A round-up of reviews of works in translation from Chinese, including fiction, story collections, poetry and biographies.
The Diary of Dukesang Wong: A Voice from Gold Mountain by Dukesang Wong, edited by David McIlwraith, translated by Wanda Joy Hoe
Dukesang Wong (1845-1931) was the son of a regional magistrate in China who in 1867 was poisoned by arsenic over a legal decision he had made. The first entry in the diary is a poignant memorial to Wong’s father. The circumstances of his father’s death had meant disgrace for Wong’s family, and one of the ways he coped with it was by keeping a diary; this diary would eventually come to be the only known written source of information about the life of a Chinese railway worker in the so-called “Gold Mountain”.
Plum Shadows and Plank Bridge: Two Memoirs About Courtesans by Mao Xiang and Yu Huai, translated by Wai-yee Li
The twilight of the Ming Dynasty in Southern China, with its elegant courtesans, poets and playwrights, pageants, drinking bouts and boat rides, bedazzled the generation which witnessed its fall in 1644. It inspired a literary legacy which has fascinated readers ever since. The Ming twilight in “Southland” is immortalized in Kong Shang-Ren’s (d. 1719) classic opera “The Peach Blossom Fan”. Kong interviewed many protagonists of the late Ming, including Yu Hai (d. 1693), whose memoirs are translated here by Harvard’s Wai-Yee Lee.
Three Brothers: Memories of My Family by Yan Lianke translated by Carlos Rojas
As it does to our lives at present, death—virulent, episodic, unbidden—haunts Yan Lianke’s memoir Three Brothers. First published in 2009, and rendered into English by translator and Sinologist Carlos Rojas, it is an elegiac homage to the people and places no longer present for Yan (at least not physically), who has spent the better part of his life oscillating (both physically and emotionally) between city and countryside in search of home.
The Great Flowing River: A Memoir of China, from Manchuria to Taiwan by Chi Pang-yuan, translated by John Balcom
When Chi Pang-yuan was a young girl, her father Chi Shiying was wanted by warlord Zhang Zuolin and his son, Zhang Xueliang. The crime was siding with a rival general, Guo Songling, at a time when the Republic was still relatively young and northeast China in constant turmoil. For most of her childhood and teenage years, Chi Pang-yuan would frequently be on the move, between Manchuria and all the major cities along the Yangtze River: Nanjing, Wuhan, Chongqing and Shanghai.
Bird Talk and Other Stories by Xu Xu: Modern Tales of a Chinese Romantic, translated by Frederik H Green
For some men, getting to know a woman isn’t quite what it seems. In this quirky collection of stories by Xu Xu, we can read about a man who dates a would-be ghost, another takes up with a supposedly mentally-challenged girl who has conversations with birds and eventually becomes a Buddhist nun, a third hooks up in a pro forma marriage (which later becomes real) with a mysterious Jewish woman whom a new acquaintance has asked him to help get to Europe, and a fourth falls in love with a strange girl who eventually kills herself after telling her tragic personal story to the narrator.
I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated by Chen Zeping
In the newly-translated I Live in the Slums, her first collection of short stories in a decade, Chinese writer Can Xue invites us on a bizarre, at times whimsical, dark and unclassifiable journey exploring the terrain of and interaction with China’s urban geography. She keeps with her unique unconventional voice, as is best known in her earlier novels such as Love in the New Millennium, and Frontier.
The Book of Shanghai: A City in Short Fiction, edited by Dai Congrong and Jin Li
Comma Press’s “city anthology” series of short fiction (often in translation) has reached Shanghai. Besides the setting, these stories all follow a common theme, whether intentional or not, of loneliness and isolation. Editor Jin Li explains: “A true map cannot simply mark out the landmarks, and the most popular tourist sites, it must be able to guide readers through the city’s lesser-known corners, its dimly-lit nooks and rarely-frequented crannies. That is to say, a literary map must reveal the joys and sorrows lurking in every crevice of Shanghai life.”
The world is perhaps changing when translations from Chinese feature as the first volume in a series of just about anything. Two Lines Press, an independent publisher based in San Francisco, has recently launched the Calico Series of translated literature. “Each Calico is a vibrant snapshot that explores one aspect of the present moment, offering the voices of previously inaccessible, highly innovative writers from around the world.” That We May Live is the first in the series and features seven stories in translation from authors in Hong Kong and China.
Hunter School by Sakinu Ahronglong, translated by Darryl Sterk
Written in 1998, awarded the Wu Yung-fu Literature Prize in 2000, adapted into a film in 2005 (“The Sage Hunter”), and based loosely on his own life, Sakinu’s Hunter School (the title refers to an actual school that Sakinu had established) tells the fictional story of an indigenous Taiwanese man’s attempts to reconnect with his ancestral Paiwan identity and thereby to re-inscribe that identity for future generations.
Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang
Chan Ho-kei has worked as a software engineer and video game designer, and his knowledge of the latest technology shines through in his new high-tech thriller, Second Sister, his second novel to be translated into English. When the story begins, twenty-five year-old librarian Au Nga-Yee finds her fifteen year-old sister, Au Siu-Man, splayed out on the sidewalk in front of their Kwun Tong public housing estate in an apparent suicide.
Chinese remains inaccessible to most English-speakers; Chinese poetry doubly so, so Western readers should be grateful to Zephyr Press for issuing these two excellent bilingual versions of contemporary Chinese poetry, which introduce us to two unfamiliar and very different voices, Ya Shi from the mainland, and Wu Sheng from Taiwan… These are two important poets, both writing in Chinese, but on different poetic roads. On his train journey Ya Shi plays with language and poetics; on his rural walks Wu Sheng touches the heart of the natural world and the old agrarian ways, hoping that both will survive.
My Mountain Country by Ye Lijun, translated by Janet Hong Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Visceral and enigmatic, Ye Lijun’s collection translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain reveals the intimate relationship between man and Nature. From home-brewed wine, Lake Huai to an intellectual’s return to her hometown, the poems in her first bilingual volume draw on the interaction between the environment and one’s internal states of being, reflecting on the seen and unseen in everyday life.