- The Pearl Jacket and Other Stories: Flash Fiction from Contemporary China
- Stone Bridge Press, 370 pp.
120 Views of China
Just in time for the Olympics comes a compilation to turn to during a lull in the archery rounds. Indeed, with most of these 120 translated stories sneaking in under 1000 words, you could probably whip through a couple before a loosened arrow even hits the target.
Tempting as this might be, it would not be fair to the authors featured here. Flash fiction, or the “smoke-long story,” or the “skinny story,” as it is sometimes called in China, is short, true. But as anyone who has tried to write a thank you card knows, brevity ain’t easy.
Nor is it truly fair to view this book as a kind of primer on all thoughts Chinese (or mainland China, for that matter – 19 are from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan). After all, one doesn’t expect E. Annie Proulx’s work to bear much relation to T.C. Boyle’s, despite the shared vocabulary.
Still, literature of language remains a convenient umbrella, broad enough to shelter lots of divergent stories. It’s the one the editor and translator of this book, Shouhua Qi, favors, and we’ll take his lead. How the authors, saturated in the wider world and their own traditions, feel about this label is a tale for a different day.
To first impressions, then. Not surprisingly, the best authors here share a bond with flash fiction writers in any language. They have just enough story and description to give weight to their narrative, coupled with a grace and lightness of touch. The space around the words, the blank that the readers must fill in with their imagination, is as important as what is printed.
In “The Story Outside My Window,” by Yide’erfu, for instance, a ragged peasant wearing an old white fur coat squats near the protagonist’s city window. The old man insists that he will be able to sell it as an heirloom to rich foreigners, and resists any argument:
“I want to try my luck. Someday I’ll be lucky.”
He is both ignorant and stubborn.
He comes here everyday to wait for his luck, but his luck never shows up.
And in the end, he is still there.
This sparseness, evocative of fable, is a feature of many in the collection. Often the subject is a simple event – a girl buys a yellow dress, an old man goes fishing, two play at a chess game – and the conclusion a twist of fortune. In the love stories, especially, poignancy plays a large role.
On closer impression, one notes the difference between stories written in the 1920s and 1930s and those that followed. As with the rest of the world, the time before the war was a period of great creative ferment in China. The vernacular, long stifled by the use of classical language in literature, came into its own. Authors experimented with revolutionary ideas and theories, traditions were turned on their heads.
Take Lu Xun’s “Theme,” written in 1925. In less than a page, the narrator explains how he dreamt of asking a schoolmaster how one establishes a theme. The schoolmaster counters with a parable about a baby being given auspicious comments. After two guests have blessed it with wealth and power, the third guest says the baby will die someday and is attacked for his pronouncement. The narrator is confused:
“I don’t want to tell lies, and I don’t want to be beaten, either. So, master, what should I say?”
“Okay, then, you’ll have to say, ‘Wow! This child! Oh my! How…indeed! Hahaha! Hehehe! Hehehe!'”
This kind of writing, the idea of obscuring truth in language, seems distinctly 1920s, as if Woolf, Faulkner and Lu Xun were all secretly communing with each other.
Other famous authors of that time are included: Guo Moruo, the satirist Lao She with a warning tale about fortune and luck (“The Lottery”), and Shen Congwen, with a wry pastoral about a canny father and his suffering son. And then, after about 1935, there is practically nothing until 1980. In this gap one substitutes history. World War II, the establishment of a Communist government, the nationalization of China’s publishing industry, the introduction of strict censorship, and the debacle of the Hundred Flowers Campaign. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese literature had gone to ground. Mao Zedong’s death brought writers back in the open, and to the attention of each other.
So what do Chinese writers have to say about their new world? Amidst the current debates, it’s very easy to slip on the lenses of politics or propaganda (western and eastern). Ideas about migration from the country to the city, environmental degradation and new wealth – yes, they are here. Yet to look for causes in fiction can be dangerous.
Those who wish to see a patriotic slant, for example, will no doubt pounce upon “American Apple” by Li Jingwen, that tells of a man who covets a shiny imported fruit only to find that it’s tasteless. They might even read a “Comedy of Birds” by Zhong Jieying, where a bird dies after being fed a rich diet of egg and medications, as a criticism of western ways. But this deprives Jieying of the credit due to a good story about misplaced love.
Alternatively, a person searching for criticism of Mao’s regime may focus on Xu Huifeng’s “Auntie Fei.” The multi-talented Auntie Fei snares a worker poet, sticks with him when he is condemned as a Rightist, and saves him from the Red Guards. To focus on the politics may be socially righteous reading, but again it ignores the teasing, affectionate tone that the author uses to bring Auntie Fei to life.
Plus there are stories that avoid modern life altogether. Some writers spin traditional tales with the threads of fresh language. Jia Pingao’s “Golden Lotus” presents a classical hero, Wu Song, and puts into his mouth a wild, evocative, and contradictory description of the woman he killed. In the uncertain fable of “Merchant of Will” by Teng Gang, a 19th century merchant buys wills for mysterious reasons.
One broad generalization that can be made about modern Chinese writing is that it often deals with bureaucracy and hierarchy, bribery and corruption (though nothing obviously directed at the highest levels). Whether these stories are an indictment of government or merely a depiction of how things are is up to the reader. Power plays make for good drama.
For instance, Sheng Xiaoqing’s “Chief Staff Member,” a favorite, tells of an old man and young man who are moved into a new office and agree to be equal on all things. But there is a constant outside pressure to have one person in charge. They end up trying to cede control to the other, out of respect, and with little success:
Gradually the worry wears them down and they both become thinner, much less open. In such a cheerless, repressive environment they drag through each day, heavy-hearted, as if it were a long year. Ah, when can they see the light at the end of the tunnel?
Descriptive or spare, crazy or controlled – there is seemingly no rhyme or reason to a Chinese author’s choice of subject or approach today. Though their stories may share similarities of restraint, with a focus more on subtlety than broad humor, they remain incredibly diverse.
Which is, of course, how it should be. A pointillist painting, or a compilation say, shows you only broad outlines from afar. Stand right next to it, however, and the figures begin to dissolve into brilliant flashes of color, each one unique. It is the job of literary types to spend their time yapping about isms and trends. It is the joy of readers to block up their ears to this rubbish and open the book.
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Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.