthetic theme of bathing to unravel the gender relationships in Zhang Yang’s 1999 film, Shower. Set in a traditional Beijing bathhouse, Shower offers a nostalgic take on the problematics of urbanisation and economic development. What role does the imagery of water play in the film? What kind of literary and visual tradition does the film attempt to evoke through the many scenes of bathing? And how to understand the image of water in the cinematic context at the turn of the 21st century? I argue that the idealisation of water in Shower expresses a longing for a traditional patriarchal order. For one, it employs the motif of the “bathing beauty” common in classical Chinese literature and paintings. I trace the history of this motif and observe that the bathing pool has been a literary site and vehicle for males to gaze at female bodies. The film uses a male bathhouse to rebuild a gendered space in which men dominate the storytelling and women are only objects to be narrated, gazed at and fantasised about. Through erotic scenes of female bathing, the film evokes the voyeuristic visual tradition that links water with femininity as well as the imagination of a past golden age. The film’s nostalgia is, therefore, based upon a male-centred narrative and the absence of a female voice. Furthermore, I contend that the floating, fluid, and watery landscape that permeates contemporary Chinese films foreground male anxiety in a transitional era.

Bo-Yan Chen, “Waterways, Disasters, and Knowledge Construction: Narratives of Aquatic Animals in Tang Stories”

This paper examines the narratives of “aquatic animals” and the representation of “water” in Tang stories. Researchers have already explored the romantic tradition in the water-related Tang tales such as Liu Yi by Li Chaowei and Xiangzhong Yuanjie (An Explanation for “Xiangzhong Yuan”) by Shen Yazhi. However, the voluminous stories of watery experience in Taiping Guangji (the Extensive Records of the Taiping Era) manifest that writing about water in the Tang dynasty was not limited to romantic legends. Different from previous studies, this paper focuses on how officials’ experiences of travelling by water developed into narratives about aquatic animals and formed the natural and historical knowledge of rivers and lakes in the Tang dynasty. Taking Li Gongzuo’s Gu Yuedu Jing (The Ancient Yuedu Jing) as an example, I argue that Tang story writers were active explorers and detectives who ceaselessly surveyed, investigated, and recorded the mythical creatures they encountered in voyages. With a wealth of aquatic knowledge, they were able to identify the clues and provide explanations for the appearance in their tales of aquatic animals and monsters often related to disasters such as shipwrecks and floods. Moreover, based on the ecological, religious, and historical knowledge of rivers and lakes, the Tang tales shape a mysterious underwater world as an ideal society, embodying a Confucian pursuit of integrity and social justice.

Yiwei Zhang, “The Calamities of Water in Journey to the West

Water plays an essential role in Journey to the West, showing multilayered meanings through the environment such as floods, droughts, rivers, and lakes, and the objects such as rainwater, sweat, tears, wine, and holy water (shengshui). Focusing on the idea of nature and destiny, this paper explores the ecological, religious, and cross-cultural meanings of water in the novel. I observe that the novel often represents water as related to violence, disasters, and crises. As an emblem of personal catastrophe, the childhood name of Monk Xuanzang, “Jiang Liu’er” (river current), points to violence that happened on the river where Xuanzang’s parents were robbed and his father murdered. The perilousness of water is even more evident in floods and droughts, which trigger major events in the novel. Noticeably, most if not all of the water calamities are related to the problems of Sihai Longwang (Dragon King of the Four Seas) who is in control of the rain and of all aquatic creatures. As the deity of water and the zoomorphic incarnation of the masculine power (yang), the figure of the Dragon King could be traced back to the belief of Nagaraja in Indian religions. By analysing the multifaceted cultural and religious meanings of water in Journey to the West, this paper seeks to further our understanding of the idea of nature and the imagination of a watery world in late imperial China.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room G
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Aquatic Animals, Water Calamities, and Bathing Rituals in Chinese Literature and Cinema