In the Beginning…

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

Howard Goldblatt has graciously allowed us to publish this essay of his on the openings of Chinese novels.

In the Beginning

"Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife."

How could anyone not want to keep reading, at least for a while, with an opening line like that?


"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, and then again, as a teenage boy."

Or, finally:

"'Sons of bitches.' Lituma felt the vomit rising in his throat. 'Kid, they really did a job on you.'"

From Melville to Tolstoy and beyond, all the way to Ha Jin, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Mario Vargas Llosa, novelists in the West have assumed that, like a flashy cover, an arresting opening line can go a long way toward starting those pages turning.

When he wrote…

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

…Nabakov knew he'd get our attention.

We don't, however, see many opening sentences of that nature in novels written in Chinese. After more than thirty years of translating Chinese novels into English, I cannot readily call to mind any I've worked on that provide a riveting, provocative, even outlandish opening. That's not to say they don't exist, or that the rules aren't changing, as cultural globalization gains momentum; it's just that a different, and equally valid, narrative strategy, a more tradition-bound beginning has been the norm in recent decades. I've often wondered what that says about the contemporary Chinese novel. Beyond that, how do expectations and standards of enjoyment or acceptance between Chinese and Western readers of fiction differ?

There are, of course, many factors that determine the mindset of writers and readers, all culturally based, tried and tested, natural. Few will deny that the concept of place in general and hometown in particular is deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche, something Americans, at least, with their frenetic mobility, find less compelling. And so, Chinese novels tend often to open with a geographical setting, sometimes in lyrical prose and at other times in a matter-of-fact style, saying "This is where what follows happened." When we read a Chinese novel, the concept of "anywhere-nowhere" seldom applies. We know early on exactly where we are, whether it's Mo Yan's Northeast Gaomi Township, Wang Shuo's Beijing, or, closer to home, the Mongolian grassland in Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem (though I must admit that "the steely gaze of a Mongolian grassland wolf" is a striking image). We have an anchor and, since the landscape of China, its realities and its myths, is well known, we are on familiar ground.

I cannot imagine anyone with close ties to China who has not heard proud references to her "five-thousand years of history." Continuity and cultural longevity, it seems to me, are the engines that drive Chinese society. And where literary writing is concerned, the phrase "wen shi bufen" (literature cannot be divorced from history) has been the operative strategy for writers, classical and modern. Time and events are measured in historical contexts. Beyond the historical novel, which is one of the most popular genres in China, even novels of manners or ideas (or politics) generally open at some historical moment and then progress along a forward-moving timeline. Flashbacks and other literary devices notwithstanding, a linear narrative dominates. So it makes sense to start with a geographical setting in a certain period and let the story unfold in "real time" fashion.

The sort of openings I've given above, on the other hand, have the effect of creating an aura of mystery, tapping into a reader's natural inquisitiveness. "Does Lin Kong get his divorce? And why does he want it in the first place?" We have to read on. And "Lo-lee-ta?" Well, you know.

Does this mean that Chinese novelists would draw more readers to their works if they launched them with more playful, more adventurous, perhaps more elliptical, even ribald images or statements? For domestic consumption, probably not. "In the beginning" beginnings are readily accepted in works that evolve within a more or less established frame of reference. And that, I'm sure, is as it should be. But once these novels stretch across linguistic borders, via translation, would foreign readers be more likely to get intrigued if the opening line of a novel were to be on the order of:

"Ma Bo-le watched as the man's head rolled all the way down to the river."

They might.


# 1.   

On the note of globalization in literature, I've also noticed some cases where Chinese novels with strong opening sentences are drawing inspiration (often quite a lot of inspiration) from the Chinese translations of Western works. Forgivable, certainly -- who wouldn't want a sentence like "多年以后,奥雷连诺上校站在行刑队面前,准会想起父亲带他去参观冰块的那个遥远的下午。" for the start of their novel? There are some times when this sort of cross-pollination breaks down, though: an excerpt of the Taiwanese translation of the sci-fi novel Snow Crash, which has one of the most energetic openings I've read in the original English, seemed to owe more to Chinese translations of Murakami Haruki than it did to Neal Stephenson.

In other cases, I've seen novels with openings that seem to me striking more as cinema than as literature. I remember reading a wuxia novel years ago that began with a pretty vividly described chase through a desert, and thinking that it read as if it had been written for the screen. (I can't remember which novel now, and let's face it -- what little I remember doesn't really help to narrow things down.)

Brendan, November 10, 2008, 9:45p.m.

# 2.   

But Mo Yan has some good openings too. Like this one, from Tanxiang xing: 那天早晨,俺公爹赵甲做梦也想不到再过七天他就要死在俺的手里;死得胜过一条忠于职守的老狗。

Anna GC, November 10, 2008, 10:57p.m.

# 3.   

"白嘉轩后来以为豪壮的是一生里娶过七房女人。 "

I was smitten by this opening to 《白鹿原》. Or maybe it's just the measure word for women -- 房 (room, house) -- that does the trick!

Personally, I think there are three key factors which pretty much explain why most contemporary Chinese novels in translation start without a bang:

1) Editors in the West are shaped by longtime practices in the newspaper industry, i.e., if the opening of a book doesn't "grab" you, you just stop reading. Period. Which means the work, as is, will not be published, a factor that leads many an author to re-write his/her opening before re-submitting. Many Chinese fiction editors, to the contrary, do not consider an attention-grabbing opening as absolutely essential, and do not necessarily consider it within their brief to rewrite it or even insist the author do so. They place more weight on the content of the story as it reveals itself in its own good time.

2) Most Chinese authors cannot read literature in a foreign language. Therefore, their familiarity with opening paragraphs of foreign novels is based largely on what the translator has translated. As someone who frequently reads Chinese translations from the French, English and Japanese, I can assure you that many of those openings are badly mangled when they finally make it into Chinese! Practically speaking, this constitutes a barrier to Chinese authors who might really LIKE to learn from their foreign counterparts.

3) Perhaps on a somewhat sub-conscious level, most Chinese authors aspire to be perceived as "hommes de lettres" (文人) in the traditional Chinese sense, that is, as cultivated, intellectual, learned. Given the Chinese literary tradition, beginning with a "bang" would be utterly vulgar; one must intice the reader with the assurance that the narrator is a person of culture and character, about to recount a story of value...

Bruce Humes, November 11, 2008, 2:30p.m.

# 4.   

I agree with what Howard, and the other comments, are saying. You have all made the point that literary tastes/styles differ between cultures. But surely the nub of the question is what Howard has hinted at the end of his piece: is it our role, as translators, to cater to the tastes of the readers of the translation, to 'domesticate' as the translation theory jargon goes? To make the opening lines snappier? Difficult one, that. Sometimes I like to think I'd go on my gut instinct, and hope I'd get the author's agreement.

Nicky Harman, November 17, 2008, 6:49p.m.

# 5.   

Most Chinese are in fact the copyists who are making loyal codicils to the Bible of the so-called brilliant enterprise, which could be the party's, the country's or the history's...

Hong, November 17, 2008, 9:03p.m.

# 6.   

Well, Most Chinese writers ... not most Chinese, hahaha, as far as I know, many Chinese people can make more enticing and mysterious stories than Chinese can ever do...

Hong, November 17, 2008, 9:06p.m.


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