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Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-shorts

Selected and translated by Aili Mu, Julie Chiu and Howard Goldblatt

The East is Red started up, a million or so people seethed with excitement , shouts of ‘Long live Chairman Mao!’ resounded through the skies and the news reached the whole world. "

Reviewed by Sheila Cornelius

Recent 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 authors. 

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. 

Including the 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 genre. 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 today.

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.

Sheila's other Short Reviews: Anne Enright "Taking Pictures"

Courttia Newland "Music for the Off-Key"

PublisherColumbia University Press

Publication Date: 2006

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

Selected and translated by: Selected and translated by Aili Mu, Julie Chiu and Howard Goldblatt

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