Reviews

Socialist Literature for the Capitalist Era

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.

Essays

Police and Thieves

Dylan Levi King on Liang Xiaosheng’s untranslated masterwork Floating City

It’s one of the best novels published in Chinese in the last three decades—and since it hasn’t been translated into English, you’ve probably never heard of it. With so many worthy contemporary Chinese novels untranslated, I know that’s not saying much, but believe me when I say: this is my number one on the list of books that need to be translated into English, stat. Liang Xiaosheng’s Floating City (Flower City Publishing House, 1992) is the missing link between Republican Era science-fiction and dystopian visionaries like Chan Koonchung. It also manages to be funny as hell, equal parts subversive and sentimental.

Chinese Literature Podcast

Heart on a Shelf

Rob Moore and Lee Moore discuss Dong Xi's Record of Regret with Dylan Levi King

Now available in English translation from Dylan Levi King, Dong Xi's Record of Regret (first published by People's Literature Press in 2005) exists at the intersection of sex and ideology. Telling the story of Ceng Guangxian, the grandchild of a landlord whose property was confiscated by the communists in 1949, the book memorably begins with deux chiens fourrent. Rob and Lee quiz Dylan on Dong Xi's literary inspirations ("a mix of socialist realism and Madame Bovary"), his darkly funny, Kafkaesque takes on social alienation, and reception of his writing in China:

Dispatches

Ghosts of the Eastern Capital

Trawling Chinese Bookstores in Tokyo – Dylan Levi King

The accounts of the life of an overseas Chinese student in Tokyo almost universally mention bookstores. But if you go to looking for traces of these early exiles, you will be disappointed. The Ginza cafes that Tian Han and Yu Dafu met in to drink wine and talk Ibsen and Hamlet disappeared not long after the Chinese students left. The theaters and bookstores that brought the Chinese students to Kanda are gone. The blooming banks of the Sumida River that Yu Mantuo wrote about in his poetry have been poured over with concrete. Not much is left standing in Tokyo that dates to before the Showa period (1926–1989) and most of the city was turned to rubble in the Second World War and then rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s. But one place worth visiting, if you’re making a pilgrimage, is the cluster of bookstores in Jinbocho in Kanda.