Boda Chen, the First and Last Dracologist
Yuhang Zhang’s piece, Boda Chen, the First and Last Dracologist, slyly subverts Liu’s obsession with pattern and purity, through the mouthpiece of the mysterious — fictitious? real? both? neither? — Qing dynasty scholar, Boda Chen.
It is a reading of Liu’s text that takes us from Tesco’s to rat-borne plagues, and from the Boxer Rebellion to the library of Howqua, the Hong Kong merchant who was once the richest man on earth.
Boda Chen, the First and Last Dracologist
I vaped too much today. I felt the blob harden in my lungs, pressing down to my upper belly. I tried some hot water to ease the pressure, but it made no difference, left the blob untouched.
The blob only appears when I am in London — here where something reverberates cancerously through the fetid air. I read that line in Negarestani, as I sat flipping through PDFs at fucking 1.47am. The blob was everything. The trees, the pavement, the unsolicited nude on the phone screen. And in five fucking hours time, the dim sunlight would start to reflect off the double-glazed windows on the building opposite, and I would have to get up early to rush through the excerpts to send to the publisher.
Born in 1875, there is little record of Boda Chen’s early life. His father was said to be a cousin of Wu Chongyao, the fifth son of Wu Bingjian, also known as Howqua, the Hong merchant and the richest man on earth. This may be why Boda had access to Yuet Nga Tong (粤雅堂), Howqua’s library in 1347 volumes. It was there Boda read The Carving of Dragons, in multiple versions. It is impossible to trace which versions he read because in the only study he wrote, ‘Diagramming The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons’, Boda refers to all the works using pseudonyms or non-existent titles. At the time Boda’s state of mind was questionable too: while writing, he was ingesting heavy doses of opium.
Boda traces The Carving of Dragons to a time before Liu Xie’s days at Dinglin Temple, and to China’s long history of live burials — something that related to Boda’s own obsession with accounts of the live burials of Christians and European missionaries during the Boxer Rebellion.
He sits in the garden, the rank air fumigated by wreaths of opium, thinking about the buried soldiers from the state of Zhao. Their last breaths, their sweat in the exhumed dirt, mingling with the air we breathe. Their blood and bone sinking to the subterranean rivers from which we draw well-water.
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to put Boda’s Diagramming down only to his opium-smoking in the garden. What he offers the reader is something substantial. Liu Xie writes:
Why do we say this? Because all colour-patterns are mixed of black and yellow, and all shape-patterns are differentiated by round and square. The sun and moon, like two pieces of jade, manifest the pattern of heaven; mountains and rivers in their beauty display the pattern of earth (夫玄黃色雜， 方圓體分，日月疊璧，以垂麗天之象;山川煥綺，以 鋪理地之形).
Boda’s comments on Liu’s passage read as follows:
But when the Battle of Changping ended with the live burial of the Zhao army, the air became rancid and misty. The water turned purple, the earth rotten with human tissue. This was all in keeping with pattern. Liu writes that patterns are manifested in the ooze and the differentiation of heaven and earth. This differentiation gives rise to multiple others, exterior to the pattern. These multiple others go on in turn to give birth to still more others.
What are human beings? Are they ‘the refined essence of the five elements’ (為五行之秀，實天地之心)? Or are they a pot of innumerable others, multiplying at the back of the kitchen, a slop bucket? For if integrity is what pattern is willing to be, why does it differentiate at all? And if pattern is a kind of integrity, why does it need to be anything at all?
Therefore, Liu writes: ‘When we extend our observations, we find that all things, both animals and plants, have patterns of their own’ (傍及萬品，動植皆文).
Reading this, I no longer felt the blob in my lungs. Or to be more precise, I couldn’t feel my lungs at all. There was nothing to feel in the middle of my torso. But it was not a void. It was neutral. The air pumped in and out, but nothing was consumed or produced.
Given that patterns generate their own exteriority, what is the pattern of human being? Surely, it is the live burial.
Liu tells us: ‘Words with pattern indeed express the mind of the universe!'( 言之文也，天地之心哉!).’ But what mind belongs to the worms that hatch from the bodies of the Zhao soldiers buried in the earth? The worms know nothing about the course behind things. There is no such course. The worms, purposeless, find a way through. They do not look ahead, or back to what came before. They could grow even in a vacuum. The worms express what it is to be. Existence is nothing other than the worms' expression.
And so, the Zhao soldiers, blindfolded, stepped into their own tombs. This was their own expression, their pattern. Arrows thrust into intestines, hearts ripped open to welcome the limestone. The expression of this pattern began once the worms started to bore through numerous orifices, in and out. Multiple others, exterior to the soldiers' bodies. And the soldiers, sealed under the displaced dirt — gnawing teeth, compacted hair — their shivering bones were their literature.
Therefore, Liu writes, ‘by the time of the Shang and the Zhou [dynasties], literary form surpassed its substance.’ (逮及商周，文勝其質，《雅》、《頌》所被，英華曰 新),
On YouTube, a fat, wrinkled chef from Beijing is boiling up white pork intestines as he instructs his assistant.
‘Did you put baking powder in it?’
‘Then turn on the tap.’
‘See? Here comes the foam. The transparent mucus you couldn’t see can now be washed away. Give it a good shower! The taste of intestinal air is not pleasant.’
‘Fucking Westerners have no idea about food hygiene,’ I think.
Needless to say, the Chinese know the secrets of both mucus and literature. Mucus is drowsily rancid, translucent, mildly sinister. It shapes our brains, causes them to ooze other compounds. This is the source of so-called literature.
Dealing with mucus is by no means straightforward. It demands meticulous hygiene. But — this is the secret knowledge, a conspiracy of the Chinese people — to pursue hygiene is to collude with the filth you seek to exclude. When you wash away the mucus, you find it seeps back into your body. The mucus floods back, up from sinkhole, into the abdomen, through the joints of the body, and then out of the mouth, the nostrils and the butthole. It clings to the edges of your slippers in your dining room, it spreads in a grubby path to Tesco, where it climbs up onto the meat counter.
This is the real pattern of literature. It takes shape with every turn it takes down the road, every hole it pours through.
Literature is never ours.
Surely, Liu Xie knew this well. His own era was not so far removed from the time of strict food hygiene of the Zhou dynasty. Writing The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, he knew the extent of his own collusion. Liu’s book is a séance of white magic. His obsession with impurity in the cosmic patterns of literature, like food hygiene, is destined to betray itself.
The Zhao soldiers, buried deep, a much older conspiracy, find their way back through Boda.
And the plot is completed.
Timeline of Boda Chen:
December 1900: Boda finishes Diagramming the Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons. Before he completes a draft for publication, he succumbs to a hernia.
September 1901: Recovers from hernia. Parts with Wu family and leaves Yuet Nga Tong for unknown reasons.
Spring 1902 – Summer 1905: Purchases land on Cheung Chau Island, using money defrauded from a British merchant. Plants ephedra which he exports to a laboratory at Tokyo Imperial University.
Autumn 1905: Bankruptcy. Allegedly receives a contract from the newly established Guangzhou Water Supply Co., for whom he oversees the construction of the Xicun Water Plant.
Summer 1912: Arrested in Hong Kong for importing rats from Canton. Bailed out by the Canton warlord, Jiongming Chen.
Spring 1916: moves to Wong Chuk Hang Kau Wai Village. Starts writing The History of Rat-Borne Plagues in Hong Kong
1918: Spotted in Leung Shuen Wan Chau, after which, all records cease.
Boda Chen, 最初和最后的龙学家
Boda Chen生于1875年，早年经历已无从考证。据传，他的父亲是时任怡和行行主伍崇曜的表亲。而伍崇曜即红顶商人 ‘浩官’ 伍秉鉴的第五子，在其父去世后接手洋行。推测正是因为这层关系，Boda才有机会进入伍家的藏书楼粤雅堂。也正是在那里，他接触到了不同刊本的《文心雕龙》。Boda到底接触过哪些本子，现已无法考证，而至于其唯一的著作 《图解文心雕龙》中所提及的文献，大多都不可考，或是纯属捏造。而同样存疑的是Boda在撰写本书时，吸食大量鸦片影响下精神状态…
夫玄黃色雜， 方圓體分，日月疊璧，以垂麗天之象;山川煥綺，以 鋪理地之形
Boda Chen 生平年表