Culture, Contagion, and National Transformation in Modern China
Harvard University Press 2015
Carlos Rojas‘s new book is a wonderfully transdisciplinary exploration of discourses of sickness and disease in Chinese literature and cinema in the long twentieth century. As its title indicates, Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Transformation in Modern China (Harvard University Press, 2015) focuses particularly on what Rojas calls “homesickness,” a condition wherein “a node of alterity is structurally expelled from an individual or collective body in order to symbolically reaffirm the perceived coherence of that same body.” (vii) Sickness and disease, here, are not just signs of weakness and instability, but are also potential sources of dynamic transformation. In three major parts of the book set in three years – 1906, 1967, and 2006 – Rojas places immunology, biomedicine, literature, and film into a conversation that spans the work of Richard Dawkins; writers Liu E, Ng Kim Chew, Zeng Pu, Jin Tianhe, Lu Xun, Hu Fayun, Yan Lianke, and Yu Ha; immunologist Ã‰lie Metchnikoff; and directors King Hu, Tsai Ming-liang, and Jia Zhangke (among many others). In each case, Homesickness contextualizes literary work within a broader historical context that allows readers to understand the relationships between contemporary tropes – or memes – of Self and Other as they manifest in concerns about healthy and sick bodies at many different scales. It’s well worth reading for those interested in Chinese literature or film, the history and literature of biomedicine, and/or the ways that discourses of immunology and modernity have mutually shaped one another.