Chinese Literature, Armchair Commentary

A very good friend of mine recently reviewed Death’s End by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu. In the review he writes:

Some of the drawbacks may be cultural. It’s clear that readers’ expectations differ widely across the world. In English fiction, for example, there’s the famous shibboleth “show, don’t tell.”

This got me going on a response to his post that turned into a minor treatise, which I repost here.

I have studied a smidgen of Chinese literature. Really quite little, and 25 years ago. I was on a study abroad program in  Taiwan in ’89-90, in which I picked up a minor fluency in the language. I learned about as much as you imagine a Chinese exchange student might learn about the collective and exhaustive works of English literature might, in a year, never having read in English before.Still, I was exposed to a bunch of history, some of which was up front and personal.

Only two years earlier, Taiwan was still ruled by martial law. Remember, mainland China and Taiwan both lay claim to being the legitimate government in all of China.

Life was very very different in China, compared to the way it is now. Remember, Tienanmen was 1989, the year I went to Taiwan. The Berlin wall came down a year later. HK and Macau were both still British and Portuguese colonies. The Cultural Revolution was only dead about 15 years. Back then. So that makes only 40 years now.

At the time, I read a very famous novel called Luotuo Xiangzi by Lao She. In English, Rickshaw Boy, or more literally Camel Xiangzi, where Xiangzi is the main character’s name.

As an aside, the given name I used in China was Xiang, from this novel. The “ng” is quiet, so it sounds like like Shan*g, a little like Sean. I also still use it in Japanese calligraphy, the first of two characters, it is pronounces “sho.” The second is “un,” the “u” is pronounce as in “pull.” Together they are Shoun, or Sean.

Anyway, it was a slog to read. It was written in the 30’s, pre-communism, but kind of appealed to some communist sympathies. Hard work, the cruelties of economics. I read it in English, but it was still like pulling teeth. And it was written in the vernacular, which should have made it easier.

Note that Chinese vernacular is kind of like European vernacular. There are as many major languages in China as there are in Europe. Mandarin (of course), with its subdialects spoken in Sichan, Yunnan, Hubei, and others. Think if it like Spanish vs. Italian. You kind of get it, but might lose something in translation. Then, there is Cantonese in Canton and HK, Min-nan in Fujian and Taiwan, and Shangainese, among many others. And those languages are very very different. You can’t just try hard and hope to understand it.

Much of literary Chinese pre-twentieth century was written in classical Chinese, which is almost a different language. Imagine speaking English, but only writing in Latin, where the Latin words are also in English, but often with different meanings due to linguistic drift. Imagine very little  was ever written, even newspapers, in vernacular English until the 1920s. Also, everything written by the Gemans, French, Spanish, Italians, and Romanians, among others, was also written in Latin. Then, English was written in vernacular, until a couple of years later, when the Spanish said, hey, I like Spanish vernacular better than English.

Then, add the communist revolution post WW2, which strongly influenced literature. Some might say it smothered literature, since at minimum it limited the acceptable subject matter. Then introduce the Cultural Revolution, which doubled down on that even more. Some would argue that vernacular literature came to a stop. If you haven’t read about the Cultural Revolution, you should. I don’t have a proper book to recommend, but I will look into it. Really, it is amazing to think that this kind of stuff was happening in our lifetimes.

So, writing in colloquial, vernacular Chinese- post Cultural Revolution- really only started forty years ago. I suspect- though I am very very far removed from the Chinese literary world- that literature, writ large, is still finding its feet. The point my friend makes about “show, don’t tell” may well not be an entrenched expectation. The ideas themselves are what is probably driving the popularity of the books.

I read one popular novel in Japanese, by a very popular author. By popular, I mean the author was a household name. Kind of like “the collected works of Jacqueline Susann. The novels of Harold Robbins…Ah, the “Giants”. His name is Jiro Akagawa. The novel was Mishiranuko, or the Child I Don’t Recognize. It was a slog to get through, as well. It broke all the rules, was trite, and had sentences that would go on for a page, with a dozen verbs (I exaggerate for effect). In Japanese, you can have run-on sentences. You don’t have to have a paragraph that states what you are talking about, talks about it, and then finishes. My point is this, the rules ain’t the same. That’s ok.

Only, it doesn’t make it as interesting for a foreign reader of the literature. We have our conventions. We have our rules. And if our literature, in translation or otherwise, doesn’t meet those expectations then it won’t do well.

What I find interesting is that the first of the series by Cixin Liu, which I have not read, seems to meet the criteria, while the two sequels do not. I wonder why the author didn’t continue that way.

I wonder what an actual, honest-to-goodness literary scholar would say.



4 thoughts on “Chinese Literature, Armchair Commentary

    1. It is interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying, except maybe for anime, and then only the really good stuff. Miyazaki Hayao is really amazing. It is the only art form that I feel any real interest in. Most manga are not really for me either. But I was never the fan that you and my many other friends were or are. Remember, I was the guy that always borrowed your Watchmen, or Sandman, or Usagi Yojimbo.


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