THE FLOWERS OF WAR: CLOSE AND DISTANT READINGS/REMEMBERINGS
Often I am asked by Chinese graduate students, who are anxious to find a dissertation topic, what is the "hot topic" in discussion of American and African American literatures. And before I can make an answer, I hear "I have to fit the topic with theory by x, q, or z (as chosen by my dissertation director)." Theory x, q, or z is not one derived from ancient or contemporary Chinese philosophy but from the cottage industries of European and American literary critical discourses. One year the students are excited about Michel de Certeau and life practices, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and signifying, Jacques Derrida and the deconstructive vortex; in another year, they rave about Michel Foucault and space and Jacques Lacan and mirrors of the mind; in 2017, I'd not be surprised to hear songs of praise for Walter Benjamin, Julia Kristeva, and Edward Said. I would be shocked with pleasure if the students tried to link hot topics with language theory by Zheng Min, the historical contributions of Lu Xun to humanistic thought, or the revival of ethical consciousness by Nie Zhenzhao. I want to shout "NO," because the domination of Western theory in Chinese higher education annoys me. When shall my Chinese colleagues free themselves from shiyu (aphasia, inability to articulate in one's own terms)? But I do not shout. Instead, I try to have a conversation with the students, mainly to determine if they understand the theory in more than a superficial fashion. Most often they understand very little about the motives and construction of theory, because they apparently have had few opportunities to imitate how Luo Lianggong , Zhu Xiaolin, and Yang Jincai deploy theory.
The practical topic I have chosen to discuss with students from Beijing Foreign Studies University is cross-cultural reading, that is how a Chinese scholar and an American one make close and distant readings of a Chinese text in English translation ---namely, The Flowers of War by Geling Yan. One of my colleagues from the Institute of Foreign Literature, Nanjing University, Professor Yang Jincai, shared with me his excellent article on "Reading ethics and the body in Geling Yan's The Flowers of War," Neohelicon 42 (2015): 571-584. Points made in his abstract fascinate me. Acknowledging that Michel Foucault has theorized how the body is "directly involved in a political field," Professor Yang proclaims "This understanding of the body and its direct relation to political realms may also illuminate much in the war context of Chinese Resistance against Japanese Invasion (1937-1945) which saw an intense focus in many of the social and political issues in China feeding into historical inquiry on the performance of the human body." He notes that Geling Yan makes "particular demands on her readers who must serve as capable interpreters of the historical record of the Nanjing Massacre," and we are obligated to "read the body as a realm of meaning and follow the ways the female Chinese characters including the prostitutes of the Qin Huai River brothels teach us to read it. Human behavior is central to most literary texts which demand ethical responses. The Flowers of War is exactly a case in point "(Abstract 571).
I am not sure I can fulfill the demands of the novella without supplementing attention to the body with attention to the mind as a realm of meaning and meaning-making. Professor Yang is meeting all of the demands by a close reading and an even closer remembering of Nanjing 1937; I can give the text a remote reading, based in part of remembering the angry sorrow I felt after visiting the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, in part from the aesthetic shock of gazing at a New China News Agency photograph of a woman bound in a chair to facilitate easy rape by Japanese soldiers. Professor Yang refers briefly to Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological ideas regarding cognition , perception, conscious generation of meaning, the body as a nexus for imagination and affect (577-578), but it is memory of how American history sought to dehumanize African Americans and others, cultural memories activated by documentary photographs, not theory, that I want to use in my reading/interpretation. Less focus on body; more focus on mind.
I made a series of reading notes to detect how my sense of ethical questions was formulated very differently from Professor Yang's, since I am the linguistic and cultural outsider. In a longer, strictly academic exercise, I would have to contrast all passages that he chose for the purpose of rendering a strong argument against those that appealed to me in dealing with Geling Yan's artistry. I am struggling more with my cognitive responses and not making an argument, so my series of questions is limited.
Page 3: Shujuan begins menstruation and her "blood" turns "icy cold"; so it happens that innocence of girlhood is transformed into the knowledge of womanhood ( dim echoes in my head of William Blake's poems of innocence of innocence and experience).
Pages 4 and 5: The Roman Catholic priest, Father Engelmann, had not suspected (act of mind) he would have to harbor the girls, pupils at St. Mary Magdalene Mission, who could not take the ferry to the safety of Pukou; the irony of Geling Yan's referring to a New Testament Catholic saint and mission to displace historically accurate information about Minnie Vautrin and Ginling College (a Protestant institution)----I take information from Iris Chang's famous book The Rape of Nanjing: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: Penguin, 1997). There was no Catholic mission, as far as I can determine, in the Safety Zone of Nanjing. It is alleged that Mary Magdalene had been a woman of loose morals, a prostitute. Deacon Adornato (Fabio) is Italian American character orphaned at an early age and raised in Yangzhou; he speaks "perfect Yangzhou dialect." (page 11)
Page 6 ---failure of candlelight to give "comfort"
Page 7 --Shujuan feels "betrayed" by "cowardly parents"---stern value judgment; "the last great island of green left in Nanjing " plus Stars and Stripes & Red Cross (flags for neutral territory that Japanese soldiers will ignore.
Page 9---Prostitutes breach the wall against protests from Father Englemann who does not want the girls tainted and endangered by outcast women.
Page 12 --"no denying her elegance and dignity" ---Geling Yan signals that fine qualities can escape the artifice of condemnation (so much for our superior ethical judgments)
Page 13 --Shujuan thinks the "gaudy tidal wave of females" is part of a "vile scene"
Page 15 --Father Engelmann believes the Japs are "law-abiding" and page 22 also courteous and friendly ---what a misreading of Japanese soldiers trained to be a mob (Gustave LeBon's book on The Crowd is important for reading his misreading)
Page 16 ---Father Engelmann deems Fabio inferior because of his "rural upbringing" and Fabio looks down on lower-class Chinese, exercising his foreign privilege or birth assumptions about the superior and inferior
Page 20 --Safety Zone/ Japs used "bodies to fill in the holes gouged in the road by explosives" --barbaric action and thinking
Page 24 ---prostitutes associated with lair or den; schoolgirls associated with attic
Page 25 --Trauma of mind and body, especially prolonged trauma of the kind suffered by targeted ethnicities in the USA, can sponsor self-hatred: Shujuan began to hate herself because she had "the same body and organs as those women downstairs" and the same expelling of unclean blood.
Pages 35-36---in the minds of the schoolgirls, the cellar is transformed into an underground brothel
Chapter 4, pages 40-50 ---male/female natural behaviors stressed
Chapter 5, page 51 ---Major Dai, 2nd regiment, 73rd Division of Nationalist Army, a crack division used by Chiang kai-shek (one version of Chinese military mind)
Page 82---Shujuan's quality of mind ---no wool over her eyes
Page 144 ---as a white man Fabio got better treatment than Ah Gu
Page 149 ----Engelmann's comment to Dai on "lack of nationality"
Page 153 --the sermon on faith
Pages 210-213 ---questioning of God and faith
Professor Yang' s grounds for ethical concern are neat, well-arranged. Mine sprawl, and they are marked by misunderstandings akin to those about American tragedies which lead to productive conversations with students in China. Perhaps I should develop a formal lecture on The Flowers of War.
The point I wished to make is simple. You have come to the USA to see how human bodies, very different from your own bodies, use and abuse (act upon), remember and forget events historical and contemporary (employ their minds in diverse, conflicting ways) in the contexts of a portion of the planet we possess in common. Likewise, I go to China to see a few things that the Chinese people have done with environments for several thousand years and are now doing with those environments under the influence of Western and Asian forms of globalization. What we can learn and share by way of cultures of reading is of great importance. It is not enough that we use literary and cultural theories to explain what we may understand reality to be.
We ought to use the opportunity of communicating across our cultures to learn what theory as such may conceal or reveal. Professor Yang's excellent demonstration of how a part of Michel Foucault's use of the body in discussion of discipline and punishment revealed for me why I am skeptical of how sufficient any theory is. For example, if a Chinese reader is exploring a well-known African American text (let us say Richard Wright's Native Son , particularly under the influence of Marxist theory), it is crucial that the Chinese go beyond theory that generalizes Bigger Thomas's 20th century African American masculinity as a proletarian body to dedicated examination of what Wright wished us to grasp about the contours of the American mind. A Chinese graduate student does not have to march first through theory created by Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Pierre Bourdieu, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in order to make sense of Wright. She or he needs first to subject Wright's text to close reading, then to ponder why Wang Guilan translated Black Boy into Chinese "in order to let more Chinese readers enjoy the book and know more about the blacks for the sake of our common humanity" (unpublished speech "Transplanting the American South in China: Reflections on the Translation of Black Boy," presented at the International Symposium on Richard Wright, November 21-23, 1985, University of Mississippi), and finally to write a thesis or dissertation informed by the Daodejing. Similar procedures ought to obtain if the student has chosen to study Alice Walker, Herman Melville, Joy Harjo, or Tony Kushner,
When under Professor Yang's guidance, I read the same British edition /translation of The Flower of War, it is not theory but peculiar memories of certain internal massacres in the United States and Japanese assaults on Chinese peoples, the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, that have a role in my responses as a reader, as an American with interest in cultures of reading. Thank you for listening. Now we shall talk.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. December 28, 2016