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The key to China
Arts & Books Think Tanks Blogs
The key to China
by Julia Lovell
FEBRUARY 22, 2012
To grasp the new spirit of this country, read this fresh, contrarian short fiction
“Hiding in the City No. 83” (2009) by artist Liu Bolin. He uses surrealism to reflect and criticise modern China, in a manner similar to the new generation of fiction writers. In these photos, Bolin “camouflages” himself, with the help of an assistant who paints him into the backdrop
Say what you like about Mao, he did make it remarkably easy to keep up with developments in Chinese fiction. Thanks to his proscriptions on creative freedom, fictional output fell precipitously during his reign. An average of eight, increasingly socialist realist novels were published each year between 1949 and 1966. That figure shrank further during the Cultural Revolution. Staying abreast of translations was simpler still: until the early 1980s, it was virtually impossible for a mainland Chinese writer to strike up an independent relationship with a western translator. Anglophone readers had to rely on translations of establishment authors published by Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press. Those dull days are happily long gone. In the early 1980s, a new generation of novelists born in the 1950s emerged into the post-Mao thaw and transformed the imaginative landscapes of mainland writing. By around 1985, socialist realism no longer represented the mainstream. Wholesome epics featuring rosy-cheeked comrades and singing anvils had been sidelined by macabre, modernist tales of infant sociopaths, juvenile delinquents and Cultural Revolution cannibalism. The literary scene became even more diverse in the next decade. As the catchphrase of the market economyoriented 1990s became wang qian kan (“look towards the future,” which, in Chinese, neatly punned on the word for “future” and “money”), many writers joined in the capitalist free-for-all. With the literary market threatened by rival distractions (comics, television, computer games) and the government phasing out lifetime salaries for state-sponsored writers, serious novelists began churning out tales of sex and sensation. While conventional print publishing has expanded over the past two decades (between 2009 and 2010 alone, according to the literary critic and editor Bai Ye, the number of novels published grew by an estimated 150 per cent), the channels for reaching readers have also proliferated. The advent of internet fiction—now an enormously popular genre in China—has brought hope to millions of aspiring authors, some of whom regularly generate 10,000 words a day. Both on the internet and in print publishing, fast, cheap, popular genres dominate. Speed of delivery is a major point of pride for even China’s most critically acclaimed writers, who admit to shunting unedited first drafts into print. It’s now impossible to keep up with contemporary Chinese writing, and about as difficult to pick out decent work. Overwhelmed Anglophone readers should therefore welcome the recent launch of two magazines showcasing contemporary Chinese writing in English translation: Pathlight and Peregrine, an English-language supplement within Chutzpah, a Chinese literary journal that models itself on Granta. (The idea in reverse—of Granta or The Paris Review, for example, running a Chinese-language supplement—is unthinkable.) The magazines have three points in common but diverge in most other ways. To start with, both are based in China. Pathlight is government-funded, while Chutzpah is bankrolled by Guangzhou’s Modern Media consortium—owned by Thomas Shao, one of China’s leading private media tycoons. The fact that two major new magazines are propelling Chinese writing towards an English-speaking readership reflects the degree to which China has yearned, for much of the last century, for international attention. Since the 1980s, the country has suffered from a full-blown Nobel complex: an anxious desire for one of its citizens to win the Nobel prize for literature. Both magazines also share a dissatisfaction with the kind of Chinese fiction that usually gets translated into English at the moment. Roughly 2 per cent of the books annually published in Britain or the US are translations, of which work in Chinese forms a tiny proportion of that tiny proportion. And until now, there has been little overlap between what works in China and what sells abroad; a Chinese succès d’estime has rarely recreated that status in an English-language edition. Mainland literati have long complained that anglophone editors look for sensationalism rather than literary quality when they buy Chinese titles. What is arguably being overlooked is
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Pathlight (right) begins rather oddly. existing beyond the old-style socialist literary system and forced to live by the market economy. and as a result seems a more comfortable home for the type of fresh. whose hapless. Now on its fifth issue. The first is a hallucination by a foot soldier of the Han dynasty (circa 200 BC) that coheres through its use of colour and its evocation of the hothouse world of imperial whim. These 50 pages read more like an anodyne government sales brochure for Chinese literature than a grandstand for punchy.5m words in the original) by luminaries of the Writers’ Union. the shorter ones are the best. another describes the world as a prehistoric egg yolk).” by Xiang Zuotie (born 1974). and ideally both). aim to steer clear of “banned-in-China” hype.6/17/13 The key to China a large body of mainland Chinese work that. the son immediately retreats to bed. Chutzpah’s editor-in-chief is Ou Ning. technically polished short fiction. the dominant form in literary Chinese fiction has been the realist historical novel set mainly in Maoist China. the Cultural Revolution. The second is an absurdist take on China’s get-rich-quick fever. A former minister of culture. These grand narratives have been preoccupied with the traumatic landmarks of Maoism: land reform. With both magazines. says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia www. For the past decade. personal voice and by a determination to illuminate (often with wry humour or playful surrealism) the intense strangeness of the capitalist society that the Chinese Communist party is now building. architecture. easily distinguished by their easy heft and warm ash. some of the best fiction has a surreal whimsy to it. each only two A4 pages long and both translated with assurance by Brendan O’Kane. “we choose articles that truly exemplify and represent the abundant and complicated realities of our country. film. Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption and others). After writing his aggravating wife. The two strongest are “A Rare Steed for the Martial Emperor” and “Raising Whales. he is dead—his body destroyed by the chemical factory that has employed him. poetry. Prospect Buzz Toby Young praises Edward Docx's profile of Nigel Farage In the Washington Post. Among these. Published by the Writers’ Union—an organisation funded by the government’s propaganda department—it forms part of China’s widely publicised soft-power drive (running to billions of dollars) of recent years. “We only look at quality. But it is an inconvenient truth that interesting literature is rarely cleanly apolitical. with a 50-page introduction to China’s pre-eminent state literary award. This is a publishing set-up that—although still subject to state censorship—has cut loose from official funding. There are prize speeches full of strange analogies (one author likens himself to an overstuffed silkworm. One of my favourites is “A Gift From Bill Gates” by Wu Ang (born 1974). Pathlight improves when it ceases to read like the print equivalent of a stuffy official banquet and moves on to half a dozen short stories by younger authors. EJ Dionne cites Mark Mazower's cover story David Frum praises Shiv Malik's 2007 article on how Mohammad Sidique Khan became the 7/7 mastermind Prospect Reads Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man. unemployed narrator reinvents himself as a writer and takes control of his destiny in Walter Mitty-style fantasies. the magazine is more conventionally commercial in look. by contrast. Pathlight is more than a showcase for unjustly ignored Chinese fiction. These generations of writers are broadly unified by a couple of shared literary characteristics: by a strongly individualistic. Mini and Mont Blanc.Ub6OVPkziSo 2/5 . Chutzpah’s translation supplement is a very different creature. argued in 2007 that writers were perfectly free to describe social problems. “The Curse” by A Yi (born 1976) is set in a south China village whose young have migrated to the big cities as temporary labourers. abused mother. to assist him in first scamming $500m from Bill Gates. there seems to be another bias at work. much of the best Chinese writing done in the last 30 years has eschewed the realism that dominated 20th-century Chinese fiction and set off on flights of fancy. as a landlocked village slowly runs out of containers to house its growing whale farm. Some of the work has political bite. fails to win over editorial boards in London or New York because it lacks a controversial selling point (either sex or politics. the Great Leap Forward. The potential melodrama of the story’s premise and denouement is averted by A Yi’s narrative discipline and controlled evocation of the ignorance and despair that trap China’s rural Related posts You'll never be Chinese Why I'm leaving the country I loved. for example. “Williams’ Tomb” by Di An (born 1983) is a competent dissection of a dysfunctional family (sociopathic alphamale father. “With a wide scope and an open mind. as well as technical flair. who have so far been relatively neglected both in China and in translation. and so on. with disarming frankness. For however much it might protest otherwise.” Freedom of expression in China has undoubtedly broadened in recent years. while artistically accomplished. Both Chutzpah and Pathlight. not the whims of the market.uk/magazine/the-key-to-china-literary-magazines-new-chinese-fiction-pathlight-chutzpah/#. With the collapse of the iron rice bowl. will also… boost the country’s soft power. A lonely widow embroiled in quarrels with her neighbours waits for her son to come back from Guangzhou for New Year. There are stilted synopses and unedifying excerpts drawn from much longer works (one of which is 4. the Mao Dun Prize. past and present. then flushing the computer mogul down the toilet. homosexual son) that trips up on some puzzling descriptions. draw attention to novelists born between the late 1960s and 1980s.prospectmagazine. as in Pathlight.co.” the magazine’s editors have declared. “Art is our ruler. “are like cigarette butts that are still alight. carrying chic adverts for Glenlivet. son and mother out of his life. fiction and essay-writing. and this arbitrary divide between the social and the political often results in a marked tameness or superficiality in writers and works sponsored by China’s literary establishment. as long as they did not stray into political analysis.” In tone and content. that “literature. a cultural entrepreneur in his early forties with expertise in a remarkable range of forms: design.” But almost in the next breath they observe. we learn at one point. To readers familiar with anglophone literary magazines. The editors of Pathlight and Chutzpah.” echoes Pathlight. he recruits an ancient Chinese philosopher. Within an hour. Returning late on New Year’s Eve. video art. if promoted effectively. novelists who began publishing after 1989 have become “free writers” (ziyou zuojia). as penned by male authors born in the late 1950s or early 1960s (Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan. by contrast. Pathlight and Chutzpah try to favour younger authors. contrarian writing favoured by younger writers who have largely made their way outside the communist establishment. Chinese girls. In Chutzpah.” Chutzpah’s editor has pronounced. Indeed. Mozi.
and it might well grow into an important conduit for bringing new Chinese voices into English. And Chinese literature has become noticeably more interesting—in both content and style—since the 1990s with the emergence of several talented exile and émigré writers: Yan Geling. George Clooney’s swagger and L Ron Hubbard’s religious zeal. not their novels. More China coverage from Prospect: China’s new intelligensia: Despite the global interest in the rise of China. then. Chutzpah is currently the better read. If we are to judge both these magazines by their mission statements (to publish Chinese-language fiction of the highest “artistic quality”). its editors have published instead a sympathetic but slightly anti-climactic tale of a Chinese immigrant nurse struggling with the lecherous demands of a senile old man and his manipulative daughter. (usually) brief enough to prevent authors reaching for melodramatic plot hinges or slack description. says Dan Levin China: at war with its history: The Chinese leadership refused to commemorate the centenary of the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty. will it allow challenges to its version of the past? Isabel Hilton reports 5 Helen Wang March 13. says Mark Leonard The new face of China: No other modern Chinese leader has cast such a spell over the country as Bo Xilai.” (in translation.) Chutzpah’s selection of diaspora stories has so far omitted some of the best work available: rather than choosing one of Ha Jin’s dark. they are too busy blogging. for her precise emotional plotting and restrained allusions to the traumas of modern China (although her work is featured in the Chinese-language section of the magazine). many contemporary mainland writers only grudgingly acknowledge sinophone authors working in the west. though. Ma Jian. Yiyun Li. Chén Gu?ngchéng Interesting and informative article Not sure a rather over-simplistic. I guess) … wouldn’t require a bit of …smart editing and clever nuances ! Is that sentence above the recommendation given by a known “translator”. or chasing after the next big literary trend. Obsessed with survival. Give it time and more editorial freedom. even clumsy statement such as “To understand how China’s literary minds are making sense of their country. For now. China today is not the kind of place that encourages the professional dedication to literary craft essential to successful long fiction. He has built a personal brand that shimmers with hues of Clint Eastwood’s take-no-prisoners justice. filmmaking. REPLY Cestmoi August 18. (Regrettably. Having discovered modernist literary techniques in the 1960s—a full 20 years before the People’s Republic—Taiwanese writers have had a substantial headstart on their mainland peers in terms of linguistic and narrative sophistication. read their short stories. To understand how China’s literary minds are making sense of their country. then.org/pathlight/). Yet China has a surprisingly lively intellectual class whose ideas may prove a serious challenge to western liberal hegemony.co. it is Chen Guangcheng with a “g” at the end. read their short stories. editors barely edit. Writers rarely revise. follow these links: for Pathlight (http://paper-republic. 2012 If you’d like to read the stories for yourself. and contemporary young minds. disturbing army stories. The short story is the ideal literary form for a country suffering so acutely from attention deficit disorder: long enough to capture a meaningful fragment of this confounding country. 2012 Incidentally. piece: a fluid combination of flashback and hallucination that moves between contemporary Chicago and a privileged childhood in pre-communist China—a world on the brink of violent destruction.Ub6OVPkziSo 3/5 . But Li-Young Lee’s “The Winged Seed” is an effective. no one is paying much attention to its ideas and who produces them.org/ericabrahamsen/peregrine-downloads/).uk/magazine/the-key-to-china-literary-magazines-new-chinese-fiction-pathlight-chutzpah/#. not their novels. regular www.prospectmagazine. spelling or typing mistake. Also sadly missed is Yiyun Li. Pathlight still wears its links with China’s literary establishment too heavily. for Chutzpah/Peregrine (http://paperrepublic.6/17/13 poor. the talents of Chinese writers are far better showcased by their short fiction. not Chen Guangchen ??? / ???. For although British presses seem fixated on publishing novels. Chutzpah and Pathlight’s selections are a good place to start. oppressive China. if at times overwritten. The key to China Another of Chutzpah’s strengths is its willingness to elasticate its definition of Chinese fiction to include Taiwanese novelists or ethnically Chinese writers working in other languages. Ha Jin. challenging their ability to depict the Chinese condition outside the mainland and accusing them of feeding western fantasies about an exotically backward.
etc. almost unique. as well as. depending on bureaucratic propaganda budgets and chiefs. so no need to pay an extra editor) ! Are these targets… foreign publishers ? translators (but do they need translations) ? Sinologists (but again do they need translations) ? foreign journalists-cum-literary critics with poor Chinese ? a few rare foreigners with poor Chinese living or interested in China as well as in literature ? etc. in my very last comment above ! (i) Cheng Guangsheng . etc. it’s another Prospect article by Kitto (ii) This imaginary “revue de livres” -the mention above by J.com ? The great French literary essayist Simon Leys ? REPLY Cestmoi August 18. and above all subtle nuances. who would sponsor and above all who would buy.6/17/13 The key to China reader of Chinese fiction. amongst a few others. For example. one may wonder what is the pitch -including distribution statistics and circuitry.co. I got a bit mixed up. such as is the proud title of this article… worth trying to model oneself on ! One of the most remarkable literature essayist and columnist of the last and present century who writes with little pretence. for example ! And who would promote this literary journal with an article in. exemplary “key to China”. or Seamus Heaney. So such a literary supplement published in New York in French could be a way to promote this writer. and through which channels.? The old Nobel story may seem a bit short as an answer… The nice dreamed answer would be it’s “a clever way to sponsor all these smart but poor dedicated foreign translators” (hoping they are good English writers as well. in the past -he seems nowadays more interested in English or French authors-. still his trough his books. the French even have. as paper is costly. He was. as well as it’s own choice of Chinese works to translate ? By the way. Wole Soyinka from Nigeria. short films : is it just a question of minutes or number of pages ?) One may wonder who are the target readers of these 2 Chinese literary magazines in English ? We have seen similar government-sponsored attempts in the past 10 years.would of course promote English short stories and English writers. and an immense culture. By analogy (let’s have fun. about his “literary supplement in English” when he tries to sell his “chic ads”… apart avowing a mixture of politics or propaganda and artistic snobbism… which has probably little to do with a smart eclectic selection of works based only on taste and talent -and length. not French ones. who writes from Australia in French and other languages with an extreme talent about English language literature. what about poetry (that’s usually even shorter) ? or theatre ? (a bit like normal feature films vs. to remain within the English language empire with little known English speaking literature Nobel prize such as. due to costly media space ?) titled for example “revues de livres” in the NY Times ? French readers with no literary journals ? Minorities from Quebec or Brussels or Geneva ? Rich West or North-African or Middle-East French speaking literati ? Well. or Patrick White. When real money. the Red Guards’ or. for example. Wei Jingsheng’s or Liu Xiaobo’s pamphlets) ! REPLY Leave a comment Name * Email * www.Ub6OVPkziSo 4/5 . for example. as much as French language and Chinese literature of all times (including. Lowell of the “Paris review” inspired me here. Le-Mondeonline for example or Perspective. a true. the various Books and Classics. a Nobel laureate in literature named Claude Simon whom nobody ever heard of in France. a literary supplement in French. with translations (probably mainly of short stories. 2012 Ooops. exemplary case.prospectmagazine. what brought him fame and lasting enmities. once in the past. Nothing changes concerning Simon Leys. which didn’t really survive more than a few years in the best cases.(he is also a Sinologist and occasional translator of the same very high calibre !). in the original text of course. let’s see. on top of several philosophers who are hardly novelists. later. He is a very rare. supposedly “scout” for foreign publishers as many translators.of a smart boss like Thomas Shao.uk/magazine/the-key-to-china-literary-magazines-new-chinese-fiction-pathlight-chutzpah/#. profits and greed are involved. in various literary periodicals. a minute !). on the Web in particular.
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