MAKING SENSE OF CHINESE SENSES
We can read Proust without considering the scent of the Madeleine. Yet, by doing so, we certainly fail to appreciate both its taste and the sense of his "Search". The term “sense” is ambivalent because it simultaneously refers to both “meaning” and “perceptions”. Scholars such as Angela Zito, Tani Barlow, Judith Farquhar, Eva Kit Wah Man, Ari Larissa Heinrich have focused on several distinct aspects of the Chinese body: aesthetics, ethics, politics, sexuality, genre, gender and biopolitics. However, so far, there are no studies on the Chinese representation of perceptions. Many philosophers (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida, and John Searle among others) have studied perceptions as the inevitable link between the inner and the outer world of the self. In traditional Chinese culture, instead, qing 情 was considered to be the fundamental link between the inner (内) and the outer (外) sphere. […]. As Maram Epstein has observed in Competing Discourses, [q]ing is extremely difficult to translate because of the way it was historicized […]. [It may be divided into] four main discursive groupings:
Physiological: the body of emotions with which the individual responds to his or her environment as in modern ganqing 感情, “emotion,” which is often reduced to the single emotion of romantic love.
Spiritual: the true and the real inner spirit, always positive, contrasted to external artificiality.
Phenomenological: a morally neutral usage to describe discrete and unique phenomena in contrast to the universal and unchanging Truths (li 理) as in the vernacular shiqing 事情, “affairs,” “matters,” or qingkuang 情况, “conditions”.
Aesthetic always positive, a true aesthetic sensibility, disposition, or intellectual interest, as in the vernacular qingqu “interest,” “appeal” (63-65).
None of these four groupings explicitly refers to bodily perceptions. It was Lu Xun’s vision of the slide that portrayed a decapitation scene that brought about a revolutionary change in Chinese literature. “Seeing” became then the “privileged sense” to redefine the relationship between the self and the outer world as well as the foundation of the creation of the subject’s consciousness. Unsurprisingly, studies that focus either on visuality (Rey’Chow’s Primitive Passions and Carlos Rojas’ The Naked Gaze) or on trauma (Michael Berry’s A History of Pain, David Wang’s The Monster That Is History), albeit in radically different ways and with completely different aims, describe the act of “seeing” as intrinsically linked to either psychoanalytical self-awareness or subjectivity. Nevertheless it is impossible to overlook the fact that the primacy of vision as well as the modern legacy of the classical notion of qing (represented by the so called “Beijing school” (京派) were challenged in the 1930s by the "School of the new-sensationists " (新感觉派) that made perceptions primary and independent objects of representation. Needless to say, from the 1950s to the end of the 1980s, with the gradual displacement of the individual with the collective body, representations of individual bodily perceptions were extremely rare. It was Li Zehou 李泽厚 in his Four Lectures on Aesthetics (美学四讲) published in 2001 who underscored the pivotal role of individual bodily senses and sensory organs in the construction of a post-socialist aesthetic discourse. Reading contemporary Chinese literature (late-born generation of writers’ narrative, Mo Yan’s and Yan Lianke’s groundbreaking novels) cannot but bring us to reconsider the body not only in terms of “embodied consciousness”--a kind of consciousness determined less by epistemology and hermeneutics than by perception and cognition ( which, as neuroscientists have amply demonstrated are both intrinsically related to sensory organs)--but also as a biopolitical subject. In other words, contemporary Chinese literature is willing neither to ignore the consequences of the birth of the individual self in post-socialist China nor to forsake its traditional social mission.
It is also impossible to neglect the centrality of the body in both visual arts, as Silvia Fok has convincingly demonstrated in her Life and Death: Art and the Body in Contemporary China, and photography, as it is clear in Ren Hang’s 任航 masterpieces. Yet as Ren Hang’s short life and premature death suggest, exposing and representing the “nakedness of the body” is still very risky and problematic.