How to Think Globally

Between China and Latin America

by | Dec 7, 2018

The Hollywood action film Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro and released in 2013, features the Pacific as an abyssal gateway through which alien monsters from another dimension enter the world. The film’s human heroes fighting in giant robots in order to contain the aliens set on conquest and destruction show a rather skewed picture of our imaginary of the Pacific. The Pacific Rim invoked in the title, as the film suggests with its main protagonists, a U.S. American with his Japanese love interest, involves North America and Japan, while characters from Russia and China serve as expendable sidekicks. Pacific islanders are only precariously included—in the form of victims. In spite of Guillermo del Toro’s cultural roots, Latin America is completely absent from the picture—as if the Pacific’s rim did not extend south.

Most spectators would not have noticed this omission or would have dismissed it as unimportant. After all, del Toro’s Pacific Rim is not a geopolitical treatise or a reflection on cultural interactions in the Pacific, but a light-hearted action blockbuster. But that’s precisely the problem: some ways of thinking, some ways of mapping the world are so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to see beyond them. My own research trajectory is a case in point. In spite of having trained as a comparatist with a focus on Chinese literature and culture on one hand and Latin American studies on the other, only my third book project engages explicitly and in detail with both cultural traditions together.

When I started research on the connections between Chinese and Latin American cultures some years ago, I was in for several surprises. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer wealth of relations and resonances between the two cultural realms that I began to encounter. Most people might have heard of the Manila galleons—carrying goods from China— with their direct trade route between the Philippines and Mexico from the 16th to the 19th century. But it is not common knowledge that voices in Spain were clamoring for a conquest of southern China as an addition to the empire in the sixteenth century. The fact that Chinese coolie laborers shaped the economy of 19th-century Cuba has been widely researched. But the important role of Chinese coolies in Cuba’s Ten Years’ War and the War of Independence, especially highlighted by leftist historians after the Cuban revolution, was news to me. Many Latin American writers were inspired by China—at least in their imagination–of what appeared as an exotic, far-away culture to most. We may think of Jorge Luis Borges’ imaginary of a Chinese novel that includes all possible decisions and their consequences in his “The Garden of Forking Paths,” or the excessive chinoiserie of Rubén Darío’s “The Death of the Empress of China.” But countering the Orientalist visions of China in Latin America, the first Latin American literary text (at least to my knowledge) to be translated into Chinese was selected out of a spirit of solidarity among weak nations: leftist writer and intellectual Mao Dun prefaced his 1923 translation of Darío’s “The Veil of Queen Mab”—rendered in Chinese from an English translation—by pointing to the shared marginal position of Latin American countries and China vis-à-vis Europe and the United States. In time, of course, Magical Realism was a Latin American export success that inspired writers all over the globe, not least in China. But it is more than a fascinating detail that the Sino-Tibetan Tashi Dawa (writing in Chinese) chose to reflect critically on Magical Realism and the dynamics of world literary emulation. He started his 1985 novella “Tibet: Souls Tied to a String” by having his persona inspired by the globally circulating song “El cóndor pasa” to compose an imaginary (and highly metafictional) Tibetan scene.

And on and on it went. Until my brain, my copious hand-written notes, and my computer were crisscrossed by a complex tangle of connections between the two cultures: ones that traced routes taken by people and ideas, ones that tracked literary influences, but also ones that probed exotic fantasies of the cultural other or that marked surprising analogies. Rather than a picture of harmonious mutuality, what emerged was a cacophony of felicitous intersections and superimpositions, but also of cultural frictions, unequal exchanges or mistranslations. And yet, for me, the multiple, dynamic, relational constellations at work testified to the power and productivity of intercultural work against all odds.

As I was unearthing new relations between Latin American and Chinese cultures, I felt profound unease at having been taken by surprise to begin with. Why hadn’t my work discovered and explored this comparatist motherlode earlier? True, I didn’t precisely custom-design my formation in comparative literature with a view to working on Chinese-Latin American connections. Instead, I kept adding new languages and cultures to my comparatist’s portfolio depending on time and opportunity, and driven, above all, by the fuzzy criterion of personal fascination. But upon further reflection, something else was at play here, something that had very little to do with my own serendipitous intellectual development. Instead, what I had happened upon pointed to an intellectual problem beyond the specific examples of China and Latin America that I had singled out for an analysis of alternative Pacific networks. Our way of mapping the world was in need of updating. As we are busy either complaining about or lauding globalization, the very logic of thinking about different parts of the world is profoundly biased, provincial rather than global. After all, why are some places widely represented while others receive next to no attention? And why do we find connections between some countries and regions self-evident but imagine other spaces as if they were disconnected islands? And what assumptions determine the comparisons we trace between different cultures?

Vuelta de Rocha, La Boca, Buenos Aires, January 2015. A multitude of entranced spectators surround the illuminated edges of Riachuelo de La Boca, the old port neighborhood of fishers and humble workers in the south of Buenos Aires. A spectacle of movement and dance accompanies the forms in movement and the lit-up landscapes in the sky and on the water. The Chinese fireworks artist Cai Guo-Qiang has transformed this spot under the title “Life is a milonga: Fireworks Tango for Argentina.” Cai conceived this explosive project, inspired in the history of tango, as a dialogue between cultures in which elements of nature are integrated into the human landscape in an unpredictable, fluid and open manner. (Text by Verónica Flores; Photo by Tatsumi Masatoshi, courtesy of Cai Studio.)

Fundación Proa, La Boca, Buenos Aires, December 2017. Ai Weiwei disembarks in Buenos Aires. There, where in yesteryears, the painter Benito Quinquela Martín observed the arrival of cargo ships from his studio while he painted the daily life of immigrant workers. In the historical and colorful context of Caminito, right in front of a prow looking out on the river, Ai installed a monumental mass sculpture, made of 1,254 steel bicycles, referring both to the most traditional form of transportation in China, but with a playful nod to conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp. Architecture in movement, a metaphor for permanent change in the culture, this gigantic work recontextualizes daily objects to reveal the dissolving force of mass industrial production. The wheels spin infinitely, surprising passersby, while they evoke the creative spirit of the artist and his capacity to act for social transformation. (Text and photo by Verónica Flores)

San Telmo, Buenos, Aires April 2015. Eighteen intertwined bodies pose silently, making up a long fixed chain. They wear various shades of yellows and tans, the colors of the tiny soybeans whose presence in the background slowly becomes apparent. It is an optical illusion carried out for this photo-performance through the mimicry of the models and the camouflage techniques meticulously designed by the Chinese artist Liu Bolin. The powerful living image is a subtle and ingenious invitation by the artist to reflect on the forms of invisibility and dehumanization created by the global economy. An incessant line of spectators—sometimes up to 500 people—went to look at the installation. (Text by Verónica Flores; Photo courtesy of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Buenos Aires.) 

Of course, Latin America and Chinese cultures represent merely one of many cases of a biased global imagination. But I have found this example particularly instructive. For one, both regions are no longer (or have never really been) peripheries to Europe’s center or appendixes to North American power, as they have come to occupy important geopolitical, economic and cultural roles. And yet, on many people’s imagined map, Asia and America still seem to occupy the opposite ends of a flat, discontinuous space, embodying the antipodes of East and West. Concurrently, increased stress on the North-South division within the American continent has transformed the border between the United States and Mexico into “la frontera” (the frontier) par excellence, bracketing reflections on the connection between Asia and the South of the American continent. Overshadowed by the conventionalized binaries of East and West and North and South, as well as divided by the boundaries of disciplines and areas, comparative work on Asia and Latin America, though of increasing interest to scholars in history, sociology and economics, still occupies a marginal position in cultural and literary studies.This work falls outside of disciplinary boundaries or is severely curtailed by them. It is also marked by the politics and positionalities of academic traditions. For instance, scholars within Latin American studies have long studied literary Orientalism and have begun to focus more attention on diasporic circuits. But until recently, most of their research has been limited to sources in Spanish and Portuguese. Scholars in China and Taiwan, while increasingly competent in the languages of Latin America, are often bound by disciplinary expectations: for instance, to produce ambitious surveys rather than fine-grained analyses. Literary scholars are often too caught up in histories of translation, literary influence, or the intercultural experiences of individual intellectuals to look at a bigger global and interdisciplinary picture. Historians, who have done much to allow us to think about Latin America and Asia together, for example, by reconstructing histories of immigration, do not account for the elusive yet important web of imaginaries that forge intercultural thinking. In addition, this kind of research moves uneasily even within more capacious frameworks. For the field of transpacific studies, some parts of China and Latin America are entirely too continental. And a world power such as China doesn’t quite fit into the category of the global South either. And what about all the cases that fall outside of neat patterns of geopolitical panoramas, economic networks, diasporic movements or literary influence?

One of the most exciting insights for me has been the sheer polarity that marks how we think of China and Latin America together—or rather apart: on the one hand, they have often been treated as antipodes, situated at opposite ends of the world map and thus embodying divergent negative mirror images of Western imagination: China’s inscrutable, decadent civilization versus Latin America’s unchartered barbarity. On the other, since Columbus’s erroneous superimposition of China and the Americas, we have not ceased to fantasize about Latin America and China as closely linked; for one, in the periodically resurfacing hypotheses of common cultural roots between pre-Columbian cultures and China or early contact and interaction between them. Too close for comfort and yet worlds apart, the imagination that thinks both cultural regions together also embodies the extremes of thinking comparatively, pitting sameness versus total difference.

Between uncanny closeness and unbridgeable distance, Latin America and China are spheres multiply connected by histories of migration, commerce and collaboration, as well as tied together by analogies, cultural resonances, and cultural fantasies. In my work, I use the complex networks of intersections between China and Latin America as a laboratory for rethinking intercultural analysis. This involves a radical reimagining of comparison—as flexible and multi-focal, as an operation that assumes that its objects are internally hybrid and fuzzy rather than clearly delimited, and as a method that often has to work with uneven dialogues, weak links, hallucinatory superimpositions, and tenuous affinities. I view this work not merely as the methodological navel-gazing of the field of Comparative Literature in which I situate my research. Instead, such an approach forces us to critically reassess how we think globally. After all, to define what is comparable and what incommensurable forms the basis for an understanding of cultural difference and, potentially, the grounds for an ethics of interculturality.

Fall 2018Volume XVIII, Number 1

Andrea Bachner, associate professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University, is the author of Beyond Sinology (2014) and The Mark of Theory (2018). Her third book, After Comparison: China, Latin America, and the Politics of Sameness, is close to completion. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard in 2007.

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