This is the record of a few days spent with Jia Pingwa and Nicky Harman in Xi'an and environs, as we prepare a translation of Jia's Qinqiang for AmazonCrossing.
I’d already spent the last several days with Jia Pingwa, hanging out in Xi’an and going down to the countryside, but, sitting at a table with the author one night at in Sichuan restaurant off the Second Ring Road in Xi’an, I was dying to do what I’m sure many people have already done: tell him how I first came to read Ruined City.
I think I wanted his approval, to prove to him that I was connected to his works or that I could understand it and that I was the right person to translate it, even if that decision was no longer in his hands.
Ruined City (I prefer Abandoned Capital as a translation, but I defer now to the title Howard Goldblatt used for his translation for the University of Oklahoma Press) had come into my hands at a time when my life could still be changed by a novel.
I knew I wasn’t alone in that. I had hear heard the stories, mostly from post-’80s babies that came across copies of the book on parents’ or teachers’ shelves, maybe a bootleg copy in a used book market, or an online edition. The book’s reputation preceded it.
Ruined City was banned but it was never hard to find it.
Unlike other books that carry the “banned in China” label, it does not often venture into well-known sensitive areas. It’s possible to read Ruined City as national allegory, but it is also one of the rare contemporary Chinese novels that focuses on the individual's plight rather than the Chinese nation. The real problem with the book, as censors saw it, was that it was filthy.
In truth, three decades on, the sexual exploits of anti-hero Zhuang Zhidie and the other literary bums and intellectual grifters in the novel seem tame. But it’s not so much that it contained sex, rather that all of the sex in the book was not the good, procreative kind, but hotel room liaisons, extramarital affairs, and other immoral practices. (And Jia took the high road, hiding most of the sex with the trick of simply writing "here the author has deleted x number of words," so most of the filthier stuff was theater of the mind. It was only as dirty as your own imagination.)
The supposed filth was part of the reason I sought it out, but like many other infamously dirty novels, the thrill of flipping through to find the sex leads to flipping back to the first page and reading it through.
The first copy I ever held, I told Jia, belonged to the first girl I fell in love with. That was many, many years ago. Her copy was a first edition, I think, published by Beijing Publishing House, or a convincing bootleg, with the crumpled ball of paper on its cover. I forget where the girl—and her name was **—got it, but I imagine it was probably plucked from tarp laid out at the used book market outside Kuaizaiting Park, off Jiefang Road in Xuzhou, where many years ago, legend had it, a tiger, escaped from the zoo formerly located there, had once mauled a man. The book was carefully wrapped in an RT-Mart flier, like all of ****’s books.
My own rudimentary Chinese made it impossible to work through the dense writing, but she read it to me. I experienced it first in her voice, sitting on the busted bed in my apartment across the road from the workers’ dormitory where she and her parents still lived then, or more likely on the stone benches along Yunlong Lake, the first place I fingered her and the first place where I managed to stumble through the line that opens the novel: “Sometime in 1980, a strange thing happened in Xijing…”
Later, we struggled to translate it together. It was for ourselves, I guess, although I’m sure versions of our translations can still be found online, whether they’re worth reading or not. The opening scenes of the novel are still drilled into my head, from going over the same sections again and again: The two loyal friends that visit the burial mound of Yang Guifei, the strange flowers that bloomed in the dirt that they collected there, the four suns that appear in the sky over Xijing, the old man clothed in a banner from Yunhuang temple who chants doggerel, Meng Yunfang growing back his first wife's pubic hair with a secret cure, Meng Yunfang and the nun, the young thug Zhou Min and his dance hall girl, Zhou Min’s arrival in the city and his meeting with Meng Yunfang, Meng Yunfang suckling a cow on the street…
“Young people shouldn’t read that book,” Jia told me that night, as I reached to take a scoop of mapo tofu, and I thought of the saying that the middle-aged shouldn't read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, young people shouldn't read Water Margin, men shouldn't read Journey to the West, and women shouldn't read Dream of the Red Chamber. Whether or not that’s sound advice, Jia was probably right: for a young man aspiring to be a horny literatus, reading Zhuang Zhidie’s exploits only added fuel to the fire.
Jia had given me a fresh copy of the book that afternoon and on the drive back from Dihua, I’d flipped at random to a passage about Zhuang Zhidie noticing the mole between Wan’er’s legs. I couldn’t help but be transported back in time and space to that park bench beside Yunlong Lake, reading the passage together:
“Look at yourself,” Wan’er said, laughing. “Is that what a writer is supposed to look like?”
"What should a writer look like?" Zhuang Zhidie asked her.
"More elegant, refined..." Wan'er said.
He lifted her legs and parted them, so that he could study her. "No," she protested, "please," but she did not stop him. She was already wet. He pillowed her head with a blanket and she watched herself in the mirror on the wall of the hotel room. She began to moan and he silenced her with a kiss, plugging his tongue into her mouth. The room was filled with the sound of their panting. 口口口口口口 (Here, the author has deleted five hundred words.)
He told her that she had a mole down there, so she moved herself so that she could see the spot in the mirror. She thought to herself: Zhuang Zhidie truly loves me. That laborer in Tongguan had never noticed the mole, and neither had Zhou Min—she'd never noticed it herself, come to think of it. She asked him: "Is it beautiful?" "I think so," he said. "I have a mole on mine, too."
She saw that he did in fact have a mole there, and she said, "Perfect! Even if we're separated, we can always identify each other by our moles."
I don’t remember any more intimate blemishes, but, gazing into **’s eyes, I’d noticed the small mole peeking out of her lower right eyelid. If they try to counterfeit you, I told her, I’ll look for that mole.
We went our separate ways, just like Wan’er and Zhidie.
“But now,” I told Jia, “whenever I read the book—”
“You think of her,” he said.
“I think of her.”
It was *, too, while we were in the middle of going our separate ways, who told me to read Jia’s 2005 novel Qinqiang*.
That was the book that brought me to Xi’an this spring.
Through good luck and good guanxi, I had been given the task of collaborating with Nicky Harman on a translation of Qinqiang (it will come out under another name, I'm sure, but we have no working title for the translation).
Apart from the chance to meet Jia, I treasured the chance to spend more time with Nicky, who is responsible for translating two of Jia’s other novels, Happy Dreams (a translation of Jia's 2007 novel Gaoxing about a trash collector that shows up in Xi'an from the countryside) and Broken Wings (a translation of his 2016 novel Jihua about a trafficked woman). I consider her the finest translator working, and I’ve learned many things from working with her that would have taken me years to figure out on my own.
Her own experiences in China differ greatly from my own and I'd enjoyed asking her about her first visits to the country in the '70s. Part of the success of the co-translation, I thought, would involve understanding her better, since I was often working with her writing, as much as I was working with Jia Pingwa's writing.
Jia Pingwa and his loyal assistant Ma Li had invited Nicky and I out to Xi’an to take a trip down to Difeng, the model for Qinqiang’s village of Freshwind, and out to Northern Shaanxi to see some cave homes.
I flew out of Narita, took a red-eye from Hong Kong and met Nicky in Beijing to take a China Eastern flight three hours south to Xi’an.
Flying in, I noticed that every roof in the suburbs of the city was blue. The ground below looked like Six-Color Desert Pattern. It was my first trip to the city, apart from a few brief layover on the way from to Nanjing from Tokyo.
I had pictured a dignified black Red Flag limousine, but Jia and Ma Li met us outside the airport in a Ford E-series with blonde wood trim and a wet bar in the front. We headed straight for a banquet in a luxury hotel built into the Tang West Market complex.
We stopped for a cigarette out front. "I'm glad you smoke, too," he said.
"I barely smoke these days, except when I'm in China, or working on something. My wife isn't too happy about it."
"The secret," Jia said, "is to get her started smoking, too. Get her a pack of something nice..."
I’d met Jia once before, in the back of a bookstore in the 798 Art Zone in Beijing, but he was very much in Serious Author Mode and just off another event for the Beijing International Book Fair. He went onstage and talked about whatever it was he talked about, alongside a guy from Grove, a publisher from Mexico, and Nick Stember. I recall understanding very little of what he said in his thick Shaanxi accent, but I was too proud to pick up the earpiece and listen to Eric Abrahamsen’s simultaneous interpretation.
On his home turf in Shaanxi, sharing a cigarette out front of the hotel and then bottle of Maotai over local delicacies, he was far less intimidating. He was patient and funny and I managed to work out some of the rules of his idiosyncratic Shaanxi-inflected Mandarin (a d initial becomes a j, for example, and the -ai final becomes -ei).
With a good buzz on, we were chauffeured over to the Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute Theater. We rolled into the courtyard in the conversion van and I got my first taste of the reception that Jia Pingwa receives wherever he goes. As soon as he alighted from the van, he was swept up into the group of Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute leaders that had assembled to greet him. We were ushered into a VIP room in the lobby of the theater and poured tea. The leaders pleaded with Jia to take the stage after the performance (he promised them that his foreign guests were willing to, but luckily, this never happened).
The novel—Qinqiang—shares its name with the local operatic form and it feels impossible to really understand the book without knowing something about Qin opera. The book is filled with references to qinqiang, with the Xia family at the center of the novel intimately involved in the indigenous artform, either as patrons, performers or fans.
When Ma Li asked what I wanted to do in Xi’an, I made her promise that we could see some opera. I’d listened to and watched hours of qinqiang opera, often trying to figure out a reference in the text to a line from Picking Up the Jade Bracelet or One Story of Two Marriages. But I’d never seen it live.
The performance that night was a version of Women Generals of the Yang Family put on by the company’s troupe of younger performers, mostly in their late teens. It was an impressive show, and the performer in the role of She Taijun was particularly good. I was transfixed by the intricate finger patterns and sleeve tosses. The band, too, was particularly good, especially the percussion section, and their solos during the acrobatic sections had the crowd on their feet.
It completely changed the way I saw the novel. I couldn’t help but see the novel’s heroine Bai Xue in the role of the matronly shot-caller She Taijun.
Jia was unimpressed by the modern staging and smoke machine. He waxed poetic about the village opera. "But," he said, "you can't find that kind of thing, these days. It's rare."
The next morning, I woke up early before dawn and took a taxi across town to the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. It was my first time in Xi’an and I’d wanted to see it, since reading a poetic description of the tower in one of Jia’s essays:
I always say, go for a walk in the city. There's no bell in the Bell Tower anymore; the sound you hear out there in the morning is the sound of the sky. There are no drums in the Drum Tower, either; the sound you hear out there is the sound of the earth. If you're in politics, head out to the east side of the wall to see the Terracotta Warriors. If you're an artist or a writer, then go south of the wall to see the carved stone in front of the Tomb of General Huo Qubing. I'm always willing to take visitors up onto the wall. I like to point out the Great Wild Goose Pagoda and the Qujiang Pond. I say to them: You see the pagoda? It's a stone ink stamp. Over there, the Qujiang Pond, that's the ink pad. Remember that. History marches on and Xi'an is a modern city like all the rest. But the difference is: the heavens placed this great stamp down in Xi'an. Xi'an will always be home to the soul of Chinese culture.
I saw the pagoda itself, from a distance, but the complex was still, though, and I couldn’t find anywhere to look down on the pond from, so I found a place open for breakfast, got some jiaozi and took the Metro back across town. Even if I hadn’t seen the stamp given by the heavens to Xi’an, I got a good look at the city, traveling across the city.
It struck me that nobody whose vision of Xi’an was formed by Jia’s novels would be disappointed by his work. Jia’s Xi’an (or Xijing, as he calls it in most novels) is completely honest; he populates his Xi’an with migrant workers and grifters and everyday people; and there are no surprises when you come to visit it.
I stood with him later that morning looking out of the Tang West Market complex. He gave the history of the place, its renovation into a square surrounded by towering statues of foreign merchants arriving by camel down the Silk Road, retail towers, and antique shops and museums, all of it rendered in faux-Tang architecture. I couldn’t help but think of the plans the mayor of Xijing has in Ruined City. Prescient, perhaps, since it was written almost two decades before they broke ground on this particular complex:
...along the canal, they built an amusement park themed around local culture; they rebuilt three of the city's streets to mimic ancient markets: one street was an imitation of a Tang market and sold paintings and porcelain, the second street was an imitation Song Dynasty market and sold local street food and snacks, the third street was built to resemble an imagined Ming or Qing Dynasty boulevard and sold folk art, handicrafts and local products. The tourism sector boomed.
I found the whole thing a bit absurd, the camel statues and the Uniqlo, but Jia looked beyond that, and pointed out the action around the square at the center of the complex, the recycling men coming through and the troupe of Zhuang women that were dancing in one corner, and the women in matching red uniforms lining up out front of a restaurant to receive their daily lecture…
We left the city and drove a couple hundred kilometers southeast of the city to Dihua, stopping at a rest stop along the way for a cigarette and a bowl of noodles. The landscape turned mountainous and green.
Unlike other writers in China that were sent down to the countryside in the ‘60s or ‘70s, Jia is genuinely from the countryside. Dihua is his hometown. He only left the village after joining a production brigade tasked with building a reservoir, then impressed cadres enough to earn a spot at Northwest University. The themes of Qinqiang are universal, but it seems like it would be very difficult to fully understand the nuts and bolts of the novel without a little taste of the author's hometown.
Dihua now is split between a real town and a fictional village: a stretch of rural modernity, a street lined with farmers selling their vegetables and eggs, butchers, clothes sellers, and then beyond that, a section of village that has been half-preserved and half-remade. Nicky, Ma Li and I got out in the untouched section and walked for a while, stopping off to watch a woman grinding chili peppers with a mighty stone roller powered by an electric motor. I looked around, trying to take in the faces, listening for the dialect.
We got back in the van and drove to the section of the city being transformed into a Jia Pingwa-themed tourist attraction. We were met by Jia’s brother, accompanied by local cadres, tourism officials, and other people in charge of redeveloping Dihua.
The homes owned by the Jia family have been preserved in a corner, along with a rural mansion fixed up by Liu Gaoxing, the man who Jia’s 2007 novel Happy Dreams was based on.
Beyond the preserved Jia Family homes sits the fictional village of Freshwind. The street features shops that pop up in the novel, like the pharmacy operated by Zhao Hongsheng, a statue of Xia Feng and Bai Xue being married and another of Bai Xue steaming mantou. Jia posed obediently beside each statue (the picture at the top of the page).
It was like visiting a replica Macondo with Gabriel García Márquez.
Even on a grey day in early spring, there seemed to be a fair number of tourists visiting the preserved home and Freshwind.
Jia had just been back for the Qingming Festival, but it was clear that he spent little time in the village. It was easy to see why. Every conversation was interrupted by a request for a photo. Fans stopped to take pictures of Jia and his entourage. The more brazen stepped directly to the author to request that he sign a copy of their book.
We stopped at the Erlang Temple and wandered around the open square across from it, where there was an open-air theater and a pagoda. I thought of the start of Qinqiang with its raucous scene set at the opera theater:
When I got to the opera theater it seemed like everyone in the village was already there. The women and children that had seats were trying to keep sitting but the late arrivals crowded in all around them until they ended up standing on the benches. Their feet were planted firm but the bodies of the standing people swayed back and forth. I thought they looked like a field of wheat, swept by the wind in midsummer. Kids began to climb the walls around the edge of the theater grounds and then a few boosted each other up to the stage itself. Some of the troupe tried to shoo the kids from the stage but they climbed back again.
Jia said: “I used to climb up the pagoda in the summer and sleep there, up on the second or third floor. It didn’t used to have all that color on it, back then. There wasn’t a wall around the temple there.”
I noticed a surveillance camera halfway up the pagoda. There wouldn't be any village kids climbing up to snooze in the summer heat, now.
Jia, Ma Li, Nicky and I went in the afternoon to a restaurant down the road, with Jia's younger brother, the guy running the baogujiu shop in town, a local cadre, and a few other people. ate a meal of good bread, larou, drank a bottle of Wuliangye and a bottle of Fenjiu.
After lunch, we tried to go back to Jia’s old home, and we stood for a while in the room of his that is still preserved there. He showed us his old radio and the movie posters on the wall, and his brother said, “He feels a bit embarrassed since he used to live here with his first wife.”
We tried to sit down for a cup of tea, but the table we were sat at was tucked into the back of a room devoted to selling Jia’s books, and we were unable to talk without being interrupted by autograph-seeking fans.
I thought I detected a certain melancholy in Jia, touring his village, although he was too diplomatic to come out and say what was bothering him. How strange it must be, I thought, to see your hometown converted into a tourist attraction. How strange it must be to write about your childhood home and by writing about it contribute to its complete transformation—by writing about it, he has destroyed it. In the temple, he had bowed to the local gods, but what did those spirits make of their shrine being turned into another tourist attraction?
The transformation of the village has surely benefited a great number of people who would otherwise have to run to Xi’an to get a job. It was clear that everyone in the village was in the Jia Pingwa business, including Jia’s own brother, who seemed to serve as the unofficial mayor of the place. And development was, I thought, particularly tasteful and understated, compared to how it could have gone. The stone bridge the local government had put in was quite beautiful, too, and I imagine it must be particularly impressive in summer, when there are lilies out on the pond.
The complex in the center of Xi’an that we had looked out on that morning didn’t displace much of value, but the transformation of Difeng seemed to have dislocated something still vital, if only to a small number of residents. It was sad to see that Jia could no longer take refuge in the place that he had spilled so much ink memorializing.
It was a long drive back to Xi’an.
I wondered if we had gained anything by visiting the village.
As a translator, the text is there, and I think there’s an argument or a philosophy that says nothing needs to be added to it, nothing needs to be interpreted—just translate what’s there, as it is, and avoid all editorial or linguistic or stylistic or tonal modifications.
But I don’t think that’s a philosophy either Nicky or I adhere to. I'm struggling to think of an example, though. I was thinking, you have a description of a hillside being, literally, “deep green” in the text, but until you’ve been to the countryside around Difeng, you wouldn’t know if it was an emerald or a teal… Not that you would necessarily want to change the “deep green” to “emerald green,” but it’s interesting to know. Or, when Yinsheng works on rebuilding the grave mound of Xia Tianzhi, the text is there, saying, he piled stones on top—but were they stones or were they rocks or small boulders or bricks?
What does the village accent sound like? When someone shouts across the lane, could we call it a "howl" or a "bark" or a "cry"? What do they call an alley and what do they call a road and what do they call a lane?
Is the “upstairs” in a village house an upper floor or is it a loft? The text only says "upstairs" but wouldn't it be better if the translator, at least, knew what the hell it was? (And Nicky and I both climbed into a loft, up an old rickety ladder, just to find out!)
Is the stone roller than Yinsheng uses to grind grain different from the one that Cuicui uses to grind sesame seeds? Is the "stick" stuck in to push the roller a "twig" or a "branch" or a "rod"?
That kind of thing.
And what do the faces in the village look like? Bai Xue is beautiful, but what is beauty in Difeng?
And I thought, listening to Jia greeting the old women in the village, or talking to one of the farmers with a house near his old home—in pure village dialect that I struggled to understand, even with my crash course in Shaanxi hua—that I could hear something of what the novel sounded like in his head, what the novel was supposed to sound like.
So, I guess some of what we discovered is and will be practically important to the translation, like the loft and the stone rollers, affecting even word choice, but some of our Difeng experience will only contribute in a less direct way, enriching our understanding of the novel but probably not changing how we would translate it.
The next morning, we went out to Sanyuan County with Jia and another writer—Wang Shenghua—to see cave houses like the ones in Broken Wings. I’d been committed to seeing opera and Nicky was committed to seeing the cave houses.
We pulled up to a crowd of at least thirty or forty, waiting to welcome Jia. “Why are there so many people?” Jia asked.
We toured the caves under the watchful eye of local cadres and enthusiastic county bureaucrats, constantly photographed and filmed. Whenever Jia attempted to explain a feature of the cave houses, he was usually interrupted by one of those helpful bureaucrats, steering the conversation back to their own notes on the houses—”Yes, Jia laoshi, that’s right, and let me point out this kang, where it is said Xi Zhongxun once slept!”
We ate a boozy lunch in a cave, drinking more Fenjiu. A former cop and current antiques collector—Yao Zhiguang—after helping me to polish off a bottle begged off cracking another, slurring, "It's against the law to operate a car after drinking." When he toasted me on the next round, he recruited a young man from the village to drink in his stead.
We took a ride into his antiques shop in the county town, where the showed us his book of mostly Han rubbings, took us around to the other antiques shops in the neighborhood. It was clear that these antiques shop owners, too, wanted to be in the Jia Pingwa business, and their best pieces were presented to the author, who is known for his impressive collection.
We went back into the city with Wang Shenghua and drank tea in his studio with his lovely personal assistant, who was reading a copy of Remembering Wolves at her desk when we came in. She looked exactly how I imagined Liu Yue, the young woman Zhuang Zhidie first encounters in the courtyard of Zhao Jingwu, to look, with long black hair, and an elegant nose (and I flip back to that chapter and note: “...the book that the girl had been reading in the courtyard was, coincidentally, one of Zhuang Zhidie’s...”).
It’s a testament to Jia’s skill as a writer that so many moments in Xi’an and people we met along the way seemed to have been plucked straight from his novels. There was Wang Shenghua, the aging literatus known in literary circles as much for his resemblance to Mao Zedong as his calligraphy, the beautiful assistant herself, the antique collecting cop with a drinking problem who had somehow amassed a collection of some of the best antiques and contemporary art that the province had produced...
That night, at the Sichuan restaurant, I told Jia the story of encountering Ruined City and he told me what the book had meant for him. Being able to greet foreign scholars and translators was not something he took for granted, since in the wake of the book's banning and official suppression, he had several times been followed by official surveillance while strolling the city with international visitors.
After the dinner at the Sichuan restaurant, I went out alone and met up with the friend of a professor from Northwest University, who I had met once in Beijing, and a few of his friends. I passed him a bottle of Maotai that Jia had given me that afternoon on the way back to Xi’an and a pack from the carton of soft pack Zhonghua that the author had gifted me. We went out to a KTV in Baishulin.
I had the sensation again of being in a Jia Pingwa novel, drinking wine with a young woman from a village way out on the edge of Lintong, a mostly rural district of Xi’an that stretches about thirty miles northeast from the central city, listening to the professor and his friends talk about literary circle politics and a friend that had gone to California to teach. I quizzed the young woman on her life. She had met a man when she was eighteen, gotten pregnant, and then gotten married married at twenty. I felt like Xia Feng, always on the search for material.
It was three o’clock in the morning when we left.
In the morning, we went out with Jia to see the frescoes at the Shaanxi History Museum, then for a lunch of paomo. All the meals we’d eaten in the city, he had eaten sparingly, and it was only in the village, where most of the food was simple vegetable dishes that he had eaten a bit better. The paomo was important to him, though, I could tell, and he took pleasure in pointing out the men sitting at the table beside us, painstakingly breaking day-old bread into crumbs to soak in their soup.
I pulled up on my phone the essay Jia had written on paomo:
There was an old man that lived on Xi'an's Five Flavor Alley. He was seventy years old and had been going to the same paomo shop for twenty years. Each day, he would bring his shredded bread and dunk it in the soup, then order three more pieces of bread, tear it up and carry it home. He never missed a day. Finally, when he died, his family took the torn-up bread that had never made it into the soup and tucked it beside him in his coffin.
My eyes were wet. I will admit that. I put my head down, staring into my bowl of soup. The feeling was unexpected. Jia's welcome had been touching, and it had felt like a weight had been lifted off of me, telling him about how I had found his work. But I was thinking, too, of how his writing had been constantly in the background during the past decade and a half of my life—and I was finally meeting the man.
I was thinking of reading that essay many years earlier, probably translating it to post on a forgotten blog, maybe eating paomo at the Xi'an Xiaochi stall in Richmond Public Market in the suburbs of Vancouver, dreaming of Jia's Xijing. And I was thinking about sitting on that park bench beside Yunlong Lake, and about reading Qinqiang for the first time on the bus to Professor Rea's classes at UBC… It was a long road. (One can go into the archives of this very site and see postings on Jia's novels. It was surprising to see that some of those postings are now more than ten years old.)
There was something else, too: I felt for the first time like a serious, legitimate translator of Jia's work. A month before, onstage at the Bookworm Festival with Nicky Harman and Dave Haysom, I had felt like a bit of a fraud, rambling about Jia Pingwa and his novel. But I felt suddenly like I had more right to Jia’s writing. It was as if by sharing a bowl of paomo, Jia had granted me an imprimatur.
I’m sure that wasn’t the author's intention—just a friendly invitation that he explained by saying that one can't go to Xi'an without eating paomo just like you can't go to Beijing without seeing Tiananmen—but that's the way it felt to me.
When I took off a couple days later, heading south on a Cathay flight to Hong Kong, I felt as if I had a better understanding of the land below me and the novel I've been tasked with translating.