Why are Chinese authors more Chinese than authors?

This Monday I met Chinese author Mai Jia 麦家, who’s novel 》解密《 (Decoded) from 2002 has just been translated into Danish by Susanne Posborg. I was pleasantly surprised that the work of this so-called ‘king of the Chinese spy novel’ (中国谍战小说之父王) is less about secret agents and more about the emotional and intellectual development of its characters. Mai Jia seemed to experience the same kind of gratified surprise when our conversation turned to literary topics – topics which to me it seemed only natural to discuss with a writer. Later I was to understand why.

That same evening, Mai Jia gave a public interview with a Danish journalist at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. This journalist asked only one question about the novel itself, most of which is set during the Cultural Revolution. The question was why Mai Jia did not give a more detailed account of the different forms of political repression and limitations of movement during that era, and not only the ones relating to the plot of his novel. Why, in short, he hadn’t written a different book. The remainder of her questions focused on the challenges she perceived to exist for a Chinese author and about the China she read into the book. Both in terms of historicity and actuality, she had read his work as documentation and not as literature.


Mai Jia and I in conversation in Copenhagen

I do not think that an interviewer should avoid all sensitive questions or questions pertaining to matters not literary. But I do think that she should at least acknowledge that the author is more an expert on literary issues and his own work than on current and historical Chinese politics. I wonder how many American or European novelist are forced to explain how their art relates to the refugee crisis or if they feel under surveillance from the NSA.


This attitude is reminiscent of Fredric Jameson‘s (in)famous allegation in relation to Chinese and African novels, that “All third-world texts […] are to be read as what I will call national allegories,” (Jameson, 1986: 69). Even though China has since entered the realm of capitalism, it seems that some powerful readers are doing their best to continue to read novels from China as nothing more than documentation of a specific ‘Chinese reality’.

I think it is more fruitful to look at literature (especially in translation) as affording a meeting place. Just as translation constructs a bridge between two languages with material from both sides, so is literature, unlike statistics and other documentative formats, something that happens between the author and the reader. It includes as well as frustrates personal and cultural pre-understandings, and that is why we learn from reading.

Jameson, Fredric (1986): ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’ Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn), pp. 65-88.

Mai Jia (2016): Afkodet. Trans. Susanne Posborg. København: Møllers Forlag.

Mai Jia (2014): Decoded. Trans. Olivia Milburn & Christopher Payne London: Penguin Random House.

3 thoughts on “Why are Chinese authors more Chinese than authors?

  1. This of course prompts the question, why are Danish journalists more journalist than Danish? Why did Christina Boutrup have to ask all those questions to begin with? Why, in short, didn’t she conduct a different interview or simply talk to Mai Jia about… say, John Tchicai? Even though Denmark has all along remained a uniquely flat, arable, and temperate monarchy it seems some powerful journalists are doing their best in terms of historicity and actuality to turn interviews like this one into nothing more than documentation of a generalized “Western” reality.

  2. Reblogged this on 中国大好き and commented:
    Mai Jia 麦家 did a reading in Vienna on Monday. I was there, the bookshop was packed. Felt like a hundred people. Which is probably not allowed, so let’s say we were less. Many people somehow interested in China, and in reading a spy novel. Ex-Maoists, embassy agents, TV reporters. Mai Jia said many things I have recognized reading this blog post. He said documentary writing, writing straight from experience, is just not what he does. He says he tries to learn from Kafka. Not that documentary writing is unimportant, he said; after all, Svetlana Alexievich just won a Nobel for her reports from the former Soviet Union. But his writing comes from thousands of novels, foreign books and old Chinese tomes. He did work for years for army intelligence. But not all his novels are about spies. Astrid Mo says important stuff in this post. Henry Zhao said the same thing after he heard Frederic Jameson lecture in Beijing 30 years ago. But Astrid makes it very clear here, in a way that makes me finally understand.

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