Short Stories from Urban China, edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Ra Page

Shi Cheng – Short Stories from Urban China
Edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Ra Page
Comma Press, Paperback
210 pages, 978-1905583461, £9.99

Debjani Biswas-Hawkes

Shi Cheng – literally translated as Ten Cities – is a collection of short stories that represent China’s ever-expanding urban population. The chosen authors are described as ‘defining the literary scene in China’, and this translated collection allows Western readers an insight into modern Chinese literature at its finest.

The tales are organised geographically, charting the nation from South to North. Each story offers a different perspective of China’s great cities and the people who inhabit them, with the collection’s exploration of the interior worlds of the Chinese forcing aside any generalisations that may be adopted by a Western readership.

The translations are fluent and sensitive: even words or concepts that have to be expanded upon for the sake of Western readers are undertaken seamlessly, managing to be informative without seeming out of place. Indeed, rather than acting as a barrier, the East-West cultural divide makes the translation of Shi Cheng all the more fascinating for its Western readership, allowing them to experience a culture that is – in some ways – far removed from their own. From the outset of a handful of the short stories, for example Ho Sin Tung’s ‘Square Moon’, a sense of otherness is achieved through the protagonist’s distinction between the Chinese and, as she puts it, ‘foreigners: ‘there is…a foreigner sitting not far behind her’. Throughout the story, the word ‘foreigner’ sticks out like a sore thumb, used as a generalisation that highlights the disparity between the Chinese and those Westerners who, in the protagonist’s eyes, merely inhabit China. Similarly, Ding Liying’s ‘Family Secrets’ reveals a disparity between China and the West with regards to the media, with Ding Liying conveying a Chinese distaste for Western gossip columns, which are portrayed as tacky and insensitive.

In addition, the reader’s sense of foreignness is highlighted through phrases such as ‘You know what those [slums] are like. You’ve seen them’ in Cao Kou’s ‘But What About the Red Indians?’ The Western reader is, of course, unlikely to be familiar with the slums of Guangzhou, and this direct address comes as a stark reminder of the reader’s status as an outsider. Stories such as these leave Western readers feeling at once privileged and somehow included, yet simultaneously bewildered and alien. The reader is allowed a rare insight into the intricacies of Chinese society, while remaining on the outside. The self-consciousness of the reader is akin to that of the tourist, and indeed Shi Cheng’s Western readers can be described as a kind of literary tourist.

While this sense of literary tourism equates, on the whole, to a pleasurable read, at times the style employed in certain stories is problematic. It is difficult to tell whether a Chinese critic reading the short stories in their original language would also find certain stories in the collection somewhat lacking, or whether some stories are simply lost in translation. This dilemma is expounded by the fact that is impossible for the average non-Chinese-speaking reader to compare the English translation of tales such as Yi Shou’s ‘Rendezvous at the Castle Hotel’ or Zhu Wen’s ‘How to Look at Women’ to the original texts, and thus it is difficult to tell whether the translator or the author is at fault. Either way, the English versions of these two stories appear to be a random agglomeration of events without structure or a proper ending, yet also without the finesse of a skilfully written postmodern short story. This is especially true of ‘How to Look at Women’, which reads like the opening chapters of a novel rather than a completed short story. The ending of Diao Dou’s ‘Squatting’ also seems incomplete and slightly anti-climactic, though the main body of the tale succeeds as a delightfully ridiculous absurdist story, commenting upon the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.

In spite of these few problematic tales, Shi Cheng is – on the whole – a well-rounded collection of short stories. The conveyance of human nature and emotions is poignant and at times hilarious, for example in Jie Chen’s ‘Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu’ – a tongue-in-cheek story that explores infidelity and female friendships. Credit must also be given to its translator, Josh Stenberg, who uses a tone perfectly judged to convey the cattiness and underhand comments that can form part of the female interior world.

Likewise, Zhang Zhihao’s ‘Dear Wisdom Tooth’ uses the ache caused by a wisdom tooth as a metaphorical device, portraying the key events in the protagonists’ married life: ‘That hateful wisdom tooth you’ve got buried inside you is really me’. The story’s frank and conversational style works well, with the reader taking on a voyeuristic role, and again Josh Stenberg stands out as a masterful translator, able to confer the subtleties of human emotions into familiar, colloquial English.

Other stories, while specifically conveying the lives of Chinese citizens, ring true throughout a number of recently industrialised and urbanised nations. Xu Zechen’s ‘Wheels Are Round’ tells the familiar tale of country folk moving to the city in search of a better life, addressing rural-to-urban migration on a personal level as opposed to as a collective movement. Zechen masterfully captures the ambition and ingenuity ofChina’s urban working classes, while humorously addressing the limitations of the city: ‘everyone… knew that opportunity here was like birdshit – while you weren’t looking it would spatter on your head and make you rich. From what I’d seen, however, there were fewer and fewer birds in Beijing…’

Han Dong’s ‘This Moron is Dead’ is an especially fascinating tale, in light of the recent viral video that depicts a Chinese child being hit by a car while dozens of onlookers stand by and do nothing. The video and ‘This Moron is Dead’ both raise important questions about certain cultural attitudes in China: in a land which is home to over one sixth of the world’s population, does human life become increasingly devalued and expendable? In ‘This Moron is Dead’, the crowd’s nonplussed reaction to a dead body in the middle of the street would suggest an increased immunity to human suffering; however Han Dong’s protagonist goes on to universalise the phenomenon of emotional desensitisation, explaining that ‘People are creatures of feeling and instinct…We only react to movement and understand what we live through.’ Yet, the dead man appears in all the protagonist’s photos of a blossoming cherry tree on the same street, the implied symbolism suggesting that life and death are inextricable, despite what the protagonist may think.

It is this bold imagery alongside a pervasive element of fatalism that makes Shi Cheng such an interesting and enjoyable read. As the tales shift from Southern to Northern China, the reader is able to witness and experience a variety of micro-cultures, from different cuisines to varying attitudes towards marriage. The majority of these short stories are thoroughly engaging in terms of their attention to detail and highly descriptive imagery. The name Shi Cheng encourages the reader to see China not as a single land mass but as a nation split up into a number of districts, each with their own traditions, dialects and cultural attitudes. Equally, each tale is not so much about the city it takes place in but about a handful of individuals within that city. It is all too easy for the Western reader to become swept up in generalisations, and whilst Shi Cheng provides the reader with an invaluable insight into China, the stories ultimately deal with human nature – that which transcends national and international boundaries.

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