Books

Nicholas Jose and Benjamin Madden (eds)
Antipodean China

Australia and China: the two terms are so fluid, so contested, yet inescapably denotative – the China of the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the diaspora? The Australia that does not exist? Antipodean China, born of intercultural dialogue and exchange, goes against the typical hubris of the global north. Despite enjoying the freedom, power and privilege to learn from other cultures at its cosmopolitan leisure, Australia can often barely be bothered to understand one – whereas the global south, by necessity, must learn about northern cultures alongside its own (and often many others besides). In its inherent concern for this conundrum – and its vanishingly rare appreciation for issues of cultural essentialism and syncretism – Antipodean China practically sells itself.

The collection comes from a series of biennial fora bringing together writers, editors, translators and critics from each country, and much of the volume is marked by the vagaries of the academic symposium (“As X has suggested…”; “I believe it was Y who once said…”). It can make for mechanical proceedings, puffy with the soufflé quality of occasional writing: Tibetan author Alai, contemplating his homeland, finds “Susan Sontag’s term ‘spectacle’ inevitably [coming] to mind”. Many contemplating this collection’s self-consciously elevated, donnish tone may recall Orson Welles’ description of Woody Allen: a “particular combination of arrogance and timidity … [he] hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation”.

Perceptive readers, throughout Antipodean China, may register a few internal arguments upon encountering the volume’s franker assertions, its off-the-cuff spitballing and thought-bubbling. Perhaps it is simply American parochialism, for example, that leads translator Eric Abrahamsen to conclude that, were it not “for 1989”, more Chinese writers might have been “driving publications, readership and ultimately, real cultural communication”. But compared with whom, exactly? Take Japan: since World War II, despite having been favoured ideologically and economically, and having never experienced convulsions like those of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the country has failed to exert the kind of influence on Australian literature China enjoys. The first work of Chinese–Australian fiction dates to 1909, and today there are a number of literary publications – Liminal, Peril, Red Pocket Press – that provide a platform for Chinese–Australian creatives, while authors from the post-1989 generation, such as Ouyang Yu, have published and translated a great deal.

What 1989 – and its progenitor, Maoist China – did perhaps prompt was an ideological chastening. For writers bruised by Communist diktat, this weariness is not unjustified; the Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian went so far as to write an essay titled “Without Isms”. It does, however, make for wearying cultural critique. The collection often nods to contemporary debates concerning issues such as cancel culture, own voices and allyship; Julia Leigh puts it succinctly: “I was imagining what it would feel like to be told that I couldn’t publish a novel set in a particular place – say in one of today’s forbidden cities, in a forbidden place, forbidden – and I confess this makes me deeply uncomfortable.”

What makes me deeply uncomfortable is that there is no sign it actually will be harder for Leigh to write her forbidden work: as the bargain-bin racial politics – and writing – of recent books such as Trent Dalton’s All Our Shimmering Skies demonstrate, there is little evidence of circumspection and self-awareness becoming de rigueur among local authors. Others have no choice in the matter: they must slug it out in W. E. B. Du Bois’ wrestling ring of double consciousness. As Alexis Wright wonders, “Am I just telling stories I have been conditioned to tell by the stories other people tell about us?”

Annie Ren gives the example of Le livre de Jade, published in 1867, which led to an explosion of interest in Chinese poetry in Europe. Its translator, Judith Gautier – daughter of Romantic poet Théophile Gautier – had studied Chinese for just four years, producing verses it would be comical to suggest were in any way faithful to their source material. Nevertheless, after reading the volume, the poet Verlaine marvelled that Gautier had discovered “the secret of being Chinese”: “one could not possibly be more Chinese”.

The veteran student of racial vampirism will recognise some old exsanguination techniques here. As Edward Said remarked of Orientalism’s “hall of self-reflecting mirrors”, this is how the cannibal consumes its subject – a vicarious projection of the imagination that sees itself as better at being the subject than the subject itself. Oddly, Ren adverts to little of this, concluding instead with Goethe’s languid vision of cosmopolitanism: “The epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” Goethe’s conviction, which dates to 1827, 40 years before Gautier, now looks further away than ever.

A more sophisticated appreciation of cosmopolitanism’s travails is delivered by Benjamin Madden, in perhaps the clearest distillation of the book’s general unease about contemporary cultural mores: “Caution and diligence might sometimes shade into the assumption that any … knowledge [about another culture] must be illegitimate or even impossible.”

Fair enough, but the key word here is “shade”; a spectrum is not a slippery slope, however strongly the reactive are tempted to make it so. What we really have are gradations of approach: one learning from otherness while the other haphazardly devours it; one that takes difference as a chance to be humbled, the other as a platform for Eat, Pray, Love personal growth. Madden displays a sophistication not always evident in some of the other, neater, contributions. He concludes: “An adequate knowledge of the other is possible … and what it offers is not mastery of the other, but a heightened awareness of the limits of our knowledge: an appreciation of sameness that does not obliterate difference.”

Sameness that does not obliterate difference: at its best, Antipodean China advances precisely this kind of wisdom.

Declan Fry

Giramondo, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as "Nicholas Jose and Benjamin Madden (eds), Antipodean China".

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Reviewer: Declan Fry