Eric lived in Beijing from late 2001, when he studied Chinese at the Central University for Nationalities, until the end of 2016. He began struggling through Wang Xiaobo at an early date, and kept at it through the intervening years. He is the recipient of a PEN translation grant for Wang Xiaobo's My Spiritual Homeland and a NEA grant for Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun, later published as Running Through Beijing, which was shortlisted for the National Translation Award.
His short-story translations have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, and n+1. He also writes occasional cultural criticism, which has appeared in the New York Times and Foreign Policy, among other venues.
Eric also runs a US-based company called Coal Hill Books which provides rights agency and publishing consulting for Chinese and international publishers seeking to do business with each other. You can reach him there at email@example.com.
From the past fifty years. So says The Times, at any rate. One Chinese book, Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, and that almost certainly because Gao is a Nobel laureate. On the other hand, if I had to vote for a best Chinese-English translation from the past fifty years, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a definitive champion…
As you might have noticed, we’ve made a few changes to the website. The main thing is that it now runs on a different framework – besides that and a few very small bells and whistles, the most noticeable change ought to be that it's much snappier. The new system will pave the way for future grandiosity, as well.
With any luck the transition will go smoothly – your comments and suggestions are very welcome!
edit: I forgot to mention that, while the old RSS feed address will redirect to the new one, you might as well just subscribe to the new address directly. Sorry for the hassle!
A week or so ago I attended the press conference for The Next (文学之新), a new literary competition designed to sniff out the newest in Chinese literary talent. Most of you may know this already, but Chinese writers are generally referred to by the decade of their birth. So-and-so is a 70s writer, or an 80s writer, etc. Whether there’s any real utility to this kind of classification I don’t know – I suppose it’s possible that China’s recent history has changed so dramatically, so swiftly, that any given ten-year cohort might actually have something in common.
The 80s writers were the last hit sensation, but the sad truth is that Father Time spares no one and they’re starting to show their age – graduating from college, developing taste in music, having sexual experiences, etc. The Next is the mutual brainchild of the Yangtze River Art and Literature Publishing House, Top Novel magazine, Penguin, Sina.com and the Qidian literature website, and the goal is a return to the purity of the under-25 set. The competition is accepting submissions from now until the end of September, following which comes several rounds of elimination: from 36 contestants to be announced in December, to a grand champion by next July. Each month in between will see another, smaller group of contestants announced in that month’s issue of Top Novel.
This competition is interesting both for the muscle behind it – major foreign and domestic publishing houses, as well as two of China’s largest internet portals – and for the judging panel. Top Novel magazine is an element of the Guo Jingming franchise, and Guo Jingming is the major star power behind this project. Guo, of course, is a definitive 80s writer – possibly the most famous of them, certainly one of the richest, without a doubt the most glittery. He’s on the judging panel, but right there with him is one of China’s hoariest authorities, Wang Meng. Wang Meng is a government writer of the old school: genuinely talented, a smart guy, but also a past master of toeing the line. The rest of the panel includes Zhang Kangkang, Wang Haipeng and Hai Yan – they’re aiming for a mix of market appeal and literary cred.
The press conference was a standard affair – emphasis on the fairness and openness of the competition, and major stress on picking works that are ‘positive’ (积极的) and ‘sunny’ (阳光的). Take heed, ye adolescents! If life sucks and you hate everybody, keep it to yourself! I’ll save the odiousness of ‘sunny’ as a mind-control adjective for another day. My favorite quote came from Guo Jingming, describing his reaction to the submissions so far: “Now I know how my esteemed colleagues on this panel must have felt when they read my writing for the first time. I just don’t understand it.”
A year or two ago I went to a exhibition on Wang Xiaobo’s life at the Lu Xun Museum. Along with the entrance ticket they gave you a DVD with a half hour or an hour of footage of Wang Xiaobo, including an interview he once did for CCTV. I just recently found this interview on Youtube, and am linking to it here, along with a translation of the conversation. This is from 1995, remember, an era caught between the hit-him-with-a-stick Cultural Revolution, and the can’t-be-arsed-to-wag-a-finger 2000s. CCTV, we should note, had not yet achieved the high standards it boasts today.
The interviewer, Liu Wei (刘为), starts off civilly, but by the end he’s nearly given himself a hernia trying to paint Wang as a salacious destroyer of other people’s morals. Observe, particularly, his craftiness as he traps Wang into admitting his books are all autobiographical, and his beautiful parting shot.
Yiyun Li, award-winning author residing in America, has an essay in the San Francisco Chronicle, describing her relationship with censorship, and the filming of one of her stories, 'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers'.
How very fascinating, I remembered thinking. Chinese censorship has never been a secret, but as a fiction writer my imagination could not be satisfied by that simple explanation. Behind every machine there are many human faces, and for a while I would think about the people who decided my interview was not appropriate for my fellow citizens.
Ma Jian’s been doing quite a lot of speaking out recently; first there was his May 30th piece in The Times, condemning Chinese writers for their cowardice, and then this op-ed in the New York Times recently. Between the two of them I liked the New York Times piece better – it’s less shrill and better balanced, a realistic look at the state of Chinese society that is both furious and sorrowful. The bit from The Times, attacking writers, is a bit nasty:
Although officially they are government cadres, they refuse to admit their complicity with the repressive political system. One famous writer compares politics to a fly. “If its noisy buzz disturbs me, I can just shut the window and concentrate on my art.” When he travels to the West on book tours, he portrays himself as a dissident writer. He doesn’t realise that what he shut out was no mere fly. It was an entire landscape of morality.
There is little need for literary censors these days. The writers have learnt to do a proficient job of censoring themselves. Chinese fiction is in the main a fiction of compromise.
Reading something like this gives me an instant attack of the moral relativities. From a loftier moral standpoint than most of us can muster of a Tuesday morning, he’s absolutely right: China’s writers as a whole have failed the Chinese nation, and helped perpetuate the illusion that there is nothing deeply wrong with the country.
On the other hand, it’s unclear what, exactly, he’s asking of these writers. To push a little harder? Some writers are doing so, though not enough. To leave the country and lambast it from abroad? Several have taken this road; few of them have the slightest tangible impact on the advancement of freedom within China. To stand up and denounce the emperor for having no clothes? For a writer inside China to do that would mean self-immolation, and not the kind of bright funeral pyre that serves as a beacon for others, but the kind you find in the crematoriums, where the door seals tight and no one even notices the smoke. If Ma Jian had been inside China when he wrote those words, we would never have read them – it’s likely we would never have read anything he wrote, ever again.
[Note: the research I mention here was used for an article titled Broken in Words Without Borders]
I’ve been doing some background reading on the Duanlie (断裂, ‘Broken’ or ‘Split’) literary movement, something Zhu Wen instigated in 1998. It was an important, if low-profile, attempt to voice dissatisfaction with the literary establishment (academia, the Writers Association, the literary journals), and to remind authors that they were not alone in their frustrations. Over the course of several years and a series of Duanlie publications (put out by the Shaanxi Normal University Press), the movement did much to foster independence and diversity among the newer generations of Chinese writers.
Duanlie started as a list of questions which Zhu Wen, Han Dong and a few others mailed around to 70 Chinese writers, 55 of whom responded. They were leading questions, questions meant to snap writers out of their diffidence and goad them into defiance, a call for a vote of no-confidence in modern Chinese literature. Through the good graces of Lü Zheng I was able to get my hands on a copy of a book called Duanlie, published in 2000, which contains a series of interviews with the authors most closely associated with the movement: Wei Hui, Chen Wei (one of the writers responsible for the Heilan website), Huang Fan, Gu Qian, Li Xiaoshan, Wu Chen, Zhao Gang, Liu Ligan, Zhu Zhu, Lu Yang, Chu Chen, Han Dong and Zhu Wen. The book also contains the thirteen original questions, which I’ll translate below. I’m leaving the answers out: there are many, and they are predictable.
We here at Paper Republic strive to bring you the latest and greatest in Chinese language usage, and we’d be criminally unhip if we failed to alert you to the most recent Really Cool Thing on the internet: 囧.
This little beauty is pronounced jiǒng. It is a very old character, appearing on turtle shell inscriptions (甲骨文) from thousands of years ago; while it has many meanings, the most basic is light coming through a window, rather evident from its shape. The more leet among you, however, will note that its also shaped rather like a frowny face: that’s right, 囧 is the hip new way of saying 郁闷 (yùmen, to be bored or depressed or down). Can you feel the grandeur of 5,000 years of history? Read on for advanced usage.
After an evening spent sipping Qingdao and grumbling about the low profile of Chinese literature abroad, we're generally forced to concede that baby steps are the only practical solution to the problem. There's a chicken-and-egg dynamic going on with publishers – they won't publish a book in translation if the author has no name recognition, but without publication authors have precious little means of getting recognized. Realistically, what's needed is a slow-drip campaign of small-scale publication, word of mouth, and literary journalism. It will be slow, but it's the only way that the attention of publishers and readers can be drawn to a wider selection of Chinese fiction.
So it's good to see two recent advances in that campaign. First was the Olympic Voices from China issue of Words Without Borders: a collection of translated short stories drawn heavily from some of China's better female writers: Sheng Keyi, Ye Mi, Liu Sola and others. Not all of the translations are top-notch, but it's good to see these writers represented. Sheng Keyi's Little Girl Lost got good treatment; you can hear the strangeness of her Chinese in places: "Ripples spread from the doorframe as water slid back from both sides, showing off the bright slickness of his skin."
The other is a books issue of Public Radio International's The World program. The contributions are knowledgeable, ranging from an article on China's Nobel Prize complex, to a review of Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars, to an interview with Yu Hua. Our Cindy and our Brendan are in there too!
I suppose only incremental progress is real progress…
The pre-dinner hour at Moganshan was often given over to talks and presentations by various course participants; the group leaders one evening, the writers the next. These presentations could be eye-opening in terms of the widely-varying approaches people take to this business – Bonnie McDougall and Howard Goldblatt, for instance. There was almost a kind of glee in the way Bonnie described her translations: leisurely, considered, I think she even described herself as spoiled in being able to pick and choose, freed by her position at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. Howard, on the other hand, was very much the harried professional man, and talked of funding and negotiations, work he'd taken to make the rent. Bonnie goes patiently from beginning to end; Howard generally starts somewhere in the middle and jumps around. Howard hates the second draft more than anything; Bonnie goes and reads a book until the aha! moment comes.
With all the excitement going on these days, staying home and translating the words of dead authors can feel a little irrelevant, if not actually escapist. I'm neither a Qing historian nor a diplomat, so won't stray too far from my comfort zone of language and literature, but I do think there's something to be said about the Chinese responses of rage to the reporting of the foreign media.
"PEN believes there are currently 38 writers and journalists imprisoned in China for exercising their right to speak and write freely, as guaranteed under Chinese and international law. We are concerned that, despite official pledges to respect essential rights in this Olympic year, Chinese authorities continue to harass and detain writers in violation of their right to freedom of expression."