The Pain That Connects: A New Perspective on the Chinese Health Humanities
2: Precarious Encounters: Aging, Cancer, and Displacement in Wang Zhenhe's Late Writing
Friday, March 25, 2022
3:30pm – 5:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Dickinson College, United States
Normative encomia about “good death” often require the elderly to return to their home country when terminal disease strikes. The familiarity of home optimizes treatment and care, minimizing infection from an alien environment. To encounter mortality in one’s birthplace also guarantees one’s regional and political identification with a much-needed emotional anchor. Such a longing for what I call “biopolitical purity” can be located in the late writings of a number of Cold War-generation Taiwanese writers who lost their long-term moral-political allegiance after the seismic sociopolitical changes in the mid-1980s. This paper decouples the association between aging and biopolitical purity by focusing on a case of exception in Wang Zhenhe (1940-1990)’s The Mouse Serves a Guest Tea and Love across Two Places, in which Wang ruminates on his struggle with nasopharyngeal cancer. Setting these two novellas against the decline of the rural vis-à-vis accelerating urbanization and the ebbing of leftist discourses with the rise of Taiwanese native consciousness, I read them as Wang’s search for “biopolitical precarity.” Rather than reinforcing a craving for belonging and safety, I argue that terminal diseases in old age offer conceptual possibilities for the elderly to destabilize fixed ecologies of attachment, enabling contact with or even contamination from their affective, cognitive, and political others. While this endeavor often puts the elderly in more vulnerable situations with respect to their wellbeing, their precarious encounters with unknown others nonetheless configure an alternative form of vitality beyond a harmony-indexed later life.