erwai tushuguan (2)For some time, it has been dawning on me that what I am really interested in is not so much what is written in and about China (as the old name of this blog writingchina would seem to suggest), but rather all sorts of narrative fiction written in the Chinese script(s). (I dare say the intelligent reader will have noticed this long before I did).

Taiwanese nature writing, postcolonial Hong Kong concept lit, Sinophone fantasies from European backwaters, Southeast Asian urban fables, Shanghai quotidian novels, borderless online scribleries in simplified character slang: I want to investigate and celebrate all of it!

IMG_2441The term xiaoshuo 小说 – which today means any kind of narrative fiction writing, from novels (long fiction 长篇小说) to novellas (medium fiction 中篇小说), short stories (short fiction 短篇小说) and flash fiction (tiny fiction 小小说) – has a long and complicated history in Chinese culture. The essentially diminutive term xiaoshuo (literally small talk), used traditionally to refer (somewhat derogatorily) to “minor philosophical discourse or a type of unofficial, inferior history” (Lu: 39), with strong negative connotations of rumour and gossip rather than of pure fabrication and artful creation as in the latin fictio.

Several scholars (see below) have written fascinating accounts of how the xiaoshuo genre (as well as the attitudes toward it) developed from Confucian warnings against its deceitful nature and the notoriety (and popularity) of the strange and supernatural zhiguai tales to the canonised masterpieces of Ming/Qing serial fiction and today’s cyber romances.

So – in an effort to make it simple and do what it says on the tin – welcome to the new cleaned up & ad free (I hope!) version of my blog on fiction in Chinese: xiaoshuo.blog


Lu, Sheldon Hsiao-peng (1994): From Historicity to Fictionality – The Chinese Poetics of Narrative.

Zeitlin, Judith (2006): ‘Xiaoshuo’ in Moretti, Franco (ed.): The Novel: History, geography, and culture.

Is the Author back from the Dead?

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Heidi Yu Huang’s lecture ‘Worlding Hong Kong Literature: Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas’ at the University of Gothenburg’s Bernhard Karlgren seminar series.

One of the interesting side issues that cropped up during question time was the relevance of biographical information in academic literary analysis. Dr. Huang confessed herself fascinated by Dung Kai-cheung’s private life as well as his creative work, and was able to point to many direct influences (Dung wrote his dissertation on Italo Calvino, a fact that will surprise no one familiar with his work) and amusing anecdotes (Dung’s fictional universe is highly geographical and apparently certain sites in his works correspond to places where important events in his own life took place).

File:Roland Barthes Liburutegiko plaka Ahurtin.jpgIf, like me, you have received an education heavily influenced by the structuralist dictum “the author is dead,” you will find yourself shrinking from engaging with any kind of biographical reading. However, in the case of Dung Kai-cheung (and perhaps many postmodern writers), his writing self-consciously portrays literature of any kind as an invented reality that mirrors not the ultimate reality but a conglomerate of personal realities.

Even academic readings always take place from a personal perspective (albeit, hopefully a rigorous and well-informed one), so does writing for that matter, as well as any kind of communication, which is, I think, partly what Dung’s stories make so clear; reality is always already mediated.

So in the spirit of Dung’s pseudo-academic literary style, where do we draw the line between fiction and life? I’m still to brainwashed to do biographical readings, but I’ve stopped discouraging my students from doing so (with the added factor that biographical criticism is much stronger in the Chinese academic tradition).

File:Reading-jester-q75-760x753.jpgAs long as what we are seeking from the author’s life is not a fact sheet (any search for intentionality still seems both impractical and pointless to me), but rather just another perspective, which, along with socio-historical context, literary theory and previous scholarship might help make our independent analysis more interesting, it might not be such a bad thing to include.

As Paris-Sorbonne professor of English literature, Frédéric Regard puts it in a humorous but rather apt essay on this conflict between inclination and indoctrination: “I therefore find myself in an awkward position: I am in desperate need of a theory capable of reconciling my degenerate tendencies [reading literary biographies] with my enviable filiation [as part of the academic establishment]. At the same time, I find myself unable to support nostalgic attempts at reintroducing the ideal of a fixed, ‘authorised’ meaning: the recovery of the author’s ‘intention’ as the unique source of the text is not on my agenda.”


Barthes, Roland (1977): ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image—Music—Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Dung, Kai-cheung 董啟章 (2014/1997): Dituji 地圖集. Taipei: Linking Press.

Dung, Kai-cheung (2011): Atlas: The archaeology of an Imaginary City. (Translated by Dung Kai-Cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall). New York: Columbia University Press.

Regard, Frédéric (2000): ‘The Ethics of Biographical Reading: A Pragmatic Approach.’ The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume XXIX, Issue 4, 1.


More than Words: Translation Chinese – Danish

20170226_155646Some literary works excite us because their linguistic fabric is so rich; each sentence describes not only an event or an action, but a way of thinking through language and narrative, a way of looking at, living in and representing the world, full of cultural residue, philosophical implications, personal memories and associative capacity.

20170416_144219How can we as (would be) literary translators encompass both syntactic melody, narrative pace, semantic connotations, metaphoric content and intertextual aspects of our source texts while rendering them at all readable in our target language? Last week, I attended a workshop organised by Rakel Haslund-Gjerrild and Mai Corlin Bagger-Petersen at University of Copenhagen, featuring experienced and new translators of Chinese fiction into Danish, which addressed these daunting questions.

Professor emeritus of Chinese language and literature, Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg used Franco Moretti’s allegory of translation as waves that bring new life to the shores of national literatures, while the renowned Danish translator of James Joyce and Herta Müller, Karsten Sand Iversen stressed the importance of integration rather than  assimilation as a method for translation. This strategy includes avoiding what Iversen referred to as ‘normalisation’; the act of trivialising inventive and even weird literary language, in order to satisfy editors and the perceived cultural laziness of prospective audiences.

20170305_162352Danish translator of Haruki Murakami’s works, Mette Holm described the collaborative efforts of translators around the world to deal with the complexity as well as the specificity of fictional narrative: On the one hand, translators must understand and retain the literary ambiguity of Murakami’s texts, his fantastic elements, his literary subconscious, while on the other, they struggle to incorporate his use of highly specific brand names, sometimes unknown or unnamed in the target language.

20170302_172518Most translators from Chinese, including Susanne Posborg and Sidse Laugesen, agreed that the issue of dialects, idioms and jargon represented a huge hurdle in terms of translation. One cannot simply interpolate Danish dialects for Chinese, as the whole fictional geography clearly does not conform to the cultural sphere known as Denmark. Conversely, more subtle differentiations might go unnoticed by the casual reader.

20170503_144334Despite all the difficulties and challenges to good translation practice raised by the speakers (a commercial book market with, according to Klim publishers‘ representative, an active readership of only about half a million was another factor that was mentioned), the all-day workshop was very well attended by old hands and young students alike, a fact that seems to raise hope for the future of literary translation from Chinese in Denmark.

Fictional Dictionaries

I am utterly delighted to announce that my article ‘Fictional Dictionaries: Power and Philosophy of Language in Contemporary Chinese Fiction’ is now in print in the 2017 fall issue of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (29, 2). Here follows a short excerpt to whet your appetite:

Language is one of humanity’s most efficient mediums for expressing thoughts, sharing knowledge, and connecting. At the same time, language is difficult to contain because it changes over time and can vary in use from one context to another. The very meaning of words depends, to a large extent, on historical usage, cultural connotations, and specific contexts. Language is public and conventional, on the one hand, and individual and personal, on the other. Thus, any examination of the way we use language in literature, everyday discourse, philosophical meditation, or ideological propaganda—to give but a few examples—can reveal much about how we see the world.

Language has long been a subject of philosophy, but it can also be a subject in fiction writing. One way of explicitly drawing the reader’sattention to the language of a novel, and to just how much the power of linguistic definition influences our understanding of reality, is by writing that novel in the form of a dictionary. Ambrose Bierce knew this when, in 1881, he began writing the essays that later came to be known collectively as The Devil’s Dictionary, redefining chosen words to satirically comment on language and society.

Perhaps the most comprehensive example of the use of the dictionary format is Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars, from 1988. The novel reads like a specialized encyclopedia on the Khazar polemic and invites the reader to jump between entries when new and unknown terms appear in the text. The theme is the linguistic representation of history, and the dictionary’s polyphonic structure reveals how narrative accounts of the same historical event can differ dramatically depending on the ideological and religious perspective of the narrator. David Grossman has also used the dictionary format to explore Jewish ethnic identity in his See under Love (1989), and Walter Abish pursues formal prose experiments in his Alphabetical Africa (1974).

In the period around the turn of the last millennium, three China-born authors published literary works that adopted the dictionary format. In 1996, Han Shaogong wrote A Dictionary of Maqiao (Maqiao cidian), depicting the life, regional history, and local identity of a fictional village in southern China through its use of words. Xiaolu Guo used the dictionary format to point to intercultural relationships as a form of translation in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers from 2007. Finally, Yu Hua, in 2011, made use of the inherent connection between language and reality construction when he took it upon himself to rewrite recent Chinese history by redefining certain Chinese key terms in his China in Ten Words (Shige cihuili de Zhongguo). As I argue later, this last work, although published as nonfiction, incorporates many traits of fiction writing, thus justifying my labeling it a fictional dictionary.

Inspired by the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin’s lectures, both of which define the meaning of a word as its use in language, as well as by certain passages in Zhuangzi that are similarly preoccupied with language use, I investigate how the dictionary format affects the way language is used, presented,and understood in these three literary works.

The essay is in three parts. In the first and longest part, the focus is on Han Shaogong’s novel; it includes analyses of speech acts and propaganda as a kind of linguistic magic, of how unstable words can create alternative historical narratives, and of the complex connection among language,fiction, and reality. The second part looks at the power of canonized words and phrases, the importance of relexicalization, as well as the role and goal of fiction writing as discussed in Yu Hua’s work. The third part analyzes the role of translation and linguistic sedimentation in everyday life and love in Xiaolu Guo’s novel.

The method is comparative, taking Han Shaogong’s novel as the point of departure and comparing it to the two other fictional dictionaries, with the aim of investigating how similar literary constraints—that is, the demands of the lexicographical format to select and give precedence to certain words—can produce very different narratives, each with their own representation of the role of language in our understanding of the world.

Ah Cheng selling his father’s books

Sometimes biographical sequences (more or less authentic) can form kind of apocryphal chapters in the bibliography of a writer.
I am thinking of continuous retellings (sometimes by the authors themselves) of important occurrences in the formative period of the writer’s life, such as Lu Xun’s epiphany when watching a film of Japanese soldier beheading seemingly passive Chinese. (See preface to 呐喊 Call to Arms 1923)

Just now setting out on my new project of exploring the writings of Ah Cheng (Zhong Ahcheng 钟阿城) I discovered a similar story in Bonnie S. McDougall’s afterword to the English compilation of the three king-novellas (Ah Cheng: The King of Trees. New Directions publishing Corp. New York: 2010):

As his academic father is deemed a rightist and sent to be reformed, the young Ah Cheng is given the task of selling the father’s library to support the left mother and five children left behind. Before selling a bundle of books however, he reads all of them through and thus, at the age of 7, begins his acquaintance with literature.

This information is be no means necessary in order to appreciate the works of Ah Cheng, nor have I any way of proving or falsifying its authenticity. To me it is just a supplementary, or as I said apocryphal, chapter in the work of Ah Cheng, evocative of a specific period in Chinese history as well as of that fatal first encounter with the world of books, which I think many of us can recognize.