This week’s Q & A is with the China-born and now Boston-based Xujun Eberlein, a short story writer, blogger, essayist, and contributor to LARB.
I contacted Xujun in part simply because I was curious to learn her reaction to two recent literary-minded and China-focused New York Times pieces. One focused on the surprisingly brisk sales in China of a book by James Joyce, while the other was a commentary by NPR Beijing bureau chief Louisa Lim on trends in censorship and the popularity of Chinese “officialdom novels.” Both brought Xujun to mind, since she has often reflected on the flow of books and ideas between China and the West and she has written an essay on the “officialdom novel” genre.
She was good enough to break up her Lunar New Year trip back to Chongqing to speak with me.
Jeff Wasserstrom: Do you have any thoughts on why Finnegans Wake might be selling so well in China?
Xujun Eberlein: I was curious about this myself. I’m in Chongqing for Chinese New Year and I went to the Xinhua Bookstore downtown on Saturday (February 9) to have a look at the book. A young staff member led me to the desk where the Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake (the yellow cover at the center of the above photo) was on display with other new and noteworthy books. As you may see from the photo, next to Finnegans Wake is the translation of polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, which has a supplementary band to note the author is a Nobel Laureate. The red cover on the right is a Chinese popular novel titled Love SMSs. I asked the young man how Finnegans Wake was selling there and he said “Not bad.” He noted that its sales were similar to One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. When asked what kind of readers were buying it, he said “mostly young people.”
A Chinese writer friend attributes the good sales of Finnegans Wake to media hype and unusual advertisements, which is at least partly true. Xinhua net reports that large outdoor billboards for the book have appeared in eight major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing. Deploying such billboards for a book is itself unusual. Shanghai’s DF Daily notes that the book’s first print run of 8,000 copies was sold out in three weeks under “intensive marketing.” A Shanghai resident commented on Sina weibo that she passes by a billboard for the book every day and it makes her “really want to challenge the high difficulties; but what if I can’t understand?” This reminds me of another comment I saw — at an online bookstore website — from a young woman who purchased One Hundred Years of Solitude: “I simply wanted to know why this book was selling so well.” She found the book hard to understand but “felt different after careful savoring.”
I can certainly relate to such curiosity. Back when I was a young writer in China, Ulysses enticed me in a similar manner. Though a complete Chinese translation of Ulysses was not published until the 1990s, an excerpt first appeared in the1980s, a time when stream of consciousness was a newly imported fashion in China’s literary circles. Like many writers then, I was keen for innovations in narrative style. I remember reading a translated excerpt of Ulysses in the mid-1980s, at a time when I was stuck in the middle of writing a novella. I found the excerpt very hard to read; I don’t think I ever finished reading it. However, whatever I read gave a stimulus to my writing, exactly because it “felt very different” and the refreshing feeling helped break my impasse.
After Mo Yan received the 2012 Nobel Literature Prize, I noticed many articles in the Chinese media mentioning the influence of foreign literary works, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, on his writing. Whether this is true is another topic, but the media reports might have helped increase Chinese readers’ appetite for foreign literature.
JW: 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?
XE: I grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, a period when foreign literature was all “poison weeds” and indiscriminately banned, unless you count the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin as literature. Despite the severe political climate, however, an omnipresent book exchange network existed underground, not organized but spontaneous. As an eager reader you never knew when an interesting volume might happen your way. During my first year of high school in 1972, when we were hiding in the mountains from the Third World War that Chairman Mao expected the Americans would soon launch, an acquaintance gave me a copy of The Gadfly, which was written by an Irish novelist late in the nineteenth century and was first published in the U.S. The novel is a melodrama of love, betrayal, revolution and heroism, and it set my blood boiling, as those kinds of narratives tend to do to teenagers. In a memoir I’m working on right now I recount a few strange personal episodes that reading the book caused for me. Ironically, in retrospect, the novel also firmed my youthful belief in revolution; the fact that it was a banned book only enhanced the impact. I soon learned from my mother that the book had been a big hit in China before the Cultural Revolution, and it had won the hearts of millions of Chinese readers like her. (Carma Hinton and Geremie Barmé’s documentary “Morning Sun” also deals with the book’s impact in China.) After I moved to the US in the late 1980s, one of the biggest surprises to me was that The Gadfly was virtually unknown to American readers, though it enjoyed a twentieth century burst of fame and popularity in the Soviet Union as well as in China.
The official education in my Chinese upbringing treated “revolution” as a sacred notion. During my “reeducation” years in the countryside after high school, that halo began to fade. But it was a couple of French novels that really toppled the concept for me. In early 1978, I entered Chongqing University to study Mechanical Engineering, and my infatuation with literature made me friends with a lecturer—a book lover who taught our mechanical drawing class. Though the Cultural Revolution had ended over a year before, the psychological wounds it had inflicted on people were still fresh, and many remained cautious. The teacher showed me a large collection of battered books, mostly translated novels from before the Cultural Revolution, but he only allowed me to borrow one at a time, and warned me not to tell anyone about them. Neither he nor I knew that many of those books would soon be reprinted and become widely available. Two French novels from his collection made the biggest and longest-lasting impact on me: Victor Hugo’s Ninety Three and Romain Rolland’s multi-volume Jean-Christophe. I don’t remember the translator’s name for Ninety Three, but the Rolland was translated by Fu Lei, a great translator who committed suicide in 1966 at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. I remember being immersed in those books so deeply that I would skip classes to read them and even go without food and sleep. Many years later, I wanted to reread Ninety Three, this time in English. I looked for it in my local libraries but found no copies. I was both surprised and disappointed, wondering why American readers did not seem to value the great French literature.
I also remember stealthily and enthusiastically reading quite a number of Russian novels, both classic (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol) and contemporary, as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. Some of the contemporary Soviet novels were surprisingly laced with social criticism; I remember one titled Snowy Winters, which I obtained from a friend whose father was a high-ranking Party official. On the book’s cover was stamped “inside circulation; for criticism only.” At the time, only Party cadres above a certain rank were officially allowed to read such work.
JW: Switching from literature in translation to trends in Chinese fiction, I know you’ve thought a lot about “officialdom novels” of the sort that Louisa Lim discussed in a recent commentary for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. What, for you, is most interesting or revealing about the genre?
XE: Louisa Lim’s observations and her quotes from Chinese novelists resonate a lot with me, as you might see from my Foreign Policy piece on officialdom novels. There is something I did not get to say in that piece and I’m glad for the opportunity here. In my research on the history of officialdom novels, I noticed an interesting phenomenon: the first two booms of the genre – in the late Qing and the 1940s, respectively – each foretold the collapse of a regime within years. Though the data sample is too small to have any statistical significance, I don’t think that was pure coincidence. The interesting question is: does the high reader interest in the genre again foretell political change? China is different now: in those earlier times, the country faced both domestic troubles and foreign invasions. Today, China’s economic power and international influence are on the rise. The genre of officialdom novels itself is also evolving: in recent years, a new pragmatic trend is overtaking the critical spirit displayed in earlier works such as Ink Painting (1999).
Do the differences make the current boom of the genre less prophetic than on previous occasions? I’m not so sure. Then as now, pervasive government corruption drove interest in the genre, but as I analyzed in Foreign Policy, an added drive comes from within the government today, from civil servants who do not want to change the system but rather to learn how to play along with it. These two trends are both strong and in conflict; it seems only a matter of time before these undercurrents change the course of China’s political mainstream. I’m not talking about violent change as in the old times, but change nonetheless. The Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun incidents last year, which Maura Cunningham discussed recently in her “Don’t Bet Against the House” post for LARB, were only a prelude.
Xujun Eberlein is originally from China and grew up during the Cultural Revolution. She now writes and lives in the United States. Her debut story collection, Apologies Forthcoming, was published in 2008.