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Crafting Chinese Memories: The Art and Materiality of Storytelling

by Katherine Swancutt

Katherine Swancutt is the author of Crafting Chinese Memories: The Art and Materiality of Storytelling.

Storytelling is always an entertaining and lively theme, but it’s surprisingly elusive to come to grips with conceptually. This is especially the case when pairing storytelling with other great warhorses of social theory like art, materiality, and memory, which often require fine-grained interdisciplinary detail to bring them fully to light. Factor in the study of China from ancient times to the present day – with an expansive focus that includes not only the Han ethnic majority, but also China’s ethnic minorities, the strange, and the Other – and you have the makings of a rather epic volume on one of the oldest and richest civilizations in the world. Crafting Chinese Memories sets out to do all of this through original essays on Chinese art, film, historiography, literature, socialism, imagination, fantasy, race, colonialism, statelessness, personal memoirs, elite inner circles, legends, ethnography, mimesis, and gestures to what counts as ‘memorable’. Wearing multiple disciplinary hats at once, each of the volume’s contributors explores personal, social, and cultural memories in and of China. Their contributions reveal the myriad mise-en-abyme (or ‘stories within a story’) that unfold through the memory works of artists, filmmakers, novelists, life writers, civil servants, and indigenous storytellers. Readers are invited to treat themselves to this enthralling panorama of memory-making that unfolds within and beyond China’s borders.

How did Crafting Chinese Memories emerge as a book? The volume originally sprang from two workshops on cultural memory held first at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and then at King’s College London. However, my idea of shaping the book around the four pillars of memory, art, materiality, and storytelling came later, during an inspired (albeit, unglamorous) early morning train commute into London. I knew that turning the book’s focus in this direction would require bringing on board a contributor who could speak to the art of painting. To my great delight, the Sinologist, Jesuit, political scientist, and painter, Benoît Vermander, agreed to compose his exquisite chapter on the Chinese artist Li Jinyuan, which appears just after the volume’s introduction and sets the scene for much of what follows it. Vermander recounts in sublime detail the artistic journeys of Li Jinyuan, who evokes the atmosphere of Du Fu’s poetry – and with it the perhaps eternal question of ‘How to read Chinese Classics?’ – in a composition on the heavy flowers of ‘Brocade City’ (itself a famous nickname for Chengdu) that graces our book’s front cover.

Inspiration took hold of Li Jinyuan on a train journey as well, albeit one that was far more monumental than my own, in which he retraced Matteo Ricci’s travels in reverse, heading out from Shanghai to Ricci’s hometown in Macerata, Italy, with additional visits to Rome and Macau along the way, before returning to China. Throughout his sojourns by train, Li Jinyuan ceaselessly sketched, painted, and penned poetically expressive reflections into what Vermander calls his ‘creation diary’, which became a veritable storehouse of Li Jinyuan’s memories and the basis for further artistic compositions that may be sourced to them. His creation diary thus calls to mind – even as it exceeds the bounds of – Matteo Ricci’s ‘memory palace’ so famously described by Jonathan Spence. This is one of many marvellous studies on the layers, traces, fields, and storehouses of memories that readers can find in Crafting Chinese Memories.

Like Vermander’s chapter, each contribution to this collection is a tour de force that illuminates the plurality of ways in which memory, art, materiality, and storytelling mutually constitute each other. From Chris Berry’s penetrating chapter on the multiple historiographies and incommensurable memories evoked by the filmmaker Jia Zhangke in 24 City, a film about how the lives and experiences of factory workers in Chengdu have changed since the Third Front Policy, to Yejun Zou’s comparative chapter of socialist realism as a genre that captures the tensions and complexities of socialism as well as the watershed historical changes it brought to East Germany and China, to Wei Luan’s evocative chapter on the Nobel prize-winning novel Big Breasts & Wide Hips by Mo Yan, which reveals the multiple strange memories and fantasies that compose the author’s ‘artistic memory field’ of modern Chinese history, the contributors point to the often conflicting and contested memories that have been signature to China from ancient times to the present. Similarly, Anna Reading’s stimulating chapter on memories of food among Jewish refugees in Shanghai suggests that synaesthesia and nostalgia give rise to conflicting senses and sensibilities of statelessness and colonialism. Chihyun Chang’s remarkable chapter on the children of the Chinese staff of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS) and the tight circle they have formed among themselves (with Chang as an honorary member) further uncovers the ways in which memories – some of them conflicted – become propagated across the generations and within the annals of history. Finally, Katherine Swancutt and Jiarimuji’s chapter on the Nuosu, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group of Southwest China, illustrates how persons gesture in often comic and memorable ways to their own roles in the stories they tell, thereby turning themselves and their tales into the stuff of legends, while shaping the identities of whole lineages and clans.

By addressing these and other confluences between memory, art, and materiality, the contributors throw new light on storytelling, which so often has been tethered to the analysis of narrative. Throughout Crafting Chinese Memories, the contributors focus upon ‘material mediations’ (the namesake of the series in which our book appears) to open up conversations on how memories of China unfold not only through private individual reflections, social relations with peers, and the wider cultural ethos of a group, but also through diverse artistic mediums that are distinct modes of storytelling unto themselves.

What Crafting Chinese Memories ultimately offers are new ways of envisioning the complex relationship between the ‘real’ and ‘as-if real’ elements of stories, works of labour, and works of art. As the book’s conclusion suggests, the real and as-if real are built upon the interplay of mise-en-abyme, imagination, and often serendipitous acts of uncovering memory traces, rewriting memories, and gesturing memorably to what matters most in life. This artful approach to memory-making is what storytellers of China and their audiences alike often seek to hear.

About the Editor:

Katherine Swancutt is Reader in Social Anthropology and Director of the Religious and Ethnic Diversity in China and Asia Research Unit at King’s College London. She is Project Lead of the ERC synergy grant (2020-2026) ‘Cosmological Visionaries’ and has conducted research across Inner Asia on shamanic and animistic religion for upwards of two decades. Key publications include: Animism Beyond the Soul: Ontology, Reflexivity, and the Making of Anthropological Knowledge (Berghahn, 2018) and Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination (Berghahn, 2012).