Dung Kai-cheung’s A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On is an exercise in the influence of late-90s, mainly Japanese, popular culture on young women in end-of-the-century Hong Kong. The “catalog” consists of ninety-nine sketches, perhaps in an homage to Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, where Queneau took an unremarkable short episode and retold it in ninety-nine discursive styles. Queneau’s exercises are clever play with the structures and uses of language. Dung Kai-cheung’s catalog is a cultural “thick description” of popular culture filled with dry wit and humor. His sketches are not short stories. He offers flights of fancy.

We are used to novels by expats written in the language of home and then occasionally translated back, sometimes as a curiosity, into the language of the place where the work is set. But the expats are usually Western and the language English. Xue Yiwei’s Celia, Misoka, I, translated from Chinese by Stephen Nashef, is a rare example of this process operated from the other side of the mirror. 

Into the Desert, Xuemo, Howard Goldblatt (trans), Sylvia Li-chun Lin (trans) (
Into the Desert, Xuemo, Howard Goldblatt (trans), Sylvia Li-chun Lin (trans) (Long River Press, May 2022)

This is the story of two women in Western China in the 1990s, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, near the site of the ancient Silk Road. Bound together by both poverty and tradition, they embark upon a perilous journey to change their lives. In Into the Desert, acclaimed Chinese author Xuemo has recreated a bygone village in Gansu province in Western China, a place where camels are as common as automobiles and potatoes replace rice. With his discerning eye for desert landscape, a fine ear for colorful local expressions, and an acute sensitivity to the inner world of his characters, the reader is led on a fantastic journey where hope and tragedy go hand in hand, and where centuries of tradition both suppress and compel the forces of change.

The Chinese claim to have invented many things. To paper and gunpowder, we should probably add historical novels. The English language only came into this genre with Walter Scott’s Waverly novels in 1814, while Chinese readers had been enjoying The Romance of the Three Kingdoms already for five centuries. Late Ming literatus Feng Menglong’s Chronicles of the States of the Eastern Zhou (東周 列國 志)brings to life another eventful period in Chinese history, that of the Warring States. Kings and courtiers, concubines and ministers dream, scheme, take counsel and spill blood in dizzying succession. Feng’s story did not, however, captivate generations of readers by offering nothing but sex and beheadings. Rather, readers concerned about the decline of the Ming, or even 21st-century America, can find compelling narratives of how empires fall. Two new translations, one by Seoul National University’s Olivia Milburn, the other by Erik Honobe from Japan’s Tama University, tackle this classic text for English readers.

Surrealism is usually connected with the visual arts: Salvador Dali’s limp watches or René Magritte’s rainstorm of bowler-hatted businessmen. Whilst surrealist writing is perhaps not as well-known, French poet André Breton declared in his 1924 Surrealist Manifestos that in surrealism “the agonizing question of possibility does not arise,” and that “the man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.” Carl Jung once said, “it’s not the world as we know it that speaks out of [a person’s] unconscious, but the unknown world of the psyche.”