“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

文化苦旅 (lit. A Bitter Journey through Culture)

Novel by Yu Qiuyu.

Chinese, Non-fiction, Travel Literature Report by Queenie Lai For sample translation, click here

Awards National Golden Key Second Prize Award, Shanghai Outstanding Book Award, Year 1992 Taiwan Best Book Award, Shanghai Literature Award

Background

“A Bitter Journey through Culture” was author and scholar YU Qiuyu’s first collection of travel essays in which his journey across China became the occasion for extended observations on a nation, its heritage, culture and people.

Although a successful academic at Shanghai Theatre Academy, YU felt impelled to change direction and study Chinese culture. He believes that China has a rich cultural legacy, but that that legacy is gradually disappearing. In the 1980s, he set off to look for disappearing civilizations in China and the rest of the world.

YU visited most cultural heritage sites in the country, from Dunhuang in the northwest to Guangzhou in the southeast. His ensuing publication, "A Bitter Journey Through Culture" became a huge hit immediately following its first publication in 1992. The book became something of a cultural icon for Chinese readers;his reflections on Chinese culture and his emotional writing style even popularized a new literary style called the "cultural meditation essay" and a new phenomenon termed “YU Qiuyu culture”.

Synopsis

In the book, YU acts as a tour guide, taking the reader on an exploration of the vast land of China. Not only do we follow in the author’s footsteps, we also share his unique observations, his emotions and most importantly his deep appreciation and love for Chinese culture and heritage.

“Bitter journey” is about the pain that the author suffered emotionally as he observed first-hand China’s heritage of a thousand years and paused to reflect on the cultural development of China. Yu is passionate about his cultural heritage, yet is deeply troubled when faced with irreversible damage done in the past due to people’s ignorance and indifference, such as the unfortunate destiny of Dunhuang relics which fell into the hands of the ignorant Taoist Wang in “Taoist Priest Pagoda”.

39 essays in all, including:

• The essay “Taoist Priest Pagoda” (please refer to translated sample) and “Snow of Yuan Guan” described the rise and fall of the Yellow River civilization, and the desolation Yu feels for irreversible, historical mistakes. Both of these have been selected as Chinese high school prescribed readings.

• “Suzhou’s Greying Hair” and “Small Town of Jiangnan” describes the graceful culture of Jiangnan (Central South region of China) against the backdrop of rivers which meander through the water villages of China.

• “Pavilion under Wind and Rain” and “Random Notes of QingunPu” writes openly about culture and conscience and reflect on the difficult emotional journey of Chinese intellectuals and literati.

• The hugely popular article “Shanghainese” analyzes the cultural development of Shanghai as a city and its people.

• “Temple”, “Monument” and “Home in Longhua” are passionate meditations on culturale.

• Other essays titles include: Mogao Caves, White Lotus Cave, Three Gorges, Mountain Lu Shan, Ruins, Dreams of West Lake, Window of the Old House, Poems of Midnight Rain, Chinese Language Complex, This Place is so Tranquil, The Wanderers.

Review

This book became a best seller and created the phenomenon of Chinese “cultural essays” for a number of reasons. With his wealth of knowledge on literature, history, art and culture, YU reveals great insights into the rich culture and history of China. He has a unique writing style and rhythm - he writes with power and passion and allows his emotions to show through. His clever use of a combination of storyline, vivid characters, history, reflection and descriptive narrative creates an entertaining read that attracts a massive readership. His unique observation and critique of historical events and personal comments also make this travel literature an extremely insightful read. YU’s beautiful and passionate prose has awakened thousands of Chinese to think seriously of their own history and cultural heritage.

Certainly the book has its flaws. Some might find it too emotional or judgmental. Notwithstanding its flaws, it is still an outstanding piece of contemporary Chinese Travel Literature that provides valuable insight into Chinese history, landscape and culture and I would recommend it strongly for translation.