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Stick Out Your Tongue – Getting the hang of the Chinese novel

Reading Chinese novels in English

After many years of being tasked to read and review novels (translated into English) by Chinese authors, I have finally found answers to why I could not connect with so many of them. It’s an important realization, since I am now living in Canada. In case you say; “but so what?” just read on. The issue is wider than just writing style.

To begin at the beginning: Canada needs more people. With the population’s birth rates low and lifespans ever longer, the problem of having enough skilled workers and financial investors will accelerate in the future. A possible solution is to expand immigration for “economic” migrants – those selected for their skills – to as much as double the current levels, with most of these immigrants coming from China. This would raise annual immigration to nearly 400,000 by 2016. The picture of Chinese immigration to Canada has changed radically since 2007, when there was 5,377 immigrants from China. In 2010, there was 30,197.  Presumably this trend has continued through 2014 and will continue to do so, for Canada to meet its skilled labour targets. With the threat to democracy and freedom in Hong Kong, a new wave of economic immigrants is expected in Canada.

When I considered moving here, I thought I would be surrounded by Canadians. When I got here, I found myself surrounded by East Asians. In my neck of the Vancouver Metropole, about 33% of the inhabitants are East Asian, mostly from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or South Korea. My neighbours to the right are from Hong Kong. To the left and all up the road they are Korean. At the other end of the street they are Iranian. Statistics Canada reports that in 2011, 41.4% of the inhabitants in this city spoke only non-official languages, mainly Korean, Persian (Farsi), and Mandarin, as a mother tongue. They don’t speak English, I don’t speak Korean or Cantonese.

China – The New Frontier

Anthony Bourdain in the 2014 episode on Shanghai in “Parts Unknown”.

With these new Canadians came their language and their culture – and the differences. As Anthony Bourdain wrote about Shanghai, in a recent episode of Parts Unknown:

“China—Shanghai in particular—is a very different looking place every time I go. And I believe that the world as a whole, largely because of what’s happening in China, is going to be a very different looking place. If you live in New York (as I do) and think you live in the most modern, sophisticated city in the world—or even at its center—Shanghai can come as a rude surprise. In spite of its nominally communist system, it is the most go-go, unfettered, money and status-mad, materialistic place on Earth. Its skyline alone is confirmation that money talks loudest. In no other city could you build the world’s largest, tallest and ominously curved phallus—stick it right up into the clouds like a giant “F*** YOU!” to the world and not have trouble with the NIMBYs [Not In My Back Yard]”.

Well, the Back Yard is now literally My Back Yard. I notice the differences in language, food, clothes, manners, voices, philosophies, children, education, cars, houses, religion, you name it, particularly, since I am also an immigrant. The fact that I could never get the hang of Chinese novels used to be a mere irritation. Now, it points to the fact that I simply do not know anything about China, its people, or for that matter, any of the South Asian nations. I never thought I would need to know. Coming to Canada I was worried about French, not Chinese. I never learned anything about China in school other than about Mao Tse Tung (Zedong). Never studied Chinese literature at university. Not to mention Korea (limited to the US version of the Korean War), Taiwan (limited to some prejudices about cheap production) and Japan (limited to romanticized ideas about design, aesthetics and history).

Sheng Yun explains Mai Jia

Decoded, by Mai Jia
Decoded, by Mai Jia

Sheng Yun’s article in the Sept. 2014 issue of the London Review of Books made one thing plain –  I did not even know what I did not know about China and Chinese literature. Adaptation to Canada now means learning about my neighbours on the street as well as learning about Canada’s neighbours across the Pacific. I realize now that in my previous reviews of novels by Chinese authors I measured them by Western (European and North American, not cowboy) standards. This,  according to Sheng Yun, is fraught with complexity and political, social and economic influences.

Sheng Yun reviewed Decoded, a novel by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne (Allen Lane, March 2014):

“Mai Jia’s success in the West comes as no surprise to his readers in China: we like our airport novels as much as anyone else. It’s odd, though, to hear Decoded – a thriller with a genius cryptographer as its hero – praised as a serious work of literature, which is how the Economist greeted it when the English translation appeared this year: ‘FINALLY, a great Chinese novel.’ But it was just as odd that Mai Jia carried off the Mao Dun Prize for Literature in 2008, a little like the Man Booker going to Dan Brown. Mai Jia is a genre novelist, whose books have sold several million copies in China, and an assiduous self-publicist.  Mai Jia joins the sequence of distinguished Chinese authors Penguin has published in the last ten years, including Qian Zhongshu, Lu Xun and Eileen Chang. All the same, if Anglophone readers are after a Chinese spy novel, Xiao Bai’s historically rich French Concession, set in 1930s Shanghai, will be published by Harper Collins next year [2015], and is a better bet than Mai Jia’s potboiler.”

Sheng Yun describes Mai Jia and his books with words like “potboiler”, “genre author” and “airport novel[ist]” (meaning buy at the airport, read and leave behind on the plane, in other words, of passing interest). She says Jia uses ruthless PR to sell his books rather than sell them on their own merit, and describes why readers like Jia’s books: “there are plenty of readers in China who think of him as a spy writer who prefers baggy plots, Lone Ranger clichés, and gushing emotions to psychological acuity.”… She calls Jia an “establishment figure” and “‘Red’ author” who pushes the socialist agenda in his plots.

The differences between Western and Chinese fiction

Why? The reason for the gap between Jia’s work  – and other Chinese authors like him – and those of Western contemporary novelists, are two-fold: 1) Chinese writers have had limited exposure to properly translated contemporary Western fiction and therefore do not follow accepted conventions when they write, and  2) Fiction is traditionally not an important form of literature in China.

She points out that Jia has no interest in the tradition of espionage literature, as it is in the West. “’I read very little, he [Yia] explains, ‘so I have the audacity to write freely with no baggage.’” As a result, Jia’s characters express themselves in strange, unlikely ways, coming across as unconvincing. Take this extract from the book, with which translator Olivia Milburn did her best, but the original was probably even more over-dramatic:

“‘Noooooo – !’ Rong Jinzhen roared, smashing through the door and fishing out into the downpour, assailing the darkness with invective: ‘God, you have been unjust to me! God, I want to let BLACK defeat me! Only be letting BLACK defeat me can there be justice! God, only the vilest person need suffer such unfairness! God, only the vilest divinity could force me to suffer such blame! Oh wicked Lord, you shouldn’t do this! Oh, vicious God, I will fight you to the end – !’”

Yikes. More exclamation marks than a teenager in love, more needless repetition than in a used car ad, more discrepancies in tone than someone lying through their teeth. Exterior rather than internal dialogue that just sounds insane. Rushing around outside like in a 1940s movie, thrusting his fist against the heavens?! This paragraph alone could win the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Until 2005, the translation of Western contemporary novels was mostly done by one man, Howard Goldblatt, who explained in a interview: “Contemporary Chinese fiction fails to explore the inner life of characters: it is driven by plot, and often by a plodding narrative impulse that can move round and round in circles like an ox at a well.” To reinvent his Chinese authors’ works for an Anglophone readership, Goldblatt would remove redundant sections from their books or rewrite them.

Also, most authors in mainland china are monolingual. Their primary source of Western literature in China are translated books – often badly translated. Novels are not an important genre in Chinese literature. The Chinese traditionally favour biji xiaoshuo, fictional sketches and notes, rather than full-length fiction narratives. This preference is an ancient tradition –

“Chinese elite has never really valued fiction. The Chinese word for novel, xiao shuo, literally means “small talk”. Poetry and essays are the carriers  of Chinese intellectual heritage. For a long time vernacular storytelling was regarded as vulgar entertainment…when literary types get together they exchange poetry, calligraphy and ink drawings,” explains Yun.

Problems with translation

Most authors would agree that, to learn how to write fiction, you have to read a lot of it.  The availability of translated Western fiction in China was a problem until the 1980s. In the late 1800s, a flood of classical fiction came into China, mainly published by a Chinese company called Lin Shu and Partners. They published more than 180 works of classical fiction, but Lin Shu did not know any foreign languages. His partners translated and he rewrote the books in elegant classical Chinese, changing and chopping at will, producing terribly “Bowdlerized” versions of the originals for the reading public. Following that, in the 1980s, after decades of very little fiction getting into the country, China experienced a publishing boom until the country joined the World Copyright Convention in 1992. Publishers rushed to translate and publish as many books as they could, and they were not all properly translated, but gave writers much needed exposure after the thirty years of information drought that was at its worst during the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese authors therefore have neither the tradition of novel-writing, nor the exposure to European and North American novels in their original languages. As a result, their works often do not meet Western expectations in terms of plot, narrative, characterization or writing style. As Yun points out, Chinese writers believe censorship puts limits on the reading and writing of contemporary literature, but in the Soviet Union, there were good poets, artists and writers, despite all that. He says censorship and patriotism are no excuses for bad writing.

Considering their influences, it is not surprising that some Chinese writers’ books read as if they were badly translated, even if they have already been translated (and even “remediated”) into English.

Re-evaluating some Chinese authors

Authors from china
A selection of Chinese-born authors showing aspects of their generation.

Having taken in Yun’s rationale, I thought it would be interesting to test it against Chinese authors whose books I have read.

I checked the birth dates of seven very well-known Chinese authors whose bodies of work have been translated and published world-wide. Not surprisingly, they were all born in the late fifties and early sixties, which would put them right in the period of austerity for literature in China  (during the Cultural Revolution 1966 to 1976) when they were in their formative years, their teens and twenties. They would not get out of this situation and gain direct access to Western literature until the 1980s – unless they left China. Note when most of them started publishing; in the 1980s, and how many left China.

The authors whose books are more “palatable” to me, as a typical Western reader, all left China in the 1980s: – Dai Sijie with his influences of classical European literature, Qiu Xiaolong, with his classic Detective Chen mysteries; Geling Yan with her Hollywood-ready novels, and Ma Jian, writing about the ugly face of China as a banned author. Vice versa, Mai Jia  and Su Tong stayed in China and produced probably the most incomprehensible and unpalatable novels I have ever read in translation. Su Tong’s characters, in particular, are just so lacking in internal discourse  and so driven by melodramatic plots that they are like Lord of the Rings gone Oriental. It seems that the generation of Chinese writers who became adults during the Cultural Revolution write differently from those who were born later or left the country.

With these realizations, I re-evaluated some of the authors I had critiqued before:

Su Tong – Binu and the Great Wall

Binu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong
Binu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong

Su Tong wrote the immensely depressing and totally miserable novel Rice, which is about poor Chinese people in the 1930s who make each other even more tormented than they already are, and it ends more wretchedly than it begins.

Tong’s Binu and the Great Wall is his retelling of one of China’s classical myths. The text is difficult to digest because of the frequent odd shifts in tone. Sometimes the idioms are so mixed up it makes one’s eyes water:

“Binu’s face, bathed in tears, was illuminated by the white light of suffering, which stung her eyes.” (p.119)

Characters may, in a single incident, move through a whole range of emotions, seemingly without motivation. At one point, Binu is first “embarrassed and enraged, and hides her mouth with her sleeve”, then she “screams, and her lips move a few times, she covers her eyes with her sleeve”, then “her lips were moving but nothing came out. All [they] heard were fragile, baby-like sobs”, and finally she “sits on the ground and cries, her tears flying in all directions”, her “wails drawing the attention of gate guards.” (pp. 193, 194) Screams, sobs, cries, and wails all in a few paragraphs. (Reminds me of Mai Jia’s Rong Jinzhen ranting at God.)

This novel is as much about the habits, beliefs, geography and peoples of ancient China as Binu’s suffering. The subtext of the novel is probably a description of a Taoist life, characterized strongly by Chinese fatalism: Binu is buried alive, locked up with a coffin, kept as a slave fit only for shedding tears, beaten up, stuck in a pillory, robbed and taken for a prostitute. All this, she suffers, not fighting back, only crying and resigning herself to her fate. In the end, blinded and lamed, she crawls to the mountain where she thinks her husband is, dragging along a rock. The fact that her tears brings down the Great Wall is scant consolation, since by then, she knows her husband is dead and she too, dies. Taoism was discredited in China during the Cultural Revolution – I’m not sure whether this depiction by Tong supports or mocks it.

Dai Sijie – Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, by Dai Sijie
Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, by Dai Sijie

Dai Sijie, who left China for France in 2000, wrote the moving, simple and delicate Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a debut novel which has gained cult status since its publication, and which has a theme the works of the French romantic author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). In it, he successfully combined Western literary references with a Chinese setting. His next novel, Mr. Muo and his Travelling Couch, also has contrasting themes and settings, this time, Freudian Psychoanalysis is combined with the setting of modern-day Chengdu, China. Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch (French: Le Complexe de Di) was published in 2003. The French title of the novel is a play on “le complexe d’Oedipe”, or “the Oedipus complex”. The novel was translated into English in 2005 by Ina Rilke and published as Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, a pun on a “psychiatrist’s couch”.

On a superficial level, this contrast simply makes for entertaining reading. However, Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch is also an excellent example of a Freudian case study in desperation. Mr. Muo is a virgin with repressed desires and a fixation on women and sex. But his desires are diametrically opposed to the society in which he lives, and therefore doomed to remain unrequited. He does not fit into Chinese society and he perceives his daily life as threatening and disastrous. He loses his virginity in a kitchen where the dumplings almost set the place on fire. He is so stressed about not waking his mother late at night that he sneaks into the wrong apartment block.

If Sijie wanted to illustrate that classic Psychoanalysis is about unconscious patterns of life as they become revealed through free associations, then he did. Mr Muo is constantly off on a tangent, thinking about disconnected things or seeing his dreams as premonitions. However, if Sijie wanted to say that the independence of the individual, and his dreams and hopes, will persevere, regardless of society, he definitely did. This is the core message – Mr. Muo, bumbling and inept, does not give up his search or his hope of freeing the love of his life. Though it might all have been a dream, or a fantasy.

This novel is a short, quick read but stays on your mind, puzzling and complex, long after you have put it down. Like a good shrink, Sijie has the ability to get into his readers’ subconscious and stir their memories, getting them out of their comfort zones. That is why Mr Muo’s Travelling Couch is as moving and memorable, if not more so, than his debut novel.

Qiu Xiaolong – Red Mandarin Dress

Qiu Xiaolong’s Red Mandarin Dress is the seventh in the series of nice truly best-selling Inspector Chen mysteries, and Chen is a mesmerizing sleuth. He is insecure, self-indulgent and prone to symptoms of anxiety (like Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s sleuth.) He likes poetry and literary analysis and his police department colleagues cannot quite understand him. “Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau was startled out of his dream by an early phone call…He had stayed up late last night writing a letter to a friend in Beijing, quoting a Tang dynasty poet, to say what he found difficult to say in his own words.” (p. 5) But Chen is also kind-hearted, highly observant, intuitive, persistent and clever. No reader of a mystery can ask for more, other than a gripping plot and dramatic denouement, which the novel does possess.

Red Mandarin Dress, by Qiu Xiaolong
Red Mandarin Dress, by Qiu Xiaolong

Red Mandarin Dress is a gripping and the images which Qiu Xiaolong creates stay with you long after you have put down the book – especially the “cruel food”. The language is fluent, elegant, and exotic settings and characters are depicted with just enough explanation so as to appear self-explanatory, not pontificating. Qiu Xiaolong published his first novel two years after he landed in America, and the American influence shows in his language and in his mastery of the form of the detective novel. He does not flinch from criticism of the less salubrious aspects of Chinese history, and he can do so freely, since he now lives in the US.

Geling Yan – The Lost Daughter of Happiness

The Lost Daughter of Happiness – Geling Yan:
Simultaneously revolting and intriguing, upsetting and riveting

Geling Yan is famous for her novella, 13 Flowers of Nanjing, which was adapted for the film The Flowers of War, which I found overly sentimental and dramatic. Her novel, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, has the same style. The story is simultaneously revolting and intriguing, upsetting and riveting. In fact there is hardly any love to speak of, rather a lot of tragedy, and an array of decidedly nasty characters – pimps, wanderers, rapists, wheeler-dealers, miners and prostitutes in San Francisco of the 1860s. Yan contrasts the attitude of the majority of the Chinese, the lead character Fusang in particular, with their fatalism and passivity, with the zeal and greed of the Americans, and, intriguingly, extends these observations to modern-day Chinese-American relations. Not an easy read, this, especially with the over-wrought emotions. However, it would be possible to translate this into a rip-roaring drama on screen. It’s interesting that Geling Yan stands with her feet in both worlds – she is equally well regarded in the USA and in China, and is simultaneously a member of the Hollywood Writer’s Guild of America and the Writer’s Association of China.

Pai Kit Fai – Red Lotus

Red Lotus – Pai Kit Fai:
Three words for this novel: Over. The. Top.

And now for a fake: Red Lotus by Pai Kit Fai is not what it seems. Pai Kit Fai is a pseudonym for Geoffrey Morgan Pike who was born in the UK in 1929. When Red Lotus came out in 2010  he was 81 and his Colonialist mindset clearly shows in this novel, a completely over-the-top mishmash. This novel deals with three generations of Chinese women and every conceivable facet of Chinese life from 1906 to 1941. Unfortunately, he chose to feature the details that Westerners would find most juicy, sensational and dramatic, and packed them all into an over-rich melodrama – from foot binding and concubines, to noble sea captains rescuing tender Chinese maidens from fates worse than death. It’s not very good as a Western novel or as a Chinese one.

Review of Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian

Lastly, the controversial and very much banned Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian. Knowing what I know now about Chinese fiction, I can understand the novella and the controversy about it much better. I have read it quite a few times and each time I didn’t know what to make of it. It is a collection of short stories or long short stories on the same theme – Tibet and Tibetan sky burials – making it a novella.

On the cover is praise from Nobel laureate, author and artist Gao Xingjian: “One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature.”  My copy was published by Chatto & Windus, London, in 2006, and translated by Flora Drew, and it contains an Afterword by the author. The book originally came out in 1987, in the Chinese literary journal, People’s Literature. Result: a government crackdown; the novella was denounced, the editor of the journal was sacked, all the copies of the edition in which it had appeared were ordered to be destroyed. Luckily Ma Jian was in Hong Kong at the time, and the novel, branded “pornography” became infamous and was sold on the black market. In that way, it was read by many people, causing the opposite effect to what the Chinese government wanted to achieve.

Stick out your Tongue, by Ma Jian
Stick out your Tongue, by Ma Jian

The novella contains 5 stories; The Woman and the Blue Sky, The Smile of Lake Drolmula, The Eight-Fanged Roach, The Golden Crown and The Final Initiation. Jian wrote them after two years or so of travelling through the remotest areas of Tibet. He saw first-hand the destruction of Tibetan towns, temples and monasteries as a result of the Chinese “liberation” in the 1950s.

“My hope of gaining some religious revelation also came to nothing. Tibet was a land whose spiritual heart had been ripped out.” (p. 84, Afterword)

The Woman and the Blue Sky

The Woman and the Blue Sky is the only story about Tibetan sky burial, which caused most of the fuss. Jian writes in his Afterword to the book:

“Westerners idealize Tibetans as gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed. But in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and brutal as the rest of us. To idealize them is to deny them their humanity. The Chinese people have retained a very different view of Tibet. For them it is not a mystical Shangri-La, but a barren outpost of the great Chinese empire.” (p. 89)

A first person narrator, a photographer, wanders into a little village where he asks to attend and photograph a sky burial of a young woman. Jian writes simply, but often his imagery is poetic and wonderfully evocative – but also as unexpected as slap across the face. The body of the dead woman has been cut apart and the hawks and vultures are feeding on bits and pieces, but;

“In the valley below, ribbons of mist rose from Yamdrok and rolled into a single sheet that slowly covered the entire lake. The mist thickened and spread, rising and falling like the chest of a woman breathing, drifting higher and higher until it veiled the blood-red sun.” (p. 14).

The narrator’s emotions are shown by the descriptions of the environment – the dusty streets, the high plains, the lakes and the interiors of houses. It is all so clearly described that the reader feels as if they are there.

In April 2012, in a dramatic act of protest at the London Book Fair, Chinese author Ma Jian smeared red paint across his face to demonstrate his anger at the choice of China as the event’s “market focus". He spoke out against Chinese censorship of “taboo” subjects.
In April 2012, in a dramatic act of protest at the London Book Fair, Chinese author Ma Jian smeared red paint across his face to demonstrate his anger at the choice of China as the event’s “market focus”. He spoke out against Chinese censorship of “taboo” subjects.

The Smile of Lake Drolmula

The Smile of Lake Drolmula is about a student who comes back from studying in the city and searches for his family who has trekked somewhere in the mountains with their flock. He cannot find them, he is tormented by images of his loved ones and the life he left behind, his horse runs away, and eventually, he dies. But before he dies, he thinks he is with them again. It is quite a poignant description:

“A gust of wind blew into Sonam’s face. When it died, his family suddenly appeared before him. First, he saw the tent, the flickering fire and the cooking pot with the aluminium lid. His mother was standing behind the steam, dropping lumps of yak butter into the pot. He could smell the warm butter tea and fried cheese. Then he saw Dawa, or rather, Dawa saw him. She yelped with joy, raced over to him, dug her head into his chest and slapped his shoulders. He laughed and followed her into the tent.”

In his last moments, Sonam wants to explain to his family how wonderful his new life is, he wants his family to like the presents he brought them, but all he realizes is that his new life is nothing compared to what he left behind, and it sounds a bit ridiculous.  The story is  a moving depiction of longing and nostalgia.

References and themes in the anthology

All the stories have plain references to taboos in Chinese literature during the Cultural Revolution – sex, incest, death, Buddhist reincarnation and bodily functions. (In terms of writing about taboos, Su Tong’s Rice is riddled with no-holds-barred depictions of them. They hardly bear repeating here, they’re so awful. But Rice was published in 2004, not the 1980s.)

There is a sub-theme of these taboos running through all the stories; a girl is forced into marriage with two brothers; a man has sexual thoughts of his sister; an old man has sex with his mother and his daughter; that daughter loses her mind and sells her body in a marketplace; a reincarnation of a Living Buddha is ritually deflowered and dies in a frozen river. Who knows how it really was in those far-off places in Tibet where life was so different to the West in every way.

Sometimes you wonder, can they be true? Is that the way it was? Or is the character rambling or dreaming? Sometimes the stories have stories, fables, being retold within them, making you think the narrator is exaggerating what happened. At the same time, these things are so baldly stated, so well contextualized and fit so perfectly into the plots, that they seem authentic. They are not there to sensationalize or dramatize. If anything, Jian depicts them in a restrained, factual manner.

For example, a woman who may be the same one who had been raped by her father, lives on the street, a simple-minded prostitute and a beggar:

“The lower lids of her eyes were slightly swollen, but when she smiled, her mouth stretched wide open and her eyes beamed with kindness. It was the smile of a woman of the high plateau, a smile as pure as the grassland air. She was smothered by the dust and noise of the crowded street. So that passers-by wouldn’t tread on her, she retreated under the table of a yak meat stall.” (p. 48)

The state of this poor woman gets worse from there on, but still, she has this trusting smile.

This is the core of Jian’s novella or “non-fiction novel” for me: the harsh ugly reality of Tibet as he experienced it, combined with ravishing beauty and tenderness.  It is very different from the writing of any establishment-approved Chinese author. But its bold, gritty realism ensures that even today, it is read by people all over the world – the mark of a classic.

To continue my education into Chinese literature, I’ll follow Yun’s advice and read Chinese authors who have mastered the genre: Geo Xingjian, Ah Cheng, Mo Yan, the 18th century A Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, and the 16th century masterworks of Chinese literary novels: The Plum in the Golden Vase (a.k.a. The Golden Lotus by “Lan Ling Xiao Xiao Sheng”), Journey to the West, Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

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