“The Paper Republic Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature”

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Paper Republic is an alliance of Chinese-to-English translators who have come together to promote Chinese literature in English translation, with a focus on new writing. It has now published its own guide to contemporary Chinese literature, a directory of authors and publications prefaced by six essays on different aspects of Chinese writing. Each entry in the directory includes a biography, and a list of selected works, subdivided by form—novellas, short stories, essays, etc.

Six essays cannot cover the whole range of Chinese literature—there is nothing, for example on children’s literature or script writing, and poetry is mentioned only in passing—but Paper Republic hopes to rectify omissions in future editions.

 

The Paper Republic Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature (Paper Republic, March 2022)
The Paper Republic Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature (Paper Republic, March 2022)

Xiaolu Guo provides the introduction (republished in Asian Review of Books), which mostly discusses some of the writers who influenced her own writing, but which also glances at future trends:

 

To really grasp all that’s going on in contemporary Chinese literature we need a new lexicon. We are living in the time of multilingualism and mass migration. The idea of ‘national literature’ gives us a picture of writing confined to islands, a cultural essence that is fixed, tribal, and immobile. With multilingual and transnational identities having become state-of-the-art with the new generation, we cannot continue this kind of lazy labelling. We have to ask ourselves in what sense there is Chinese Literature rather than a literature of a multitude of voices variously engaged with China. Being inclusive is always wiser than being exclusive. If we do pay attention to writers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and indeed, from overseas, migrant as well as the exiled writers, then we can release ourselves from the imprisoning concept of ‘national literature’ and its false identity.

 

Dylan Levi King’s essay presents four different models for the way authors have been understood in China at different times: national conscience and instructor, lightweight chronicler of minor human tragedy, mouthpiece of the Party wedded to the masses and the soil or outsider, shut out of politics. He accepts that many authors fail to slot neatly into his models, but argues they can still be used to explain the reactions authors can expect to receive.

Ping Zhu considers women’s writing, essentially non-existent in China as recently as the inter-War period, but since the end of the Cultural Revolution,

 

a vibrant and colourful literary world that encompasses renewed quests for gender equality and justice, artistic portrayals of everyday minutia, candid explorations of women’s sexuality and psychology, sober reflections of historical violence, and avant-gardist representations of historical trauma.

 

She discusses how women’s writing in China is beginning to intersect with literature produced by marginalized social groups, giving as examples Zheng Xiaoqiong, a migrant worker and poet whose “verses combine traditional Chinese aesthetics with the vernacular of modern industry”, Yu Xiuhua, a peasant with cerebral palsy whose poems have been internet sensations, and Fan Yusu, a nanny in Beijing, who also initially found a readership online, when an autobiographical essay went viral.

Ping Zhu looks beyond Mainland China to discuss women’s writing in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Andrea Lingenfelter’s essay is entirely devoted to Hong Kong writing. She discusses a selection of the City’s authors, ranging from Jin Yong, pen-name of Louis Cha and author of wuxia (knight errant) fiction, to Xi Xi, a leading proponent of literary and experimental fiction. Along the way she mentions books that have not yet been published in translation, including Sharon Chung’s Regret, apparently a sprawling family melodrama following the intrigues and transgressions on an immensely wealthy Chinese family who live in a mansion on the Peak. Lingenfelter suggests it exposes the “seamy underbelly of Crazy Rich Asians”.

Appropriately, given that Crazy Rich Asians was set in Singapore, Regret is being translated by Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean. However, Chinese literature originating in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia is omitted. Paper Republic hopes to include Chinese literature from Southeast Asia in subsequent editions.

 

Emily Xueni Jin discusses Chinese science fiction, which has received much attention following the international success of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu. She explores the idea of “science fiction realism”. This label was first used derogatorily by Western writers commenting on the work of Zheng Wenguang, who was writing in the years following 1949. A more recent practitioner of the genre, Han Song, has co-opted the label to describe titles which recognize that when mainstream realist literature falls short of representing the realness of life, science fiction can help readers cope with otherwise overwhelming anxiety about the future. The label itself indicates the books to which it is attached do not concern spaceships, aliens and distant planets.

 

Instead science fiction realism has become a genre that keenly reflects upon the immediate concerns of reality, draws the future closer to the present and consequently induces greater stability in the reader’s mind.

 

In the final essay Rachel Cheung discusses Chinese internet fiction, which sounds marvellously entertaining, and which is so wildly popular it is now regarded as “intellectual property with the potential to become movies, television series, manga, animations and video games.” Where once it was unregulated, online literature’s growing influence has lately attracted scrutiny from the authorities. Authors can no longer use pseudonyms. Among other restrictions, online publishers are now required to ensure the works they make available: “‘correctly guide public opinion’, are ‘healthy and positive’ and aligned with socialist values; even the comments sections.”

 

The directory raises the question as to  how were decisions  made about whom to include? Eric Abrahamsen and Yvette Zhu explain:

 

… we focussed on still-living Sinophone writers with publications in English, who have been active since the end of the Cultural Revolution, with a slight leaning towards Mainland China (for no other reason than the limits of our own knowledge).

 

The Guide provides for general readers unfamiliar with Chinese literature a starting-point from which to explore recent writing. For those already interested, this handy reference book provides a means of exploring links between writers working across different forms and genres.


Rosie Milne runs Asian Books Blog twitter@asianbooksblog. She lives in Singapore.