“Unnatural Narratives” with Chinese Characteristics

Fantastic, Weird, Metafictional, Impossible, and Posthuman Elements in Modern Sinophone Literature
2:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room C

  • Organised by Nicoletta Pesaro
  • Chaired by Paolo Magagnin
  • Nicoletta Pesaro, “Impossible Worlds of Their Own: ‘Unnatural Narratives’ in Contemporary Chinese Fiction by Two Women Writers”
  • Marco Fumian, “Anti-Realistic Elements in Post-Avantgarde Chinese Fiction”
  • Melinda Pirazzoli, “Mo Yan’s Post-Humanist Turn in Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out”
  • Selusi Ambrogio, “Yan Lianke: Unnatural Nature vs. Urban Explosion”
  • Paolo Magagnin, “Futures of a Troubled Present: Science Fiction as Social Critique in Hong Kong”
  • Martina Codeluppi, “Anthropocene with Chinese Characteristics: Narrating the Environmental Crisis through Chinese Cli-Fi”
  • Lorenzo Andolfatto, “Botched Posthumanism in Han Song’s Novella Meinü shoulie zhinan 美女狩猎指南”

This panel intends to explore the many ways in which literature is written in the articulated geography of the Chinese-sphere (interpreted here in a linguistic and cultural sense) “violates physical laws, logical principles, or standard anthropomorphic limitations of knowledge by representing storytelling scenarios, narrators, characters, temporalities, or spaces that could not exist in the actual world” (Hühn). The narration of the impossible, crossing and encompassing a variety of different genres and subgenres—including fantasy and science fiction, which are particularly popular in present-day Sinophone literature—appears also in realistic narratives, where it often acquires the tones of the grotesque or the uncanny. Long besieged by realism in its multiple variants, the representation of the “unreal” has actually pervaded it, giving birth to forms of hybridity and contamination. “The modern and contemporary fantastic is the result of a dialogue between pre‐modern concepts of the strange and anomalous, concepts of religion and superstition, and modern, post‐Enlightenment ideas of realism” (Macdonald, 13). The unnatural is also a distinctive feature of postmodernism, where time, space, and narratorial instances tend to be continuously distorted.
Do unnatural narratives play a political, allegorical role in dismantling or confirming Grand Narratives, or do they rather respond to an aesthetical need of subjectivity? To what extent do these representations perform a “systematic undermining of our ‘natural’ cognition of the world” (Alber, 8), embodying the anxieties about the future of endangered humankind and pushing our storytelling into unknown territories? What are the reading strategies and are these deviations from “natural narratives” already conventionalised in readers’ minds?

Alber, Jan (2016), Unnatural Narrative: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): The Living Handbook of Narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University. http://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/ [view date: 7 Dec. 2019].
Macdonald, Sean (2019), “Notes on the Fantastic in Chinese Literature and Film”, Front. Lit. Stud. China 13(1): 1–24.
Shang, Biwu (2019), Unnatural Narrative Across Borders. Transnational and Comparative Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge.

Nicoletta Pesaro, “Impossible Worlds of Their Own: ‘Unnatural Narratives’ in Contemporary Chinese Fiction by Two Women Writers”

Parallel to the multiple, contradictory manifestations of realism which characterise Chinese literature in the last decades, from socialist to magical, neo-, hallucinatory, hyper-, and mytho-realism, a different aesthetics of narrative has kept on developing, exploiting a repertoire of strikingly surrealistic, avant-garde, modernist, and post-modernist devices, which challenge the view on Chinese fiction as fundamentally mimetic and still haunted by the “obsession with China”.
My paper deals with two female writers from mainland China and Hong Kong—respectively Can Xue 残雪 (b. 1953) and Hon Lai-chu 韩丽珠 (b. 1978)—who deploy “unnatural narratives” mingling inner worlds and outside spaces, in order to explore entangled interpersonal and social relationships in a highly subjective, somehow disrupting manner. Their works give full expression to (anomalous) bodily perceptions, disturbing apparitions of animals, characters travelling across sometimes magical, sometimes dystopian dreamscapes and mindscapes, where people perform inexplicable acts. By dismissing any claim of verisimilitude and the allegorical quest for meaning, both writers create (im)possible worlds of their own, defining an alternative women literary enclave which defies realism’s effort to convey the meaning of life and gives free rein to the imaginative power of literature.

Marco Fumian, “Anti-Realistic Elements in Post-Avantgarde Chinese Fiction”

In the Eighties, Chinese literature was dominated by the effort to cast off realist theories and practices of literature developing in their place a modernist approach to literary creation. This was part of a widespread attempt to reject the “reflectionist” and “instrumentalist” theories of literature promoted by the CCP and to carve up for literature an autonomous space of creative freedom, affirming the representational sovereignty of the author in matters of both form and content. In the next decade, however, the bold experimentations of the late Eighties became largely irrelevant and were generally superseded, as many Chinese critics observed, by the extensive return of realism as the dominant representational mode. In spite of this, the Chinese writers who since the Nineties gained the widest worldwide recognition were exactly those very experimentalists who most successfully broke with realism in the Eighties. Even discarding their early “avant-garde” claims, authors such as Mo Yan, Yu Hua, Su Tong, and others all maintained in their fictional writings, to one extent or another, some anti-realistic elements, that became for almost three decades typical and distinctive features of their style. How did these anti-realistic elements work, what did they aim to? What elements of reality did they help to reveal, or conversely to hide? How did they help screen the abovementioned authors from domestic censorship, at the same time aiding them to advance a distinctive “Chinese” form of literature in the market of contemporary world literature? These will be the central issues addressed by this paper.

Melinda Pirazzoli, “Mo Yan’s Post-Humanist Turn in Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out”

Mo Yan is famous for his stylistic experimentations. Despite his eclecticism and the very diverse subject matters which he addresses in his many novels, he nevertheless, more often than not, also represents the complex relations between the human world and the animal realm. This well applies to the chapter entitled “Dog’s ways” of his widely acclaimed novel Red Sorghum and in Frogs. In Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (Sheng si pilao 生死疲劳) (2006) not only does Mo Yan blur the boundaries between what is human and what is not, he even portrays the human quandary from the point of view of animals hence overcoming any humanist paradigm. By orienting his non-anthropocentric narrative towards questions of embodiment and affects, he eventually forcefully manages to tackle troublesome issues of Chinese biocracy.

Selusi Ambrogio, “Yan Lianke: Unnatural Nature vs. Urban Explosion”

Yan Lianke presents himself as a realist writer, but one of a very particular kind: an impious son of realism (Yan 2011). Actually, this impiety creates room for the “unnatural” within his realistic fictions, although he prefers to name it “mythorealism” (shenshizhuyi 神实主义).
I will focus my analysis on the contrast between the “nature” and the “city” in the long fiction The Explosion Chronicles (Zhalie zhi 炸裂志). The city of Explosion is presented in its extraordinary growth, which is extraordinary but real. Yan often suggests that modern China is far more incredible than science fiction, far more inconceivable than what human fantasy might produce. Opposed to the “unbelievable reality” of the city, Yan introduces natural elements—i.e. flowers, plants, insects, etc.— that always emerge as unrealistic reactions to humans’ events. For instance, the letter promoting the village to town produces flowers, and it can overturn seasons. The narrator comments: “It was winter, but given that the village was being changed into town, the climate had no choice but to change as well” (Yan 2016b). I will discuss the paradoxical use of the “unnatural” as open criticism of the Grand Narrative of the never-ending positive growth, since nature is forcedly bent to human needs.
I will conclude my speech with a comparison between this book and the more intimate Beijing, last memories (Beijing, zuihou de jinian 北京,最后的纪念) where Yan narrates the destruction of nature in his hutong.

Yan, Lianke 阎连科 (2011), Faxian xiaoshuo 发现小说, Tianjing: Nankai daxue chubanshe.
⸺ (2012), Beijing zuihou de jinian 北京,最后的纪念 , Nanjing: Jiangsu renmin chubanshe.
⸺ (2016a), Zhalie zhi 炸裂志. In Yan Lianke changpian xiaoshuo diancang 阎连科长篇小说典藏, 5 vols. Zhengzhou: Zhongguo banben tushuguan.
⸺ (2016b), The Explosion Chronicles. Trans. C. Rojas. London: Chatto & Windus.

Paolo Magagnin, “Futures of a Troubled Present: Science Fiction as Social Critique in Hong Kong”

A malleable macro-genre entailing a strong potential for socio-political critique, speculative fiction offers the narrative framework and tools to challenge fundamental assumptions, subvert dominant worldviews, and ultimately re-evaluate the current state of affairs. In particular, sci-fi—as Jameson points out—is not so much a representation of a possible future as a radical defamiliarisation and restructuring of the present, which in turn is based on an informed vision of the past. From this perspective, the sci-fi developed in Hong Kong—a city tragically caught between its colonial past, a present plagued by waves of dissatisfaction, and an authoritarian order looming over its next future—proves particularly instructive, and acquires special significance in the light of the protest movements that are still ongoing today. For instance, the influential collection Dark Fluid (An liuti 暗流體, 2017) addresses a number of issues that have been deeply relevant to Hong Kong in recent years—social disparities, disadvantaged districts, the housing crisis, an ageing population, the inexorable ‘mainlandisation’ etc.—framing them against the background of universal concerns. By focusing on this collection, selected as a case study, I seek to investigate how non-realist fiction can be presented as a tool for rethinking the status quo and inspiring social change. I also intend to look into a Hong Kong-specific articulation of the relationship between literature and civil movements, revealing the continuum that exists between artistic and social engagement, as well as the connection between local action and global awareness.

Martina Codeluppi, “Anthropocene with Chinese Characteristics: Narrating the Environmental Crisis through Chinese Cli-Fi”

Never before in the history of our planet has humankind violated natural laws as it does today. We are constantly reminded of the precariousness of our ecosystem, and it is precisely in this delicate context that literature shows its power to reflect society and stir individual consciences through the birth of Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction). The world is getting unnatural and unnatural narratives have become one of the most effective ways to represent it. Originally identified as a subcategory of Sci-Fi that deals with the effects of climate change, Cli-Fi is a rather new actor in world literature and is still at an early stage of development in China. Yet, some of the most popular contemporary works of science fiction, like Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide, Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing, or Liu Cixin’s The Wandering Earth, possess a few elements that make them ascribable to this specific subgenre. How is the individual perception of environmental crisis described in these works? What social picture do they provide? What thoughts do they stimulate? This study intends to drift away from the detached ecocritical approach to focus on the human and social dimensions of the climate emergency. I will point out the possibilities of Chinese Cli-Fi to represent and affect the individual and collective perception of Chinese Anthropocene. Indeed, it is by projecting unnatural yet astonishingly possible futures that these narratives can inspire a deep reflection, necessary for improving environmental awareness in one of today’s most influential countries.

Lorenzo Andolfatto, “Botched Posthumanism in Han Song’s Novella Meinü shoulie zhinan 美女狩猎指南”

Meinü shoulie zhinan (A guide to hunting beauties) is a sci-fi novella published by Han Song in 2002, in which wealthy men pay prodigious amounts of money to hunt genetically-engineered, lab-grown women within the confines of a mysterious island located in the South China Sea. In a crucial juncture of this story, a hunter disembowels a woman with a katana, reaches into her intestines with his fist, rips out her womb, and runs off into the jungle laughing like a madman. The hunter’s companion left alone with the woman’s body then proceeds to have sex with her womb-less (“brain”-less) vulva. The scene’s overt gruesomeness is coherent with the novella’s underlying compositional principle, which is that of narrative escalation—an escalating representation of male-to-female violence that pushes the overall realistic tenets of Han Song’s soft science fiction to grotesque and unreal extremes. Yet while some have praised the story’s “bizarre environment of extreme cruelty” as a means of exploring how received and outdated gender roles affect individual identities, the novella’s gratuitous display of cruelty, the narrator’s unidirectional and seemingly complicit gaze, and ultimately the plot’s (literally) “castrated” resolution undercut the story’s critical potential. By refusing to address his story’s appalling (yet dramatically appealing) premises and retreating instead into self-centred, default subjectivity, Han Song fails to mobilise science fiction’s radical affordance to, paraphrasing Jan Alber, “undermine our cognition of the world,” and in doing so reminds us how every storytelling push toward unknown territories is mired by the storyteller’s ideological underpinnings.

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Room C
Fantastic, Weird, Metafictional, Impossible, and Posthuman Elements in Modern Sinophone Literature