“Shanghai Baby” and “Candy”: Back When Young Female Chinese Writers “Wrote with their Bodies”

Am currently translating a new semi-autobiographical novella, The Embassy’s China Bride (大使先生), by Jiu Dan of Crows (乌鸦, 九丹著) fame. This reminded me that at the turn of 21st century, three young Chinese female writers were busy boldly writing about their sexuality, orgasms and all, and being lambasted for it by the critics and Chinese society at large. The trio were Jiu Dan, who chronicled the exploits of “Little Dragon Girls” from China in Singapore; Mian Mian, author of Candy (糖, 棉棉著); and arguably the best known, Wei Hui, who authored the infamous Shanghai Baby (上海宝贝).  They were denigrated as “pretty chick-lit authors” who “wrote with the lower half of their bodies,” as some engagingly put it.  This designation conveniently allowed the critics to focus on the writers’ lifestyles rather than the content of their writing.

But that wasn’t the case with Zha Jianying, who holds a Ph D. in Comparative Lit from Columbia. Happily, I have just located my translation of her Analyzing Wei Hui and Mian Mian: Hollywood Ice Cream and Shanghai Lollipop. I don’t recall exactly when it was published, but I think I translated it in 2000.  Given that Jiu Dan — now a forty-something — has just launched The Embassy’s China Bride in Taiwan (potentially controversial in its own right), I thought it might be fun to put my translation of Zha Jianying’s critique up on this blog in order to give readers a taste of how these daring female writers were viewed when they first appeared on China’s literary scene. I should mention that Zha Jianying wrote me and roundly criticized me for a host of errors in my rendition (she wasn’t specific), but I publish it below, warts and all. For a bilingual version with her original, see 卫慧棉棉.


Analyzing Wei Hui and Mian Mian:

Hollywood Ice Cream and Shanghai Lollipop

By Zha Jianying (translated by Bruce Humes)

I was in Shanghai less than a week but heard comments in several different venues about novels by Mian Mian and Wei Hui. It’s widely agreed that these “New Generation”writers are daring, superficial and tend to “write with their bodies, and think with their skin.” Their writing is said to be little more than sex and drugs.

Before I left Shanghai I bought Candy and Shanghai Baby at a bookstore on the new pedestrian-only portion of Nanjing Road. Said a friend on learning of my purchase: “You’d best take it with you on a flight for a quick read, and leave it on the plane when you get off.” But the condescending attitude behind these words just piqued my curiosity.

In recent years I’ve read few Chinese novels. Be it books given by friends or ones I’ve bought as a result of an occasional overheard recommendation, it’s a rare novel that I don’t abandon mid-way. Sometimes I wonder where the problem lies: With me? The novelist? Or our times? But I read Shanghai Baby in no time flat. Could it be because I read it on an airplane?

Last time I was on an airplane too when, as luck would have it, I got to see a Hollywood film released last year, The Thomas Crown Affair. The male and female stars were fashionable, good-looking, big-city types. The story revolves around an art theft, and the film comes across as both clever and excitingly romantic. Cool, really. Watching it was like eating ice cream . . . with your eyes.  Shanghai Baby possesses a similar beauty and rhythm, but it’s younger and more decadent, a bit like licking a lemon lollipop in the shadows of an ice-skating rink.

When you finish eating your Hollywood ice cream cone, you immediately put it out of your mind,  but that lollipop isn’t so easily forgotten. After all, it is “Made in China.” When I finished Shanghai Baby, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “Ladies and gentlemen, hats off, here comes Wei Hui!” It reminded me of the headline for a 1960s newspaper review: “Ladies and Gentlemen, hats off, here comes Bob Dylan!” I don’t mean to suggest that Wei Hui is the new Bob Dylan. But this novel did indeed leave me with a distinctive impression: A new literary personality has entered the scene, and a new kind of urban novel has been born in China. [Read more…]

Mo Yan’s “Frog” Reviewed: Call for Diversity among Chinese-to-English Translators

Frog by Mo YanIn Literary Prowess Lost, we have one of the first coherent — and highly critical — reviews of a modern novel translated from the Chinese in which the reviewer knows the source language and doesn’t shirk from calling out the translator on several points:

Without multiple translations of the same work, it’s impossible to adequately evaluate the author. To what extent Mo Yan writes in clichés or to what extent it’s a tic of the translator is not a judgment call that the average reader can make. This means that placing him alongside authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kundera, and Haruki Murakami is difficult. Although all of the authors are themselves presented to an Anglophone audience in translation, there are at least multiple translations available. In the case of Kundera, the imprecision of translation drove him to such despair that he spent years correcting the translations of his own work into the four languages he can read.

Both Mo Yan and Marquez have received the Nobel Prize for literature, while Kundera and Murakami are regularly tapped as potential winners (Murakami was odds on favorite to win the 2014 prize according to the British bookmaker Ladbrokes). What is important to note is that unlike the other denizens of magical realism, we only ever see Mo Yan’s work through the prism of Howard Goldblatt. In that case, it seems unfair to make a comparison and to evaluate his oeuvre. As Goldblatt himself noted in an interview with The LA Review of Books, “What the reader has in her hands is a facsimile of the original work.” We should therefore see multiple facsimiles, and then we can decide on Mo Yan’s true place within literature.

Literature is important in providing nuanced and divergent interpretations of a country so often rendered in stark black and white terms. Translating a country as vast and diverse as China to a wider audience may be Sisyphean, or it may be 精卫填海 (Jiangweitianhai) or like a bird trying to fill the ocean with pebbles. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the plurality of voices emerging from China today is not what separates our cultures, but how ontologically similar they are. For every Sisyphus and his bolder, there is a 精卫 and his pebbles.

It’s thus a sad systemic irony that many great novels from contemporary China, which are so crucial in providing a sounding board for the diversity of the Chinese experience, suffer from being the sole preserve of one translator. Until the field opens dramatically, much of what is being said will be lost in translation.

“People’s Republic of Amnesia” in the Running for Orwell Prize

People's Republic of AmnesiaThe Orwell Prize, “an iconic British prize for political writing of outstanding quality” according to Wikipedia, has chosen The People’s Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim as one of just 12 books to be considered for the 2015 award.  Here’s a description from the official prize site:

On June 4, 1989, People’s Liberation Army soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing, killing untold hundreds of people. A quarter-century later, this defining event remains buried in China’s modern history, successfully expunged from collective memory. In The People’s Republic of Amnesia, NPR and former BBC correspondent Louisa Lim charts how the events of June 4th changed China, and how China changed the events of June 4th by rewriting its own history.

Lim reveals new details about those fateful days, including how one of the country’s most senior politicians lost a family member to an army bullet, as well as the inside story of the young soldiers sent to clear Tiananmen Square. She also introduces us to individuals whose lives were transformed by the events of Tiananmen Square, such as a founder of the Tiananmen Mothers, whose son was shot by martial law troops; and one of the most important government officials in the country, who post-Tiananmen became one of its most prominent dissidents. And she examines how June 4th shaped China’s national identity, fostering a generation of young nationalists, who know little and care less about 1989.

China’s New Rich and the Allure of Things Tibetan

Various China-based authors have recently taken advantage of the appeal of mystical Tibet to write books that sell well within China itself, such as The Tibet Code, and some that have been translated for a foreign readership, such as The Song of Gesar and The Unbelievable Dreamword of Champa the Driver.

In China’s Soul-Searching Wealthy Pay a Premium for ‘Brand Tibet’, Jing Daily reports that this fascination among the Han is moving more than books off the shelves:

While Europeans and Americans have long romanticized Tibet, China’s majority Han ethnic group is also enchanted with the people of the mountainous plateau in China’s west. As incomes rise and China’s wealthy are increasingly on the search for more unique and enriching ways to spend their money, a growing number of companies are capitalizing on this fascination.

“Many Han Chinese have a stereotype of Tibet as being pre-modern, of Tibetan people having a simple, happy existence,” says John Osburg, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester who has written a book on the culture of China’s rich. “There’s a long history of luxury goods being tied to the foreign and the exotic. For the Han Chinese, Tibetan jewelry and art still has an exotic tinge to it.”

Ethnic ChinaLit Quote of the Week: Chi Zijian on Confusing Blood with Paint

有读者写信告诉我,他们读这个故事 [额尔古纳河右岸] 之前,压根儿没听说过这个民族。最初小说发表后,有评论说我虚构了一个不可能存在的部落,我的内心有说不出的痛楚。有时我们生活得太贫血了,所以当真正的鲜血喷溅时,竟以为那是油漆。


(Chi Zijian, author of Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸), in a recent interview, 作品是需要长点皱纹的)

On the National People’s Congress Agenda: Hùkǒu Management for Future Dalai Lama

In Who Will Control Tibetan Reincarnation?, Evan Osnos at The New Yorker writes:

In Beijing this week, delegates to the National People’s Congress took a moment away from debating annual targets for consumer price inflation (3 per cent), unemployment (4.5 per cent), and cuts to carbon intensity (3.1 per cent), to reiterate their policy position on the migration of the soul.  Not any soul, to be precise: the soul of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader in exile, and those of other high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist lamas.

Padma Choling, the chairman of the Standing Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Regional People’s Congress, explained to reporters that the power to determine the future location and durability of the Dalai Lama’s spirit properly resides with the Communist Party in Beijing. “It’s not up to the Dalai Lama,” Padma said. For the current bearer of that soul to suggest anything else is “blasphemy against Tibetan Buddhism,” he added.

To read the full essay, click here.


Ethnic ChinaLit Quote of the Week: Turkish Hikâye as Performance Art

. . . every performance [of a Hikâye] is a unique social event; no aşık can expect the same performance context twice. The text of a performance can be written down or recorded. But a recording, no matter what the means used, cannot represent a three-dimensional performance that includes verbal expression, poetry, music, physical movement, and of course, the audience. Dismantling a live, complex storytelling event — a social occasion — reduces this event to a printed record, a lifeless, flat existence on paper that misrepresents the genre and can misguide folklorists.

(From Hikâye: Turkish Folk Romance as Performance Art, by Ilhan Boşgöz)

Covering China Best-seller “Kite Runner”: Taking Translator Invisibility to the Extreme

Gao Yuanyuan praises The Kite RunnerIn How to Top China’s Best-seller List Without Really Trying, Alexa Olesen reports on a recent upsurge in sales of the Chinese edition of Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner (追风筝的人):

Over the last nine years, The Kite Runner has sold more than 3 million copies in China. Nearly a third of that total comes from sales in 2014.

She puts this down to what she terms the “Oprah effect.” This is a reference to the fact that actress Gao Yuanyuan (高圆圆) “recommended the book during a 2013 appearance on the hugely popular Chinese variety show ‘Happy Camp’ [快乐大本营] .”

Amazingly, Olesen manages to write over 1,300 words about the incredible popularity of the book in China — without ever mentioning the translator.

For the story behind translator Li Jihong (李继宏) and his rendition, see An Afghan Childhood Re-packaged for the Middle Kingdom.

Chinese Literature Translator Abrahamsen Demystifies “Wolf Totem”

Over at Paper Republic, Chinese-to-English literary translator Eric Abrahamsen disses Wolf Totem, the movie, in a brief but spot on review:

. . . this is a storyline that has been cooked down to its essentials until it looks more like a film-school exercise in story-boarding than it does a real story. It ended up being a prototype for any and all films that follow the “civilized man visits wise natives and learns their wisdom but doesn’t get the girl” arc. Sure it’s set in Mongolia, and sure its got wolves, but all the plot particulars are so rudimentary they feel like placeholders that the filmmakers later forgot to replace with actual content. The Mongolians could just be blank blobs tagged INSERT NOBLE SAVAGES HERE. Chen Zhen might have a sign on his chest reading INSERT NAIVE IDEALIST HERE.

Mongolian is spoken, in exactly the same quantities as Lakota was spoken in Dances With Wolves, or Na’vi in Avatar. In the same quantities, and to the same purpose. Those movies – and a barrel more like them – fleshed out the civilization-meets-savagery theme into something that (even if you objected to it) had specificity, and the emotional weight that comes with that. Wolf Totem remains an insubstantial Platonic ideal.

See Wolf Totem: The Movie They Forgot to Make for the full review.

“Last Quarter of the Moon” among Time Out Beijing’s Top 20 Chinese Novels since 1900

It’s nice to find your work on the same list as Qian Zhongshu’s Fortress Besieged and Lu Xün’s Real Story of Ah Q. I happily report that Last Quarter of the Moon, my rendition of Chi Zijian’s tragic novel about the twilight of the reindeer-herding Evenki of northeast China, ranks a modest sixth on Time Out Beijing’s “Best Chinese Fiction Books of the Last Century.”

For background on Chi Zijian, the Evenki and the Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch and Japanese editions of Last Quarter of the Moon, see here. 

Also, see Transparent Translator for an interview with Cindy Carter, translator of Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, which ranked ninth on Time Out’s list.