How Irish writer James Joyce became a belated bestseller in China
In space of a generation, Joyce has gone from symbol of bourgeois corruption to one of cosmopolitan sophistication, with translations of his works plentiful and plays about him well attended
Irish author James Joyce's image in China holds a strange fascination in the West. When the first third of Finnegans Wake, his last and most notoriously difficult book, was published in Shanghai in 2013, newspapers in Britain and America greeted the announcement as a momentous event.
Certainly, the salient details of the story are arresting: 72 years had passed since the publication of the novel in London in 1941; seven years had elapsed since Dai Congrong had agreed to undertake the formidable task of translation; and when the book appeared between luxuriously silky dark-green boards, heavy with pages of explanatory notes, it became an immediate commercial success.
By what miracles of linguistic mastery and literary imagination could Chinese characters be made to capture Joyce's mind-bending manipulations of the alphabet? By what subtleties of cross-cultural understanding could the specificities of Ireland and its mythologies be translated for a Chinese audience? Could the translation be trusted if it made Finnegans Wake a bestseller?
When Ulysses was first published in Paris in 1922, Joyce responded with delight to news that an order had been placed from China: "Ten copies to Peking!" he exclaimed. Ulysses, even more than Finnegans Wake, is alive in China today. Two Joyce-themed stage productions have recently toured major Chinese cities. Both are the brainchildren of Andy Arnold, the artistic director of Glasgow's Tron Theatre, and form part of a programme of performances for a UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange. The first, A Journey Round James Joyce, offers an elegantly devised biographical reimagining of Joyce's life in Trieste between 1905 and 1915. The second, Ulysses, is a revival of the Tron's successful 2012 production of Dermot Bolger's adaptation ( A Dublin Bloom, 1996). They performed to full and enthusiastic houses in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Jinan.
For much of the 20th century, Joyce's name was not one to be lightly pronounced or printed in China. Even as late as 1982 - as Jin Di, Ulysses' first translator, reports - a state official commenting on the centenary of Joyce's birth described the world of Leopold Bloom as "shocking in its pettiness, obscurity, ugliness, and confusion" and as emblematic of "the decadence of the modern bourgeoisie".
Yet by 1996, not one but two versions of Ulysses were available to Chinese readers. The novel sold well, and Western newspapers, as they would later about Finnegans Wake, commented on Ulysses' bestseller status in China with a mixture of excitement and bemusement. But the book's journey had in a sense only begun. Works of such length and complexity take time to percolate into a nation's living rooms and classrooms. These days, if you ask about James Joyce - or "Zhanmusi Qiaoyisi", as his name is transliterated in Chinese pinyin - in a Chinese bookshop you will be led to shelves lined with relevant volumes. The vast five-floor Xinhua Bookstore just round the corner from Tiananmen Square stocks no fewer than four different editions of Ulysses - one in English, and three in Chinese. Copies of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Exiles and Finnegans Wake are also available.
The tastes and identifications of China's expanding and dynamic middle class are part of the explanation for this renaissance. Where Joyce stood for bourgeois corruption only three decades ago, he now stands for cosmopolitan sophistication. Chinese people have an affectionate epithet for those particularly enamoured of the Western way of life and its consumer comforts: they call such internationally minded bourgeois xiaozi - literally, "little capitalists". It is to a large degree such educated xiaozi who are driving the success of Arnold's plays.
A Journey Round James Joyce was conceived specifically with China in mind. Performed in Chinese by Chinese actors, the play conjures Joyce and Nora Barnacle's departure from Ireland, Joyce's carousing in the bars of Trieste, the language lessons he gave to make a living, Nora's housekeeping and henpecking, his writing and its connections to his experiences in exile. The script consists of an ingenious collage of quotations assembled from many corners of Joyce's works and letters. In its departures from biographical fact and disruptions of chronological sequence, A Journey Round James Joyce bears some likeness to the theatrical fantasy by which Tom Stoppard imagined Joyce's life in Zurich in Travesties in 1974. Yet the tone of this piece is quite different, fluctuating between broad comedy and romance, tension and melodrama.
To Western eyes, the sight and sound of a Chinese James Joyce and Nora Barnacle is completely disorienting (Joyce's recognisable glasses are at first the only obvious echo of a familiar story) and a thought-provoking reminder of the extent of the differences translations have to negotiate. As the play unfolds, snippets of the Irish songs and Italian operas Joyce loved ( Down by the Salley Gardens, Madame Butterfly) add to the international ambience of the journey. The costumes and the exquisitely minimalist set are the fruits of Arnold's collaboration with Beijing's Xinchan Theatre.
Arnold's Ulysses is a wilder piece of theatre. Performed in English with Chinese surtitles, the play stages a recapitulation of all the novel's best-known moments - a "greatest hits" formula. But it makes great demands on anyone encountering Joyce's world for the first time: it would be fairly difficult, without prior knowledge of the book, and without a sense of the Dublin world in which it is rooted, to make head or tail of the spectacular whirligig of scenes by which Arnold recreates the events of Bloomsday.
The play inverts the chronology of Joyce's book by presenting the events of June 16, 1904, as the stuff of Bloom's dreams after his return to the marital bed in the early hours of the following morning. The re-enactment of the key moments of his day are interwoven with excerpts from his wife Molly's famous closing soliloquy.
What the Tron emphatically brings to Ulysses is the inventive energy and the daring to engage with a classic text. Joyce's odyssey in China, and the drama of East and West captured in its moving hall of mirrors, continues.