Sunday, May 4, 2008

What? Five Chinese Novels in NYT Sunday Book Review

Did the sun rise from the west today? This week's New York Times Sunday Book Review has five articles, written by well-known authors and critics, on novels from China! Even the current issue of Poets & Writers talks about "literary Beijing," the first time in my many years as a writer.

What has done the trick? Not cheap goods or tainted food, not the trade deficit or politics. It must be the Beijing Olympics then. Otherwise, why would America's predominant publications suddenly be showing solicitude toward Chinese novels, three short months before the Games? If nothing else positive comes out of the summer event, calling the West's attention to Chinese literature is at least one good thing.

This attention is in sharp contrast to a recent complaint from Wolfgang Kubin, one of the most renowned Sinologists in Germany. Kubin, who claimed in 2006 that China has not had any great writer since 1949 and "contemporary Chinese literature is trash," lashed out again in February of this year. In an interview with Oriental Outlook, he says he and Chinese writers have nothing to talk about. Judging from the interviews, he has been too busy to read Chinese books for quite some time. I wondered if the problem was his or Chinese writers'. Personally, Kubin lost credibility in my heart when he dismissed the Chinese classic Three Kingdoms, which happens to be my very favorite.

Howard Goldblatt, America's foremost translator of Chinese literature, disagrees with Kubin. Among the five novels reviewed in NY Times Sunday Book Review today, two were translated by Goldblatt recently. In a March interview with China's popular newspaper Southern Weekend, Goldblatt says it's not that China lacks great literary work; the problem is that there is not enough translation of it.

I happen to agree with Goldblatt. Growing up in China, I read far more translated Western classics than Chinese novels in my youth. Everyone in my generation knew the names of Hemingway and Hugo. In contrast, during my two decades in the US, I met only one American writer who knew something about Chinese classics, let alone average readers. This imbalanced one-way flow used to astonish me, but I've become accustomed to it (it's life).

Now this weekend's NY Times Book Review astounds me again, this time in a pleasant way. Among the five novelists reviewed, Mo Yan and Wang Anyi are definitely the top novelists in China. I have been Wang Anyi's fan since my college time in the early 1980s. The complexity and quality of their works, both in terms of content and art form, are no lower than the best American contemporary authors I've read. I raise my hand to my forehead with relief that their works are being translated into English. Jonathan Spence's review of Mo Yan and Francine Prose’s review of Wang Anyi will make everyone want to read the novels.

Jiang Rong is new to the literary scene, though he's from the same generation as Mo and Wang, and I doubt that he will write another novel. I'm in the middle of reading the Chinese original of his Wolf Totem right now, and from what I've read, I have to agree with Pankaj Mishra that "the novel's literary claims are shaky," despite the international prizes it received. The novel is of a "concept-driven" type; it certainly lacks the level of emotional complexity portrayed in the works of Mo Yan and Wang Anyi. It, however, raises important ecological and racial chauvinism issues. The phenomena that Wolf Totem has become a record best seller – the highest among all books sold in China – seems to reflect Chinese's concern on urgent societal issues.

Mo Yan's Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (a great title on a terrible cover) and Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem have both been translated by Howard Goldblatt. While the literary quality gap between these two authors is huge, I do think it is necessary to have both novels translated, and I recommend both to American readers. Wolf Totem, being a best seller in China, will tell the Westerners something about the mindset of contemporary Chinese readers, to say the least.

By the way, in the aforementioned interview with China's Southern Weekend, Howard Goldblatt says that, to understand how unpopular Chinese literature is in America, one only need look at the quantity of Chinese fiction published in The New Yorker: Null. (Goldblatt doesn't think Ha Jin's work counts as Chinese literature, because it's written in English.) This isn't quite accurate – the New Yorker did publish Gao Xingjian's stories after he received the Nobel Prize, and those stories were originally written in Chinese. Other than that one arguable instance (you could say Gao was already a French citizen then), Goldblatt is right about the New Yorker's discrimination.

The New Yorker notwithstanding, now you can read these translated Chinese novels.


Matthew said...

I actually surprised to find that many Chinese novels translated into English. Any idea if they sell the translations in China?

Xujun Eberlein said...

Matthew -

Since you are in China, shouldn't you know more than I do? :-) However, judging from Goldblatt's interview with Southern Weekend, at least his translation of "Wolf Totem" should be available there. Would you please let me know if you find out more about this?


Sunny said...

I saw the "Wolf Totem" English edition at a bookstore near Peking University today (the one owned by Financial Times Columnist Xu Zhiyuan in Yuanmingyuan). Sunny

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks for the info, Sunny. Good to know.

Carry Anne said...


I agree with you about if theres one good thing about the Olympics...

I agree in that everything thats happening around the Olympics is what the world needed (in a sense, since it was going down that road anyway). Theres so much friction on the gov't level when it comes to China, trade and sovereignty issues that I am just so relieved that things are spilling out.

There is a lot more to China that labour. That's for sure. Not only the West but the Chinese people themselves need to know that they should fulfill their great potential, in terms of running a good country, arts, human rights, the Chinese ARE capable but they have been told that they are not capable and that only the CCP can run things for them. I am not saying China needs democracy, but the people should not be hled as thought slaves any longer, it;'s just terrible. Chinese people are meant to be poets, philosophers, dancers, (of course hard workers ) and all good things. The regime has no done China justice and has ruined the reputation of Chinese people by promoting selling out ideals and values for BREAK NECK development. Good job on you for the nice blog (- : This time i'll leave my blog address correctly

Matthew said...

I've searched Book City near me quite a few times for contemporary literature in English and come away with nothing. I'll take another look this weekend. I guess I'll ask my wife to search some of the online stores for them. I could certainly use some more books... I doubt I'll have enough to last another year here.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Carry -

I appreciate your input. I certainly would like to see great things coming out of China. As far as the "thought-slave" issue goes, I expect we will see, and are seeing, evolution away from this and not a dramatic abolishment. Certainly the younger generation seems to be more free-thinking than we were at that age. Also, this is not an issue in China alone.

Matthew -

When I lived in China two decades ago, I could find lots of English books in a "Foreign Language Bookstore" (外文书店). Do they still exist? Sounds like China's bookstores are not ready for a large English-reading population. Is available in China?

Matthew said...

Haven't seen that bookstore here. I've been told there is a good foreign bookstore in the center of the city (but that's a bit far). There is also in China, but it's not very good. I'll have to wait to move back to the states for some real bookstores.