Journey to the West for China's authors
Chinese fiction and its writers have finally gained their rightful place in the world of English-language literature.
Su Tong and Wang Anyi, both renowned writers based in eastern China, are among the 13 finalists nominated for the coveted Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years. This is the first time Chinese authors have appeared as finalists in the contest for arguably the world's top English literary honour since the prize's inception in 2005.
The nomination is based on a candidate's overall body of work rather than a single novel, and only the United States and the United Kingdom, with three candidates each, have more nominees than China.
The shortlisting surprised both writers and, with traditional Chinese modesty, both said they stood little chance of picking up the award and its GBP60,000 (HK$760,737) prize money on May 18 in Sydney.
'I think my chances of winning the prize are not one out of 13 but one out of a hundred,' said Su from his Nanjing home.
'But what makes me happy most is that Chinese writers have made it onto the Western literary horizon. Not that the two of us are the best in China, but that we as Chinese writers have been given recognition in the world's literary circles.' The 48-year-old's 1989 novella, Wives and Concubines, was adapted by movie director Zhang Yimou for his acclaimed film Raise the Red Lantern.
To Wang Anyi, whose 1996 historic fiction, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, was also made into a movie, Everlasting Regret, by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan Kam-pang, the nomination marked the dawn of Chinese works in the English literary world.
'I have won prizes before, such as one from Korea two years ago,' she said. 'But this one is from the English literary world, which makes all the difference. Its 2009 winner Alice Munro is my favourite author and I am most honoured to be among legends like her.'
Wang, 56, is a professor of literature at Shanghai's Fudan University.
Su and Wang are the latest Chinese writers in a league of mainland figures to enter the international literary hall of fame.
Bi Feiyu , a Nanjing-based writer, won the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize with his novel Three Sisters, the third Chinese writer to win in four years since the event began in Hong Kong in 2007.
'Chinese writers, especially novelists, are certainly coming into prominence on the global literary landscape,' said Douglas Kerr, English professor at the University of Hong Kong. 'This is partly the result of a worldwide curiosity about China and Chinese life, which has accompanied China's growing economic rise.'
On the idea that their success is based on China's rise, the writers hold a different opinion, and especially about the nature of their country's rise.
'Instead of a rise, I'd rather call it a change of development mode. Not until 10, 20 years later will we see it clearly,' Su said.
Bi, the 2010 winner, went further. 'I can't agree to that notion [about China's rise],' he said. 'Just an increase in GDP or a few more dollars in people's pockets is not equivalent to a nation's rise. A great country doesn't necessarily possess a lot of money or state power. What is needed is a good system, a good life for everyone, social problems effectively resolved, making contributions in culture. That is what I call a real rise.'
Wang Anyi said Western interest in Chinese literature had come a long way, with twists and turns over the past three decades of China's reform era.
'There was indeed a great interest in the West in China in the 1980s,' she said. 'It was through literature that they wanted to know about China's reform and social change. But the interest faded after the late 1980s and turned to China's economics instead. It was not until recently the interest in literature resumed.
'Considering the fact that contemporary writers like Su Tong and Mo Yan don't touch on current issues, I would say the world takes an interest in Chinese literature for its literary value and not as a China tool like in the 1980s. This is what literature is supposed to be.'
But she finds it paradoxical that literary value, while attracting the West, fails to sustain literature in China.
'At present, fiction is becoming more and more marginalised in China in the face of the internet and visual media. While it is right for fiction to detach from the social role it used to play, it has become dreary, especially to the post-1980s generation, whose overwhelming interest in video and movie has deprived them of the ability to think.'
Reading fiction, Wang said, required focus, but younger people lacked patience and had been hijacked by television and movies. 'Video media are now in control,' she said. 'What the youngsters see is an imaginary world where everything is relaxed and easy and people they see are good looking and nice. How do they manage once they are back in the real world? The prospect is anything but optimistic as I believe nothing will last if people don't think.'
Writers, Wang said, could play a role in rebuilding lost spiritual values.
'We have to do it to show everyone that materialism is not the only thing that rules the land, even though what we do may not make any difference.'
But to Su Tong, writers should focus on their works without a social agenda.
'All fiction is related to politics, but not just politics alone,' Su said. 'Readers should make their own discoveries in reading because fiction is something very encompassing, offering all angles and a wide-open space. It can be history, life, love ... I never take a particular angle or position. If readers identify one, that's their business.'
Great fiction he said, always involved a lag in time. Victor-Marie Hugo's Les Mis?rables, for example, was written in 1862, but it was about the post-French Revolution period decades earlier. And Chinese writers were no exception.
Su insisted that he never aims his work at any reader in particular Chinese or Western, but writes for himself only.
'You may find my works critical of Chinese society, such as The Boat of Redemption about the latter days of the Cultural Revolution, a work that won me the Man Asian Literary Prize 2009,' he said. 'But I never take into consideration what others might think or feel. I am only responsible to myself. Any writer with a conscience should reflect on his own country's history and culture. That is the attitude I hold on to.'
Wang, despite her position as chairwoman of the Shanghai Writers Association, said she remained unworried about critics of fiction based on China's bitter past. Nor was she concerned about toeing any official line about 'a harmonious society'.
'I don't think I can afford to concern myself with the official slogans, which keep changing in this era of reform,' she said. 'That is something for the politicians, not us writers.'
Su Tong expounded further on writers' obligations to society. 'It's not a writer's duty to identify social problem and so we can't play the role of building social harmony. Instead a writer should look for what is inharmonious out of the seeming harmony. That's his job.'
The authorities, he added, had not intervened in his writing. 'I should honestly say the officials are not as high-handed as some people think.'
Wang agreed. 'I think the government is more sensitive about non-fiction than fiction in relation to subjects like the Cultural Revolution,' she said. 'But to us, the Cultural Revolution was a very important experience in our life when we saw our youth drift in abnormal times. This is something we can never forget and is the source of our stories.'
To Bi Feiyu, who said he once revised a manuscript after official intervention, the key lay in the writer himself.
'I must admit there is official censorship,' he said. 'But I think a writer should be more proactive and not step back in the face of official pressure. No one can deny China is progressing, it's just a matter of pace and in which area. It would not do a writer any good to calculate what is safe to write.'
But an obstacle even more formidable than censorship was the task of translation.
Take Bi's Three Sisters. The book, which won him the 2010 prize, was published in 2001. It only attracted attention in the West when it was published in English last year.
'If the West wanted to show more interest in Chinese writers, I'd rather see it in their publicising Chinese publications more than giving out prizes,' Bi said.
But to Su Tong, translation was a daunting task that required the translator's total mastery of two languages as well as the cultural milieu of the narrative.
'Even so, something is lost in translation here and there,' he said. 'But I think it's okay as long as the big picture is there. After all language is only a tool to [construct] that picture.'
But Wang Anyi said the universality of literature prevailed over language barriers.
'Regardless of language differences, I think life is more or less the same in any given society,' she said. 'We eat three meals a day, we love, we get married, have kids and so forth. It's exactly because of this more or less, that Westerners are attracted to our works.'
But how long that interest would last was something she was less certain about.
'It's hard to infer how much the nomination of Su Tong and me will get the English literary world interested in Chinese writers,' she said. 'We are, after all, different in culture and development, and China's interest in the West is far more than the West in China. So it is still a long way for us to really become a part of the world's mainstream.'
Cultural evolution The Review