Book Review: “English” by Wang Gang, or Growing up Han in Fictional Xinjiang

Among the Emperor Qianlong’s trophies from his conquest of Xinjiang was a girl called Iparhan. She was a beautiful Kashgari whose body was said to give off an intoxicating scent without any help from ointments…the abduction of Iparhan became for the Chinese a symbol of the annexation of the western lands which they had twice before conquered — under the Han and Tang dynasties — but never really controlled.” (“Wild West China”) (1)

Much has ensued since the 18th century Qing emperor snatched this enchantress from Kashgar, located near today’s Kyrgyzstan, and transplanted her to his far-flung harem in Beijing.

The ethnic make-up of Xinjiang, for instance. Once home to an overwhelmingly Muslim, Turkic-speaking population — 94 percent of the residents when the PRC was founded in 1949 — the “Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region” has been mightily diluted by Han Chinese who, by 2007, reportedly accounted for four of ten inhabitants. (2)

But the legendary fascination of Chinese for Things Xinjiang—the music and dancing of the Uyghurs, the cuisine and particularly the women —endures. In its own unique way, the upcoming publication of “English,” a novel by Wang Gang, a Han who grew up in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution, brings those fantasies firmly into our era, and embellishes them a bit.

Translated by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan, the novel from Viking Penguin will launch in April 2009 [update: published as English]. My interview with the duo follows this introduction.

The Cultural Revolution with a Twist

Unlike several of the best-selling novels recounting the Cultural Revolution to readers in the West, English takes place neither in a re-education camp, as does The Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, nor does it focus on the miseries meted out by the Red Guards to those members of the wealthy bourgeoisie who, like Nien Cheng, author of Life and Death in Shanghai, were seen as collaborating with foreign capitalists for material gain at the expense of their countrymen.

Narrated from the point of view of Love Liu, a teenage student, English is a coming-of-age novel located in Ürümchi. It may be Xinjiang’s largest city, but it’s a backwater in his eyes, those of a Han Chinese. “I didn’t want to be from Xinjiang or Ürümchi. I wanted to be from Shanghai or Peking, or at least from Xian. But I was from Xinjiang.”

“Why,” he grills his parents who hail from Nanjing, “did you have me in a place where even the sea dried up?” (Translator’s note: The Taklamakan and Gurbantanggut deserts do indeed cover one-quarter of Xinjiang.)

But let’s summarize the story before we get back to the teenager’s hang-ups. “English” tells the tale of Love Liu as he discovers the sweet-and-sour emotions surrounding friendship, romance and acquiring an exotic foreign language. His fanatical desire to master English leads him to idolize his all-too-Western English teacher from Shanghai, and even to break a leg trying to steal his dictionary. Despite his reputation as a bookworm, Love Liu fails the national university entrance exam, and in a touch of irony, is relegated to teaching English in the town he had dreamed of escaping.

Along the way, the Cultural Revolution exacts a nasty toll on Love Liu’s family, neighbors and teacher, and inevitably,

The author Wang Gang
The author Wang Gang

on the young man himself. His father, a talented architect branded a rightist, is reduced to painting poster-size portraits of Chairman Mao. Love Liu is there when a cadre humiliates his father, slapping him callously as it becomes ridiculously evident that the ignorant cadre’s own instructions to alter a portrait of Mao violate the laws of perspective. At one point during a “struggle” session targeting his politically suspect English teacher, Love Liu faces massive public pressure to confess — falsely— that his teacher had invited him for a round of peeping at the neighbourhood women’s sauna.

Fear of uttering a statement in public that could be even remotely perceived as politically incorrect, a hallmark of the Cultural Revolution, permeates the novel. “Tell me,” says Love Liu nonchalantly one night over dinner, “is it true what people say, that Chairman Mao will live for another two hundred years?” His mother gives him a whack with her chopsticks, and his father warns him severely: “You must never, under any circumstances, ask questions like that.”

One isn’t quite sure they are furious because the question indirectly touches on a taboo subject — Mao’s personality cult — or because the question assumes that Mao is a mere mortal who will actually die one day.

Conflicted Love Liu

Love Liu blows hot and cold on his hometown. Perhaps a subconscious reason for his dissatisfaction is that Chinese who live to the east of Xinjiang in the heartland of China—“you know-it-alls on the other side of the pass”—see Ürümchi as a hick outpost:

Growing up in a bleak backwater, drinking water from the melted snows of the Tianshan Mountains, you discover that people from Nanking see you as different — your skin is rougher, your accent makes people laugh. And even when you tell them Ürümchi is a city, they still ask, “You ride horses to school, don’t you?

Yet Love Liu has a genuine, childlike attachment to certain aspects of Xinjiang life. He rambles on about the richness of the local dialect of Mandarin, wants to learn how to sing in Uyghur, and finds classical western music “strange” compared to the Ürümchi variety:

The music started.

I asked mother, “Why can’t I hear the Uyghur dap drum?”

“It’s a violin and a piano,” she said, “not a dap drum and a rawap.”

“I don’t like how it sounds,” I declared.

What I really meant was that it sounded strange to me. It was a sound that didn’t exist in Ürümchi, where I heard mostly Uyghurs playing dap drums and plucking rawaps. When I was small there was a popular song called ‘My Rawap.’ It’s beautiful — I can assure you it’s the most beautiful music in the world. It conveys the vast desolation of Xinjiang.”

“Russian was gone. Uyghur was gone. English was coming.”

Wang Gang, a celebrated screenwriter and Han author who actually grew up in Xinjiang, uses the English motif creatively to highlight and eventually resolve Love Liu’s conflict, i.e., his identity problem with hailing from this backwater in Northwest China.

As the novel progresses, Love Liu grows deeply attached to teacher Wang Ya-Jun, female classmate Sunrise Huang, and his former Uyghur teacher, Ahjitai. English—the alluring sound of the lingua, the ability to speak it with flair, the desire to master it in totality, and the desire to possess the only English dictionary in Ürümchi—are inextricably interwoven with the tale of Love Liu’s affections.

Teacher Wang’s English connections are the most obvious. The affected Shanghainese teaches the language, speaks impeccable “Linguaphone” English, and defines himself as the quintessential Western gentleman. And of course, he possesses — and diligently limits access to — what is reputedly the sole copy of a comprehensive English dictionary in Ürümchi during the Cultural Revolution. Much of what Love Liu does is inspired by teacher Wang’s advice, or an outright urge to imitate him.

Love Liu’s sort-of sweetheart is his classmate and neighbour, Sunrise Huang, and their emotional intimacy is also fostered by their shared passion for English and affection for teacher Wang. As Love Liu awaits the early morning sun and the optimal instant for masturbation, Sunrise and Ahjitai often fuse into a single, sensual female in his daydreams. Despite a nascent sexual interest in his classmate, they are separated by his juvenile longing to outdo her in learning English and winning their teacher’s attention.

Among Love Liu’s three objects of affection, Ahjitai, his erstwhile Uyghur language teacher, might appear to have little or no “English connection.” But that is not entirely so. On the day she resigns her position, she admits to her students that she, too, would like to learn English. Subsequently, teacher Wang courts her very tenaciously, and even lends her his precious English dictionary, an act that renders Love Liu very jealous but shows her interest in this, the language of the future.

For Love Liu, Ahjitai, this blond-haired “double-turner” (二转子) — an Ürümchi term for someone born of Han and Uyghur parents — represents a unique fusion of some rather distinct elements. On the one hand, she represents something quintessentially Uyghur. As they meander towards her room one day, she sings a romantic Uyghur folk song for him, and he begs her to teach him the words in Uyghur, a language she speaks without inhibition. And her father is reportedly buried in Kashgar, regarded by many Uyghurs as their spiritual homeland within the PRC.

But there are also other aspects to her culture, and even her body that—in Love Liu’s mind — are oddly connected to English and the West in a wider sense.  As she sings that Uyghur folk song, he is struck by the pronunciation of a famous town bordering on Kazakhstan, Ili, where the lyrics speak of the “beautiful Amanguli.” Recounts Love Liu: “For some reason I liked the sound of ‘Ili.’ It felt foreign, like English.”

At times, in Love Liu’s musings Ahjitai sounds less Central Asian than a premonition of China’s new ideal of female beauty that would burst in as it opened its doors to the West after the Cultural Revolution. “In the twilight Ahjitai’s hair looked even more golden. Her skin was snowy white—no Han Chinese had skin like that . . . not even the wife of Lenin’s assistant Vasily in the Russian propaganda film Lenin in 1918 could compare, nor could Lenin’s wife. After I grew up I saw beautiful women from all over the world. They all had skin as white as Ahjitai’s, and golden hair.”

Fictional Xinjiang

In Wang Gang’s invented Xinjiang, you may notice certain things are absent. No mention is made of the Muslim faith, the famous mosques of Xinjiang, the halal restaurants where Uyghurs dine, or even Ürümchi’s Erdaoqiao district (二道桥), traditionally populated by Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking, non-Han residents. Oddly, there are no male Uyghurs in the novel at all.

The only character portrayed as having genuine Uyghur roots is Ahjitai. This disarmingly beautiful woman, who confides in Love Liu that “I wish I didn’t look like this,” is the object of lust on the part of at least three Han males: teacher Wang, a high-ranking cadre, and even Love Liu in his dreams. She spurns the first two in no uncertain terms, dispatching teacher Wang with a smack across the face. The revengeful cadre has her demoted to a miserable job, cleaning an underground bomb shelter.

And it is there, in the aftermath of an earthquake and faced with seeming death, that the late 20th century Han Chinese teenager’s fantasies about his half-Uyghur diva are unexpectedly realized. Not, perhaps, as ideal a venue as an 18th-century Beijing harem.

And now for the Q & A

Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan, co-translators of English, are interviewed below by me, Bruce Humes. My questions are in bolded italics.

For the benefit of current and aspiring literary translators, please tell us how you won the contract to translate Wang Gang’s “English”.

Martin: One day in July 2007 my translation professor told me that a publisher was looking for a translator for a novel. “Might you be interested?”

Jane: Martin asked me if I would give it a try. After spending a few hours reading the entire abridged version on, I found the language relatively straightforward. As I was reading the text, I evaluated the difficulties we might face when translating culturally specific content. Both of us are familiar with the Cultural Revolution era in which the story was set. My parents had similar experiences to Love Liu’s. I thought our background knowledge would be helpful in dealing with those difficulties. So I said to Martin: “It’s doable. Let’s give it a try.” We had no idea what the translation deadline was at this stage.

Martin: I was immediately attracted to the schoolboy shenanigans, which reminded me of my own school days. Same time, different place. The chronological narrative makes the story easy to deal with. With Jane on board I was confident we could handle a full-length novel in good time.

We were asked to submit a sample translation of the first 30 pages within two weeks.

Jane: And we did it.

Three months later, just as we were about to give up on the project, the editor got back to us and gave us a tight deadline.

Why do you think the publisher chose you?

Jane: I can think of three reasons. First, we could meet the deadline, even though it was like a mission-impossible from the beginning. Second, I think our translation style—not bogged down with wordiness—happened to be what the publisher was looking for. Third, probably not many translators were available at the time of recruitment.

Martin: The publisher had a few professional readers look at all the three or four sample translations.

It would have been helpful to hear their impressions but the only guidance the editor gave was, be careful with tenses. Good advise when dealing with Chinese.

Describe the workflow for the major phases of this translation project. How long did each phase — research, translation, proofing — take?

Jane: It took us about four months to finish the draft. Then working with the editor on and off took another six months. It was exhausting but we managed to meet every deadline, despite working full-time and dealing with family emergencies.

I read the book without a break twice before starting the project. This helped me to gain a full picture of the story, to know where the “translation land mines” were in order to deal with them in a holistic way.

Each of us would translate alternate parts of each chapter and swop our raw drafts. Our raw drafts of these parts would be reviewed, changed (sometimes ruthlessly) by the other party. Every day, before working on a new draft or reviewing Martin’s draft, I would read the revised translation done the day before and then the entire chapter again.

Since I was in Australia and he in Hong Kong, we went back and forth over these changes and commented on each other’s translation over Skype. We then left it to “brew” while working on the other parts of the chapter. The “revised version” would be reviewed again once we finished translating that entire chapter. We reviewed our translation of the entire book twice before sending to the editor.

Martin: It was a bit like translator’s hopscotch, jumping over each other as we moved forward. It definitely was fast and helped continuity. It also made us feel we were making good progress. Much better than you do the first half and I’ll take the second, because it’s difficult to put the two halves together at the end.

Jane: I called the author after we finished the first draft. My phone call surprised him — he was in a barbershop. The next day I bombarded him with a long list of questions. I was grateful that he answered my questions patiently, and I think he was glad that I made the effort to communicate with him.

Martin: The editor made the first sweep through our draft and cut material that was incidental to the story. It was a shock to see our work on the cutting room floor, but reading the edited version, I could see the cuts actually tightened the narrative.

Jane: The editor is very good to work with. We were given chances to comment on every edited version.

As a team of one native speaker of the source language, and one native speaker of the target language, do you feel this gives you any particular advantages vis-à-vis a translator who works alone? Any drawbacks?

Jane: One advantage is accuracy. Having a native speaker of the source language in the team who also writes in English will ensure the nuances in the source language which may not be explained in dictionaries could be picked up quickly and rendered into English without much distortion (I hope).

Also, having a better cultural knowledge in the source language means I could quickly identify and render culturally specific contents, which may otherwise be “unknown unknowns” for someone who did not grow up in the source language cultural context.

Martin: In other words we saved a lot of time by avoiding going off on tangents caused by me misreading a passage. That happens easily when you work alone. Jane was also able to gauge if the translation matched the tone and register of the original.

Jane: Another advantage is that we were unlikely to get too “wordy,” because the nuances of the source language and the target language could be handled beyond the “dictionary level” by both of us.

Martin: Thank goodness for Skype. Sometimes it’s better not to be in the same room (or country) when debating translation issues.

Jane: This approach may not work for everyone. It requires a shared get-things-done-no-matter-what attitude, and a lot of trust and respect between team members. Any calculating thoughts (I-am-in-charge, I-am-the-better-translator, or I-translated-more-words-than-he/she-did etc) would be counter productive.

Drawbacks? Yes, there is at least one—I only receive 50% of the payment for the project:-)

If you had a chance to do it all again, what changes would you make in your approach?

Jane: I would love to leave more time to “brew,” which means having the luxury to put every draft aside for a while and review them with fresh eyes.

How much of your translation was cut from the final version of the book? Which types of topics/content were most often deleted or deliberately shortened by the editor?

Jane: It is hard for me to give you a percentage. The editor did cut out some dead metaphors and comments that seemed irrelevant to the story, such as comments on Iraq and the US relationship.

Martin: We did our best to translate everything, as we didn’t feel entitled to make changes. I know some translators do, but we didn’t want to intervene at that level.

As a result of the editing, including everything from slight re-phrasing to outright deletions, how do you think “English” differs from its Chinese original?

Jane: I think the story in the edited English version of English has been “tightened up” a bit compared with the Chinese version.

As a translator, I believe my job is to deliver the author’s intended effect to the reader to the best of my ability, and it is not my role to alter the story or censor its content. But we did omit or rephrase certain parts of the original text in our translation for “technical” reasons. For example, there was a reference to masturbation when Love Liu is imagining Ahjitai.

The Chinese text says:


Literal translation: . . . seeing Ahjitai’s smile and her smooth belly was enough for me to speed up my hand motion.

Final translation: . . . seeing Ahjitai’s smile and her smooth belly was enough for me to speed up my motion.

We omitted “hand” not because we wanted to censor the scene of masturbation. A certain level of repetitiveness may sound all right in one language but terrible in another. We believe simply converting every word into English does not necessarily mean being faithful to the original text. Since the sentence is a follow up on the previous section, which is about masturbation, we figured what the motion was about would be understood. After all, it would be unlikely for Love Liu to masturbate with his feet.

Did the editor offer you the opportunity to comment on, or veto, any changes?

Jane: Yes, he gave us the opportunity to comment on/veto every change. The editor insisted on “pig’s feet” instead of “pig’s trotters” — the phrase we originally had. But I think that’s just an issue of British versus American English.

Only a handful of Chinese fictional works are  translated and published by mainstream firms in the West each year. Why did Viking choose Wang Gang’s “English”?

Jane: I have no idea. You might have to ask Viking.

Martin: They probably are looking at the best-sellers in China for starters.

Wang Gang is a Han Chinese who grew up in Xinjiang, though not in Ürümchi where the story takes place. Is there a Xinjiang “motif” to the novel? Is it important to understanding the story, or just a dash of exoticism?

Jane: Using the city of Ürümchi to set his story is the choice of the author.

As translators, we did our best in the translation to preserve the local colour wherever it appears.

As a reader, I think “remoteness” rather than “exoticness” is the important part of the story. The story could have taken place in other remote locations. Because it was very common in those days for educated people to be sent, or lured to backwaters. Xinjiang was just one of these places. There might be thousands of “Love Lius” in other parts of China.

Martin: The Cultural Revolution background is also important to the story, but to me the coming of age aspect is the primary thrust. And that is universal. The stakes weren’t as high when I was at school but I felt a lot in common with Love Liu.

Does Wang Gang’s Ürümchi during the Cultural Revolution feel “genuine” to you? What events/details in the novel strike you as particularly memorable and convincing, or to the contrary, and why?

Jane: I went to Ürümchi about nine years ago. From my observation, there were two worlds in the city. One belongs to the Han, the other to the Uyghurs. I think it was the same during the Cultural Revolution era. Wang Gang’s Ürümchi was pretty much the Han people’s Ürümchi.

The memorable and convincing scene to me is Love Liu’s father being forced to add an ear onto Chairman Mao’s portrait even though it was in conflict with the law of perspective.

Martin: Every schoolboy becomes infatuated with a teacher at one time or another. Wang Gang’s portrayal of adolescent sexual fantasies takes us to a point where we don’t know if what happens is imagination running wild or it actually occurred. That captures what goes on adolescent heads.

How did you decide on the translation of names for characters such as Love Liu (刘爱), Sunrise Huang (黄旭升), Second Prize Wang (王亚军) and Garbage Li (李垃圾)?

Jane: We chose the names for the major characters. We had two options.

Option 1: To use the Pinyin transliteration. Advantage: It’s the most common way of rendering Chinese names. This is how people’s names appear in official documents. Drawbacks: Meanings of names in Chinese, which are part of the story, are lost in translation.

Option 2: To translate the meaning to the names. Advantage: English readers can gain an insight into the meanings of the Chinese names. Drawbacks: We could not translate every name into English. There is a consistency issue.

We are translating a novel, not identification papers for visa applications. We chose Option 2.

Martin: The Chinese names of the four main characters are part of the story. The given name of Liu Ai means love and ‘love’ is frequently mentioned together with Love Liu, so calling him Liu Ai is unsatisfactory. That sold me on translating their names rather than transliterating.

What guidelines did you use, if any, for translating place names such as Peking and Nanking (pre-1949 spelling), Ürümchi and other sites in Xinjiang, most of which have competing Chinese, Uyghur and international transliterations?

Jane: Peking and Nanking are not merely pre-1949 spellings. Peking University is still the official name of the school. “Peking” appeared in the official English publication Peking Review in 1966 when the story was set. The term was still being used in the same publication in 1976. The story ends in the 1980s.

We used Uyghur spellings such as “Ürümchi” when possible to deliver local flavour that the author wanted to provide in his story.

Martin: We wanted the book to be readable and many pinyin place names are not reader friendly. Peking, Nanking and Canton are traditional names that many people still use. While Yangon and Myanmar are gradually displacing Rangoon and Burma, we are unlikely to change the English names for the capitals of Austria, Russia or Italy.

Jane, what is your background as a literary translator? How did you learn English? Your favorite Chinese authors?

Jane: I do not consider myself a “literary translator.” Instead, I think I am just someone who is fascinated by languages. I have always loved to read, except my school textbooks. I used to skip classes just to finish reading a good novel. I failed many math exams but was always the writing teacher’s pet. My job as a translator/interpreter pays me to read, to listen to other peoples’ stories, and to play with words. I think it’s a pretty good deal.

How did I learn English? Well, it’s a long and short story. I was taught English in primary school. By the time I finished high school, my English was only enough to say “How do you do?” and “Thank you.” I studied Japanese in university and later worked for Japanese organizations for some time.

I started to learn English (seriously) about ten years ago. I listen to English programs, watch English language movies, read and try to make sense of whatever English material I come across. I’ve developed a habit of trying to interpret in my head whatever I read/hear/think into another language. As an interpreter in Australia, I am exposed to a wide range language settings. I have to constantly make quick decisions on tone and register in my interpretation according to the setting. Plenty of practice and regrets. I found this experience helpful when translating the novel.

The difference is: errors in literary translation are not as costly as those in medical and court room settings, where lives are at stake. To me, literary translation is about having a love for languages and being respectful to readers and the author’s original work.

I am now working on a postgraduate translation studies degree in Australia. It is interesting to look into the theoretical world of translation. I find some theories are inspiring, but some are sort of BS. I have to say that this theory thing is a struggle for me. I hope I can survive.

My favorite Chinese authors? There are quite a few. Cao Xue-Qin, the author of Chinese classic Story of the Stone. I love Su Tong’s earlier work. He was my hero. Zhang Ai-ling is good too. I love Zhang Yi-he and Wang Jun’s work. They are not “novelists” per se, but there’s “fire” in their work, which I admire. I also like essays on Chinese culture (not on Confucius or anything big but on food and “insignificant” things) by the late Tang Lu-sun, a descendant of the imperial family of the Qing Dynasty.

Martin, briefly describe your background as a translator, including your current studies in Hong Kong, and relevant experiences you’ve had over many years in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland.

I studied Chinese as an undergraduate in Melbourne University. I then went to Taiwan to study a little more and ended up staying there for quite a long time. After studying for a year or two I began to take on translation work part-time. Translating at piecework rates is a great way to pick up speed but the content was rarely interesting and I drifted away from translating.

I have been based in Hong Kong working on manufacturing in China for many years. I spend most of my working day speaking Chinese. In the early 90s I came across a modern Peking opera and translated it for my own interest. I was sure it was a political allegory and decided the only way to be sure was to translate it. A friend who was deeply involved in amateur theatre jumped at the chance to put it on at the Fringe Club in Hong Kong and again earlier this year in a Chinese restaurant in London.

Recently I saw a flyer for an MA course in “applied translation.” Foolishly thinking it would be a genteel hobby I signed up. It was gruelling. But it was a well-structured program that opened my eyes to literary translation. And to the beauty of the English language. Rather than obsess about Sinological prowess, translators need to read a huge variety of works critically.

In Taiwan I was very fond of humorous short story writers like Hwang Chun-Ming. Writers I have become fond of in recent years include Su Tong and Yu Hua — less humor but very powerful. [end]


1. P 57, “Wild West China: The Untold Story of a Frontier Land,” by Christian Tyler. Published by John Murray Publishers.

2. P 29, “Under the Heel of the Dragon: Islam, Racism, Crime and the Uighur in China,” by Blaine Kaltman. Published by Ohio University Press.

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