When I think about the best books I read this year, I inevitably think about when and where I read them. Starting in late December of last year, I spent many nights hunched over my desk, reading The Plum in the Golden Vase, the late 16th century Chinese masterpiece about the lecherous, murderous, thoroughly corrupt local magnate Ximen Qing and his six equally infamous wives, alongside David Tod Roy’s now complete five-volume translation (Princeton University Press, 1993-2013). When I finished reading both, it had become a warm Boston spring. The giant Chinese novels of the late Ming and early Qing periods (from the 16th to the late 18th century) are long for a reason: when you spend months in the world of the novel, that world becomes a significant part of your own life, heightening the sensation of microcosm. In the case of The Plum in the Golden Vase, this immersion imperils the soul. The novel reads like a thousands-page long sneer—it depicts a world in which everyone and everything, great and small, is morally compromised, and it seems to delight in its own bleak view of the world. Consequently, it’s a novel that is easy to admire and hard to love. The translation, too, wears on the reader by the end. It is complete and readable, but the occasional awkward, overly literal interpretations that are tolerable in the first volume become irritating by the fifth. “Short-life,” for example, Roy’s literal translation of the late Ming curse duanming, loses its amusing novelty by the thousandth repetition. Yet Roy’s translation is a masterwork for other reasons. Each volume comes with about a hundred-odd pages of footnotes tracing the origin of each and every oblique reference and piece of quoted poetry and prose in the novel. Roy’s scholarly tenacity borders on obsession: in order to get the jargon of Ming-era dominoes just right, Roy consults no less than four extant domino manuals from the Ming and Qing. Working through a massive scholarly apparatus that took over twenty years to construct puts the scant four or five months it takes to read the translation in perspective. There’s careful reading, and then there’s careful reading. READ MORE…
Let her short but full life be an example to us readers: make hay (and read books) while the sun shines!
Yan Lianke's The Four Books, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's The Dead Mountaineer's Inn, and Addendum to a Photo Album by Vladislav Otroshenko
To imagine the Great Leap Forward—an event that began as a febrile dream and ended as an apocalyptic nightmare—tests the limits of the lucid consciousness. In late 1957, Mao Zedong declared that China could “surpass the UK and catch up to the US” through backyard steel furnaces, experimental agricultural practices, and sheer force of will. Village officials vied with each other to promise impossibly high crop yields; newspapers printed staged photos of experimental rice fields planted so densely that they could support the weight of children. Now it’s hard to understand how anyone sincerely believed, or even pretended to believe, that such outcomes were possible. When famine hit in 1958, the crisis was compounded by an unwillingness on the part of the government to admit failure to Mao or to the citizenry. As a result, China exported grain while millions—anywhere between twenty to forty million between 1959 and 1961—starved to death. We may never know the true death toll, as the Great Famine is more taboo a topic in China than even the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution: where responsibility for the Cultural Revolution can be safely foisted onto a group of extremists, the Great Famine is the original sin of the People’s Republic. The Communist Party has therefore consistently sought to efface from public memory the realities of the most lethal famine in human history.
A look at intersecting poetics, visual arts, languages, and global industries
How to write the poetry of finance capital? There certainly is a poetry in the modern market; in the glowing lights of the myriad digits that flit through a bank server; and in capital’s capacity to erect and destroy cities with the stroke of a pen.
But when all that is solid melts into air, how can an artist make capital itself into a tangible object for reflection? The artist Xu Bing attempted this task with his sculpture “Phoenix”: a pair of twelve ton, one-hundred-foot long birds meant to represent China’s new ascendance in this age of global capital, fashioned from scrap metal by a team of migrant workers. Xu Bing’s sculpture, in turn, inspired the contemporary Chinese poet Ouyang Jianghe to write a poem in tribute to the work, also entitled “Phoenix,” which Austin Woerner has recently translated. READ MORE…
“To return to ‘small talk’ from the social and political imperatives of Mao-era and post-Mao-era fiction is in itself a political act.”
In 1931, Ba Jin, anarchist and pioneer of modern Chinese fiction, wrote “Dog,” a short story in which a desperate street urchin—envious of the more comfortable lives of foreign-owned lapdogs—deludes himself into believing that he himself is a dog. Though artfully written and moving, Ba Jin’s “Dog” is unmistakably agitprop: the “dog” is really a man, and the man is really a symbol of a China cowed by imperial powers and rapacious warlords.
About seventy years later, Han Dong, a Chinese writer best known for his nonconformist poetry in the eighties, writes a novella entitled “花花传奇” (Hua Hua Chuanqi), translated by Nicky Harman in a recent Frisch and Co. web release as A Tabby-cat’s Tale. By way of contrast with Ba Jin’s “Dog,” Han Dong’s title tabby, Hua Hua, is simply a cat, albeit a very odd one. And if the reader comes to this novella seeking insight into the grand moral dramas of dissenters and dictatorships, she will be gravely disappointed. Instead, with the great care of someone who truly loves animals, Han Dong relates the daily drudgery of preparing catfish guts for Hua Hua’s nightly meal; the irritation of picking up after an animal who refuses to confine his excrement to a box; and the nightly chore of manually picking through the minion of fleas that infest the tabby and drowning them in a bowl of water until “the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.” And yet, this shaggy cat story is told satirically in a grand register that would more befit the historical dramas of Ba Jin’s “Dog.”
Wu Jingzi's 'The Scholars'
Although I look forward to reading the “Best of the Year” posts from my fellow readers, I hesitated to write one myself. My reading rarely aligns with the year’s releases, and if I could I’d positively enjoin everyone from reading primarily contemporary writing. The past, too, is a foreign country, and, in the transnational spirit of Asymptote, it’s another country that we ought to make a habit of visiting.