AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 396

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Session 396: Transformative Literature

Transforming the Aged Body in Medieval Japanese Tale Literature
Edward Drott, Sophia University, Japan

Nara and Heian period texts commonly describe the aged body in ways that suggest it was seen as a source of disgust, or a potential producer of defilement (kegare). An edict in the Nihon Shoki, for instance, warned that elderly priests or nuns confined to narrow chambers should be removed from temples to prevent sites of purity from becoming polluted. Texts from the Heian period devoted special attention to the various forms of effluvia the aged body was seen to produce, focusing on its tendency to shed hair, lose teeth, experience incontinence, produce discharge from eyes and nose, and so on. These examples of physical disintegration produced the kinds of “matter out of place” that were sources of deep anxiety in classical and medieval Japan. Other texts depict the aged as precariously susceptible to sudden death—the most serious form of defilement. Such narratives contributed to marginalizing practices that required elders to remove themselves from public life and take religious vows. In the late Heian through Kamakura periods, however, various setsuwa (didactic tales) and engi (origin accounts of sacred sites) emerge that depict the aged body even in its ostensibly polluting state in paradoxically positive terms, often connecting aged recluses or avatars in the guise of elders to marginal types like fishermen, or outcasts (hinin) who—because of their ability to manage pollution—were regarded with a mixture of fear and awe. This paper explores the shifts in the medieval religious imagination that made such transformations possible.

Heretical Mystery Fictions: From kataru (narrate) to kataru (deceive)
Ying Yu, Soochow University, China

This study mainly focuses on two grotesque mystery fictions: Dogura•Magura (1935) by Yumeno Kyūsaku and konkushikan Satsujin Jiken (Murder in the Hall of Black Death, 1934) by Oguri Mushitarō. The works turn out to be parodies of conventional mystery fiction. The crucial narrative feature of mystery fiction is the creation of suspense. However, the suspense must be resolved in the end of the story. As promised, society’s broken rules are repaired and its values are restored. However, in stories I discuss they put the emphasis on examining the reliability of narrators. The progress in resolving the suspense comes to the point of self-contradiction and retreats to the starting point. The structure of the fictions turns out to be the repetition of concentric circles. The emphasis of narrative shifts from revealing the suspense and resolving the trick to showing off pedantic knowledge. Both works provide detailed and reliable information and descriptions concerning historic incidents, scientific studies, and city space in through such authentic forms as newspaper reports or research papers. However, these precise representations of facts do not help in creating a realistic mode of perception but rather blur the boundary between the real and unreal and lead to the imaginary other. The pedantic knowledge and unique narrative hold contradictory meanings and lead to endless uncertainty. The works use parody to subvert social and literary conventions and to express a deep concern for social destabilization during the 1930s.

Where Do New Genres Come From? Lama Zhang and the Question of Innovation in Tibetan Literature
Carl S. Yamamoto, Towson University, USA

Lama Zhang, 12th-century founder of the Tshelpa Kagyupa order of Tibetan Buddhism, was not only a controversial religious and political leader, but also a great literary innovator. Possessed of an unusual degree of reflexive awareness, he played with existing literary forms, creating parodies, hybrids, and striking new forms. He is known, for example, as composer of some of the first Tibetan religious autobiographies. With a stormy and colorful figure of this sort, it is tempting to fall back on the old romantic stereotype of the creative genius, spinning off new literary forms from an endlessly productive imagination. While some parts of this stereotype do indeed fit Zhang, in this paper I suggest a different approach, one that begins by asking questions about the "textual economy" of Zhang's writings - i.e., the concrete forms of material life and social practice within which his texts were produced, circulated, and consumed. From this initial questioning, a more interesting picture begins to emerge, one in which a given literary genre - autobiography, for example - does not stand on its own as a discrete entity, but bears multiple relationships to kindred genres. Genres in effect form families, and I hope to show that, in Zhang’s case, it is the constant shifting of these family relationships - exemplified by surprising overlaps between apparently unrelated genres - as much as it is individual creativity, that produces innovation.

The White Snake Transforms: Categories and Uses of Monstrosity
Karin Myhre, University of Georgia, USA

The Spring and Autumn Annals and Songs of the South, along with a handful other pre-Han Chinese texts, refer to a being called yu. Subsequent commentaries dating from the Han through Tang define yu variously as: “like a three legged turtle,” (Xu Shen) “a short tailed fox,” (Yan Shigu, for Zuozhuan) “noxious insect,” (Gao You, Ge Hong) or “demon” (Yan Shigu, for Hanshu). Increasingly contradictory sources on yu, while positioning these beings squarely into the realm of the monstrous or demonic (guai or yao), confirm that there may be little possibility of confident or practical knowledge about yu. Monsters, as beings exhibiting a gross exception or deviation from the normal, also break down ordinarily functional categories. In narrative works this may involve either animal hybrids or some process of transformation. The Kun fish in Zhuangzi’s opening chapter morphs into the great Peng bird, while in chuanqi and zhiguai fox and snake demons become female seductresses or dutiful wives. The literary value of monsters and their strange forms, surprising powers and unexpected transformations has been taken to be centered in the special ability monsters have to incite wonder, or perhaps induce horror. But what of more practical uses? Focusing on versions of the White Snake legend this paper explores transformation and category breaching from the perspective of cognition. Monsters and the strange in literature function not merely to supply emotional or aesthetic experiences for readers, but also to provide something worth knowing, both about the world and how to live in it.