Little Bottles

Philippa Tristram

  • The Miraculous Pigtail by Feng Jicai
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 312 pp, September 1988, ISBN 0 8351 2050 3
  • Mimosa by Zhang Xianliang
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 170 pp, January 1987, ISBN 0 8351 1336 1
  • Dialogues in Paradise by Can Xue, translated by Ronald Jansson
    Northwestern, 173 pp, $17.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 8101 0830 5
  • Baotown by Wang Anyi
    Penguin, 143 pp, £11.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 670 82622 7
  • The Broken Betrothal by Gao Xiaosheng
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 218 pp, December 1987, ISBN 0 8351 2051 1
  • At Middle Age by Shen Rong
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 366 pp, December 1987, ISBN 0 8351 1609 3
  • Snuff-Bottles, and Other Stories by Deng Youmei
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 220 pp, January 1987, ISBN 0 8351 1607 7

In the days of the Boxer Rebellion, when Chinese wore pigtails and exposure to foreign values was compulsory, they knew that Westerners were Chinese upside-down. As Yang remarks in The Miraculous Pigtail, which is set in that period: ‘Chinese shave their heads, foreigners their faces; Chinese write from right to left, foreigners from left to right; Chinese call the compass the “needle for fixing the south”, foreigners call it the “needle which points north”; Chinese have their tea-cup lids on top, foreigners have their, tea-cup lids underneath.’ Since 1900, time has removed some of these oppositions and introduced others, but that perception endures. To the farm hands in Mimosa, set in the early Sixties, America is ‘an outlandish, promiscuous, immoral country, but so rich that no one worries about food or clothing’. When six years ago one of my Chinese students described a Westerner’s day, he was succinct: his Western businessman rose at six o’clock to take his two snakes for an airing in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes; they stopped at a pub en route, emerged blind-drunk, and crashed the car into a scholartree. Sarah Lubman recently explained in the Washington Post that Chinese students are the victims ‘of an educational system which presents limited – and biased – information about the West’, but my student at least had merely been reading some American magazines donated by a foreign visitor. Among the advertisements for drink, expensive cars and sexual aids, I remember finding one for a cat’s four-poster, complete with curtains and fur underlay. In the context of that Beijing institute where even hot water (for all purposes, especially drinking) was rationed to one thermos per student per day, his account seemed inaccurate in details, not essentials. According to Sarah Lubman, the way to counter such misinterpretation is cultural exchange: then Chinese travelling abroad can see what Western democracy really is, while those at home can receive unbiased information from foreign experts. As in the days of the Boxer Rebellion, ‘exchange’, it seems, is not a two-way process.

A major reason for reading foreign literature is to discover cultural difference, and look back on one’s own culture with new eyes: but contemporary Chinese fiction selected for publication in the West is chosen for its proximity to Western values. Dialogues in Paradise by Can Xue is a case in point. Its American translator describes the reading of most current Chinese fiction as ‘a trudge through a desert posted with signs of “Realism” and “Socialist Realism”’. Can Xue, in contrast, is not so ‘narrow and unimaginative’: ‘she is familiar with a range of foreign authors who might provide a stay against the ordinary (Woolf, Sartre [Sartre?], Beckett among them).’ She is non-rational, employs the stream of consciousness (‘Horrid stream!’ as Lawrence said), and probes the self. Best of all, she writes for an élite (unlike Dickens): ‘we cannot usefully judge her fiction by any ideological standards of readability.’ It is difficult to assess in translation the kind of writing that must depend for its success on verbal texture, but her pieces read like repetitions of a formula best described in her own words as ‘a certain indulgence in the wildest fantasy’ made deliberately to run counter to ‘the reality that ordinary people understand’.

Baotown by Wang Anyi is more representative, for it makes fewer compromises with this parody of what the West calls ‘literature’. Its creation of a peasant village is lucid, sparse, externalised, succinct. Even the mad, like Bao Bingde’s wife, rediscover sanity in the ordinary: ‘she wiped her tears and went out to feed the pig.’ Baotown is reticent about the inward self, but its presence is not unfelt. Nonetheless the book is chosen, one suspects, because, here too, the political is distanced. Thus Chapter Ten (entire):

In Beijing, a thousand miles away, the battle over the rivers and mountains was just getting started.

  In Shanghai, a thousand miles away, the weapons were ready, and they were preparing to hand out the guns.

As the translator of Dialogues in Paradise assures us, the new generation of Chinese writers is now able to quote Orwell in illustration of their belief that ‘politics chokes literature “like leaves blocking a sink”.’

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