Reading Dung Kai-cheung: Invention and Authenticity

It is hard to find a traditional Chinese book to read in London. I complained to my mum and she mailed me a book from my bookshelf in Hong Kong. It was written by Hong Kong writer Dung Kai-cheung, including articles from 1997 to 2010 that shared his views on literature and experience on writing. The book is called ‘在世界中寫作,為世界而寫’, as ”Writing in the World, Writing for the World’ in english. It is quite interesting that he mentioned the power of narrating and classification system, which is quite related to the theme of my 3rd contextual practice.

The first Dung Kai-cheung(董啟章)’s novel I read was ‘Androgyny: Evolution of a Nonexistent Species’. It talks about the liberation from patriarchy through the story of a female zoologist searching for an evolved lizard that can reproduce asexually. In the novel, Dung used the writing format of encyclopedia and dictionary, questioning the authenticity of practical writing and possibilities in fiction. This writing style further appears in many of Dung’s later works, including his most important work ‘The Atlas: Archaeology of an Imaginary City’ that explores between fiction and history, and brings out the idea that mapping and naming is an invention of a city.


Invention of Nature

This reminds me of Mark Dion’s work. After seeing his show ‘Theatre of the Natural World‘, I read the book ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, in which he discussed the cataloged order of museum shows a system how we learn and make sense of the nature. The exhibits in the museum is like a fiction narrate of the nature since we present the nature with our perception and idea of nature.

In Dung Kai-cheung’s book ‘Writing in the World, Writing for the World’ (在世界中寫作,為世界而寫), he said writing is the special ability of human that none of other animals have, and hence it’s unavoidable the discourse of species become humanistic. Many writings of animals try to shape the animals into image that fit the value of human society. Allegory is one of the very obvious example; the writer do not really care about animals, they discuss problems of human through the metaphor of animals. The other kind of writing is the scientific writing of animals, from the human aspect of explore and research. There is also a type of writing that looks like writing from animals’s aspect, focus on the cute side of animals, which project the human’s ideal of animals, replacing the animalization with humanity.

Dung said it’s not possible to surmount the limit of the human perception and really look through animals eyes and to feel what they really feel. The most important thing is to realise the boundary of empathy between human and animals, then to seek to understand and solicitude of animal. I think this is what animism seeking for. In Graham Harvey’s “Animism”, animists see living things as person instead of animals. “..understanding that humans share this world with a wide range of persons, only some of whom are human.” I think this is the modest and right attitude to deal with all the beings in this universe.

Invention of History

In his book, Dung also brought up the question ‘why we classify? Why classify in this way?’. In ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’, Terry Eagleton (1983) discussed literature as the product of industrialisation and a kind of substitute religion after the ‘failure of religion’. “Literature is not a way of knowing reality but a kind of collective Utopian dreaming which has gone on through out history.” On top of this, Dung suggested literacy classification is not an objective descriptive system, but a repulsive and collective way to invent the differences between stuff. Dung further elaborate the fiction proportion in history books and historical fiction, suggesting history is an invention. We have to reconsider history is not equal to past.

There are always different version of history regarding to the same period of the same place. This doesn’t mean any of them is true or fake, but shows the position of the narrator. I remember during my second year in university, a professor ask us to rethink whether the origin of Hong Kong was just a fish village or is it just some invented story, that Hong Kong was never a fish village. The familiar history of Hong Kong, it always starts with ‘Hong Kong was a small fish village before it became a British colony and turned into an international city.’ As a native Hongkonger, we never doubt about this, this was written in every school textbook and as the official government saying. I didn’t understand by the time the professor said this, but now I finally get it. What happened before Hong Kong became a fish village? And why choose this time period to be the start of the history of Hong Kong?

This is probably because the British government wanted to emphasize on the history of their contribution to develop Hong Kong into a international city since 1841. Dung said that Hong Kong was actually never a fish village, it was always a city. Then in 1997 during the time near the handover of Hong Kong to China, there were many museum exhibitions that trace back the history to the clansmen in New Territories of Hong Kong, and the archaeological objects (e.g. the bronze sword found under the Tsing Ma Bridge) dig in Hong Kong, with a slogan ‘Hong Kong Heritage 5000 years’. Suddenly Hong Kong’s history went from hundred years to thousand years. This version of Hong Kong history can be seen as the purpose of putting Hong Kong in the system of Greater China (China always sees itself as one race country with many ethnic groups), in order to raise the national identity of Hong Kong people.

Forming History through Heritage

History is a battlefield between different powers. Archaeological objects is the material forms of history. Or is it? History always written in the writer’s stand, but objects are neutral; the only stand of themselves is that they existed, but the stories of the objects are still told by the people. We need to have a clear distinction between Hong Kong as a place and Hong Kong as a cultural history entity. Like Dung said, the ancient sword found in the region of Hong Kong shown the possibility of related to the ancient China history, but you can’t say this is the root of the ‘Hong Kong cultural history entity’. The relationship between archeological objects and history is complicated that you can’t simply put an equal sign on it. Just like we won’t see the dinosaur as our ancestor just because we found a dinosaur skeletons in our backyard.


The main idea of Dung’s articles is that writing is from human’s aspect. His book makes me rethink about the invention of nature, history and objects. I think about the paintings I did, that I am depicting the trees i saw in the nature but I was showing something else, something that how they look like in my eyes but might not be true to the objective world. I think about is it the right direction I am heading, or is there any attitude or philosophy I am seeking on this journey. The trees are always silently watching the human and animals. They were there long before us and will remains there after we perish.

Further reading:

From History to Fiction,
Dung Kai-cheung on inventing Hong Kong stories


June 2018: Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章

1 thought on “Reading Dung Kai-cheung: Invention and Authenticity”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s