my first Chinese novel

September 11th, 2010

It was actually about two weeks or so ago, but I finally finished reading Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi (老舍的《骆驼祥子》, which I believe is also translated as Rickshaw Boy). This makes it the first Chinese novel I have completed reading in Chinese (I have read quite a few in English), although it is not the first I have started.

Several years ago I started reading Yu Hua’s To Live (余华《活着》), but after some effort and progress, it kind of fell by the wayside. But the thing is, I took two completely different approaches. With Camel Xiangzi, I had a bilingual edition, but forced myself to read the Chinese side first, and only look at the English when I needed help understanding. I didn’t stress new words, didn’t even check new characters in the dictionary, I just focussed on enjoying the novel. With To Live, on the other hand, I obssessively noted down and checked in the dictionary every single new word, whether it was new characters, new words from characters I already knew, or a combination of the two. The result, of course, that To Live, although I was really enjoying the novel and quite liked Yu Hua’s style, very quickly became hard work, and of course, once classes started and work got busy, it got to be too much hard work.

Last time we were up in the village, I pulled a few more of these bilingual books out of the stash I have up there. Some Lu Xun short stories (《野草》/Wild Grass and a Selected Stories of Lu Xun), Lao She’s Mr Ma and Son/《二马》, and a trilingual (Classical and Modern Chinese and English) copy of the Zhuang Zi (for a little later on when I’m feeling a bit more ambitious). I opened Wild Grass and found that my approach to Camel Xiangzi had created such a strong habit of reading the Chinese first and only checking the English when necessary that I automatically took the same approach with Wild Grass. Excellent. And the advantage of short stories for study purposes (and Wild Grass’ stories are very short) is that they are already in a bite-sized form well suited to those short periods of downtime like lunchbreaks, or afternoons in the garden after class, when study can be done, but energy levels are low. And so Wild Grass was put in my bag and came with me to work, then after work, into the garden, for the first week of class. Then I went and finished it. Well, it’s not a large book, and the stories are very short. It’s been replaced by Selected Stories of Lu Xun, which, with it’s longer stories, looks like accompanying me to and from work for a few weeks.

Of course, I’d already read Camel Xiangzi and all those Lu Xun stories. But back then I was too lazy and only read the English, only occasionally glancing at the Chinese. But I’m glad that this time round I forced myself to read the Chinese first and only look at the English when it was necessary, because I feel I’ve come away with a much deeper understanding of these books. As good as the translations are, I do feel reading the original gives a much deeper impression and brings the book to a much more vital life. I actually started reading Camel Xiangzi in January or February, and it took me this long to read, because I would read bits and pieces of varying length, but almost never more than a chapter in one sitting (almost never, because with a chapter and a half left, I decided to sit down and just finally finish it), and only as time and energy allowed. “Only as time and energy allowed” means that when things got busy and often exhausting at work last semester, it would be put aside for sometimes two or three weeks at a time, and not picked up again until things calmed down at work. And then over the summer I focussed on Classical Chinese, using a textbook whose chapters have quite wildly different amounts of new vocab, so some days or weeks Camel Xiangzi took a backseat as I processed one of the bigger chapters in my Classical book. And of course, on three occasions, all study was suspended for several days as I processed entry tests for our new students. But I found it really easy to pick up Camel Xiangzi again even if I hadn’t touched it for a month, as the really strong, deep impression it had on me left the story and characters so fresh on my mind that a one month gap felt no different than a one day gap. And so over several months of stop-start reading, I thoroughly enjoyed Lao She’s prose, savoured his vivid, dusty, hot, frozen, luxurious and crumbling depiction of old Beiping, and alternately rejoiced and mourned as Xiangzi’s life took its roller-coaster course through hope and depression, respect and degradation, one final last chance at a respectable contentment, then despair and a final settling into an anonymous, unfeeling, slow decay.

And then out in the village, where I had intended to pick up a few books for back in Beijing, but otherwise continue with my Classical studies, I glanced inside Wild Grass out of curiosity’s sake, just to see how difficult it would be, and was instantly sucked in by the sheer power of Lu Xun’s prose. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then this felt like the literary equivalent of those shaped charges designed to instantly melt holes in tank armour. I read the first couple of stories then had to put the book down out of exhaustion – exhaustion not caused by the difficulty of the stories, but by the wild intellectual and emotional ride they took me on. Oh yes, this is the kind of literature I love.

And after that, as I said, I began the Selected Stories. The first in this collection is A Madman’s Diary. I have to admit, I found the Madman’s obssession with cannibalism and absurd conviction that he himself was next on the menu a lot of fun. And I was intrigued to notice, this time round, a reference to eating mantou dipped in an executed criminal’s blood, a theme at the centre of Medicine, the third story in this collection. Now I’m wondering – did Lu Xun intend to tie these two stories together like this? And does this show one of the advantages of reading the original and leaving the translation purely for reference’s sake when necessary, or am I just paying more attention this time round?

And Kong Yiji. Wow. This has long been my favourite Lu Xun story, but once again, I found it to be far more powerful and flavoursome in the original. And once again, much more detail came to life. I’d forgotten – or never fully realised? – Kong Yiji’s theft – first from people who had employed him to copy out texts, then as a matter of simple survival. And again I found Kong Yiji’s character came through much more vividly. In my mind, he is no longer just a failed scholar, nor just a failed scholar with an unfortunate case of kleptomania eventually reduced to theft for survival. He now strikes me as never really having had the wherewithal for the scholarly life. A little man with big dreams unable to face the reality of his nature. And the taste of vague, dissipated bitterness at the end…. Like I already said, this has long been my favourite Lu Xun story, but this time around I loved it even more.

And so I fully intend to continue this way, getting in solid study when time and energy allow, while continuing this lower-impact, pleasure-focussed study in those quiet moments every day allows.

I should note that I do not intend to cast even the slightest doubt on the quality of the translations. Wild Grass and Selected Stories of Lu Xun, for example, were translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, whose abilities and quality I would never presume to question. I have equally little doubt about the quality of the translation of Camel Xiangzi. It’s simply that I’m getting so much more out of the originals that I find myself wondering why I didn’t do this ages ago.

I actually found Lao She easier to read than Lu Xun. I’m pretty sure that when I had trouble with Lao She, it was purely and simply because I didn’t know the words or characters. With Lu Xun, on the other hand, although I do obviously have the same problem with new words or characters, in some cases it’s been because of the grammar, or because the sentence has been structured in a way I’m unfamiliar with. But I suspect a fair few of the passages I’ve had trouble understanding boil down to style, and I’m wondering if part of the difference is because Lao She was born and raised in Beijing, where I’ve learnt most of my Chinese, and whether maybe Lu Xun’s Zhejiang origins inform his prose in some way. Another possible source of the difference in style may well be family background, Lu Xun‘s family being well-educated, while Lao She‘s father was a soldier killed in battle in 1901 (Lao She was born in 1899), and he grew up in poverty. One example would be the frequent use of 伊 in Storm in a Teacup/《风波》. From the context, it clearly means ‘she’ (and nciku informs that it  does, indeed, mean either he or she, although in this story he uses 他 for he, and marks it as literary), but this is not something I recall ever having seen or heard before. Of course, I have not yet done any of the research needed to answer these questions, or any of the questions this year’s reading of Chinese literature has raised… But hey, blogging is often a highly educational experience.

I also found the stories in Selected Stories much easier than those in Wild Grass, but the stories in each of those collections are of wildly different natures. The Selected Stories stories are in a much more traditional short story form and very Realist. The Wild Grass stories are short and very sharp, but also very Surrealistic. Whereas the Selected Stories bring up mental images of everyday life in late-Qing and early-Republic China, Wild Grass paints bizarre pictures of surreal nightmares, sometimes even with the imagery of horror films. The language that brings about this difference in imagery made Wild Grass a bit more difficult to read.

And for the record, I do intend to revisit To Live, but this time I won’t take the same approach. I’ll do something similar to what I’ve done with these bilingual editions and focus on simply enjoying the novel. Maybe I’ll underline or note down new words and check them in the dictionary later, but I won’t reach for the dictionary unless it’s absolutely essential for my understanding of the story.

One issue all this year’s reading has exposed is that I simply do not have the vocabulary or stylistic or grammatical resources to discuss literature in Chinese. This is something I will have to remedy, except that I don’t really know where to start. The appropriate section of Wednesday’s 新京报, bought and read to alleviate the pain of long waits in hospital lobbies and corridors, seemed promising, and I would be reading more of the Chinese media, but the Christchurch earthquake has kept me more focussed than usual on the New Zealand media over the last week. I have no excuse for not paying more attention to the Chinese media at any time before the earthquake, though. Still, I would like to try reading something a little more specialised than the mainstream media. Any suggestions?

And in case anybody’s interested, the bilingual books mentioned here are:

Camel Xiangzi by Lao She, translated by Shi Xiaojing, published in Beijing in 2001 by the Foreign Languages Press in their Echo of Classics series.

Wild Grass by Lu Xun, translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, published in Beijing in 2000 by the Foreign Languages Press in their Echo of Classics series.

Selected Stories of Lu Xun, by Lu Xun, translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, published in Beijing in 2000 by the Foreign Languages Press in their Echo of Classics series.

4 Responses to “my first Chinese novel”

  1. Ji Village News Says:

    That’s really fantastic, Chris! Lao She is great, isn’t he? Camel Xiangzi and 四世同堂 are definitely classics, in my opinion. I am also looking forward to his 二马。

    Regarding 活着, my personal opinion is that it is a rare case where movie is actually better than the novel. Zhang Yimou and his crew added small sub plots and richness that brought back the craziness and human struggles during those times vividly back to life. It is a good book though, very much worth reading. I would also really like to read Yu Hua’s Brothers.

    With Zhang’s work with To Live, I am curious to see what he will do with 山楂树之恋, now that I am done reading that book. A bit letdown, I’ve got to say, compared with the glowing reviews in the back cover. Tricked, as I was, by the marketing hype, I guess.

    Never thought of the connection between The Madman’s Diary’s description of the madman’s flesh on the menu with mantou soaked in blood in Medicine. That was pretty interesting. You reminded me to re-read Kong Yiji. I actually forgot its story lines now, a testament of my slowly advancing age.

    Keep at it, mate. If I may, you may find Lu Yao’s 平凡的世界 interesting. I just got started with it, will be reading it with the style you described: in bits and pieces, but not in one gulp.

    Hope the family is doing well.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Indeed, Lao She is great, and I made a point of making the pilgrimage to the house he lived in when he taught in Qingdao in the short time we spent there. Of course, I should make an even bigger point of visiting his old home here in Beijing, but this summer was awful, and classes have started again, so that’ll have to wait a bit. I’ll definitely check out 四世同堂 when the time comes. I remember your recent review of it being very positive.

    With To Live and Brothers, the films are very different from the books. Well, that should come with a “or so I’m told”, but from what I did read of To Live and what I read about Brothers about the time it was being translated, and having watched both films, yes the films and books are wildly different. Better or worse I won’t comment on until I’ve read both books in their entirety (although I do trust your judgement), but I do see how Lao Zhang is good at weaving in interesting little details when he wants to, especially with his earlier films and now with 三枪.

    The relevant passage from A Madman’s Diary is: “去年城里杀了犯人,还有一个生痨病的人,用馒头蘸血舐”. So it’s more specifically the eating of mantou dipped in an executed convict’s blood to cure TB than cannibalism in general that piqued my interest. I believe these two stories are numbers 1 and 3 in 呐喊, so the quotation above combined with the use of mantou soaked in blood as a (superstitious and useless) cure for TB being the central theme of Medicine and their physical placement in time and publishing has me really curious.

    I’ll have a look for 平凡的世界, thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Syz Says:

    Congrats on finishing! By odd coincidence I just started 活着 myself and had nearly the same experiences, except all within the same book. That is, I read the first dozen pages at a painstakingly slow pace, double-checking pronunciation of characters I sort of knew, looking up ones I didn’t know, and getting multiple translations of unfamiliar words so I could try to pick up the nuance of the story. It’s actually a pretty rewarding approach in its own way: you start to experience the writer’s style. But like you, I realized this would end up as just another unfinished novel if I didn’t change approach. So the other evening when my dictionary wasn’t handy, I just started reading. Sure enough, got sucked into the plot and read twice as much in an hour as I’d read in a week. EXtensive vs INtensive reading, as the educators would say. I think I’ve been doing too much of the latter at the expense of actually getting through things.

  4. wangbo Says:

    “EXtensive vs INtensive reading, as the educators would say”

    I don’t, but then again I don’t teach reading. But it’s not a distinction I’d even heard of until I got to China. My French and German lecturers at university just gave us a list of books, we went out and bought them, we read them (maybe), and that was that. Nobody ever told us how we should read them, or different approaches we could take to reading them.

    I think what I’ll do when I get back to 《活着》 is keep a pencil handy and underline or make notes of things to be checked later in the dictionary, but generally just focus on enjoying the novel.