The Fake Foreign Devil is Great!

I haven’t posted much on here over the past year that I’ve been at Cambridge, and in part that’s because my work (as with most first year PhDs I think) has been pretty scattered. I’ve been reading a lot, and writing a lot, but very little of what I’ve written seems particularly blog-able. I do want to share some of the stuff I’ve come across in my research into lianhuanhua 连环画 however, and also give a quick summary of where I see my work going from here. As it happens, last week I was at the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing sharing a very brief version of just that on a very fun panel with comrades-in-arms and fellow graduate students Shan Xiaodan, Lyu Guangzhao, and Peng Qiao. I’ve done a quick write-up of the conference , which you can read here. What follows is an expanded version of that presentation, with a brief example drawn from two of my case studies.

The question that I’ve come to over various revisions of my project is this:

How can we, from the perspective of the present, make post-Mao lianhuanhua [comic books] intelligible?

Lianhuanhua being enjoyed by young and old 老少 at a streetside rental library

I’m using here something that Jonathan Culler once said about the work of Roland Barthes: “The critic’s job, Barthes argues, is not to discover the secret meaning of a work – the truth of the past – but to construct intelligibility for our own time [l’intelligible de notre temps].”1 Part of what I’ve been struggling with in my work is getting away from the idea that there is some sort of hidden message in the lianhuanhua that I’ve been looking at.

The working title for my thesis has also gone through several revisions, but for the moment I’ve settled on “Low Culture Fever: Chinese Comics After Mao, 1976-1983”.

As, you may have notices, I’ve referred to lianhuanhua as both “comics” and “comic books”. It’s intentional, even if it is a bit of a controversial point. I’ve also played around with adding the words, “Anxiety and Ambition in” before “Chinese Comics”. This was part of a previous revision which brought in affect theory to try to think my way out of an ideological corner I’d painted myself into. I’m still planning on using affect theory quite a bit, but after my last meeting with my committee, I’ve been rethinking how much I want to make that approach really front and center in my thesis, and how much I want to provide some alternative theoretical frameworks of my own invention.

But the real sticking point for the moment in my terminology is whether or not lianhuanhua are “comics” or “comic books”.

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  1. Jonathan Culler, Barthes (Fontana Paperbacks, 1983): 17; Roland Barthes, Critique et Vérité [Criticism and Truth] (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966), trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman (The Athlone Press, 1987): 260. []

Confessions of an Ivory Tower Postmodern Cultural Marxist SJW

So it’s been a while since I posted on here (more than a year!) and I’m afraid I don’t have much to report about Chinese comics, for the moment at least. It’s a been a big year: after five fantastic years in Canada, my wife (Chinese) and I (American) finally successfully applied for permanent residence…and then more or less right away moved to the UK. We’d actually decided on the move before we found out if our PR application was approved or not – mostly because if it was denied, we would have to leave anyways, since our work visas were going to expire in the spring of 2019.

On the other hand, since my wife, Ding, is still working for her (and my former) Canadian employer (doing educational tourism for university students from China) under the current rules, we can keep our PR valid until we move back to Canada in a couple of years.  (We love it here, but we’re worried if we stay in the UK we won’t be able to get on an equivalent path to citizenship. Also, the cost of living in London is ridonkulous.)

The other outcome of this move was that I decided to apply to go back to grad school for my PhD. I had been on the fence about whether I wanted to do that for a while, and a couple of things conspired to convince me to take the plunge — the most important being that Ding was onboard with the whole ‘more school’ thing.

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Future Perfect: Ye Yonglie 葉永烈 and the Origins of Chinese Speculative Fiction

The following is based on a short talk on Chinese science fiction which I had the honor of presenting to the CHIN 40: Popular Culture in Modern Chinese Societies course at UCLA on February 16, 2017, at the invitation of Micheal Berry. I had originally planned on posting this a couple of weeks after giving the talk–it seems a little superfluous to be talking about obscure Chinese authors and artists with everything that is going on in the news at the moment. At the same time, I’m starting to wonder if the situation we find ourselves in has something to do with our inability not only to come to terms with history (particularly as a mirror for the present), but whether it stems from a more fundamental failure to think about what words really mean. Politics is about discourse, about framing ideas and making calls for action. But if we fail to interrogate that discourse, to pick apart those ideas, and question those calls for action, then we give authoritarians an open door to exploit the weak for the sake of the powerful.

Okay, so I’m going to start off on a bit of an odd note for a talk on Chinese science fiction, but I’m going to start with a nod to the Tongva people, on whose ancestral and unceded lands we find ourselves today. This is something they do up in Canada, thanking the First Nations peoples and acknowledging the enormous debt of gratitude (and almost impossible degree of contrition) that we owe to them. If you’re planning on giving a talk any time in the future, I encourage you to do the same.

I would also like to thank Professor Berry for inviting me, and thank all of you for signing up for this course! I guess we should also thank UCLA for making it possible for you guys to learn about Chinese pop culture, something that’s hardly a given these days with budget cuts and all.

Now, on the Chinese science fiction!

So, we’re going to be talking (a little) about Ye Yonglie 葉永烈, a science fiction author I’m interested in who was born in 1940. I think he’s important, because he was born at more or the less the midpoint of the history of contemporary sci-fi in China, which has just over a century and a half of history, depending on how you define what sci-fi is. For that reason, his career makes a useful frame for talking about Chinese science fiction, and what that means. In fact, I’m not going to be talking very much at all about Ye, so I encourage you to read The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry if you’d like to know more about Ye and the stories he wrote.

A lot has been written about Chinese science fiction in English, but one essay I recommend for covering the key points is Regina Kanyu Wang’s “A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction.” Jeffery Wasserstrom’s recent article for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative on the same topic is also worth checking out for a shorter, and more academic take. Finally, Ou Ning has compiled a list of classic Chinese and English sci-fi novels, which echoes some of what we see in these two pieces, but with some interesting additions as well, as we will see.

But before we can start unpacking all of this, I’m afraid we’re going to have to talk about some pretty abstract concepts, and I’m not a very abstract kind of guy. So I thought we might use an old parable to help frame our discussion:

Does anybody recognize this image? If you do, don’t shout it out just yet okay?

I went ahead and edited the illustration (and the Chinese, for those of you who read Chinese), but if you look you’ll see there are five men—five blind men, to be specific.  And the five blind men are touching something:

One of them says, “The thing that we are touching is rope, it’s long and thin.”

And the one over here says, “No, no, no, it’s a pillar, it’s thick and strong.”

And this guy right here says, “You’re both wrong, it’s a wall, it’s long and flat.”

And the guy in yellow says, “You guys really are blind! It’s a definitely a metal pipe, can’t you tell?”

Finally, the guy at the end says, “Pipe? What pipe? This obviously a rubber hose!”

Now of course, it’s none of these things at all, it’s a…drum roll, please…


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The Man from River South Spoiler Free Character Map

As part of a translation project I’m working on, I took it upon myself to draw up a character map for Hai Yan’s 海宴 epic wuxia novel The Man From River South 琅琊榜  (aka Nirvana in Fire aka Langyabang). I’ve deleted (most) of the spoilers, leaving in the information which will help people watching the tv show on Viki follow along (click to see the full size version):


Keep an eye out, I should have more news on this project soon!1

  1. Also, my much anticipated MA thesis defense has finally been scheduled for later this month (woohoo!) and a 70+ page book of translated comics samples for Books from Taiwan is at the printer and will soon be online as well! I haven’t had much time for this site recently, but hopefully that will change soon… []

Center for Science and the Imagination: Science Fiction in China

Center for Science and the Imagination: Science Fiction in China

[I tried to post this as a comment on their website directly but their commenting system — or my proxy— seems to be broken]

As ‘Fei Dao’ is Chinese, ‘Dao’ would be his first name, not his last. Of course, ‘Fei Dao’ is a nom de plume, as was explained in the interview, which (using the original characters) means ‘Flying Knife’. He replaced ‘Knife’ with the homonym (in Chinese) ‘Deuterium’ (a heavier isotope of of hydrogen). Either way I don’t think you can break these two terms apart.