IASPR2018: Romancing Chinese Worlds

This represents my notes on the presentations at the 2018 International Association for the Study of Popular Romance conference. Please consider my status as an imperfect recorder of literary academia. I hope you enjoy reading about this conference as much as I enjoyed observing it. This blog uses affiliated links.

Topography of Romantic Love: Journeys, the Fantasy of Love and Identity Crisis. Fang-mei Lin (National Taiwan Normal University)

Orphan of Asia (Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan), by Wu Zhuoliu

  • Literary canon in Taiwan
  • Importance to national identity
  • Protagonists self consciousness is aroused by romantic love
  • Author used traditional brush pen calligraphy
  • Written in Japanese, translated to Chinese Mandarin, then English
  • Follows the protagonists journey between Taiwan, Japan, and China
  • Ambiguous ending as to final place (possibly China)
  • Triangular relationship between countries

Taiwan territory of Qing Dynasty for two centuries, then Japan, then China

Taiwanese people search for identity

  • China = ancestral roots
  • Japan = modernity
  • Taiwan = nativism(?)

The book depicts Taiming in pursuit of his true identity. Previous scholarships ignored Taiming’s relationships with women.

First he falls in love with a school teacher (Hisako, a young Japanese woman), but she declines him. Previous scholarship calls this racism and assumption of Japanese superiority. A Taiwanese woman, R, adores him, but he considers her plain and vulgar. His curious mentality pushes him towards Japan, and Hisako, while maintaining his own preoccupation with his believed own Taiwanese inferiority)

Dumped, he travels to China to Japanese, and falls in love with a student, Shu-chun. Their courtship is overlaid with love for place (China), they get married, but Taiming is disappointed as Shu-chun is too modern (works in big job and doesn’t care for housework). Taiming (and previous scholars) is unaware of his gender bias.

Shu-chun begins an anti-Japanese movement as WWII approaches, and Taiming mocks female participation in government issues. Meanwhile, Taiwanese people are considered potential spies by Japan. The marriage breaks down, and he leaves (also leaving behind a baby). He is disillusioned with romance and marriage. After this he occasionally thinks of the child, but never Shu-chun.

Very male centred book, and previous scholars have shown blind spot regarding the female characters.

On the way to a better life: Countryside themed romance in recent Chinese television. Huike Wen (Willamette University)

In China, young women move to cities, while men stay behind to work on farms (creating bachelor villages), this was exacerbated by the one-child policy. Now this has been changed to a two-child policy, there are more girl babies, but still a deficit.

TV Drama ‘Rural Romantic Love Story’ started in 2003 – now over 500 episodes. Created by Bensham Media Company (all male employees).

Wen asked the audience about typical romance genre expectations. This show has almost none of them, no HEA, no central love story, etc.

The show is more rural soap opera than romance.

  • No courtship
  • People never move in or out (unless they are villains)
  • Fathers talk to each other and solve adult children’s marriage problems
  • Highlights the romantic view of the father’s utopian country life
  • No female viewpoint on the life
  • Even the mother-in-laws (traditionally a source of tension in western soap operas) are compliant and do what the men tell them to do
  • The women in the show only exist to give the men a stable family from which to build a business – highlighting only male liberty and growth

Called ‘romance’ because

  • Connections between fathers
  • Complete masculinity and entrepreneurship
  • Isolated from outside
  • All conflicts come from men
  • Women’s dreams and desires are ignored

Romance is used to suggest this is NOT a story of propaganda or a saga. It is about self-management, self-realisation, and a happy, content, male society.

There is only one female in the show who owns a business, selling tofu. The word tofu in Chinese has erotic connotations – feminine, soft and tender. Her business was started by her father, a good man.

(Profromance tweet) Huike Wen, answering a q about women entrepreneurs in the Rural Romance show, inadvertently introduces us to idea that tofu is feminized & “eating her tofu“ has an erotic meaning

China pays people to go back to rural areas, so it is hard to know the impact of this show on idealising rural life.

Life is Elsewhere: The economy of food and sex in Chinese Web Romance. Jin Feng (Grinnell College)

Plum in a Golden Vase – 16thC famous erotic graphic novel

The Gourmet and Other Stories of Modern China – Lu Wenfu (1983)

The Book of Rites (Li Ji): English-Chinese Version (English and Chinese Edition) – Li Ji

Chinese fan fiction focuses on romance which uses food as a plot device.

Food Novel is a sub-genre

  • Protagonist works in hospitality, eg chef or restaurant owner
  • Includes gender switching tropes of famous novels
  • Sci-fi food fict (time travel)

Most food centred novels have the protagonist move forward in time, not into history, with lots of futuristic stuff like robot warriors.

Many sci-fi food books look at future, but often with a backwards gaze

  • Emphasise Chinese culinary heritages
  • ‘chinese food that saved the world’
  • Knowledge of old food traditions allows characters to win/save the world/conquer the world
  • Not much romance in these books

Can include magical emotional food – ie a character who infuses food with an emotion and the eater’s problems are solved

General trends:

  • Chinese time travel goes back (cannot see the future)
  • American time travel goes forward (cannot see the past)

Many stories are rooted in food safety concerns across mainland China

(Kristin Noone tweet) Jin Feng’s paper is making me think about food & magical spaces & hurt/comfort tropes in my own romance fiction

Romance in Chinatown: The Love Stories of Edith Maude Eaton. Erin S. Young (SUNY Empire State College)

Edith Maude Eaton (1865-1914)

  • First writer to coin Asian-American
  • Could pass as white, but purposefully chose not to
  • Embodied trickster energy, used as a way to get published as an author of colour
  • Wrote in USA China Town settings

The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 prevented immigration by Chinese people. It also:

  • Barred women, assuming they were all prostitues
  • Prevented families from forming
  • China towns became zoned, as Chinese people not allowed to live anywhere else
  • Photos from 1900 show only Chinese people in China Towns, but this was propaganda with others present in reality
  • Govt believed people couldn’t become citizens and would stay homogenised (and they enforced this cycle)

USA Society repressed Chinese people, but China Towns allowed for more romantic freedom. Eaton’s 1912 novella on marriage moved life from the street into the home. She used trickster language, such as calling Tenneyson “an American poet” to evoke a sense of belonging into America culture.

Eaton was writing for the dominant American audience, which is why her works are so subversive on the surface vs critique of culture.

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