Interview with Research Alumnus Dr. Zairong Xiang: “The emergence of the virus has unleashed a new strain of anti-Asian racism all over the world”

Dr. Zairong Xiang

Research alumnus Dr. Zairong Xiang is currently undertaking a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Potsdam. As of July 2020, he will take up the post of Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Associate Director of Art at Duke Kunshan University. He spends most of his time thinking and writing about the myriad ways in which the world has been understood and represented in different cultures, literatures, religions, and times.

What is your connection with Tübingen and the University?
In 2013, I came to Tübingen as a PhD student, as part of the joint doctoral program “Cultural Studies in Literary Interzones”. Before I came to Tübingen, I had conducted research in Mexico City, Perpignan, and Bergamo. These were all very different places!

Tell us something about your Tübingen experience.
I arrived in Tübingen just as I entered the writing-up phase of my thesis. Mexico City is fabulous, noisy, and chaotic and I spent an amazing time there. However, to focus on my work and to finish my thesis, Tübingen was perfect. I was very fortunate to have Professor Ingrid Hotz-Davies (Chair of English Literature and Gender Studies) as one of my PhD supervisors. Professor Hotz-Davies provided me with excellent advice and encouragement during the last phases of my PhD. If you take a look at the topic of my PhD, “Queer Ancient Ways: A Decolonial Exploration”, you will understand that these are not just courtesy words.

Where did you read and write while you were in Tübingen?
In my favorite place: the university library. It is a great place to work and I experienced moments of perfect tranquility there. I found almost every book, article, and essay I needed in the library. The library’s system also very much speaks to me: rather than arranging books according to disciplinary divisions, the library organizes them chronologically, according to the date they received them (the online catalogue functions as any other online library catalogue). Looking for one book, I would often come across a range of other books – books I had never even reckoned with. I often felt as if I was encountering human knowledge in a strange mess, but yet in an inspiring totality. 

What is your field of study?
This is a difficult question. Although I have a degree in Comparative Literature, I do not actually look at so-called literary works. This leads us to the questions of “What is literature?” and “What counts as writing?” The common and very Eurocentric – and I would say also Sinocentric – hypothesis is that people, who do not possess commonly known writing systems, do not produce “literature”. This means that the works they produce are not taken seriously and are commonly considered inferior. Take, for example, the Nahua peoples in Mexico. Their “writing” is nothing like alphabetic “writing”. The Nahua peoples’ “writing” is a combination of writing and painting and produces very different – literary – outcomes to the ones people in the alphabetic world have grown used to. My work looks at the different ways in which we encounter this type of art and literature and my methodology is informed by feminist, queer theoretical, post-colonial, and decolonial theory. These are theories that force us to challenge normative ideas and commonly accepted “truths”.

What is currently on your mind?
Like most people, I am predominantly concerned with coronavirus and its manifold implications, especially the social, cultural, and ecological implications. I grew up in China and my entire family lives there. I therefore started following the news on coronavirus much earlier than most of my friends and colleagues here in Berlin where I am currently living. More than five months ago, to be precise, when the first reports from Wuhan city arrived. Reading and hearing about the large number of people suffering and dying and, at the same time, witnessing how the virus became a subject of ridicule in Western media made me very sad, disgusted, and angry. For example, the so-called “caricature” that appeared the Danish daily Jyllands-Poste on January 27, 2020. The image is clearly offensive, not funny. Generally speaking, the emergence of the virus has unleashed a new strain of anti-Asian racism all over the world. In Berlin, someone saw me walking down the street and immediately started shouting, “Corona!” Other fellow Asians have reportedly not only been attacked verbally, but physically, too. 

You have just published an article entitled “COVID-19: On the Epistemic Condition”. What prompted you to write this article?
Basically, academic anti-Asian racism. In the late 19th century, there was a large amount of travel writing that, shamefully, portrayed people living on other continents who followed different rules and customs, as primitive and barbaric. A few weeks ago, two Hong Kong virologists published an article very much in this vein. Writing about coronavirus, they argue that the backward customs of Chinese mainlanders lie at the root of what they call the “Wuhan Virus”. This narrative was soon reiterated by a well-known French intellectual, Alain Badiou. In his blog article “On the Epidemic Condition”, Badiou writes about the “dangerously dirty” Chinese wet markets and the Chinese peoples’ “irrepressible taste for the open-air sale of all kinds of living animals”. I grew up with these wet markets and I think it is extremely careless of a major intellectual of the left in the West to write such a sweepingly racist and inaccurate analysis. Badiou did not even care to check what exactly Wuhan is in administrative terms – it is not a province, as he calls it, but a city, the capital of the Hubei province. It is also very telling that Badiou refers to “Cartesian reason” as the ultimate answer to the “epidemic” – now “pandemic” – condition we are living in. So by changing some letters of Badiou’s title, I wrote a response called “On the Epistemic Condition” to suggest that the current pandemic and its repercussions reveal an epistemic crisis, too. To start with, I strongly believe that no singular understanding of the world, or in Badiou’s words, any “simple idea”, will suffice to face the multifaceted challenge that the pandemic has brought to the global community.

When will you be returning to Tübingen?
On 27 May 2020, I will be returning to Tübingen virtually, to give a digital lecture at the China Centre Tübingen (CCT) on the concept of “Shanzhai” (“Counterfeit”). Anyone interested is cordially invited to join the event. Find more information here.  

What are the next steps that you will be taking?
In July 2020, I will be taking up the position of Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Associate Director of Art at Duke Kunshan University. I am very excited about this position as it will allow me to reconnect with China and Asia after having left almost 13 years ago to pursue my postgraduate studies and do research in Europe and Latin America. 

Would you be interested in engaging with other Tübingen research alumni in China?
Yes, absolutely! Please feel free to contact me through TRACe (Tübingen Research Alumni Centre) or my website. 

More information on Dr. Zairong Xiang
Please follow this link to access Zairong’s article on “COVID-19: On the Epistemic Condition” and this link to view his book on Queer Ancient Ways: A Decolonial Exploration which is based on his doctoral thesis. Zairong started and finished his book in Tübingen, editing the final draft of the book in Tübingen in 2018 when he returned to give an alumni lecture at a conference hosted by the English Department.

Please find all of Zairong’s academic and non-academic writing on his website: www.xiangzairong.com  

The interview was conducted by Rebecca Hahn.