The key to China

To grasp the new spirit of this country, read this fresh, contrarian short fiction
February 22, 2012
“Hiding in the City No. 83” (2009) by artist Liu Bolin. He uses surrealism to reflect and criticise modern China, in a manner similar to the new generation of fiction writers. In these photos, Bolin “camouflages” himself, with the help of an assistant who paints him into the backdrop

Say what you like about Mao, he did make it remarkably easy to keep up with developments in Chinese fiction. Thanks to his proscriptions on creative freedom, fictional output fell precipitously during his reign. An average of eight, increasingly socialist realist novels were published each year between 1949 and 1966. That figure shrank further during the Cultural Revolution. Staying abreast of translations was simpler still: until the early 1980s, it was virtually impossible for a mainland Chinese writer to strike up an independent relationship with a western translator. Anglophone readers had to rely on translations of establishment authors published by Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press.

Those dull days are happily long gone. In the early 1980s, a new generation of novelists born in the 1950s emerged into the post-Mao thaw and transformed the imaginative landscapes of mainland writing. By around 1985, socialist realism no longer represented the mainstream. Wholesome epics featuring rosy-cheeked comrades and singing anvils had been sidelined by macabre, modernist tales of infant sociopaths, juvenile delinquents and Cultural Revolution cannibalism.

The literary scene became even more diverse in the next decade. As the catchphrase of the market economy-oriented 1990s became wang qian kan (“look towards the future,” which, in Chinese, neatly punned on the word for “future” and “money”), many writers joined in the capitalist free-for-all. With the literary market threatened by rival distractions (comics, television, computer games) and the government phasing out lifetime salaries for state-sponsored writers, serious novelists began churning out tales of sex and sensation. While conventional print publishing has expanded over the past two decades (between 2009 and 2010 alone, according to the literary critic and editor Bai Ye, the number of novels published grew by an estimated 150 per cent), the channels for reaching readers have also proliferated. The advent of internet fiction—now an enormously popular genre in China—has brought hope to millions of aspiring authors, some of whom regularly generate 10,000 words a day. Both on the internet and in print publishing, fast, cheap, popular genres dominate. Speed of delivery is a major point of pride for even China’s most critically acclaimed writers, who admit to shunting unedited first drafts into print.

It’s now impossible to keep up with contemporary Chinese writing, and about as difficult to pick out decent work. Overwhelmed Anglophone readers should therefore welcome the recent launch of two magazines showcasing contemporary Chinese writing in English translation: Pathlight and Peregrine, an English-language supplement within Chutzpah, a Chinese literary journal that models itself on Granta. (The idea in reverse—of Granta or The Paris Review, for example, running a Chinese-language supplement—is unthinkable.) The magazines have three points in common but diverge in most other ways.

To start with, both are based in China. Pathlight is government-funded, while Chutzpah is bankrolled by Guangzhou’s Modern Media consortium—owned by Thomas Shao, one of China’s leading private media tycoons. The fact that two major new magazines are propelling Chinese writing towards an English-speaking readership reflects the degree to which China has yearned, for much of the last century, for international attention. Since the 1980s, the country has suffered from a full-blown Nobel complex: an anxious desire for one of its citizens to win the Nobel prize for literature.

Both magazines also share a dissatisfaction with the kind of Chinese fiction that usually gets translated into English at the moment. Roughly 2 per cent of the books annually published in Britain or the US are translations, of which work in Chinese forms a tiny proportion of that tiny proportion. And until now, there has been little overlap between what works in China and what sells abroad; a Chinese succès d’estime has rarely recreated that status in an English-language edition. Mainland literati have long complained that anglophone editors look for sensationalism rather than literary quality when they buy Chinese titles. What is arguably being overlooked is a large body of mainland Chinese work that, while artistically accomplished, fails to win over editorial boards in London or New York because it lacks a controversial selling point (either sex or politics; and ideally both). The editors of Pathlight and Chutzpah, by contrast, aim to steer clear of “banned-in-China” hype. “We only look at quality, not the whims of the market,” Chutzpah’s editor has pronounced. “Art is our ruler,” echoes Pathlight.

With both magazines, there seems to be another bias at work. Pathlight and Chutzpah try to favour younger authors, who have so far been relatively neglected both in China and in translation. For the past decade, the dominant form in literary Chinese fiction has been the realist historical novel set mainly in Maoist China, as penned by male authors born in the late 1950s or early 1960s (Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption and others). These grand narratives have been preoccupied with the traumatic landmarks of Maoism: land reform, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and so on. Both Chutzpah and Pathlight, by contrast, draw attention to novelists born between the late 1960s and 1980s. These generations of writers are broadly unified by a couple of shared literary characteristics: by a strongly individualistic, personal voice and by a determination to illuminate (often with wry humour or playful surrealism) the intense strangeness of the capitalist society that the Chinese Communist party is now building.

To readers familiar with anglophone literary magazines, Pathlight (right) begins rather oddly, with a 50-page introduction to China’s pre-eminent state literary award, the Mao Dun Prize. There are prize speeches full of strange analogies (one author likens himself to an overstuffed silkworm; another describes the world as a prehistoric egg yolk). There are stilted synopses and unedifying excerpts drawn from much longer works (one of which is 4.5m words in the original) by luminaries of the Writers’ Union. These 50 pages read more like an anodyne government sales brochure for Chinese literature than a grandstand for punchy, technically polished short fiction.

For however much it might protest otherwise, Pathlight is more than a showcase for unjustly ignored Chinese fiction. Published by the Writers’ Union—an organisation funded by the government’s propaganda department—it forms part of China’s widely publicised soft-power drive (running to billions of dollars) of recent years. “With a wide scope and an open mind,” the magazine’s editors have declared, “we choose articles that truly exemplify and represent the abundant and complicated realities of our country, past and present.” But almost in the next breath they observe, with disarming frankness, that “literature, if promoted effectively, will also… boost the country’s soft power.”

Freedom of expression in China has undoubtedly broadened in recent years. A former minister of culture, for example, argued in 2007 that writers were perfectly free to describe social problems, as long as they did not stray into political analysis. But it is an inconvenient truth that interesting literature is rarely cleanly apolitical; and this arbitrary divide between the social and the political often results in a marked tameness or superficiality in writers and works sponsored by China’s literary establishment.

Pathlight improves when it ceases to read like the print equivalent of a stuffy official banquet and moves on to half a dozen short stories by younger authors. Among these, the shorter ones are the best. The two strongest are “A Rare Steed for the Martial Emperor” and “Raising Whales,” by Xiang Zuotie (born 1974), each only two A4 pages long and both translated with assurance by Brendan O’Kane. The first is a hallucination by a foot soldier of the Han dynasty (circa 200 BC) that coheres through its use of colour and its evocation of the hothouse world of imperial whim. The second is an absurdist take on China’s get-rich-quick fever, as a landlocked village slowly runs out of containers to house its growing whale farm. Indeed, much of the best Chinese writing done in the last 30 years has eschewed the realism that dominated 20th-century Chinese fiction and set off on flights of fancy. “Williams’ Tomb” by Di An (born 1983) is a competent dissection of a dysfunctional family (sociopathic alpha-male father, abused mother, homosexual son) that trips up on some puzzling descriptions. Chinese girls, we learn at one point, “are like cigarette butts that are still alight, easily distinguished by their easy heft and warm ash.”

In tone and content, Chutzpah’s translation supplement is a very different creature. Now on its fifth issue, the magazine is more conventionally commercial in look, carrying chic adverts for Glenlivet, Mini and Mont Blanc. Chutzpah’s editor-in-chief is Ou Ning, a cultural entrepreneur in his early forties with expertise in a remarkable range of forms: design, architecture, film, video art, poetry, fiction and essay-writing. This is a publishing set-up that—although still subject to state censorship—has cut loose from official funding, and as a result seems a more comfortable home for the type of fresh, contrarian writing favoured by younger writers who have largely made their way outside the communist establishment. With the collapse of the iron rice bowl, novelists who began publishing after 1989 have become “free writers” (ziyou zuojia), existing beyond the old-style socialist literary system and forced to live by the market economy.

In Chutzpah, as in Pathlight, some of the best fiction has a surreal whimsy to it. One of my favourites is “A Gift From Bill Gates” by Wu Ang (born 1974), whose hapless, unemployed narrator reinvents himself as a writer and takes control of his destiny in Walter Mitty-style fantasies. After writing his aggravating wife, son and mother out of his life, he recruits an ancient Chinese philosopher, Mozi, to assist him in first scamming $500m from Bill Gates, then flushing the computer mogul down the toilet.

Some of the work has political bite, as well as technical flair. “The Curse” by A Yi (born 1976) is set in a south China village whose young have migrated to the big cities as temporary labourers. A lonely widow embroiled in quarrels with her neighbours waits for her son to come back from Guangzhou for New Year. Returning late on New Year’s Eve, the son immediately retreats to bed. Within an hour, he is dead—his body destroyed by the chemical factory that has employed him. The potential melodrama of the story’s premise and denouement is averted by A Yi’s narrative discipline and controlled evocation of the ignorance and despair that trap China’s rural poor.

Another of Chutzpah’s strengths is its willingness to elasticate its definition of Chinese fiction to include Taiwanese novelists or ethnically Chinese writers working in other languages. Having discovered modernist literary techniques in the 1960s—a full 20 years before the People’s Republic—Taiwanese writers have had a substantial headstart on their mainland peers in terms of linguistic and narrative sophistication. And Chinese literature has become noticeably more interesting—in both content and style—since the 1990s with the emergence of several talented exile and émigré writers: Yan Geling, Ma Jian, Ha Jin, Yiyun Li. (Regrettably, many contemporary mainland writers only grudgingly acknowledge sinophone authors working in the west, challenging their ability to depict the Chinese condition outside the mainland and accusing them of feeding western fantasies about an exotically backward, oppressive China.) Chutzpah’s selection of diaspora stories has so far omitted some of the best work available: rather than choosing one of Ha Jin’s dark, disturbing army stories, its editors have published instead a sympathetic but slightly anti-climactic tale of a Chinese immigrant nurse struggling with the lecherous demands of a senile old man and his manipulative daughter. Also sadly missed is Yiyun Li, for her precise emotional plotting and restrained allusions to the traumas of modern China (although her work is featured in the Chinese-language section of the magazine). But Li-Young Lee’s “The Winged Seed” is an effective, if at times overwritten, piece: a fluid combination of flashback and hallucination that moves between contemporary Chicago and a privileged childhood in pre-communist China—a world on the brink of violent destruction.

If we are to judge both these magazines by their mission statements (to publish Chinese-language fiction of the highest “artistic quality”), Chutzpah is currently the better read. For now, Pathlight still wears its links with China’s literary establishment too heavily. Give it time and more editorial freedom, though, and it might well grow into an important conduit for bringing new Chinese voices into English. For although British presses seem fixated on publishing novels, the talents of Chinese writers are far better showcased by their short fiction. China today is not the kind of place that encourages the professional dedication to literary craft essential to successful long fiction. Writers rarely revise; editors barely edit; they are too busy blogging, filmmaking, or chasing after the next big literary trend. The short story is the ideal literary form for a country suffering so acutely from attention deficit disorder: long enough to capture a meaningful fragment of this confounding country; (usually) brief enough to prevent authors reaching for melodramatic plot hinges or slack description. To understand how China’s literary minds are making sense of their country, then, read their short stories, not their novels. Chutzpah and Pathlight’s selections are a good place to start. More China coverage from Prospect:

China's new intelligensia: Despite the global interest in the rise of China, no one is paying much attention to its ideas and who produces them. Yet China has a surprisingly lively intellectual class whose ideas may prove a serious challenge to western liberal hegemony, says Mark Leonard

The new face of China: No other modern Chinese leader has cast such a spell over the country as Bo Xilai. He has built a personal brand that shimmers with hues of Clint Eastwood’s take-no-prisoners justice, George Clooney’s swagger and L Ron Hubbard’s religious zeal, says Dan Levin

China: at war with its history: The Chinese leadership refused to commemorate the centenary of the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty. Obsessed with survival, will it allow challenges to its version of the past? Isabel Hilton reports