Photo: Jeff Wasserstrom, Shanghai, March 2013.
From Pride and Prejudice to Who Moved My Cheese: A Q & A with Helen Gao
Four weeks ago, this blog ran an interview I did with Xujun Eberlein, in which the China-born but now American-based writer responded to questions I put to her about literature, translation, and the flows of books between her native country and the one she now calls home. Her answers were so interesting that I decided to put similar ones to Helen Gao, who grew up in China a couple of decades after Eberlein, spent two years at an American boarding school, did an undergraduate degree at Yale, and is now a Beijing-based freelance writer. Gao has written for various publications, including the Atlantic, and has a chapter on the controversial novelist-racecar-driver-blogger Han Han in China Stories, an e-book published by the Los Angeles Review of Books. - Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: What were the first works of Western literature in translation you read growing up in China? Any favorites or ones that made particularly strong impressions?
Helen Gao: My first exposure to Western literature was via the pictorial versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales that I read in first grade. Now, children’s books are a thriving genre in the Chinese publishing world, but two decades ago, the options were very limited. Books based on Chinese folklore and historical novels were rare and always issued in black and white. So the works that really captured my imagination and that of my friends were versions of the stories of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood.
The earliest serious works of Western literature I read that made an impact on me were Chinese translations of Victorian novels, such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. I bought those books in abridged versions in third grade, and was instantly captivated. At that time, my parents had tried a few times, with little success, to kindle my interest in classic Chinese novels like Dream of the Red Chamber and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. But I always felt a little intimidated by the colossal casts of characters and labyrinthine plots of those books, not to mention their thick spines that were the width of my dictionary.
The Western classics I favored by comparison seemed to focus more on characters than on plots. They delved deeply into the inner world of the characters they featured, often providing long descriptions of individual psychology. In Chinese novels, by contrast, the struggles and deliberations of the characters are usually hidden from the reader’s eye and only manifested through action. For a third grader just getting initiated into the world of literature, without sufficient background knowledge of the masterpieces from either culture, the Western works felt more like good stories that could stand by themselves for someone unfamiliar with the historical background.
To this day, Pride and Prejudice remains a favorite of mine, as well as of many of my Chinese friends, a true testament to the book’s universal appeal. The witty conversations between characters, the tight plot filled with tension and twists on every page, and the incredibly satisfying ending have brought me back to it again and again. I find something new to savor every time I read it.
JW: In my Q & A with Xujun Eberlein, she mentions a book, The Gadfly, which she read before coming to the United States and assumed was well known here, then is surprised to find it was not. Did you have any similar experiences when you came to study at Yale?
HG: Yes, The Gadfly was a very popular book among my parents’ generation. So was How the Steel Was Tempered, a socialist realist novel by Nikolai Ostrovsky on Russian Civil War. I found out after going to the U.S. that neither was widely read in the West.
An experience of mine that paralleled Eberlein’s involves Who Moved My Cheese. I was very surprised to learn during my second year in the United States that only one out of my 14 classmates in my high school English seminar had even heard of the book, which was first published in America and became hugely popular in China at the beginning of the 2000s, when the translated version first came out. It tells the story of four characters – two dwarfs and two mice – who run in a maze in search of cheese hidden among its various bends and corners. Each embodies a personality type and the characters react to difficulties and changes they encounter in their cheese hunt in different ways, leading to varying outcomes for them. The book can be seen as a business parable or a motivational guide that aims to teach readers the best ways to cope with change in their work and life.
The book may have owed its popularity in China to the near-absence at the time of such self-help books, and also in part to the budding entrepreneurial spirit in Chinese society during that period. Later on, similar books such as Rich Dad, Poor Dad also became publishing sensations in China, where people seemed to have caught on, and even surpassed Americans in their interest in how-to books and success guides. Some of the ones that made it big were originally published in China rather than imported, of course, such as Harvard Girl, a guide to getting into the top rated American school that sold an enormous number of copies. In recent years, the proliferation of such books seems to have diluted public interest in them, but some of them still sell really well.
By the way, when I mentioned this issue to my mom, who works in publishing, she offered another possible explanation for the great popularity of Who Moved My Cheese among Chinese in the early 2000s. Here’s what she said:
The book was published in a period during which China’s economic structure was undergoing a profound transformation. State-owned enterprises were laying off hundreds of thousands of employees, who previously thought their lives were taken care of by their iron-rice-bowl jobs. Feeling anxious and lost, many of them found solace and the courage to cope with their situation in the message the book intends to convey.
JW: Are there any particular Chinese authors, past or present, that you wish more Americans read — or at least knew about? And why?
HG: One of my favorite Chinese novels is Fortress Besieged, a 1947 novel by Qian Zhongshu. It seems little known in the West, perhaps in part because it was the only book Qian wrote, and it didn’t become popular even in China until after the Cultural Revolution.
Born a century ago to a scholarly family in Jiangsu province, Qian was rigorously tutored in classical Chinese and later, like many talented youth from prestigious families of the time, was sent abroad for a Western liberal arts education. After finishing his study of European literature at Oxford, he returned to China in 1938, while the war against Japan raged. In the following years, he penned personal essays, works of literary criticism, and Fortress. After the Communist takeover, Qian remained in the New China and tried to find refuge in literary research as a series of devastating political movements convulsed the nation. Thanks to his linguistic prowess, he was assigned to an elite group tasked with translating Mao’s poetry into English, a job that shielded him from the worst of the ideological criticisms that befell many other prominent intellectuals. Qian’s creative work, however, all but stopped.
In Fortress Besieged, Qian recounts the story of a young man, who, after years of bumming around abroad, returns to his affluent family in Shanghai with a bogus degree he purchased to save face. China is embroiled in war, but the young man, Fang Hongjian, spends most of his time getting tangled up with two women, while trying to ward off conflicting demands from his family. When his romantic fortunes sour, he decides to escape Shanghai by accepting a teaching post in a no-name university in China’s interior provinces, where he marries a colleague. The marriage quickly deteriorates, as conflict arises between his wife and his family. At the end of the novel, Fang finds himself wandering on the street at night, bruised and alone, after a fight with his wife. The scene is symbolic of Fang’s trajectory throughout the book, in which his indecisiveness and petty cowardice have led him to escape from one unpleasant circumstance only to find himself in another, while constantly feeling out-of-depth yet dissatisfied.
More than 60 years later, China seems unrecognizable from the war-torn soil on which Fang’s story unfolds. Still, the book strikes a deep cord with me, since I also recently returned from abroad, to a country undergoing profound and defining changes. Qian’s breadth of vision, burning wit, and hilarious caricature of human weakness all endow the book with a timeless quality, and one that I believe also transcends culture. Well-versed in Western literature, Qian is well known for his trademark Rabelaisian humor. It defies a common Western perception of Chinese literature as largely absent of satirical elements, and has been keenly emulated by later writers such as Han Han. (Both the linguistic style and the main character in Han’s first novel, Triple Door, bear unmistakable resemblances to Fortress Besieged.)
One particular feature of Qian’s novel distinguishes him from his contemporaries: it remains detached from its political and historical background. The story of Fortress Besieged took place during China’s war against the Japanese, but the plot is self-contained, and characters’ fates are rarely dominated by larger historical events. Fang, for example, left Shanghai not to escape Japanese invasion, but to forget a love interest. This autonomy of Qian’s work may be relevant to thinking about Chinese literary discussions of today, when the relationship between literature and politics has been brought to the surface again by Mo Yan’s recent winning of the Nobel Prize.
Overall, Fortress Besieged makes excellent reading for anyone who hopes to gain a more nuanced understanding of the amazing breadth of contemporary Chinese literature, or just anyone who is looking for an intelligent, delightful novel.
JW: What do you read for fun? Any particular genre? Chinese fiction, Western fiction, a bit of both, or a specific sort of nonfiction?
HG: When reading in English, I consider any non-China related reading to be “reading for fun.” I am a big fan of the long-form feature articles found in the The New Yorker as well as The Atlantic. I particularly enjoy humor pieces by David Sedaris and food essays by Calvin Trillin.
In Chinese, perhaps under my mom’s influence, I have a deep interest in personal essays and memoirs written by older Chinese scholars and writers. Among my favorite books are My Life ‘Downunder,’ by Yang Jiang (who was married to Qian Zhongshu), which recounts her experience on a reform-through-labor farm during the Cultural Revolution, and also her We Three, which focuses on family life. I also like Zhang Yihe’s The Past is Not Like Smoke, which looks at the fate of prominent Chinese liberal intellectuals in 1950s and 1960s.
JW: Finally, since I’m Orwell and Huxley obsessed, as some readers of this publication know, I can’t resist asking when you first read 1984 and/or Brave New World — if, that is, you’ve read either?
HG: I didn’t read 1984 until 2011, immediately after college, turning to it because I had heard so many references to it in China-related discussions in the West. I think reading it at a later age may have helped me better understand it, as by then I had become familiar with the Western perception of and discourse about Communism, as opposed to knowing only the mainstream, government-sanctioned narrative about the topic I learned in Chinese schools. As for Brave New World, it is still lying unopened on my Kindle bookshelf. Various people have recommended it to me, so I hope to get to it before too long, and I’ll try to remember to send you an email about what I think of it when I do finally get around to reading it.