As a literary genre, short fiction marks the incipience of modern Chinese literature. The first modern Chinese vernacular story was Lu Xun’s 鲁迅 “Diary of a Madman” (“Kuangren riji” 狂人日记), a short story published in 1918. With its compact and efficient form, short fiction is an ideal medium for personal and artistic expression as well as for representing an ever-changing lifeworld. In China, short fiction played a crucial part in the turbulent and transformative period of the early twentieth century, and continued its vital role in the New Period literature (xin shiqi wenxue 新时期文学) that followed the Cultural Revolution in the late ’70s and early ’80s. However, the 1990s is commonly regarded as the decade for novels, when the eminence of a group of stellar Chinese novelists eclipsed and marginalized short story writers.
But we have every reason to believe that Chinese short fiction is reviving in the new century. Both talented young writers and established veteran writers are pouring their creative power into this literary genre. While the Internet is certainly a new and vast platform for the dissemination of short stories, we have also seen the publication of all sorts of anthologies of contemporary Chinese short fiction, demonstrating its renewed vigor.
It is for this reason that this issue of CLT highlights four short stories written by four award-winning Chinese authors: Ai Wei 艾伟, Fan Xiaoqing 范小青, Dong Xi 东西, and Li Shijiang 李师江, each of whom has taken advantage of the freedom and constraints afforded by this powerful genre. Our selection covers different generations of contemporary Chinese writers, both male and female writers, and a wide spectrum of literary styles. The selected stories are some of the most representative pieces that showcase short fiction’s efficacy in re-narrating history and memory, capturing immediate social changes, and aestheticizing fragmented individual experiences.
We are first submerged in the intense environment of Ai Wei’s “The Chrysanthemum Blade” (“Juhua zhi dao” 菊花之刀), set during the Japanese occupation and filtered through memories of the period to explore the still-resonating trauma of that time and the complexities that bound the occupied and occupiers to each other. Next is Fan Xiaoqing’s short story “Our Life of Combat Is Like Poetry” (“Women de zhandou shenghuo xiang shipian” 我们的战斗生活像诗篇), in which we witness the relationships forged between three sisters and their mother through the depths of the Cultural Revolution. Next, in “Why Don’t I Have a Mistress?” (“Wo weishenme meiyou xiaomi” 我为什么没有小蜜), Dong Xi roasts the widespread notion that affairs are no longer driven by libido or Eros, but are merely another way men must conform to social pressures to succeed within the competitive marketplace of Chinese capitalism. Finally, we follow a new patient in Li Shijiang’s “The Hospital” (“Yiyuan” 医院) through the throes of his mid-life crisis, including surreal encounters with zombies and a stark realization about life and its discontents.
Continue reading below for a short excerpt from the beginning of each story.
- The Chrysanthemum Blade, by Ai Wei 艾伟
- Our Life of Combat Is Like Poetry, by Fan Xiaoqing 范小青
- Why Don’t I Have A Mistress?, by Dong Xi 东西
- The Hospital, by Li Shijiang 李师江
The Chrysanthemum Blade
By Ai Wei 艾伟
Translated by David Hull 胡大衛
Born in 1966 in Shangyu, Zhejiang Province, Ai Wei 艾伟 is the pen name of Zhu Xiongwei 竹雄伟. In 1988, he graduated from the engineering department of Chongqing Jianzhu College, then began writing fiction in 1996. He is a firm proponent of the short story as a mode of writing that can avoid the pitfalls of the marketplace in which full-length novels must compete. His major works include the novels Comrade Dearest (Airen tongzhi 爱人同志), Cross-Country Race (Yueye Saipao 越野赛跑), Sunny with a Fair Wind (Fenghe rili 风和日丽), and short story collections including Village Film (Xiangcun dianying 乡村电影), Flowers in Water (Shuizhong hua 水中花), and Voices on the Water (Shuishang de shengyin 水上的声音), from which the short story “The Chrysanthemum Blade” (“Juhua zhi dao” 菊花之刀) comes. He is the recipient of several awards for fiction, including the Contemporary Magazine Novel Prize and the Chinese Writers National Dahongying Literature Prize. He currently serves as an editor for Literature Port Magazine(Wenxue gang 文学港). He is also a major figure in the literature community, serving as the Vice Chairman of the Ningbo City Writers Association. In April 2010, the Ai Wei Workshop was established at Ningbo University with the goal of helping young Chinese Literature majors become better writers of fiction.
“The Chrysanthemum Blade” is a particularly interesting story in its use of language and its choice of characters. The main action is set during the Japanese occupation, and the story deals with the untenable emotional stress of both the occupied and the occupier. The narrative progresses in a realist or naturalist mode reminiscent of a much earlier time in Chinese literature. Ai Wei uses this comfortable and reliable mode as a foundation from which he can explore the more subjective realm of memory and perception. The haunting repetition of certain phrases and the soon-disjointed narrative reinforce the story’s framework of shifting memory—the memory, of course, not only of the protagonist, but also of the Chinese people as they look back on the occupation. This discomforted memory is further disturbed by the motifs of the questioning of perception, and the anxiety and insecurity shown in the protagonist’s relationship with the Japanese officer and later with his own mother. The critical character of the mother is at once a touchstone of family and home, and yet also a potential bridge to understanding the humanity of the occupier. The final paragraph presents the specter of judgment that has been looming throughout, but in terms perhaps not entirely expected.
He handed a photograph to me. I didn’t dare raise my head to look at him. My heightened apprehension and attention were all focused on his body. I was anxious that at any moment he might unsheathe the blade that hung at his hip and kill me. I had seen him kill. In winter, he had wanted to eat fish. He had two men jump into the frozen river to catch fish for him. The men were terrified. Maybe it was because they were so rattled, but after trying for most of the day, they didn’t catch a single fish. He got angry, pulled out his gun, and shot both of them to death. The fresh blood turned the river red.
My mind was an utter blank, but I acted like I was looking carefully at the photograph. There was an old woman in the photo. I didn’t know why he had given it to me. When we passed over the stone bridge, he smiled at me. Honestly, I had never seen him smile. He was always so serious, to have him smile made me uncomfortable, even frightened. He waved me nearer. I didn’t have the courage to refuse. I didn’t want to make him shoot me dead.
“Do you recognize who that is?” He had been in China for a few years already, so he could speak Chinese. “Take a good look,” he said. He was very close to me. His body had a warm, pleasant smell. His uniform jacket was open wide.
Our Life of Combat Is Like Poetry
By Fan Xiaoqing 范小青
Translated by Xiaojing Zhou 周筱静
Born in 1955 in Shanghai, Fan Xiaoqing 范小青 came of age during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. When her parents were sent down to the countryside in 1969 to participate in labor, they brought her with them. Fan graduated from high school in 1974, and she again went to live and work with peasants in a village, as was required of students—”young people with education”—according to Chairman Mao’s “supreme instruction.” Her life in the countryside left an indelible impact on her fiction as reflected in her short stories and novels, which often portray the lives of peasants either in villages or as migrant workers in the city.
In 1978 Fan was accepted into Suzhou University, where she majored in Chinese. She began to publish her writings as early as 1980. Upon graduation in 1982, she was selected to join the faculty and began teaching literary theory at the university. In 1985 she was transferred to the Writers’ Association of Jiangsu Province to be a professional writer. She became a member of the Writers’ Association of China that same year. Since then, she has been elected to several important positions: a member of the national Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, the President of the Literary Federations of Suzhou City, and the Editor in Chief of Suzhou Zazhi 苏州杂志 (Suzhou Literary Magazine).
A prolific writer, Fan Xiaoqing has published seventeen novels and more than two hundred short stories and novellas. She is recognized as one of the most outstanding contemporary writers in China. Her works have won prestigious awards, such as the Jiangsu Art of Literature Award; the National Award for Outstanding Works in Film, TV, Theatre, Literature, and Theory; and the 2004–2006 Lu Xun Literary Award for her short story “Cheng Xiang Jian Shi” 城乡简史 (“A Brief History of the City and the Countryside”).
Originally published in the journal Shan Hua 山花 (Mountain Flowers) in 2005, her short story “Women de zhandou shenghuo xiang shipian” 我们的战斗生活像诗篇 (“Our Life of Combat Is Like Poetry”) is one of her most frequently cited works. It is included in Cheng Xiang Jian Shi 城乡简史 (A Brief History of the City and the Countryside), a collection of thirteen of her best-known short stories, published by Jiangsu Literature and Art Publishing House in 2011. The fact that “Our Life of Combat Is Like Poetry,” rather than the title story, is placed as the opening story in this collection indicates its significance even among her best-known works. Characteristic of her subject matter, “Our Life” depicts common people—three sisters and their mother—whose relationship and everyday life offer a glimpse into the depths of Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution.
Fan’s masterful use of dialogue, distinct voices, and colloquial idioms capture the innocence of the three sisters, who become more complex and multidimensional as the story unfolds, especially “Older Sister.” At the same time, the girls’ behavior—their stealing and lying—undermines their innocence and introduces an element of moral ambivalence even as their innocence, especially Older Sister’s goodness, remains undiminished. It is precisely these apparently contradictory attributes of the characters that render the story provocative, compelling, and disturbing.
Of even greater impact is the antagonistic relationship between the mother and her daughters, which is ironically embedded in the story’s title. Fan reveals by the end of the story that this seemingly unusual mother-daughter relationship, like the girls’ behavior, is shaped by the social and cultural environment portrayed, one that ultimately results in the mother’s breakdown. The narrative strategy of “Our Life” highlights the fact that this ordinary family’s tragedy reflects the more encompassing tragedy of the entire society. Herein lies the power of Fan Xiaoqing’s remarkable story.
The three sisters all have their respective proper names, but no one uses them. Instead they are called Older Sister, Younger Sister, and Little Younger Sister. Everybody habitually refers to them this way, not only the neighbors but also their schoolmates who know their family well. It seems okay to address the girls as Younger Sisters, but to call one of them Older Sister is a different matter; it all depends on who it is. For example, when her father and mother call her Older Sister, people who aren’t familiar with the situation may find it odd. Here is another example: A neighbor, an old grandma who is over sixty, also calls the girl Older Sister. “Hey, Older Sister,” the old grandma says, “come over here and help me” with this and that, etcetera, etcetera. And Older Sister responds to the call right away, going over to help the old grandma with this and that. Older Sister is a warmhearted girl who likes to help others. Knowing what time of day the old grandma needs to go to the public latrine to empty her toilet bucket, she waits for her to appear with her bucket, while kicking a hacky-sack in the courtyard. Then she pretends to have just run into the old grandma on her way to the latrine, so it won’t seem to be an inconvenience for her to help the old grandma empty her bucket and wash and brush it clean before tilting it on a step toward the sun to dry.
In the eyes of Younger Sister, Older Sister is simply being an older sister, doing exactly what an older sister should do. One day, Older Sister says to Younger Sister, “Let’s go out to the street. Your older sister will buy you a cream popsicle.” “Mama has given me some money,” says Older Sister. “Mama says I mustn’t eat cold stuff, I should eat nutritious food, so I’m going to buy a bag of prawn chips.”
Why Don’t I Have a Mistress?
By Dong Xi 东西
Translated by Dylan Levi King 王地雷
Although Dong Xi’s 东西 “Why Don’t I Have a Mistress?” (“Wo weishenme meiyou xiaomi” 我为什么没 有小蜜) is over a decade old (note the references to Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern), the story reads as very contemporary, the hip dad of confessional Internet literature. The office drones of the story constantly check their pagers rather than their smart phones, but I can’t help but picture Mi Jinde, the pathetic lead of the tale, sharing his anxieties and pictures of his mistress in Wechat status updates.
Mi Jinde reminds me of the net-based narrators of modern male anxieties that populate Internet literature and my Weibo feed. The story was written before the coining of terms like “abject male” (diaosi 屌丝), “naked marriage” (luohun 裸婚), and “leftover women” (sheng nu 剩女), but Mi Jinde is adrift in the same culture that produced them. Like the Internet literature popular with urban readers, there is the same foregrounding of sexuality (an honest, accurate, and deeply anxious male sexuality in this case) and the same constant fog of loneliness and despair.
Mi Jinde seems average: he goes to work at an office job and returns home by bicycle to an apartment he shares with his wife. But when measured against his own anxieties and the people he sees around him, he is a loser—he has not secured a mistress. And he can’t find a mistress because he is a loser. His wife knows it—she even remarks that if he had anything going for him, he’d have a girl on the side. His boss knows it—he drags Mi Jinde into his office to humiliate Mi Jinde while a secretary sits on the boss’s lap. And Mi Jinde knows it—he knows that he lacks the basics required to find a girl: boldness, prestige, and financial success. And even when Mi Jinde claws his way to extramarital success and is able to drag his buxom high school classmate Wang Wei to a dinner with all of his coworkers and is then invited into her bedroom, he is still sabotaged by an empty wallet and a lackluster performance—financial impotence and sexual impotence are intertwined.
“Iwas just doing this with my hands”—Mi Jinde made a vague gesture—”in front of Xiao Yuan’s chest.” Mi Jinde was talking to Pu Chao’s desk, bobbing his head obsequiously. “It was just like that!” He was trying to re-create the gesture. He made a slightly less vague cupping motion. His fingers were as pale as his starched white shirt. “I just sort of cupped my hands like this in front of me, and it looked like I was—” Mi Jinde stole a glance at Pu Chao, who was still seated behind his desk. He felt Pu Chao’s cold gaze fall on him and then an additional blast of air-conditioned breeze. “She can say I touched her, but I know I didn’t—and she knows what I’m like! We joke around. So I don’t know why all of a sudden she would say I touched her.” Mi Jinde bowed his head and pleaded with Pu Chao. “I’m innocent. If you believe her story . . .”
Pu Chao snorted out a cold laugh. He picked a pencil up off his desk and tapped a stack of papers. “You know what would happen if we weren’t in China, right?” When Mi Jinde shook his head, he answered: “Sexual harassment. Foreign countries have laws against it.”
“But,” said Mi Jinde, looking up with an aggrieved expression, “I didn’t touch her.”
“If you didn’t touch her, why would she accuse you? She’s just a girl! Why would she just make up a story about you? You think she wants people to go around gossiping about her?”
By Li Shijiang 李师江
Translated by Nathaniel Isaacson 蔼孙那檀
Li Shijiang 李师江 was born in Ningde, Fujian Province, in 1974, and graduated from Beijing Normal University in 1997; he currently resides in Beijing, where he makes his living from writing. His poetry and fiction published in mainland China and Taiwan have garnered him wide critical acclaim. He is one of the more prominent members of the “post ’70s” generation, a group of authors most well known for their cynical response to the end of Maoist revolutionary politics and the introduction of market reforms in the early 1980s. Following the publication of four of his novels in Taiwan, a review in Taiwanese newspaper United Daily News (Lianhe bao 联合报) praised his writing for “revealing the nakedness, and the depths of human nature.” His work addresses urban alienation and the malaise of coming of age, and has been referred to as “flesh-writing” (routi xiezuo 肉体写作) and “body-writing” (shenti xiezuo 身体写作) for its intense focus on sexual desire and the satisfaction of primal human urges. He has been praised for his stark explorations of human nature and for his equally striking language, which some critics argue transcends the vulgar through its deep exploration of vulgarity. In 2006, his novel Free and Easy Wandering (Xiaoyao you 逍遥游) was awarded the Chinese Literature Media Awards prize for Outstanding Young Talent. Li Shijiang is often compared to and has been praised by icons like the “father of Chinese rock and roll,” Cui Jian 崔健, and “hooligan literature” author Wang Shuo 王朔, figures associated with the “cultural fever” of the 1980s, whose prevalence continued in the post-Tian’anmen era despite being labeled as producers of spiritual pollution. Notwith- standing such favorable comparison to picaresque cultural critics who have garnered both popular and critical praise, his work has received little attention in the English-speaking world.
The mentally and physically ailing narrator of “The Hospital” (“Yiyuan” 医院) has little in common with the ailing national body allegorized as the “sick man of Asia” by revolutionary authors like Lu Xun 鲁迅. “The Hospital” is a coming-of-middle-age story: the realization that achievement of the adolescent desire to establish oneself as an individual and to embark on life as a member of the professional workforce has as a side-effect the dissolution of the robust social life afforded by being a student, and the middle-aged desire to rekindle those social connections. Literary critic Meng Fanhua 孟繁华 argues that Li Shijiang’s writing lays sentimentality bare, offering readers an unprecedented experience in its intense attention to the personal. Li Shijiang replaces the sick body as synecdoche for social decay with a deeply personal invocation of the desire to overcome alienation through transgression. National allegories give way to explorations of individuals’ weaknesses and the relationships that develop between people when these weaknesses are revealed. Within the walls of the hospital, the façade of social life crumbles, reducing human existence to basic needs: food, sex, companionship, and distraction. The comical repartee between the long-term denizens of the hospital is punctuated by bursts of magical realism—zombie hospital directors, talking alligators—suggesting that confronting life at its most profane may bring surreal and perhaps even profound revelations.
One cold and blustery winter, as I’m putting on my underwear at a bathhouse, I slip and split open my scalp, winding up in People’s Hospital #108. After giving me a thorough examination, Dr. Peng gives me a tetanus shot and then, having nothing else to do, administers a rabies vaccination. I tell him, “I wasn’t bitten by a dog,” and Dr. Peng asks in response, “You weren’t bitten by a dog just now, but can you guarantee that you haven’t been? Even if you’ve never been bitten, can you guarantee that a dog won’t bite you in the future?”
Fuck, can I just jump off the roof now? I retort to myself.
The next day I ask the doctor, “Can I be released?”
Dr. Peng says, “Other people want to be admitted and they can’t, and here you’re acting as if our hospital has mistreated you. Won’t your eagerness to get out damage our reputation?”
I apologize, saying, “It’s not like that at all, the hospital is really great. People are whimpering and moaning when they come in, but after that they don’t whimper anymore. I just figured since I don’t have any major issues, and there’s a mountain of work back at the company, how can I help but be anxious?”
“Ai, who doesn’t have a pile of work? Even the vegetable salesman has a pile; is there any end to work? Is there any end to making money? But your body will be a thing of the past before you know it. You’ve managed to get admitted this time; if you don’t recuperate fully, then what?”
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 4 No. 2