Developmental Aesthetics: Representing Railways and Extraction in Modern China
1: Shiyou Wenxue: Chinese Petro-literature and "Iron Men"
Saturday, March 26, 2022
6:00pm – 7:30pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Nathaniel K. Isaacson
North Carolina State University, United States
In “Monstrous Transformer”: Petrofiction and world literature,” (2017), Graeme MacDonald calls for an examination of “comparable texts from immediately identifiable petro-sites, such as drilling platforms, pipelines or gas stations.” Originally coined by Amitav Ghosh, “petro-fiction” and similar terms have been adopted by scholars like MacDonald, Stephanie LeManger (2013), Nicholas Mirzoeff (2014) and Imre Szeman (2017) to describe conscious and unconscious manifestations of petroleum-fueled culture in art. Infused in almost every aspect of the modern world system, oil and coal permeate the world of cultural production, aestheticizing carbon.
A likely Chinese translation for petro-fiction: shiyou wenxue, indeed pre-dates the term’s appearance in English. Chinese-language cultural production dedicated to oil includes poetry, fiction, film, songs, and plays. The rise of shiyou wenxue coincides with the intensive development of China’s oil industry, beginning in the late 1950s, and continuing to the present day. Petro-authors even have their own writers association: Zhongguo shiyou zuojia xiehui.
This paper presents an analysis of the emerging aesthetics of extraction in the literary works of industry and cultural workers stationed in places like the Daqing oil fields between the Great Leap Forward and the end of the Cultural Revolution. Centered around the figure of the “iron man” (tieren) - courageous oil industry workers like Wang Jinxi (1923-1970) - extracting the “blood of the nation” (gonghe guo zhi xue) from the ground – I examine the intersecting themes of labor, development, nationalism and “oil frontierism” in fiction, essays, reportage, poetry and visual culture produced by oil field workers.