Great leap forward
Chinese literature is overlooked in the west but a new English edition of a classic novel could change that, writes Julia Lovell
Saturday June 11, 2005
Why does modern Japanese fiction have an audience in Britain while its Chinese counterpart plays to an empty house? How come substantial numbers of British readers of literary fiction can conjure with a few names from recent Japanese literature - Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, Haruki Murakami - while the Chinese Shen Congwen, Qian Zhongshu and Mo Yan languish in near-total obscurity?
The cold war has a lot to do with it. In the 1950s, as part of the broader US project of reinventing Japan as an unthreatening regional ally against communist China, the American publisher Knopf set about marketing a picture of Japan - through carefully selected and translated works of its modern fiction - as a non-bellicose land of exotic aestheticism; the very opposite of Japan's aggressive, jingoistic pre-war image. These were the years in which authors such as Mishima and Kawabata became the representative, languishingly melancholic voices who later slipped comfortably into canon-forming collections in Britain: Penguin Modern Classics, the Everyman's Library. Although the themes and styles of those contemporary Japanese novelists now best known in the west - Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto - are a far cry from the taciturn, elusive qualities of Mishima and others, both owe large swathes of their western audiences to the trails blazed by their predecessors.
At almost exactly the same historical moment as the cold war gave Japanese fiction an entrée into big-business publishing, Mao's bamboo curtain clattered down around China, shutting off western access to many of its most interesting, free-thinking writers and tainting its modern literature - in the eyes of the western public - with the stigma of communism. At about this time, the earliest courses in modern Chinese literature began in British universities, many of which adopted as teaching materials politically correct works advertised as modern masterpieces by the Chinese state. To an Anglophone reading community that is, at best, timidly selective about reading translations, these two publishing and teaching trends helped promote a timesaving shorthand for stereotyping both literatures in audiences' minds: Chinese as dully propagandistic; Japanese as aesthetically humanist. In a major British review journal four years ago, a work of Japanese fiction was praised as "a hymn to the resilience of the human spirit", while the reviewer of a Chinese author, a couple of column inches higher up, dismissed all mainland Chinese fiction as "socialist realism".
But something momentous has just happened: Penguin Modern Classics has for the first time allowed a work of 20th-century Chinese fiction on to its list. After skulking for decades in small, academic or, more disastrously, communist Chinese presses (the threadbare Panda Books), translated fiction from China has, 50 years after a similar gesture transformed Japanese fiction's profile in the west, been beckoned into Penguin's modern canon. Modern Chinese fiction, long regarded at best as an educational source of information on China, or at worst, providing none at all looks to have made a great leap towards the bookshelves of British readers.
The novel itself, Qian Zhongshu's Fortress Besieged, is a fairly uncontroversial choice. The last hurrah of modern Chinese literature's pre-communist cosmopolitan age, this 1947 satire of an intellectual dilettante enduring love, disappointment and hypocrisy in 1930s Shanghai enjoyed two years of best-selling success immediately after publication. When, in 1949, the People's Liberation Army marched into the city, transforming one of China's most vibrant metropolises into the grey headquarters of communist orthodoxy, Qian - an outstanding product of early 20th-century China's internationalist cultural revolution, fluent in both Chinese and European literatures - was erased from the state literary canon. But after Mao's death in 1976, liberated Chinese critics and readers gleefully rediscovered Qian's novel, enthusiastically enshrining it as a modern classic.
Ribald, sardonic, set against the tragic turmoil of wartime China without ever collapsing into patriotic bluster, its pages populated by young westernised Chinese harried by their traditional families, Fortress Besieged has, it would seem, something for everyone. It certainly ought to stand a better chance of reaching into the hearts of Anglophone readers than many other works of modern Chinese fiction.
What is disappointing, is that - despite expending a good deal of trouble on producing a beautiful-looking book, fronted by an original Chinese print - Penguin has used an old (1979) and uninspired translation by Jeanne Kelly and Nathan K Mao. It is, for the most part, competent, but hardly reproduces the dazzling, spiked wit for which the original is renowned. Dialogue, in particular, is wooden and unidiomatic - "I've heard about you for a long time"; "This is certainly neglect of filial duties to the extreme!" - and littered with empty filler adverbs ("really", "simply") and literally translated Chinese proverbs with explanatory footnotes bolted on. Descriptive prose, while more serviceable, also contains the occasional puzzler, such as "sleep ... like a club suddenly knocked him into its dark bottom".
This is the kind of carelessness characteristic of most mainstream presses in Britain when they - very unusually - venture to produce translations of modern (late 19th-century to 1976) or contemporary (1976-) Chinese literature. It is as if they are already so convinced of its fundamental aesthetic poverty that when they do finally stir themselves to publish, they seem barely to bother with the quality of the translation. If they do, they certainly don't apply the kind of rigorous critical standards to be expected in the editing of other books on their lists. This is strikingly true in this instance, but the same criticism could also be levelled at both Faber and HarperCollins; Rebecca Carter's painstaking work at Chatto & Windus - Red Dust, The Noodle Maker, Village of Stone - is a wonderful exception.
A kind of vicious circle results, in which large publishers are chary of producing modern Chinese literature because it is little known, generally viewed as being of poor literary value and therefore unlikely to attract audiences. When they do publish it, slack editing often allows unsatisfactory translations to slip into print. All in all, it merely confirms general readers and other editors in their instinct that China's recent literature can be safely ignored.
There are, of course, reasons other than translation and editing that help explain why modern Chinese fiction has not taken off among Anglophone readers. One is logistical: China's cultural remoteness from the west makes it inevitable that audiences from very different reading traditions will have difficulty fathoming its literature. The Chinese language is an especially intimidating barrier: it is no coincidence that post-Mao film-makers (particularly Zhang Yimou) have scored the kind of global success - international prizes, Hollywood distribution deals - of which their literary counterparts can only dream. Cinema trades in the direct, universal currency of images; it doesn't have to worry about losing value across the uncertain exchange rates of translation. Although Fortress Besieged contains plenty of comic character types and situational slapstick that entertainingly convert into English without too much confusion - the chubbily pompous author of "Adulterous Smorgasbord", a pseudo-cosmopolitan sonnet littered with meaningless foreign words; the innkeeper who insists that maggots stirring drowsily from their "greasy slumber" on a slab of ham are no more than harmless "meat sprouts" - other parts of the book are studded with puns and allusions that would challenge the most inventive translator.
Another reason is historical, affecting the quality of individual works. In the early 20th century, China embarked on a quest for a modern version of itself that dragged its writers through decades of political upheaval and guilty anxiety that they should, somehow, help rescue the country from national crisis. Especially after the communist revolution in 1949, ideological pressures and the ever-shrinking remit of Revolutionary Realism and Romanticism (Mao's extra-rose-tinted version of socialist realism) severely squeezed creativity; between 1949 and 1966, the production of novels dwindled to an embarrassingly low average of eight per year.
When these proscriptions eased after Mao's death, contemporary Chinese literature was left to contemplate its lost years. Thanks to Mao's fondness for sending intellectuals for "re-education through labour", authors who normally would have been reaching their mature middle decades in the 70s and 80s, had been cleaning toilets, planting rice or mucking out pigs - certainly not thinking hard about the bourgeois question of how to write a good book - during their early career, when a novelist steadily refines his or her craft. Qian Zhongshu is a case in point. Fortress Besieged was his only novel, written two years before the 38-year-old gave up fiction when the communists swept to victory. For much of the next 30 years, he was occupied by the state translating Chairman Mao's Collected Works into English, except for labouring in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
Although in Fortress Besieged Qian emerges as a refreshingly sceptical chronicler of 1930s China, with a sharp ear for the comic hypocrisy of his fellow intellectuals, the book has the unmistakeable failures of discipline and control of a first novel: the flow of the prose trips a little too frequently on Qian's pointed analogies and asides, as if he can't quite suppress his admiration at his own cynical cleverness. Qian himself rapidly became dissatisfied with his work and it's impossible to resist wistfully imagining what he might have achieved if Mao had never come to power.
But there are Chinese novelists who managed, at times, to sidestep the 20th century's circumstantial exigencies, and whose work can compare with European or American writing of which educated British readers could be expected to have some knowledge. For example, Qian Zhongshu could be termed a scurrilously Chinese Evelyn Waugh; Shen Congwen a Hunanese Turgenev, awash with ambivalent nostalgia for his war-wracked southern homeland; Zhang Ailing a bleakly claustrophobic Katherine Mansfield, for her intricately oppressive stories of Shanghai domesticity. And the most accomplished translators of Chinese fiction at work today are certainly capable of producing versions of the best works elegant enough to tempt the insular appetites of British readers - if major publishers are prepared to believe that these works can provide not just worthy pseudo-documentary information on Chinese history, but also more universal literary satisfactions: delicate psychological portraits, powerful evocations of time and place, philosophical insights into the human condition.
And this is what is required to give Anglophone audiences access to the reading pleasures of recent Chinese literature. Although translations of post-Mao fiction into English have been coming steadily over the past 20-odd years, it is hard to think of more than one or two robustly selling succès d'estime. One reason is that contemporary Chinese fiction in English translation emerges into a vacuum, artificially wrested from its modern antecedents. While British readers lack points of reference from earlier, formative decades in modern Chinese literary history, their capacity for understanding and appreciating more recent writing is always going to be shaky.
I am not claiming that British audiences have any kind of obligation to read Chinese fiction in translation. Arguments about China having the longest continuous literary civilisation, or being the most populous nation in the world might help spark a utilitarian kind of interest in its literature, but in a publishing free market, its fiction has to stand on its own merits. Yet that is so often precisely what it is not allowed to do by publishers; at least not relative to its competitors - fiction in English or translated from other languages. Most major publishers do not even give modern Chinese fiction a platform on which to rest beside their glossily marketed rivals.
What 20th-century Chinese literature badly needs, in order to convince foreign readers that it is worth the investment of time and concentration necessary to make some sense of it, is a gesture comparable to that made towards modern Japanese literature in the 1950s.
Cosmetically, Penguin has started on this very worthwhile endeavour. But if it wants any kind of meaningful return - in terms of satisfied readers eager for more - on its initial outlay, it will have to make a commitment not just to the dust jacket and paper quality of works of 20th-century Chinese literature in translation, but also to the words that make them modern classics.
A modern Chinese library
Cao Xueqin The Story of the Stone, translated by David Hawkes (Penguin Classics, 1973-). Written around 1760, this classic family saga of the late imperial period is probably China's best-known novel.
Lu Ling Children of the Rich. An epic and untranslated account of the decline of a wealthy family during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s.
Lu Xun's bleak stories of rural China and reworked versions of classical stories, collected in Lu Xun Selected Works, translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang (Foreign Languages Press, 1985).
Ma Jian, Red Dust, translated by Flora Drew (Chatto & Windus, 2001). Semi-fictionalised travelogue of an escape around the margins in the early 1980s; an acute portrait of a society in flux.
Qian Zhongshu's 1947 satire of wartime Shanghai, Fortress Besieged, and barbed stories of human and superhuman vanity collected in Men, Beasts, Ghosts.
Shen Congwen's bittersweet nostalgic tales of his war-ravaged south China homeland in the early 20th century, some of which are translated by Jeffrey Kinkley and others in Imperfect Paradise (University of Hawaii Press, 1995).
Han Shaogong's relaxed biography of a village in southern China, A Dictionary of Maqiao, told as the author's semi-fictionalised memoir of labouring there and learning the local dialect during the Cultural Revolution; translated by Julia Lovell, (Columbia University Press, 2003).
Xiao Hong, The Field of Life and Death, translated by Howard Goldblatt (Indiana University Press, 1979). A moving portrait of stoical, suffering women in the northeast during the 1930s.
Yang Jiang, Six Chapters From My Life "Down under", translated by Howard Goldblatt (University of Washington Press, 1984). Written by Qian Zhongshu's wife, a wryly sensitive account of two years labouring in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
Zhang Ailing's claustrophobic novellas of domestic scheming and psychological disintegration in pre-1949 Shanghai. One of the best "The Golden Cangue", is in Modern Chinese Stories and Novellas, 1919-1949 translated by CT Hsia et al (Columbia University Press, 1981).
• Qian Zhongshu's Fortress Besieged is published by Penguin for £18.99
• Julia Lovell's translation of the novellas of Zhu Wen will be published next year by Columbia University Press