- Flies’ Eyes, Mural Remnants, and Jia Pingwa’s Perverse Nostalgia
Like the trompe l'oeil itself, the fly is obsessed with minutiae, Christian or Confucian. The fly moves between the cracks of houses and bones, waiting upon feasts and misfortune; it generates—it was long thought—spontaneously, coming from nowhere to live briefly on what we leave behind. It is the afterimage of the flesh.—Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy
In the preface to Old Xi'an (Lao Xi'an), a recent volume of old photographs for which the novelist Jia Pingwa contributed a textual commentary, Jia recounts how he once observed some foreigners trying to converse in Chinese with the receptionist at a Xi'an hotel. The foreigners were apparently having considerable difficulty understanding the receptionist's Xi'an dialect and asked her why she didn't simply use standard Mandarin. She replied that, during the Han and Tang dynasties, the Xi'an dialect was the standard in China. At this point, Jia Pingwa continues in an apparent non sequitur; [End Page 749] a fly suddenly flew over and landed on a tourist's hat. The tourist asked the woman in astonishment, how could such a high-class hotel have flies in it? The woman replied that if he looked at the fly more closely, he would notice that it had double eyelids, which was because it had flown over directly from the Tang dynasty!1
Jia Pingwa does not dwell on this enigmatic anecdote here, but it gains significance when compared with another anecdote about a similar transdynastic fly in his earlier novel Feidu (Fallen City).2 Near the beginning of that notoriously erotic and decadent novel, the protagonist Zhuang Zhidie finds a stone from the Xi'an city wall, which he speculates might date back to the Han dynasty. He then struggles home with the stone balanced precariously on the back of his motorcycle, only to have his wife, Niu Yueqing, mock him for it, saying, "If you say that this wall-stone is from the Han dynasty, then we could also claim that the fly in this room is from the Tang dynasty!"3 While Jia does not pursue this latter anecdote either but instead flits forward with his narrative, these fleeting visions of archaic flies nevertheless provide us with a glimpse of a potential relationship between these two otherwise dissimilar works. More specifically, both works are explicitly rooted in the breathless modernization of contemporary urban China, while at the same time they feature a nostalgic fascination with the historical tradition which that same modernization process simultaneously threatens to erase. Jia's antiquarian flies therefore represent a trace of the past that perpetually returns to haunt the giddy timelessness of the present. The flies in each of the two works do not simply connote the dark underbelly of modern urban society; they also constitute transhistorical spectral presences whose imperial-period associations stand in open defiance of the forward march of modernity.
Flies inhabit liminal zones of disembodiment and disintegration, against which idealized images of corporal and social unity become possible in the first place. A metonym for contagion and a synecdoche for decay, the fly establishes invisible linkages between people and events separated by the bounds of space and time. The fly's connotations of filth and putrefaction stand as an ironic reminder of the cultural efflorescence of a time gone by, and it is therefore appropriate that it is indeed a fly, of all things, that is singled out in these two anecdotes as a paradigmatic figure linking contemporary [End Page 750] Chinese society back to the Han/Tang golden age of Chinese culture and civilization.
Flitting between the ultramodern decadence of Fallen City and the historical nostalgia of the Old Xi'an volume, this figure of the transdynastic fly suggests a way of bringing these two disparate works on Xi'an into dialogue with each other. When Jia's novel is viewed through the fly's figurative gaze, it becomes possible to look past the decadent, erotic veneer that has fascinated (and scandalized) most previous commentators of Fallen City and instead recognize that this eroticism is embedded within a...