Sinophone Women Write Better

By Lucas Klein, published

Or they get translated better, if not more—at least in 2014. Now that prize season is upon us, we get a chance to see which, if any, Chinese writers in translation are making an impression on the judges. This year, with Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist nominations for Can Xue 残雪, Qiu Miaojin 邱妙津, and Dorothy Tse 謝曉虹, a Best Translated Book Award longlisting in poetry for Hsia Yü 夏宇, a Griffin Prize shortlisting for Wang Xiaoni 王小妮, and a Newman Prize for Chinese Literature for Chu T’ien-wen朱天文, two points pop out: all nominees are women, and of the six a stark majority are from outside the PRC—which means some would call them “sinophone,” a potentially broader category than just “Chinese.”*

Sure, the recent spate of prizes should also include Bei Dao 北島—whose life outside the PRC for the past few decades might also make him a global sinophone rather than a Chinese writer, as well—but his Golden Wreath award from the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts honors a lifetime achievement, rather than a particular book published in translation in 2014 (Chu’s Newman prize is also for a career-length body of work). Nor do the recent international honorees of Chinese or sinophone literature, like Nobel laureates Gao Xingjian 高行健 (2000) and Mo Yan莫言 (2012), mean that men are dead as far as writing in Chinese is concerned. But it is worth considering for a moment: why do women seem to be getting the honors right now, and why might writing in Chinese from outside China have an edge in getting international recognition?

Does the fact that writing from outside China is at least as likely as mainland literature to get international recognition suggest, perhaps, that the themes and styles of non-PRC writers are more in line with what the rest of the world (or at least certain parts of the English-speaking world) expect and desire in literature? Writers from mainland China may read a different set of writers, and may gear their understanding of literature to the projections those readings cast. Are the themes and concerns and hang-ups of mainland writers holding them back? Does that mean that mainland Chinese writers should get in line, as it were, and do more to 与世界接轨? Or should PRC writers relish the notion that they’re not part of the globalization of literature, since China produces enough cheap crap for export as it is?

My own translation activity is both decidedly male-heavy and titled toward mainland writers, so I’m certainly not suggesting that women’s writing or non-PRC literature is always better, but neither am I in the slightest lamenting the current trends of recognition (if it isn’t premature to call them trends). On the contrary, I will say that to the extent that women’s writing allows us to form similar questions and conclusions—are women better tuned into what’s going on in literature around the world? Are men’s themes in Chinese literature holding them back?—I’m more ready to believe that the conversations veer positive. In fact, as one anecdote I heard recently suggests, if male Chinese writers are not reading the work of their female sinophone colleagues and forebears, it’s to the detriment of their own writing. The heavy testosterone of Mo Yan’s or Gao Xingjian’s narratives, both in voice and in content, may not quite be sexist or misogynistic, but it does represent a failure of these writers to step outside themselves and their own experiences. Perhaps Chinese women, recently, have been better at that.

Of course, these are also prizes for works in translation, and therefore honor the work of the translators. With the exception of the Newman prize (Chu T’ien-wen, I believe, has primarily been translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt), the prizes under discussion are designed to honor the translators—Annelise Finegan Wasmoen for Can Xue, Ari Larissa Heinrich for Qiu, Nicky Harman for Tse, Steve Bradbury for Hsia Yü, and Eleanor Goodman for Wang—as much as they are to honor the authors (more women than men in that list of translators, too). Without excellent translations such as these, no writing could be eligible for these prizes.

One point that I should mention, though: women’s writing from Chinese and sinophone literature was not translated into English more than men’s literature in 2014. As Margaret Carson pointed out to me, the Three Percent database lists 28 titles from Chinese published in English in ’14, only eight (or 28%) of which were by women (for more on the imbalance of male to female writers in English translation, see this Translationista post). For five of these eight titles to be within shooting distance of winning major prizes is testament to the quality of both these women writers and their translators—and a very clear argument that more writing by Chinese and sinophone women needs to be translated into English!

* In Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, Shu-mei Shih defines the sinophone as writing by “the Sinitic-language communities and cultures outside China as well as ethnic minority communities and cultures within China where Mandarin is adopted or imposed”; for my purposes, I think sinophone should be broad enough to include writing done by Chinese writers in China proper, as well. While all writers I’m discussing here write in standard Chinese, Tse’s primary language is Cantonese, rather than Mandarin.


# 1.   

I'm not surprised that Chinese writing originating outside the mainland has translated well enough to be nominated for "more than its share" of respected awards (if one looks at this phenomenon just in terms of population).

I've been working with a Hong Kong writer recently, and I find her written Chinese to be rather jarring at times. No doubt it is "normal" HK Cantonese, tho', a language I know only superficially, so if well rendered in English, it is easier for the reader to focus on the story rather than the occasionally odd vocabulary or sentence structure.

But more significantly, I feel that the great majority of under-50 writers and editors in the PRC are subconsciously limited in their expression by the emphasis on writing "standard Chinese" (规范汉语) that has long been government policy. For example, the use of local dialect is actively discouraged, and the use of trendy new Internet phrases is considered inappropriate for "serious" fiction, etc. Not to mention that any popular new word or phrase that originates in Taiwan or Hong Kong is also liable to be considered as somehow foreign or not kosher.

Several years back I recall reading a short novel by a Taiwanese writer who had spent some time in the US. There wasn't a word of English in the book, mind you, but the lingo felt strikingly unique and engaging -- to me, at least. Why? Probably because I live on the mainland and am suffocating in this atmosphere of 规范汉语 . . .

Bruce, April 13, 2015, 10:44a.m.

# 2.   

I guess I see more in the Mainland/sinophone split than I do in the male/female split.

Anecdote: A few years ago I helped judge a domestic literary prize, where we had to read great piles works in various categories. When it came time for the judges to meet and discuss, I was very enthusiastic about one short-story writer, and went on at some length about him. Everyone was very embarrassed – I had (unknowingly) picked out the one token Taiwanese writer in the pool. Wish I could remember who it was…

I think Sinophone writers, by dint of not being in Mainland China, are much more likely to be exposed to the emphasis on writing-as-craft that obtains in most place that aren't… Mainland China.

Nope, I just don't see the gender split as being nearly as significant. On the other hand, probably my favorite piece out of the recent "Gender" issue of Pathlight magazine was a story by the female Malaysian sinophone writer Li Zishu. On the third hand, my affinity for it was likely due in large part to the very lush, involved translation by the (very male) Josh Dyer.

Eric Abrahamsen, April 13, 2015, 11:13a.m.

# 3.   

I remember you writing, Eric, about "a real fatigue among publishers and among readers" for the Mo Yan-style "very long, epic novels about China’s rural problems and recent history." I think both non-PRC and non-male writers are most likely to be writing against or outside that current.


Lucas Klein, April 13, 2015, 11:48a.m.

# 4.   

Ah! But the female Mainland writers of Mo Yan's generation have their own brand of predictable tedium, it's just not as gross. Maudlin family dramas, horrible divorces, long-suffering spouses… They may lose out to the men in terms of sheer quantity of cliché, but "fatigue" is very much still a factor.

I'm kind of just arguing for the sake of arguing, though. I thought you made some interesting observations in what you wrote above, but it didn't quite consititute something we could argue against!

Eric Abrahamsen, April 13, 2015, 1:40p.m.

# 5.   

Well, maybe it's all a coincidence that a bunch of women have been honored. At the same time, if women's writing means anything other than demographics, it means something in terms of how their writing is different from the male-dominated and -defined mainstream. That's not to say that, writ large, it hasn't had its holding patterns, but it has at least struck a chord with translators and international audiences in a notable way this year. Also, female mainland fiction writers of Mo Yan's generation are also not part of the group that's getting these accolades--except for Can Xue, but her writing is sui generis.


Lucas Klein, April 13, 2015, 3:16p.m.

# 6.   

Re Bruce on HK vs Mainland writing styles:

A couple of years ago when I read Norwegian Wood for the first time, I happened to pick up a HK translation that was broken up into two parts. I lost the second part before getting to it, so I ended up having to buy the mainland Chinese translation to finish the book.

I remember feeling very strongly that the mainland translation was much less lyrical/literary than the the HK one, which used more faux-classical type phrasings, made-up four character idioms and the like. Of course, another reader might have felt that the HK version was 'gilding the lily' so who knows.

As far as sinophone (male or female) literature being better received in translation, it might be worth looking at the reception of Michael S. Duke's translation of Chan Koonchung's The Fat Years, or Darryl Sterck's translation of Wu Mingyi's The Man with Compound Eyes.

It's less well-known, but my personal favorite is Valerie Jaffee's translation of Zhang Guixing's My South Seas Sleeping Beauty.

Nick Stember, April 13, 2015, 9:40p.m.

# 7.   

I do applaud your " decidedly male-heavy and titled toward mainland writers " ... my personal favorite, as one of my friends jokingly proclaimed his 'gay' pride: '暗恋到永远‘ --> 巫师茅境 active on from 2005 - 2008.

The other remark which I tend to agree with is that 北岛's poetry and writing has been disappointedly stagnant. No?

Susan, February 7, 2016, 7:22p.m.

# 8.   

today, it came to my attention those writings of Taiwanese activist/writer/editor 廖天琪. Elected president of US Chinese pen association in 2009 (?). worked for laogai - human right foundation for 10 years, then become its founder's personal enemy. It's all VERY perplexing to me... political activism corrupts Chinese and non-Chinese alike (?)

Lao zhang, what's your opinion on That controversial?

And how we the living judge human right legacy in old hands of the late 吴弘达 ?

susan, August 16, 2016, 1:49p.m.

# 9.   

黄灿然 《世界的光彩》is a great response to this perplexity I raised myself in the last post.


susan, August 16, 2016, 3:15p.m.


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