Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

Newsweek Article on Chinese Literature Abroad

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Chinese literature developed in isolation, with its own traditions and narratives. Living in a communist bubble, writers had to toe the party line, embracing socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism. They didn't begin to experiment with style and form until foreign works began to appear in translation after the Cultural Revolution. In the past 10 years, some Chinese novels, often featuring stories about the dark corners of Chinese society—such as the sex-and-drug chronicles Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui and Mian Mian's Candy—have achieved international recognition, but by and large, contemporary Chinese literature remains unknown outside the country.


# 1.   

A disappointing piece that anyone could have written with a few hours of research on the Internet.

The author wanted to interview me, but I was too busy. I gave her the contacts of translators Eric Abrahamsen and Cindy Carter, but neither was quoted here.

Chinese literature does of course have a low profile abroad, and this cannot be changed overnight. But such coverage -- still highlighting Candy and Shanghai Baby (I translated the latter 8 years ago, for Christ's sake!)-- by a major US weekly is a bit amateurish.

Looking forward to contribution from the new correspondent, Isaac Stone Fish, a Chinese speaker who once worked as a literary scout here in China.

Chinese Books, English Reviews

 Bruce , January 1, 2010, 7:45p.m.

# 2.   

I think Penguin's idea of selling translated fiction in Asia is pretty sound. It'll get a lot of books into translation beyond the very, very few that come out in English now. And... I think there's a market and an interest in a lot of books in Asian and Asian overseas communities that is very different than the market/interest among people buying Can Xue translations (that kind of goes without saying, right?).

Hopefully they'll strike a balance between literary stuff, which university presses can handle and trashy stuff and find the sweet spot where a lot of good (and financially successful) books are, books that will sell enough to bankroll less mainstream, more literary works. I think quite a few of the books on the untranslated list that Paper Republic has kind of fit into that category (like Beimei, or Ball Lightning, or that Murong Xuecun book). Man, I'd be happy to see stuff like Han Han and Zhang Yueran and other younger writers (I mean, they're older than me but you gotta be over 35 to get translated into English).

DylanK, January 1, 2010, 11:11p.m.

# 3.   

Yaar, I was all set to give comments and then I didn't get back in time. Clever me.

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 2, 2010, 5:26a.m.

# 4.   

I e-mailed back with a few comments, mostly background info about Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village (which is listed on the publisher website as Death of Ding Village. Both are, as I understand it, working titles. I sent the publisher a long list of possible titles, but haven't heard if they've made a final decision.)

The author of the Newsweek piece raised an interesting question in her e-mail, one for which I unfortunately have no answer: "What do you think is the biggest mis-conception right now about Chinese literature?"

Lack of quality? That seems to be a common perception, but the sheer number of outstanding contemporary Chinese novels that have yet to be translated puts the lie to this. Poor sales figures abroad? This is not a misconception, but a sad fact. Problems of self-censorship and official censorship? Again, these are facts of life for Chinese writers. Censorship devalues Chinese literature at home and abroad, but it doesn't mean that every unbanned novel is worthless trash, any more than it means every banned novel is a great work of literature. I'm the last person to defend CCP censorship of art and literature, but we should remember that censorship is both a complication and a drives some writers to frustration, and drives others to stylistic experiments that they might otherwise not have attempted.

I think the better question is: "What are the political, economic, linguistic and cultural barriers to getting more Chinese literature translated and published overseas?" Right now, a lack of choice for readers - only 10 Chinese works of poetry and fiction were published in the US in 2009 - seems a bigger problem than misconceptions...or to put it another way, a lack of information is fueling these misconceptions.

 Cindy Carter, January 2, 2010, 7:40a.m.

# 5.   

Do yall ever worry that there's too much of a disconnect between what's happening in Chinese literature and what's happening in Chinese literature in English translation? Like, compare the Chinese best seller list or compare the last few long lists for the Mao Dun Prize, and then look at what has made it into English.

Li Yunlei surmised, in a review of Cao Naiqian, that foreign Sinologists are simply interested in good prose and don't care much about politics-- shoot, I'll just paste it: "海外汉学家 ... 不喜欢'感时忧国'的作品更喜欢'抒情诗'的优美动人." But I'm worried it's the opposite! I'm worried that editors and translators and academics are still fighting an ideological battle against trends in Chinese society, Maoism and then the new Chinese capitalism and attendant consumerism.

The books being translated and the reviews being written about them are deeply ideological, deeply political.

What came out this year:

Banished!, about the Cultural Revolution. Brothers, basically a broad farce which was positioned as harsh social criticism of Maoist China and post-Reform and Opening policies. English, about the Cultural Revolution. Feathered Serpent, CultRev. The Moon Opera, what the Cultural Revolution can't destroy, the influx of consumerism will. The Cao Naiqian book with the long name got good reviews but even it was called an "exposé of rural communism." Woman From Shanghai, labor camps. Five Spice Street was one of the few books that was reviewed based on, you know, its literary merits.

I read a lot of good writing on literature but very little of it is about Chinese literature. Most reviews of Chinese novels in translation are a mess of kneejerk politics, completely unconscious dragging out of Cold War ideological battle plans to defeat the scourge of Communism (which is dehumanizing and evil) and equally kneejerk Western-style anticapitalism (which, as practiced by the Chinese, is dehumanizing and evil)-- and every book is about how dehumanizing and evil the Chinese regime is, how cruel Chinese society is. I mean, of course, the Cultural Revolution is not a dead topic in Chinese literature and it doesn't make a novel about it worthless (I liked most of the books that were translated this year), but it'd be nice to see new faces and new topics and new writing in translation.

I really hope Penguin comes out and goes a completely opposite direction. Translate some young writers, some genre fiction, look outside of Mainland China.

DylanK, January 2, 2010, 8:33p.m.

# 6.   

I'm worried that editors and translators and academics are still fighting an ideological battle against trends in Chinese society, Maoism and then the new Chinese capitalism and attendant consumerism.(@DylanK above)

You have a good point there, particularly in the US where many people, not just publishers, see China as an economic and ideological foe. If you were to take a look at what is being translated from Chinese into French, German and Japanese, however, I think you would find a much wider set of topics and authors.

But I also think there is something that can't be denied: Some, perhaps many of the better selling younger authors in China simply don't write as well as older authors still "stuck" in Cultural Revolution mode. In the recent past (if I remember correctly), you mentioned how much you would like to see young writers like Han Han translated. I read His Kingdom (他的国) from cover to cover, and at the outset was keen to review it and do an excerpt. But frankly, I just lost interest in the idea; there are some amusing scenes in it, but overall, the book just sat there like a cold bowl of congee. If his name hadn't been on the cover, it simply wouldn't have been published.

Given the huge amount of investment required to identify and cultivate a Chinese author, and then translate, publish and market that author's work in English, it's not hard to understand why works that critique ersatz-socialist/wild-capitalist China will continue to dominate in the near future.

Chinese Books, English Reviews

 Bruce, January 2, 2010, 10:38p.m.

# 7.   

All of the above certainly contribute, but I'm pointing the finger at the quality of contemporary Chinese literature. There are two problems here:

  1. It often isn't that good.

    Many authors simply don't work hard enough at writing. That sounds bald to the point of being silly, but it's true. There simply isn't the expectation that writing is a monumental labor, and that a writer needs to push himself/herself to the limit in making it good. Writers don't demand enough of themselves. Colm Toibin was here a few months ago, and in an interview with a Chinese journalist said that his only responsibility was to his sentences; to making his sentences as perfect as possible. I don't see a Chinese writer, of any age group but particularly the younger generation, thinking this way.

  2. It's not good in the way that Western readers expect.

    Besides differences in the cultural and historical background of Chinese fiction, there are also different narrative expectations in Chinese fiction and Western fiction. This is something that would require some academic research to fully explore, but my sense is that Chinese fiction is still more firmly rooted in traditional story-telling methods than in the West, where modernism opened the floodgates long ago. Chinese novels are still often told in the first person, as an actual story being told to actual listeners, and are far more comfortable with melodrama, conventional plot devices and flabby language, aiming instead at a story with the capacity to move. The centrality of style in Western literature, with the attendant commonplaces of English-language creative writing – "make it new", "show don't tell", "kill your darlings" – is not really acknowledged here, and I think literature is valued more as entertainment than as high art – ie the kind of art that challenges and potentially changes the reader, and may be more "good for you" than "good". The vast quantities of literature being chugged by young Chinese readers are all of the entertaining variety, and even China's more serious writers (Yu Hua, Su Tong, etc) are writing in an elevated version of this style.

This is a great big generalization and there are plenty of holes in it, but I think as a general theory it's not wrong. Chen Sihe wrote an interesting article on Yu Hua's Brothers, about how it represents a return to traditional storytelling aesthetics, that I wish someone else would translate into English so I don't have to.

It would be nice to conduct this discussion some place other than the comments on a link – any suggestions for a more visible and permanent format?

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 3, 2010, 2:28a.m.

# 8.   

I definitely dig most of that but... in that case, is it crazy to say, Taiwan? So much good writing that's getting even less attention than the Mainland. Is anyone else working through Xixia Lvguan 西夏旅館? Or the new Zhu Tianwen book? Li Yongping? There are lots of other names, serious-as-hell literary people that take responsibility for their sentences.

DylanK, January 3, 2010, 6:29a.m.

# 9.   

Yeah, my theory is definitely limited, and there are bound to be other factors at work. Unfortunately I know squat about Taiwanese literature, and can't really speculate on what's holding them back…

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 4, 2010, 3:17a.m.

# 10.   

I wasn't trying to defeat your theory with Taiwan, I was kinda agreeing and suggesting Taiwan for writing that is "good" and "good in the way that Western readers expect." It was more of a personal recommendation, more than anything.

Regarding publishing/translation, I think a lot of the best Chinese-English translation in the 2000s have been of Taiwanese novels. I know squat about Taiwan literature, too, but the more I know, the more bullish I am about it.

DylanK, January 4, 2010, 5:40a.m.

# 11.   


fion, January 4, 2010, 8:47a.m.


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