452ºF #13
Chinese imaginary in other literatures: inspiration, appropriation and intertextuality

…tracing the specificities of China through their various permutations […]
has something to teach about the ways the West has thought itself
through its articulations of a set of ideas named «China».

Eric Hayot, Chinese Dreams. Pound, Brecht and Tel Quel, 2011


This spring, the star exhibition at the MET Museum in New York, titled China: Through the Looking Glass, has shown haute couture of Chinese inspiration
by Dior, Yves Saint Laurent or Alexander McQueen, next to imperial robes, bronzes, porcelains and calligraphies of the museum collection.

A fitting introduction to this monographic, the exhibition tenders a timely contemporary example of Western perceptions of Chinese culture, highlighting a Western relationship with China from the standpoint of the imagination. Along with the tailors and designers exhibited at the MET, China has fueled the imagination of intellectuals, politicians, artists, and most particularly, writers, who have set their texts in fictional Chinas, and created a game of mirrors with other texts, translations and versions. Throughout this process, the significant “China” has concurred with some key developments in world literature, and as the articles here testify, continues to provide inspiration for authors from different literary traditions.

The #13 issue of 452ºF presents a monograph on the presence and uses of China and its cultural imaginary in different world literatures. Given that number 4 is the unlucky number in China ( “four”, is an almost perfect homophone of ,death”), this issue avoids the risks of triskaidekaphobia—or phobia to number 13. This is, though, the only instance in which China will establish its own terms. The seven contributions to the monograph tell us of writers and poets, from different times and distant places, who have approached China creatively, wearing the lenses of their literary, ideological, ethical or personal agendas. Rather than criticizing the authenticity of these versions/distortions, this monograph attempts to explore the characteristics of a varied and complex literary production, of great import for literary theory and comparative literature.

Junior and established academics based in Chile, Portugal, the US and Catalonia take turns discussing literary articulations of China and offer proof of the interest in the topic, almost fifty years after Yuan Tongli’s China in Western Literature and twenty-five after Edward Said’s Orientalism. The Western mythology of China, which first emerged (as noted by Eric Hayot in The Hypothetical Mandarin) from the European discovery of a civilized and economically advanced alterity, and heir of a tortuous history of admiration and mistrust (the encyclopédistes’ admiration for Imperial bureaucracy and Fu Manchu; the Maoism of the 68 movement and the red peril; the double-digit growth and the shadow of Tian’anmen), enters the globalized 21st century still the object of complex negotiations.

The monograph opens with an invited piece by Manel Ollé, “El veïnat xinès i l’exotisme literari,” which traces the influence of Chinese poetry and referents in Catalan literature of the last century. Starting in the 1920s, and including insightful discussions of works by Joan Ferraté and Joan Perucho, among many others, Ollé unpacks three main approaches: adaptions and reinterpretations of Chinese poetry based on English—Waley—or French—Soulié, François Cheng—translations; the appropriation of China as a fictional space; and the influence of Chinese philosophy and thought. Ollé takes the opportunity to note the global tendency to treat Chinese authors as “professional Chinese,” instead of turning them into “neighbors” and fellows writers. Ollé’s panorama contributes to disaggregate the Chinese influence in European letters (that is, beyond French and English literatures), and underscores its significance for the aspirations of the Catalan literary community seeking a maturity that is national, and thus international.

Two contributions help to map the multiple presences of China in South-American letters at different historical moments. An 1860 travelogue by
Colombian Nicolás Tanco Armero allows Rosario Hubert (“Geographical Distance and Cultural Knowledge: Writing about China in Nineteenth-Century Latin America”) to examine the places of enunciation that Tanco strategically negotiates through China. As in some of the instances of Catalan literature reviewed by Ollé, China again offers the possibility to access a validating cosmopolitan identity. For his part, Álvaro Fernández Bravo in “Apropiaciones de la cultura china en la literatura sudamericana contemporánea: contribución para un mapa tentativo a partir de obras de César Aira, Bernardo Carvalho y Siu Kam Wen” analyzes different articulations of China in contemporary works from the Argentine (the productive exotism of César Aira: “Becoming Chinese is becoming a writer”), Brazilian (Bernardo Carvalho and the reactionary chaos of a global virtual world) and Peruvian (with the portraits of the Cantonese diaspora by Siu Kam Wen) literatures. Through these examples, Fernández Bravo manages to triangulate notions of peripherality and subalternity, and additionally, to problematize the recurrent opposition to China—that territory of exceptionalities—onto which a dominant West has projected its self-definition.

Such a “kernel of alterity” offered—or seemingly offered—by China is precisely the starting point for Carlos Rojas (“Writing on the Wall: Benjamin, Kafka, Borges, and the Chinese Imaginary”) to discuss, via Walter Benjamin, Kafka and Borges’ “Chinese” works, as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “minor literature,” issues of literary canonicity and “the complex dialectics of inclusion and exclusion, construction and destruction, upon which modern Western culture is itself conceived.”

Poetry, very important in Ollé’s historical itinerary, is also present in the monograph in two papers that analyze concrete cases. First, Hui Andy Zhang (“Recognition through Reinvention: The Myth of China in the Spiritual Quest of Russian Modernist Poets”) focuses on works by Nikolai Gumilev and Velimir Khlebnikov and their articulation of Chinese motives and ideas in the context of Russian Silver Age (1890-1920). Second, in “El montaje y el gesto (Ezra Pound / Henri Michaux): dos poéticas del ideograma,” Fernando Pérez expounds on the dialogues of modernist poets with Chinese language by contrasting Pound and Michaux’s productive appropriations/versions of Chinese language and writing.

The poetics of books, reading and writing, and the extreme productivity of the distance from and (in)difference towards China, underlie Gonçalo Cordeiro’s reading of a novel by Portuguese author Eça de Queirós (“Ler de longe. Questoes de distancia em O Mandarim de Eça de Queirós”). Starting from the trope of tuer le mandarin (to kill the mandarin), a moral problem posited in the 19th century, Cordeiro, through de Queirós, illuminates a kind of travel to China that starts in the reading of a book and becomes the writing of another.

Thus, the “fictional epistemologies of China” (as noted elsewhere by Rosario Hubert), Michaux’s writing gestures that liberate meaning, and the different writings from a distance (by Baltasar Porcel, Kafka, or de Queirós), to cite some of the literary practices highlighted in the monograph, combine to offer vehicles for a sinography (as proposed by Eric Hayot, Haun Saussy, Steven Yao or David Porter, among others) which, in contrast with a sinology (and its aspiration to knowledge about China), aims at studying the writings created and inspired by China, their meanings, and the conditions, assumptions and logics of a number of disciplinary and cultural practices (Hayot, Saussy and Yao, eds., Sinographies. Writing China, 2008).

The miscellany section includes four papers. By chance (and thanks to the extremely rich Castilian classic and the quality of both the articles), two of the contributions touch upon El lazarillo de Tormes. José Antonio Calzón García (“Construcciones difusas de la identidad: el caso del Lazarillo de Tormes y La velocidad de la luz de Javier Cercas”) uses the 16th century picaresque anonymous text, alongside a novel by the Catalan author Javier Cercas, to put forward the contributions of fuzzy logic to account for the simultaneous reality of different authorial voices in metafictional narrative. For its part, “De remakes, zombis y tradición(es): El caso del Lazarillo Z. Matar zombis nunca fue pan comido,” by Raúl Molina Gil, explores a 2009 zombie remake of El lazarillo… in line with the trend to zombify classics as a critical, political, and ironic intervention.

Ana María Risco’s “Agonizante despertar y desesperación ante la muerte: Huellas de Poe en ‘Destino’ de Alberto García Hamilton” recovers a 1898 tale published in the Argentinean newspaper La Nación that dialogued with Poe’s “The Premature Burial” in structuring the narrative around the effects of catalepsis and the fear of being buried alive. Finally, Benamí Barros García (“En torno a la función del personaje en la ficción literaria”) renders a sophisticated reflection on the dynamics between the author’s idea (using the example of Dostoyevsky) and the novels’ main character (as representative of that idea), and between them and the reader, which are ultimately responsible for bringing that idea to life in a multilayered act of reading.

The issue is completed by two reviews. Manuel Pavón comments on Andrea Bachner’s rigorous analysis of the multifaceted nature of Chinese language and writing, and their overlapping with different political forms, in Beyond Sinology: Chinese Writing and the Scripts of Culture (Columbia University Press, 2014), and he does so by establishing a dialogue with a previous book (The Politics of Chinese Language and Culture: The Art of Reading Dragons, de Bob Hodge y Kam Louie, Routledge, 1998) with similar aims. For her part, Anna Maria Iglesia reviews the Companion to Comparative Literature. World Literatures and Comparative Cultural Studies, by Steven Tötosy and Tutun Mukherjee (Cambridge House, 2013), a book that participates, as other edited volumes and readers reviewed in previous issues of this journal, in the growing interest in world literature.

Unfortunately, and due to a (hopefully, temporary) shortage of translators, with this issue we discontinue the translation of original articles into Basque. Let us take this opportunity to remind our readers that 452ºF is a non-profit, non-commercial project always open to those scholars willing to join the outstanding team of international translators and proofreaders who make this journal possible.


Xavier Ortells-Nicolau

FaLang translation system by Faboba


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