Kevin McGeary talks to the translator of Empires of Dust by Jiang Zilong
Set in the fictional village of Guojiadian, Jiang Zilong’s Empires of Dust is a seven-hundred page tome that chronicles the rise and fall of Guo Cunxian, who transforms from impoverished peasant to formidable businessman. Described by the South China Morning Post as being “as epic, grandiose, ambitious, complex and turbulent as China itself,” this is the tenth novel by Jiang, who is often described as the father of China’s ‘reform literature,’ literature dealing with the reform and opening period after 1978. I caught up with co-translator Christopher Payne to discuss the novel, and the work involved in rendering it into English.
Of all the characters, Guo Cunxian goes through the biggest trajectory, from rejecting the sexual advances of Sister Liu to habitually committing infidelity, from eking out a living making coffins to becoming powerful and corrupt. Does he represent both the heroic and reprehensible qualities that made China’s economic boom possible?
Guo has very humble roots. His family did not participate in the Communist revolution – so no Red history to claim as their own – nor did they join up with the Party to become cadres or other revolutionary workers after 1949. They were the quintessential poor peasant family.