Representation of China and Chinese elements in the Hispanic literature
Since the late 1980s, there has been continuous production of Latin American narrative fiction in Spanish concerning China and the Chinese culture. Despite the work written about China and its relation to Latin America, no comprehensive examination of the representation of China in literature has been produced so far. This paper analyses some work of renowned Spanish and Latin American writers in whose writing China is the main theme.
I would like to explore the representation of Chinese elements like exoticism, mystery, fantasy and marginalization in the poetry and stories of some well known Spanish and Latin American writers like Federico Garcia Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges etc.. Though Borges was brought up in Spain, he read a lot of books about China and became familiar with Chinese culture. Therefore, we can enhance our knowledge about the vision of China in Latin America and Spain through the writings of Borges and Lorca.
The relationship between China, Spain and Latin America has deepened more since the 1990s, preceded by the country’s reforms in the 1980s and its rapid integration into the world market. Since then, the presence of China in Hispanic Spanish literature has increased. While representations of China in Latin American and Spanish film and art exist from this period, it is in literature that a significant corpus can be found. Starting in 1987 with the publication of the Argentinean writer César Aira’s novel Una novela china, (a Chinese novel) and accelerating through the 2000s several novels written by Latin American authors in Spanish, which take China as their main theme, have been published between 1987 and 2016.
Recreations of China in César Aira’s Una novela china (A Chinese Novel) (1987), Alberto Laiseca’s La mujer en la Muralla (the woman on the wall) (1990) and Mario Bellatin’s La escuela del dolor humano de Sechuán (The school of human pain of Sechuan)(2001, 2005)
Rediscovering Chinese Latin American Communities and barrios chinos (Chinese neighborhood) in Un chino en bicicleta (A Chinese on the bicycle)(2007) by Ariel Magnus, El mármol (the marble)(2011) by César Aira and Verde Shanghai (Green Sanghai) (2011) by Cristina Rivera Garza.
Cuban poet Regino Pedroso, in his anthology of Chinese poems El ciruelo de Yuan Pei Fu (The plum of Yuan Pei Fu) published in 1955, The Cuban historian Mario Castillo considers Regino Pedroso’s Chinese-themed poetry an original contribution to Latin American literature, as he infuses material from his actual contact with Chinese culture from his childhood.
Cuban novelist Zoé Valdés had written several novels from 1986 onwards in Paris that explored themes such as romantic love, sexuality, femininity, and nostalgia for Cuba, before embarking upon the fully Chinese-themed La eternidad del instante(the iternity of the instance) in 2004. The Chinese featured but marginally in her earlier novels, with passing mentions of Sanfancón, the syncreticized Chinese deity of Cuban Santería, in Querido primer novio (first beloved boyfriend) (1999) and the Chinese mullato protagonist Cuca Martínez in Te di la vida entera( I gave you the entire life)(1996).[footnoteRef:1] [1: Strabucchi, Maria Montt. (2017) Imagining China in Contemporary Latin American Literature School of Arts, University of Manchester, UK. p.54]
Whereas another Cuban writer, Ignacio López-Calvo in his book: Imaging the Chinese in Cuban Literature and Culture (2008) presents the other face of Chinese in Cuba. He argues that Cubans have had a contradictory relationship with the Chinese based on affinity and mistrust since the very first boatload of Chinese coolies arrived in 1847 (approximately 125″,000 entered the island between 1847 and 1874). Beginning with coolies and lasting into the Cuban Revolution, López-Calvo demonstrates how Cubans became fascinated with the Chinese and imagined China and the Chinese as a source of hope and a danger at the same time. Over time, representations of the Chinese have progressed from demonization to more realistic portrayals of the Chinese and their experiences.
López-Calvo turns to the concept of Orientalism to make sense of the ambiguous reactions towards the Chinese in Cuba. Many cultural productions depict mainland and Cuban Chinese in Western stereotypical fashion: Chinese rulers live lavishly while the masses starve in virtual slavery, the Chinese are cruel and masters of torture, the Chinese are passive and their culture static, the Chinese are secretive and unable to assimilate, the Chinese are refined, China is exotic, and Chinese women and china mulatas are fetishized.[footnoteRef:2] [2: López-Calvo, Ignacio. (2008). Imaging the Chinese in Cuban Literature and Culture. Gainesville: University press of Florida.]
Now before moving on to talk about poetry, it is convenient to provide some information about the presence of Chinese culture in Spain from the late 19th century to the early 20th century to see what are the ideas about China that circulated at the time, ideas that Spanish poet Lorca shared in the beginning, but which he later developed in his own way. Chinese culture approached the Hispanic world thanks to the merchandise brought by the well-known Galleon of Manila for commercial purposes: porcelain, silk, Chinese boxes, the folding screen etc. The description of these exotic objects in the novel by Galdós, Fortunata and Jacinta, published in 1887, can confirm the popularity of Chinese merchandise in the upper-middle class of Madrid. The porcelain is, undoubtedly, the one that generated more zeal. Spanish people were found of Chinese porcelain.
Spain’s well known poet, Lorca’s family was also found of Chinese Porcelain that can be still found in his house.
Apart from this, it is essential to observe the image of China that is built in Hispanic literature, which can serve as a literary source for Lorca.
Through the close reading of some poems of Lorca entitled: “Jardín chino””,(Chinese Garden) ” “tres montañas chinas”(three Chinese mountain) “Fábula y rueda de los tres amigos”( Fable and wheel of the three friends) and “Panorama Ciego de Nueva York”(Blind panorama of New york) “Canción china en Europa”(Chinese song in Europe) we see that in the first poems of Lorca, the oriental images are linked with the childhood world characterized by illusion and love.
The poem (Chinese garden) consists in the creation of a fantastic space, while the poet contemplates the fireworks show. (That is Chinese firework)
of grana and magnesium
the little princesses jump on its sparks
There is a rain of oranges
on the zigzag of the cherry trees
and between commas fly
blue trained dragonlets.
My little girl, this little garden
is to see it in the mirrors
of your nails.
To see it on the folding screen
of your teeth.[footnoteRef:3] [3: García Lorca, F. (2013). Poesía completa. Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg. P.213.]
So, from the beginning, he set us in a world of fantasy: the forest of grana and magnesium, a world of lights and colors. The fantastic tone intensifies when “the princesses jump” followed by other exotic Chinese elements such as the dragon and the folding screen, in an intense creative process locked with pure metaphors.
In another poem, he has presented several Chinese elements that can be highlighted. His poem, Canción china en Europa (Chinese song in Europe) is a famous song in all over the world. Grace, optimism, youth and love are the vital and sentimental framework of the poet who writes:
Chinese song in Europe
The little lady
carrying a fan (Chinese fan)
walks on the bridge
over the fresh river.
with their frock coats
look at the bridge”,
devoid of railings.
The little lady
carrying a fan
and a frilled dress
looks for a husband.
are all married
with tall blonde women
of standard speech.[footnoteRef:4] [4: https://www.poemas-del-alma.com/cancion-china-en-europa.htm [22/02/2019, 3:30]]
Here, as the title itself indicates, the adjective used here is directly connected to china and the exotic representation of lady that appears in the poem with hand fan refers to a Chinese woman only (coming from orient) who is walking on the bridge over a river looking for a husband.
Although, in the beginning of his poetry Lorca presented Chinese elements as love, exoticism etc. subsequently in his later works, the Chinese are represented as marginalized individuals. In this way, Lorca is not limited to exoticism, but adapts the images of another culture to his own poetic concerns showing an evolution from the intimate themes to the social ones. His poem “Panorama Ciego de Nueva York” (Blind panorama of New York) is a harsh example of the marginality of Chinese living in the Chinatowns of New York. Lorca’s experience of being to Chinatown in New York versifies in the following fragment:
It’s an air capsule where everyone hurts”,
it is a small space alive to the crazy unison of light”,
It is an indefinable scale where clouds and roses forget
the Chinese screaming that bursts through the wharf of blood. [footnoteRef:5] [5: http://tinet.fut.es/~picl/libros/glorca/gl002400.htm (32 of 106) [21/01/2002 2:07:31] (Canciones (1921 – 1924), p. 571.
So, the suffering of Chinese in the slum of New York was so harsh (especially after the implementation of anti-Chinese law in USA (1882)) that poet couldn’t contain himself from depicting it in his poetry.
Now I will go on to talk about the representation of china and Chinese elements in the work of the famous Argentine writer Gorge Luis Borges. But before dealing with his work, it’s important to know him.
Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentinean poet, essayist, and short-story writer whose works have become classics of 20th-century world literature. Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, he received a rich academic training. He travelled and studied in Europe in his youth and lived in Spain for several years. When he came back to Argentina, participated in literary magazines and wrote, mainly, historical or nationalist poetry. In 1930 begins to suffer the effects of a hereditary disease that would end up producing a complete blindness. In spite of everything, Borges did not stop writing or working in the National Library.
From 1940, Borges dedicated to the short story writing, where he exploited all his genius and that become the field where he came to be universally recognized. It is possible that his most well-known work is the compilation of stories Ficciones (fictions)(1944) that, together with El Aleph (The Aleph)(1949) and El Hacedor (The maker) (1960), achieved recognition both within the Hispanic world and outside of it.
Moreover, Borges is also the author of Chinese fictions. China was at the center of some of his most famous fictions: The Garden of the Forking Paths (1940), The Wall and Books (1950). Chinese motifs are frequent in his poetry as well. In one of his last poems, “The Guardian of the Books”, he speaks through a Chinese character Hsiang, “the one who guards the books”.
In the course of his life Borges harbored a fervent affection for China. In his works, he frequently referred to the culture, history and traditions of China. For example, the protagonist of his story the Garden of Forking Paths is a Chinese. In addition to that, there is clear and interesting evidence that testifies to the close bond that united Borges with China: A Chinese cane.
More than 20 years ago Borges’ wife, María Kodama bought a bamboo cane from southern China for her intimate partner from Chinatown of New York. Inspired by that exotic object, Borges wrote a beautiful poem called “The Paint Cane”. From that time, Borges did not move away from that cane and held it in his hands during the last seven years of his life.
Although Borges always dreamt of going to China but he could not. That desire to connect to China has always been in his mind. His poems “The Paint Cane” shows the same:
María Kodama found it. Despite its authority and its firmness, it is quite light. Those who see it, stair at it; those who notice it remember it.
I look at it. I feel that it is a part of that empire (referred to china), infinite in time, that erected its wall to build a magical enclosure.
I look at it. I think of that Chuang Tsu who dreamt that he was a butterfly and when he woke up he did not know whether he was a man who had dreamt of being a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamt of being a man.
I look at it. I think of the artisan who worked the bamboo and bent it so that my right hand could fit well on its fist.
Something, however, binds us.
It is not impossible that someone has premeditated this link.
It is not impossible that the universe needs this link.[footnoteRef:6] [6: https://www.poeticous.com/borges/el-baston-de-laca?locale=es]
So, with the use of such Chinese elements of a Chinese walking stick Borges refreshes his desire to connect to china and he feels that we are somewhere or other connected with universe, although it’s through objects. Here the cane links him to the country where he always dreamt to visit.
So, to conclude, one can see that there are many descriptions about the presence of China in Hispanic literature in general and their poetry in particular. We have seen it in the works of some well known authors like Fedrico Garcia Lorca and Gorge Luis Borges who have presented china not only as exotic but social (marginal) as well. And although they haven’t been to China in their lives they have depicted very well Chinese elements in their respective works which shows their affection and desire to connect with Chinese culture. Their writing also stress that Chinese ought to integrate into Hispanic culture. Therefore, in this new era, the exploration of the representation of Chinese elements in Hispanic literature is worthwhile.
En otro poema, “El guardián de los libros”, el poeta hace, inicialmente, una recopilación histórica de lo que fue necesario realizar para poseer los libros que tiene en su poder. La historia del mundo, los recuerdos y las memorias están vistos desde la perspectiva del guardián de los libros. La torre es la inmensa muralla que contiene la vida de los hombres y de los países. Así diceel poeta, quien es al mismo tiempo el guardián: “Esas cosas o su memoria están en los libros/ Que custodioen la torre” (ES, p.336).El poeta hace una síntesis, a manera de una con-tienda bélica, de lo que le ha costado poseer la biblioteca custodiada:El padre de mi padre salvó los libros.Aquí están en la torre donde yazgo”,Recordando los días que fueron de otros”,Los ajenos y antiguos.(ES, p.337)Sin embargo, irónicamente, posee los libros cuan-do en sus ojos ya no hay luz y, viejo, ya no los puedeleer, pues “los anaqueles/ Están muy altos y no los al-canzan mis años./ Leguas de polvo y de sueño cercan la torre” (ES, p.337). El guardián de los libros no los puede disfrutar, sólo le queda valerse de su memoria e imaginar, recordar la sabiduría que en un tiempo atrás descifró: “¿Qué me impide soñar que alguna vez/ Des-cifré la sabiduría/ Y dibujé con aplicada mano los sím-bolos?” (ES, p.337).A continuación el guardián se identifica, dice llamar-se Hsiang. A manera de augurio dice que tal vez esos libros sean los últimos que custodie “Porque nada sa-bemos del Imperio/ Y del Hijo del Cielo” (ES, p.337). El poeta ve a los libros perderse, o tal vez es él quien se está yendo; la imagen de los libros en los altos anaque-les presentan la cercana ausencia del viejo guardián:Ahí están en los altos anaqueles”,Cercanos y lejanos a un tiempo, Secretos y visibles como los astros.Ahí están los jardines, los tiempos.(ES, p.337)El final del poema es el inicio del mismo, la circularidad tal vez pretenda decir que él se va a ir, pero ha-brá otro guardián que ocupará su lugar. Tema similar se maneja en el poema “Junio, 1968””,donde Borges maneja datos biográficos, pues habla dela biblioteca, lugar en que trabajara largos años de suvida. La ceguera y la vejez impiden descifrar libremen-te los volúmenes que maneja y, con ello, la posibilidadde escribir.No obstante, en “El guardián de los libros” como en“Junio, 1968”, encontramos la visión optimista del poe-ta: en el primero se ayuda de su antigua sabiduría y me-moria para rescatar los libros; en el segundo “sonríe anteel curioso destino/ y siente esa felicidad peculiar/ delas viejas cosas queridas” (ES, p.335). En ambos estápresente la añoranza y el recuerdo.