Archive for June, 2010

Han Han, Amy Cheung, and Wei Hui — from 2007

Monday, June 28th, 2010

The short reviews in this post were written in mid-2007. All three books were fairly ephemeral. I can remember some of the major plot points of Amy Cheung’s story, and I have a vivid memory of my mounting frustration at Wei Hui’s preposterous characters and ridiculous situations. I have no recollection whatsoever of the Han Han novel.

The Glorious Day by Han Han

韩寒,《光荣日》

Han Han’s latest novel was billed by promoter Lu Jinbo as “magical realism,” but it’s really just a loosely-connected series of moleitau vignettes. Like his previous novel, The Ideal City (一座城池), this book features a group of friends who have to find a way to support themselves in the remote town in which their journey unexpectedly deposits them. They get housing provided by a school in desperate need of teachers, but spend most of their time trying to make enough money to purchase the necessary supplies for a secret project that Mai Damai, the leader of the group, has cooked up. They have comical run-ins with local law-enforcement, take up with loose women, and exercise a corrupting influence on the young people who have been placed in their care. Han Han’s iconoclastic sensibility is as much in evidence here as in his earlier novels.

However, where City‘s action mostly involved just the three main characters, the shorter Day has to follow the activities of this larger group of classmates, few of whom receive any significant character development. And while City had at least some semblance of plot surrounding its extended joke sequences, this book provides very little to hold together the set pieces, which, in classic Hong Kong comedy tradition, are hit-or-miss. A scene of absurd violence at the start of the book is handled quite well, but there’s an unsettling misogynistic streak to this novel that hasn’t been present in Han’s earlier works. Still, it’s only the first volume, so we can hope that Han Han will tie everything together in the conclusion (if he ever gets around to writing it).

Hongyan Lushui by Amy Siu-han Cheung

张小娴,《红颜露水》

Last summer when I was in Hong Kong getting my visa taken care of, I picked up a copy of this book where it was on display atop the best-seller rack. I’d heard of Amy Cheung before (she was in the news a while back when she announced plans to switch gears and work on a series of vampire-themed horror novels), but I hadn’t ever read any of her work. The mainland edition was published in May.

The title Hongyan Lushui could be translated as something like “Dewy Complexion” if it weren’t taken from the name of the protagonist, Xing Lu (邢露). She’s a barista who left a job at a luxury jewelry store for the freedom that comes with working in a small coffee shop, but still smarts from the indignity of her situation: her family once had money and social standing. We follow Xing Lu’s romantic history through some initial heartbreaks until she hits it off with an impoverished artist, only to inexplicably break off the relationship and torpedo his career.

For about two-thirds of the novel I grew increasingly frustrated with the plot and the idiotic decisions of the main characters, kept interested only by a peculiar little man who turned up from time to time to frighten Xing Lu (I had the notion that the story was moving in a heavily psychological direction, and that this man was a hallucination, or perhaps something supernatural. I was wrong). The story’s conclusion eventually cleared up all of the mysteries and redeemed the characters themselves, whose motives were not as random as they initially appeared. Still, I felt cheated by the way the author had deliberately withheld background information for no reason apart from manufacturing suspense.

In any event, it’s a quick read — between the wait at the airport and the flight back to Beijing I was able to finish it off.

Doggy Dad by Wei Hui

卫慧,《狗爸爸》

A girl rejects her long-term boyfriend’s proposal for reasons she cannot explain and then goes in search of him when he suddenly leaves town. Oh, and she’s accompanied by her late father who has come back to earth as a dog.

Good stories have been written about talking dogs. This is not one of them. Wei Hui is the author of Shanghai Baby, a novel that became a sensation when it was banned for its frank sexual content. Wei’s latest book cuts out the sex, leaving the brand-name dropping and English-language asides feeling a little out of place within a simplistic story of a woman coming to terms with commitment.

The author has described her book un-ironically as “New Age,” and I suppose it’s not unfair to call it a supernatural parable of self-actualization. But it’s not one that we can actually appreciate. Our heroine’s impossibly trusting and generous nature inspires sympathy and understanding in everyone around her. Even con-artists reform themselves when she helps them realize that their profession is unethical. Practically the only purpose of her father the dog (Wei Hui’s publisher flubbed the English title on the cover by not calling the book The Dogfather) is to boost his daughter’s self-esteem by telling her that all of the problems in her life are someone else’s fault.

And that’s basically how the story wraps up. Questions are answered and conflict is resolved when the supporting characters awaken to the error of their ways and make their apologies.

Still, this won’t be the worst book you’ll read all year — you’re going to listen to my advice and not read it at all.

Highly inefficient punctuation

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Chinese texts traditionally used no punctuation. A small circle (。) could be used in annotations to mark the end of sentences or phrases, and it also turned up in printed texts, to the lower right of the last character in a sentence.

Before today’s system was standardized, some publishers experimented with alternate ways of punctuating text. We can be glad that the system shown below, on the first page of the 1910 edition of New China (新中国), did not live very long:

The first page of New China by Lu Shi'e

In this text, the “。” represents a continuation: the first character of a phrase has no punctuation, but every subsequent character is marked with a “。”. The text is maddening to read, and while some of that difficulty may be due to the mark meaning roughly the opposite of what it means today (a full stop), I suspect that it may not be a very efficient system even for an experienced reader. It’s certainly not meant for hand-written texts.

In a modern edition, the opening paragraph reads:

话说宣统二年正月初一日,在下一觉醒来,见红日满窗,牌声聒耳,晓得时光不早,忙着披衣下床。开门出来,见客堂中双烛辉煌,香烟缭绕。向外挂着神轴,旁配着珊瑚笺对联。桌上十多盆高脚锡盆,满满的装着茶果。几椅台凳,都饰着红披坐垫。蜡台上红烛,已烧去二寸有余。当地铺着红毯,这都是居停主人布置的。

In rough translation:

on the first day of the first month of Xuantong’s second year I awoke a window filled with red sunlight and a grating sound in my ears so I knew it was not early and I hastened to put on my clothes and get out of bed going out I saw a pair of candles burning brightly and incense smoke wafting in the hall a scroll of a deity faced outward flanked by a couplet on coral paper a dozen high-legged nickel basins full of tea snacks several chairs draped with red cushions a red candle in the candlestick burnt down more than two inches a red carpet on the floor all of this arranged by the master of the house

New China was written by Lu Shi’e (陆士谔, 1878-1944), a Chinese herbalist, and tells the story of a man who falls asleep in 1910 and wakes up in 1951 to a fabulous new world in which China is no longer the sick man of Asia. The novella resembles Liang Qichao’s Future of New China (新中国未来记 ,1902) and other late-Qing utopian fantasies, but Lu could actually write fiction: his output ranged from martial arts romances like The Eight Swordsmen (八大剑侠) and The Flying Guillotine (血滴子) to unauthorized sequels like New Outlaws of the Marsh (新水浒) and amounted to some hundred novellas and novels.

New China was recently exploited for use in promoting the Shanghai 2010 World Expo: Lu’s novel was said to have accurately predicted that Shanghai would hold an expo of “10,000 nations” (万国博览会) one hundred years from its date of publication (i.e. in 2010). The novel actually says that Shanghai hosted a domestic expo (内国博览会) in 1928.

In April, Chen Zhanbiao (陈占彪), who has compiled a fascinating volume of eye-witness accounts of World Expos by late-Qing and early Republican Chinese travelers (清末民初万国博览会亲历记, 2010), wrote an excellent rebuttal of the erroneous claims in the China Reading Journal.

As proof, Chen’s article reproduces one of the pages from the 1910 print edition which, like the above image, uses a nearly unreadable system of punctuation.

Send a reporter!

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

elephant-sized pigNot long ago I ran across a microblog post (since deleted) that used the image at right to mock some sort of trendy pseudoscience — possibly Zhang Wuben’s mung-bean miracle cure. In his comment to that post, science fiction author and critic Wu Yan mentioned the story “Elephants with Their Trunks Removed” (割掉鼻子的大象, 1957), a classic of children’s SF from the early PRC.

The story is narrated by a reporter who is dispatched to an agricultural research center in the Gobi Desert to report on the latest achievements, and it reminded me of a number of other Chinese SF stories that feature journalists as narrators.

The five works discussed below may only be related by virtue of being narrated by journalists, but they are fairly representative of changing trends in Chinese SF in the latter half of the 20th Century.

“Elephants,” written by Chi Shuchang (迟叔昌) with contributions by Middle School Student magazine editor Ye Zhishan (叶至善), is a snapshot of Great Leap Forward-era scientific romanticism. Originally titled “A Twentieth-Century Zhu Bajie” (after the pig-demon hero of Journey to the West), the story is included in Classics of Chinese Science Fiction (中国科幻小说经典, 2006), edited by science fiction writer and court biographer Ye Yonglie, and is also available online here.

In the story, journalist Yuesen, meets up with his former classmate Li Wenjian, who now works at the research center. On the way, Yuesen notices what seem to be white elephants whose trunks are missing, but once he arrives, he learns that they’re actually gigantic pigs known as “Wonder #72,” which were created by accelerating the growth of cross-bred Sichuan white pigs and Yorkshire pigs by irradiating the pituitary gland.

The pigs in the story match up perfectly with the description given in the poem on the top left of the poster (source):

肥猪赛大象 Fat pigs that best the elephants,
就是鼻子短 But for a shorter snout.
全社杀一口 The commune kills and eats one,
足够吃半年 Six months before it’s out.

Like much of 20th-Century Chinese SF, “Elephants” is not simply entertainment — it also fulfills an pedagogical mission. Both men were math and physics enthusiasts in high school, and the story demonstrates that they were able to pursue that interest in their chosen careers. The value of math in agriculture is illustrated through a discussion of the cube-square law as it relates to breeding such enormous animals (they’ve had to use a special “bone strengthening serum”). The accelerated growth also means that the pigs are fully grown at ten months, making their meat especially tender and tasty. And math in journalism? “Look at the newspapers. Isn’t there an increasing amount of math and physics vocabulary?” (Ye, 128)

The story is set in some undisclosed year in the future (“19xx”). Hi-tech details, such as wristwatch radios and “Beijing” model hovercraft, place the action toward the end of the century, but many of the issues, from giant pigs to the necessity of conserving iron, are rooted in the late 50s. It’s a dissonance that shows up in several of the stories discussed in this post: (more…)