Saturday, December 19, 2009

Drake Emerging Writer Award in Short Fiction

My book Apologies Forthcoming, together with Loranne March Temple's Coming to You from the Blue Room, has been selected as a runner-up for the 2009 Drake Emerging Writer Award in Short Fiction. The winner is Andrew Porter's The Theory of Light & Matter.

Congratulations to Loranne March Temple and Andrew Porter! I look forward to reading their books.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review: Paper Butterfly by Diane Wei Liang

Paper Butterfly by Diane Wei Liang
Simon & Schuster (May 5, 2009), 240 pages, $24

The 1989 student movement that ended in blood underlies the cause and effects in this detective novel set in Beijing, China. That year, a 19-year-old student named Lin is condemned to a labor reform camp. Eight years later, he is released and becomes a migrant worker. Meanwhile, private detective Mei Wang, the heroine of the novel, takes on an investigation into the disappearance of a famous pop star, Kaili. When Mei finds a paper butterfly and a stash of old love letters in Kaili's apartment, she feels a historical link between Kaili, the letter writer, and herself. Soon Kaili is found dead, and her boss, who hired Mei for the investigation in the first place, now deploys, without success, all means at his disposal to stop Mei. More paper butterflies appear in a poor neighborhood, where a child also vanishes. With the help of her connections, Mei eventually ties all the ends together and discovers the truth.

This novel is the second of Diane Wei Liang's Mei Wang series that features China's first female private detective. The plot of Paper Butterfly is more gripping than the author's first novel, The Eye of Jade, and there are a number of rural scenes that are rendered quite vividly. Unfortunately, the characterization is weaker. Mei Wang's personality traits, which may have fascinated the reader in the previous novel – her aloofness and distaste for "back doors," her rare courage as a female detective, her conflicting emotions toward her mother – are no longer given enough stage to perform, or develop, in this 224-page thin sequel. As a consequence, Mei Wang's role in Paper Butterfly is not as memorable. Using a political event familiar to Western readers as the plot driver might be a clever idea, but it does not necessarily work well for an uninteresting protagonist.

Contemporary Chinese detective stories are not a new comer in the stage of English literature. Qiu Xiaolong, for example, has successfully portrayed inspector Chen Cao in a series of novels set in Shanghai. Diane Wei Liang's unique angle is the introduction of a female detective, but that uniqueness has yet to be well exploited.

The novel's writing, executed in the author's second language, poses an issue as to how much rendering of foreign-language terminology is too much. The author seems very eager to teach her readers Chinese nouns, as she uses pinyin (the most commonly used romanization system for standard Mandarin) way too frequently. Many of those nouns, such as "hulu," "tufei," etc, are insignificant words in the book which have readily available English equivalents, thus presenting them in Chinese pinyin doesn't seem to serve much of a purpose. A less arbitrary display of Chinese terms might be more effective.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"What Does the Chinese Signboard on Your Book Cover Say?"

[Note: In the past a few months, I've had the pleasure to answer questions from a number of university and high school teachers about my book Apologies Forthcoming. The following dialogue, in chronological order, is compiled from my email exchanges with a teacher at a midwest public university, who is teaching the book in a senior honors course. These are great questions, ranging from particular translation of Chinese terms, to how educated women fared in the 1980s, to the present effects of the way the Cultural Revolution is addressed in China, that I thought both the questions and answers may be of interest to broad readers. Posted with permission. – Xujun]

October 18-19

Q. Would you please comment on why you use the Japanese term 'sensei' in your stories? I'm teaching this book, and Chinese colleagues say they are quite puzzled by the use of the term, especially in stories set during the Cultural Revolution.

A.  The Japanese term "sensei" originated from – and is equivalent to – the Chinese term "xian-sheng" (先生). It is the same term in two different languages, with the same characters and very similar pronunciation. However, if I use "xian-sheng," few English readers would understand. On the other hand, "sensei" is widely known in English.

"Xian-sheng" is a traditional way of addressing a teacher; it has an old-fashioned and more reverent flavor. It was not commonly used during the Cultural Revolution, however even in that fanatic time there existed old-fashioned people who preferred the traditional way, especially in remote areas. My story "Disciple of the Masses" takes place in a rural area, where village people still have lots of reverence for teachers, and old traditions are better preserved than in the cities. That's why they are calling a teacher "xian-sheng" instead of "lao-shi" (老师).   In short, I use "sensei" instead of "teacher" in order to better reflect the local characterization. Part of the story is based on my own experience as an "insert" (a sent-down city youth) in the countryside.

Q. Why did you choose to start the book with Snow Line and Pivot Point and to place The Randomness of Love next to the end?  For me, the other five stories (Feathers, Men Don't Apologize, Watch the Thrill, Discipline of the Masses, and Second Encounter) would make a solid collection on their own. For you, what is most important to convey to readers through Snow Line, Pivot Point and The Randomness of Love?

A. I agree with you that, if the book is only set in the Cultural Revolution, then the five stories you mentioned make a more concrete selection. However I also wanted to depict the years immediately after the CR, because that period was, and still is, largely unknown to the broad English audience, while in my opinion that transitional period is historically very important. Mostly though, I chose to write about the period from early 1970s to mid 1980s because I grew up from a child to an adult in that period, and those where the years that molded me and my generation. There have been many books written in English set in the CR or much later, but the 1980s China seemed to be nonexistent in literature.

From the subject and theme point of view, the choice of the opening story for the US edition doesn't seem to be the best one, and in the book's Hong Kong edition it has been changed to "Men Don't Apologize."  I chose "Snow Line" to open the US edition mainly because of the artwork. As you have seen, several pieces of artwork by Wu Fan, a well-known old-generation artist in Sichuan, are used as illustrations in the book. I have tremendous respect for Wu Fan and his art. Because not every story has an accompanying piece of art, I thought "Snow Line" would make an attractive opening because the story cites its companion art piece "Dandelion." In this way it blurs the boundary of fiction and nonfiction. As it turns out, "Snow Line" seems to get polarized reactions from readers: it was either loved enthusiastically, especially by poetry lovers, or it put off the reader. None of the other stories have had such a divided reaction.

December 4-7

Q. What do you think are the present effects in China of people not being able to openly discuss what happened during the Cultural Revolution, that is, of not being able to assess for themselves what happened, how and why? Friends we have known in China for 25 years say the CR is not a subject they ever expect to be addressed publicly, except in terms of the government deciding Mao was X% right and X% wrong (and he will always be more right than wrong officially).  

A. The current situation is more like this: though the official media largely avoid addressing the CR, the topic is not as sensitive as some others (such as the 1989 massacre). Many books that realistically reflect the time have been published in China, both fiction and nonfiction. One thing comes to mind is Yu Hua's very popular novel "To Live," which was first published in 1994. The movie that based on the novel and won international prizes did not pass the censors and consequently was not shown in China, but a similar TV series based on the book was made and shown in 2006. Many Party seniors have written memoirs about that period. There is no danger associated with talking about the CR among ordinary people.

However, because the memory of the time is very painful to the victims and shameful to those who participated, which include entire generations born in the early 1950s or before, few like to talk about it today. This is more a voluntary silence than one that is forced upon people. Parents don't pass their knowledge of the time to children. This, coupled with the void in textbooks, results in the ignorance of the younger generations. This is where the danger lies: because the lesson has not been learned by the later generation, the same disaster might be repeated in the future.

Q. Can a day ever come in China when people will be honored who spoke out *during the CR* against the violence and madness of the times? Some ordinary people tried to stop the madness, but they are not named and respected today, much less praised. People praise Zhou En Lai, but forget Liu Shao Qi. Is that partly because Mao must forever be honored, no matter how many people died because of his policies?   

A. In the 1980s and 90s, there have been names officially honored in China, such as Zhang Zhixing and Yu Luoke, who spoke with a rational voice and were executed because of it during the CR. However, the more remote the CR becomes, the less we hear about it. It seems that now there always are more urgent and current issues to care about, both to the government and the people. Most seem to have taken the attitude of not dwelling on the past. The history of the CR faces the danger of being forgotten in China.

Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi are both complex figures, about whom I don’t have the space to discuss here. Mao is actually mentioned less and less by the government today, but many Chinese, especially old peasants and factory workers, still love him, so it is unlikely Mao's image will disappear any time soon. This is another very complicated topic.

Q. In the "parameters" of Chinese society as it modernizes in the 1980's, opportunities for people to be happy seem very limited, even in (perhaps esp in) marriage and family relationships. What to you is hopeful in the lives of people during the 1980's, when "love" itself becomes a highly contested possibility?    

A. The 1980s was a transitional period. Though it's true that "opportunities for people to be happy seem very limited," political and life style control by the Party had become less rigid compared to the 1970s. We – the younger generation at the time – saw the hope for more freedom from all perspectives. Since then, freedom has indeed increased, but not as fast, or as broadly, as the economy has grown.

Q. Are Chinese women in the 1980's unhappy because they are "prisoners of their bodies," no matter how highly educated they are?
A. I think in the 80s highly-educated women were even more unhappy than their less-educated counterparts, because Chinese men generally didn't want their wives to be intelligent. But this situation is changing now.

Q. Is one reason for the instability of Chinese marriage and family relationships in the 1980's the reality that gender roles have become confused after the severe equality of the CR, or the reality that gender roles are becoming more rigid than ever as society modernizes, or possibly both at once?  In the book, the "independent" women seem emotionally needy to an extreme that suggests their self-worth is shaky. At the same time, the men seem to be seething with anger that comes out in all kinds of ways. What do you see as necessary for marriage and family relationships in the 1980's to become repaired?  

A. This is a very good question. I think it's true that intelligent women had a harder time in the 1980s than, say, 1950s or 2000s. One important reason is that the CR, especially the "up to the mountains and down to the countryside" movement, had caused a disproportionate number of marrying-age women to return to the city from the countryside and have difficulties finding suitors. Another reason may be that intellectuals suffered more during the CR and, for a period of time afterward, many men subconsciously disdained highly-educated women. It was an abnormal time that would eventually pass.

December 11-13

Q. Can you tell us what the Chinese signboard on the book cover says?

A.  The Chinese words on the signboard are: "Ardent acclaim the publication of the New Year editorial!"  This was a popular slogan during the Cultural Revolution. The "New Year editorial" was a joint editorial from People's Daily, The Liberation Army Daily, and Red Flag magazine, the three most authoritative publications of the time. It had become a ritual that, on each New Year's Day, the three of them published a joint editorial to convey Mao's new instructions for the year. Such an editorial often contained Mao's own writing. We used to parade on New Year's Day to acclaim the publication of the editorial.

Q. Do you use "insert" in somewhat the same way you use "sensei" (that is, making up a term of your own for a general audience)? Chinese colleagues say "insert" is an unfamiliar term to them.

PS. Our favorite stories as a class are "Second Encounters,"  "Men Don't Apologize" and "Watch the Thrill." For us, "Watch the Thrill" is a classic of world literature, true of many times and places, even now.

A. The Chinese term for "insert" is 插队知青, which literally means "educated (city) youth who are inserted into a (rural) production team." A more commonly seen English translation for this term is "sent-down youth."  When it comes to translation, I often prefer a verbatim phrase over an idiomatic one, provided it does not add confusion to the reader. This is because Chinese is such a richly pictorial language, verbatim translation often lends more vivacity and color than free translation.

Q. Would you like to tell us what makes you most proud to be Chinese, and what makes you most happy to be American?

A. I've never thought to be proud or not proud as a Chinese. I think a person's race or nationality is not all that important. I love Chinese culture and the language; it is a natural attitude simply because I grew up with such a culture.

Things that make me most happy to live in America are freedom and privacy. I can write whatever I want without fear of persecution. This said, China is also changing, and today Chinese people have a lot more freedom than when I lived there.

Q. Your comment about not being concerned about being proud or not seems unusual these days. Do you think it is unusual? We have heard pride in being Chinese placed at the top of countless lists of what makes people feel unified in being Chinese. "We are proud to be Chinese" comes up over and over whenever we are talking to people about contemporary Chinese life. Of course, what makes one generation proud might not be the same as what makes another generation proud.

A. I think there indeed is a period difference here. Today Chinese nationalism seems to have reached a new peak.  IMO, nationalism is a double-edged sword. It does have the function of unifying a nation, and historically it has resulted in heroic actions fighting foreign invaders (for example in the war of resistance against Japan in the 1930s-40s).  However, the extreme nationalism today seems to work more toward fending off international criticism. That's why the Chinese government encourages it. The ready soil for growing such a sentiment is China's rapid economic growth.  Life is generally a lot better now than it was when I lived there.

On the other hand, many dissidents, both inside and outside China, tend toward the opposite extreme. The disparity seems especially salient among overseas Chinese. A well-known writer that comes to mind is Ha Jin, who is of my generation. In his semi-autobiographic novel "A Free Life" (not his best work IMO), his grudge against being Chinese is so intense it is appalling.

My own attitude might have something to do with the time I grew up in China (1960s-80s), but it is also very individual. Personally, I prefer the Confucian "middle way" position. I think this is especially important for a writer who seeks to tell the truth.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Why Has Chongqing Mayor Wang Hongju Resigned?

Today the headline on's Chongqing page is "Wang Hongju resigns as the mayor of Chongqing." This is big news, but the one-sentence ambiguous official report raises many questions. Another report cites "age reason." Singapore's Zaobao notes that Chongqing's many newspapers, with the exception of Chongqing Daily, made no mention of the news, and the fact that, at 64, Wang is one year short of the retirement age for officials with his rank. A Chinese blogger calls the news "shocking" and comments on the resignation's abnormality and possible relation to Chongqing's crack-down on organized crime.

I find myself only partially surprised by the news. In recent years when I made my annual visits to Chongqing, every time I heard local people bitterly complaining about how incompetent their mayor was (which was in sharp contrast to their praise of Bo Xilai), yet year after year Wang Hongju remained steadily seated on the mayor pedestal of China's biggest metropolitan city.

Before coming to Chonqgqing, Wang was the mayor of a small county-level town, Fuling (remember Peter Hessler's River Town?).  In 1997, while over a million unhappy people from the flooded areas by the Three Gorges dam (including part of Fuling) were forced to relocate, and Fuling was merged into Chongqing's jurisdiction, Wang happily took a great-leap to the high position of Chongqing's deputy mayor. Six years later he became the mayor. As far as I can tell, Wang's unusual promotion was another twist resulting from the ill-conceived Three Gorges dam and its consequent jurisdictional politics. Rumors had it that Wang brought a full "Fuling gang" to Chongqing with him to put in various key positions of the city government, something not at all unusual in the crony politics of China's officialdom.

At this point it is hard to say if Wang's stepping-down has anything to do with Chongqing's organized crime. In any case, I think it is a good thing and hope my townsfolk will be better off under his replacement.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

New Translation for Lu Xun's Fiction

Prof. Jeff Wasserstrom, editor of The China Beat and author of several books on China, has a very interesting and refreshing article about Lu Xun (鲁迅) titled "China's Orwell" in Time magazine, in which he makes – quite originally – a parallel between Lu Xun and George Orwell, with the insightful point that Lu Xun is not only a great writer, but an essential writer.

I'm also happy to learn from Prof. Wasserstrom's article that Penguin is publishing The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun, translated by Julia Lovell and scheduled for release in January. Since the book is "the complete fiction of Lu Xun," it must include stories from Lu Xun's collection 故事新编 (or Old Stories Told Anew by my translation – not sure how Julia Lovell would have translated this).  In that collection Lu Xun retells several ancient tales with unique language and twists.

It was those stories – not the officially hailed ones such as "The Real Story of Ah-Q" and "Diary of a Madman" – that haunted me as an impressionable high school student in the 1970s. One story I still remember after all these years is about Meijianchi, an 18-year-old boy who hands his own head to a career assassin in order to kill the king and avenge his father the legendary sword maker. The fighting scene between three severed heads biting each other in a boiling cauldron was quite heart-stirring. I've never read anything like that before or after. I'd be very interested in seeing how this story is translated into English.

The edition I read then had end notes by the editor(s), which quoted parts of the dialogue in Lu Xun's stories that were used as satiric retaliation against "four dudes" ("四条汉子"), a name Lu Xun gave to four underground communists who led the "left-wing writers union" in 1930s Shanghai. Though Lu Xun supported the communists at the time (he was never a Party member), there was quite a bit of discord between him and the "four dudes," and he often felt he was being attacked. As caustic a writer as Lu Xun was, he did not openly fight back, instead he chose to mock their attacks in his fiction. I don't know if Julia Lovell has included any notes on this history – it might be very hard to make sense of it all for a Western audience anyway.

Later during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the "four dudes," who had become high ranking Party officials then, were ruthlessly "struggled" by the Red Guards because of their historical "crime" of "opposing Lu Xun." I'm not sure that, had Lu Xun not died of sickness in 1936 and instead lived to the time of the CR, he would have been able to escape denunciation himself. Given his scathing nature, it is hard to imagine that he would have placated the Red Guards or Party officials.

In China's literary world, Lu Xun actually was the most famous for his satirical essays, which far exceed his fiction in quantity. His scathing style was extensively mimicked by the Red Guards for faction fighting during the Cultural Revolution, a consequence he wouldn't have dreamed of.

Lu Xun also translated quite a few English works into Chinese, and he advocated direct (verbatim) translation (直译), as opposed to free translation by meaning (意译). Though some of his translation did not work IMO, for example I remember in one story he translated "good morning" as "好早晨" instead of "早晨好", I agree with him in principle. This is to say, to the extent it does not confuse the reader, verbatim translation often lends more vivacity and color than free translation.