By Charles A. Laughlin with Liu Hongtao
The three novella excerpts that follow are from the forthcoming collection By the River: Seven Novellas from Twenty-first Century China, curated by coeditor Liu Hongtao 刘洪涛, volume 6 in the Chinese Literature Today book series at the University of Oklahoma Press.
The novella, or zhongpian xiaoshuo 中篇小说, is not the most conspicuous form of Chinese fiction. Ranging from twenty thousand to forty-five thousand Chinese characters in print form, works of this length will only fit into large literary journals in which full-length novels are also serialized, and thus usually reach only a limited readership. The most prestigious literary awards tend to focus on full-length novels, while short stories can enjoy broader circulation in newspapers and general-interest magazines because of their shorter length. Nevertheless, the novella has been important in modern China and institutionalized in modern Chinese literary culture. The genre has been given exalted status in the PRC, and a novella is included in every issue of the prestigious literary magazines Renmin wenxue 人民文学 (People’s Literature), Shouhuo 收获 (Harvest), Shi yue 十月 (October), Hua cheng 花城 (Flower City), and Da jia 大家 (Master).
The reason for this, in my view, is that novellas allow the author to present a substantial slice of life, to probe deeply into the relationships between a small group of core characters while still remaining open-ended and not requiring either the comprehensive world vision or the closure expected of the full-length novel. This perspective has been convincingly explicated in the case of 1940s author Eileen Chang 張愛玲, as a feminist critique of the patriarchal grand narrative of history that claimed dominance of Chinese fiction for most of the twentieth century.
From a narrative standpoint, the novella’s mission is to tell the story of a relationship between the central character and one or more other characters. Scenes from childhood or other stages in the lives of these characters may appear in the form of flashbacks or digressions, but narrative attention is primarily devoted to a progression of events among the central characters over weeks, months, or years that achieves closure less often in death or historical cataclysm than in a simple parting of ways or the resolution of a central conflict. Indeed, novellas are less committed to closure than novels, and often end without a clear resolution. The ability to return, to reflect on a past that has already been depicted, and then to continue to move forward is part of the special roominess of the novella; it allows characters to develop, to respond to changes in their lives not once but often several times. The novellas excerpted in this issue of CLT magazine concern relationships among three or more people, including subtle attractions between people who are married to others, or are soon to be. The challenges involved in these romantic attachments rarely amount to full-blown extramarital affairs, but they do collectively acknowledge that what attracts people to one another and what leads to marriage are often different, and that people’s sense of frustration with their everyday lives often leads to new associations and desires that either come to an early end or are never fulfilled.
These texts were chosen to give English-speaking readers a rare glimpse into the heart of contemporary Chinese fictional writing. The authors include the well known Han Shaogong 韩少功 as well as Chi Zijian 迟子建 and Xu Zechen 徐则臣, who have only recently started attracting the attention of international publishers and translators. Taken as a group, these novellas weave a tapestry of historical experience and contemporary life in China that is as attentive to their characters’ inner lives as to the events and landscapes of their times.
Volume coeditor Liu Hongtao wanted the collection to display different ethnic and regional cultures, to reflect a balance between life in the city and the countryside, and to represent different eras of modern history. Yet there is an interesting common thread: rivers appear in most of the stories, lending the grouping an unexpected coherence. Xu Zechen’s coming-of-age story “Voice Change” is punctuated by references to the local river, where flooding has deposited all manner of flotsam that one of the characters seems to spend his days scooping out with a hook. In Chi Zijian’s “Flurry of Blessings,” the river is the setting of an extended flashback (which is not part of the excerpt included here) in which the peasant protagonist Chai Wang wins the heart of his wife, Wang Lianhua, by pulling a large rock from the icy riverbed for her to use as a weight on their family’s pickling crock. The rivers depicted are generally not named, and they are rarely the site of momentous events, but even in these scenes in which nothing or very little “happens,” meaning and feelings converge in often silent, reflective moments.
In an age when film and new media seem to place inordinate emphasis on the young economic elites of the twenty-first century, these novellas evince a refreshing emphasis on the lower end of the middle class, even in urban settings. While Han Shaogong’s protagonist Old Yin in “Mountain Songs from the Heavens,” who is portrayed as a dirt-poor peasant, has access to fame and opportunity because of his extraordinary musical talents, the characters in the other stories are factory workers, schoolteachers, street vendors, or rural villagers. This thick stratum of society tends to be marginalized and stereotyped in popular culture, whereas in this collection we are exposed to their dreams, yearnings, and conflicted subjectivities.
Liu Hongtao has observed that much of the Chinese fiction that has been influential in translation exhibits an obsessive fascination with the distant past and sometimes with outrageous and gratuitous violence, while the world of these novellas—although it is not without violence—is less melodramatic, and is more down-to-earth and more up-to-date. In the 1940s, Eileen Chang described the writers of her day as too often striving so hard for the dynamic and heroic in their fiction that they forgot the rich complexity of “the placid and static aspects of life,” which she said “have eternal significance: even if this sort of stability is often precarious and subject at regular intervals to destruction, it remains eternal. It exists in every epoch. It is the numinous essence of humanity.” Even though the novellas in this collection are not bombastic, or grand, or (usually) dramatic, through their engrossing subtlety—which is in part achieved though the added length of the novella form—they plumb the depths of the psychic and of the mythic beneath the surface of the everyday. It is precisely those details that resonate on a deeper level, whether because of historical and cultural undertones, or of psychic, philosophical, and symbolic overtones that leave the reader not with simple answers to moral and political questions, but with the vivid feeling that their world has been made larger by a compelling artistic vision that will, at least temporarily, leave them looking at the world through different eyes.
— Charles A. Laughlin with Liu Hongtao
 Rey Chow, “Modernity and Narration—In Feminine Detail,” in Woman and Chinese Modernity: The Politics of Reading East and West (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991), 84–120.
 Eileen Chang, “Writing of One’s Own,” in Written on Water, ed. Eileen Chang and Andrew Jones (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2005), 6.
Charles A. Laughlin is Weedon Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Chinese Reportage: The Aesthetics of Historical Experience and The Literature of Leisure and Chinese Modernity. His translations of poetry and fiction have appeared in the poetry anthologies Another Kind of Nation and Push Open the Window, and Pathlight Magazine.
Liu Hongtao is a professor of comparative literature at Beijing Normal University, a Deputy Editor in Chief of Chinese Literature Today, and Editor of the Chinese Edition of World Literature Today, and the author of many volumes. Liu has served as a visiting professor at the University of Trento in Italy, the University of Nottingham, University of Cambridge, and has lectured in many other countries.