Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Story Note: Wang Zengqi's "Buddhist Initiation"

Wang Zengqi, folk culture expert, writer, editor of a volume on food writing I'd like to see. He also illustrated a reference work on the potato, which has me dreaming of a volume of food writing. (From Fang's introductory biography). Thanks to this blog for the picture.

Chinese Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: An Anthology in English (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, 1496)Chinese Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: An Anthology in English by Zhihua Fang

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I picked this up so I could read Fang's translation of "Buddhist Initiation" by Wang Zengqi. It's a ridiculously poor translation of a story that already lacks conflict and tension.

The introduction to the book has some real howlers, e.g. Fang on the 1980s in China: "It was a magic, romantic and wondrous time that will never be again." Astoundingly, Fang's bumbling historical introduction does not even mention "Buddhist Initiation."

I can see no reason to look at this volume, unless you need to read stories by Gao Xiaosheng, Tie Ning and/or Wang Zengqi quickly, in poor English that will leave you suspecting that Chinese literature really is inferior.

(Apparently the "Garland Reference Library of the Humanities" is another one of those near-vanity publishers that will publish practically anything, with no attempt to vet or consult with peers in the field.)

Finally, a response to the story "Buddhist Initiation," at least in this English translation:

Wang Zengqi’s “Buddhist Initiation” is about a town where a Buddhist monastery and an earthy citizenry exist in harmony. People love and respect the monks, even though the monks don't obey the vinaya codes that prohibit eating meat and having sex. The story drifts from scene to scene with lyrical writing about land, as well as detailed portraits of the various monks, children, old ladies, street merchants, etc. etc. that fill the town. There is a sort of a protagonist, a child named Mingzi who wants to be a monk, but also likes this one girl Yingzi. Will he be able to have both? Yes.

Like so much of Mark Twain's writing, place and language are bound so tightly together, this piece is probably not a good choice for translation. As Carolyn FitzGerald has suggested in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, we can apply David Wang's term "imaginary nostalgia" to describe the idealized network of landscape and portrait that comprises these compositions. Note that I say "compositions" and not "stories" because landscape and portrait do not a story make.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Feminism note: Literary Feminism?

Cast photo from a recent production of "Making Lies from Truth" (Nong zhen cheng jia) by Yang Jiang; from this page

Dooling, Amy. Women's Literary Feminism in Twentieth-Century China. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

After reading the long introduction to this book, I'm troubled once again by "feminist literary theory." Let me try to state the idea behind this big term very simply: literature ought to represent females in such a way as to highlight the need for feminist consciousness and feminist transformation. The resulting "feminist narrative" will either portray traditional patriarchal society negatively, which highlights the need for change, or it will portray female subjects who contribute substantially to the change, either simply because they understand the problems women face or because they come up with ways to actually change society.

I'm almost on board with this feminist project, though I'm troubled by the following: there is a strong 'ought' to feminist narrative, a kind of demand as to what needs to happen in literature. There seems to be some conflict between the demand for feminist narrative and the analysis of "agency" in women's literature. Feminists both look for agency and try to push what they know of agency onto the text, which I think is why they tend to undervalue the simple application of traditions and conventions in their literature. And since the literary quality of a text is partly reflected in its dense network of interactions with writing tradition, literary quality, too, is undervalued.

In my own terms, feminist literary criticism doesn't, at least here in Dooling, express any overlap between "agency" and "affect." Companionate marriage, for example, is a kind of primary affective connection that allows for agency in both parties -- that's what "companion" means, right? And this kind of relationship can arise in Chinese writing as a reinvention (Dooling's word would be "rewrite") of conventions, including Confucian convention. The difference I seem to have is perhaps slight: I say a 'rewrite' can have less parody and critique than feminists normally look for, at least until they begin considering middlebrow literature perhaps, which field forces them to consider how literature works on readers who won't accept challenges that raise their levels of anxiety and ambivalence. People want happy endings.

More on this in my dissertation to come.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wenxian tongkao: Chinese History Geek Note

"Da Qin" (Rome?) in the Wenxian tongkao

I had an encounter with the Wenxian tongkao at reading group last week. HJ, who seems to have really been animated by our readings from the 1602 Ricci map of the world, was looking into the mention of a certain class of people known as 'dwarves' in the Shan hai jing, who have their own land south of the region of Da Qin -- which reference point said in later sources to be Rome, but in the Shan hai jing it is the land west of the western ocean which borders the central continent (zhongzhou), following the older Chinese notion that the landmass was surrounded by all sides on water, and all resting on the back of a turtle, I believe.

Anyway, the map says somewhere (sadly I forget where) that a certain dwarf people live in caves to take refuge from large predatory birds. They attack the birds nests themselves in the spring, destroying the eggs. The business of predatory birds, and the defensive and offensive strategies against the birds, appear in the Shan hai jing and many, many later sources which tell upwards of a dozen variants of the story in as related in the commentary to the Shanghai guji edition. HJ also supplemented a single line from the Wenxian tongkao, a fairly important historical work of the Northern Song (1224) -- see Endymion Wilkinson page 526, Table 33, item 8, please. The page now stored in my email also includes a long and fascinating entry on "Da Qin," below which comes the entry on the dwarves, which variant of the original description also says that the Da Qin people protected the little dwarves from the predatory birds.


Back to the Blog, Back to School

Yep, that's how I feel; thanks artist Tom Richmond

It's the first day of school at the University of Minnesota. I'm always so nervous!

Huichung, Emily Chua. “The Good Book and the Good Life: Bestselling Biographies in China’s Economic Reform.” The China Quarterly, 198 (2009): 364-380.

Here's a source that AW recommended; it will surely come up in my next chapter, on the phenomenon of progressive humanism as a mass intimate public in contemporary Chinese culture. Huichung doesn't identify this intimate public, but she describes the larger field of Chinese publishing that surrounds bestselling biographies as one in which old stories take on new market orientations. She calls it a mutually generative relationship between revolutionary ambitions and commercial enterprise, but I'm not convinced this describes Yang Jiang's work effectively. Unlike Yao Ming's biography, for example, Yang Jiang never seems to think wealth or industry are important, and unlike Wang Meng, she only rarely uses the discourse of the nation, particularly in its intimate form which Huichung spots in the term "aiguo xin" (the patriotic heart).

Terms and topics

About Me

My photo
We are all wanderers along the way.