University of Technology, Sydney
Staying alive: Contemporary English application of biji
Staying alive: Contemporary English application of biji
The paper examines how the ancient tradition of biji notebook writing has been applied and appropriated in the 21st century by authors working in the English language. It traces the journey the biji form has taken and examines how it has been transformed in its contemporary use. Tracing the journey of this traditional Chinese form of writing is not easy – it is one that spans dynasties, cultures, and languages. Not only this, but there are frequent gaps in this history.
Through a critical reading of three such biji collections – Douglas Coupland’s Survivor, a creative non-fiction hybrid that appeared in an anthology of new takes on old forms titled Vikings, Monks, Philosophers, Whores: Old Forms, Unearthed; Owen Kelly’s Sexton Blake & the Virtual Culture of Rosario: A Biji, a fractured academic essay; and Ouyang Yu’s On the Smell of an Oily Rag: Speaking English, thinking Chinese and living Australian, which he defines as biji feixiaoshuo or ‘pen-notes non-fiction’ – the evolution of the biji form beyond China will be traced and examined.
This gives rise to further questions – how is a biji written when the most common definitions are of its miscellaneousness and undefinable nature? How accurately has the genre been appropriated? What form does a ‘contemporary’ biji take? What does an interest in traditional Chinese written forms offer writers – of both fiction and non-fiction – today?
While there is distant tradition of biji for these contemporary authors there remain historical, cultural, and/or linguistic barriers between that tradition and their current practice. In this sense, they are pioneers working to re-establish those characteristics in a radically different written world. There is, generally speaking, a lack of information available from the authors themselves as to what they consider to be a biji; which elements of this ancient literature – stylistic, thematic, organisational – they based their own versions on. Yet all have explicitly stated in their titles that they are examples of this form.
Douglas Coupland’s intentions are best garnered from the editors of the collection within which his biji, Survivor, appeared. Curators/editors of the collection Vikings, Monks, Philosophers, Whores: Old Forms, Unearthed, Darren Franich and Graham Weatherly, state in their introduction: ‘After receiving a mountain of printed material devoted to the barely translated form we’d assigned him, Douglas Coupland said “I think I was born to biji”’ (Coupland 2009: ii).
While it is not clarified which biji were presented to Coupland in that mountain of material, Survivor is accompanied in the collection by an excerpt from Duan Chengshi’s Youyang Zazu (Miscellaneous Morsels from the South Slope of You Mountain), which has been translated by Carrie E Reed. Reed’s prior study of the biji form – apparent in her book-length translation of Nugao Ji (Records from Nugao) and extensive study of Youyang Zazu, evident in her Tattoo in Early China (2000) and Motivation and Meaning of a “Hodge-podge”: Duan Chengshi’s “Youyang zazu” (2003) – should be acknowledged. Her involvement in the project, in any capacity, imparts some scholarly credibility on this attempt at ‘unearthing’ an old form.
Franich and Weatherly define the biji as ‘a popular style in China for over a thousand years, composed of miscellaneous observations, musings, and tall tales’ (Franich & Weatherly 2009: i). The layout of the text is also littered with factoids about the biji form, run in the margin alongside the story proper. This device is employed throughout the rest of the collection – which also includes pantoums, nivolas, whore dialogues and consuetudinaries  – and the contents have been authored by Franich and Weatherly, albeit with the warning: ‘This is not a research text: this is a paean to the weird, beautiful, missing links of literature’ (2009: ii).
The facts included in the margin of Coupland’s biji cite examples taken most frequently from the work of Duan Chengshi – Youyang zazu and Nuogao Ji – as well as Ji Yun’s Guwang tingzhi (Listen In A Rough Way) and Luanyang xiaoxialu (Record of Spending the Summer at Luanyang) taken from his Yuewei caotang biji (The Thatched Study of Close Scrutiny). The information included ranges from common devices employed in biji – the inclusion of health-related advice, folkloric methods for warding off danger, the use of lists, the blunt description of death – to recurring themes, such as birds used as a symbol for death, or mythical or magical creatures, and in all instances include a brief excerpt from the relevant source.
Coupland’s Survivor is a biji written in the first person, narrated by a member of the camera crew for the reality television show Survivor, taking place on islands in the Republic of Kiribati. This form of narration is particularly interesting – often entries within biji are not told from first-hand experience, but as a recollection of a tale or story heard from another source, and prefaced as such. The first-person narration allows for an immediacy and cumulative construction of a personality for the storyteller beyond that of a simple narrator who passes on stories, and the technique is also present in older biji like Ji Yun’s Yuewei caotang biji.
The foreign setting allows for numerous traits of the biji genre to be employed: geographical information; observations on weather; and the like. Many early biji took the form of travel diaries – their authors compiling thoughts and impressions of new places they visited while on official postings – and Coupland’s setting allows him to make use of similar devices.
True to the biji form, the entries comprising Survivor are notably brief: the longest entry around 500 words; the shortest, as follows, just 15: ‘There’s a part of me that loves the prospect of lawlessness, I have to admit’ (Coupland 2009: 53). Other generic qualities are apparent: the use of street language – Coupland’s narrator is colourfully explicit, his slang and curses creative and crass; dream motifs are also present; as are medicinal facts; recipes; and observations that can be viewed as ‘unofficial histories’ or more personal accounts of world events. The use of other texts within the biji is also present, in this instance, a transcript of a video message sent from a loved one at home to a contestant on the show, acts as a contemporary version of the letters, poems, or songs that were included in traditional biji.
Together, there are 49 entries in Coupland’s Survivor; of these, 30 are written in a voice that is distinguishably that of the narrator with personal observations and a flare of character. While others are understandably devoid of personality, standing alone and colouring the world of the story – the inventorying of medicines, the tuna recipes, the flight times for a plane flying from Nauru to Brisbane, for example – there are some entries that appear to be penned by a different hand entirely. The overview of the Republic of Kiribati, for example, reads as though it could have come directly from an atlas, including as it does calling codes, Gross Domestic Output, population information and the like. Similarly, an entry explaining the concept of the television show, Survivor, reads as though it could have been taken directly from the network’s website – I checked, it was not.
In this sense, Coupland seems to pay homage both to biji authored with strictly personal accounts, as in the travel diaries alluded to earlier; and biji that have been compiled where a large portion of content has been pulled by the author from other sources and reworked, commented on, excerpted, or simply included as is and endowed new meaning by its very presence in a wider collection.
Also included alongside Survivor and Reed’s translation of an excerpt from Duan Chengshi’s Youyang Zazu is a fact sheet on biji compiled by Franich and Weatherly:
Also listed on this page are characteristics of the genre, as noted by the editors: ‘musings, anecdotes, quotations, ‘believe-it-or-not’ fiction, social anthropology’ (2010: 39).
While helpful and informative, this fact sheet is not without its problems. For example, their claim: ‘True to its polyglot form, the biji is known by many names, xiaoshuo, zazu, suoyu, leishu, zalu’ (2010: 39), perpetuates a clunky understanding of genre classification and boundaries. While some biji are xiaoshuo, and vice versa, the two are not synonymous.
The misconception stems from the traditional classification system with biji, as a result of its miscellaneous content, placed within the xiaoshuo or ‘fiction’ branch (it was widely regarded as ‘unofficial history’). Gang Liu notes: ‘The writing/compilation of biji have been a popular literary practice ever since the third century, but the official acknowledgment of the genre does not appear until very recent times’, and adds:
As a result of the niche but fanatic readership of the McSweeney’s publishing house, Coupland’s biji appears to be the most broadly acknowledged take on the form in recent years, and in English.
Owen Kelly, author of Sexton Blake & the Virtual Culture of Rosario: A Biji, stated via email correspondence that Coupland’s Survivor inspired his own biji:
The editor of the collection of essays that contains Kelly’s biji, Stefan Sonvilla-Weiss, describes his text as a ‘non-linear narrative’ written in ‘the quasi-style of this ancient book type [biji],’ and proposes that ‘Kelly paraphrases the original concept that contains anecdotes, quotations, random musings, philological speculations, literary criticism and almost everything that the author deems worth recording’ (Sonvilla-Weiss 2010: 17). Kelly employs the form in this essay in order to document the results of a five-year project titled Marinetta Ombro, in which he, alongside a colleague at Arcada University of Applied Science, created a virtual island, Rosario, in an attempt to examine the potential and functionality of virtual environment education.
Within Sexton Blake & the Virtual Culture of Rosario: A Biji Kelly’s own summary of the biji (which he refers to as a traditional Chinese zalu or zazu) is included: ‘A notebook not unlike the European commonplace book in form in that it contains many disparate kinds of content. Unlike the commonplace book, though, the content combines by stealth into a narrative or worldview’ (Kelly 2010: 124). Further to this, Sexton Blake & the Virtual Culture of Rosario: A Biji, concludes with a copy of the biji fact sheet included in McSweeney’s Issue 31 (2010), quoted above. This lends weight to the argument that Coupland’s take on the form is the most well-known.
Kelly states that he was struggling to find a way to tell the history of Marinetta and it takes only a brief look at the project to discover why. Students at Arcada, a university of applied science in Helsinki, Finland, helped to create Marinetta – the capital city of a fictional island named Rosario – that hypothetically existed just south of midway between Greece and Tunisia. The synthetic world was used to explore the theoretical and practical pedagogical possibilities the construction, maintenance and development of such a digital world could offer, and Kelly outlines its evolution in his text.
Kelly’s task is interesting considering that the earlier biji served as unofficial histories for a dynasty, family, or region and his is documenting the process of constructing a ‘real’ history for a false locale.
Like Coupland, Kelly can be seen to be taking on the role of compiler, as well as author. This biji contains citations from texts such as Richard Harding Davis’ In the Fog (1901), university program documents and texts that I’m quite certain do not actually exist – but were translated during the construction of Rosario’s history – such as Dek Manto’s La Marcharo Vers Hemo. His inclusion of these citations however is often clunky at best, and while some quotes appear cleanly and clearly attributed, oftentimes they are presented ad hoc, the reader left to establish the connection between the quote or citation (only noticeable as such by its smaller font) and what is being discussed elsewhere in that particular section of the essay. Citations are littered about like epigrams haphazardly scattered amongst the body text proper, and often mid-argument, or as a non-committal technique for ending a point, where the citation is obscure enough to be potentially relevant, though certainly not clear enough to be taken as serious justification.
In defence of Kelly’s technique, there is historical precedent for such a practice. In his examination of Notes of Master Song Jin-wen, a biji collection composed by Northern Song native Song Qi, Professor Igor Alimov observes: ‘Far from all of the maxims cited belong to Song Qi himself, but he does not list his sources’ (Alimov 1999: 42). In other instances, these allusions are used to highlight or elaborate specific themes, just as an author of a more traditional biji may turn to a quote from the classics in order to claim the importance or justification for his own content.
All this considered, it still seems that the strongest apparent link Kelly’s Sexton Blake & the Virtual Culture of Rosario: A Biji, has to the biji form is that he includes it in its name. There are elements of the genre present, though it could just as easily be construed as the fractured and incomplete notes that form early drafts of an essay. To his credit, Kelly seems eager to associate the text with zalu (or zazu), a kind of branch of literature synonymous with biji that Endymion Wilkinson translates as ‘miscellaneous records’ (Wilkinson 2000: 611). To this end Kelly has certainly provided a collection of entries that could be construed as ‘miscellaneous’.
Ouyang Yu’s On The Smell Of An Oily Rag is the most indebted of the three to the extensive history of the biji. Unlike Coupland and Kelly – whose works, were they not explicitly framed by their authors/editors as biji, could potentially be misconstrued as fractured short fiction and essay respectively – Ouyang’s collection is closest in form to the traditional biji because it is just that: a collection. The concept of a ‘collection’ is central to biji, due to the cumulative effect of these stories, or entries, however seemingly disparate.
In the introduction Ouyang clarifies the contents of his text: ‘It is writing that I intend to be enjoyable, but as fragmentary as when you switch between dozens of television channels’ (Ouyang 2007: xi). With this statement, Ouyang has clearly revealed his knowledge of the ancient form he appropriates, the ‘fragmentary’ biji, and can readily find a contemporary point of reference for the way in which its contents are organised or laid out, a networked pastiche of information akin to the narratives created when flipping through television channels. Ouyang also goes as far as to offer his own definition of the form he has chosen to appropriate: In ancient China, there is a fiction called, biji xiaoshuo (roughly, pen-notes fiction), a fiction that contains disparate stories with no apparent interconnecting narrative, each on its own, each as short as a paragraph but no longer than a page (Ouyang 2007: xi-xii).
Progressing from the definition, Ouyang proclaims that his On the Smell of an Oily Rag: Speaking English, thinking Chinese and living Australian has been written in the style of a new genre he has created, biji feixiaoshuo or ‘pen-notes non-fiction’ that he says is ‘written in an accessible, readable and deliberately un-academic style’ (Ouyang 2007: xii). His suggestion that Oily Rag is a “seminal non-fictional book” (ibid) that creates its own genre is rather bold.
While Ouyang may have coined the term biji feixiaoshuo to suggest that the form of a non-fictional biji, even one that ‘draws references from a range of literary and cultural works going as far back as The Book of Songs (1122-256 BC)’ (xii), is an act of linguistic pioneering fails to recognise one of the most seminal biji collections of all time (and an obvious precedent to the collection Ouyang offers), Qian Zhongshu’s comparatively recent Guanzhui bian (Limited Views: Essays on Ideas and Letters) . Like Ouyang’s biji, Qian’s examines “cultural, linguistic and literary similarities’ (ibid) not between China and Australia specifically, but across a broader scope that shows a profound knowledge of both European and Chinese literature and writing.
Ouyang suggests that his text blends ‘various genres of diary, fiction, non-fiction, essay, translation and poetry’ (Ouyang 2007: xii). The diary genre is apparent in the unapologetic, honest and at times crass way Ouyang recalls information for entries, reading without a doubt like a personal account. The non-fiction aspects of the text are a little harder to qualify; while Ouyang often cites ‘facts’ – whether statistical, or merely those borne of ‘common knowledge’, they are rarely quantified or properly cited.
Like the entries in Guanzhui bian, Ouyang includes a quote or citation from songs; a Shakespearean snowclone; old Chinese proverbs, such as the Yan Dynasty Writers: one step higher than beggars; and myriad other sources, and uses these as launch pads for the entries’ thematic concerns. As explanation for the proliferation of this intertextual practice in traditional biji (a practice that has continued through the genres development), Kao states:
As other biji offer an introduction to a city, or society, crib-notes on an existence, Ouyang’s On the Smell of an Oily Rag: Speaking English, thinking Chinese and living Australian serves as a guidebook to the rocky roads between Australian English and Chinese language, culture, and societal norms. In a 2010 interview about the book Ouyang says: ‘The whole thing is an organic growth out of my combination of daily literary activities, fiction, poetry, literary criticism, literary translation and literary magazine editing, in both languages, a growth bit by organic bit, and by fits and starts’ (Ball 2010).
And in the same interview reflects:
Returning to the point of the potential for the Coupland and Kelly biji to be misconstrued, it is worth noting titling as a method for classification of biji where collections are self-prescriptively labelled suggesting a reading, entry point, or wider collection of works within which to consider the text and better comprehend the totality of its meaning. As Cyril Birch notes: ‘Expectations of form fulfilled leave us freer to contemplate the total meaning’ (Birch 1974: 1).
However, a more concrete definition of ‘genre’ is required before proceeding to a proposition of generic defining features common to or occurring in all contemporary biji. Before proceeding to such a proposition it is worth noting that even in light of the analyses above, a truly contemporary definition of biji, or even a definition of a contemporary biji, is not without its problems. Huntington, too, has observed these difficulties, saying that biji is: ‘A genre which fits uneasily into contemporary generic divisions because of its brevity, miscellaneous content, and problematic relationship to history and fiction’ (Huntington 2005: 61) and as can be seen from the analysis above, her observations ring true in the three contemporary examples of the form that have been examined. That Huntington shows some awareness of the potential for contemporary examination of the form is refreshing and allows for her study of traditional biji to inform analyses of their contemporary counterparts.
Looking then once again at Survivor, On the Smell of an Oily Rag: Speaking English, thinking Chinese and living Australian and Sexton Blake & the Virtual Culture of Rosario: A Biji, is there brevity, casualness, and miscellaneous content apparent in all three? Yes. Though, is this enough to move beyond the resigned realm wherein a biji is only defined by, or in relation to, what it is not? Allowing, for now, the definition of biji as a brief, fractured, densely allusive and intertextual, form that mixes fact and fiction, what does such a form offer contemporary writers?
David Shields suggests it offers a cultural panacea. His Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) argues for a shift toward increasing arts engagement with the reality of contemporary life through the exploration of hybrid genres such as prose poetry and literary collage . It is this idea of collage that is most intriguing in the current discussion. Reality Hunger consists of 618 numbered passages divided into twenty-six chapters, each titled alphabetically. Approximately half of the book’s words come from sources other than the author, a working sample of Shield’s declarations rejecting the laws governing appropriation and the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, in pursuit of a modern form of art. While Shields makes no mention of biji – I do not wish to put words in his mouth – the art, or literature, best befitting contemporary existence as championed by him shares remarkable similarities with what we define as biji. Are these fragments not the same desired by Yu?While authors such as Shields, alongside David Markson (2001), Michelle Grangaud (2006), and others, have produced texts that seem to fit the albeit broad description of biji, they have done so with no stated knowledge of the form or intent. Nevertheless, if a form of writing best befitting contemporary existence has so much congruence with a Chinese written form that predates it by centuries, is there not some duty to examine and explore the predecessor, even if it may be one only unintentionally?
For all the discrepancies in interpretation and reapplication of the form that exist in the contemporary examples provided by Coupland, Kelly, and Ouyang, all at least lay foundations for a more extensive study of biji and the potential of its contemporary English application.
Dave Drayton is a PhD candidate at the University of Technology, Sydney. His current research investigates Oulipo, and the contemporary English application of biji.
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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo