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…]