Written by Pavlína Krámská
East Asian Ecocriticisms: A Critical Reader.Simon C. Estok and Won-Chung Kim (ed.). Palgrave Macmillan, New York: 2013.
The ongoing academic discussion on literary ecocriticism undoubtedly lacks enough texts that map the trends in East Asia. Because environmental issues in this region have kept growing in importance for the past several decades now, the lack of East Asian contributions to the global discussion on human-nature relations have been a serious disincentive to the development of this literary research field. The East Asian Ecocriticisms: A Critical Reader is therefore highly welcomed, even if it can offer only a brief insight into the more complex literary problem.
The book consists of twelve texts that are divided into four sections according to the four East Asian states – Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China. The choice of literary works that are analysed demonstrates the broad perspective adopted by the East Asian ecocritics. The topics that are addressed throughout the texts show the immense interest in space-place dichotomy, the building of ecological identity, the role of language, the interlinked fates of humans and animals, eco-justice and ecological engagement.
The Taiwanese and Chinese sections consist of essays written by Peter I-min Huang, Shiuhhuah Serena Chou, Kathryn Yalan Chang, Jincai Yang, Lily Hong Chen and Xiangzhan Cheng. Within the Taiwanese section we can find analyses of three very different literary texts. Peter I-min Huang compares the works of Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan with Taiwanese author of the older generation Sheng Wu, and focuses on the transnational problem of global corporations whose pressure on local communities has led to uncontrolled nature degradation, endangerment of traditional means of living and even to the expropriation of local traditional symbols. The problem of authenticity that is discussed here shows the danger of the false, sentimentalized rhetoric of place and the necessity of reflecting on one’s own tradition without losing bodily attachment to the land.
The chapter by Shiuhhuah Serena Chou also touches on the issue of authenticity. It focuses on the books of the much younger Taiwanese writer Mingyi Wu. Serena Chou argues that Mingyi Wu has succeeded in nativizing the Western literary genre of nature writing and has helped to introduce the concept of wilderness and wildness to Taiwan by connecting it with the traditional Chinese notion of ziran (自然).
The chapter by Kathryn Yalan Chang discusses the famous story of The Butcher´s Wife written by the female Taiwanese writer Ang Li. Although the book is not primarily ecological, when analysed from the eco-feminist perspective, it shows how the cruelty towards women and animals is interlinked.
The topic of eco-justice is also discussed in the chapter “Between Animalizing Nature and Dehumanizing Culture” written by Lily Hong Chen and included in the Chinese section. Lily Hong Chen analyses the process of dehumanisation depicted in Yingsong Chen´s Shennongjia novels which originates from the deterioration of the human state and manifests itself in the dichotomies of city and countryside, and countryside and nature. The interlinked fates of human and animal protagonists are juxtaposed, and within the process of dehumanisation, the human protagonists even become inferior to the animals.
The other texts in the Chinese section offer short introductions to thedevelopment of ecocriticism in China and to ecological aesthetics. They attempt to define the field of ecocritical studies more theoretically. Jincai Yang argues that ecocriticism should not be random or borderless. He identifies that the ecological stance of the author that is devoid ofhuman subjective dominance or anthropocentrism as the major criterion for judging a piece of ecoliterature. Xiangzhan Cheng stresses the importance of moral awareness and ecological knowledge within ecological aesthetic appreciation. The attempt to harmonize Western and Chinese traditions can be seen in both texts.
The limited space available in this volume for discussion cannot elucidate the full scope of nature-oriented texts written by East Asian writers, but it can draw attention to some local trends and topics. The multilayered experience of East Asian writers that try to overcome the common problems of alienation between humans and nature in modern society proves to be inspirational for the multivocal and multidisciplinary discourse on ecocriticism. Nevertheless, most of the East Asian ecocritics are still affiliated with Anglo-American studies and therefore we may say that the present ecocriticism, even in this East Asian volume, mainly voices Western views of literature and the environment.
I am not suggesting, however, that we should involve in this discussion the topic of Chineseness or Taiwaneseness within nature-oriented literature, but rather that we should search for new visions of nature in the literary texts of East Asian authors. In 2008, Michelle Yeh in her article There Are No Camels in the Koran: What is Modern about Modern Chinese Poetry? criticizes the current notion of searching for national traits in literature. She argues that the tendency to search for universal Asianness in the texts is just an inversion of the previous Eurocentrism. For her the more important question is, what is modern about modern Chinese poetry? And because nature-oriented literature attempts to approach nature from a new perspective, one should ask, what new perspectives do the East Asian writers offer or share, and what is ecological about contemporary East Asian nature writing?
For example, the concept of ecological identity that is echoed throughout the texts can broaden the discourse on humanism in East Asian studies, and on the other hand can bring to attention specific problems of identity within East Asia to international studies of literature and the environment. The shaken image of human nature brings man back to a universal question of, what does it mean to be a human?
Lastly, the book is a contribution to the present attempt of establishing a new nature-oriented literary genre in East Asian academic studies and as such should be studied, because it identifies the themes that are emphasized and recognized as significant in this academic discourse, and the types of texts that are gradually merging in this canon.