Han Dong's book 《扎根》 (published in 2009 as Banished!, was long-listed for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize.
There were a number of things which convinced me I wanted to translate Banished! I liked the fact you can read the novel at different levels. He describes village life carefully, sometimes lovingly, but there is an underlying sense of political tension. There is humor, often scatological, but the depiction towards the end of the book of Tao, the frustrated writer, is bitter and painful. The language is occasionally lyrical but usually appears quite plain; then again, there are parts which are enigmatic to say the least, especially when they come from the unnamed ‘I’ voice. The emotional relationships are understated, but there is real warmth in the adults’ protectiveness of the child, young Tao, and the latter’s feelings for his father. I hope that this excerpt at least gives a flavor of some of these qualities.
Banished! - The story
It is 1967, the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Along with numerous other cadres, the Tao family (grandparents, mother and father, and the boy, young Tao) are sent down to the countryside, to settle in the poor, remote village of Sanyu. The family move into their new house (initially a cowshed), accepting their new lives with apparent equanimity. Tao, once a writer, throws himself into agriculture, introducing new plants to the villagers. His wife, Su Qun, becomes a barefoot doctor; and young Tao grows up. The rhythm of their lives seems calm and ordered, certainly after the terrible ‘struggle sessions’ of the Cultural Revolution which they endured in Nanjing. But tensions come to the surface, the political struggles of the city visit them in the countryside, and tragedy is inflicted almost casually on every member of the family except, perhaps, young Tao. This piece is taken from the penultimate chapter, by which time it is clear that the Cultural Revolution is coming to an end.
Glossary: CultRev = Cultural Revolution = 文革； Urbling = educated youth = 知青.
From CHAPTER 12
In 1977 university entrance examinations were resumed. Young Tao graduated in the arts from Hongze Middle School in that year. He and a girl (also from a banished cadre family) were the only ones who passed the exams.
The “physical” took place in a primary school. Young Tao joined a group of stubble-chinned older men in a classroom set aside for the examination. Apart from being nearsighted, he was perfectly healthy and, with his glasses on, his vision was satisfactory. He passed without any problems.
When they were to be weighed and measured, they were told to remove every stitch of clothing and line up. A white-coated doctor had them march down the room, “One, two, one, two!” They were drilled to halt, stand at ease, turn left, turn right, and about-face, eyes right and number off. Then a doctor came over to each of them and with icy fingers gave their balls a squeeze or two. Then he went behind them, parted their buttocks, and had a good look. As each was examined, the eyes of all the others were drawn to watch. Young Tao was mortified to discover that all the others had a proper “fireman’s helmet,” with an abundance of black hair down there. He felt thoroughly embarrassed by the sparseness of his pubic hair.
The age differences among the candidates were not surprising; it was the first university enrollment since before the CultRev, and people had been hanging around waiting for many years. Candidates included urblings from the countryside and those who had returned home, primary school teachers, and even teachers from Hongze Middle School, where young Tao was studying. Generally teachers refused to use the same toilet as students, and yet here they all were, stripped naked in front of each other. The sexually mature men were as embarrassed as young Tao. They were at least ten years older than he was.
Then young Tao thought about the girl in his class. Did she have to strip for her physical too? He was unable to verify this with his own eyes since males and females were examined separately. Later he heard that the doctor had felt the girl’s belly with the heel of her hand, put away the stethoscope, and said, “Call your mother here.” To the mother she said, “Your daughter is pregnant.”
Being pregnant meant, of course, that the girl could not go to university. So young Tao was the only one of his class to go.
Let me pass on some gossip about the girl student. Her family, like the Taos, had been sent down to Wangji commune, to a different production brigade. They kept themselves to themselves and had no social contact with the Taos or other banished cadre families. The girl’s parents were divorced, and they were sent to different brigades. The girl went with her mother. The parents had probably divorced for the sake of their daughter’s future since her father had been condemned as a rightist. In fact, the divorce appeared to be in name only. In secret the couple saw a lot of each other. Otherwise, they would not have chosen neighboring brigades. So they were still a family of three, albeit a rather strange one.
One day the girl was playing with the three sons of the production brigade leader (aged eighteen, fifteen, and thirteen) at the entrance to the village. The girl was eleven, the same age as young Tao. There was a squabble, and the girl said, “If you don’t stop, I’ll tell about those dirty things you did!” A young woman, one of the urblings sent to the village, happened to be passing by and overheard. The girl’s words struck her as odd, and she squatted down and asked what “dirty things” she was talking about. They sat under the poplars and willows on the banks of the stream, and the young woman finally coaxed the girl into telling her that the boys had “slept” with her.
The culprit turned out to be the physics teacher. Just before the university entrance exams, there had been an earthquake scare in China. The school set up an earthquake warning group, headed by the physics teacher. The girl was part of the group, and in a physics lab overflowing with bottles and jars (the “instruments” for measuring earthquakes) the pair frequently had sex. The waters of Hongze Lake, the dykes, and the fertile fields around the lake remained unruffled. Mother Earth stood firm, and there was no earthquake. In the physics building, however, there were frequent small shocks that regularly shook the upended bottles onto the floor.
The physics teacher got a prison sentence, while the girl went to the county hospital for an abortion. The news quickly spread through the town and included what had happened in Wangji Market. Mother and daughter could not move to the county town this time since they were already there. Their only refuge was Nanjing, but it would be extremely difficult to get there. Tao now had a new object for his wrath. He cursed the production brigade leader’s son, cursed the physics teacher, and cursed the earthquake. Yet generally speaking, Tao was much calmer these days. It would not be exaggerating to say that he was happy. After all, his son had obtained a place at university, so he no longer needed to strike root in Sanyu village or even stay in this wretched county town.
An excerpt from Banished! translated by Nicky Harman from the novel 《扎根》 (literally ‘Striking Root’) by 韩东,Han Dong, published by Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe, 2003. The original novel in Chinese won the Chinese Literature Award 2003, and has now been long-listed for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. Nicky Harman was awarded an American PEN Translation Grant 2006 for her translation. Banished! will be published by University of Hawai‘i Press in 2009. All rights reserved; copyrighted, © 2009, by University of Hawai‘i Press. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
Thanks for putting up this excerpt...it brings the book full-circle, and explains the implications of the Chinese title 扎根/Striking Root.
That dehumanizing physical is an excellent scene. It made me squirm with embarrassment for Young Tao.
By the way, is yours the first foreign language translation to be published? I know that you were very involved with promoting this novel in the early stages, and that winning the PEN Translation Award must have helped to generate publisher interest. Wonder if you'd be interested in doing a post on this topic.
It seems that so many Chinese novels in translation - including the two I've worked on - have appeared first in French, then in Japanese, and finally in English (or sometimes German). This seems to be the pattern.
Is it that French and Japanese publishers and readers are more interested in contemporary fiction from China, or that English-language publishers and readers are more cautious in their choices? Is there anything that we as translators can do to speed the translation of worthy Chinese literature into English, or is this determined by market forces beyond our control?
There's probably enough material here for three or four lengthy panel discussions...
Cindy Carter, August 3, 2008, 3:38p.m.
Thanks, Cindy - and to everyone who made encouraging comments about the long-listing. It gave me a lovely warm feeling! Here are a few brief comments in answer to yours above: Is this the first foreign language translation to be published? I think so, though it may be the second - Han Dong did mention something about a Korean translation last year.
As you say, I did all the promoting of this novel in the early stages, but winning the PEN Translation Award didn't persuade publishers to say 'yes'. One or two asked to see a long excerpt but then said 'no'. What the PEN award did do was to encourage me to carry on hounding publishers till Uni Hawai'i Press said 'yes'!
How to get publishers interested in general? I still don't know. I translated the whole of Banished! before trying to market it, but I certainly would not recommend doing that. (Perhaps a long-ish excerpt is the way to go, to get both your agent and publishers excited.) Our discussions with publishers and agents at the Moganshan literary translation course earlier this year made it all seem straightforward, but I'm not convinced that it is. I have had the experience, since Moganshan, of being asked to produce short excerpts and synopses of two novels, for different agents. They were not convinced - they both said they wanted to see more. And who's to blame them? I was enthusiastic about both books, but then I'd had the benefit of reading them from cover to cover.
You're quite right about the French (and Japanese and German) being much more active in publishing work from Chinese. I recently had a long conversation with a well-known (English-language) publisher, who said that he knew of very very little fiction that was being/was going to be translated from Chinese. It has such a short shelf-life, he says. Non-fiction is a better proposition. That last statement I found very surprising!
Nicky Harman, August 3, 2008, 5:56p.m.
I am a Chinese reader. For ten years, Han Dong has been my favorite writer. I am glad to see that his book's translated into English, and meanwhile I am also worrying about if the translation is good enough to show the true quality of Han Dong's work... Han Dong was a poet before he started to write short stories and novella (, and he still is). His language is of significance, and also philosophic - don't forget that he was majored in philosophy in Shandong University. Later on when he began to write novels, his language changed and became more laconic and genuine. "Banished" is his first novel. He also wrote other 2 novels, and is working on the 4th. I give "Banished" 4 star because I think Han Dong's 2nd novel, "You and Me", is better than "Banished". Unfortunately "You and Me" has not been translated into English. I also like Han Dong's novellas. As a matter of fact, I think his novellas are magnum opus! I hope somebody can translate Han Dong's novellas into English one day.
Ma Ming, October 18, 2008, 7:44a.m.