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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Non-Human Voices in Chinese Literature
2: When a Bird Speaks
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Chicago, United States
This paper examines the portrayal of speaking birds in poems and classical tales written by Pu Songling (1640-1715) as a window onto the author’s insight on the constraints of speech, especially its tendency to assimilate nonhuman entities by means of anthropomorphism. By disconnecting a speaking voice from a human body, Pu’s writings bring to our attention the pitfalls of linguistic forms of communication. While drawing resources from the tradition of “bird speech poetry” (qinyan shi), a type of free-style verse initiated by the late medieval poet Mei Yaochen (1002-1060), Pu’s literary experiment activated the uncontrollable nature of bird speech latent in earlier poetic traditions. Straddling between meaningful utterance and nonsense, bird speech constitutes a site where the authority of human character, narrator, and author are perturbed. Central to Pu’s imagination of bird speech is a mechanism of ventriloquism: Who actually animates the bird’s voice? Who owns it? By making the bird’s voice a central enigma in several stories, Pu invites us to rethink what speech is on the one hand. On the other hand, bird speech reflects Pu’s efforts to destabilize narrative perspective. By observing how Pu turned bird speech into a structural problem in the classical tale, this paper seeks to understand how bird speech poses a challenge if not a threat to the act of literary creation. This paper suggests that to write, under these conditions, is not to have a voice but to be ventriloquized by a voice not of one’s own.