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Short stories are very popular in China but few of them have been translated into English. Many of theme are quite short and require readers to use their imagination to fill in missing spots. One collection that has been translated into English---“Loud Sparrows” translated and edited by Aili Mu, Julie Chiu and Howard Goldblatt (Columbia University, 2007)---features 91 stores that vary in length from one paragraph to three pages. Characters include a monk that can change himself into water if he meditates hard enough and a prison escapee that breaks into his former jail.

Science fiction is also very popular in China. There are millions of readers and a host of fanzines and websites to keep them informed. Homegrown Chinese science fiction began in 1954 with the short story “From Earth to Mars” by astronomer-writer Zheng Wenguang and reached its zenith in 1978, after Mao's death, with story “Death Ray on a Coral Island” by Tang Enzheng.

One blogger compared contemporary Chinese literature to Chinese manufactured goods: low price, high quantity, little added value, no brand. Themes of modern Chinese literature include nationalism, humanism, progress, memory, pleasure, and "cultural China." Chinese works that sell well in the United States tend to deal with the Cultural Revolution, the Mao era, the early 20th century or some other period from the past. Those that deal with contemporary issues don’t do so well. Sometimes publishers refer to works coming out of China and Asia a whole as “scar “or “misery “literature”---about enduring hard times and poverty under repressive regimes.

The Bookworm, a bookstore and café in the Sanlitun district of Beijing, is regarded as a center of the English-speaking literati and a center of literary life in Beijing. It was forced to close in 2019, unable to renew its lease amid crackdown on ‘illegal structures’. The One Way Street café is regarded as a center of the Chinese-speaking literati in Beijing

Modern Chinese Writers and Literature: MCLC Resource Center ; Modern Chinese literature in translation Paper Republic Yellow Bridge ;

Communism and Literature

The Communists have traditionally viewed literature primarily as a propaganda device. In a piece entitled “Yan'an Talks of Art and Literature”, Mao argued that literature was something that should be used for a revolutionary purposes. Most Communist literature is about peasants, workers and soldiers who overcome great odds to achieve great things.

After Liberation in 1949, popular Chinese pulp novels were replaced by Communist books such as “Red Star Heroes”, “We Fight Best When We March Our Hardest”, “After Reaping the Bumper Harvest” and “Grandma Sees Six Different Machines”. Party line fables like “The Foolish Man Who Removed the Mountains” were known to everyone. It was several decades before the Ministries of Truth, Propaganda and Culture allowed romantic novels about liberation soldiers who missed their girlfriends to be published.

For many Chinese in their 30s and 40s the only reading material that was available when they were children was “The Little Red Book”. Books were hard to come by during the Cultural Revolution, or they would circulate in mutilated form, The writer Yu Hua said he read the middle of a torn copy of a novel by Guy de Maupassant (I remember it had a lot of sex, he said) without knowing its title or author. His formative reading experience was provided by the big character posters of the Cultural Revolution, in which people denounced their neighbors with violent inventiveness. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, New York Times, January 23, 2009]

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Mao with writers and artists in Yannan in 1942

Literature in the Post-Mao Period

The arrest of Jiang Qing and the other members of the Gang of Four in 1976, and especially the reforms initiated at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh National Party Congress Central Committee in December 1978, led more and more older writers and some younger writers to take up their pens again. Much of the literature discussed the serious abuses of power that had taken place at both the national and the local levels during the Cultural Revolution. The writers decried the waste of time and talent during that decade and bemoaned abuses that had held China back. At the same time, the writers expressed eagerness to make a contribution to building Chinese society. This literature, often called "the literature of the wounded," contained some disquieting views of the party and the political system. Intensely patriotic, these authors wrote cynically of the political leadership that gave rise to the extreme chaos and disorder of the Cultural Revolution. Some of them extended the blame to the entire generation of leaders and to the political system itself. The political authorities were faced with a serious problem: how could they encourage writers to criticize and discredit the abuses of the Cultural Revolution without allowing that criticism to go beyond what they considered tolerable limits?[Source: Library of Congress]

“During this period, a large number of novels and short stories were published; literary magazines from before the Cultural Revolution were revived, and new ones were added to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetite of the reading public. There was a special interest in foreign works. Linguists were commissioned to translate recently published foreign literature, often without carefully considering its interest for the Chinese reader. Literary magazines specializing in translations of foreign short stories became very popular, especially among the young.

“It is not surprising that such dramatic change brought objections from some leaders in government and literary and art circles, who feared it was happening too fast. The first reaction came in 1980 with calls to combat "bourgeois liberalism," a campaign that was repeated in 1981. These two difficult periods were followed by the campaign against spiritual pollution in late 1983, but by 1986 writers were again enjoying greater creative freedom.

Chinese Writers Today

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Writers in China roughly fall into three categories: 1) established writers of serious literature, 2) writers of online literature and 3) popular reading and children’s writers. Many of the writers that receive no state support are referred to as “hooligan writers “who often “focus on the alienation of urban youth “and “beautiful women writers “who produce reams of narcissistic chick-lit.”

“The idealistic writers who marched in 1989 are now luminaries of the literary establishment,” Nobel-Prize winner Mo Yan wrote in the early 2010s. “The Chinese Writers Association has provided them with rural villas equipped with saunas and gyms, and almost limitless expense accounts. When they go to give lectures, police cars with blaring sirens clear the roads for their chauffeur-driven limousines.” When they travel abroad they are told by their party handlers to ‘speak about what you should speak about and not speak about what you shouldn’t speak about.”

Writers born in the 1970s are known as “70-hou “in Chinese. Although they get published many feel neglected and don’t have big numbers of readers. A typical “70-hou “writer keeps a day job. Many are public servants, or minor officials, and others are newspaper and magazine editors. The 36-year-old writer Xie Zongyu is a policeman in Changsha. The job gives him an endless supply of unusual crime stories, which he can adapt into fiction. Xie started by contributing to Zhiyin, a popular magazine that pays a good price for this kind of story. One day, he witnessed the bloated corpse of a young woman floating down the river. She was one of a pair of lovers who committed suicide because they could not see any future for their love. The man's body surfaced soon after drowning, but it took 10 days for the woman to be found. When people used a forklift that pierced into her body to drag it ashore, he could not help pondering the meaning of life.

Why should I spend my life churning out words that do not express the profundity of the human existence, he asked himself. He turned to serious writing, which often pays 100 yuan ($15) or less for every 1,000 Chinese characters. But he has no regrets. Unless you're a best-selling writer, he says, the money from creating literature does not make a difference to the quality of your material life. However, people like Xie do care about fame and feel their writing can bring about change and gain them more respect. “What we want most is the recognition and applause from peers,” said Zhe Gui, the 35-year-old from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, a place with a pervasive business culture.

What Modern Chinese Writers Write About

Kerry Brown and Sheng Keyi wrote in the South China Morning Post: ““Young Japanese and Chinese writers have a big difference. Japanese do have an interest in questions of philosophy and spirit. But the Chinese write about the here and now, things right before them; they are more materialistic. That reflects what life is like for people in China. They are preoccupied with all the pressures on their immediate, material lives. Spirit, meanings and faith seem very remote. As long as there is a bit of money in their pockets, some happiness in day-to-day life, then, the presiding world view goes, people don’t need to think too much. In some ways, it is better not to. [Source: Kerry Brown and Sheng Keyi, South China Morning Post, November 18, 2016. “Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese politics at King’s College, London. Sheng Keyi is a Chinese novelist, and author of “Northern Girls” and “Death Fugue”.]

“The outside world thinking about China suffers from its own form of myopia. Most see the huge new buildings, and the splendour and glamour of the cities. They are transfixed by how much China has developed and changed over the past few decades. But about the inner lives of Chinese, the people who, after all, live in these impressive material landscapes, like those in Shanghai or Shenzhen, most non-Chinese would find them a complete mystery. They are like the thick polluted fog of a bad winter’s day in Beijing. And just as people cry out to close the window when the fog is too thick, so people divert their eyes when they are asked to actually work out what it is that Chinese people have in their hearts.

“Of course, there is plenty of literature and writing to try to uncover what Chinese people really believe. But a lot of that never comes close to the key point. It’s distorted by political or other agendas, or tries to present a face only appropriate to outsiders, reflecting little or none of the reality behind it. There are exceptions, though. Through these, we glimpse the complex story underneath. If we read Lu Xun, we get real insight into the soul of the Republican period. If we read Mo Yan, the Nobel Prize winner, we can understand something of the souls of modern rural Chinese, and the story of the great famines. Yan Lianke allows us to really see the paradoxes and contradictions of Chinese society today. His latest book describes a situation which sums up China today — a whole town where people are plunged into the same dream one night, a dream in which they kill, rob and harm one another, but which, as dreamers, they are unwilling to pull themselves out of.

Chinese Ultra-Realism

Modern China is full of absurdities: corrupt officials found with so much cash it is weighed rather than counted; toxic steamed buns and baby formula sold in supermarkets; and poor villagers that raise rats and sell rats them restaurants to survive. Against this backdrop it is often hard for a fiction writer to outperform reality.

Chinese writer Ning Ken, known best for surreal novels set in Tibet, wrote: If Magic Realism was the way in which Latin American authors presented their view of their reality, then Ultra-Unreal Realism should be our name for the literature through which the Chinese regard their reality. The Chinese word “chaohuan” (ultra-unreal) is something of a play on the word “mohuan” (magic), as in “mohuan xianshizhuyi” (magic realism) — “mohuan” is “magical unreal,” and “chaohuan” is “surpassing the unreal.” In the 1980s, when China was starting to open up to the world, Latin American literature, with Gabriel Garci´a Ma´rquez as the representative, poured into China. When we read “magic realism,” it seemed familiar, it seemed close to us, and that is because in their suffering and their difficult, incredible histories, Chinese people and Latin Americans have a lot in common. Indeed, in the 1980s we often spoke of China as a place of “magic realism.” But since the 1990s, and especially in the past dozen years or so, China is no longer that place; it is now a place of the “ultra-unreal.”[Source: Ning Ken, Translated from the Chinese by Thomas Moran, Literary Hub, June 23, 2016]

“Or maybe in China this has always been the case. There are several points that distinguish China’s “ultra-unreal” from the “magical real” of Latin America. First, the history is different. Chinese civilization has an unbroken history of five thousand years. There is no other civilization like it on the planet. This in itself is “ultra-unreal.” At the heart of China’s civilization has always been someone with absolute power. In China, the way in which rulers come to power and wield power ensures that their power reaches everywhere and encompasses everything. In “The Eye of Power,” Foucault discusses the mechanisms by which power surveils and controls. His reference to the “eye” of power is apt. In Chinese history huge eyes of power appear again and again. In some sense, Chinese history is a monster covered with multiple eyes of power. Latin American “magic realism” is concerned with the eye of power too, of course, but it is a much smaller eye.

“Second, the sense of time is different. China has changed from being a country that moved too slowly into a country that moves too fast — so fast it’s as if China has escaped gravity. Whether it is the economy, fashion, popular culture, entertainment, or sports, in just thirty years China has gone through what took several hundred years in the West. In a very short time, China has made extraordinary achievements. It is as if time in China has been compressed. This compression not only folds into the current moment a few hundred years of Western history but also several thousand years of Chinese history. Because time is going too fast, China’s cities are now strange things. They all look exactly alike, as if they were a series of exact computer copies. The transformation of China’s villages is equally astounding. Thirty years ago a lot of China’s villages looked pretty much just like they did in antiquity. These days in many of China’s villages there are only old folks and children. Or villages have become ghost towns, which are a little spooky to visit.

“Recently the literary journal where I am an editor published a story titled “The History of Sound.” The title refers to a character’s extraordinary hearing. The sounds he hears convey the history of the emptying out of the village where the story is set. The people of working age have left the village to work in cities and towns. A flood comes, and afterwards the village is like a place left behind by history. Only two people remain: an old man and an old woman. There had been a disagreement between them in the past, but gradually they come to rely on each other to survive, and they move in together. There is a saying in Chinese about “love that outlasts heaven and earth,” meaning love that lasts until the end of time. This used to be just a saying, but these days in many villages it is a reality: the end of time has come for these villages.

“The third major force that distinguishes “magic realism” from the “ultra-unreal” is the internet. There has never been anything quite like it before. Many of China’s “ultra-unreal” phenomena are written about on the internet immediately after they occur. Reality is a text to begin with, and now that the internet can show us “ultra-unreal” phenomena that we otherwise would not know about, we end up with a sort of doubled “ultra-unreal.” This has created a huge challenge for fiction. Fiction can no longer just tell straightforward stories about single topics following single narrative arcs; reality is providing us with all sorts of rich possibilities for experiments in fictional form. To some degree, the more true to reality fiction is these days, the more avant-garde it will seem. The way we look at things determines the way we write about them. Reality is mutable. For instance, if you look at reality from the viewpoint of tradition, then the reality you write about will seem traditional. If you look at reality from the viewpoint of the “ultra-unreal,” then your writing will be “ultra-unreal.” This is not to say there is no difference between the perspectives. There can be no question that it is the viewpoint of the “ultra-unreal” that is more in tune with the present time.

Writing in the Age of Chinese Ultra-Realism

Ning Ken wrote: “I believe that “writing in the age of the ultra-unreal” is distinguished by the following four characteristics, which I will explain as simply as I can. 1) Writing in the age of the ultra-unreal engages the present situation. Contemporary Chinese reality has brought about a seismic transformation to our world, and the writing of the current age should engage these enormous changes. It should engage the social issues that are the hottest topics of the popular discussion of the moment. But in engaging, it should remain strictly within the territory of literature, meaning that human beings should remain its central concern. Human beings have become as complex and multifaceted as the surface of a machine-cut diamond. The same modern technology that cuts diamonds and shapes people has ravaged the land. The state of the environment mirrors the state of our souls. [Source: Ning Ken, Translated from the Chinese by Thomas Moran, Literary Hub, June 23, 2016]

“2) It is philosophically speculative. When we are critical of the world around us, we are very clear about what we are criticizing and why. But in literature worthy of the name we need to remember that in life and in human nature there is much that is not clear. In life and in human nature there are paradoxes. Some of what we do is in accord with our nature and some of what we do is at odds with our nature. The interaction of human nature and reality is exceedingly complex. There are things we can discern with clarity, and things we cannot discern with clarity. Therefore in our writing we need to allow ourselves a certain freedom.

“3) It is has the quality of a fable or an allegory. Reality itself has the quality of a fable. Earlier I mentioned the short story “The History of Sound.” After the “end of time,” the two old folks are like an elderly Adam and Eve. One way to give fiction freedom is to maintain its “fabulous” quality.

“4) It takes risks. The viewpoint of the “ultra-unreal” is a complex viewpoint; it is a complex modality of perception, and so when it becomes the foundation of fiction it changes the form fiction takes. There is risk in any change. There is an artistic risk for the writer, and if even the risk succeeds and the results are good, the reader still has to take a very big risk.

Wolfgang Kubin Condemns Chinese Writers

right Wolfgang Kubin, the respected Sinologist and professor at the University of Bonn, wrote in the China Daily, “What I often hear or read in German-speaking countries about contemporary Chinese writers amounts to contempt...I have never read deeper condemnation of a Chinese writer than that of Gao Xingjian in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, first in 2000 and then last year. But, I have to confess, I'd prefer dying to writing Soul Mountain and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature for it, as the novel is a real shame.” [Source:Wolfgang Kubin, China Daily, October 9, 2010]

“What makes contemporary Chinese writers in general, suspicious in the eyes of German intellectuals, writers and scholars is that they do not seem to fulfill the duties of a true author. From a German perspective, a writer has to be the servant of the language and sacrifice everything in its service. He/she has to forget about the market and success, and live only for his/her work. In fact, his/her achievements may be recognized only after his/her death. A true writer has to accept this.”

“Many Chinese writers today write a kind of “baby Chinese”, which does not demand even a foreigner to use a dictionary. They squint at the market and entrench themselves behind walls, protected by guards. As part of the middle class, they do not live among the common people any more, and cannot, or prefer not to, speak about social problems.” What many Chinese writers lack today is the feeling of solidarity, which is actually is a socialist virtue. It has been lost among today's Chinese writers. Instead of helping their colleagues in distress, they prefer to blame them, or worse, praise themselves. Never was Cao Pi's saying more true than today: Those who are in literature despise each other.”

“For many reasons, contemporary Chinese literature is a real problem. Many best-selling Chinese authors are, from a German perspective, outdated. Their books may sell well even in Germany, but their readers do not include German intellectuals, writers or scholars, but people who are not interested in literature per se but in their descriptions of sex and crime.”

Lack of Exposure Outside China for Chinese Literature

Shen Lili wrote in the Global Times: Excellent Chinese literature has been undiscovered for too long and it's high time it gained more worldwide appreciation. Today, many foreign publishers appear to be clamoring to discover new Chinese writers, but they often don't know where to begin. These translated Chinese literature magazines step right into the void and provide them a proper platform to find celebrated Chinese writers. [Source: Shen Lili, Global Times, December 13, 2011]

Not long ago, Li Jingze and Qiu Huadong of Path Light, met the chief and vice editors of Granta, the respected and distinguished English literature magazine from the UK. The Granta editors were very pleased to receive the first issue of Path Light, saying they devoted their latest issue to Afghan authors and the following two to post-Soviet and Indian authors, and they were considering doing a Chinese issue."We can act as a window to them, providing access to the abundance of Chinese literature," said Qiu. It's definitely a win-win deal.

"It turns out that our idea of 'good' works almost perfectly coincide with that of foreigners!" said Qiu. "It's reasonable," he added. "A novel by Mo Yan about life in a Chinese village and an American novel describing the life of a Las Vegas gambler may have the same essential theme - the brilliance of humanity."

In the past, most Chinese novels published in the West were mainly about the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), but, in China, many of these novels are widely thought to be poor in quality. The novel Red, which tells the history of three generations of Chinese women in one family, has been a best-seller in Britain for many years, but to literary experts like Qiu Huadong, it has "little value in literature, and is not very well written."

These books are quite influential abroad, regarded as a window to China. But in fact scenes in these stories are far from the reality of life in China, and they reflect even less the reality of today's China.

Why Chinese Writers Are Not Read Overseas

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“Modern Chinese literature is at best a niche interest overseas, breaking through only occasionally in the form of books such as Mo Yan's “Red Sorghum” , which was later made into a film by Oscar-nominated director Zhang Yimou. Even iconic Chinese writers such as Lu Xun---who wrote biting social satire and sought to change what they viewed as a corrupt, backward and foreign-dominated China in the early 20th century---is largely unread and unknown in the West.” [Source: Ben Blanchard, South China Morning Post, Reuters, May 4, 2009]

“Chinese writers bemoan the lack of interest abroad in the country's literary treasures. “When western literature started coming into China over that period of the May 4 movement, there were lots of people translating their books into Chinese,” said Feng Jicai, whose most famous novels explore the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. “But there is hardly anybody in the west translating Chinese works. It's important to introduce Chinese literature to the west, but it's not the fault of the Chinese that it's not happening,” he says.”

“Jo Lusby, general manager of publisher Penguin China, admits to a sense of frustration at trying to bring contemporary Chinese authors to a western audience, even as sales of classics such as Journey to the West, are strong. “Chinese writers are writing for a Chinese audience about China. There are some books I would love to do out of China, but I think it needs too much back story for a western reader to enjoy them in the way a Chinese reader reads them,” she says, adding that a lack of translators compounds the problem. Often, the books which do achieve a level of success overseas are not the ones the government approves of, although there are exceptions. Jiang Rong's strongly political and best-selling Wolf Totem has sold well in English.”

“In 2000, China banned two novels for their graphic sexual content which then caused a brief stir abroad after they were translated into English - Mian Mian's Candy and literary counterpart Zhou Weihui's Shanghai Baby. These aren't the kinds of writers the mainland, keen to promote itself as a modern, cultured and benign rising power, wants to be popular abroad. “Westerners are attracted to banned Chinese books even if they are not good works of literature,” says Chen Jiangong, vice-chairman of the government-linked Chinese Writers' Association. “They are curious about them. So sometimes Chinese authors write simply to shock and be banned so as to appeal to foreigners.”

“Lusby says it is a challenge to bring Chinese writers over for book tours because few speak much English, so publishers need some other way of drawing in readers. “Oftentimes 'banned in China' is the only selling point publishers can use to communicate what the book is about,” she says.”

Pathlight and Paper Republic: English Translation of Chinese Literature

Paper Republic is service that translates contemporary Chinese fiction and literature into English. It is run by Eric Abrahamsen and a team that includes Nicky Harman, Dave Haysom, Helen Wang and a host of authors and translators. According to the Paper Republic website: “We at Paper Republic are a collective of literary translators, promoting new Chinese fiction in translation. Our new initiative, Read Paper Republic, is for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water. Between 18th June 2015 and 16th June 2016, we are publishing a complete free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one per week for a year, 52 in total. Readers can browse them for free, on their computer, tablet or phone. Paper Republic Literary Magazine

In November 2011 the first issue of Pathlight magazine, a new literary publication produced jointly by Paper Republic and People's Literature magazine, was released. Pathlight focuses primarily on writing from relatively new and unknown Chinese writers, and aims to provide a comprehensive look at the newest trends in contemporary Chinese. Chutzpah was another magazine that published contemporary Chinese fiction and literature into English but now appears to be closed.

Shen Lili wrote in the Global Time: People's Literature (a magazine founded in 1949, the same year as the PRC) launched its own English edition, called Path Light, following the example of Chutzpah magazine. People's Literature spent about two months preparing the first edition of Path Light. Unlike Chutzpah, which publishes its English edition twice a month as an extension of its Chinese version, Path Light will publish four issues per year as an independent magazine. Although they take different forms, the two publications share the same goals. [Source: Shen Lili, Global Times, December 13, 2011]

"As our purpose is to promote excellent Chinese literary works and writers to the outside world, making a profit is currently not a consideration. In fact, it is impossible to earn money immediately," chief editor ofPeople's Literature Li Jingze told the Global Times. "We have to do it this way. Chinese literature badly needs dedicated advocates." According to Li, new Chinese writers are unknown to foreigners even though in the last decade, China's cultural communication with other countries has increased substantially.

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word that means "extreme self-confidence or audacity." Ou Ning, the chief editor of Chutzpah, founded the bilingual magazine after making the same observation. A few years ago, Ou was shopping in a bookstore abroad, and found the Asian literature section filled with Indian and Japanese books translated into English, while Chinese works were few. "Then I thought I wanted to do something about this," Ou told Global Times.

The translation staff at both Path Light and Chutzpah are Chinese who immigrated to English speaking countries at an early age, generally four or five years old, and stayed there into adulthood. Aside from being skilled in Chinese-English translation, the ideal translators must have a "passion for Chinese literature," according to Qiu. "There are only a few people who possess these qualities in the whole world. Only dozens, I suppose, fit this description, and we scoured the planet to find about 20 of them."

Both Path Light and Chutzpah insist on taking art as the only standard in choosing articles for their magazine. "We only look at quality, not the whims of the market," Ou Ning told Global Times. Qiu Huadong also said, "Art is our ruler. With a wide scope and an open mind, we choose articles that truly exemplify and represent the abundant and complicated realities of our country, past and present. We will display only the highest level of Chinese literature."

Difficulty of Translating Chinese Literature to English and Liberties Taken by Translators

Shen Lili wrote in the Global Times: “Anyone who has ever done translation work understands how difficult it can be, especially when it's between two fundamentally different languages. And anyone who's ever read a bad translation knows how it can cast a bad light on the writing itself. Literature translation is different from other, more straightforward kinds of translation. It's even harder and must be done by native speakers. Although many Chinese who are extraordinarily good in English may have no problem translating English into Chinese, translating Chinese into English is a different animal altogether. [Source: Shen Lili, Global Times, December 13, 2011]

Bonn University academic Wolfgang Kubin has said “Chinese novelists cannot handle long works of fiction.” He attributes the success of Jiang Rong (WolfTotem), Su Tong (The Boat to Redemption) and Bi Feiyu (Three Sisters) in the international arena to the intervention of translators who, he says, are rewriting the original texts to make them more presentable to a Western audience. Chitralekha Basu wrote in the China Daily: "Significantly, the translator of all three books mentioned above is Howard Goldblatt, a professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame, and generally recognized as the doyenamong the translators of Chinese fiction in English, with more than 40 titles in print. Kubin's take on Goldblatt's staggering pile of translations is this: "Goldblatt summarizes in his own English what the Chinese novelist in question might have wanted to say. He irons out the flaws in the original text. Sometimes he drops paragraphs altogether and deletes culture-specific references to make the text more accessible to Western readers. The end product is significantly different from the original." [Source: Chitralekha Basu, China Daily August 19, 2011]

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Goldblatt sounds equally ambivalent when asked to respond to the contentious issue of the translator's right to rewrite - a question that seems to turn up like a bad penny in his mailbox every other week since he published his translation of Wolf Totem in 2007. Journalists, bloggers and dissertation-writers keep asking him why he chose to drop a large section, about 30,000 Chinese characters, from the book's postscript and glossed the reference to sky burial - thereby adding a sentence not in the original. "I'm happy to take Wolfgang's comments as a compliment," Goldblatt says in a cryptic e-mail note. "Jiang Rong, the author, would likely disagree. But he (Kubin) gives me too much credit, since the Penguin editor's role was significant and authoritative, in that the cuts originated with her."

Editorial intervention is something that happens backstage of the translation show, unbeknownst to the reader. Nicky Harman, who has translated several Chinese authors, including Han Dong and Hong Ying, says, "Many publishing houses have editors who will edit your translation whether you like it or not." "If you come across a translation which has dropped a significant component of the original, don't immediately shoot down the translator. It may have been the editor who did it."

A translator's job is often riddled with tough choices. While seasoned translator Eric Abrahamsen would like Western readers to learn to appreciate Chinese particularities, sometimes these appear somewhat idiosyncratic or plain bizarre in English. For instance, a pretty girl described as having a "goose-egg face" sounds nice in Chinese, "but not necessarily attractive or alluring in English". While Abrahamsen is mulling over whether to "go with moon-shaped or heart-shaped, as equivalent ways of creating a similar effect in English", he admits that "part of me would really like to leave it as goose-egg".

In a way, Abrahamsen - who runs Paper Republic, a website dedicated to promoting Chinese literature among an English-speaking audience - is in agreement with Kubin's contention that Chinese fiction needs a bit of nip and tuck, to be made presentable to the world market. "The craft of writing is not very developed or highly regarded in China, and much of what is published contains malapropisms or plain old errors that shouldn't be allowed into the translation," he says. He can see the point of editors "willing to alter the story to fit the narrative expectations of Western readers - most notably in toning down egregious melodrama, or when a writer starts sermonizing in the middle of a story."

Literacy Prizes for Chinese Literature

Among the many literary awards are the Lu Xun Award for short stories and novellas, the Mao Dun Award for novels and Man Asian Literary Prize. Most of the winners of the Mao Dun and Xu Lun Literature Awards. China's two main literary prizes, have not been translated to English and if they have the translating often takes place some time after the awards have been given.

Lu Xun Literature Prize is awarded every three years in China. “One of the country's top literary prizes, it was established to honor Lu Xun, the celebrated Chinese author active in early 20th century who is considered a forerunner of modern-day Chinese language and literature. His A Madman's Diary, published in 1918, is the first novel written in the modern Chinese vernacular. In 2018, thirty-four individuals claimed awards among seven categories: novellas, short stories, reportage, poems, essays, theoretical reviews and literary translations. The winners in 2018 included the Sichuan-based Tibetan writer A Lai with his novella The Fairy Ring. Li Juan's collections of essays on farming life in the Altay areas of northern Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region are loved by many, and were selected from some 200 candidates to win as one of the five for best essays. “For reportage, the winners include Li Chunlei for retelling the friendship between President Xi Jinping and Jia Dashan, as well as Xu Chen for recording the country's homegrown manned deep-sea research submersible Jiaolong. [Source: Mei Jia, China Daily, August 12, 2018]

Mao Dun Literature Prize is the country's most prestigious literary prize for novels. Launched in 1982 it is awarded every four years to no more than five novels. In 2011, for the first time, since the establishment of the prize in 1982, each winner was given substantial prize money---500,000 yuan ($78,200). Over the decades since the prize was started, over 40 novels have won the honor. Statistics from People's Literature Publishing House, which has published 17 of the 38 winners as of 2011, showed that total sales volume of the 17 titles has exceeded 6.5 million. Among them, the top three are White Deer Plain by Chen Zhongshi with 1.35 million copies sold, Red Poppies by A Lai with 0.96 million copies sold, and Hibiscus Town by Gu Hua with 0.86 million copies sold.

The Mao Dun Literature Prize is now administered by the Chinese Writers' Association (CWA). The Eighth Mao Dun Literature Prize winners were announced in August 2011 after five rounds of voting by 61 jury members including literary critics and writers. The awards ceremony was held at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing a month later

Internet novels were among Mao Dun competitors for the first time in 2011. The Global Times reported: “Eight items of literary works published on the Internet will join another 170 novels to compete for the Mao Dun Literature Prize, one of China’s most prestigious literary awards, according to the Chinese Writers Association (CWA)...This is the first time that Internet novels have been accepted as qualified candidates for the prize....Recent years have shown a growing trend of Internet-based publication of literary works in China, whose number of Internet users climbed to 477 million this year. In an earlier talk with media, Chen Qirong, a spokesman with the CWA, said that by opening the doors for Internet novels, China’s awards have begun to recognize the influence of Internet literature. [Source: Global Times June 21, 2011]

The fiver winners of the 9th Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2015 were Ge Fei (Jiangnan Trilogy), Wang Meng (Zhebian Fengjing), Li Peifu (Shengming Ce), Jin Yucheng (Fan Hua) and Su Tong (Huangque Ji) took home prizes this year.Among the five winning works, Jin's Fan Hua (Blooming Flower), written in the Shanghai dialect, has been regarded as a "black horse" in literature circles since its publication in 2012. [Source: Global Times, August 16, 2015],

The Newman Prize is sponsored by the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for US-China Issues, and is awarded every other year in recognition of outstanding achievement in prose or poetry that best captures the human condition. It is given solely on the basis of literary merit: any living author writing in Chinese is eligible. Winners of the Newman Prize have included Mainland Chinese novelists Mo Yan in 2009, Han Shaogong in 2011 and Wang Anyi in 2017. Taiwanese poet Yang Mu and novelist and screenwriter Chu Tien-wen won the Newman Prize in 2013 and 2015, respectively, and Hong Kong writer Xi Xi won the Newman Prize in 2019.

Plagarism Award and Award Corruption in China

In 2017, the first Firestone Literary Awards took place in Beijing. Among the honors was the White Lotus Award, a special prize for “awarding” plagiarized works. The phrase white lotus is internet slang for someone, usually a woman, who pretends to be sweet and innocent while engaged in manipulation and scheming. The three nominees were competing for the White Lotus Award: 1) Tang Qi with her fantasy novel Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms; 2) Qin Jian with her online work The Princess Weiyoung; and 3) Zhibai Shouhei, with his game-based novel The League of Legends Featuring Glory of Kings. [Source: Jiayun Feng, Sup China, November 1, 2017]

Jiayun Feng wrote in Sup China: Although all of the three novels were embroiled in plagiarism scandals, two of them were identified as the authors’ own intellectual properties and were adapted into popular TV series. Based on votes collected online, the special award was given to Qin, who, apparently, didn’t attend the ceremony. According to (in Chinese) Li Bin , deputy secretary of the Tianjin Writers Association, which organized the awards, the goal of setting up such an award is to let readers know “how hard it is for a writer to create something original,” and to encourage them to “voluntarily boycott plagiarized works.” Since the winner did not pick up the prize, the cash award of 9,999 yuan ($1,511) was donated to a charity program that provides education to poor kids in rural areas.

In 2015, literary awards in China became the subject of an anti-corruption drive. The China Daily reported: “The Ministry of Culture announced that 60 percent of awards for literature and art would be canceled in the first half of this year, in an effort to curb the excessive number of awards that have led to unhealthy competition and corruption. Experts say that while literary awards offer recognition and encouragement to writers, they must be properly managed to promote the development of the Chinese culture.

“The Aiqing Poetry Award is among those awards which have come under scrutiny. In January 2014, judges chose more than 400 poems as winners from 32,800 entries by primary and middle school students around the country, The Paper news portal reported.In May 2014, the chairwoman of the Hubei Provincial Writers Association and writer, Fang Fang, posted a micro blog, saying that Liu Zhongyang, a poet from Hubei province, whose poems were not up to the mark, had won a unanimous vote in a first-round recommendation to enter a nationwide competition for the Lu Xun Literature Prize, one of the country's top literature awards. Fang cast doubt over the means used to obtain the recommendation. "Such a person should be rejected for the award... but he won over all the judges," she wrote. But when the final result was released, another poet, Zhou Xiaotian from Sichuan province, won. Some people called the win "an insult" to Lu Xun, a great Chinese writer. “But Wang Meng, the Mao Dun Literature Award winner in 2015, commented on Zhou's poem Qiang Jin Cha (Urge somebody to drink tea), saying that the poem was "elegant, unique, lively and vivid".[Source: Yang Yang, China Daily, October 28, 2015]

Censorship in the Published Industry Under Xi Jinping

Under President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2013, the Communist Party increased its pressure on the Chinese publishing industry and cracked down on what it called “historical nihilism” that tarnishes its stewardship of the nation. Radio Free Asia reported: “Shanghai-based independent scholar and writer Jiang Danwen said: "I think that the recent crackdown by the government on freedom of expression and on the publishing industry stems from the fact that they don't want there to be a wider understanding of history, of the truth, among their citizens," he said. "At a time when more and more banned books are finding their way [into China], we can only say that the publishing industry and freedom of expression are going through some very hard times right now," he said. "It's a sign of growing centralized control over ideology." [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 16, 2016]

“Xi'an-based independent journalist Ma Xiaoming, who has previously worked for the party's propaganda department, said Chinese censors are now starting to micromanage the publishing industry, although there is rarely a paper record of their bans. "I worked in the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda departments for a number of years, and this sort of crackdown is nearly always carried out through verbal orders," Ma said. "But it's not a question of people sitting in the propaganda department censoring stuff," he said. "There isn't a single form of mass media in China that isn't controlled by the party in the first place, so they don't need censoring," Ma said. "The people who work in them naturally protect the interests of the party." He said the authorities will clamp down hard if the publishing industry steps out of line, even in the case of a book like Gao's, which has a small print run. "They have to make an example of it... in case it has a negative impact on the regime," Ma said. [Source: Xin Lin RFA, January 21, 2016]

Dealing with Censorship in China

Ian Johnson wrote in New York Review of Books: “Most Chinese writers who tackle sensitive topics tend to use what Perry Link calls the “daft hilarity” style — dealing with the Cultural Revolution and other topics with the subtlety of a South Park episode.” The Chinese government exerts some control through Chinese Writers Association — the government body that manages authors. The organization provides some financial stability because all writers in the association get a salary, even if it’s not much, but it also means that the government could cut this salary if it doesn’t like your work. system. The association sponsors study session and writing competitions and encourages writers to follow their value system for writing. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, November 28, 2016]

The writer Hu Fayan has been fairly forthright in his criticism of Communist Party policies are their horrendous impact but has mainly steered clear of trouble. When asked if state security ever approached him, he said: “Never directly. After signing Charter 08 the guobao approached my work unit and wanted to talk to me directly. The person directly responsible for me in the writers union he said two things: “One, If I had known about Charter 08, I would have signed it too. And two, If you want to go after Hu Fayun, if you touch him in the morning, in the afternoon I’ll call an international press conference.” So there are good people inside and outside the system. Even though he isn’t an activist, he realized that there is significance in others doing it. I am gratified that this is different from the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps there is some progress.

An attempt by the popular writer, blogger and race car driver Han Han to launch a new magazine Party, a literary magazine for alternative thinkers, was shut down after just one issue. Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: In a blogpost, Han said the reasons were unclear and cautioned his followers not to assume that the propaganda department was responsible for the failure to reach a second edition. "Maybe there were too many departments involved and too many people with the power to make a literature magazine into a relic," he wrote. "I don't know what was wrong. I don't know who I've displeased. I'm standing in the light while you are in the dark. If we ever met, I will not hold a grudge, but please could you tell me what happened?" [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, December 29, 2010]

Murong Xuecun on Being Interrogated in Beijing

In July 2014, Murong Xuecun wrote in the New York Times: “Chinese writers like me often face difficult choices. What should we do when friends are arrested for no good reason? Keep our mouths closed? Should we speak out in protest and risk being dragged away to prison? Is it fair to our families and friends to risk rotting away in jail because we refuse to shut up? After several months away from China for an academic residency and vacation, I returned to my home in Beijing on July 2 prepared to be arrested. While abroad I had announced in a blog post and in this newspaper that I would turn myself in to the authorities for contributing an essay to a private commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Several of the participants in the Beijing gathering had been arrested. [Source: Murong Xuecun, New York Times, July 17, 2014]

“On July 6, I posted a message online saying that I was home and ready to be picked up. My girlfriend never said it, but I knew she was uncomfortable with my stance. Two days later, I received a phone call from a police officer at the Wanshou Temple station near where I live asking me to come in to “have a chat.” I walked into the station at about 5:30 p.m. and was ushered straight up to the second floor. I had to wait for officers from the guobao, which is part of China’s secret police force. The guobao is rarely mentioned in news reports, and few people know the details of its budget and structure. It is everywhere, it is all-powerful, and it can make people suffer at any time. For Chinese dissidents, guobao means nightmare. While waiting, I picked up a copy of “Readings Selected From Important Speeches by Xi Jinping,” lying on a desk. One chapter was about building “a China ruled by law.” I might have been encouraged by our president’s words had I been sitting somewhere else.

“After about 40 minutes, two plain-clothed guobao officers showed up and took me into a small room. Shoe prints covered the walls, and cigarette butts were scattered on the floor. In the middle of the room was a desk with a computer and a printer. My chair was in front of the desk. One officer presented his ID and the other gave me a bottle of water. They advised me to “answer truthfully, otherwise there will be legal consequences.” They quickly zeroed in on the commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Why did you want to participate in the event? Who contacted you? When? Where had you met? What did he say? What did you say? What did you write in your speech?

“I answered their questions truthfully. I did not see any point in hiding anything. Then we discussed the Tiananmen Square incident itself. I argued that under no circumstances should the government have ordered the army to shoot at unarmed civilians, let alone dispatch tanks to roll onto the streets of Beijing. The officers did not agree or disagree with me; they just kept asking questions: Do you know what the overall situation was? Do you know what was happening in international affairs at the time? Do you know how many soldiers were beaten or burned to death?

Image Sources: University of Washington, Ohio State University,, Nolls China website , Wikipedia,, Landberger posters

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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