Bio: Chiarina Chen is a New York based curator and is the founder, creative director at Negation. She has a background in criminal psychology and art history, and her current projects explore the posthuman condition and subjectivity.
When I saw the theme of the posthuman and China, my instinct was one word, “FINALLY, largely because I was born in China and have grown up in a family which holds many Chinese traditional values, especially my father's side, the family of Chen. Such roots, or at least a very crucial part of these roots, have been traveled to me ever since living abroad. I came from a psychology and art background, and I am now a curator who explores creative practices in the field of Posthumanism. I am currently also translating a book about the posthuman into Chinese. I felt that encountering the posthuman was inevitable. Standing on the crossroads between the 4th industrial revolution and the 6th extinction, we, the human and non-human beings on earth, are experiencing multiple crises propelled by the rapid-expanding cognitive capitalism. We need to revisit ourselves as a species, while rethinking the humanist ideal of man, in addition to individuality. Has man always been defined like this, especially with regards to his relations to the others and the universe? The answer is no. Thus we need more ways or narratives, more paths of history writings, situated in different spaces and times, to show what we are and what we can become.
Perhaps due to the influence of the postcolonial and feminist theorists, I initially deeply resonated with African Ubuntu philosophy, especially when looking at it through the lens of Posthumanism. Such exploration kept leading me back to my origin, too—the spirituality, the interconnectedness, the regional perspectives. When thinking of Posthumanism in China, some questions are worth raising. China is geographically and conceptually big, and to avoid over-generalized enormous ideas, how should we situate ourselves? What are the subjects? What are the current conditions and praxes? What kind of cartographies can we trace or produce?
In the past few decades, China has been growing rapidly more than ever. However, the surging GDP does not accurately represent development. Under the influence of modernization, urbanization, and globalization, the country has gone through a series of conflicts and transformations. On the one hand, we see continuing advancement in technology and aggressive progression; on the other hand, there's a growing need to search and “return” to Chinese ancient wisdom and spirituality. This reflects the fact that, over decades of impacts from western society, people are critical of the modern value systems and have an urge to search for an alternative path to revisit their lives and relations to others. Thus, posthumanist ideas could be explored not only in aspects such as technology, material embodiment, and embedment, but also in relation to the ongoing complex condition and traditional epistemologies and cosmologies. And of course, exploring tradition or the ancient does not mean going “back,” but reflects a non-linear reactivation, breaking from the linear history written mostly by the West.
Not too long after returning to the States from Africa, I was introduced to a rural resurrection art project in a village called XuCun, in Shanxi Province, China. I immediately took it. Several aspects of this project interested me: it took place in the rural parts of China and aimed at rebuilding the village, not through a “progressive” approach, but a by a path that revitalizes its “past,” reactivating its value systems while integrating contemporary forms. Rurality is a crucial source to Chinese culture and spirituality, and I'll explain why.
As Descola nicely puts it, the binary distinction of human/non-human has been foundational to European thought since the Enlightenment, and many cultures on earth do not adopt this partition. For example, Viveiros de Castro pointed out the strength in Amerindian perspectivism, which posits a “multi-natural” continuum across all species. The idea of Ubuntu in African tribal culture, for example, sees humans, nature, ancestors, and non-human entities as interconnected, and one exists because others exist. In ancient China, the human is not an exclusive species under the dualistic frame, either. Human, non-human, ancestors, and nature are interconnected linkages. Chinese philosophy has always been about “Becoming,” which is highly different from the classic western idea of “Being,” but more in tune with posthumanist monistic views of continually changing and becoming, as theorist Li Zehou argues in his famous article, “‘WU’ as the Core Source of Unique Chinese Traditional Cultural.” The word “Wu” is written as “巫,” and is similar to “magic,” which many sociologists such as James Frazer and Max Weber have highlighted. Li Zehou points out ancient Wu’s role in understanding the cosmos, nature, and crucial roles in channeling human activities into multi-relations. He emphasizes how Wu later merged with Taoism, and how it was further incorporated and rationalized into Li, or the Ritual Thought, The Confusion 礼. The Confusion Ritual is more recent and closely related to modern history, and was quite dominant before the cultural revolution. These sources, rituals, and activities have been preserved in the rural parts of China for thousands of years.
Unlike many western countries, the idea of urbanization has been very recent and fresh in the past century. For thousands of years, people lived in a rural-city continuum. The city acted as the realm of careers and workers, and the rural preserved spirituality and family in the long term. People kept returning to the countryside to reach a balance. However, hundreds of years of modernization wiped out villages and almost all traditional value systems, which were once preserved in the rural. They were later labeled as the “Poor,” or the “Underdeveloped.” As the spiritual sources were cut off and the rural ruined, people were forced to move to the city, which later became the megacity. Thus, it’s a more complex issue than a migrated population; it is a spiritual and cultural crisis, too.
XuCun is an ordinary village. Damaged, too. The pattern of the village, which resides next to Taihang mountain, is a Phoenix,. There are concrete new buildings as well as old, northern style houses. Luckily, many key places are still kept in place, and some traditional rituals are ongoing, carried by the young generation. When I joined the XuCun Village Project, many didn’t understand why I'd explore something that was “abandoned.” There are several trends toward villages nowadays. Big developers lead one, and the way to operate is to further tear down the original villages, build brand new modern facilities, and attract people from big cities to invest. Such methods seem to bring economic effects on the surface but in fact have deepened the village’s damage. The XuCun project started as a research project, led by a group of artists, architects, and critics, and gradually developed into a long-term cultural resurrection project which engaged the villagers. My role is to lead the creative projects, to conceive of ways to engage with communities, and to incorporate more contemporary energies and practices. Our aim is not to replace the village with modern values, but to restore the remaining traditional elements and gradually construct the rest by merging both traditional and contemporary modes. The process is open and can be very creative. That is to say, it is not our goal to “dig out” cultural relics, nor to go “back” and live in the past, but to preserve the remaining fragments and activate them through new thinking and methodologies. In this sense, it is not to chase what’s “next” either.
To me, exploring Posthumanism in China does not linearly look “forward” nor “next,” but perhaps responds with a question: “Have we always been posthuman?” XuCun is an example of where we might locate ourselves when dealing with issues and crises of modern China, thus opening spaces for critical and creative explorations in the field of Posthumanism—full of challenges, but with possibilities, too.