Confessions of an Ivory Tower Postmodern Cultural Marxist SJW

So it’s been a while since I posted on here (more than a year!) and I’m afraid I don’t have much to report about Chinese comics, for the moment at least. It’s a been a big year: after five fantastic years in Canada, my wife (Chinese) and I (American) finally successfully applied for permanent residence…and then more or less right away moved to the UK. We’d actually decided on the move before we found out if our PR application was approved or not – mostly because if it was denied, we would have to leave anyways, since our work visas were going to expire in the spring of 2019.

On the other hand, since my wife, Ding, is still working for her (and my former) Canadian employer (doing educational tourism for university students from China) under the current rules, we can keep our PR valid until we move back to Canada in a couple of years.  (We love it here, but we’re worried if we stay in the UK we won’t be able to get on an equivalent path to citizenship. Also, the cost of living in London is ridonkulous.)

The other outcome of this move was that I decided to apply to go back to grad school for my PhD. I had been on the fence about whether I wanted to do that for a while, and a couple of things conspired to convince me to take the plunge — the most important being that Ding was onboard with the whole ‘more school’ thing.

Continue reading

May the Fourth (of October) Be With You!

Ah, Mid-Autumn Festival. A time of coming together, a time of thanks, but most of all, a time of…mooncakes. What are mooncakes you ask? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Often compared (in both shape and density) to a hockey puck, the mooncake is one of China’s most iconic pastries. Traditionally filled with  lotus seed or bean paste along with a duck egg yolk to represent the moon, folk tradition holds that mooncakes date back to the earliest years of the Tang dynasty. Following a major victory over the Xiongnu 匈奴 nomadic tribes to the north of the empire,  the Emperor ordered the Imperial kitchens to prepare ‘barbarian cakes with an image of the toad’ 應將胡餅邀蟾蜍 to be presented to the commanding officer, General Li Jing 李靖.1  At the time, toads were associated with the goddess Chang E 嫦娥, who was said to have gone to live on the moon after betraying her husband, the despotic Hou Yi 后裔. Later, the toad was replaced with a (much more marketable) rabbit.

Another story that gets told about mooncakes dates back to the Yuan dynasty, when China was under Mongol rule. Supposedly, Han loyalists printed patriotic messages in the cakes. Being illiterate in Chinese (or perhaps not yet won over to the joys of the Chinese equivalent of a Christmas fruitcake) the messages are said to have circulated right under the noses of the hapless foreign invaders.

Appropriately perhaps, last year Hong Kong mooncake mogols Meixin launched a new line of mooncakes imprinted with the insignia of a somewhat different Empire and Rebel Alliance:


An Alliance of Black and White
To Commemorate of Mid-Autumn

Continue reading

  1. Recorded in Things Seen and Heard in Luoyang  《洛中見聞》. See []

Zhang Shijie’s 張士傑 Fisher Boy 漁童: Transformative Nationalism in New China

The following is based on a presentation I gave for the 2017 Association of Asian Studies annual conference in Toronto as part of the panel Materia Manhuanica: Reading Chinese Cartoons on March 16, 2017. Funding for this panel was generously provided by the Huang Yao Foundation, with Eileen Chow serving as discussant. Additional  revisions were suggested by my co-panelists John Crespi, Madeline Gent, and Orion Martin. Finally, I am indebted to Barbara Mittler, whose March 6, 2017, seminar “A King’s Two Bodies? Mao’s Death and his Legacy” at UBC got me thinking about how China’s “transformative nationalism” changed under Mao and the CCP, and what this might tell us about Zhang Shijie’s Boxer comics, and their eventual suppression.

I want to begin first by thanking Mississauga people of the Ojibwe Anishinaabe First Nation on whose ancestral lands we are hosting this event today. For those of you who are just visiting Canada for the first time, this might seem a little odd, but I encourage you, especially in the really, frankly, pretty frightening times we find ourselves, I encourage you to think about this question of ownership. Who does the land really belong to and where do we all come from? Where do our stories come from and who do they belong to? I think these are questions which we are going to talk about more during tonight’s panel, and also during our question and answer session.

Niubizi and John Crespi at the AAS 2017 Materia Manhuanica panel.

Secondly, I wanted to thank the Huang Yao Foundation for sponsoring this panel. If you haven’t heard of them yet, the Huang Yao Foundation is an amazing organization, which was founded by Carolyn Huang, Huang Danrong 黄丹蓉 and the Huang family in 2001, with the goal of preserving their grandfather’s legacy as a cartoonist, a painter, and a scholar. Over here, on our sign, you can see Niubizi, or ‘Willie Buffoon’ as he was known in English. The Huang Yao Foundation has been really tireless in collecting information on Huang Yao’s career, and the careers of his peers, and they have a lot of resources to share with Chinese comics scholars. I think almost everyone on the panel today has worked with them in some capacity over the years. So I encourage you all to check them out online at huangyao dot org, and also to keep an eye out for some of the publications and other projects which will be coming down the line over the next couple of months.

Finally, I wanted to thank all of you for being here today. I know there are always a lot of demands on people’s time during AAS, and it really means a lot to us that you were willing to stop by and geek out on Chinese comics for a bit. I know that comics sometimes get a bad rap, and comics scholars are pretty notorious for spending a lot of time and energy on justifying their interest in what is, aside from being physically ephemeral, also pretty crude art form. Even if comics aren’t nearly as “declassee” as they once might have been, thanks to the material turn, I think there is still a big question that looms over any discussion of comics, which is, “Why comics?” Because there really is something that compels comics fans (like all of us here) to really “stand by our man” [hua].

Okay, no more bad puns, I promise!

So one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is being thankful and mindful of the spaces we inhabit. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it brings up this question of belonging. ‘Belonging’ is one of those great words that goes both ways—in the sense of belonging to a place, and places belonging to us.

Nanabozho piles muskrat’s earth on the shell of a turtle while beaver and otter look on in “The Creation of the World” Daphne Odjig (b. 1919, Potawatomi and Odawa First Nation), 1972.

So here we have this great mural by Daphne Odjig from the 1970s, which depicts the trickster god Nanabozho piling mud on the back of turtle to create the world. Over here you have beaver, and muskrat, who for modern viewers might bring to the mind the fur trappers, who formed the vanguard of Western imperialism in North America, and particularly here in Canada. So there’s one reading of this piece, which is basically a straight reading, as being about a creation myth, and another one, which is more subjective, but gets into a different kind of creation myth—the creation of Canada as a nation.

Now, I don’t know what Odjig would say about her painting, or if she would agree with this sort of reading, I did find this quote from her from 1968 that I think speaks to what I want to talk about today:

“If you destroy our legends you destroy our soul.”
– Daphne Odjig, 1968 (from Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair’s introduction to Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water)

And that’s really a great launching off point for talking about Zhang Shijie, and his ‘folk’ stories set during the Boxer Uprising at the turn of the 20th century, but actually collected and edited (pretty heavily in some cases) and published towards the end of the 1950s and up to the mid-1960s. What’s interesting about these stories, one collection of which was called 义和团传说故事 or ‘Boxer Legends,’ is that they are mostly remembered today for the comic book and cartoon adaptations.

Continue reading

Future Perfect: Ye Yonglie 葉永烈 and the Origins of Chinese Speculative Fiction

The following is based on a short talk on Chinese science fiction which I had the honor of presenting to the CHIN 40: Popular Culture in Modern Chinese Societies course at UCLA on February 16, 2017, at the invitation of Micheal Berry. I had originally planned on posting this a couple of weeks after giving the talk–it seems a little superfluous to be talking about obscure Chinese authors and artists with everything that is going on in the news at the moment. At the same time, I’m starting to wonder if the situation we find ourselves in has something to do with our inability not only to come to terms with history (particularly as a mirror for the present), but whether it stems from a more fundamental failure to think about what words really mean. Politics is about discourse, about framing ideas and making calls for action. But if we fail to interrogate that discourse, to pick apart those ideas, and question those calls for action, then we give authoritarians an open door to exploit the weak for the sake of the powerful.

Okay, so I’m going to start off on a bit of an odd note for a talk on Chinese science fiction, but I’m going to start with a nod to the Tongva people, on whose ancestral and unceded lands we find ourselves today. This is something they do up in Canada, thanking the First Nations peoples and acknowledging the enormous debt of gratitude (and almost impossible degree of contrition) that we owe to them. If you’re planning on giving a talk any time in the future, I encourage you to do the same.

I would also like to thank Professor Berry for inviting me, and thank all of you for signing up for this course! I guess we should also thank UCLA for making it possible for you guys to learn about Chinese pop culture, something that’s hardly a given these days with budget cuts and all.

Now, on the Chinese science fiction!

So, we’re going to be talking (a little) about Ye Yonglie 葉永烈, a science fiction author I’m interested in who was born in 1940. I think he’s important, because he was born at more or the less the midpoint of the history of contemporary sci-fi in China, which has just over a century and a half of history, depending on how you define what sci-fi is. For that reason, his career makes a useful frame for talking about Chinese science fiction, and what that means. In fact, I’m not going to be talking very much at all about Ye, so I encourage you to read The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry if you’d like to know more about Ye and the stories he wrote.

A lot has been written about Chinese science fiction in English, but one essay I recommend for covering the key points is Regina Kanyu Wang’s “A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction.” Jeffery Wasserstrom’s recent article for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative on the same topic is also worth checking out for a shorter, and more academic take. Finally, Ou Ning has compiled a list of classic Chinese and English sci-fi novels, which echoes some of what we see in these two pieces, but with some interesting additions as well, as we will see.

But before we can start unpacking all of this, I’m afraid we’re going to have to talk about some pretty abstract concepts, and I’m not a very abstract kind of guy. So I thought we might use an old parable to help frame our discussion:

Does anybody recognize this image? If you do, don’t shout it out just yet okay?

I went ahead and edited the illustration (and the Chinese, for those of you who read Chinese), but if you look you’ll see there are five men—five blind men, to be specific.  And the five blind men are touching something:

One of them says, “The thing that we are touching is rope, it’s long and thin.”

And the one over here says, “No, no, no, it’s a pillar, it’s thick and strong.”

And this guy right here says, “You’re both wrong, it’s a wall, it’s long and flat.”

And the guy in yellow says, “You guys really are blind! It’s a definitely a metal pipe, can’t you tell?”

Finally, the guy at the end says, “Pipe? What pipe? This obviously a rubber hose!”

Now of course, it’s none of these things at all, it’s a…drum roll, please…


Continue reading

Saving the Nation Through Twisted Means: Zhang Yimou’s 張藝謀 Great Wall 《長城》

The Japanese occupation of China, beginning with the annexation of Manchuria in 1932, and culminating in full-scale invasion via Shanghai in 1937, forms a key turning point in the history of modern China. If this seems like an odd (or inauspicious, or even politically incorrect) jumping off point for a review of Zhang Yimou’s latest film, Great Wall, bear with me for a moment.


Taotie 饕餮 (‘the gluttonous horde’) mount their attack in one of the opening scenes of Great Wall


As many scholars have argued, without Japanese occupation, the Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to have been able to defeat the Nationalists, whose failure (as so many textsbooks argue) to defend the Chinese heartlands turned countless young patriots against them. It is curious to note then, that so many prominent Nationalist politicians and military officials chose to collaborate with the Japanese invaders:


"Portrait of the Late Wang Jingwei" 汪精衛遺像 Ye Qianyu 葉淺予 (early 1940s)
“Portrait of the Late Wang Jingwei”  汪精衛遺像 Ye Qianyu 葉淺予 (early 1940s)


While founding KMT member Wang Jingwei 汪精衛 (1883–1944, pictured above in a mock-memorial by Ye Qianyu) is of course the most obvious and well-known collaborator, there was also his right-hand man Zhou Fohai 周佛海 (1897–1948), his brother-in-law Chu Minyi 褚民誼 (1884–1946), and, in no particular order: Chen Gongbo 陳公博 (1892–1946), Jiang Kanghu 江亢虎 (1883–1954), Bao Wenyue 鮑文樾 (1892–1980), Ren Yuandao 任援道 (1890–1980), Xiao Shuxuan 蕭叔宣 (1894–1945), Yang Kuiyi 杨揆一 (1885–1946), Tang Erho 湯爾和 (1878–1940), Chen Zenmin 陳則民 (1881–1951), Zang Shiyi 臧式毅 (1884–1956), Li Shaogeng 李紹庚 (1896–?), Wang Zihui 王子惠 (1892–?), and Zhang Yanqing 張燕卿 (1898–1951).


Taotie queen 母兽 or Japanese collaborator? You decide! 1


Of these, Wang Jingwei and Jiang Kanghu were known anarchists (as young men at least), with Wang spending 1910-1911 in prison for an assassination attempt of Prince Chun 和碩醇親王, father of the Puyi, the last emperor of China. One theory, known as “saving the nation through twisted means”   曲线救国, holds that these collaborators were actually serving the Nationalists by directing the Japanese forces to target Communists. As Chiang Kai-shek himself is supposed to have once famously said, “The Japanese are a disease of the skin. The Communists are a disease of the heart日本的侵略是皮肤病,共产党才是心脏病.2

Continue reading

  1. Tried very hard not to make a 日本鬼子 comment here, but it does seem relevant to point out that in the PRC the Japanese, to this day, are referred to as ‘devils’ or ‘demons’ in casual conversation. []
  2. This quote may very be apocryphal. The Chinese appears to be a back translation from English, which fits with the fact that the most convincing source appears to be a June 30, 1941, letter from Ernest Hemingway to Henry Morgenthau, United States Treasury Secretary. Hemingway had accompanied his then wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, on a trip to wartime capital of Chongqing in spring of that year, where they had both met Chiang Kai-shek. In the letter, however, he simply quotes a ‘KMT official,’ not the Generalissimo himself. See “In love and war: a Hong Kong honeymoon for Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn,” Post Magazine, February 13, 2016. []

Turtles All the Way Down: Dr. Fix-it 改造博士, Mr. Wang 王先生 and the Origins of Chinese Comics

The following is based on a lecture on Chinese comics which I had the pleasure of presenting to the Asian Art and Visual Culture working group at the Townsend Center for Humanities at UC Berkeley on February 3, 2017, at the invitation of Hannibal Taubes and Weihong Bao. I’ve edited the original text slightly to reflect the comments I received before and after my presentation.

So, starting off, I’d like first thank the Asian Art and Visual Culture working group, and Hannibal Taubes and Professor Weihong Bao for inviting me to be here today, and Andrew Jones for taking the time to meet with me before this talk. It’s really an honor for me to be able to be here to not only share my research, but also have the opportunity to learn more about the projects you guys are all working on in your own fields. It’s always amazing to me to see the ways people studying things I had no idea about can inspire me to think about my own work in different ways.

I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge the Chochenyo band (today Muwekma) of the Ohlone People on whose ancestral and unceded territory we are holding this event today.

Just now, Professor Jones and I were talking about this, and I said, “I know it seems a little hokey…” But Professor Jones, to his credit, said that he didn’t think it was hokey at all. And then he told me a story, one that I hadn’t heard before.

Just to preface, I’m from Portland, so we were talking about Ursula K. Le Guin, who has lived in Portland for most of her adult life with her husband, Charles Le Guin, a historian who taught at Portland State University (my alma mater).

What I didn’t know about Ursula K. Le Guin, is that she was originally from Berkeley, and her father, Alfred Kroeber, taught at the university. (That’s where the K in her name comes from.) Kroeber was an anthropologist, one the earliest students of Franz Boas at Columbia, and Le Guin’s mother, Theodora Kroeber, was also an anthropologist, having written Ishi in Two Worlds: a biography of the last wild Indian in North America in 1961. Ishi was said to be the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, of the Yana people from Northern California, and he just appeared all of a sudden in 1911, after most of his tribe had been killed in the Three Knolls Massacre of 1865. The part of this story that I think is really relevant to my talk today, is that in her book, Theodora Kroeber describes how Ishi never actually told anyone his true name–just like Ged and the wizards in a Tale of Earthsea.

So we have these threads, the power of names, and the way ideas and traditions move through generations.

I’m going to try and avoid talking about politics here, because I know—or at least I think if you’re here for this talk today, it’s probably at least in part because you want to think about something else for a little while. But avoiding politics is itself political, and we are at Berkeley, which is in the national news for the protests here just two nights ago, for protests which ended in the university cancelling a talk by the white supremacist / internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos.

I would like to say that even though things look pretty dire right now, the struggle for equality and freedom from oppression is something that’s been ongoing for a long time now. I’d like to think that his Orangeness in Chief, and Brexit, and the crackdown on NGOs and lawyers and free speech in China…I’d like to think all of those things are just temporary setbacks.

I do think the tide of history is against them, in the same way that the First Nations peoples of North America, and indigenous peoples around the world are finally starting to gain some recognition for the injustices that were done to them in the past, and new policies are being put into place to address the ongoing legacies of those injustices.

And I want to thank the community here at Berkeley for standing up to the people who would have us the go the other direction, by having us betray the fundamental values of American democracy.

Okay! So, now, on the really pressing matter of the day: Chinese comics!

Statue of three stacked turtles in a public square in front of a curios shop.Statue of three stacked turtles in a public square in front of a curios shop.

So, the title of this talk is ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ and I guess that’s a little confusing for some people, because what do turtles have to do with China or comics?

Continue reading

Huang Shan: Ten Years of Studying Chinese and Making Comics

This morning I realized that September marked my tenth year of studying Chinese. It’s put me in something of a reflective mood, so bear with me while I reminisce (or feel free to go watch this video of a porcupine eating pumpkins instead).

Ten years ago I had just started my third year of community college, where I was completing computer science pre reqs. Comp sci was a bit of a stretch for me, nerd though I am, since I’ve never had a very good grasp of math.1 So the simple answer I give for why I switched majors to Chinese is that I flunked out of calculus. (Although it might be just as fair to say I flunked calculus because I was studying Chinese.)

I’ve always liked computers though, for making obscure information accessible—being able to Telnet to my local library was just about the coolest thing ever, and I’m probably one of the only people in the whole world who’ve read Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia from end to end. (Before that, all I had was a set of 1968 World Books that didn’t mention the Civil Rights movement.) After that it was Geocities and Livejournal and—glory of glories—Wikipedia.

Chinese started out as a whim, based on the fact that I had read that it was one of the harder non-European languages. Comp sci required me take two years of a foreign language, and despite the fact I’d already spent a year in Germany, and studied several years of Spanish and French, I wanted to challenge myself to learn something further removed from English. And, as a bonus, back in 2005, China was in the news in big way and it seemed like picking up a basic competency would be a good way to improve my future job prospects.

More broadly, I think I was also attracted to the idea of finding an unknown place. Robinson Crusoe was one of my favorite books growing up, along with The Little Prince, and the movie version of Lawrence of Arabia. My dad had spent a gap year bicycling around Europe back in the 1970s, and I think that inspired me in a big way, too. And then while I was living in Europe myself I got into the Beats—Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Burroughs, especially. When I got back to the States I became obsessed with the idea of radical simplicity, thanks in large part to the pamphlet Fighting for Our Lives which an ex-girlfriend had sent me. I dropped out of school and moved to an organic farm on the East Coast, where I spent a year trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life.

Eventually I got the idea of trying to backpack from Bangkok to Yunnan, but ended up running out of money in Phnom Penh. After a couple of desperate months teaching English in Cambodia I’d decided it was time to go home and try something new. It’s a fun story to tell now, but at the time I remember being absolutely terrified. I was broke, and I’d become convinced that my family was going to end up footing the bill to life flight me home after getting into a traffic accident or worse.  It wasn’t an especially rational fear, I’ll acknowledge, but in hindsight it got me thinking about the fact that privilege it not really something you get to accept or reject. Privilege is about family, it’s about where you are born, the way you speak, not just the way you interact with the world, but the way the world interacts with you.

So I would like to think that dedicating my life to studying (and now translating) Chinese has been about continuing to work from a position of privilege to create social change. The ideological struggle of the 21st century is arguably cultural homogeneity vs heterogeneity. A Starbucks on every corner and an iPhone in every home, but also bubble tea and taco trucks on every other corner and Chinese and Korean and Latin American science fiction in every home, too.  I think this ties into the fight against climate change, which is really only the second existential global crisis we’ve faced (the first being the atom bomb). Fossil fuels and the infrastructure that supports their extraction and consumption are the epitome of big business. But cultural production and consumption (arguably) represent a different kind of business, one that is potentially much more sustainable given how many humans we have running around on the planet these days.

We’ve been given an amazing gift of a brain that thinks and learns and yet most of us spend our time engaged in mundane tasks, buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have.2 And even worse, we’re destroying the planet to do it.

I’d like to think that we can turn the corner on this thing, and that my small contribution will be measured in words and pictures, rather than in dollars and carbon. There is no shortage of coverage of China in the news, but so little of it is of real substance.  The average American doesn’t understand China because they don’t ever get a chance to. China isn’t tea and Beijing opera and kung fu, nor is it smog, corruption, and a growing income gap—or rather, it is all those things, but also a lot of other things, too. Real Chinese voices are diverse. They don’t always agree with each other. A great number of them don’t even live in China.

So, in the spirit of sharing an alternative voice, and something I made, rather than bought (just in time for Christmas too!) I tracked down an old project of mine that’s been sitting in a desk drawer for the last couple of years. (There are also a couple dozen print copies floating around, and at one point you could check it out from the Multnomah county zine library. Alas no more.)

At the end of my first year studying abroad in Harbin, I lucked out and got to spend a month seeing the sights with my fellow China nerd, Oregonian, and BFF Kim. Kim had been planning the trip with Martin, a German China nerd who she met in Beijing, and they were generous enough to let me tag along. We climbed mountains, visited Qufu, where Confucius was born and buried, toured the Tsingtao factory, and got lost in Shanghai. In short, it was the kind of trip you can only have when you’re in your early twenties and have China on the brain.

Two years later I self-published a short comic about one of the more memorable incidents from the trip, on Huang Shan (aka Yellow Mountain):


huang-shan-page-2 huang-shan-page-3 huang-shan-page-4 huang-shan-page-5 huang-shan-page-6 huang-shan-page-7 huang-shan-page-8 huang-shan-page-9  huang-shan-page-11

huang-shan-page-10 huang-shan-page-12 huang-shan-page-13 huang-shan-page-14 huang-shan-page-15

Okay, so maybe not a masterpiece, I admit! But I’ve been thinking a lot about this comic lately, and the spirit of generosity that went into it. I didn’t make any money from it, but I made a lifelong friend—Nim, the founder of Research Club, was sitting next to me at the Portland Zine Symposium and we bonded over stories of misspent youth and art making. That led to a whole circle of artists and zinesters that I ended up spending my last year in Portland with, before heading back to China in 2010.

My second Chinese experience was amazing too, in a different way—I got back together with Ding, and we built a life together in Shanghai. I had my first adult job, with suits and everything! But I also made sacrifices that I didn’t need to make. I mostly stopped drawing and writing comics.3  Life got simpler, but it didn’t get easier. Going back to school was a part of that process of finding a way to make a living but not let the bastards grind me down, so to speak.4

I feel lucky for all of the opportunities that studying Chinese has given me, especially now that I find myself (miraculously) gainfully employed as a translator of Chinese comics and sci-fi, among other things. I don’t think I would have predicted that I would end up here, though, and it’s hard to say how long it will last. Sometimes I feel like life is more about finding out what you don’t want to do that it is about finding what you do want to do (or can make a living doing). I used to think that once you found it you were done, but now I’m starting to realize that it’s a constant process, shaped not only by opportunity and privilege, but by consciously spending your time doing this and not that.

It’s about finding that big thing and seeing where it takes you.


  1. I also mix up left and right, and can’t read music or follow dance steps to save my life, meaning like most left brainers scarred by years of math classes I probably have a mild case of dyscalculia. []
  2. To quote St. Carlin []
  3. I’ve actually been making comics since high school, but I when I stopped I was in my mid-twenties. So the ‘ten years’ in the title of this blog post refers to two separate, but overlapping periods of my life. []
  4. To quote St. Atwood. []

Literature at the Margins: Learn Chinese, Read Sci-fi

In my experience learning Chinese over the past decade, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is getting enough practice reading (and writing) characters:


“Study them every day, use them every day” 天天学,天天用 1

Characters take an inordinate amount of time to memorize, and the lack of spaces between words means that proper nouns, set phrases, and foreign transliterations have to be parsed out from the more common vocabulary of everyday writing.

This is the easy answer for why so few Anglophones read untranslated Chinese literature:

Because Chinese is hard.

As the old joke goes, though:

Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?
A: I don’t know and I don’t care!

My suspicion is that there are a lot of people out there like me — people who are being held back not so much by the difficulty of learning Chinese, as by the difficulty of finding things to read in Chinese, so that we can actually get the practice we need to become (and stay) functionally literate.

Ignorance and apathy are self-perpetuating, of course: The less one reads in Chinese, the harder it is to pick up a book or story to read casually.2

At the same time, one hears over and over again that nothing worth reading is being published in China today. Just a couple of days ago, Ha Jin, an author who I respect and admire, was quoted on LitHub saying that, “Many of my novels—A Free Life, War Trash, A Map of Betrayal—which have political resonance, are not allowed to published.”3 Can Xue has gone even further, saying, when asked about contemporary Chinese literature, “I have no hope, and I don’t feel like evaluating it.”4

Setting aside, for the moment, questions of censorship and literary merit (which seem to, somewhat conveniently, to do double duty as pitches for dissident lit), genre fiction—particularly short fiction—provides interesting examples of ‘marginal’ or ‘weird’ literature: the queer, the dystopian, the creepy.

The trick is finding it.

Continue reading

  1. ‘Them’ here isn’t actually characters, it’s ‘the words of the Chairman Mao’ but same diff, right? []
  2. In language acquisition studies, this is referred to as ‘attrition’ and it probably affects us more than we think, since most of us have a pretty high tolerance for reading words that we don’t entirely understand. It’s more obvious when it comes to spelling (or writing characters), especially when we’re deprived of spell check (and IMEs). Two related concepts are the ‘plateau effect,’ which points to the fact that we learn L2 languages in stages, rather than all at once, and ‘fossilization,’ which refers to becoming trapped at a sub-fluent level. []
  3. Ha Jin on the Long Reach of the Chinese Government: Love, Betrayal, and the Totalitarian Machine []
  4. Q&A with Author Can Xue on the State of Chinese Literature []

Mermaids and Ghosts: Yang Chao’s 杨超 Crosscurrent 《長江圖》

The Vancouver International Film Festival is town again and all I can say is, man, time flies. While much of my work to date has focused on Chinese comics, I’ve been trying to find a natural way to transition to a broader focus that encompasses my interests in Chinese literature and film.


Page from an illustrated edition of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, late Qing.

Part of the problem has been trying to find books and movies that really excite me, and part of that problem has been putting into words what I’m actually looking for. The best I’ve come up with is ‘sino-weird’—last year I even set up a Tumblr under that name.  During my undergrad years, I really got a kick out of reading Chinese ghost stories like “The Biography of Miss Ren” 任氏傳 from Chen Han’s 陳翰 A Collection of Strange Events 異聞記 and true crime tales like Feng Menglong’s 馮夢龍 “The Case of the Dead Infant” 況太守路斷死孩兒.1 After being suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, tales of the bizarre and macabre have seen something of a comeback in mainland China over the last couple of decades, Gordon Chan’s 2008 film Painted Skin 畫皮 and the 2012 sequel (directed by Wu Ershan) being two recent examples. In Hong Kong of course, there is the much earlier success of Tsui Hark’s 1987 film A Chinese Ghost Story 倩女幽魂 , which like Painted Skin, was loosely based on a short story from Pu Songling’s collection of classic ghost stories Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio 聊齋誌異.

Following my interest in the supernatural side of the Middle Kingdom, on Monday I had the pleasure of getting to see Yang Chao’s 杨超 latest film Crosscurrent 長江圖, which was followed by a Q&A session with the director, moderated by Shelly Kraicer. While there are probably some obvious comparisons to be made to films like Jia Zhangke’s Still Life 三峡好人 (2008) and Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze (2007), Crosscurrent is concerned with more than simply documenting a historical moment. In fact, there is something almost ahistorical or even anti-historical about the film–the only references to place the film in a historical chronology that I can recall are a mention of the year 1989 in a poem, images of the Three Gorges Dam, documentary footage of river tracers, and the narrator mentioning passenger ferries stopped providing service on the river the year previous.


Gao Chun searches for An Lu in Crosscurrent.

The film follows a busted-down barge filled with mysterious cargo of ‘little fish’ as it makes its way from Shanghai to an unknown destination upriver. At dawn, on the banks of the Yangzte, the protagonist, Gao Chun (played by Qin Hao), catches a small black fish and places it in a golden urn before a bonfire—an offering to meant to appease the restless soul of his recently deceased father. Returning to his ship, he catches sight of a young woman on old-fashioned wooden boat. When he runs into her again at the next town up the river, they fall into bed, undressing each other like an old married couple. It’s not clear if it’s an act of (albeit restrained) passion, or a business transaction, but they whatever the case, Gao Chun and An Lu (Xin Zhilei) find themselves reunited again and again at each stop along the river, guided by an unusual framing device: a book of poems. Found in a dusty box under the ship’s engine, the poems (written by the director) convey a vague sense of loss. Visually stunning, the film itself meanwhile, conveys a strong undercurrent of Buddhist detachment as the natural beauty of the river is juxtaposed with the ugly decay of rusting hulks and rotten river towns.2

Continue reading

  1. Both of which are included in Y.W. Ma and Joseph S.M. Lau’s definitive collection of English translations, Traditional Chinese Stories: Themes and Variations (Cheng & Tsui, 1986). []
  2. Mark Lee Ping-Bing, who also served as director of photography for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and cinematographer for Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, won the Silver Bear in Berlin for his work on the film. []

The Jia Pingwa Project: Sample Translations of Four Novels

UPDATE 3/8/2017: The website of the Jia Pingwa Project (which has since been renamed ‘Ugly Stone,’ in honor of Jia’s short story of the same name) is now live, with sample translations of The Poleflower, Shaanxi Opera, and Old Kiln Village. A final sample translation of Master of Songs is currently under consideration for the Asymptote Close Approximations fiction contest. Additionally, just last month,  a short piece by YT on Jia and his work was featured on the blog of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and Professor Jiwei Xiao announced that the Modern and Contemporary Chinese Forum would be sponsoring a roundtable on the same for the 2018 Modern Literature Association conference in New York City.

So, in March I met Jia Pingwa 贾平凹.1 Even if you’re familiar with Chinese literature in translation, you might not have heard of Jia, despite his towering presence in contemporary Chinese literature. That’s because very few of his books have been translated into English–the first was his 1988 novel Turbulence, translated by Howard Goldblatt and published by Louisiana State University Press after winning the Mobil Pegasus Prize for Literature in 1991.2 Goldblatt, of course, is also the translator of Mo Yan, whose 2012 Nobel prize win seemed (if ever so briefly) to indicate that the tide was finally starting to turn for the reception of Chinese literature in translation.


Jia is fourth from the left, beanstalk in plaid is your humble author

Much more recently, Goldblatt returned to Jia’s work with his translation Ruined City, the second ever English language translation of a novel length work by Jia, published by Oklahoma University Press in January, 2016, as part of their Chinese Literature Today series. Perhaps on account of having been published by an academic press, so far this book has been largely ignored by mainstream critics with a single, solitary review in the New York Times. Lumped together with two other books under the telling title “Banned in Beijing,” Jess Row’s review  has a less than promising start:

The Chinese title of this sprawling novel, “Feidu,” means “abandoned capital.” It refers not to Beijing but to Jia Pingwa’s hometown, Xi’an, called Chang’an when it was the political and spiritual center of the Tang dynasty. In its time possibly the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world, Xi’an (Xijing in the novel) has, in Jia’s description, become a dilapidated backwater by the 1980s.

In fact, the English translation of ‘Abandoned Capital,’ used to refer to work prior to Goldblatt’s translation, seems to have been inspired not by the Chinese original, but instead the award-winning 1997 French translation by Genevieve Imbot-Bichet as La Capitale déchue, meaning something like the ‘Fallen Capital’ or the ‘Deposed Capital.’ In Chinese, the title is much more ambiguous, with the first character, 废, meaning both ‘abandoned’ (in the sense of ‘ruins’ 废墟 or ‘scrap/waste’ 废品), but equally a thing which has been ruined or abolished, as when one nullifies a treaty 把条约废了,ruins ones body / happiness 把身体/幸福废了 or to ‘end someone,’ as in the title of the popular web novel 特工皇妃:皇上我要废了你 (‘Special Agent Imperial Concubine: Emperor, I Will End You’).  The second character, 都, is also tricky, because it can mean both ‘capital’ 首都, and also ‘city,’ as in 大都市 (‘major metropolis’). In a short translators note at the end of the novel, Goldblatt explains that

…when I asked Jia how he wanted it to be rendered, he said he preferred “city” over “capital,” since the latter no longer applied, and asked for a term of destruction, not abandonment, as some critics and scholars have used, in the title.

Continue reading

  1. Yes, 凹 is usually pronounced āo, not . An explanation of his pen name is available here. []
  2. In 2003 Goldblatt’s translation was republished by Grove Press. Most editions I’ve come across are from this later reprinting. []