Chinese Review Of Books

In The Great Leap Forward (The Guardian, June 11, 2005)), Julia Lovell takes note on Chinese literature now appearing in translation in the west:

... 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".

For my part, I will list the previous posts that are related to Qian Zhongshu.  These cover the novel Besieged Fortress, but also the personal and collective experiences of that generation as compared to this one.

Julia Lovell went on to say:

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. 

I agree.  I do not usually recommend this or that book to anyone, because we all have our own prelidections.  Julia Lovell listed some of the canonical texts in the modern Chinese library, but I am not going to tell you this one is good or that one is bad.  You will have to decide for yourself.  But for some of them, I can direct you to some of my previous posts.

First on Lovell's list is: "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."  The Story of the Stone also goes by the title The Dream of the Red Chamber.  Below is my related blog post, and it explains why most westerners will find this book difficult to go through.

Last on Lovell's list is: "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)."

Zhang Ailing is usually known as Eileen Chang.  She has published many books in Chinese as well as English in her life, and they are of uneven quality.  I advise you to ignore the English-language Rouge of the North and Naked Earth, because they are propaganda pieces produced for the United States Information Service on pre-paid commission.  The following are my blog posts.