Graphic Germs:
Mediality, Virulence, Chinese Writing

By Andrea Bachner

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 23, no. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 197-225

If we were to believe William S. Burrough’s famous description of language as “a virus from outer space,” all linguistic communication would count as a viral transmission of knowledge. The image of language as a virus turns human bodies into organic carriers that interact with and are reprogrammed by tiny infectious agents in need of their host organisms for survival and replication. A viral imaginary situates language between bios and logos, highlighting the contradictions inherent in metaphors for linguistic communication. But what about specific differences between particular language systems, languages, and language uses? This essay draws on texts from different historical and cultural contexts that foreground–deliberately or otherwise–a viral understanding of the Chinese script.

These texts, even those that represent Chinese writing in a negative or biased way, are conduits to an analysis of prevalent imaginaries of language. Emerging as early as the beginning of the 20th century, these examples allow for reflections on language in general and on writing in particular in intercultural contexts. The three examples of a viral understanding of the Chinese script in different historical and cultural moments under analysis all come into being in the borderlands where different cultures, languages, and scripts are pitted against each other: Hu Yuzhi, a Communist intellectual and supporter of Esperanto deploys a viral imaginary to argue for reform of the Chinese script in his 1930s essay “On Poisonous Discourse”; a short essay by Mexican writer Salvador Elizondo, “A Shooting in China” (1969), takes the film of an execution in China as the basis for reflecting on different media through the example of the Chinese language; and in his contemporary novella, “Secret Notes of a Homosexual,” Taiwanese author Wuhe produces an abject text through the use of Chinese characters as well as punctuation marks as graphic germs. By conjuring up images of the virus that conjugate contagion, vitality, and death, these texts stand in contrast to binary descriptions of language and prejudiced ascriptions of linguistic value. They open up new possibilities for understanding language in general and the Chinese script in particular.