« Editorial

Why the West Fails to Understand Chinese Literature

By Duncan Jepson

Author Duncan Jepson is managing editor of the Asia Literary Review

Fifteen years ago I bought a copy of Wang Shuo’s Playing For Thrills from Dillons in London’s King’s Road, a book briefly heralded by some in the West as ushering in China’s equivalent to Beat literature. Alas, this new literary genre never really took off.

Shuo and his peers wrote lots more but the books never caught on in the West. Readers there found these stories meandering and character-lite. What was more appealing to Western taste was “heavy scar” literature — writers recounting the pain of loss and suffering endured during the most terrible of the Maoist years. I have always used the comparison between Western and Chinese art — the former requiring a single perspective, complete with vanishing point; the latter having none at all — to illustrate the divergent cultural approaches to story-telling. These can lead to vastly different views of our shared world.

“Literature still provides us with the best means of hearing the voices on the ground…”

Even fifteen years ago, the Chinese literary perspective, in common with that of virtually all Asians save the Japanese, was viewed as being of little general interest to the West. But with Asia’s ascendancy during the late ’90s and ’00s, and the West’s economic freefall since 2007, nowadays the world according to Asia is not only of interest but viewed as a vital indicator of the possible future. Literature still provides us with the best means of hearing the voices on the ground, whether in the short clever satires of Hung Huang and Han Han, the longer works of Shuo, Su Tong, Mo Yan and Yan Geling, or the poetry of so many serving time at the pleasure of the Chinese Government. (Few seem to remember that classical Chinese culture ranked poetry as the highest literary art. In fact, one can still hear people from all social strata in contemporary China freely quoting verse in everyday conversation.) I realize I’ve discussed many of these writers before, but it seems to me worth listing them once more while demand for content about China is still exponentially increasing, and so many profess to want to understand the country and its people.

Twenty-five years ago when I studied at Beijing Language Institute, there was barely a travel guide on the Middle Kingdom available, and five years after that, when I did my thesis on business management in China, there were only two or three books on Chinese business — mostly collections of research papers, and most of these starting with an analysis of the great Beijing-Jeep joint venture. But then supply matched demand. Now there is a great thirst for information, yet readers still seem to be limited to understanding Asia, and particularly China, from a Western perspective, searching for glimpses of the Chinese psyche from the comforting standpoint of Western values. This approach is too simplistic, and worse it is misleading.

“…for years to come Chinese literature will not contain the same richness of characterization as Western literature does”

It is very likely that for years to come Chinese literature will not contain the same richness of characterization as Western literature does — hardly surprising perhaps in a culture which has developed along an entirely separate course, and which rates most highly different elements of the human condition and experience. A prime example of this can of course be seen in the much-vaunted freedom of the individual, so widely advocated throughout much of Western literature whereas in Asia generally it is considered to be of far less significance. This is probably the greatest sticking point for Westerners confronted with stories written about Asians for Asians. While Western commentators decry the perceived lack of individuality and freedom of will, they often seem to fail to see and understand that it’s in the small changes taking place at grass-roots level where so much of Asian culture and society is illustrated and revealed.

There are countless individual battles being waged in families across Asia every day, simply for the right to live a self-determined life. To many there, choosing to meander — and perhaps to sink without trace — among society’s adopted Western-style innovations is viewed as preferable to scratching the dirt with the rest of the community, as would have been the only option available to them twenty years ago, or simply being told what to do by a patriarchal figure. It is viewed by many as progress. But the fact that other Chinese may never fully embrace the concept of the primacy of the individual against the wishes of the majority, and may instead opt to respect the will of their family and community, should not be viewed with distrust and incomprehension by the West. Chinese literature may always lack a hard singular perspective and float too loosely for Westerner readers but that is a reflection of the nature of the people.

Like my peers, I have been fortunate enough to watch China progress from its simple post-Maoist Open Door policy in the mid-80s to the chaotic mixture of ideas and activities adopted there today. At times it has felt like sitting in a front-row seat watching history unfold before me — in exactly the same way, I imagine, as it must have felt to encounter Matteo Ricci in the Middle Kingdom four hundred years ago, China’s first epoch-changing experience of the West and the scientific innovation it offered. And I feel sad that at such an important time as this other people are missing their chance to share this experience by looking in the wrong places, or else demanding that the translation of Chinese culture recording this transition be made so “approachable” that the values, spirit and intent of its original voices are irretrievably lost.’

Duncan Jepson was a founder and is currently Managing Editor of the Asia Literary Review. He is a lawyer, filmmaker and author of the novel All the Flowers in Shanghai.

DISCUSS: China Will Never Be a Gold Mine for Western Publishers

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  1. Posted January 3, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Ho-hum. Surely Mr. Jepson has been around in the Middle Kingdom long enough to have something more meaningful to say about Chinese literature than this!

    For those who are interested in a bit of insight into what is actually happening on the Chinese literary scene, I recommend you check out Paper Republic at paper-republic.org

    Frankly speaking, a good part of the relative disinterest in Chinese literature in translation in the West is due to the way in which the front-line buyers — agents, publishers and their purchasing editors — go about sourcing new titles. For starters, very few of them employ full-time staff who can read Chinese and know what is happening in the market. This means that they may not learn about new writing in the genre in which they deal — detective stories or female fiction, for example — unless those books sell very well in China and capture the attention of foreign media. By which time they ain’t “new.”

    If you are serious about adding contemporary Chinese authors to your stable, rather than waiting for a “blockbuster” to emerge it stands to reason that you will need a fluent speaker of the language on the ground who is regularly scanning the market. It’s not that difficult to do if you live here, know the language and understand the preferences of readers in certain markets in the US or the EU.

    In the case of “Shanghai Baby” by Wei Hui, and “Last Quarter of the Moon” by Chi Zijian — both of which I eventually translated for publication — I read the novels in Chinese when they hit the market, contacted the authors immediately, and ended up introducing both of them to the agents who sold their novels to publishers in the West.

    Obviously, I’m not the only one doing such scouting. But there aren’t a lot of us, either. Until I find more publishers hiring Chinese-speaking staff to pro-actively tap into this emerging “supply market,” I’ll continue to be a bit cynical about Mr. Jepson’s conclusions above.

    “. . .readers still seem to be limited to understanding Asia, and particularly China, from a Western perspective, searching for glimpses of the Chinese psyche from the comforting standpoint of Western values,” he writes.

    Really? Or is it that when and if they are interested in delving into Chinese fiction in search of those “glimpses,” readers in the West have to choose from just a dozen or so Chinese novels that are translated into English annually?

  2. Posted January 3, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Publishers/agents etc naturally gravitate to whatever they think will make the easiest sell, and be most easily understood in their own culture, hence the “Western-ness” of Chinese books in translation.

    I know much more about Russian and Eastern European literature than I do Chinese, but there I can see the same process in almost every “major” book translated. Andrzej Stasiuk, Polish maestro had a few books released by Dalkey Archive, but HMH took a punt only when they found a book they could market as a Polish “On the Road”; Vladimir Sorokin had written lots of bizarre stuff and NYRB Classics dabbled, but FSG only got involved when they found a book they could market as conforming to the classic “dissident vs. authoritarian” stereotype. Viktor Pelevin burst out the gate early because he referenced rock music and dabbled in virtual reality tropes which were fashionable in the 90s. Now he appears to be fading. Etc.

    Whether these books in fact genuinely resemble the things publicists tell us they do is another matter, of course.

    If you pick up material from an alien culture you will almost certainly get it wrong without years of study, thus publishers look for things that most resemble ours, at least superficially. It’s a business, isn’t it?

  3. DRISS
    Posted January 3, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Richard Nixon paid a historical visit to China,and among the advisers he called upon to prepare such a historical visit was the well known author from France,André Malraux,and students from all over the world did enjoy reading Malraux’s”La Condition Humaine.”

  4. Posted January 5, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I agree that English-speakers tend to search “for glimpses of the Chinese psyche from the comforting standpoint of Western values,” and that this is a problem. In fact, I see what Bruce describes, above, as “readers in the West hav[ing] to choose from just a dozen or so Chinese novels that are translated into English annually” as an element of the situation Juncan lays out.

    I find it pretty ironic, thought, that someone who criticizes “the comforting standpoint of Western values,” who is the managing editor of an Asia-based and focused Literary Review, and who studied at the Beijing Language Institute twenty-five years ago, would still refer to Chinese landscape painting as having no perspective “at all,” rather than as exhibiting many perspectives, and that he’d refer to Wang Shuo as “Shuo,” as if he didn’t know that Chinese surnames come first. Or is this an instance of the editors at Publishing Perspectives insisting on their perspective in ways that infringe on the presentation of what’s being said?

    • Edward Nawotka
      Posted January 7, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Lucas, the name Wang Shou was published as such because that is the way in which the publisher of the English language translation presented the author to the world. We don’t impose our own values as such, but reflect those of the publishing world around us, albeit in the context of an English-language publication.

  5. Posted January 6, 2013 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    Mr. Jepson was in China 25 years ago. China has changed so much in the past 25 years. So, I can say to him: ni out le! :). Even I am staying in China as a Chinese, I find it hard to keep up with the literary trend. Some new words are becoming popular almost everyday. I just got a full understanding of a new word “Diao si” yesterday. It is very easy to be “out le” :-)

    Talking about the localization in translation, I think we should follow the old teaching of Confucius: “guò yóu bù jí” , which means “too much is as bad as too little”. The key is to keep the right balance. The translation should be localized enough for the Western readers to understand but with as less original meaning loss as possible.

    The on-line literature is gaining more importance in China. I hope you guys will pay more notice to it. I am currently looking for an English translator who is strong at strory telling. If you know anyone who has the time to do a translation job of a three-volume novel, please kindly recommend to me. The title is about tomb raiding adventures in China. Thanks!
    My email: zhangliping@cloudary.com.cn

    • Edward Nawotka
      Posted January 7, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Hi Lisa, actually Duncan still lives in Hong Kong, which is technically part of China. As the founder and editor of the Asia Literary Review he has strong authority to comment on literary trends. Though, as you point out, the scene is developing so rapidly it is very tricky for anyone to stay on top of everything.

  6. Posted January 8, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Um, it’s spelled “Shuo.” First rule of holes, my friend: when you’re in one, stop digging.

    As for how “the publisher of the English language translation presented the author to the world,” the cover of Playing for Thrills lists the author as “Wang Shuo,” as does the back of the book, and on the publication information page reads the following:
    Wang, Shuo, 1958 –


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