Ruins, Melancholy, Diaspora

“Outsize buildings,” says the protagonist of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, “cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”

If this is the case, then the architects of the Old Summer Palace must have had a good eye—since unlike “Chinese traditional architecture,” which Yoeri Guépin points out “was always made in wood…and in bamboo,” the Western palaces endured, becoming “the only remaining trace of all these ages of destruction.”

Guépin’s video essay, Garden of Perfect Brightness, is a bread-and-butter recounting of the palace’s destruction, including a description of “2 million objects looted [in] large part by Lord Elgin and the French troops.” But it says something about the state of historical memory in mainland China that People’s Literature’s high school history textbooks omit Guepin’s disclosure that “an even larger part was looted by the Beijingers themselves and sold to foreigners.”

These objects are especially valuable as a testament to an early, violent moment of Sino-European encounter, yet this binary scheme—a clash of empires—elides the local, populist reactions against a feudal mode of production that trouble Han chauvinist narratives of national humiliation and overcoming. Such tales stoke the embers of resentment: the artist reports seeing a little girl throwing stones at the rubble and shouting, “Kill the French, kill the British.”

They also fuel attempts at art-historical revenge: beginning in 2010, heists of priceless Chinese treasures began to occur in museums in Sweden, Norway, and France. Some institutions, seeing the writing on the wall, rushed to swear fealty to the new, Sinocentric order. After it had fallen victim not once, but twice, to theft, Norway’s KODE museum made a show of repatriating columns stolen from the Old Summer Palace in exchange for a $1.6 million donation from Chinese real estate tycoon and Indiana Jones-type adventurer, Huang Nubo, who called it a moment of “dignity returned to the Chinese people.”1Palmer, Alex W., “The Great Chinese Art Heist,” GQ, 2018, link.


Different political regimes have different ways of cultivating ruins. Fascists, by and large, hated them. Hitler’s inner circle was scandalized by Albert Speer’s suggestion that the Reich’s buildings be erected with a sense of how they’d look a thousand years hence. Speer, the canny rhetorician, pointed out that he was actually trying to minimize, not produce, decadence—even destroyed, his buildings would be free of the ugly, rusting rods so common in WWII rubble: they would be as comely as toppled Roman pillars.2Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, London: Sphere Books, 1970.​ The futurists, who might have thumbed their noses at Speer’s neoclassicism, shared this hatred for rust.

The Imperial Japanese, as Ho Tzu Nyen reminds us, loved to sing of “plates of steel, floating fortress, pride of the land.” These words are lyrics from the “Warship March,” one of several artifacts that Yen unearths in Hotel Aporia, a video installation plumbing the aporias between wartime collaborators’ ideas and actions. Two figures are of special note.

The first is Hajime Tanabe, member of the Kyoto School, a coterie of philosophers attempting to escape Cartesian skepticism through a blend of Zen Buddhism and phenomenology—harmless enough, until it isn’t. Tanabe initially denounced his former teacher Martin Heidegger (whose own ontology is linked, aporetically, to his Nazism), and even expressed sympathies with materialism: Ho quotes him using an almost-dialectical image—a “lotus flower blooming in the middle of fire, that is the present”—to explain historical change.

But at some point, Tanabe’s reasoning makes an inexplicable jump: Marxism fails, he argues, because it lacks faith in “resurrection and unification.” He goes further, announcing that human society and the absolute nothingness of Zen should be mediated through the nation-state—of which Japan is the “supreme archetype.”3Harding, Christopher. “Into Nothingness,” Aeon, 2014, link

The second figure is Yasujiro Ozu, who managed to escape the ire of leftists after Japan’s surrender largely because of his political quiescence: the director never mentioned his enlistment to the Second Gas Unit, which committed wartime atrocities in China (the fact emerged posthumously, in his diaries). Additionally, when stationed in Singapore—Ho’s home—and tasked with making a documentary about Japan’s controversial ally, Chandra Bose, Ozu spent most of his time watching movies and playing tennis, ultimately destroying the script and reels in 1945. His most patriotic film, There Was a Father (1942), was later scrubbed of nationalist content (though Ho refrains from mentioning that Douglas MacArthur’s censors were responsible).4link

Are these, then, marks of guilt and contrition? Ho doesn’t let Ozu off the hook so easily, quoting an extended scene in the director’s last film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), whose protagonist, a former captain in the Imperial Navy, makes a show of telling his former petty officer that it was good Japan lost the war, only to go home and sing the lyrics to the “Warship March,” which the petty officer had requested at the bar where they met.

The father has sinned doubly: he hides his desire to bring back the dead under an old man’s nostalgia—it is this second, louder offense that prompts his son to tell him to shut up. But quiescence does not mean contrition: that the former empire’s floating fortresses have since become rusting hulks means that Ozu’s protagonist finds himself sinking, like Sebald’s wanderers, into melancholy.


Melancholy, says Freud, is a chronic sadness stemming from a refusal to accept what’s lost as truly lost—the fact that our loved object has failed our impossible standards, simply by leaving. So we beat ourselves up, instead: thus the histrionic cries of lovers that they don’t want to get better, that they deserve the pain.

Conservatives are perfectly susceptible to melancholy. Shinzo Abe briefly demonstrated it when visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine in 2014—the place where kamikaze pilots pledged to meet after their suicide missions. The prime minister had tried and failed to remilitarize Japan; he was now apologizing to the “Showa martyrs” in the shrine, many of whom were war criminals.5“Yasukuni Shrine: Japan's ex-PM Abe visits controversial memorial,” BBC, 2020.​ But Abe was willfully ignoring the less-than-patriotic ways that some pilots died—by rioting in their barracks, forcing their planes into the sea, or even turning back and strafing their commanding officers.6Harding, Christopher. “Into Nothingness,” Aeon, 2014, link.​ His tribute suggested that he, and he alone, was entirely to blame.

But in the last century, melancholy has hit leftists particularly hard. This has nothing to do with the “humor” or innate temperaments that the word’s Renaissance origins hint at. It is due to the simple fact that left has lost the most: socialist governments, labor unions, Marxist ideals, decolonial and third-world imaginaries—enough to make an angel cry.

Yet at what point does our sorrow over such destruction become a politically conservative force? Walter Benjamin diagnosed this problem among social democrats in Weimar Germany, who, rather than adapt their programs to the new, dangerous times in which they found themselves, clung stubbornly to their outdated, gradualist pieties, allowing the right to consolidate power.7Benjamin, Walter, “Left-Wing Melancholy,” The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994, 305.

I am guilty of such pessimism too. I recall grumbling to a Chinese friend about the municipal government’s botched hutong reconstruction in one breath, and Beijingers who seemed to care nothing for their architectural heritage in the next. The friend cut me off—she was sick of Westerners, she said, who cared more about ruins than people. If I invested a tiny bit of the care I claimed to harbor for this city into my daily actions, I’d be a lot more convincing, she added.

Her words stung, but she was right: while many leftists dithered, shaking their heads and sighing, the enemy moved with passionate intensity. Is it any wonder they’re winning?


One way through the impasse of melancholy is to make the vanquished dead—robbed not only of life but recognition in official histories—grievable once more. “When you bring back the dead,” says South Korean poet, Kim Hyesoon, “we are living in the same time-space again.”

Kim’s is one of the many women’s voices that fill Jane Jin Kaisen’s film, Community of Parting. At its center speaks Barigongju, the tutelary god of Korean shamans, and seventh child of the King and Queen of Joseon, “who was exiled at birth for being a girl.” In most versions of the story, Bari’s mother, disappointed at her latest failure to produce a male heir, places the newborn baby into a stone box and consigns it to the Hwangcheon river, straddling the worlds of life and death.

Kaisen is quick to depart from Confucian readings of the tale, which paint Bari as a filial daughter, surviving abandonment only to return and heal her dying father. In her retelling of the tale, Bari becomes a metonym for the diaspora. Her primal loss recalls a series of other sunderings: of North and South Korea; of homeland and refugee; of the victims and survivors of political violence. Bari stands, to some degree, for Kaisen herself, a Danish adoptee of Korean descent, born in Jeju Island, the site of an armed uprising, on April 3, 1948, against the peninsula’s division.

The action, organized in part by the South Korean Labor Party, was brutally suppressed by Syngman Rhee’s regime, which murdered tens of thousands of civilians, then attempted to erase them from history. Governments are notoriously slow in admitting their crimes. In 1978, Park Chung-hee’s intelligence service tortured Hyun Ki-young for publishing an account of the massacre.8Coote, Darryl. “My dinner with Hyun Ki Young,” The Jeju Weekly, 2012, link​ Only in 2003 did Roh Moo-hyeon’s administration formally apologize for the military action. In all the intervening years, the task of keeping the past alive fell to a “mnemonic avant-garde,” those like Koh Sun Ahn, the shaman at the center of Kaisen’s film.

Koh’s credentials are heartbreakingly simple. Her father was killed during the crackdown, thrown onto “a pile of 160 corpses.” Both she and her mother—who “lost her land as well as her house” thus underwent shamanism’s sole rite of passage: abandonment.

We watch as Koh somberly dons her ceremonial outfit, then holds Kaisen in an embrace, channeling the artist’s deceased grandparents: “Oh, my granddaughter! Oh, you are wiping your tears... Your tears become resentful waters in heaven and the sea. An invisible ghost, you can't see me, but I can see you. Grandfather looks at you… [I] had a grudge during the Jeju April Third Massacre. I was arrested and persecuted, treated as a criminal. Sometimes I hid in someone's house, but I survived.” Kaisen, back turned to the camera, sobs with Koh.

Kaisen, though, is at her most vulnerable when Koh finishes—when both women turn, wiping their eyes, and the shaman asks someone off-screen to “please translate what I said to her.” Watching Kaisen, eyebrows raised in expectation and confusion, we realize that the artist speaks no Korean—and why should she, a Dane, be expected to? Yet I could not help but feel devastating grief, reminded of my own unconsenting immigration, the pain of forgetting more words each year when speaking to my grandmother on the phone.

Kaisen, however, avoids the major pitfall of diasporic cultural productions: their nostalgia for a lost object, be it whiteness in a hackneyed drama of “multicultural” assimilation, or Asianness in a mythical tale of recovering one’s “roots.”

To be sure, many of her interviewees suffer from such melancholy: one Korean American explains how her 74-year-old mother constantly “[works] through ‘What is my home?’” Her tale illuminates the unevenness of migratory lives: Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants to the US, for example, became “white” far sooner than their East Asian counterparts (who are reassured, to this day, that we are “next in line”). That they did so by learning the doctrine of white supremacy serves to warn us about the perils of biopolitical belonging.9Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge, 1995.

There is nothing unreasonable about the desire to become local—for an end date to the diaspora. The more urgent task, however, is to ask: What forms of national belonging (not everyone can become post-national) evade knee-jerk nativism and coercive schemas of allegiance? How do we move past melancholic attachment to an ancestral homeland without merely swapping one set of racial myths for another? And finally, how do those who have gained full citizenship resist the impulse to see “the faces of the poor, the outsider, the orphan, and the refugee” as what Kim calls “garbage”?

Only by answering such questions, will we arrive, as Bari has, at the ethics of “parting ways while being with.”


Last year, a joke made its rounds on Twitter: rather than put an end to police violence, liberals would rather rename the Pentagon the Maya Angelou War Center.10link​ The ridicule concealed outrage and despair: gone were the halcyon days when the Combahee River Collective drew from Black Marxist traditions to identify the interlocking oppressions they experienced—which no one seemed to want to talk about.11Davis, Angela. The Angela Y. Davis Reader, John Wiley, 1998, 313.​ In the decades since, an increasingly right-wing Democratic establishment had taken their rhetoric, emptied it of all materialist content, then used it to backstab socialists, environmentalists, immigrants, and pacifists.

Things are even grimmer today: not only the center but the alt-right and China’s little reds, have all armed themselves with the language of identity.12Brown, Wendy. “Resisting Left Melancholy,” boundary 2 26 (3), 19-27.

The politics of recognition has long faced charges of idealism. Kaisen’s reading of Bari is reminiscent of the work of Judith Butler—Hegelian that she is—on Antigone’s attempts to redeem her disgraced brother.13Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.​ Butler, reports Jacobin, was caught red-handed in 2019 donating to Kamala Harris, who, despite being Black, Asian-American, and a woman, thus winning the “idpol lottery,” still passed policies harming the folks she claimed to represent.14Featherstone, Liza. “Radical Academics for the Status Quo,” 2019, link

In a double blow to Butler and Kaisen, leftists have come up with a catchy new name for empty acts of recognition—they call it “performance art.”

Is Community of Parting merely “performative”? Indeed, Kaisen does little to illuminate the dense material relations at work in Jeju Island, the second most impoverished region of Korea by GDP. She says little about the conditions in which Koh lives, the compensation she receives for her labor, and her difference from, say, prestigious shamans consulted by election trail politicians, whose radicalism is questionable.15Park, Ju-min. “Korean shamanism finds new life in the modern era,” Reuters, 2012, link​ She mentions the word “class” a single time, in a fairly throwaway fashion.

But to call for more material analysis does not mean we ought to banish recognition altogether. This is not just because inequalities of recognition will cause minorities to sacrifice their economic equality, even their lives. It is also that, in some parts of the world, such acts of recognition remain powerful enough to merit imprisonment or death.

“The Manchu Invasion, Yi Chae Su Rebellion, Han Ja Jak Rebellion, Oh Dae Hyun Rebellion, Saengju Catholic Rebellion, Jeju April Third Incident, Mount Jiri Military Suppression, Yeosu Rebellion, Nam Yang shipwreck, April 19th Revolution, May 16 Revolution, June 6th Incident, the December 12th Incident, and the Sewol Ferry Disaster”—the litany of catastrophes that Koh Sun Ahn recites is so threatening that “once the village chief told the police on us… [and] we couldn't do the ritual for three days.”

Here, performance is deadly serious. After all, whatever its flaws, Kaisen’s film could never be made in mainland China.

Henry Zhang is a writer and translator living in Beijing.

Yueri Guepin, Garden of Perfect Brightness (still), 2019, vide. Courtesy of Times Museum

Ho Tzu Nyen, Hotel Aporia (still), 2019, film installation. Courtesy of Times Museum

Jane Jin Kaisen, Communities of Parting (still), 2019, film installation. Courtesy of Times Museum

Published: 2021.03.11