Voices: a sampling of contemporary Chinese fiction

Travel | by James Weir
Posted: May 9th, 2012 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Ctrip writing contest Contemporary Chinese fiction Our writing contest, My Chengdu Story, is trucking along (the submission period ends 8 June 2012), with a handful of entries making their way to our submission pages in the last few days (see fiction, non-fiction and poetry). Thus far, we've seen a pair of fictional Chinese histories, a roving gang of water-polo-playing foreigners taking Chengdu by storm, one young man's experience as part of a Chinese choir, and a duo of poetic odes to the city of Chengdu. Off to a good start, to be sure, but we want more, more, more! Submit a story and win some prizes, wontcha? Anyhoo, as we enjoy English-language literature here in China, one of England's largest newspapers recently published a few translations of some of China's biggest names in the world of fiction. The series is a literary gang to be reckoned with: there's "Old Man Xinjiang" by Xue Mo, set in the wild western provincial frontier; the ever-controversial Murong Xuecun and his alarming story, "The Accident;" the sci-fi weirdness of concrete eating dragons in Zhang Xinxin's "Dragonworld;" A Yi's story of the missing chicken, "The Curse;" and finally, Xu Zechen's look back to the countryside of Jiangsu where he grew up, with "Galloping Horses." Read more about Chinese fiction after the jump>>> [pullquote]As apartment blocks disappear, computer screens and TVs begin to proliferate, and mobile phones twinkle like stars in the sky, except they are twinkling on earth, flickering, glimmering, buzzing, humming. The people still on two legs go in and out of their temporary shells, the rich in their tall wooden towers, the ordinary folk in straw huts and the migrant workers under plastic sheeting. Some climb into the broken shells of cars, with black rubber tyres, rows of seats, a steering wheel, a board here and there, just like the make-believe games they played as children … Outside, the world has gone quiet, except for the sound of rushing water. It is the sound of fountains, of sand sliding down dunes. The dragons have digested the concrete and excreted sand. The tall concrete buildings have been replaced by dunes of white sand. The greenery is still there, although there have never been many trees in this small town. There are little gardens in the streets, pots of flowers on balconies, seductive little oases in the desert – no need for a mirage. -Zhang Xinxin, "Dragonworld" [/pullquote]There are certain themes that are present in literature of all kinds, and have been for thousands of years—love (blossoming or gone forever), death (unexpected or long-overdue), war (geopolitical and/or social), longing (for the past or some unseen future), regret (for actions or a lack thereof), pain (your own or another's), and the like—and these sorts of what-does-it-all-really-mean-anyway questions are certainly found in these five stories. But these stories are uniquely Chinese, and it is this Chinese-ness that makes these stories so interesting, especially to the outsider looking in. Though the stories all differ greatly in terms of plot, genre and narrative device, they all seem to be asking the same question: What is happening to China, and what does it mean for us, the people? The two stories that most stood out to me, "The Accident" and "Dragonworld," are about as different as two stories can be. "The Accident" is realistic, the story full of regular (if a bit evil) seeming individuals, while "Dragonworld" exists in a place where humans transform into concrete-consuming dragons and the city disappears at the hands of their insatiable appetites. It would seem, at least superficially, that they have little in common. But a close reading reveals a level of urgency in both stories, an underlying worry about the direction China is headed, and a fear that by the time society decides to act it will be too late. "The Accident" considers the moral implications of a society that has seen more than it's fair share of corruption and interpersonal indifference, and wonders not so subtly: How did we get here, to a place where a life can mean so little? It is a disturbing story of undeserving and dangerous privilege and power. It also, unfortunately, doesn't seem very far-fetched in it's cold heartedness; after all, people have been doing horrible things to one another since the beginning of humanity. "Dragonworld" imagines a world where the Chinese populace has become so enamored with material wealth and their homes that these same possessions literally become their sustenance; as the dragon-people devour the concrete and, eventually, everything around them, the landscape transforms from high rises and shopping malls to glittering, fine-grained sand dunes. For even the most peripheral of China-watchers these kinds of questions are nothing new, and have been documented in scores of newspaper articles and blog posts for many years. But while English-language journalism about China is easily found, contemporary Chinese fiction in English is significantly less common. It is incredibly interesting to view this same, broad question—Are we, the people, content with the trajectory of our country?—through parables and first person narratives instead of through the lens of the Western media. The translations made available by The Guardian are superb, and I eagerly look forward to my next foray into the world of Chinese fiction.
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