China and Inner Asia
Stanford University, United States
Cultural protocols of touch—the explicit and tacit rules that guide the way we use our hands to interact with one another—have been placed in high relief by the COVID-19 pandemic. How do stories of hands reflect and inform these protocols, and why does it matter? What is the cultural significance of intimate touch and “untouchability” in the new millennium? To explore these questions, I examine the representation of hands in Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, a 2006 novel set in a fictional Chinese “AIDS village.” I draw upon Anthony Giddens’ analysis of intimacy, risk, and the rise of the “pure relationship” to explain why tactile estrangement brings about the metaphorical death of the novel’s quarantined protagonists, as well as why intimate touch is endowed with the power to restore their humanity and will to live. The story illuminates touch as an indispensable facet of modern intimacy and alienation that is often overlooked by existing scholarly paradigms, which tend to overemphasize disembodied verbal utterances and the relinquishment of private information as the primary mechanism for building intimate rapport. In Giddens’ terms, Yan’s novel highlights “untouchability” as a new axis of inequality that is defined by differential access to reflexive self-creation. With direct relevance to our age of social distancing, my paper argues that the denial of intimate touch can be read as a form of modern biopolitical violence and urges readers to consider precisely what is lost in a world where our interactions with others are increasingly virtualized.