Updated discussion and reviews

After many years of reading and reviewing novels by Chinese authors, that have been translated into English, 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. There are more issues than just writing style and problems with translation.

The fact that I could never get the hang of Chinese novels is because of a number of reasons, the most obvious one being that I simply did not know – and still know hardly anything – about China, its history, culture or people. China is not a country that gets studied in South African schools and at south African universities. I’m not even sure that such an elective existed in my day.

A wee explainer: even in 2022, the percentage of “Asians” in South Africa is only about 2.58% of the total population, and “Asians” in South African terms are defined as being Indian South Africans, or South Africans whose ancestors came from India. The actual number of immigrants from the People’s Republic of China is less than half a percent, though the numbers, being under-reported, are not definitive, and may include immigrants from locations other than mainland China; Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong etc.

I was educated in the literature, art and history of European countries, and to some extent, North America and Latin America. I could read and appreciate novels in their original versions in English, Dutch, and German, as well as novels in other European languages translated into English. Western literature, even in translation, even from languages that I did not know, like Spanish, Norwegian or Italian, held no problems for me. I could still enjoy and understand them.

On the other hand, the literature of far eastern and south eastern countries (meaning the rest of the world), as old, complex and diverse as they are, was and still is an obscure and complicated business – at least to me, I confess.

I have often asked myself whether it is OK for me to be so ignorant about Chinese literature, specifically, especially these days, when the cultural divide seems to be greater than ever. Just because something is a mystery, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be worthwhile and beautiful. So, no, I don’t think it is OK.

Conscious incompetence

In an article in the Sept. 2014 issue of the London Review of Books, YUN Sheng, a contributing editor at the Shanghai Review of Books, made one thing plain to me – I did not even know what I did not know about China and Chinese literature.

This starts with my frequent misspelling of Chinese names (including that of Sheng YUN), getting the surname and first name mixed up, and getting the gender of the author or character wrong. I realized that in my previous reviews of novels by Chinese authors I measured them against Western (European and North American) standards. This, according to Sheng YUN (her surname is apparently YUN), is very complicated and, as the expression goes, comparisons are odious and in these cases, the Chinese novels do badly by comparison.

Review of Decoded

Sheng Yun reviewed Decoded, a novel by Mai Jia. In the case of Mai Jia, the name is a pseudonym. He was born JIANG Benhu – thank goodness for Wikipedia.

“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, and is a better bet than Mai Jia’s potboiler.”

Sniffle, by YUN Sheng, London Review of Books, Vol. 36, No. 17, September 11, 2014

Sheng Yun describes Mai Jia and his books with words like “potboiler”, “genre author” and an “airport novel” (meaning, buy it at the airport, read and leave it 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. I would say that those comments are pretty insulting.

Decoded, by Mai Jia
Decoded: A Novel
by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne. (Allen Lane, 315 pp., March 2014)

The differences between Western and Chinese fiction

Why does she say this? The reasons 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.
  2. Fiction is traditionally not an important form of literature in China.

She points out that Jia has stated that he 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. Yun quotes an extract from the book, which, she says, translator Olivia Milburn did her best – but it sounds awful in English (the punctuation is verbatim):

“‘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 by 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 – !’”

Sniffle, by YUN Sheng, London Review of Books, Vol. 36, No. 17, September 11, 2014

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. I would not want to read a novel that is written like this, even if it were intended to be humorous or a spoof of some kind.

Yun goes on to explain that 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.”

Sniffle, by YUN Sheng, London Review of Books, Vol. 36, No. 17, September 11, 2014

To reinvent his Chinese authors’ works for an Anglophone readership, Goldblatt would remove redundant sections from their books or rewrite them. Wow, that is an extreme case of the translator as co-creator!

Furthermore, Yun points out that most authors in mainland China are monolingual. Their primary source of Western literature in China are translated books – often badly translated from English to Mandarin. Added to that, novels (fiction) 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.”

Sniffle, by YUN Sheng, London Review of Books, Vol. 36, No. 17, September 11, 2014

Problems with translation

Yun says that 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. (Sniffle, by YUN Sheng, London Review of Books, Vol. 36, No. 17, September 11, 2014)

I conclude from this that Chinese authors 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. She says that censorship and patriotism are no excuses for bad writing.

About Sheng Yun

It has been impossible for me, an Internet Sleuth, to locate a current biography of Sheng YUN. This is a pity, because her background would add some more context to her undoubtedly controversial, hard-hitting comments. However, though I could not find out much about her, I took her findings on board. They might just have conveniently aligned with what I already knew, in general terms, but seemed to make sense and are supported by other analysts of Chinese literature.

Next steps: Taking another look at a few Chinese authors

Bearing Yun’s explanation about the limitations of the genre and of imported books, and the poor translations of English fiction, it should not be surprising that some Chinese writers’ books read in Chinese as if they were badly translated, even if they have already been translated (and even “remediated”) into English. In other words, there are problems with the conventions of the Fiction genre, in terms of writing style, form, and influences, as well as with the translation of those novels into English.

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

A novice’s thoughts on translated Chinese fiction

I am a novice at the study of this canon, and, considering the age and scope of Chinese literature, I am completely, hopelessly unqualified to voice an opinion. It is like saying that I think such-and-such about classical music because I have listened to a few sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven and J.S. Bach. I mean, it’s ridiculous. I recall once, in desperation, asking a colleague of mine who grew up in Iran, which musicians he would recommend if I were to start learning about classical Persian music. Poor man, to his credit, he kept a straight face and took a few moments to think. Then he recommended where I start, and that’s what I did, rushing off with my ears all perky to discover this vast treasure trove of new sounds. He must have thought I was slightly mad, but he did not say so.

Any student of the literature of their mother tongue is assigned the basic must-read list of books, starting in school, and this increases and becomes more challenging at tertiary level. I do not have that background. Ask me about English literature and it’s no problem, I have read so many books that I think I have actually made a tiny nibble in the huge canon. But Chinese fiction in translation? Nope. The fact that I cannot and probably will never be able to read Mandarin characters is an inescapable limitation.

On the other hand, this is the joy of studying literature, and the freedom to do so: Firstly, I can. It is possible. Secondly, it is for my own amusement and education.

Generations of writers

I checked the life milestone dates of 11 Chinese authors whose books have been translated and published world-wide, some of which I have read in English.

A selection of Chinese-born authors showing aspects of their generation. (Source: own research)

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.

Take particular note of when most of them started publishing; in the 1980s, and of how many had 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 over-dramatic plots that they are like Lord of the Rings gone Extreme Oriental. It seems that the generation of Chinese writers who became adults during the Cultural Revolution do indeed write differently from those who were born later or left the country.

Having realized that I had been reviewing novels written by these authors all wrong from the get-go, I rewrote and updated seven of my earlier reviews (listed below).

The most difficult and probably the most significant book I saved for last on the list: Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian.


Click on the links to read more.

Long review:
Binu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong – The retelling of a classical Chinese myth
  • “The Tale of Meng Jiang Nü”
  • Summary & conclusions
Updated review:
Binu and the Great Wall, by Su Tong
  • The original myth on which the story is based
  • Discussion of writing style & quotations
  • Taoism in the characterization
  • Problems with interpretation
  • About the author
Updated review:
Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, by Dai Sijie – A touch of Freudian Psychoanalysis

This novel stays in your mind long after you have put it down. Like a good psychiatrist, Dai has the ability to get into his readers’ subconscious and stir their memories, getting them out of their comfort zones. (Read more…)

“Inspector Chen”, the hero of this novel, has a weak stomach. He does not like the odd delicacies offered at receptions and traditional Chinese restaurants, such as live boiled turtle soup and live braised monkey’s brain. However, to trap his suspect into a confession, he sets up a horrible banquet with “cruel food”, dishes to make even the greatest gourmand squirm. He toys with the suspect, stage-managing the scene, and finally revealing the strange and shocking truth. Chen is a mesmerizing sleuth. He is insecure, self-indulgent and prone to symptoms of anxiety. But he 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 certainly has.

Keep readingUpdated summary review: Red Mandarin Dress, by Qiu Xiaolong – A classic detective novel

Original Review: Red Mandarin Dress, by Qiu Xiaolong – Explainer of “cruel food” and the nature of the protagonist

Shanghai Redemption , by Qiu Xiaolong – A literature-loving detective

Read more:

The Poems in Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong
Red Lotus, by Pai Kit Fai – Spot the imitation
Stick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian – Beautifully written and banned

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