ADI Academic Profiles - Barbara Wall

By Martin Wendelbo Rasmussen, Asian Dynamics Initiative

The ADI - Academic Profiles series puts spotlight on individual researchers working on Asia related issues in the social sciences and humanities, and promotes remarkable publications and innovative research projects.

Barbara Wall

Barbara Wall is Assistant Professor in Korea Studies at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen. With an academic background in China Studies, Japan Studies and Korea Studies, Barbara mainly works in the field of narrative studies. She is especially interested in the circulation, translation and adaptation of literary works of fiction in East Asia. Barbara experiments with digital tools not only in her research, but she also tries to implement them in her teaching. For example, in December 2019, she organized a game jam on The Journey to the West in collaboration with the IT University Copenhagen and the Centre for Digital Humanities [HUMlab]. The game jam was a final project of a semester course on transmedia storytelling in East Asia.

In this installment of the ADI Academic Profile Series, Barbara presents her current research on transmedia storytelling with a focus on variations of The Journey to the West in Korea. The results of her research will be published in her forthcoming book Dynamic Journey: Digital Visualizations of the The Journey to the West in Korea.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview. We are very interested in hearing  more about your current work. Could you tell us a bit about how your interest in The Journey to the West came to fruition?

I have always been interested in stories and especially in the question of what makes a story successful. Narratives play, of course, not only a role in “pure” literature but also, for example, in all kinds of gossip. If we take recent conspiracy theories as an example, it seems to be difficult to understand why people believe in them. It is obvious that they are not true, but the narratives behind them are very powerful. What I am interested in is what makes these narratives so powerful. These narratives we see and hear every day are very similar to stories like The Journey to the West, I started working on ten years ago.

In the academic realm, The Journey to the West is generally identified with the Shidetang edition of the 100-chapter novel allegedly written by Wu Cheng’en in China at the end of the 16th century. This is rooted in the existing preferences for stable literary works, which result in a tendency of ignoring variations, while praising illusory “originals” instead.

In the beginning, the Shidetang edition was also the version of The Journey to the West I was interested in, but I soon discovered that in popular culture, the title is usually not associated with the 100-chapter novel, but with different variants in the form of films, comics or computer games - one of the most popular variants might be Dragon Ball. I suggest that The Journey to the West like many other classic narratives, be it Cinderella, King Arthur, The Three Kingdoms, Mulan or The Tale of Genji, lives through uncountable transmediated variations. But if we don't have one stable original, what is it that holds story worlds like The Journey to the West together? It is very easy to think of The Journey to the West as a 16th century novel that you can hold in your hand, but it is much more difficult to imagine The Journey to the West as a salmagundi of countless and ever-changing variations.

In order to grasp a narrative that exists in so many variations you must have engaged with lots of material. How did you approach this widespread story throughout your research and what were your major findings?

The story world of The Journey to the West produces so many variations that it would be impossible to include them all in one study. So, I had to make a selection. As I am working within the field of Korea Studies, I decided to focus on the Korean variations of the story. This also enabled me to demonstrate that classic narratives like The Journey to the West do not stop at national boundaries, but are as transnational as they are transtemporal. For example, we can find a pagoda from the 14th century in the National Museum of Korea that depicts scenes from The Journey to the West on 22 relief panels, which means we have a variation of The Journey to the West that predates the alleged original by more than two centuries. The problem is that if we cannot rely on any original, what is it then that holds the story world together? What in the end is The Journey to the West?

I suggest understanding The Journey to the West not as a static work with a single author and a precise date of publication, but, inspired by Roland Barthes’ manifesto From Work to Text (1971), calling The Journey to the West a dynamic text or a dynamic story world that is comprised of its variations spanning centuries and ignoring the boundaries of national literatures. I combine this idea with the idea of transmedia storytelling, and I try to find a way to approach the story world by including as many versions or variations as possible.

I mention about 50 different versions of the story in my forthcoming book. First, I created a pool of 67 actants, including characters, objects, places, but also episodes that reappear in the variations. Then, I developed a digital tool together with a programmer that enables me to visualise each variation based on the actants that are activated in the variation. I introduce this quantitative approach in the article Dynamic Texts as Hotbed for Transmedia Storytelling: A Case Study on the Story Universe of The Journey to the West, which gives a sneak peek into the findings I describe in my forthcoming publication Dynamic Journey: Digital Visualizations of the The Journey to the West in Korea, which I expect to get released in 2021.

Before we end, can you tell us more about the game jam you organized last year? How did that project complement your research on The Journey to the West?

In my research I use the actant pool and the digital tool to visualize variations of The Journey to the West. The game jam was an experiment to find out if pool and tool could also be used to create new variations of The Journey to the West. So, I organized this course on transmedia storytelling with a focus on The Journey to the West for Korean Studies, which was accompanied by an IT tutorial on games taught by Sarah Grossi (MSc in Games from ITU). Our students learned how to create video games by using scripting languages such as Twine or Ink. The final game jam gave the students the opportunity to combine their knowledge from the seminar on transmedia storytelling and the skills they gained in the IT tutorial. In 24 hours, the students created video games on The Journey to the West in teams of 3-5 students. This game jam did not only show that the actant pool and the digital tool can also be used to create stories, it also gave students the opportunity to create a product in a group. They did not have to write on transmedia storytelling, they actually did transmedia storytelling themselves. You can find the video games from the game jam under the following link:

ADI would like to thank Barbara Wall for featuring in this interview.

July 2020