That's the question in a piece by Wang Yan, for the Liaoning Daily. The article is from a seven part series called, "Re-evaluating Chinese literature."
It features the thoughts of a gang of Chinese scholars, whose opinions range from reasonable to... let's say, unreasonable:
In this installment, "re-evaluating" will take on a slightly different meaning, as we evaluate the position of Chinese literature in a more global sense. We will re-evaluate the status of Chinese literature, from the point of view of cultural exchange and translation of Chinese books. No matter what is achieved in our contemporary literature, the question remains of its standing on the world stage.
Translating books and promoting them overseas is our literary bridge to the West. Currently, that bridge might be said to resemble a plank of wood spanning a wide river. This single narrow and flimsy link to the West is no longer sufficient.
Western translators and scholars of Chinese culture are known as Sinologists. They have been studying China for centuries, but there are very few scholars focusing on contemporary literature. Chinese scholarship on Western literature has a history of at least a hundred years, but Western scholarship on Chinese literature is a field with history of only two or three decades. The West and China do not have an equal understanding of each other. Many Chinese authors are simply ignored by Western scholars. There is a general ignorance of Chinese literature in the West, yet Chinese writers still take to heart everytime China is overlooked for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The West ignores Chinese literature but we still hang on every word that Wolfgang Kubin says. Every Chinese writer still wants to become an international writer. Taking all of that into account, let's rethink our answer to the question of how far Chinese literature has progressed down the road to global acceptance.
China's economic and international political status is always improving. The entire world is focused on China. This must be the turning point for Chinese culture. Chinese fiction can become window on the Chinese national spirit. Therefore, it cannot pander to a Western conception of China. Chinese literature must reveal the truth of the national spirit. Chinese literature must offer the world the benefit of its unique spirit and ideas. This must be taken as the ultimate goal of Chinese culture, and Chinese literature.
A Chinese writer, living in this brave new world of international cultural exchange, must directly face these questions. In fact, these questions should provide a frame of reference for Chinese writers.
When this paper proposed the "Re-evaluating Chinese literature" series, it planned to discuss Wolfgang Kubin's recent comments on Chinese literature. When all is said and done, though, Kubin's is merely another face in the crowd. No matter his opinion or way of looking at things--and perhaps his words have been distorted by the media--they are simply one school of thought. Looking at the entire field of Western scholarship, how do these Sinologists view Chinese literature? What is their final verdict on Chinese contemporary literature? These are questions that are not often asked, or answered. So, this paper went to the people who have the answers. Starting in December of last year, we sat down with Nanjing University's Xu Jun, Shanghai International Studies University professor Xie Zhen, and Shenyang Normal University's Shi Guoqiang, as well as the head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Foreign Literature, Chen Zhongyi. The goal was to get an objective picture of international scholarship on Chinese literature and the global perception of the works of Chinese authors.
Sinology has a history of several centuries. Everyone will recognize the names of Matteo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell. Sinology encompasses many fields of study. Sinologists are simply people with an academic interest in a field of study as it relates to China, and who are not Chinese, or are overseas-born Chinese.
Xu Jun, Chen Zhongyi, Xie Tianzhen and Shi Guoqiang, because of their research interests, frequently come into contact with foreign scholars on and translators of Chinese literature. In their opinion, overseas research on China, as well as scholarship on Chinese literature, remains in the earliest stages of development. The elementary level of development, and often immense ignorance of the subject, means that it is unavoidable that there will be misunderstandings of Chinese literature. As we see more foreign interest directed at Chinese literature, the problems in foreign scholarship mentioned above become more apparent.
"I've don't have the statistics on hand and there might not even be any, but from my own experience and understanding, the number of scholars of contemporary Chinese literature is quite low," says Chen Zhongyi, who has closely followed foreign scholarship on Chinese literature. He has his personal assessment of Chinese literature and is interested in how foreign scholars assess the same works. "There are many different opinions among foreign scholars of contemporary Chinese literature. Some of them like to compare contemporary literature with the writing of the May 4th era. It's not a very scientific method. Lu Xun and his contemporaries were pioneers. They created China's contemporary literature. They were influenced by the best of the West's 19th century writing. The atmosphere of the time was nothing like today's situation. If insist on bringing up May 4th, you'll only find yourself with a mess of differing opinions on how it relates to contemporary literature."
Xie Tianzhen has met many foreign scholars and translators, "The translators and scholars I've met all have a generally positive view of contemporary Chinese literature. They're usually quite excited to introduce our literature to the world. The problem is that outside of China, there's a lack of understanding of our literature. Those translators have a wide range of texts that they'd like to introduce to overseas readers. I know a Korean writer who has completely given up on her own writing in order to throw herself into translating new Chinese fiction. She's sensed that Chinese fiction will continue to attract readers. She's anticipating massive development in the world of Chinese literature and a growing readership overseas. When one of Mo Yan's books is translated in Korea, it's translated by her. Mo Yan even paid a special visit to Korea. From that, you can see that Chinese contemporary literature has a bright future."
Xie Tianzhen thinks that with China's rise will come more interest in Chinese literature, and more scholarship on and translation of Chinese books. "The number of foreigners studying Chinese is increasing all the time. The number of foreigers that can speak the language fluently is increasing, too. If things continue like this, foreign understanding of Chinese literature and Chinese culture can only deepen."
But even if what Xie Tianzhen suggests is true, the appeal of Chinese literature in the West is still extremely limited. Shi Guoqiang insists that there is no real audience for Chinese fiction outside of China. He says that if you look at a bookstore in America, "you might come across a collection of Wang Anyi's short stories, with a picture of herself as a child on the cover, but no other Chinese writers will be available. There's a chain of bookstores called Barnes & Noble. In their "China" section, most books will be about feng shui, enough to fill a whole rack. If Americans are more interested in our superstitions than our literature, what hope is there?"
After Wolfgang Kubin's statements about Chinese literature were blown out of proportion by the Chinese media, he's become the posterboy for modern Sinologists. There is a saying about monks coming back from India reading sutras, but Wolfgang Kubin is the monk that studied Sanskrit to bitch about the sutras.
Chen Zhongyi reminds us that Kubin's opinion is simply one of many and might not be representative. Chen says: "If you really look at it, Mr. Kubin wasn't attacking Chinese contemporary literature as a whole. Kubin is a serious scholar, sure, but you can't exactly say that his understanding of Chinese contemporary literature is particuarly comprehensive or deep. His views aren't particularly harmful but it you can't forget that they are based on outdated Western ideas and often deal with theories outside the realm of literature."
Shi Guoqiang suggests that Kubin has a very limited view of Chinese literature. "What I mean is, his ability to read Chinese is probably not as good as we imagine. If you look at some of what he's written, his reasoning is simply baffling. Like, when he said that Wang Anyi is writing in the tradition of Zhang Ailing. His evidence was that Love on a Barren Mountain, Love in a Small Town had titles that reminded him of Zhang's Love in a Fallen City." [The original article goes further down this road, with Shi Guoqiang quoting various things Kubin has written. Not having the original texts at hand and not wanting to misrepresent something that Shi Guoqiang might already by misrendering or mistranslating, I'll make a snip here. You're not missing anything].
On the other hand, Xu Jun says, translators and readers are must take world literature as their framse of reference. To examine Chinese literature we must know what's happening in contemporary Chinese literature but we also need to know what's going on in contemporary literature elsewhere. Xu Jun has a relatively positive view of foreign scholars of Chinese literature, "The fact that Kubin made those statements about Chinese literature shows us that he's reading Chinese literature, he's following Chinese literature, he cares about the creative process of Chinese literature. Really, he has close links to many Chinese writers."
"When it comes to interacting with literature," Xu Jun says, "the interaction starts with opening a book. That is the beginning of the dialogue, the one between author and reader. So, the first step, if we want to bring our literature to the world isn't asking for praise or criticism. The first step is simply letting people read the books. When readers open the books, that is the beginning of a process of understanding and appreciating literature. ... Now, when the process of globalization is speeding up, keeping the world situation as a state of reference is key. The opinions of foreign readers and scholars deserve our attention."
Shi Guoqiang agrees, saying that even if we shouldn't take Kubin's opinion to heart, we should still respect him. In the end, Kubin is an ardent admirer of Chinese literature and feels he can offer his opinion of it, which comes from a background of extensive reading and a rigorous approach to literature. "We can't take everything he says seriously, but we can't ignore him, either."
Asked to identify the Chinese author who's followed most closely in the West, Xie Tianzhen points to Mo Yan. "Mo Yan is the writer that foreign scholars and translators pay the most attention to. Yu Hua, Jia Pingwa, and Wang Anyi get a lot of attention, too. Wolf Totem was a book that received a lot of attention overseas. It was the right book for the right time because it had a lot to say about environmentalism and the green movement. There are many reasions a book might make a splash in the West. We often talk about the literary aspects, but sometimes a book is a hit because it's released at the right place at the right time."
In the early-1990s Xie Tianzhen worked at the University of Pittsburgh on a book comparing Western science-fiction with Chinese knight-errant fiction. "Back then, I noted that Chinese science-fiction barely existed, but it was a huge part of Western literature. You even had university classes on it at American schools. First, I thought it was because of some difference in the national characters of our two countries. Chinese and Americans are both human and both have the power of imagination. But American imaginations tend to the fantastical, while Chinese imaginations tend to the realistic or concrete. Western science-fiction was always talking about other planets, but nobody was thinking about that stuff in China. In America, Star Wars was a huge hit, but nobody in China gave a damn. If we compare Western science-fiction to our Chinese knight-errant fiction, the imaginative aspects are very different. Knight-errant fiction starts from a set plot and the novels are set in a quite realistic time and place. Then, starting from these these relatively realistic settings and a set plot, fantastic things can occur. Now, if you look at the younger generation, you'll see that they grew up watching Ultraman and Astro Boy. So, when they come across science-fiction, it's not like earlier generations." Xie Tiezhen thinks that an admiration for a certain strain of literature arises from many factors. "If you didn't grow up in the same world as the literature you're reading was written in, there are some barriers to appreciating and understanding it."
Xu Jun says that there is a long way to go in promoting literary and cultural exchange between China and the West. But, Xu Jun says, there's been a fundamental shift since the 1980s. Chinese literature is finally, if slowly, creeping into the consciousness of the world. For example, Yu Hua's Cries in the Drizzle, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, as well as Jia Pingwa's Abandoned Capital have been well received. Authors such as Mo Yan, Su Tong, Bi Feiyu, Tie Ning, Chi Li and others have also gone over well in the West. Xu Jun's area of expertise is French literature and has a decent understanding of the situation of Chinese literature there. From what Xu Jun has observed, cultural exchange events like the China-France Cultural Year led to many great works of Chinese fiction being introduced to French readers, to great acclaim. "The reception of Yu Hua's Brothers was very enthusiastic! Compared to the former state of things, I think there's been a radical change."
Xu Jun reminds us that France has a long history of Sinology. The number of contemporary Chinese books published that have been published in French translation is quite high, around two hundred in total. But, says, Xu Jun, whether it's Chinese scholars looking at the West or Western scholars looking at China, the first requirement is an understanding. Howard Goldblatt has said that when he translates Chinese fiction, he takes on a heavy burden. The burden lies in accurately representing Chinese works to his American readers. If he translates an inferior book, he's effectively destroying the already limited readership. But French readers, suggest Xu Jun, tend to have a more discerning eye.
But, as Chen Zhongyi points out, the Western public's knowledge of Chinese literature seems to have stalled at a certain stage of understanding, a biased, novelty-seeking stage. "Not all Western readers are like this, but there is definitely a portion of readers that are. You might even say that most readers are stuck at this elementary understanding of Chinese literature. China is the backdrop for all Chinese literature, and they still see China in its current condition as a bizarre place. And lots of the works being published overseas are deeply flawed." Chen Zhongyi says that Chinese literature available overseas can be divided into three types: "The first type is good literature, like Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, Chi Li, Wang Meng, Su Tong, Yu Hua. Serious literature. The second type is literature that has been banned or criticized in China. Foreign readers are very interested in this writing. This reveals their bias, and it adds up to a lot of sales for this kind of fiction. This type includes writers like Wei Hui. The third type is the writing of authors who were born in China but are now writing overseas."
... Among all three types, the second is most influential. Wei Hui's book sales are impressive. Jia Pingwa's Abandoned Capital has also sold quite well. All of these books have been banned, for various reasons. Biased overseas readers read these books to catch a glimpse of China's ugliness. This is the furthest thing from an appreciation of good literature. The fans of these books are well aware that they don't represent great writing but that doesn't stop them from wanting to read them, and they're rarely disappointed by what they find in them.
Xie Tianzhen says, "We have a hundred year history of interpreting Western literature. How did we begin to translate and understand Western literature? Lin Shu was the first translator to introduce Western literary works into China on a larger scale. In order to allow Chinese readers to understand Western literature better, he used the form of Chinese traditional serialized fiction. Today, we can say that Chinese translation of Western literature has a history of more than a hundred years. But Westerners have only begun reading and translating Chinese fiction during the last twenty or thirty years. So, I hope that someday Western readers can have an understanding of Chinese literature similar to our understanding of Western literature. As it is now, it's too much to ask for Westerners to have a real understanding of Chinese literature. We understand them far more than they understand us. This is an important background to these issues, but it's often forgotten. If keep that background in mind, it is easy to see why Westerners misread our literature, and sometimes go as far as to criticize it."
The original article is here: 西方为何不了解文学的中国？
Many thanks, Dylan, for a pleasant, breezy rendition of what I suspect might have been a bit of a slog in the original!
Am struck by a theme that runs throughout the entire piece, as expressed here:
Chinese literature must reveal the truth of the national spirit. Chinese literature must offer the world the benefit of its unique spirit and ideas. This must be taken as the ultimate goal of Chinese culture, and Chinese literature.
And why "must" Chinese literature do so, may I ask? That's a heavy burden many popular and even serious writers in the rest of the world don't have to bear for their countries of origin.
Why can't Chinese authors have the freedom to be creative writers instead of standard bearers for Chinese Civilization?
Chinese Books, English Reviews
Bruce, March 27, 2010, 1:12p.m.
Hopefully not too breezy, but I trimmed lots of the fat.
There are some reasonable, considered opinions expressed among the scholars they interviewed, but most of them have a tone like that, like, exactly that part there, about showing the spirit of the Chinese nation being the ultimate goal 终极目标 of sending Chinese culture abroad. You could say that's the goal of any nation's export of culture, but this guy's got it confused with being the goal of literature.
Also, Chen Zhongyi's line about good literature, like Yan Lianke, and the dirty, bad stuff that's been banned (like Yan Lianke), is pretty impressive.
DylanK, March 27, 2010, 1:55p.m.
I'm not sure that there's a connection between research in literature and sales of translated books. In fact, I'm not that sure that publishers in general completely "understand" everything about literature from their own countries. The publishers that I have met care more about a good story, good language and marketability (if that's a word)than about what any professor has said or written about a book. You don't need a hundred year history of interpreting Chinese literature, since research and book sales are different things. So the future of Chinese literature on the international market has less to do with sinologists and more to do with translators and publishers.
Anna GC, March 27, 2010, 6:52p.m.
Why do the Chinese always assume that the West = the entire world outside of China?
As far as I can tell westerners don't know much about any kind of literature outside their own language, even if it is literature from another Western country.
Azzam, March 27, 2010, 8:22p.m.
Difficult to understand why some chinese scholars take W. Kubin serious! His Franfurt interview six months ago is pure politics: chinese major writers according to him: Tie Ning, chairwoman of the chinese writers association, Wang Meng ex minister of culture!!!Bei Dao is for sure a talented author and...a Nobel candidate, but W. Kubin should have mentioned that he is his translator into German! he can consider that poetry is THE important issue and novels a minor production. But then why not mention the poet Yang Lian, another Nobel candidate, or Duo Duo who was recently awarded the Neustadt prize, the american Nobel; he is only concentrating on Bei Dao!! * this "elite" approach is not very pleasant! Mo Yan, another serious candidate!, is considered as traditional... but his techniques are changing with his various novels and "The Republic of Wine" is possibly one of the most complex architectures ; the same goes for Yan Lianke with "The joy of living" (Shou Huo).
Bertrand Mialaret, March 28, 2010, 9:08a.m.
Talking of Mr. Kubin, he appeared on Pheonix TV's "Qiangqiang San Ren Xing" three-way conversation programme a few days ago.
It must take balls of steel to go on a show like that and declaim in heavily accented Chinese about the quality of language used by the great writers of the 20th century.
07:55 "Lu Xun, Qian Zhongshu, Liang Shiqiu, Lin Yutang...in my view there was no real problem with the Chinese they wrote""鲁迅，钱钟书，梁实秋，林语堂..他们写的中文我觉得没有什么大的问题"
StephenG, March 28, 2010, 4:18p.m.
"Why can't Chinese authors have the freedom to be creative writers instead of standard bearers for Chinese Civilization?"
The Chinese have never fully recovered from the damage caused by Mao's redefinition in 1942 (see Mao's 在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话) of all artists as "cultural workers." Mao and his revolution might be dead, but his influence lingers still in the addled minds of people such as the author of this piece. Rather than serve the revolution, it seems that contemporary Chinese writers must now devote themselves to explaining China to non-Chinese. This is in keeping with the commonly held belief (in the PRC) that criticism directed at China from abroad is either the result of 1) foreign ignorance, or 2) foreign hostility. In the case of the former, the Chinese blame foreigners for not making a good faith effort to understand China and themselves for not explaining their point of view better. (Predictably, one never hears anyone in China make the argument that perhaps some of the criticism directed at China is valid.) How receptive would an American audience be to a similar essay appearing in the NY Times? Not very. Sadly, however, most Chinese eat this stuff up. "We're misunderstood," they say. "If you only understood us, you would love us," they assure us. "If you only cared about Chinese literature the way we care about yours, you'd give us Nobel after Nobel," they seem to think. Hooey.
There are at least two good reasons that Westerners ignore modern Chinese literature: not much is translated and it's generally not as good as literature produced elsewhere. The second reason explains the first. Simply put, the West is home to the richest modern literary tradition. Moreover, there is incredible diversity within the tradition. Where is the Chinese Roth? The Chinese Rushdie? The Chinese Naipaul? How about the Chinese McEwan? Answer: they don't exist. Modern China has produced a number of good writers, but it doesn't produce truly great ones. It's no wonder the Chinese read so much Western literature: It's better! What are Americans to do - put down the latest book by Philip Roth and read Mo Yan? Are you kidding me? His writing is unexceptional and his books are all twice as long as they should be. (Indeed, most Chinese novels are much too long. Chinese editors are little more than glorified proofreaders.) Then again, Mo Yan is one of the best Chinese writers around. Sad, sad, sad.
If the Chinese want Americans to read more Chinese literature in translation, they must give them reason to do so - i.e., they must produce great works. Until then, let them bitch and moan.
Gan Lu, March 28, 2010, 4:44p.m.
The repeated reference to "Westerners have only begun reading and translating Chinese fiction during the last twenty or thirty years" struck me as a bit odd. Maybe the problem is with the term used in the Chinese text, but I think most Westerners would understand that Liaozhai Zhiyi is fiction, and parts of this work were already published by Giles in the 1880s. If you understand that "the West" includes Germany, than there were German editions of Lu Xun or Eileen Chang, Mao Dun, Ding Ling etc. already in the 1950s (Find them at https://portal.d-nb.de/ ), which IMHO is also a bit earlier than thirty years ago.
meiyou, March 29, 2010, 4:26p.m.
I found it odd, too. These are some of the main mentions of that fact that crop up in the article:
China's understanding of Western literature (西方文学) has 100 years of history, yet the West's understanding of Chinese literature (中国文学) has a history of a mere twenty or thirty years.
The foreigners that translate and introduce Chinese culture (中国文化) are called Sinologists. Sinologists have been around for several centuries, but translators of Chinese contemporary literature (中国当代文学) are very few.
Today, in China, we can say that translation has a history of more than a hundred years. But the West's understanding of China begins in the past twenty or thirty years.
DylanK, March 29, 2010, 5:03p.m.
I think you're giving the author of the Chinese original a bit of a hard time, DylanK and meiyou!
Wang Yan is indeed talking in broad (nationalistic) brushstrokes in many areas, but isn't so far off the truth in some.
This statement, for instance: "China's understanding of Western literature (西方文学) has 100 years of history, yet the West's understanding of Chinese literature (中国文学) has a history of a mere twenty or thirty years."
According to the reading I've done on translation of Western and Japanese literature, the first few English/French novels were translated into Chinese in the 1890s, but between 1898-1911 (as I recall), some 1,000 were translated. I believe you can find some good research on the numbers if you read The History of Translated Literature in China by Shanghai's Tian Xiezhen (谢天振,中国现代翻译文学史). And then of course there was another even bigger wave of translations leading up to the May 4th Movement in 1919, including those done by overseas students like Lu Xün. There really is no doubt that college students in particular, and many future early members of the Communist Party, were avid readers of German, Russian, French, English and Japanese fiction and history.
Sinologists aside, I don't think one can really argue with the fact that Chinese literature is really not very well known -- or appreciated -- in the West. I would submit that the great majority of Chinese university students are much more likely to have read Dickens or Gorky or Brecht or Balzac than your typical Westerner is likely to have read The Dream of the Red Chamber or Lu Xün or Wang Shuo.
Thanks to the Cold War and just plain old racism, most people in the West indeed paid little attention to any art or literature from China until after 1978.
I don't agree with much of Wang Yan says, and I intensely dislike his assertion that Chinese literature and writers must serve the nation. But his attitude that well-educated Chinese know a lot more about literature in the West than their counterparts know about Chinese literature is well-founded.
Perhaps more importantly, in emphasizing (even exaggerating) this inequality, Wang Yan is stating something that the vast majority of Chinese feel: They perceive that their culture (in this case, their literature) is getting short shrift in the West, and they are deeply unhappy about it!
Chinese Books, English Reviews
Bruce, March 29, 2010, 11:10p.m.
I guess I felt it odd that it seemed they were arbitrarily writing off everything translated from/written about Chinese literature pre-1980, but I completely agree with your points there.
DylanK, March 30, 2010, 12:47a.m.
I tend to agree with Gan Lu on this. I'm not a Sinologist. My Chinese is just about good enough to read mainland Chinese literature in its original form, but I haven't read a massive range - Yu Hua, Mo Yan and the like.
What has struck me about mainland Chinese literature is an incredible lack of characterisation. It is hard to find a character of real texture, substance and humanity. They all seem to be avatars for some ideal personality type. Taiwanese stuff seems to be a little more subtle when it comes to drawing people.
I've spent half my adult life in China, and if I do not enjoy Chinese novels, I don't see how your average reader in an English-speaking country is going to get into it. When I read the reviews of Wolf Totem that appeared in publications like the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/mar/22/featuresreviews.guardianreview39) it was interesting to see how people who had been raised on "Western" literature responded to a substantial Chinese work. It was a bit embarrassing to see the book torn apart so effortlessly. Perhaps the reviewers missed the point, but I recognised in the reviews a lot of my own feelings towards the Chinese novels that I have read.
I'd be very happy if someone out there could introduce me to a really good human story in Chinese that could restore my faith.
Twang, March 30, 2010, 3:19a.m.
There's also a general tendency (in this article and in most public discourse in China) to smooth over the whole PRC disaster and assume that the past thirty years of contemporary Chinese culture is contiguous with the 5,000 years (give or take) that ended in 1949.
If you assume that there basically was no Chinese literature from 1949 to 1980 (and I think that's the kindest assumption you can make) then the discussion splits itself out nicely into two pieces:
Prior to the thirty-year wasteland, the translation and dissemination of Chinese literature was the province of Sinologists. It largely stayed within academic circles and didn't penetrate all that far into the popular consciousness of western societies, though there was some popular awareness of poetry and philosophy.
After the thirty-year wasteland, the translation and dissemination of Chinese literature has fallen more and more to professional literary translators (I'm counting Howard Goldblatt in this camp), and to the commercial publishing industry rather than academia. It still hasn't penetrated all that far into popular consciousness.
So there's a very good reason for the "only been translating our literature for twenty or thirty years" argument: you've only been making literature for twenty or thirty years!
If China's own literary tradition and its contact with the rest of the world had continued to develop unbroken throughout the past century (and they had continued to produce more Lu Xun's, et al), I'll bet plenty of Chinese authors would now enjoy status in the west at least comparable to what Japanese authors now enjoy, for instance. It's also good to remember (as I think Azzam was hinting before) that China ≠ the West. The "normal" state of affairs would be one where all these countries, China included, would be reading equally from all the other countries (pace disparities in quality), not one where each individual western nation was reading as much literature from China as China read from the west as a whole.
I have said all this or something like it to Chinese friends and writers on more than one occasion. Generally the response I get is the sour little laugh that means "man, I wish you hadn't brought that up".
Eric Abrahamsen, March 30, 2010, 3:34a.m.
"Thanks to the Cold War and just plain old racism, most people in the West indeed paid little attention to any art or literature from China until after 1978."
WHAT? China wasn't even a party to the Cold War after 1972. Racism, too, seems like a pretty heavy piece of mud to sling, considering that while Bruce Lee was starring in American TV shows and having a day named after him in Los Angeles (it's August 9), the PRC generally wasn't allowing foreigners to visit at all.
heuh, March 30, 2010, 10:03a.m.
An example is a fiction book, Confucius Jade, written by Frederick Fisher. His bio assures me that his book portrays true Chinese culture, in the form of fiction. I had an easy time reading and learning about Chinese mythology and the stories behind them. The jade carving of Shou-Xing Lao, Chinese God of Longevity was really cool to learn about. Confucius Jade
Melissa, March 31, 2010, 11:04p.m.
Zhang, April 1, 2010, 9:06a.m.
The comment about people's interest in banned literature just being people interested in the "dirty" side of China is just... really ignorant.
I mean it's pretty obvious that a lot of popular books like Jung Chang's Wild Swans aren't banned because they're "dirty" but rather they express valid thoughts and opinions or depict real events that censors do not want people to read about. If they weren't culturally significant or important works, then there wouldn't be any point in banning them. People wouldn't want to read them in the first place.
Beyond that, it's hard to say whether it's even worthwhile to read literature from a self-censoring society. Nearly every great work of world literature was controversial in its time, pushed boundaries, and challenged established social norms. Contemporary Chinese authors who do this risk being banned, so they work within constraints. Creatively, their hands are tied.
Also, as other people pointed out - the goal of literature is not to "reveal the truth of the national spirit" but to examine and elevate the human condition. This is what makes books interesting, and causes other people to enjoy them - that the book evokes an emotion relevant to the reader's life. If the focus of their literature is to elevate China and not examine the process of living, then it's no small wonder that people in other parts in the world aren't interested in reading Chinese literature.
Personally, I am not particularly interested in historical fiction so much as I am contemporary life, and it seems like creative people in China generally avoid censorship by dealing with times past rather than talking about the world as it is today. One novel about the life of a Guangdong factory worker in 2010 would be more appealing to me as a reader than twenty novels set in China's 5000 years of glorious history.
Similarly, books that explore China's rapidly changing social and political landscape in the last 60 years are of particular interest to me. Stories about the cultural revolution, or the student movements of the 1980's, or the vast influence of black society in contemporary China - basic aspects of the life and history of people who are living in China today - these are of interest to me.
Journey to the West? In English, it is almost unreadable. Stories of emperors and courtesans and dynasties past? I'm not the slightest bit interested. Sadly most of the books that fall into my category of interest wind up getting banned in China.
yournametobynow, April 1, 2010, 1:07p.m.
The Scottish sinologist James Legge translated many of the most important Confucian classics during the 1860s, more than a century before the author of this essay suggests that the West began to do so. Indeed, Legge's translations were published decades before the great Chinese translator Yan Fu began producing Chinese translations of various influential Western works (Aldux Huxley, Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, etc.). Legge's translations are still in publication, though more modern/accessible translations are now available.
In any case, the West was aware of Confucius long before China had ever heard of Plato. Moreover, "The Travels of Marco Polo" was popular in Europe at least as early as the mid-sixteenth century - again, long before the consciousness of the average literate Chinese had begun to show interest in non-Chinese traditions.
This idea that the Chinese are somehow more open-minded that their Western/American counterparts is complete bunk. Shame on the author and those who agree with (or make excuses for) him. If a Chinese author wins a Nobel for literature, it won't be because s/he deserves it.
Gan Lu, April 1, 2010, 5:33p.m.
Um, a Chinese author has won the Nobel Prize for literature...but oddly enough his works have faced various on and off publication bans in the PRC...
JH, April 2, 2010, 4:28a.m.
Although, I think that there is a difference between Western knowledge of China and Chinese knowledge of the West. If a Chinese intellectual claimed he had never heard of Shakespeare, we would find him very uneducated. If an American or European intellectual knows nothing about Chinese literature, most people wouldn't feel the same way, would they?
Anna GC, April 2, 2010, 2:56p.m.
As a full-time Chinese translator/interpreter who have long been pested by the question raised in this article, I think I'm now easily convinced that the widest (esp. young) public in "the West" or in any part of the world might be looking forward to reading something from China that are human, humorous, self assured, thrilling/well plotted, lovely/miraculous or deep/relevant --- in a word, "normal" like one might expect to feel for the diversified writers (both serious and popular/entertaining) of their own countries. Therefore, apart from admitting that in general Chinese writers still need to focus more on writing itself instead of status, recognition, wealth or political "burdens" and that many of them still need to tap into their own experiences in a more faithful way, explore the dignity and spirituality of their fellow citizens and create more creative styles of their own after borrowing from international writers, I would still hope that those perhaps sparse and scattered good and spontaneous translators/communicators who DO have such powers to enrich and vitalize the dialogue between Chinese literature and the world need to work closer together, and really help foster an atmosphere of "normal expectations" from the general public. And I really hope this could happen for the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America as well. There is never such need for just ONE Nobel Prize for Literature in the world, there should always be at least a whole spectrum of it: best literature for children, for teenagers, for women, for history, for science fiction, for love and understanding, for religion and philosophy, for movies and TV, etc...
Jessica from SeeChina, April 2, 2010, 5:07p.m.
Thank you for posting this. And I like the title of the post: "Why don't they get us?" If that's the question the article is asking, thank goodness. I feel like most people can intuitively recognize the thinking that goes into that question as wrong. The problem is the concept of "us" and "them."
Does an average contemporary American author feel a need to communicate the greatness of American civilization to the world? Nope. I think most people would recognize that as a pretty ridiculous concept. And why is that? Writers in countries where writers, not the state, decide what writers write about about often focus on things other than the greatness of their own civilizations. They can choose to be "American," "French," "Japanese," or whatever, and to show aspects of their national identities in the things they write, and they can also deviate from national pride and say totally nasty things about their own countries or civilizations. Writers where speech is unrestricted, or at least less restricted than China, can to some extent be disrespectful, obscene, subversive, etc. Some people would say that subversiveness is an important quality of literature - even that it has no value if it isn't at a little subversive.
On the other hand, subversive works get banned in China. Um, am I allowed to bring up Gao Xingjian? Oh, I forgot, he isn't Chinese. He was born in France or something (right?). And besides, the fact that he won the Nobel Prize just shows that foreigners want to attack "us" by praising banned stuff.
I could go on, but let me get to the point. There is some great writing coming out of contemporary China. But this whole "us" and "them" thing has got to go. Why don't "they" get "us?" Because nobody is interested in "you" as long as "you" are egotistically hopping around and putting on a choreographed and false display of culture.
There is a problem with the West ignoring non-Western arts, but the article magnifies it. Why are so many Japanese authors being widely read today, while Chinese authors are not, and the total number of Chinese in the world outnumber the Japanese by, like, 3000 times? Do the Chinese people not have literary talent and aspirations? The rich tradition of Chinese literature should prove that that is not the case. But communists have reduced the cultural landscape of their country to a wasteland. And they have an egotistical obsession with how "they" think about "us." Give me a break. Please, please, drop all this stuff and just, uh... write what you feel.
Mike Day, April 4, 2010, 9:09p.m.
For professional reasons -close to the book trade and publishing business since the 1990's and also sojourning often in the PRC since 1980-, I often asked myself this indeed immense question "why so little flow of Chinese literature outside China -still nowadays, such an immense "book" country, with so many bright minds (well, concerning literature, in the long term a few names only matter)...-" ? Being originally a scientist and engineer and later a businessman, thus a bit outside the literary world, and being also French, I think I can bring a slightly different feeling -than the views of many of the above commentators-. Globally in fact I think that if we add up the above text and above all the above comments, we end up close to a good image of a complex reality, an earthly reality of the book publishing business, where Sinocentrism, too much focus on the supposed Chineseness of the problem, may only bring here more confusion...
First of all, as already underlined above:
(1) Sinology and sinologists have little to do with the publishing overseas of Chinese authors (especially contemporary authors, especially from the PRC); it is as usual the job first of foreign/international publishers, then translators, possibly editors, then literary critics and of course above all (various marketing segments of) readers in various countries; besides according to my own experience, Sinologist, even if they may read directly books in Chinese, make often rather poor literary critics (well, that's not what they have been trained and are paid for; these are entirely different jobs). [to answer an above comment, one could comment at length the supposed specificity of France, where "many" PRC books are supposed to be translated ...the fact is that apart a few exceptions, many of these books are increasingly poorly written in French and usually published by indigent minuscule publishers, and have above all extremely few readers -publishers usualy try to save the cost of a good editor/rewriter, and understanding Chinese doesn't mean at all that you can correctly write in French-... possible explanation(s): a cultural elite still running a country in a rather outdated way -rather similarly to the PRC-, hence public money still sponsoring cheap academic training of loads of apprentice-sinologists with little selection and jobs at the end, and also public money often sponsoring micro unprofitable publishers, etc., etc.)
(2) Just the "West" (as in China vs. the West) has little meaning in particular concerning publishing, or it just means "the enormous US book market"; but analyzing in detail what happens/ed in "the West" or better "outside China", may help to understand the issue for China. The US and the UK markets are well known nowadays for consuming only 2-3% of foreign literature (and less and less appetite for anything alien, not only Chinese); by contrast in France, and possibly Germany,
Arthur Syel, April 8, 2010, 2:46p.m.
(cont') etc. the share of foreign literature still goes up to 20-30%; in France for ex. all new novels (less for essays) by renown contemporary US authors may make up to 1/4 in volume of all works and discussions by French literary critics (print, radio, TV), etc.; inversely France used to be for centuries and until the 1930's one of the world centers of literary attraction -with the UK of course, but also Russia for ex.-, but it disappeared after WW2 (except outside fiction, for a few philosophers); so things come and go, and there are many and rather varied reasons, usually long term phenomenon, to explain these complex historical evolutions... (freedom of expression and also traveling, emulation, strength of publishers... -for authors-, education policies, fashions, competition of other media... -for readers-, etc. etc.). In fact concerning the PRC, comparisons with Japan, Korea, etc. should be made first of all.
(3) Beyond the analyses of these various markets, by types of readers and by countries, while reading habits are fast changing worldwide -not to say disappearing amongst digital natives -THE issue for everyone soon on the planet-, there are several facts related to publishing in general to keep in mind: (a) what make the success of a book remains a mystery to all publishers on the planet (book publishing remains a real gambling everyday, rather similar to film making; word-of-mouth still remains for books the key but uncontrollable marketing tool), (b) readers have to connect positively one way or the other their existing mental universe with the story given by a writer -whatever the nationality or background of this writer is, but in competing with many other competing stories, media, pastimes...-; indeed, as underlined in a few comments above, very few PRC writers still seem, for cultural and historical reasons (apart more recently the various scandalous young ladies, or Qiu Xiaolong with his Chinese Colombo), to connect with "Western" minds for obvious cultural and also political reasons (but Japanese or Korean or Indian writers or film makers have also the same problem; little Chinese specificity there... so the need of "go-betweens"; migrant bi-cultural writers, bi-cultural international publishers, talented translators, good editors/rewriters, etc. etc.); to illustrate this point -already underlined in some comments above- even a Chinese "Germinal", a good social story concerning the present Chinese coal mines -could be a good subject, see the amazing short chapter on this subject in "Mr China" !-, with all the talent of a local equivalent of a Zola, would probably have nevertheless little success in the West nowadays (but maybe not ?); it would have probably been more successful in any case in Europe around 1900, where the miseries and poverty of coal miners and most
Arthur Syel, April 8, 2010, 2:49p.m.
(cont') workers in general were still major social issues discussed everyday in the newspapers, with the rise of unions, marxism, etc.; nowadays, to make a success in the "West", the same Chinese Zola would need at least to publish his big "J'accuse" on the front page of a daily newspaper in Beijing, about an enormous racial and legal scandal similar to the "Affaire Dreyfus" !
Arthur Syel, April 8, 2010, 2:50p.m.
I am fascinated by this discussion, although I am returning now some months later. I am particularly struck by the use of 'normal' in Jessica's post (#21). 'Normal' expectations for literature are really little more than prevailing, dominant, understandings of literature created by a dominant culture/dominant cultures. We only have to look back a few hundred years in the West, before the advent of the modern Western novel, to see a time when little of these 'normal' expectations could be applied to our own literature. Religious and political patronage continued to shape literature in Europe well into the era of vernacular writing, exerting similar burdens on writers beyond those of just exploring the human condition, entertainment, or perhaps that greatest myth, 'art for art's sake'.
Furthermore, there has been a long-standing argument in Chinese interpretations of literature, for millennia in fact, which emphasises the social and political uses of literature; romances were marginalised and often not considered ennobling enough to warrant the term wenxue.
I think the main point here is that many people in the West (and I include readers, writers, publishers, academics, maybe even some translators?) don't seem to believe that they can learn anything from Chinese literature. This was not, of course, the case in the early twentieth century when Pound translated Chinese classical poetry and fundamentally reshaped poetry in English, or when Rexroth (1950s to the 1970s) and Synder continued to hone their own writing through their translations. Yet, these were discoveries made from China's classical literature, and not from contemporary works.
Western culture has been profoundly shaped by translation. But it has occurred when it has perceived renewal, cultural regeneration, to be necessary. (Or even more strikingly, for the purposes of religion and politics - such as in the monumental impact of vernacular translations of the Bible, of which the King James version in English is pure, beautiful, poetry) As this discussion shows, there are few people who believe that Western literature is in crisis, so why does it need translation?
Perhaps readers just want to read stories, to find a window into the puzzling, alien world of contemporary China. But it seems to me that no-one is arguing for the need to translate Chinese literature in order to learn from it. Doesn't this approach not also create a parallel burden for Chinese writers akin to the nationalistic, political burden laid out in the original essay? 'Tell us about the real China, but write it our way.' Are their stories just supposed to tell us about themselves in our own language?
So why is it that we can't learn from Chinese literature? (This is not my personal belief, but rather a question for the group...)
AnnaHolmwod, July 10, 2010, 2:52a.m.