Monday, October 17, 2011

China's Officialdom Novels: Translators Pay Attention!

There is a rumor on the Chinese internet that, at various government levels, Party bosses are requiring their secretaries and subordinates to make a new novel their "must-read." This novel, which I'm reading right now, is titled "No. 2 Boss." (By the way, the Chinese word "首长" is a bit difficult to translate precisely in this context.  I'm using "boss" for the moment.  If anyone has a better suggestion, I'm all ears.)

In China's "officialdom" jargon, "No. 2 boss" refers to the boss's secretary (administrative assistant), and this novel's protagonist is the secretary of a provincial Party chief (roughly the equivalent of a governor). Such a character's wide perspective on the Chinese officialdom sphere, from the central government and Party apparatus to the local bureaucrats, supports a plot that is never dull.

The author, Huang Xiaoyang, apparently has intimate knowledge of government business and its daily particulars. In this tremendously entertaining and stunningly detailed novel, Tang Xiaozhou, a journalist-turned-secretary, navigates the open strife and veiled struggles of provincial politics with great skill and craftiness.  While more or less maintaining the tenets of basic decency in a world full of corruption, the protagonist does not sacrifice his own opportunities for advancement.

I have finished reading the first two volumes of the long novel, which can be bought online and in bookstores everywhere in China. The author is still working on the third volume, and is publishing one page a day online as he writes it. Such serial installments as a form of novel publishing in China can be dated back to 1892, according to this study. The difference today is the internet has overtaken newspapers. I confess that reading one new page a day of a Chinese novel has added a certain addictive pleasure to my daily morning tea.

The political worldview expressed in "No.2 Boss," not surprisingly, has a heavy imprint from a Chinese politician's cynically pragmatic angle, and some of it might be unacceptable to American readers. At times, I also feel the book's excessive number of sex scenes undermine its literary quality. (I hope to address these issues more explicitly in a longer review later.) On the other hand, the novel's realistic and meticulous portrayal of Chinese political culture has irreplaceable value to anyone who is interested in understanding China.  Nowadays, an unprecedentedly large number of Western writers and journalists are working and living in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities,  publishing more and more books written in English.  These books make significant contribution for the world's understanding of China, and the viewpoint of  outside observers is often refreshing to Chinese readers as well.  However, no foreigner could have written a book like "No.2 Boss"; the nuance could only come from the hand of a cultural insider.  

By the way, officialdom novels are not a new genre in China as some foreign observers think. The genre flourished in the Qing Dynasty. In my youth I read with great interest several of those novels mentioned in this article. The genre disappeared in the Mao era, but has made a comeback in recent decades. It seems to be reaching a new peak now. The fact that the genre has become hot again might be a bellwether for the level of government corruption.

Update: here's my longer review in Foreign PolicyThe Rules of the Game

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Will Chinese Go Alphabetic?

Yesterday, an email header in my inbox caught my eye, not because of its subject but its language. So I clicked the link.  Here is the screenshot of what I saw:

Note the English word "Hold" in the middle of the otherwise all-Chinese headline that translates to: "Can Real Estate Developers Hold Any Longer?"  The article is a commentary from the independent media group (a rare presence in China) Caixin's website,  

Though English words do show up here and there in Chinese blog posts nowadays, this is the first time I have seen a reputed Chinese publication mixing the two languages in an article.

Why does the author, who looks quite young from the photo, feel the need to repetedly use a particular English word in a Chinese article?  It's possible that he thinks it expresses his meaning more accurately than Chinese; it's also possible that he thinks this mixed language could be a more attractive style of writing for his readers. But, reading his headline makes my tongue feel utterly awkward.

It reminds me of a Mao quote that sticks from my childhood memory, when reciting Mao quotations was a fashion during the Cultural Revolution. "Language and writing must be reformed to go alphabetic, the common direction of languages in the world," Mao said.  And he indeed gave it a try in the 1950s.  Peter Hessler had an excellent piece in the New Yorker several years ago that tells the language reform history.  As it turns out, the reform attempt did not manage to alphabetize written Chinese, though it resulted in the official "pinyin" system that uses the Roman alphabet to assist the learning of Chinese pronunciation, as well as the simplification of some characters.

Since then, the debate on whether written Chinese should be replaced by an alphabet has never ceased.  By birth, I'm a big fan of the square Chinese characters, which hold cultural, artistic and semantic richness in strokes and structures. I am not eager to see them go. However, today's young generation of Chinese seem to be a lot less attached to their ancestral language, one of the consequences of globalization I suspect.  I had never believed our beautiful square characters would one day become obsolete; now I'm not so sure.