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Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts by Aili Mu, Julie Chiu, Howard Goldblatt (selected and translated by)

An academic press is perhaps not the first place one would look for interesting fiction but at least as far as contemporary Chinese fiction is concerned, Columbia University Press has hit the bulls-eye more than once. In 2003, Columbia brought out the fascinating and avant-garde Dictionary of Maqiao by Han Shaogong (since picked up in paperback by the more mainstream Dial Press) and now, if any book qualifies as “eye-opening”, it is Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts.

Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts by Aili Mu, Julie Chiu, Howard Goldblatt (selected and translated by)
Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts, Aili Mu, Julie Chiu, Howard Goldblatt (selected and translated by) (, )

“Short-shorts”—extremely short stories of a few hundred words—are, says the book’s jacket “a global phenomenon”. If really so, it’s one that had passed me by until now. My excuse is that “nowhere in the world,” according to the introduction, “has the genre been as enthusiastically received as with contemporary Chinese readers”. The Chinese Journal of Selected Short-Shorts apparently has a circulation of over a million.

Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts contains a selection of several dozen short-shorts dating back more than twenty. Most are from Mainland China, but Hong Kong readers will be gratified to find a few from this city as well.

And the stories themselves, well, they pop and sizzle, insinuate and shine. Some are hardly more than vignettes, closer to poetry perhaps than something which is supposed to have a plot—but is quite amazing to find that a story can be told in fewer than a half-dozen short paragraphs. Some just have a moral; others, the majority, have a twist in the end. The subjects are all over the map, so much so that they have been organized into fifteen categories, covering everything from “Sharing” to “Weirdness”. They are, in short, indescribable, so I shall just reproduce one it its entirety—“The Look” by Li Zuchen:

 

Forsaken by love, she had never felt so wretched, so grief-stricken, and had just about given up on life itself.

 

She walked down the street, alone, aware of neither a gentle summer breeze nor the lovely flowers.

 

A handsome young man was walking toward her, his shining eyes glued to her. He was totally absorbed, absolutely infatuated. That merely added to her turmoil.

 

Startled by a sudden thunk, she spun around and saw that the young man had walked right into a telephone pole.

 

She smiled.

 

That night she slept like a baby.

 

The translators seem to have worked together seamlessly, without the changes in style that one might have expected from such a collaboration. Perhaps it is because they seem to have enjoyed themselves. Howard Goldblatt, one of the best-known translators of Chinese fiction, got into the act himself and contributed a short-short to lead off each section. These aren’t always quite in tune (one covers the US electoral process), but like a between course sherbet, they clean the palate.

It is clear that much has been going on in the world of contemporary Chinese fiction that English readers have so far missed out on. Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts goes a long way to rectifying one of the major omissions.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.