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Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair

The organizers of this year’s London Book Fair, where China is the country of focus, seem to have learned from the lesson of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, which invited and then dis-invited dissident writers in an even-handed attempt to piss off as many people as possible. This time around, the LBF saved itself time by not bothering to consider writers who might have made the Chinese side of the equation uncomfortable. As a result there was a spate of more or less predictably lazy media coverage, some of it by people who should know better1 implying that the Chinese delegation to the LBF is made up of politically reliable hacks and that “real” Chinese literature is best represented by others. (Richard Lea and Isabel Hilton both offered fairer takes on the situation; they were in the minority.)

There is no way to have a fair or reasonable conversation about the literary merits of dissident or exile authors — some of whom, like Yang Lian and Liao Yiwu, are very good indeed — compared to authors who are read in China. We can probably all agree that in a better world, or at least a world in which the British Council had more backbone and the Chinese government had more maturity, the list of Chinese authors at the London Book Fair would have been a different one. Here on Earth One, though, things were never realistically going to go any other way, and so we may as well look at the authors who were on offer. Fortunately, many of them are much better and more interesting than the prevailing tone of the English-language coverage might lead you to believe.

Some examples, chosen entirely non-randomly:

1) The Shenyang-based author Diao Dou (刁斗) wasn’t actually in attendance at the LBF as far as I know, but his short story “Squatting” (蹲着) is featured in the new Comma Press anthology Shi Cheng: City Stories from China, which is being released during the LBF.
“Squatting” tells the story of a group of concerned citizens in a Manchurian city (which is never identified but is clearly Shenyang) who urge the municipal government to take action against summer crime waves. The municipal government (rather, the Counter-Criminal Crackdown Command Office, or “CrackCom”) responds with a blanket order dictating that from sundown to sunrise, all citizens are to go about their business in a mandatory squatting position — an order hailed by the “intellectuals” as a masterstroke of judicious urban governance. It’s one of the sharpest, funniest stories I’ve read in Chinese in a long time, and was a lot of fun to translate — though challenging, too, given that it’s written in a spot-on parody of the prose style — not so much “purple” as “cyanotic” — typical of a certain type of writer:

My colleagues and I weren’t People’s Congress delegates or People’s Political Consultative Committee members, nor indeed were we employees of any governmental authority. We were writers of reportage, teachers of history, players of oboes, designers of computer software, extractors of teeth, translators of foreign languages, creators of advertisements, students of calculus, researchers of pharmaceutical compounds. We’d all gone to university and taken at least undergraduate degrees, and if forced to give an account of ourselves we would shyly admit to being intellectuals. Engaged in different lines of work, living in different neighbourhoods, of different ages and genders, we shared nonetheless a common concern for the development and growth of our city, and wrote regular letters to a succession of highest-ranking municipal administrators addressing the strengths and shortcomings of our city and the strengths and shortcomings of municipal policy in the hopes that our suggestions would aid them in the performance of their duties. Our efforts were motivated not by a desire for official recognition or pecuniary reward, but by a sense of righteousness and justice, of responsibility, of social morality, and of love for our fellow man.

2) Sheng Keyi (盛可以) has gotten some notice in the foreign press for her novel Northern Girls: Life Goes On (北妹), which will be out in Shelly Bryant’s English translation next month. I haven’t read Northern Girls, and was basically unimpressed by the short Sheng Keyi story that I translated for World of Chinese magazine last year, but her short story “A Village of Cold Hearths” (一个没有炊烟的村庄), which appears in the new “Revolutions” issue of 天南/Chutzpah magazine, completely changed my opinion of her work. (Free PDF over at Paper Republic – it’s Issue 6.) It’s a tightly written, disturbing account of the more or less pointless suffering and violence of the Great Leap Forward:

“Grain” was a magic word that held everyone in its sway. The higher-ups came for an inspection, and the starving villagers roused themselves and affected expressions that they hoped would show the perseverance and correctness of Socialism. The yards were piled high with grain: a thin layer of rice at the top of the baskets and heaps of chaff and weeds beneath. Having placated the higher-ups, the village leaders were awarded Major Commendations, and promptly went back to searching for stockpiled grain, beating and interrogating the villagers ever more harshly.

No wedding banquets. No gatherings. No celebrations. No farewells. No cooking smoke. The village canteen closed down. Some people lay down and never got back up, some people got fat all of a sudden, some people fell down all of a sudden, some people got locked up, some people got put on trial. It was all very quiet. The village was as quiet as the grave.

Sentries patrolled at the village gate, their guns fully loaded. Vultures circled. A growing wind swept the land.

The bark was gone from all the trees, and the white wood beneath it had gone brown and then black. The earth was scored and lined where it had been clawed at, the mud churned up like the ground around a mouse’s nest.

Liufu’s mother racked her brains to find ways to fill her stomach. When the weeds, rats, roots, and bark were all gone she began to chop up rice straw and corncobs, which she would cook and crush and mash into a paste late at night. She would go out and collect egret shit by the paths to wash and steam. The secret was to imagine that they were your favorite foods when you ate them. That the egret shit was egg custard.

3) Feng Tang’s (冯唐) short story 麻将 (“Mahjong”), which I translated in the latest issue of Pathlight magazine, is not his best work, but it does give an idea of the qualities — a sharp ear for dialogue and a sharper sense of humor — that make him one of the most enjoyable young authors on today’s scene. It’s also a nice examination of the internationalized yuppie, an aspect of contemporary Chinese culture that is only just beginning to enter the literary consciousness:

She had been a small-town superstar from way off in the exotic southwest with beautifully clear Mandarin and a good head for figures, and she tested into Tsinghua University before she was eighteen. There she was the fairest flower of her department, though that particular flowerpot only had three flowers in it and the competition was not exactly fierce. She’d gone straight from college into an analyst job at a top consulting firm, where she worked on enough corporate group strategies over the following three years to give her more experience than all of the graybeards at the Tsinghua School of Economics and Management combined. No tallyman ever worked his abacus beads as nimbly as she manipulated Excel spreadsheets; no campus revolutionary ever painted big-character posters as pithy as her Powerpoints. Some of her projects had taken her to Europe, where she’d penned journal entries in Spain and picked forsythia in Greece. And now, turning her sights to the future, Shang Shu was preparing to wrap up the strategy planning project she was working on for a major northern port, go back southwest to say goodbye to her parents, and then head to Harvard Business School.

My point here — besides naked self-promotion — is that even a small sample of the writers at the London Book Fair (i.e., “writers I was asked to translate”) contains three writers, two of them relatively or totally overlooked by the Anglophone world, whose stuff I think is really good. This isn’t necessarily representative of all of the writers who went to the London Book Fair, but hopefully it should serve to show that things were a lot more complicated and interesting than you would have had any way of knowing if your sole source of information was the English-language media coverage of the LBF.


So the writers who were on offer are actually pretty interesting, or at least some of them are. That’s one side of the story. The other side of the story, tying into the point of people who’ve criticized the LBF for only featuring authors recommended by the  General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), is that there are many, many more Chinese authors out there, dissident and otherwise, who are equally deserving of a spot at the fair. (Yan Lianke [阎连科], for instance, was invited and then abruptly disinvited — despite the fact that his novel Dream of Ding Village, in Cindy Carter’s lovely translation, was recently shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize.) And going beyond the London Book Fair — since it’s over now anyway — there are many, many other writers whose work deserves to be translated (or translated better), but who have never made it to the attention of non-Sinologues.

The problem is that there has historically been a pretty limited amount of interest in Chinese literature, and an extremely limited amount of money to fund it. Publishers are wary of putting out translations — partly because literature in translation is always a hard sell; partly because they have generally not got a very good idea of what’s out there in Chinese. 2 But the times, they are a-changing. Some of the change is on the demand side of things — the result of a growing interest in China — but most of it is on the supply side: since the start of the 12th Five-Year Plan period last year, there has been money available for the project of helping Chinese literature “zǒu chūqu,” i.e., make its debut on the world stage. Like exporting Chinese animation, filming Iron Man 3 as a joint production, and getting people to start calling Mt. Everest “Mount Qomolangma,” literary translation into English is one of the ways to unlock achievements in whatever imaginary arcade game the Chinese government is playing here, and so the government has been plugging quarter after quarter into the machine in hopes of leveling up.

Given the origins and the goals of the funding for literary translation from Chinese, and the roles of the players involved, it is perhaps not entirely shocking that Liu Xiaobo was not granted early release from prison to attend the London Book Fair, and that the party paying the piper — in this case, mostly GAPP — got to call the tunes.

But!

A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.) Even just a couple of years ago, almost all officially backed Chinese cultural offerings were of this sort — books about tea and opera masks, yes, or Foreign Languages Press translations by non-native English speakers, or poorly subtitled documentaries about the Potato Festival in some godforsaken corner of the Shandong peninsula. (“Since late Ming dynasty, the town of Pirang is acclaimed as ‘hometown of potato!'”)

What we’re seeing now is something different — a willingness, even an eagerness, to promote authors whose work presents a more complicated China than the one on the front page of the China Daily. The group of authors that visited the London Book Fair may not have contained Liu Xiaobo or Liao Yiwu — and as long as GAPP was involved there was never any chance that it would — but it was a more diverse, talented, and interesting group of authors than has been generally acknowledged. It represented an earnest attempt to present a more nuanced image of contemporary China than has been presented before, and is deserving of a similarly earnest and nuanced response. So far, it has mostly not gotten one, to the detriment of Chinese authors and foreign readers alike.


  1. I was going to let this pass without further comment, but Mirsky’s article really is a shocking piece of hackery. It is very difficult — for me, at least — to read it without concluding that he went to the LBF knowing exactly what his story was going to be, and then did all of the things necessary to enable him to write the story he wanted to write. This would be just about excusable (or at least unremarkable) in the case of a journalist who was simply ignorant about China, but Mirsky is a well-informed and intelligent observer of China and has no such excuse.

    Imagine the converse situation: a Chinese journalist shows up at an American literary event and buttonholes every person in sight, demanding in heavily accented English to know what they think about “Nom Chompski, your greetist living pooet.”
    “What?” they say.
    “Chompski! Free Brodley Mooning! Apollygize for Wounded Knee!”
    “Sir, this is a literary event.”
    “Ship! You are baa-baa-ing shiip! Baaaa!” Mirsky’s Chinese double shouts, sweeping pamphlets off of display tables as he storms out the door. That night he will file a piece about how the mean Americans took away his stuffed animal.

  2. From the perspective of an outsider, it sometimes looks as if international publishers end up picking books to translate based on (1) what sold well in China, (2) what sold well to people going on beach holidays in Ibiza the year before, or (3) the guidance of voices that only they can hear. Fame and fortune — at least by translator standards — await the person who successfully pitches a novel to publishers as “a Chinese Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but with teenaged vampires.”

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