By Lucas Klein, published

An article from The Economist titled “The Little Red Bookshop” was recently emailed to subscribers of the MCLC List (the email listserv of the Modern Chinese Literature & Culture resource center, and the source of a good deal of the announcements we make on Pap-Rep). The article notices a possible resurgence of leftist thought in China, centered around a bookstore called Utopia, “the term used to describe those nostalgic for Mao Zedong’s rule and worried that the country is abandoning its communist principles.” For anyone familiar with Marxist ideology, though, “Utopia” is a strange name: wouldn’t those really nostalgic for the pre-Reform & Opening-up era believe that Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong Thought was the only outcome of the capitalist class struggle, and therefore an embodiment of Scientific, not utopian, Socialism?

But “Utopia” attracts attention not only because of its false poli-sci consciousness. Following the posting of the original Economist article, somebody sent in a reply about the translation:

Interesting piece. The name of the shop, however, is better translated as "Nowhere." The original name is "乌有之乡" rather than "乌托邦," a term Chinese people use to translate utopia. Moreover, William Morris's News from Nowhere is translated as "乌有乡消息."

I had always wondered about the in utopia in Chinese. For a word that points back to its Greek meaning of “no place,” I would have thought that it should have been . I don’t know who came up with the Chinese translation—any guesses for who translated Thomas More into Chinese? Yán Fù 嚴復 (1854 – 1921)?—but now that I understand as short for wūyǒu 烏有, I think it all comes out the same.

But as for “Nowhere” as a translation for the wūyǒu zhīxiāng 烏有之鄉 bookstore, I suppose that works, too. And as long as we’re in the range of literary titles inspiring our translations—it is a bookstore, after all—how about “Erewhon”? (Anybody know the title of Samuel Butler’s novel in Chinese?)

Politically speaking, “Utopia,” “Nowhere,” and “Erewhon” point in slightly different directions. But this whole discussion seems to imply two things to me: first, that wūyǒu zhīxiāng 烏有之鄉 is itself a translation from a Western language, and second, that translation is a one-to-one relationship that can be traced back according to the commutative property of mathematics (if a + b = c, then c = b + a). The first may be true—Marxism had to be translated, with all that means, into Chinese—but that still doesn’t make the second true. The differences between utopia, nowhere, and erewhon are beyond what Chinese can accommodate, just as the difference between wūtuōbāng 烏托邦 and wūyǒu zhīxiāng 烏有之鄉 is beyond what English can accommodate. With translation, we’re in a nether-realm where right and wrong don’t always apply; for some, that’s a real dystopia.

While the point about how the bookstore’s name should be translated may be moot—someone else wrote in, pointing out that, according to the their own website, the translation was “Utopia.”

But this got me thinking about bookstores in China and their English names. One of the most famous bookstores for the intellectual and literary set in Beijing is the wànshèng shūyuán 萬聖書園, known in English as “Allsages.” The poet Xī Chuān 西川, a graduate from Beijing University’s English dept., told me that the bookstore had originally called itself “Halloween” in English, since wànshèngjié 萬聖節 is Chinese for Halloween (all right, technically, it’s Chinese for All Saints’ Day, the day following Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve), but he suggested “Allsages,” instead. He thought they should emphasize—and in changing their name, they agreed—that their shelves stocked the writings of all the sages. Just as the “translation” wūyǒu zhīxiāng 烏有之鄉 confuses nativization and foreignization, “Allsages” foreignizes at the same time as it nativizes: in not being called “all saints,” the bookstore tells English-speakers that they’re in China, whereas a bookstore called “Halloween” would tell English-speakers that they’re nowhere (although, I should add, Xī Chuān told me this in late October, when the bookstore had decked out its staircase with large, orange pumpkins; perhaps “Halloween” wouldn’t have been a bad name, after all).

I wonder if this is what Qián Zhōngshū 錢鍾書 meant when he talked about the huàjìng 化境 of translation, which some have called “sublimation” and others have called “transmigration.” Qián wanted a translation that could be a reincarnation of its previous language version, at once completely itself and completely something else. As names, wūyǒu zhīxiāng 烏有之鄉 and “Allsages” might be just that.

But even as we’re talking about Marxism and Buddhism, about the political economy and the death that allows reincarnation, we still don’t have an explanation of why these bookstores—in Beijing, in service to Chinese-speaking clientele—need to have names in English to begin with.


There are no comments yet.


Your email will not be published
Raw HTML will be removed
Try using Markdown:
[link text](
End line with two spaces for a single line break.