By Shuangyi Li
Reviewed by Robert Moore
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2022)
Shuangyi Li’s Travel, Translation and Transmedia Aesthetics: Franco-Chinese Literature and Visual Arts in a Global Age is a long-form study of four Franco-Chinese writers: Gao Xingjian 高行健, Shan Sa 山颯, Dai Sijie 戴思杰, and François Cheng 程抱一. All were born and raised in China but moved to France during early adulthood and compose works in French. All are also recipients of numerous awards, and one, François Cheng, is a member of the Académie Française, the first Asian-born person to be so honored. Li’s strategy is to demonstrate that all four share a recognizable aesthetic, one that is transmedial and transnational, and only emerges when we are able to understand how the cultures and languages with which they work influence each other simultaneously.
Chapter 1 is an introduction that lays out the conceptual framework for the study. Chapter 2 leads with a short consideration of some of the principal concerns of all four writers before launching into a long analysis of François Cheng’s Le Dit de Tianyi (The River Below in English translation). Chapter 3 discusses historically-minded works by Cheng, Shan, and Dai, with a particular eye on how images and motifs from ancient China can be re-presented and re-imagined in French. Chapter 4 looks at the way calligraphy influences, and is influenced by, the fiction of the same three writers. Chapter 5 concludes the main body of the study with a consideration of how Dai Sijie’s fiction, and Gao Xingjian’s painting, interact with each writer’s respective cinematic interests.
Li proposes a pair of tasks for his study which, at the risk of sounding overly reductive, I will call the practical and the theoretical. Li articulates the first by proposing to establish “certain definable common Franco-Chinese aesthetics” (12). The critical concept most useful in identifying this aesthetic is that of “exophone” literature, a term that points to the way each writer has chosen to work outside his or her mother tongue. That this is a choice, rather than a compulsion arising from political or cultural oppression, sets them apart from other writers working in a language other than their mother tongue, because in most of those cases the choice was forced upon them. It also, to a very great extent, defines their aesthetic. Possessed as they are with what Yoko Tawada calls their “adventurous spirit” (14), exophone writers and artists effectively choose their influences, bringing to bear elements of their birth and chosen cultures as their oeuvres require. This makes for a body of work that is highly resistant to any classification, and as such is uniquely challenging.
The case studies that demonstrate this dynamic most clearly are thrilling pieces of literary scholarship. Indeed, at least for this reviewer, Li’s discussion of François Cheng’s Le Dit de Tianyi is nothing short of a tour de force. The way it presents its sources alone—ranging from the Song dynasty “mountains and rivers” or “landscape” school of painting to the third century B.C.E. poetry collection Chu Ci 楚辭—is worth the price of admission, but more intriguing still is the way the resulting cross-cultural dialogue never feels one-sided. Li ably demonstrates that as a writer, Cheng cannot be read as either Chinese or French, but is truly and completely Franco-Chinese. To take but a single example, a lengthy exposition on the way mountains and rivers are depicted in classical Chinese painting informs our reading of the titular character’s interactions with not only the Yangtze river, but also the Seine, which in Cheng’s novel is no less a part of the aesthetic than any river in China. Then, reversing direction, Li presents the myth of Orpheus as a way of understanding Tianyi’s return to China after studying in Paris. It is not enough simply to be familiar with one side or the other, or with one language or the other—all of Cheng’s influences must be seen together.
In service to this approach, the chapter includes several long block quotes in French and English, as well as in English-translated Chinese. This is a particularly wise choice. At the end of the chapter, anyone who has followed through on all the reading will have had a solid introduction to some of the highlights of Chinese aesthetics, and will also have had the chance to read some of the most moving sections of Cheng’s novel. At the chapter’s best moments, Li’s scholarship itself appears transparent, and François Cheng appears fully formed in the text.
Li’s other case studies are also fascinating, occasionally reaching the same heights as the analysis of Le Dit de Tianyi. A noteworthy example is his provocative argument, which is subsequently well proven, that in their historically-minded fiction, Cheng, Shan, and Dai use French sources to breathe new life into Chinese classics. Indeed, at least for Cheng and Shan, the French language provides a way around clichés that influence how historical romantic fiction is read in China, an intriguing reversal whereby cultural change is accomplished not by introducing new stories from other countries, but by looking to other cultures and traditions to help rejuvenate previously known stories. Li’s surefooted exploration of this dynamic is convincing and exciting.
In an interesting twist, the thrilling uniqueness of the book’s case studies poses a real challenge to the second of Li’s proposed tasks, which is to position Franco-Chinese writers within discussions of transmediality, transnationalism, and translation. The last of these three terms is a good case in point. Li states that, “exophone literature is never de jure recognized as—nor does it claim to be—a work of translation, but it can be regarded as a kind of de facto translation” (15). Most of the rest of the book demonstrates ably enough that one can, if inclined, look at exophone literature this way, but the benefits of doing so are never made clear. Translation as a concept has become overstressed to the point of breaking in recent years, so broadening it yet further is not necessarily a critical advantage. Inversely, the beautifully rendered case studies are already deeply challenging, so describing them as “translingual rewriting,” “born-translated,” or as examples of “representamen translation” might make them more theoretically noteworthy, but certainly not more effective. For example, pegging Shan Sa’s Le Saule as “exotic auto-translation” allows it to fit within certain considerations of translation studies, but it arrests the otherwise dizzying motion of a work that was composed by a Chinese writer in French, then adapted into Chinese with such drastic changes that a French reader would hardly recognize it.
Indeed, fitting such texts into a narrower critical framework might foreclose on the more intriguing possibility that exophone literature in general and Franco-Chinese literature in particular might be so resistant to the existing vocabulary of translation studies that an entirely new approach is required. Li himself seems to suggest as much when he writes of François Cheng something that applies equally well to most of the rest of the book: “The travel motifs and the idea and practice of translation . . . do not in fact presuppose or posit a journey . . . from A to B; rather, they aim at a linguistic and cultural reorientation of both A and B towards a C that is always in the process of becoming” (52). Even though translation as a never-ending journey is, for all intents and purposes, no longer translation at all, an endless “process of becoming” suits a Franco-Chinese aesthetic quite well. Perhaps in coming years we will see Li, and other exophone scholars like him, explore more fully how that might explode existing categories of translation rather than simply extending them. Regardless, Travel, Translation and Transmedia Aesthetics: Franco-Chinese Literature and Visual Arts presents some valuable and challenging scholarship.
Robert Moore, PhD