112. Interview with Lidong Xiang, PhD student in Chinese children’s literature at Rutgers University

Lidong Xiang 项黎栋 is currently studying for her PhD in Chinese children’s literature at Rutgers University-Camden. We’re very grateful to her for taking the time to tell us more about her work. Thank you, Lidong!

Hi Lidong, please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?
Hi everyone! I’m Lidong (she/her/hers). I am currently pursuing my PhD in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. My research focuses are literary and cultural constructions of Chinese childhood and the geographies of girlhood in modern and contemporary Chinese literature, children’s literature, and other media productions, such as film and newspapers. So far, I’ve researched picture book adaptations of Chinese folktales, child citizenship and national discourse in Chinese children’s periodicals, and the negotiation between ideas of modernity and childhood in Chinese newspapers from the early and mid-twentieth century. I am currently working on literary and cinematic narratives of Chinese urbanism and girlhood. To enrich perspectives and understandings, I worked as an editor intern in two Chinese children’s publishers, and occasionally translate children’s books and write for children’s magazines.

When we met at the IRSCL Congress [International Research Society For Children’s Literature] in Stockholm last year, you gave a paper looking at girls in Cheng Wei’s novels. Could you tell us about Cheng Wei, and her girl-centered stories? And your research on them? Why did you choose Cheng Wei’s novels?
Sure. Cheng Wei 程玮 has been a renowned Chinese children’s literature author since the 1980s. She studied in Nanjing University and the city of Nanjing is the primary domestic urban setting of her stories. She moved to Germany in 1993. Besides her roles as a filmmaker, scriptwriter and translator, she continues to write for children. Most of her works center around girl characters. In comparison to other female authors of Chinese children’s literature, such as Chen Danyan 陈丹燕 (her most recent novel “A Spirit Who I Call Mom II” 我的妈妈是精灵 2, 2019, being an exception) and Qin Wenjun 秦文君, Cheng Wei’s works involve explicit narration of Chinese singletons in a globalized framework in depicting and exploring the idea and ideal of Chinese girls’ identity – for example, the “Sundays with Alice” 周末与爱丽丝聊天 series (2016), and “Sundays with Milan” 周末与米兰聊天 series (2014). Two of her girl-centered novels have award-winning film adaptations: In Their Teens 豆蔻年华 (dir. Qiu Zhongyi 邱中义, Xu Geng 徐耿 1989) and A Girl’s Red Hairpin 红发卡 (dir. Xu Geng 徐耿, 1996).

Cheng Wei, “A Girl’s Red Scarf” 程玮 / 少女的红围巾
The Girls in Red series by Cheng Wei 程玮少女三部曲

The three novels that I chose to analyze for my paper at the congress in Stockholm are: “A Girl’s Red Hairpin” 少女的红发卡, “A Girl’s Red Scarf” 少女的红围巾, and “Girls’ Red Shirts” 少女的红衬衣, collectively known as the “Girls in Red” series 程玮少女三部曲 (2008), republished by the Zhejiang Children’s Publishing House in 2018. They present contemporary Chinese girls’ experiences both in the urban and transcultural context. Chinese girls’ literature emerged alongside the rise of urban settings in Chinese children’s literature in the late 1980s. Cheng Wei’s novels are representative of this genre, and have been celebrated by the children’s book market and academia as embodying contemporary Chinese girls’ power. Drawing on the historical development of Chinese girls’ literature, I admit the increasing visibility of girls in the form of main protagonist and/or first-person narrator as well as more nuanced and various representations of girl figures. Taking Cheng Wei’s novels as examples, and from a feminist lens, my conference paper argued that Chinese girl characters, although challenging previous marginalized representations, are still stuck within the heteronormative framework – in other words, the heterosexual relationship is the only norm. Those girls with transcultural experiences still follow the neoliberal girlhood ideal or the “can-do” girl figures, largely regardless of the socio-economic stratifications.

In my observation, Cheng Wei’s girl-centered novels have achieved high visibility not only in the publishing market but also in literary reviews. I’m concerned that the visibility of this type of girl overshadows alternative types of girls. Have we given enough attention to, say, the tomboy Dai An 戴安 in Yang Hongying’s 杨红樱 “Tomboy Dai An” 假小子戴安, and Fan Fan 饭饭 who struggles with her queer relationship with another girl, the first-person narrator in Huang Chunhua’s 黄春华 “Once Was a True Love of Mine” 她从前是我深爱的人? This drives me to reflect on my role as a researcher, and on my own assumptions, and how they guide my research. I am aware of the responsibility of the researcher, and that the inclusion or exclusion of some titles in my research will impact on the knowledge production and understanding of girls/girlhood in China.

Also at Stockholm, you stated the importance of understanding the relevant Chinese discourse when looking at Chinese children’s books. Could you say some more about this?
At the conference in Stockholm, I moderated the panel “Chinese Transcultural Relationships”. I noticed that “subjectivity” was one of the essential shared ideas across the panelists’ presentations. Given the title of that panel, I asked whether we are all using the same concept of “subjectivity” in addressing children/child characters in the transcultural context or whether the “subjectivity” in our discussions shared the same connotations? On this subject, I have found a couple of publications very useful: Subjectivity in Asian Children’s Literature and Film: Global Theories and Implications, edited by John Stephens (2013), and Sarada Balagopalan’s chapter “Childhood, Culture, History: Redeploying ‘multiple childhoods” in Reimagining Childhood Studies edited by Spyros Spyrou, Rachel Rosen, and Daniel T. Cook (2019). Balagopalan’s chapter is not literary research, but I find it intellectually stimulating in questioning the division “between the empirical ‘south’ and the theoretical ‘north’” in framing child-related research. Her critique reminds me to reconsider how I draw on theories or adopt a certain theoretical lens in analyzing my focused texts.

Thinking about this unpacking work around concepts and discourses, in my undergraduate days, I attended a lecture given by Ming Cherng Duh 杜明城, in which he claimed that some Tang dynasty legend 唐传奇 texts may be regarded as children’s fantasy works. His presentation pointed to a rethinking of the hegemonic Western definition of fantasy works/novels. At that time, I had just started children’s literature studies. My major was in Chinese literature, and I was reading Tang dynasty legends in my classical Chinese literature course. Before that lecture, it had never occurred to me that there might be a connection between these two genres since my understanding of fantasy works was largely framed by western popular fantasy novels such as Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. In his book Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of A Ming Novel (2015), Mark Meulenbeld has a chapter – “Invention of the Novel: From Stage Act and Temple Ritual to Literary Text” – that pushed me even further to rethink the idea of the “novel”. I think it’s essential to continue to think critically about such matters.

What is it like studying Chinese children’s literature at Rutgers? Is it difficult to navigate international research and discourse on children’s literature?
I enjoy the space to look around and learn different approaches to child-related issues during course studies and from works by faculty members and other graduate students perceiving and researching children and childhood from multi-disciplinary views and across different periods and geographical locations. It’s an amazing environment to be in, with so many talented people! But it’s also hard to navigate around these diverse conversations and methodologies. For me, the greatest advantage lies in the symbiosis of the freedom to explore the field and the inevitable discomfort in navigating the field. That may sound contradictory, but I constantly feel the urge to unpack assumed discourses and clarify contexts when talking about my research on Chinese children’s literature and childhood. Sometimes I feel the disadvantage of being a sort of “outlier” from other disciplines and discussions, and I grapple with the value of my work. It’s mainly because I’m studying materials and approaches that my colleagues are not familiar with, so it can feel that I am in a tiny minority talking about Chinese children’s literature. If you imagine a word cloud, where the size of the words varies according to frequency of use or visibility, then Chinese children’s literature can feel very small and niche.

My journey into international research about children’s literature started from my first
conference presentation at the IRSCL congress 2017 at Toronto. I sincerely appreciate the friendship and mentorship that I’ve encountered since then, especially several scholars and Chinese graduate students who also research Chinese children’s literature and the history of Chinese childhood in other institutions outside of China. We communicate similar frustrations and share suggestions to support each other now and then.

However, one thing I find challenging and confusing is the labelling and de-labelling of my research. Among my limited conference experiences, I often find myself in panels where the keyword is “Chinese”. I’m glad to have the chance to engage with people in other child-related China studies. But I also hope that my research can be considered in other ways, where the shared topic might be affection/emotion, urban studies, body geographies, and so on.

Would you tell us about your own childhood reading? Did you have a favourite book/author when you were little? A favourite place to read? A favourite person to read with?
The Lianhuanhua 连环画 (linked picture book) version of Journey to the West 西游记 used to be my favorite set of books. I found them in the storage cupboard at my grandparents’ house one summer. Ever since then, I reread those books almost every summer when staying with them. I enjoyed both the adventure stories with demons and ghosts and the illustrations. I was born in the Year of Monkey and regarded Monkey King as my role model when I was a kid. My favorite place to read was my grandpa’s “table”, which was actually a wooden door, placed on two treadle sewing machines, covered with a piece of cloth. He was a tailor and used to work on that big wooden “table” during the day. I would occupy a specific corner of that “table”, away from the steam iron. For a lively, energetic kid like me, it was a perfect spot to read – I could read and have fun stepping on the pedal at the same time!

Reading and pedalling at the same time! (with thanks to Lijie Zhang 张丽捷)

Follow Lidong Xiang on twitter: @lidong_xiang

80. Translator Dong Haiya studies children’s literature at Reading

Dr Dong Haiya 董海雅 of Shanghai International Studies University 上海外国语大学 has recently been in the UK on a Chinese-government funded scholarship to research children’s literature. She generously spared some of her time to meet, and kindly answered some questions about her life and work. Continue reading