Body as Strategies in Contemporary China: The Multiplicity of the Body in Literature, Media, and Social Practice

Title: 1383 | Body as Strategies in Contemporary China: The Multiplicity of the Body in Literature, Media, and Social Practice
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Literature
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Yuqing Liu, University of British Columbia, Canada (organizer, presenter)
Xuefeng Feng, the University of Texas, Austin, United States (presenter)
Xuefei Ma, University of Arizona, United States (presenter)
Jun Lei, Texas A&M University, United States (chair, discussant)


This panel seeks to explore the strategic uses of the body in Chinese literature, media, and social practice. Following what the anthropologist and philosopher Annemarie Mol calls the body multiple, we contend that bodies are always more than one and less than many. The body multiple demands to be enacted in specific situations, and in turn can be used as strategies in connection to the imaginative, the symbolic, and the real in various temporal and geographical settings.

Deployed strategically, the body multiple can be and do a variety of things: as a
literary apparatus that brings out unexpected effects for the underprivileged; as a technology for the imaginative to merge into the social order; additionally, as complicated, and sometimes ambiguous, negotiators between varying social relations; last but not least, as a rhizomic machine involved in the production of all kinds of other bodies, beings, and worlds.

The “body-becoming” event constitutes the key to understanding the post-socialist
body in Xuefeng Feng’s paper. Through examining the relations between women's writings and performance art, Xuefei Ma points out the agency of homosocial bodies. Focusing on the problem of identity, Yuqing Liu explores the empowered body of ghosts in Hong Kong cinema. The discussant Jun Lei, a literary historian and cultural critic, will place the aesthetic concerns of the panel into a broader literary historical context. Together, this panel aims to provide a new framework for understanding the potentiality of the body which is so deeply entangled with social and cultural practices.

Panel Abstracts:
Body of Ghosts: Empowering the Female Ghosts in Hong Kong Cinema
This paper examines the bodies of ghosts in two Hong Kong films—A Chinese Ghost Story (Tsui Hark, 1987) and The Enchanting Shadow (Han-Cheung Lee, 1960)—both of which are adapted from the story “Nie Xiaoqian”. Through comparing the film adaptions, this paper explores how the literary tradition of ghost has been rewritten in the 1950s and 1980s to respond to the problem of identity in Hong Kong. Being set in the historical background of Late Ming, the rescue of the female ghost serves as a symbolic embodiment of the desire of reviving the old dynasty in The Enchanting Shadow. Correspondingly, this film follows the original tale which depicts the male protagonist as a bold and forthright scholar who saves the female ghost, a victim of Qing’s invasion, from the torment of the monster. In A Chinese Ghost Story, however, with the removal of the historical background, the male protagonist is dramatically feminized, while the female protagonist is empowered by her ghostly body that enables her to save her lover and defeat the monsters. By showing that the monster is in an alternative form of human being, this film also reveals the impossibility to differentiate male from female, human from the non-human, and the self from the other. I argue that the empowered body of ghosts in A Chinese Ghost Story blurs and subverts the power relationship between the saver and the survivor, embodying the anxiety of identity in the 1980s Hong Kong.

What Can a Post-socialist Body Do? "Body-becoming" Event in the Piano in a Factory and Square Dancing
"What a body can do (quid corpus possit)?" asked Spinoza. Deleuze would say: "too many, and yet too little." A body can be and do many things, probably too many. Yet, whatever it does, it does only one thing, that is, becoming a body. Following this Spinozan-Deleuzian way of thinking on the body, this paper addresses the actualization of the body as an ontological strategy for being-in-the-world by analyzing two cases. The first case, a film titled The Piano in a Factory (2010), tells a story about a group of laid-off industrial workers constructing a piano made of steel. The second case, square dancing, describes the phenomenon of mid-aged amateur dancers collectively dancing in public squares. Notwithstanding two well-studied cases, the existing scholarship tends to approach them through the frame of "socialist subjectivity versus post-socialist social structure." What is particularly problematic in those studies is that the laboring or performing bodies are relegated to the mere representation of either specific subject condition or social-power relations. This paper challenges this social-epistemological reading of the body as representation. Instead, it proposes an ontological approach in conceiving of the body as a strategy. Bodies performed in the film and squares are events of becoming and worlding. This "body-becoming" event defines what a body is and what a body can do. Only through this ontological strategy of becoming a body, I argue, the post-socialist subject as a historically formed being-in-the world is able to be actualized in specific spatio-temporal formation.

Body In-scription: The Corporeal Transmission of "Women’s Writings" and the Post-Mao Womanhood in Ma Yanling's Performance Art
The market-driven economy in post-Mao China produces the “feminization of communicative intimacy” (Harriet Evans, 2010) to penetrate into women’s homosocial practice to promote consumption. Women’s homosocial culture of nüshu (literally “Women’s Writings”), a women-invented writing system circulating only among kinswomen and sworn sisters in rural Jiangyong of south China, becomes a creative scene in China’s cultural economy.This paper examines how art mediates the tensions between social inscription on womanhood and the sensual in-scription of female bodies through Beijing-based artist Ma Yanling’s nüshu-oriented performance art (2004-2019). I make two arguments. First, through reinventing women’s gestures in relation to nüshu-oriented objects in her performances such as dance and calligraphy, Ma invokes haptic sensation that re-members the body kinesthetically and trans-sensually (Alphonso Lingis, 1996; Deidre Sklar, 2008) to challenge the social ideation of gender role that erases female corporeal experience. Second, by collaborating with her daughter and her mother in her art project, Ma breaks the boundaries between art and life as well as the division of domestic and public space, redefines the mother-daughter relations in both the socialist past and the post-Mao present, and highlights the kinesthetic resonance and dissonance as the motif of women’s homosocial practice. In this way, Ma’s art retrieves the sensual experience in the historical nüshu culture in the era of its disappearance, offers a corporeal transmission (Chuancheng, “传承”) against the governmental discourse and market strategy, and intervenes into the male-centric art theory that marginalizes the aesthetic value of female writing bodies

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