Tensions Embodied: Reading and Staging Sensation in Premodern East Asia

Title: 1290 | Tensions Embodied: Reading and Staging Sensation in Premodern East Asia
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: Literature
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Jiayi Chen, The University of Chicago, United States (organizer, presenter)
Ashton Lazarus, University of Utah, United States (presenter)
Wenting Ji, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States (presenter)
Melissa Van Wyk, University of California-Berkeley, United States (presenter)
Matthew Fraleigh, Brandeis University, United States (chair, discussant)


This panel focuses on sensation as a distinctive topos in pre-modern East Asian literature and theater. Expanding the scope beyond senses in different artistic forms, we observe the ways sensory experience is represented and constructed via various literary and theatrical devices. Drawing together the studies of literature, performance, gender, and disability, this panel sheds new light on how writers and performers alike treated sensation as a site where tensions emerge between body and mind, reality and illusion, restraint and indulgence.
Ashton Lazarus investigates the aesthetic paradox in The Tale of Genji between the characters’ rich sensory engagement and the Buddhist renunciation of senses. Wenting Ji discusses how the intertwined representations of female bodies and pain in the cross-dressing tanci fiction Destiny of Rebirth simultaneously consolidate and question the conception of femininity. Shifting from representations to formations of sensation, Jiayi Chen takes the novel Journey to the West to examine its use of rhetorical devices to turn the reading experience into a game of guessing, facilitating readers to visualize the virtual world while warning them of the danger of deluded imaginings. Finally moving from page to stage, Melissa Van Wyk considers the ningyōburi performances of kabuki actor Sawamura Tanosuke III, which used the mimicking of puppets to blur the line between spectacle and theatrical expression. By developing a comparative perspective, this panel as a whole explores how sensation was formulated by the shared yet nuanced social, cultural, and historical values in pre-modern East Asia.

Panel Abstracts:
Visualizing the Hidden: Guessing Game and The Journey to the West
This paper focuses on the guessing game (usually known as shefu, meaning “shooting and hiding,” or caimei, meaning “guessing the number”) both as a theme of literary representations and an embedded mechanism of reading fictional writings in late imperial China. The rule of the game was simple: participants were asked to guess the identity of the hidden thing(s) or their amount. Yet, within the literary worlds of the sixteenth-century fiction Journey to the West, readers who were unable to participate directly in the guessing game on paper were rather invited to peep into where the things were concealed, secretly transformed, and textually reconstructed. The game’s “backstage” was thus turned into a “stage” on which the invisible became visible. Such a mechanism further offers a fresh perspective to reexamine a series of detailed ekphrastic descriptions of supernatural beings, powerful weapons, and fancied surroundings in the novel. Readers then, as themselves the participants of the “guessing game” of reading, attempted to visualize the virtual realms based on these textual clues, but simultaneously faced the risk of deluded imaginings. By taking the novel as a case study, this paper hopes to shed new light on the multiple relationships between words and things, reality and imagination, as well as literature’s power of constructing fictionality in late imperial China.

“The Realm Beyond Our Senses”: Sensation and Renunciation in The Tale of Genji
This paper explores the abiding tension in The Tale of Genji between the aesthetics of sensory experience and the Buddhist disavowal of the senses. While in the west the senses were historically divided into higher (sight and sound) and lower (touch, smell, and taste) orders, Genji presents a world in which pluri-sensorial engagement operates in the foreground, mediating knowledge, communication, and identity. Shining Genji (Hikaru Genji), the main character in the first two-thirds of the tale, projects a physical radiance wherever he goes, while his supposed son Kaoru, the protagonist of the final chapters, is preceded by an enticing scent (his name means simply “fragrance”). Such “sensory epithets” proliferate throughout the text’s social fabric and often determine characters’ basic dimensions and orientations. Indeed, in Genji the primacy of sensory experience is matched only by the Buddhist renunciation of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought (the six senses). Characters in the tale live for a glimpse of colorful robes, a whiff of incense, or a snatch of pleasantly rustling silks, even as they yearn to disentangle themselves from the realm of senses. This paper reads Genji as an attempt to grapple with the boundary between kigo (“idle words,” that is, fiction) and the Buddhist law, a boundary already blurred in Mahayana texts like the Lotus Sutra. How should we situate Genji, with its sumptuous sensorium, within a wider Buddhist episteme that both rejected and embraced literature?

Her Feet Hurt: Rediscovering Female Body and Pain in Zaishengyuan (Destiny of Rebirth)
Zaishengyuan (Destiny of Rebirth) written by Chen Duansheng (1751–1796) is a famous work of tanci which centers on the adventure of a cross-dressing female protagonist. Evolving from storytelling performance, tanci as a genre is usually rich in volume, rhymed in language, and dominated by female writers from the Jiangnan area in late imperial China. Being overlooked for decades, tanci has received few discussions especially on individual works, language expressions, and nuanced cultural connotations. Building existing scholarship which focuses on gender studies, this paper approaches Zaishengyuan from sensory studies and investigates its representations of female body and sensations, especially feet and pain. Conducting close readings on foot-related plots and keywords tong and teng (both mean pain in Chinese), this paper argues that Zaishengyuan endeavors to demonstrate how women experienced the outside world with their body and sensations, and how bodily pain shaped the way the society and women themselves identified femininity. The story repeatedly associates physical pain with the female-exclusive practice foot-binding, while at the same time putting the bound feet into spotlight to address the female protagonist’s identity crisis that causes the psychological pain. Also, the involvement of mother in female body’s modification showcases the significance of maternal family lineage and the female community around tanci. Moreover, by contextualizing female pain in both the cinematic cross-dressing plots and the performative nature of tanci, Zaishengyuan reveals the embedded theatricality in gender identifications and redefines the realm of gender in fantasy as well as in reality.

The Ningyōburi Performances of Sawamura Tanosuke III: Puppet Mimicry as Spectacle and Expression
When kabuki actor and female-role specialist Sawamura Tanosuke III returned to the stage after multiple amputations of his feet and hand, one of the strategies he developed to continue performing was the use of ningyōburi, a style of kabuki performance in which actors mimicked the movements of puppets while still portraying human characters. Practically, performing characters in ningyōburi style meant that Tanosuke could be supported unobtrusively by other actors performing as “puppeteers,” but Tanosuke’s body and his onstage performance of ningyōburi became so closely associated in the public imagination that Okamoto Kisen claimed in his sensationalized account of Tanosuke’s life, his 1880 Sawamura Tanosuke akebono sōshi, that one performance had gone so far as to use the limbs of actual bunraku puppets as prosthetics.Ningyōburi, which developed during the late eighteenth century and flourished in the mid-nineteenth, has most often been interpreted in scholarship, when at all, either as superficial spectacle or as a gendered expression of the intensity of the character’s inner emotional conflict through the metaphor of the puppet. This presentation aims to historicize this modern psychological interpretation by considering Tanosuke’s career in the late nineteenth century, and argues that Tanosuke’s performance of ningyōburi had lasting impact not only on how public conceptions of his life and body, but also on ningyōburi’s development as an expressive style in kabuki. Engaging with theories of disability and puppetry, this presentation considers how we might productively theorize on-stage moments in which movement erupts into puppetry as both spectacle and expression

This panel is on Wednesday - Session 01 - Room 1

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