Review: Old Land, New Tales

Old Land, New Tales.jpg

I saw this collection of Chinese short stories in a Goodreads giveaway, and because I am playing with ideas for a possible future novel involving China, I leaped at the chance. I wanted a way of getting inside the Chinese psyche in a way that is very difficult to do in any work of non-fiction, and getting it straight from the source, instead of filtered through Western sensibilities and value systems looked like an ideal situation.

In this respect I was not disappointed. As a fascinating glimpse into Chinese culture and mindsets, I would recommend this collection to anyone with a taste for the exotic. The stories here are set in different historic time periods, from two or three centuries ago, up to the present. One thing that struck me rather strongly was the enduring sexism that was so evident both in the stories and in the choice of authors: only three of the twenty are women. It came as no surprise that they were among the strongest stories – they pretty well had to be to get past the selection committee, which had an obvious bias for older males. Of course, this is also a part of Chinese culture – the reverence and respect for age, so foreign to our contemporary Western culture, but rather difficult to criticize. This also came through in several of the stories, in which older people are never referred to with contempt and often with open reverence. Seeing as I'm on the downhill slope of middle age myself, I found myself rather liking the attitude.

And of course, when you have schoolchildren singing, without the slightest trace of irony: “I am a good child/ I love the Chinese Communist Party” you know you're really not in Kansas anymore.

I also couldn't help but wonder how much self-censorship was going on. The preface was written by a Party Secretary, after all. Critical references in reference to the system seem to come mainly in past contexts, and then aimed at either individuals or abstractions like “corruption”.

As a literary experience, it was uneven, which is perhaps to be expected in an anthology where no two pieces come from the same pen. We move from stories of brutality to sentimental tenderness, from past to present, and even from China to modern-day Japan. Very few of them provide the emotional close-ups that we have come to favor in the West. We seldom feel like we are experiencing the story in the protagonist's skin, but rather like we are examining them from a distance, like a painting in a gallery.

What I did find very distracting was the translation. Each piece also had different translators, every single one of them Chinese and very few of them, I suspect, having any experience living in an English-speaking environment. The result was almost always a stilted and stiff text, with plenty of inappropriate usages and outright errors. The use of profanity was almost always ridiculous, with no sense of where it was culturally appropriate. And in one memorable instance, where the translator was trying to reproduce dialect, we got the unforgettable exclamation: “C'mon! Brot'er. Here's whom you want.”

Part of the stiffness though, might be inherent in the text itself. Some of the stories clearly draw from older storytelling traditions, and in those cases the stilted style seemed somehow appropriate, contributing to the foreign flavor of the text.

And on one memorable occasion, I literally hooted out loud, when one story opened with: “The art gallery has employed two kinds of people since the national reform: those who are too incompetent to survive the socialist market, and those who are too artistic to satisfy it.” And that is as close to social criticism as you are going to get in this volume, but I loved the cheek of it.

All in all, though, it was an interesting read and a volume that will remain on my shelves.