Dylan Levi King reviews Empires of Dust by Jiang Zilong
Jiang Zilong’s novel Empires of Dust, newly translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne, is unlike anything else published in translation from Chinese in the past decade or so. Jiang, a 78-year-old native of Hebei Province, made a name for himself with A Day in the Life of the Chief of the Electrical Equipment Bureau (机电局长的一天), a 1976 novella first criticized for revisionism and then praised as the future of Chinese literature. Decades later, in 2008, came Empires of Dust (农民帝国), a sprawling epic of modern Chinese history that can only be defined as capitalist realism.
Jiang comes from the same literary background that produced established names such as Mo Yan, Yan Lianke and Jia Pingwa. All of those writers got their start with politically-approved hack work, too. But while they went in other directions, Jiang Zilong continued to write in a literary style codified in the 1950s. Although he published most of his major works in the 1980s and 1990s, and Empires of Dust in the mid-2000s, Jiang is something of a living literary fossil. To understand his work, one has to step back to the era of socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism.