The Chinese Bildungsroman

Hosted by the Chinese Studies Department of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies and the URPP Asia and Europe, the four-day international workshop “Coming of Age in Sinophone Studies” (March 23–26, 2017) was held in the University of Zurich’s Ethnographic Museum. The workshop gathered specialists to explore and broaden coming of age studies and the notion of Bildungsroman in Sinophone literature, cinema and culture.

Kiu-wai Chu

In the 21st century, Bildungsroman studies no longer cling to the premise of being a genuinely German literary genre; rather it is now discussed in terms of historical and social change, inquiring into the relationship between its originating from a European context on the one side, and its immersion into global, transnational coming-of-age narratives on the other.

Organized by Kiu-wai Chu, Justyna Jaguścik (both University of Zurich), and Andrea Riemenschnitter (Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies / University of Zurich), this four-day workshop gathered seventeen international scholars and research students to present their research on the topic of “Coming of Age in Sinophone Studies,” centering around cultural history and critiques of modernities in the Chinese-speaking world. The workshop was supplemented by a special screening of the documentary Boundary (2015) and conversation with director Ben Wong. The film depicts the life and works of late Hong Kong poet and literary scholar Leung Ping Kwan, a.k.a. Ye Si (1949–2013).

Resistance of adolescents

On the first day of the workshop, keynote speaker Wendy Larson (University of Oregon) presented a cross-cultural reading of Bildungsroman, contrasting the sociopolitical contexts in Socialist China and Capitalist America. Juxtaposing Wang Meng’s Long Live Youth and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Larson discussed how the two novels detached optimism and joy from narratives of progress and improvement. Despite the different sociopolitical backgrounds, she argued both novels lean towards the resistance of adolescents to the routine and bureaucratization of modern life demanded by the overarching ethos of progress, be it under capitalism or socialism. Drawing on investigations of literary and film narratives of the past few decades, other presenters explored how the concept of “coming of age” has been modified by historical and social changes. In particular, they were concerned with how the evolving concept surrounding gender, family and age varies among different generations.

Evolving female subjectivity

In her presentation on women’s poetry in post-Mao China, Justyna Jaguścik (University of Zurich) discussed Sichuanese poet Zhai Yongming’s poems that witness the consolidation of female consciousness in the 1980s and 1990s, a coming of age that is reflected in the poet’s growing awareness of her body and female subjectivity, as well as her gendered position in a time of drastic sociocultural transformations. On the other hand, Xinyue Liu (Peking University) presented her research on female novelists born in the 1980s, examining how the unique experience of growing up in the transitional reform era in mainland China shaped their concepts of family and home. In contrast to the popular “new youth running away from home” narratives during the May Fourth movement, the “old youth returning home” narratives in contemporary novels suggest re-connections with families as well as this generation’s attempts to overcome their “adolescent complex.” Focusing on the same generation in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Fiona Law (University of Hong Kong) used the image of “school uniforms” to bridge wenyi films of the 1950s and contemporary teenager films, to explain the shift of female mental states from modern progressiveness to nostalgic, ambivalent regret. Law argued that the new narratives respond to the declining upward mobility of today’s youngsters in the neoliberal social setting.

From childhood to old age

Re-evaluating Chinese revolutionary Bildungsroman narratives, Shuyao Zhou (Beijing Normal University) juxtaposed the representations of childhood and youth in Maoist revolutionary stories with Xiao Hong’s A Child‘s Speech in the Yan’an period, arguing that the latter highlights a sense of shame and confusion accompanying children’s coming of age that is rarely found in Chinese revolutionary narratives. On the other hand, Danny Chan (Hong Kong Polytechnic University) introduced The Kid (1950) and Little Cheung (1999), examining the cultural configurations of Bildungsroman in the context of Hong Kong’s transitional status from a British colony towards the early days of the handover. As Chan argued, in the specific context of national ambiguity, the cultural constructions of childhood in films bring to light the struggles of people with their experience of nationhood, borders and adolescence. Jessica Chan (University of Richmond) broadened the scope of inquiry by integrating the idea of coming of age into her multidisciplinary study of aging in Hong Kong culture. She drew examples from documentary footages and journalistic writing on Hong Kong’s medical and social welfare system, and Ann Hui’s film A Simple Life (2012), to tackle how hitherto un-represented, realist depictions of aging are giving voice to marginalized social groups, as well as preserving the memory of a passing generation.

Transnational encounters

With the mass migration, transitional movements and displacement of people and knowledge in Chinese-speaking countries/regions since the 20th century, the growth in transnational encounters and exchanges shaped the global cultural scene of the period drastically. Several scholars have analyzed the transnational links that shaped coming-of-age narratives in Sinophone literature.

Mary Wong (Lingnan University) suggested that the decade of political disturbance of the 1960s has kicked off literary modernism in Hong Kong with a new generation of writers. Based on an overview of how these young South-bound writers were influenced by both global pop cultures and local political turmoil, she argued that this resulted in newly emerging themes of growth and coming of age in their stories. In contrast to Wong’s focus on local writers in Hong Kong, Mung Ting Chung (University of Texas at Austin) focused on the sojourner writers and argued that their leading voices’ being unaffected by the 1967 riot due to their participation in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s shaped the transition towards modernist and leftist writing.

Sheldon Lu’s (University of California, Davis) presentation explored the transnational coming-of-age narratives that represent the evolution of global, transnational encounters of Chinese youths in foreign countries since the early 20th century. From Yu Dafu’s Sinking to Lu Hong’s American Lover, Lu argued recent literary works could transcend previous coming-of-age narratives that are characterized by self-orientalizing fantasies, unnecessary self-postcolonialization, and East-West binarisms. Pheng Cheah (University of California, Berkeley) interweaved concerns of class, race and human capital in his reading of Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo. Based on the combination of a Bildungsroman plot and a domestic soap opera about a middle class Singaporean boy and his Filipino domestic helper, Cheah discussed how the Singaporean film sentimentalizes social and economic suffering in cultivating human capital through transnational migration. In conclusion, he pointed out the limits of the film’s sentimental politics.

The nonhuman turn

With a growing ecological consciousness reflected in recent Sinophone literature and films, some presenters took the discussion beyond anthropocentric perspectives, and shifted towards the complex relationships between human and nature, landscapes, animals, inanimate objects, and more generally, the nonhuman world.

Focusing on contemporary avant-garde fiction thematizing the PR China’s 1980s, Andrea Riemenschnitter (University of Zurich) looked at coming-of-age stories that unfold in haunted gardens and dilapidated environments. As Riemenschnitter pointed out, post-socialist fiction (e.g. Su Tong’s Yellowbird Records and Ge Fei’s Jiangnan trilogy) transplants a premodern, idealized coming-of-age heterotopia, the Grandview Garden (Daguanyuan) as seen in The Dream of the Red Chamber, into the reform generation’s coming of age narratives. Probing into cultural texts and phenomena that feature the nonhuman presence of a Hong Kong mountain (the Lion Rock), as reflected in pop songs, animated films and texts centering on the Umbrella Movement, Helena Wu (University of Zurich) showed how the coming of age motif was transmitted and evolved across various generations of Hong Kong people. Winnie Yee (University of Hong Kong) argued that the postcolonial gendered space in Hong Kong represented in works by local female writers and filmmakers do not conform to the dominant economic prosperity discourse. Instead, these ecological texts inspire to re-orient human sensitivities towards nature and the land, and to celebrate alternative ways of understanding the formation of a post-urban, eco-centric identity as Hong Kong’s postcolonial coming of age narrative.

Enoch Tam (Hong Kong Baptist University) showed how literature re-imagines and rewrites history by identifying linkages between people, objects, and the city. Through Dung Kai Cheung’s Works and Creations: Vivid and Lifelike (2005), the history of Hong Kong is reconstructed via interweaving coming of age narratives of personal history, family history, and historiographical depictions of modern technological objects such as radio, sewing machines and cars. From the wolves in Wolf Totem to the Golden snub-nosed monkeys in Born in China, Kiu-wai Chu (University of Zurich) asked whether the notion of “ecological Bildungsroman” in films based on anthropocentric depiction and anthropomorphic imaginations of animals could facilitate a better understanding of the relationship between humans and animals.

By offering a fresh look on the transnational, transgenerational journeys of the concept of the Bildungsroman, the workshop was a first and important step towards reconstructing and reconceptualizing Sinophone literary and cinematic canons.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 38–39)