by Sheila Cornelius
curiosity about China reaches beyond Olympic pomp, to the lives of
ordinary Chinese people. Similarly, interest in Chinese literature has
progressed from multi-volume traditional classics such as Cao
Xuequins’s Dream of Red
Mansions or the difficult works of early ‘modern’ writers
like Lu Xun to best-selling works such as Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2002)
and Jung Chang’s family saga Wild
Swans (1992) a set text for a UK A-Level syllabus. These
long–term residents of America and England respectively have helped
fuel a global market for authentic fiction by contemporary Chinese
Admirers of Ma
Jian’s Beijing Coma
(2008) and Xiaolu Guo’s A
Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) will
find much to enjoy in this anthology of ninety one ‘short-shorts’, a
genre which swells magazine circulations into the hundreds of thousands
and which suits the busy lives of modern Chinese readers.
work of sixty different authors, the majority of the stories originate
from mainland China, with the addition of some from Taiwan and Hong
Kong, covering the last three decades of rapid social change. They
comprise a mix of well-known and new authors culled from newspapers,
magazines, literary journals, and personal collections. Howard
Goldblatt introduces the fifteen or so categories into which the
selection is divided with a flash-fiction piece of his own. He has also
translated some of the collection.
The quality of
translation and stories is high with only a few awkward-sounding
phrases or pieces where the quality is less apparent. They are
interspersed with interesting general comments on the nature and appeal
of short fiction. A fascinating introduction by Aili Mu and Julie Chu
provides historical and thematic context and the stories are
interspersed with quotes from commentators about the short-shorts
The short-short, to borrow a Chinese saying, is "small as a sparrow but
has all the vital organs" of a good story. "Topics and themes are
arranged under fifteen headings which include ‘Change’, ‘Nourishment’,
‘Weirdness’ and ‘(In)fidelities’. Social change and moral decline,
employment and housing difficulties, awkwardness of romantic
attachments and family life, the generation gap and the clash of
traditional and modern values all feature, as might be expected in such
a large collection.
It’s a book
that is suited to dipping into rather than reading at a long stretch,
partly because many stories provoke reflection.
It’s inevitable that the quality varies in such a large collection and
to an extent translation blurs distinctiveness of style. Although my
personal preference is for collections by the same author, this volume
is a useful sampler for future reading. For the more general reader who
comes to the collection from an interest in China itself, the diversity
of views and styles in this anthology will provide a satisfying
introduction to the surprisingly distinctive voices of Chinese writing
Sheila Cornelius worked
as Foreign Editor for a publisher in northeast China in 2003-4 and is
the author of New Chinese Cinema (2002). She lives in London and writes
website reviews as well as fiction, specializing in short stories.
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Selected and translated by: Selected and translated by Aili Mu,
Julie Chiu and Howard Goldblatt
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other reviewers thought:
Asian Review of Books