Shi Cheng -Short Stories from Urban China- edited by Liu Ding, Yinghua Lu and Ra Page
It was purely coincidental that just as I finished reading the last story in this collection, the government announced a relaxation of visa restrictions to Chinese nationals with the rejoinder that British attitudes towards the Chinese might be altered. Notwithstanding the human rights issues, I had never expected that those would characterize the national psyche. I have never visited China so had little knowledge. What struck me in reading these several stories was a sense of familiarity with the humour and irony of the authors.
This collection gives a rare flavour of China. However, the Introduction is just as important. The story of the circumstances in which the collection came about is fascinating and itself gives some insight into Chinese life. As the Introduction explained, each author in this collection is already highly rated in China if unknown in the UK. Each story comes from a different city in China, with its own climate and atmosphere. The characters range from those on the far fringe of respectability to those who have enjoyed an excellent education.
To do the book justice, each story really deserves to be reviewed individually, but I have compromised with my favourites.
Wittily, Jie Chen writes about a girl `rushing’ to prevent a murder. Her sense of urgency is constantly hampered by her make-up, double-checking of door locks, street sales of passport/diary/dagger while simultaneously she mentally constructs scenarios for her friend’s crisis. It is a very amusing ‘literary chick-lit’ in which we learn something of the inconveniences and hazards in Chengdu. Josh Sternberg needs congratulating for his translation: he captures ditziness in an way immediately recognizable in the UK.
He does an equally good job on Zhang Zhihua’s story, a clever association between the agonizing wisdom tooth which should be removed and the state of the owner’s marriage. Sternberg manages to make clear the play on a Chinese word which means either `childish’ or `wisdom’ without spoiling the narrative style of the tale.
Hang Dong’s beautifully written story, `This Moron is Dead’ is the ultimate in bleak irony, social comment and literary style. I loved his use of cherry blossom as a symbol on several levels. It only exists on one street in the city; it only blossoms very briefly – a reference to past Japanese intrusion?
The Chinese sense of humour is best shown by Diaou Dou’s `Squatting’, which had me laughing out loud – inappropriately, as I was in the dentist’s waiting room. The earnest educated group aims to benefit their community by polite approaches to those in power. The description of their efforts and the authoritarian outcomes, although hilarious, gives a flavour of everyday life and difficulties in Shenyang. Perhaps all our wars could be solved by the use of ridicule. Diaou Dou’s writing reminded me of Jonathan Swift.
In Xu Zechen’s `Wheels are Round’, the poverty and life-style of labourers on the fringe of Beijing is told with a hilarity just short of bitterness. The mechanics look towards the, for them, unattainable city where largesse falls from the sky and fortunes lie awaiting to be picked up from the pavement. With months of ingenuity the main character pieces together a car, the zenith of his ambition, using scrap from the garage where he works and is consistently defrauded. The car’s fortune is shown with the irony that characterizes these writers.
Altogether, it was the irony and irrepressible humour that gave me such a warm feeling of kindred spirit.
Most readers will surely enjoy these urban tales by masterful Chinese writers as much as I did. There aren’t enough short story collections on the bookshelves of libraries and bookshops. Comma Press is benefiting the reading public by seeking to remedy this situation.
The paperback is available from Amazon, or better still, from your local independent bookseller:
- Publisher: Comma Press (30 April 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 190558346X
- ISBN-13: 978-1905583461