Jia Pingwa and dick jokes
By Dylan Levi King, published
Jia Pingwa's novel Qin Qiang (The Writers Publishing House, 2005) won last year's Mao Dun Literary Prize and is another masterpiece by the prolific author, whose works are still mostly unknown and untranslated. What is there to appeal to translators and potential readers in the book? When are we going to see it in translation?
From the first half of the book, romance, rats and local politics in rural Shaanxi:
I still remember the rat that crawled out of the sewer. I raised him as a pet. He'd climb on the ceiling rafters and dance for me. After he was tired of dancing, he'd look down at me. His eyes were all pupil, dark black pupils that glinted with mischief. Cats knew not to venture close to my home. After my father died and I was left alone, nobody knew how I spent my time. But the rat knew. Each morning, I'd wake up and place three sticks of incense in front of the portrait of my deceased father, then sit down to write in my diary. In Qingfeng Jie, I was probably the only one who was writing away at a diary. From the incense burner, a ribbon of dark smoke slowly curled upward. It lengthened, reaching up to the rafters, where the rat watched me write. The rat thought it was a string and he leapt out, hoping to slide down it, to the table. Pow, he crashed down into the incense burner.
I've heard people say that rats are smart but they can be pretty dumb, too. This rat was rather fond of me, actually. But one of the reasons he stuck around for so long was because my house always had something to eat. I heard that last year when Mao Dan from Dong Jie got sick, he had to sell everything to pay the doctor bills. Every rodent that had previously made a home in his house escaped as soon as the food was gone. What I wanted to say is: this rat was civilized. He even chewed up the pages in my diary, the ones about Bai Xue. I looked at him in wonder, You know that I miss Bai Xue? Rat, if you can understand me, run to Bai Xue and tell her how I feel. He immediately took off to Xia Tianzhi's home and Bai Xue's bedroom. The rat climbed up and down the mosquito netting that was wrapped around her bed. Bai Xue looked up, "A little thief, eh?" She used an empty makeup box to trap the rat inside. The box still had a bit of foundation powder inside. With the powder spread over his fur, the rat pitifully squeaked, "Yin Sheng misses you! Yin Sheng misses you!" Bai Xue didn't understand what my rat trying to tell her.
After a while, the rat wandered into the main room of the house, where he found something else to chew on: one of Xia Tianzhi's scrolls of calligraphy. The one that my rat chose to chew had been scrawled by the director of the county's cultural research insitute. When Xia Tianzhi discovered the holes in the scroll, he shut up the windows and the doors and trapped my rat inside the room. He tossed the rat to the mute to look after. The mute carried the rat outside, doused the tiny body with kerosene, set it on fire and tossed it to run in the big courtyard in front of the theatre. The rat immediately burrowed into a heap of wheat straw. The straw immediately caught on fire.
As the rat was running into the straw, the big meeting at the temple was just getting started. The newly appointed Jun Ting and Qin An were having their first ever disagreement. Jun Ting's idea was for a market to be built in the area near Zhong Jie, as you head toward Dong Jie and the village's local government. The market would collect and distribute the local agricultural products of six local villages. Jun Ting was worked up, gesturing, pulling off his outer robes. He shouted that his plan would wake up the village government and the county's commerce department. The market would save Qingfeng Jie from its current decline and raise the level of economic development in the entire county. He continued laying out his plans and then, finally, revealed the blueprint: a stone archway that would be visible from the highway, a three story building that would eventually serve as a hotel, a three story building done in the style of the local Fulin restaurant, each market stall set on a cement platform with a blue canopy hung over top to keep the rain out.
When Jun Ting had spoken himself hoarse he called out, "Tea! There's some tea in my office desk, grab it." Jin Lian ran to look after the request. Full cups of tea were handed out. Jun Ting said that he wanted to form a board of management for the new market. He'd thought about before and decided that Qin An could be the director. Jin Lian and Shang Shan could be vice-directors. He didn't wait for the audience to react. He grabbed a tree branch and wrote an equation on the wall for everyone. He said, the Qingfeng Jie market used to open once a week, but now it will open everyday! He went through the figures for the market, how much every market stall would take in, what the taxes would be, what management fees would be charged, everything else.
When he was done, he returned to his seat and eyed the assembly. He thought that after his speech he might get a round of applause, or at least see every face in the room turning to him, smiling. But the conference room was quiet. It was deathly quiet in the room. Qin An lowered his head and sucked hard on a cigarette, sucking every ribbon of smoke down into his stomach, then spit a chunk onto the table and buried his face in his hands. Jin Lian watched the smoke from the cigarette traveling upwards, wrapping a mosquito in smog. It looked like a crane floating in cloud. Shang Shan's eye had an infection that made him keep rubbing at it with his sleeve. His eye looked like an asshole with a log of shit trapped halfway in, halfway out. But he stayed seated, quietly, unlike the rest of the crowd, who stepped away to go to the bathroom or wandered off to get some tea or stood at the window, blowing their noses or spitting chunks of phlegm.
Jun Ting drummed his fingers on his desk: "Right, everyone discuss! This kind of momentous decision requires it! We must give free rein to the collective will!" The crowd kept silent, not even leaning over to whisper to each other. Finally, Qin An's turn to speak came. He liked to wait until the end. But he spoke with a lisp and his speech was vague and equivocating and his voice was too quiet for anybody to hear him. Shang Shan spoke up, "Talk all you want, but I can't understand a damn thing you're saying." "Is that so? Well, let me speak up." Suddenly, a sharp cry came from the courtyard outside. "Fire! The straw is on fire!" Jin Lian looked outside and saw a column of twisting black smoke rising into the air, followed by a flash of flame. The flames rose higher and higher, as high as the walls of the courtyard. She said, "Hey, there really is a fire." The crowd emptied out of the conference room.
The typical protagonist of the last half dozen Jia Pingwa novels has been the sojourner in the city, a visitor from the countryside to the city, or the sojourner in the countryside, a visitor from the city to the countryside. In Remembering Wolves, the rural-born intellectual is adrift in the city. The opening line of the novel is says: "This is still a story about Shangzhou." But the tension between urban and rural life is always there: Morning, looking at myself in the mirror: a slack and pale face, a chin with a few thin whiskers sprouting. I am absolutely disgusted. Genetic research says that each generation of men living in the city will have lighter beards, until after three generations, they can't grow them anymore. Looking back at my son, as he plays with his blocks on his bed, I realize he'll become one of those feminine, smooth cheeked men that I've always ridiculed. Suddenly, I'm hit with a twinge of sadness. Or, in Old Gao Village, the city dwellers who come down from the city to marvel at the final debased scraps of rural life. Or, Liu Gaoxing, in Jia's latest novel, the migrant worker from Shangzhou, who will do anything to find any identity in Xi'an. Even Abandoned Capital's urban landscape is populated by figures who drift in from the countryside to make their name in Xijing.
Qin Qiang, a title translated as Qin Opera, and Local Accent, by Yiyan Wang, takes the countryside, the village, as its focus. We don't completely escape the liminal urban-rural divide, but the novel seems to have its heart in the village. But the village in crisis, the village is it undergoes the changes of de-collectivization and marketization under the free market agricultural reform policies of the last two decades. It's been called a "contemporary rural epic" ("一卷中国当代乡村的史诗"). As Cao Naiqian's writing has been called an "exposé of rural communism," critics have used similar language to talk about Jia's work. The novel delves into the world of the countryside with a focus on the political and bureaucratic activities of local government bodies, and how the government's policies clash with traditional rural life.
Mo Yan has recently received some media burn for his recent novel Frog, which has unforunately (or, fortunately, for selling novels in the West) been billed as his One Child Policy novel, but Jia Pingwa approaches the same topic in an even more uncompromising, yet incredibly literary, mode. In the passage below, Liu Xijie and Zhou Tianlun, from the local government are hunting Gai Gai, who has become pregnant in defiance of government family planning policies:
Liu Xijie and Zhou Tianlun returned to the window and peered in. A figure was curled up on the kang. They looked closer and could tell from the hairstyle that it was Gai Gai. They beat on the window frame and shouted her name, but she didn't move. Now they knew for sure it was Gai Gai. Liu Xijie pulled a stick from the window frame and reached into the room with it. He poked Gai Gai and she moved a bit. He poked her again and she moved again. He kept poking until she finally slid off the kang and onto the floor. They could now see that it was definitely her. Liu Xijie and Zhou Tianlun ran for Bai Xue's mother and demanded that she open the door. She refused. They set about lifting the door off its frame. After they busted in, they grabbed Gai Gai and set about dragging her to Zhao Hongsheng's clinic. Bai Xue's mother's legs went weak and she collapsed in the courtyard, unable to stand. Bai Xue's aunt didn't sob and she didn't scream: she coolly got up and followed at a distance.
In Qing Jie, this kind of thing was already common. As Gai Gai was dragged to the clinic, the people in the lanes of Qing Jie were calm, merely saying: "They're taking her away, huh. Stupid Gai Gai. What'd she come back home for?" Life went on as usual. The doctor, Zhao Hongsheng, had a personal traditional medicine practice. His compound was extravagantly named Da Qing Hall. All the women in Qing Jie that violated the family planning laws were dragged here to have abortions performed. Zhao Hongsheng often said that the shack at the rear of his compound, where he saw patients and performed the abortions, was home to the souls of hundreds of unborn infants. At midnight, he said, the spirits emerged and howled in unison. The doctor later pasted a slogan outside the shack, "Society didn't want you, what did you come for? / Wretched sons and daughters, please find another place to be reborn."
By the time Gai Gai was dragged into the tiny shack, the sky was already darkening. Bai Xue's aunt crept around to the wood shed, which leaned against the tiny shack. The mosquitos buzzing through the shed bit Bai Xue's aunt relentlessly but she didn't dare slap them. She could only scrape her hands over her face and arms. Her hands were soon covered in blood. Jin Lian left to go back home, leaving Liu Xijie and Zhou Tianlun seated in the front room of Zhao's compound, where he ran his herbal medicine shop. Zhao Hongsheng got his equipment, ready to perform the abortion and tubal ligation. He walked across the courtyard to the shack but quickly came back and told Liu Xijie that it wouldn't be possible, it was too late. Liu Xijie said, "Let the kid come out. We can deal with it after she gives birth to it." "I'm not going to kill it after it comes out!" "After it comes out, just call for me. I'll deal with it," Liu Xijie declared. Liu Xijie and Zhou Tianlun sat together in the medicine shop. They were getting drunk, going shot for shot until they were staggering around the room. Zhao Hongsheng, with freshly sterilized equipment, returned to the shack.
A short time later, Gai Gai gave birth. Gai Gai had already given birth twice. She gave birth to her third child without uttering a single cry, as easy as taking a shit. But a strange thing happened at the moment that the child entered the world. The child and the splash of amniotic fluid cascaded across the oiled paper spread across the bed. The child slid across the bed and onto the floor. At that precise moment, the single lightbulb in the room burnt out. Zhao Hongsheng figured a circuit must have been tripped. He went over to the panel beside the door and flicked the switches, but the room stayed dark. "Power's out again," he cursed. He got down on his hands and knees, searching for the kid on the floor of the dark room. From the medicine shop, Liu Xijie called out, "Hongsheng, where're the goddamn lights?" Hongsheng raced across the courtyard and grabbed a candle from Liu Xijie. His hands and arms covered in blood, he ran back to the shack, but he still couldn't find the baby. As he ran back across the courtyard again, he tripped, dropping the candle. Gai Gai had collapsed, unconscious, on the bed, but the baby was still nowhere to be found. Hongsheng shouted, "Where's the kid?" Gai Gai wailed, "You threw it away without even letting me see it?" Hongsheng shouted again, calling across the courtyard to Liu Xijie and Zhou Tianlun.
What had actually happened was this: Bai Xue's aunt, that mysterious old lady, grabbed the child shortly after it splashed across the bed, and quickly escaped. She had been hiding in the wood shed, watching the sky through a tiny crack in the thatched roof. She caught sight of a lone star and said a prayer, "When the child is born, cut the lights, all right?" And the bulb burnt out, exactly as she prayed. She crept into the shack, quick and quiet as a ghost, and grabbed the child from the floor. She spread its leg and rubbed to confirm the presence of a tiny penis, then muttered, "Damn!" Tears came to her eyes. The old lady had a crippled leg, but that night, she grabbed the child and the bundle of afterbirth and bounded from the room with perfectly agility, everything wrapped up in the front of her jacket. She climbed on top of the low chicken coop and then on to the top of the wall, then vaulted down, running toward the highway.
Xia Feng kept walking along the highway until he got to the intersection near the brick yard. He turned to the west but stopped when he saw a dark shape in the shadows, near the wall around the yard. He looked again but couldn't make out anything in the shadows. He called out, frightened, "Who's there?" The shape moved down the slope at the side of the yard and replied, "Xia Feng, is that you?" Xia Feng stepped closer. It was Bai Xue's aunt. She was holding up the bulging front of her jacket. "What've you got there? Let me give you a hand." "You're his uncle," she whispered. Without saying anything else, she pulled Xia Feng along with her, down the slope. They walked for a while and then she suddenly kneeled on the ground. Xia Feng finally saw the child, as small as a rat, the child's body still cloaked in afterbirth. "It's Gai Gai's. She just gave birth. Let's cut the cord." Xia Feng gaped, speechless. "Find a rock," Bai Xue's aunt said, "find two rocks." Xia Feng found two flat rocks and placed the umbilical cord between them. He smashed them together a few times and finally broke the cord. Bai Xue's aunt wrapped the child up again and said to Xia Feng, "Go tell your mother-in-law. Tell her to come to Chen Xing's orchard." As Xia Feng ran back up the slope, he heard the weak cry of the child.
The countryside after the chaos of Reform and Opening has been written about before, but Jia Pingwa's account is not totally about material changes in the countryside, and not even totally about ideological changes. Jia Pingwa is writing about the spiritual identity of the countryside.
Qin Qiang was the winner of the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2008 and stood out in a long list of uninspiring novels because of its gloomy atmosphere and dense language. The novel is one of the most important works in recent literary history.
Jia Pingwa is often identified with the Roots Seeking school of Chinese literature, which privileged ideas of returning to indigenous Chinese literary and storytelling forms, but his literary output in the last two decades is frequently experimental, difficult to read. Like Zhu Tianwen, he sees the source of his brand of literary modernism, as being rooted in the form of the Chinese classical novel. Where other writers make reference to the novels of the Chinese literary canon, Jia Pingwa masterfully adopts and adapts and perverts their forms in a breathtaking, modern form. But again, like Zhu Tianwen, the underappreciated Taiwanese modernist master, Jia Pingwa has generated more scholarly writing by academics than enjoyable translations.
Only Jia Pingwa's Turbulence has made it into English, translated by Howard Goldblatt. Abandoned Capital, Jia Pingwa's top candidate for translation (hey, it was even banned in China), has remained untranslated and unpublished. Judging solely based on an off-the-cuff remark in a Southern Weekend interview with Howard Goldblatt, the novel was held up by behind-the-scenes wrangling: "One year, University of Hawai'i Press gave me a manuscript of an Abandoned Capital translation to look at. They wanted to know if I could revise it [into something the Press would be into publishing]. The translation was done by a Chinese Ph.D. student studying in the States. He'd personally gone to Xi'an to get Jia Pingwa's blessing, which he received. Unfortunately, this student's English wasn't that great. The resulting translation was basically unreadable. It was a piece of crap." (From here: 葛浩文谈中国文学).
After behind-the-scenes wrangling, what are the literary issues that make Jia Pingwa difficult to translate? Not many Chinese novels use language or literary forms that are anything similar to those used by Jia Pingwa. And whether it's Abandoned Capital or Qin Qiang, Jia Pingwa effortlessly mixes high and low language. Qin Qiang is full of cod-classical language set down beside scatological local dialect expressions, beautiful lyrical passages and bone hard descriptions of the filth of public toilets and dirt floor shacks. Jia Pingwa's countryside is full of sex, shit and violence, expressed with a literary form that's a hybrid of dirty jokes and classical poetry. The language usually employed by translators seems to fall down on both of those fronts, poetry and obscenity. Translationese seems to approach poetry, flowery language in Chinese far too literally, afraid to step away from the superficial meaning of a poetic phrase to engage with its actual meaning. And, on the other end of things, translators seem to shy away from obscenity, violent, hilarious obscenity, the kind that makes Jia Pingwa's novels laugh-out-loud funny. The obscenity, the filth isn't always played for laughs, but sometimes just matter-of-fact: 巷里水流不动, 尿窖子溢了, 屎橛子就漂. Scatological poetry that is superficially simple but somehow defies translation, or at least wouldn't be at home in the English commonly employed in Chinese-English translation.
Jia Pingwa's writing seems to require and seems to point to a new language of Chinese-to-English translation, a language that shares Jia Pingwa's literary madness, his Shakespearean pleasure in the twin silliness-seriousness of obscenity, in the twin somberness-whimsy of poetry, a languge that isn't afraid to absolutely wallow in dick and shit jokes and absolutely unselfconsciously exalt in poetry. On one level, it's the same ol' thing any translation requires, the ability to feel the language of the original and not be ruled by superficial textual handcuffs. Tell you what, I'd be curious to see the manuscript that Howard Goldblatt called garbage.