Translating Impossible Desires

By Tong King Lee

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November 2021)

An Erotic Spectacle

Seven Types of Silence, a collection by Wong Bik-wan that includes “Gluttony.”

Let us begin with what is possibly the most outrageous scene in contemporary Chinese fiction, from the short story “Gluttony” 饕餮 by the Hong Kong writer Wong Bik-wan 黃碧雲:

Zihan felt a strange vertigo: the three of them were lying in the same bed. It was perhaps ten years ago that they last slept together like this. Dongdong, now a teenager with grown arms and legs, was slotted between husband and wife. Zihan tossed around; he was cautious not to disturb Dongdong, and wondered if he was still awake. On the other side of the bed was Ru’ai. Zihan could neither touch nor see her, but could nonetheless feel her palpable presence. She was perpetually around; she wouldn’t let him go. The moonlight was blue. It was near dusk.

When he woke up Zihan felt slightly better. Dongdong had already gone, leaving behind a moist impression on the bed barricading between Ru’ai and himself. Ru’ai, too, had awakened. She groped the mattress, feeling the remnant warmth of Dongdong’s body—and that little patch of wetness. She caressed it with her fingers, took a sniff of it, licked it with the tip of her tongue. She laughed. Zihan’s face flushed, as if it wasn’t Dongdong who had a wet dream, but him. (Wong 1997: 137-138; my translation)

Here we have the erotic spectacle of a mother (Ru’ai 如愛) touching, smelling, and tasting her son’s (Dongdong 冬冬) nocturnal emission, much to the moral distress of her husband (Zihan 子寒)—and of the unprepared reader. In this most intriguing tale of incest, no punches are pulled. There are no buffering mechanisms in the narrative to protect the reader from being scandalized; there is a rawness to it, all the more because the mother-son relationship depicted in the story is a consanguineous one. If the same events took place between, say, a male protagonist and his step mother or surrogate mother (e.g., mother-in-law), the reader would have been allowed a “moral exit,” as it were, and the story would arguably have been a relatively less apprehensive, hence safer, read (see Kaoru 2021[2014]: 159).

Moreover, the story does not attempt at a psychoanalytical explanation for the mother’s actions. Taking the vantage point of the father character, the story strategically circumvents the mother’s personal history or viewpoint, such that the reader is given no plausible biographical evidence to rationalize, or Freudianize, the incestuous event in question. In fact, “Gluttony” turns the Freudian on its head: instead of the son with an Oedipal complex desiring the mother, it is rather the mother who sexually desires the son:

Ru’ai covered Zihan’s face with the magazine. With a frail tone she said to Dongdong, “Your father wants me no more. Do you want me?” Zihan listened on stealthily. “Sleep with your mum, will you, your mum’s scared.” He heard not Dongdong’s reply, but the sound of Ru’ai stroking Dongdong with her fingernails. Dongdong now had the hairy thighs of a grown man. Zihan couldn’t bear to listen to all this, he turned around and buried his head in the pillow. (Wong 1997: 136; my translation)

Within this exotic familial dynamic, the characters’ names take on some significance. The son’s name, the reduplicative and onomatopoeic Dongdong, hints at an infantile predisposition that renders him susceptible to Ru’ai’s maternal passion. Hers is an overwhelming passion that steers dangerously toward romantic love which it ultimately is not, as the mother’s name, literally “like love,” suggests. On the other hand, the father’s name, comprising the characters for “child” and “cold,” hints at a regression toward childhood. And indeed, in a reversal of Oedipal logic, it is not the son Dongdong who has a fear of castration, but the father who appears to be suffering from symbolic castration: he is an impotent man who has not had intercourse with his wife for ten years. In an inversion of the archetypal Freudian scenario where the son sexually competes with the father, here it is the father who is competing with, and feeling threatened by, his adolescent son:

Ten years. Zihan had not been a real husband for ten years. Now his son had grown up into one who could become a husband. He wanted to open his mouth and cry, but couldn’t; with much agony he looked to the ceiling, and let out a long wail. (Wong 1997: 138; my translation)

Incest as Allegory

Why is incest so difficult to write? Perhaps because the subject is in the first place too difficult to read, the attendant anxieties too much to bear, and perhaps especially so in Asian contexts. This leads to a kind of writerly complex, whereby an author may write incest and simultaneously rationalize its most morally distressing energies. One convenient way is to subject an incest narrative to the explanatory lens of a Freudian logic. To Freudianize an incest narrative is to translate it into a recognizable token of the Oedipal type within a psychoanalytic framework; the narrative, instead of being unraveled, is resolved. Such resolution buffers the affective force of the incest taboo, mitigates the initial claim to a forbidden subject, and ultimately undoes any transgressive agenda it might have.

As a short story “Gluttony” is superbly narrated: its plot folds in layer after layer of psychological tension, sustained at saturation point without exploding into melodrama; its style exudes a detached unsentimentality—cold, ascetic, and minimalist but throbbing with a faint ominous beat. What is really singular about Wong’s story, however, lies in its refusal to subject the incest event to the Freudian formula. As I explained elsewhere (Lee 2014), “Gluttony” does not provide an exit point for readers in their countenance with incest; that is, it refrains from helping the reader explain away the incestuous event by recourse to, for instance, the protagonist’s traumatic past. For me, this refusal to explain, to historicize, is extremely powerful: it blocks out the possibility of redemption. This, I argued, constitutes the key aesthetic of “Gluttony”—namely, the way it construes incest as what it is: “extraordinary, perverse, un-utterable” (Lee 2014: 22). It is precisely its singularity in construing incest as “what it is” that makes “Gluttony” an underrated masterpiece in contemporary Chinese literature.

In what follows, I want to understand the psychological freight of incest fiction not from within the text itself (Lee 2014), but from the perspective of reading and criticism. My argument is that because incest fiction proves morally unsettling to read, we often seek recourse to the interpretive solution of allegoresis—a “mode of interpretation that builds up a total structure of meaning in contradistinction to the literal sense, but not to its exclusion” (Zhang 2005: 120)—to give ourselves interpretive leeway, to alleviate any moral burden that the incest plot might impose on us. In adopting this reading posture, we inadvertently neutralize any transgressive potential that the incest motif might have in the text. This is not peculiar to the reading of Chinese incest literature. Perry (2004), for example, investigates incest as a symptom of transforming familial structures as well as broader social and economic changes in eighteenth-century England; Richardson (1985, 2000) looks at the English Romantic tradition with a similar approach, understanding brother-sister incest figures in the writing of Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth in terms of the zeitgeist and sociocultural conditions of nineteenth-century England.

In relation to Chinese incest literature, it might be apt to recall Fredric Jameson’s controversial claim that

[t]hird-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic—necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society. (Jameson 1986: 69; original emphasis)

Without fully embracing Jameson’s statement, we should recognize the existence of a critical tradition in reading Chinese incest narratives, one that extrapolates the incest trope toward larger political or ethical concerns, thereby interpreting the familial in terms of the social. Tina Lu (2008) reads episodes of “accidental incest” (dispersed family members who come into near-incestuous encounters) in late imperial vernacular fiction as correlating to dynastic change and disrupted familial structures. This embodiment of a “cross-reflection between the microcosm of the family and the macrocosm of the Empire” (Plaks 1994: 136) is also evident in the modern tradition. Step-mother/step-son incest is a common trope in modern Chinese fiction from the May Fourth era; here the potential of incest to subvert patriarchy (the Father) is exploited to express defiance against tradition, in the midst of an anti-feudalistic milieu in China (Lieberman 1998: 51-75). In such readings, the “libidinal dynamic” of incest is abstracted into a metaphor for youthful defiance against patriarchal and feudalistic structures, or a symptom of the breakdown in the contemporary social and moral order. Incest is utterable insofar as it can be translated into allegory.

The Role of Paratext

I want to illustrate this point with the novella I Love My Mum by Chen Xiwo陳希我. Originally titled in Chinese as Zhe bi 遮蔽 (to shield), the story describes the contorted relationship between a handicapped man, inflicted with polio since he was young, and his mother who is his sole caretaker. Punctuated with episodes filled with anger, shame, and despair, the narrative descends into a series of voyeuristic, masturbatory, and sado-masochistic rendezvous between mother and son—a literally painful relationship.

Cover page of the English translation of Chen Xiwo’s I Love My Mum.

As a work of fiction, I Love My Mum is a very far cry from “Gluttony.” It demonstrates mediocrity all over, especially in its poor pacing of events, complete lack of character development, and melodramatization of emotion and language. And despite its direct depictions of sexual transgression, it is paradoxically less sensual than “Gluttony,” in which there is not a single scene of direct sexual contact between mother and son, only the sensuality of incest as vicariously expressed (the mother’s tasting of her son’s seminal discharge and caressing of his hairy legs). Using Roland Barthes’s (2020[1980]) terms in distinguishing between erotic and pornographic photography, I Love My Mum lacks punctum and “ordinarily represents the sexual organs, making them into a motionless object (a fetish)” (69). “Gluttony,” by contrast, “does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame” (69, 71). And in so doing, it offers a punctum, “a kind of subtle beyond—as if the image [in our case, narration] launched desire beyond what it permits us to see” (71; original emphasis).

It is the paratexts around I Love My Mum in its English translation that are of interest. They illustrate how an unspectacular, indeed poorly executed incest story can be reframed into a critique of society by way of allegoresis. The front cover of this English version, published by Hong Kong’s Make-Do Publishing (Chen 2009), features the phrase “Banned in China,” printed in bold. A common paratextual technique used by publishers in branding Chinese literature to an Anglophone audience (Lee 2015), this formulation hints at the “problematic” nature of the novella, only to be reinforced by a quote from Chen Xiwo on the back cover that reads: “The state’s power is absolute: your book can be banned without them needing to provide any reason whatsoever.”

This is followed by a two-paragraph blurb that tells us, in hyperbolic fashion, how I Love My Mum created a media sensation—“an uproar exploded”—when it was banned by the authorities in 2007. It then explicitly primes readers into understanding the novella as “a powerful political metaphor,” a point reinforced by a short essay, written by Chen Xiwo, appended to the main text of the translation as an afterword. In this essay, titled “The First Prohibition,” Chen details the events leading to the censorship of I Love My Mum in mainland China, and then proceeds to explain his motivation for writing incest as an expression of resistance against the strictures of moral codes against sex, or what he described as “the first prohibition.” On this construal, the practice of incest as an aberrant mode of sex becomes the source of an alternative and ostensibly more authentic morality from below:

Even if people behave in a despicable way, there can be moments of illumination; even if they don’t change their behaviour, they may realize what they are doing. If this is all, it is already no small thing: the beginnings of human awareness. In I Love My Mum the central character has just this kind of awakening. In this respect he is not only no degenerate, he is even a model for morality in our generation. When he realizes that the object of his desire is his own mother, he shouts it out, wakes his mother up, lifts the covers, acknowledges his crime. (Chen 2009: 103)

Chen’s essay is followed by an anonymous review titled “Chen Xiwo: Rebel,” presumably written by the translator. This latter piece recapitulates on the legal scandal surrounding I Love My Mum, extolling it as “epitomiz[ing] a writing career characterized by a refusal to compromise” and expressing “an appetite for unrelenting struggle” (Chen 2009: 106). Positioning I Love My Mum as a cause célèbre and hence representative of Chen’s literary thrust (2009: 107), the review extends its lens to Chen’s oeuvre and allegorizes it by drawing an equivalence between the nature of sex and the nature of society: “Chen’s works explore the link between dysfunctional society and dysfunctional sexuality, arguing that ‘extreme’ sexual behaviour is often the sign of a soul and a culture in a poor state of health” (2009: 110).

This interpretive logic, premised on the translatability of sexual perversity into social disorder, turns a third-rate incest tale into an apparently powerful political critique. What ensues is a translational reading that in effect deflects our attention from sex to society: “[i]n Chen’s analysis, it is natural that political crimes should find their parallel in the sexual realm,” (Chen 2009: 113) and the “failure to confront one’s true sexual desires” becomes symptomatic of a lack of “moral awareness” (114). The corollary of such paratextual framing is the understanding that “[d]espite appearances … I Love My Mum is very much a political novel” (114). Under this rubric, extreme sexual practices come to embody lofty values transcending the carnal realm, with incest pointing to “the foundation of resistance to power” and sado-masochism, “the courage to keep living” in “this sort of country where there is no hope” through embracing a relationship “where one finds pleasure in being abused” (2009: 115).

Here we see the incest spectacle being interpreted out of itself, elevated beyond proportion, and displaced by formulaic allegorical mapping. The translation of Chen’s incest story for an anglophone audience therefore needs another, rather different kind of translation—allegoresis. Ineffable desires need to be transmuted into representable tropes to render them utterable.

Unutterability and the Will to Translation

This tendency to simultaneously topicalize and tropicalize the incest theme is not peculiar to translators. Critics and authors/auteurs are equally complicit in the systematic circumlocution of incest in cultural practice and discourse. A case in point is the film The River 河流 (1997) by the Malaysian-Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮. The story revolves around a nuclear family whose members are alienated from one another, climaxing in a controversial scene at a bathhouse toward the ending where, in a dimly-lit room, father and son unknowingly engage in sex with each other, with the father masturbating the son to climax and the latter reciprocating his father with fellatio. This is, quite literally, an episode of “accidental incest” (the title of Lu’s [2008] monograph).

Entwined bodies (from The River, dir. Tsai Ming-liang, 1997)

The cinematic and interpretive discourses surrounding this incest scene exemplify its disavowal by those closely engaged with it. It was reported that upon completing the film, Tsai Ming-liang “did not quite want to watch it” and even “did not quite remember I directed The River” (cited in Chang 2000: 114). Several critics reported feeling sick after watching the climactic embrace between father and son. To negotiate the “mise-en-scène of desire” (Chang 2000: 121), the film’s cinematographer invented a technique of “liminal lighting” that focused the key light on a narrow spot, such that the naked bodies of father and son in the sauna were only intermittently visible in the liminal zone between lightness and darkness. It is as if the visual impact of the unseeable was so intense that it had to be purged through its forgetting, its release through bodily symptoms, and its partial camouflage through a technique of cinematography invented by the seat of the pants.

Father-son ‘Pieta’ (from The River, dir. Tsai Ming-liang, 1997)

Revelation (from The River, dir. Tsai Ming-liang, 1997)

This incest scene is spectacular in that it visualizes that which is culturally unrepresentable (Chang 2000: 118), thereby confronting us “with the limits of our epistemological certainties, our comfort zones” (Chow 2004: 125). If mother-son incest is taboo in constituting an affront to familial morality, then father-son incest is beyond taboo, conflating as it does both homosexuality and incest in a single event: it is unutterable. This is where a will to translation-as-displacement occurs to mitigate the anxiety generated by the scene in The River and rationalize it within the existing terms of representation. Such displacement can be seen, for instance, in commentaries on the scene in question, written by otherwise learned critics, which betray an implicitly euphemistic stance toward incest. One commentary by renowned essayist Chiang Hsun 蔣勳 understands the father-son scene in The River in terms of the classic—and heterosexual—Oedipal motif, hence leveraging a well-known mother-son trope to resemiotize, and render representable, the outrageous scene. In a similar vein, the American film critic Kent Jones evoked the heterosexual image-schema of Michelangelo’s Pietà to make sense of the father-son embrace in the bathhouse, giving rise to intriguing implications surrounding the intersections between religious and same-sex sex (Chang 2000: 116-117).

Can incest ever be countenanced as is, that is, written or read without translation—without buffering (mitigating the impact of incest by way of plot design), Freudianization (rationalizing the incestuous act by recourse to psychoanalytic vocabulary), or allegoresis (reading the social into the sexual)? The impulse toward allegorization appears impossible to resist, certainly in relation to Tsai Ming-liang’s cinematography, for at times it seems the only method of reading literature and film to attain any intellectually satisfying conclusion. While we seem generally able to read normative-heterosexual sex as it is, without necessarily extrapolating it into something bigger than itself, a different standard seems to apply when it comes to incest. Within this tendency to translate incest away from itself in literary criticism lies an implicit desire to repress the unrepresentable and reinforce the status quo in our sexual imagination.

Tong King Lee
University of Hong Kong


This research note is part of the project “Taboo desires: Incest in contemporary fiction and film”, supported by HKU’s seed fund for basic research (201611159021).


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