Research Statement

My research addresses how hierarchies of power are constructed and maintained through linguistic control as well as the regulation of what it means to be Chinese on the global scale. Chineseness is a term deployed to refer to a culture, spoken and written language, geopolitical nation, and an ethnic group among other things, but these notions must not be conflated. To disentangle these meanings in radical ways, I focus on how language and culture are used to frame and reconfigure Chinese communities in places outside of China proper, particularly in spaces like Hong Kong. Hong Kong martial arts cinema is one of the most exported and emblematic genres associated with Chinese cinema at large. A political reading of Hong Kong cinema and digital media from social networking platforms is necessary to shed light on the history of Hong Kong identity politics. Hong Kong is a place where negotiations of identity, culture, language, and politics all emerge through different forms of media. I produce new understandings of how Chineseness is mobilized to politically engage with different communities and examines the ways in which ideas of authenticity in relation to culture, politics, and language effect conceptions of identity and the formation of communities. My dissertation, “Choreographing the Sinophone Body: Martial Movements and Embodied Languages in Hong Kong Media” analyzes the relationship between sound, images, and language in Hong Kong martial arts media and critiques monolithic notions of a Chinese identity.

Articulations of Chineseness in martial arts and kung fu films are rendered fluid and flexible through characters’ facial, bodily, and linguistic expressions. Martial arts films illustrate this fluidity by forging of affiliations with styles and regional sensibilities and the appearance of dissociation with opposing forces through the characters’ language but also the intensification of such claims through a form of embodied language. A close reading of the archetypes created by King Hu’s films, such as A Touch of Zen (1971), exposes the complex relationship between history and community and goes beyond previous scholarship that prioritized cultural nationalism as a dominant framework to analyze martial arts films. The image of a dynastic China within A Touch of Zen and Dragon Gate Inn (1967) among other films invoke dissident sentiments that clash with the notion of a shared historical Chinese identity. With its focus on women warriors, a Sinophone feminist approach critiques the intersection of gender performance, articulations of an authentic Chinese identity, and takes localized iterations of Chineseness into consideration.
Language does not only refer to systematized written or spoken utterances, but also to the ways that bodies kinetically and viscerally communicate, extend meaning, and produce knowledge. Informed by Fred Moten’s work on sound and the image, I demonstrate how Bruce Lee’s visceral scream while his body is in motion is an image that resists cultural nationalist readings of his persona. Lee’s scream disturbs and reverberates while the body moves with violent impetus. The scream moves against symbolism and rationality and asserts its own politics of productive violence that both forges and destroys affiliations to different groups. Yet, this ambivalence in meaning can also leads to a miscommunication of Chineseness exemplified in the martial arts cinema of Wong Kar-wai, particularly Ashes of Time (1994) and The Grandmaster (2013). These films illustrate the formation of regional identity and performance in the 1980s Hong Kong New Wave. In Wong’s films, the performance of martial arts is simultaneously highlighted and abstracted by the landscape. It is through the abstraction and obstruction of the body that martial arts films engage in a form of visual miscommunication.

Various forms of media beyond traditional cinema imagine how language is manifested through the body and bodily movement to radically transform the viewer’s perception of Chineseness. I examine the work of Hong Kong based video collectives and their works posted online. Tracing the work of GVA Creative whose YouTube shorts that have combined action, martial arts, and violent affect into their video form, I recast a discourse of Hong Kong cinema and media that considers the politics of language, how language functions as a visual medium in a society where language as a spoken medium is censored as the People’s Republic of China becomes a growing political presence in the former British colony. The creative’s works include the two-part series, “GwanGong vs. Alien,” where the main character is literally possessed and transformed by a virtual being to save the world from a deadly alien invader. Counter-narratives in the form of comedy function as political tools to subversively resist monolithic notions of Chineseness are may be rendered inaudible but not invisible in Sinophone localities.

The body and its representation remain central concerns in my research. Various social and political regimes regulate the body, and an examination of the representation of bodily waste in visual media reveals such control. The representation of excrement and other forms of bodily waste is not limited to the visual form as it appears in literary articulations, such as He Shufang’s “Never Mention It Again” (別再提起). Yet, the visual and audible forms render a visceral affective dimension of bodily matter. Guided by Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitics and the panopticon and Eugenie Brinkema’s The Forms of the Affects, this project examines the ways in which excrement and bodily matter reflect and refract the sense of marginality in the Sinophone sphere. Excrement and bodily waste are often depicted as absences. The expulsion of waste is hinted at only by retching sounds and cuts to reacting faces. I interrogate how this lacunae in visual representation configures and reconfigures bodies in their various cultural networks in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China.

My projects examine constructions of Chineseness that disrupt discourses of an authentic or stable Chinese identity. Looking at the interaction between different Sinophone film industries in relation to language and the body allows me to further scrutinize alternative modes ethnic, cultural, linguistic, or national affiliation or dissociation. Through a reexamination of the politics behind Sinophone visual media, my work exposes how Chineseness, or notions of a shared Chinese identity, is deployed to mobilize or disenfranchise communities around the world.

——–Melissa M. Chan
Last updated: 12/10/2017


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