Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

Author Yan Lianke: The Reign of "温暖的文学"

By Bruce Humes, published

Speaking recently at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Chinese author Yan Lianke (閻連科) spoke about the ominous rise of a "warm and fuzzy" kind of Chinese literature (温暖的文学) that the government, readers and critics all find acceptable. Here is an excerpt from notes taken at the talk (thus they may not be his exact words) which appear in an article 中國文學的唱衰者 at the newly launched (and interesting) Chinese-language web site,





# 1.   

Do you mean ?

Helen Wang, May 4, 2016, 2:14p.m.

# 2.   

Indeed, Helen, you've got the URL correct!

Bruce Humes, May 4, 2016, 6:03p.m.

# 3.   

Well that was thoroughly grim. Sounds like he's pretty burnt out on writing, and not especially hopeful about the future either.

The question of the role of Chinese literature within the scope of world literature is interesting. On the one hand, I think the rise of genre literature points to a promising future for wuxia novels and the like, assuming they can find the right translators and editors to make the books work for a popular audience in English (easier said than done perhaps). But for serious literature (严肃文学 as Yan calls it) I'm becoming more and more convinced that Chinese authors are operating at a disadvantage compared to European authors.

If we look at a successful post-modern 'serious' author like, say, Roberto Bolano, there is a constant borrowing of genre tropes and pop culture mixed in with the heavier themes and the writings of other European writers and thinkers. So it translates fine. Whereas Chinese authors who borrow heavily from traditional literature (Jin Yong or Jia Pingwa, for example) are working with traditions that are completely foreign to European readers.

Non-anglophone authors who are successful, like Haruki Murakami, tend to stay clear of their own cultural traditions, or at least mix in a heavy dose of European / American elements to keep their readers on familiar ground.

This is also likely why Taiwanese and Hong Kong authors tend to be better received in translation--since Taiwan and Hong Kong have had a longer tradition of (more or less open) cultural exchange with the rest of the world. That, and they aren't read thru the same political lens that mainland authors are.

Nick Stember, May 4, 2016, 8:26p.m.

# 4.   

That's an interesting bunch of comments, Nick. I'd caution against going too far with saying that "Taiwan and Hong Kong have had a longer tradition of ... cultural exchange with the rest of the world" than mainland China, because you're only talking about the years between 1949 and 1976 or so. Still, you've hit on one of the reasons I find contemporary PRC poetry to resonate with me more than contemporary PRC fiction does.


Lucas Klein, May 4, 2016, 11:21p.m.

# 5.   

溫情 was the perfect word here -- "heart-warming" is the best translation I can come up with. It's not just literature, I think much of Chinese society is pursuing the "heart warming" aesthetic as a way of avoiding (or at least finding a reprieve from) reality; both the reality of life under a corrupt and criminal government, and the potential reality of what's going to happen to China's economy and society over the next ten years.

I don't think it's worth anyone throwing up their hands in despair. Everyone's running away from something! There will always be writers who are honestly trying to face what's going on around them.

 Eric Abrahamsen, May 5, 2016, 2:18a.m.

# 6.   

@Lucas Valid point. The one distinction I'd make is that 1949-79 represents more than just a period of seclusion, but also the active suppression of heterodoxy (if not by physical imprisonment and torture, then by censorship and withheld opportunities).

@Eric I wonder sometimes if the popularity of melodrama in comedy is a reflection of this 'heart warming' aesthetic. Ding and I have been watching 欢乐喜剧人 ('Top Funny Comedian') and I'm finding many of the skits from this season ending with a self-conscious emotional appeal to get votes / ratings (like reality tv everywhere), but which also seem designed to soften the satire and deflect criticism.

I think the challenge for us, as translators, is how to contextualize subtle criticism--for example, movies that seem to be about one thing but are actually about another thing, or soapy melodrama that blunts more trenchant criticisms of the status quo.

Nick Stember, May 5, 2016, 12:42p.m.

# 7.   

"1949-79 represents more than just a period of seclusion, but also the active suppression of heterodoxy"

No argument there. But it's the "longer tradition" idea that I'm pushing against. Mainland China actually has a pretty long tradition of "cultural exchange with the rest of the world": you wouldn't have Sun Wukong if it hadn't been for stories coming in from India. And "constant borrowing of genre tropes and pop culture mixed in with the heavier themes," for that matter.


Lucas Klein, May 5, 2016, 9:15p.m.

# 8.   

Unfortunately for Initium and Middle Kingdom residents, this example of "cultural exchange with the rest of the world" is taking place without the full participation of China's citizenry.

In China's Media Startups Fight Censorship Crackdown, we learn that Initium is firewalled in China. So Yan Lianke's speech, given in Hong Kong, and reported in Initium that is also based in Hong Kong, is likely to receive little coverage in the Motherland.

Bruce Humes, May 7, 2016, 8:34p.m.

# 9.   

@Lucas Good point! Hard to get my brain out of the habit of thinking that "cultural exchange with the rest of the world" is a modern phenomenon.

Also socialist realism was also argued to be an aesthetic reaction to 'capitalist' realism (and genre fiction) as much as a political necessity. So in that sense it was in dialog with the outside world, too.

But as you point out, transnational flows of vernacular storytelling go back to time immemorial. Makes you realize how much our concept of 'national literature' is tied up with the birth of the modern nation state.

@Bruce Yeah. Probably has been shared around WeChat, whatever that counts for. Baidu has one hit to a decent summary of the speech from 香港商報:

You'd have to type in the full text of the original speech to bring that up though, or just happen to be a fiction fan who also likes to read business news from HK.

For an interesting take on censorship in online fiction (something we don't hear about as much), check out:

Nick Stember, May 10, 2016, 1:55p.m.

# 10.   

I'd like to see translated work by Sorana Gurian (born Sara Gurfinchel, October 18, 1913[1]– June 10, 1956). She was a writer, journalist, and translator who wrote both in Romanian and in French. I first learn about her from this book by Czeslaw Milosz 'Purity of Despair'.

Purity of Despair

Susan, May 10, 2016, 5:53p.m.

# 11.   

I didn't see Chinese author 李江琳 listed on this site. Perhaps, someone could take a look and considering to include her? She has written a couple of books, mostly specialize in Tibet issues. 《铁鸟在空中飞翔——1956-1962青藏高原上的秘密战争》

Her collection of post is here

we had a few good exchange just this week.



susan, July 5, 2016, 3:02p.m.


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