Railways, Whales, and Star Atlases: Real/Imagined Geographies and Speculative Cartographies of Eurasia
Long before the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad between 1892 and 1905, Prince Vladimir Odoevsky’s science fiction novel The Year 4338, composed in the 1830s, described an ‘electrical railroad’ running from Peking to St. Petersburg via tunnels under the Himalayas and the Caspian Sea. Though seemingly timid in vision when compared to science fiction novels about space travel, The Year 4338 was rather ambitious considering Russia had only begun building modest-length railroads in 1836, with the electrical railroad invented much later. In the novel, the railroad located Czarist Russia at the centre of the world, whereas Britain, France, and Germany’s positions were greatly diminished. In this regard, Odoevsky’s novel is one of the earliest contributions to Classical Eurasianism, an intellectual movement that tried to establish a unique, self-sufficient cultural space for Russia, distinct from Western Europe and embracing its Eastern roots.
Classical Eurasianism emerged in the 1920s as a theory that claimed full cultural relativism, acknowledging the opacities and differences of cultures in the context of a critique of Western dominance. Each geocultural space has its unique character and should develop its own path to modernity, as opposed to following the steps of the West, which was deemed European cultural hegemony.
At the time, the world appeared to the Classical Eurasianists as broken up into territorial cells with relatively hermetic geocultures. One of these was Russia–Eurasia, the supranational geoculture united under the self-identification of Russia with its Eastern traits that, similarly to Western Europe, India, or the USA, shared a common destiny with its own significance and specificity.
In some ways, the Eurasianists anticipated later postcolonial discourses based on cultural relativism and strategic essentialism that were advanced by theorists Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gayatri Spivak, among others, and, most alarmingly, the re-surfacing of the right-wing ‘Eurasian’ movement today, headed by Russian political strategist Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin’s support for the Eurasia Party movement since the 2000s borrows the intellectual resources of Eurasianism in fashioning an Anti-American yet, in effect, neo-imperial Russian political movement. Mired in muddled geopolitics, Dugin’s Eurasianism celebrates Russia’s expansionist agenda to build a Eurasian sphere of influence, using the ocean and continent as a metaphor to describe a continental grounding associated with Eurasia, and to condemn liberal intellectuals for following the water—the Pacific—and looking West.
Science fiction, more than mere speculation on the not-yet-there, can sometimes actively shape the look of the future. In the case of The Year 4338, it is the geographical imagination built on geo-cultural determination in tandem with technological speculation that heralds a host of ‘science non-fictions’—the era of accelerated expansionism, military campaigns, and the Great Game, all informing geopolitics of Central and East Asia until today.
Geographical imagination is deeply embedded in the political claims on Eurasia. The ideology that fuelled Japan’s expansionism before and during World War II was Pan-Asianism, under which the plan for a ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’ was drawn: an economic, cultural, and political collective-entity encompassing parts of Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. With the rhetoric of brotherhood and common culture, nations were to rid the rule of European colonial powers under the guidance of Japan. On the material level, infrastructure played an important role. The gargantuan infrastructure projects undertaken or planned by the Japanese and in cooperation with their partners saw the development of railway connections from Japan to Western Europe and throughout Southeast Asia.
In a different register, the Confucian world order of tianxia, which means ‘everything under heaven’, historically denotes a hierarchical world system whereby the Chinese Empire was at the centre, with countries on the periphery entering into a tributary relationship with China. This could be observed in the interaction between China and its neighbouring states well until the early modern era. Though theoretically unequal, the tributary system afforded a degree of informal equality to tribute states, as it allowed for fair exchange and trade driven by the self-interests of the parties involved. A further political and geopolitical consequence was that the tributary system enabled greater security for those involved without engaging in arms races. In this way, the system contributed to the peaceful coexistence of different peoples and polities—an idea that extends into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a platform that China launched in 2013 to interlink China with regions along the ancient Silk Road and the maritime trade routes connecting East Asia to Africa and Europe.
The BRI’s mandate is to promote and facilitate regional multilateral cooperation. To date, the initiative has expanded to around seventy countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Oceania, incorporating one-third of global GDP and one-quarter of global foreign investment flows. However, concerns over a ‘debt trap’ have been raised, with cases of bad loans leading to severe political circumstances. When the Sri Lankan government failed to pay back the debt to its Chinese lender in 2015, for example, it sold a ninety-nine-year lease to China Merchant Ports Holdings, thus granting rights to the Hambantota Port. Recent studies reveal that China’s leverage has remained limited and, in many cases, renegotiations have been resolved in favour of the borrower.
When China came under the spotlight at the World Economic Forum in 2017 as a defender of globalisation, vis-à-vis protectionism and retractions in the ‘free world’, the political ideology of tianxia captured the imagination across different political camps. The pre-modern Silk Road and the Belt and Road Initiative are often mentioned in the same breath, conflating old and new geographical imaginations. Concurrently, there is a surge of scholarship on tianxia as (old and new) imperial China’s world order. Zhao Tingyang, for example, has argued for tianxia as an ideal form of global governance beyond ‘international politics’, based on the harmony and common wellbeing of all peoples. Scholar Cai Menghan has brought caveats to the generalisation of the term by tracing the usage of the it.
Importantly, Cai has showed that tianxia discourses faded in Song and Ming dynasties, until reviving in the early Qing dynasty around mid 17th century in the contemporary debate surrounding the fall of the country versus the demise of the tianxia. It was believed that while Manchu overlords may conquer China, they could never triumph over the tianxia. This seems to suggest that tianxia, at that particular moment in the early Qing Dynasty, encapsulates a Chinese culturalist, albeit emancipatory, proto-nationalism, which in turn reveals the curious careers of tianxia and Eurasia as concepts—that they may harbour laboratory potential at times, pointing to peaceful coexistence and global governance while also being co-opted to justify neo-imperial practices. Given all these entangled Eurasian coordinates at the present moment, what can artistic and speculative mapping do?
Unmapping Eurasia is a long-term art and transcultural study and project initiated by Binna Choi, director of Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons, and myself, which proposes to unlearn what has obstructed Eurasian visions and practices, from the coloniality at play on both sides of the colonialist spectrum, to the Cold War’s constructed opposition between communism and capitalism, and the various claims on Eurasia mentioned above.
This study focuses on and enacts old and new polycentric movements for commoning, ways of thinking and living, and social systems operating within the principle of the commons. The inspiration of Unmapping Eurasia comes from the Eurasian nomads, travellers, and divers who make up a transhistorical speculative cartography. The project evolves as different geographies are interwoven together through various modes of ‘movement’, including long-term research and study programnes, performative symposiums, artistic commissions and exhibitions, and infrastructural research with other socio-political agents—all while being open to emerging practices, sensitivities, and ecologies.
One such movement is called One Northeast, under which we realised an exhibition at Zarya Center for Contemporary Art in Vladivostok with an aim to cultivate an understanding of Northeast Asia from geopolitics to geopoetics. On an excursion in Vladivostok as part of our research, we visited the private museum Artetage, where we found Petroglyphs (1993), a modern painting depicting whales and deer in a style that recalls prehistorical petroglyphs by modernist painter Igor Dony, from Magadan in north-east Russia. The deer is a typical motif associated with diverse nomadic tribes across the steppes, found in metal figures as early as 2500 years ago, and the reindeer is believed to be a medium of communication between humans and the realm above (‘tengri’), due to the shape of its antlers. The whale, a traditional motif among tribes along the north-east Asian coastline, could be dubbed an anti-modern mammal since it resolutely returned to the ocean even though it was perfectly adapted to living on the land.
The striking feature of Dony’s painting is how the deer and whale are depicted side by side. We know that the shamans of Siberia drank the urine of reindeer that digested the mushroom fly agaric (amanita muscara) to enter into a trance state. Could it be, as media theorist Namsoo Kim claims, that the deer jumped back to the ocean and became the whale? Could the deer and the whale embody different perspectives of the same process of transformation, following the multi-perspectivism proposed by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro? For Viveiros de Castro, non-human beings are humans in their own sphere and see things just as people do—but the things they see are different. Could the whale and reindeer therefore be viewed equally?
Our speculative cartography continues across time, space, and cultures. The first passage in the 4th–century-BCE Daoist classic Zhuangzi describes a northern darkness in which a fish called K'un, measuring some thousand li, becomes a bird called P'eng, whose back also measures many thousand li across, making his wings appear like clouds. According to the text, P'eng takes flight for the co-called southern darkness, identified as the Lake of Heaven, ‘When the sea begins to move’. The common understanding is that in this myth, the transformation from fish to bird is taken literally as a fantastical transmogrification on a formal level. Mythology scholar Yuan Ke interprets the K'un fish as a whale (鯨, jing), since the original character for 鯨 was 䲔 (jing or qing), coinciding with 禺疆 (yujiang)—the god for sea and wind who is usually rendered as a human-headed bird. The P'eng bird, on the other hand, is speculated by scholar Yang Jubin to be a phoenix, since the original characters for wind (風, feng) and phoenix (鳳, feng) were used interchangeably (and are pronounced similarly).
This renders the arch complete: the K'un fish and P'eng bird are different forms of the same being, with further studies revealing that this ‘being’ is really qi (energy, ether) in transformation. Hence, we may infer that K'un represents water energy (yin), and P'eng represents fire, wind (yang), thus placing the transformation of both forms on the level of qi rather than form.
Other coordinates are secreted in the stars. There are rich collections of preserved medieval paper scraps from Dunhuang that document divination practices, star atlases, and almanacs—practices of negotiation with divine and astral forces. Dating to before 700 CE, the Dunhuang star atlas is the world's oldest complete and preserved map of its kind, representing a ‘cosmotechnics’ that qualifies as a science while deeply imbued with the search for astrological omens and cosmological righteousness. Five thousand kilometres away, archaeologist Al-Jallad has recently deciphered glyphs found in the deserts of the southern Levant bearing Safaitic script, an ancient Arabic alphabet. What were thought to be place names turned out to be a set of Arabic zodiac coordinates—places in the sky recorded by nomads onto stones as they moved along the landscape.
These geographies are beyond the confines of Eurasia’s modern cartography, which is based on national and cultural attributions and delineations—at the same time, though, they are not taken literally or merely as curious objects of archaeological and art historical relevance. Rather, they constitute speculative and materialist engagements with agency that entails different scales of critique and action, while in negotiation with themselves. This thinking–cartography follows a to-and-fro movement, which means sometimes it contradicts in order to affirm on a different level. For example, when it comes to the understanding of Asian or nomadic cosmologies, temporalities, and social dynamics, we move between confirming and contradicting differences, for simply affirming ‘indigenous’ thinking as postcolonialist critique may veil other forms of self-orientalisation and cultural elitism. This thinking process takes both the motion of deconstruction (in a negative-productive way) and dynamitic transformation (which entails a recursive process of regress) and is as such open for reconsideration and revision. Think of the skill of equestrian archery, which was perfected by the historical nomads, and involves riding a horse, aiming at a moving subject, and shooting with a bow and arrows, constituting a meta-stable state amidst multiple movements.
Ultimately, Unmapping Eurasia wants to take Eurasia not just as the matrix of study, but also as the very ethics of studying it—that is, to come up with ways of practicing what French anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus puts as ‘forming one body with the planet itself’. Art is a ‘speculative cartography’ that constructs coordinates of existence at the same time as those coordinates are lived. Art is a place where we can partake in the assemblage of multiple perspectives; it is where we can draw our own speculative maps as we reflect on the cartographies of transcultural and transhistorical movements.
This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories.
Mi You is a lecturer at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne and Aalto University, Helsinki, whose long-term research and curatorial project spins between the two extremes of the ancient and futuristic. She works with the Silk Road as a figuration for nomadic imageries and old and new networks/technologies, and has curated programmes at Asian Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea; Ulaanbaatar International Media Art Festival, Mongolia; and is currently co-steering a research and curatorial project titled Unmapping Eurasia with Binna Choi. At the same time, interests in politics around technology and futures have led Mi You to work on ‘actionable speculations’, as articulated in the 2019 exhibition, workshop series, and sci-fi-a-thon Sci-(no)-fiction at the Academy of the Arts of the World, Cologne, and in her function as chair of committee on Media Arts and Technology for the transnational political NGO Common Action Forum. She is also an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellow, serves as director of Arthub, Shanghai, and is advisor to The Institute for Provocation in Beijing.
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