Review of A New Anthology of Chinese Short-Short Stories
by Yunzhong Shu, Professor, PhD, City University of New York
The contemporary Chinese short-short story, usually written with less than 1,500 words, emerged on the literary scene in the 1980s before it became a popular genre in newspapers and literary magazines. A New Anthology of Chinese Short-Short Stories, a three-volume set edited, translated by Professor Harry J. Huang and published by Bestview Scholars Publishing, is the latest and the most comprehensive effort to introduce samples of this genre to English-speaking readers.
To collect short-short stories for his translation project, Professor Huang posted two open calls for submissions in various literary magazines in China and Hong Kong, one in 2002 and the other in 2017. In addition, he also circulated the calls on the internet. Afterwards, he had received about 25,000 submissions altogether from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, from which he selected and translated 294 entries for his trilogy. Obviously, the submission process was a democratic one. As a result, people from all walks of life, old and young, contributed to the trilogy, giving it a certain richness of content. For Professor Huang, reading through such a huge number of submissions was undoubtedly a time-consuming enterprise, a labor of love. Equally commendable, the trilogy, as it stands now, reflects his sagacity as a reviewer, editor and translator. In both his 2002 and 2017 calls he lists his expectations for the submissions, including, most significantly, Chinese flavor, realist perspective and unexpected plotting. Judging by the short-short stories it contains, the trilogy unquestionably succeeds in these regards.
Grouped into different thematic sections, the vast majority of these short-short stories describe different aspects of life in contemporary China, with only twenty classified as traditional tales, martial-arts stories and science-fiction stories. The focus on contemporary China fully bears out Professor Huang’s intention, clarified in his introduction, that his translation project is not just a literary project for the average reader, “but it is also intended as a textbook from which one can learn about China: its language, culture, politics, urban and country life, and above all, a rich variety of human relationships.” Indeed, it is precisely the descriptions of human relationships in China, be they relationships among family members, friends or co-workers, that make the short-short stories in the trilogy fascinating.
For a variety of cultural and social reasons, human relationships weave people together in China in ways rarely seen in the outside world. The short-short stories in Professor Huang’s trilogy demonstrate the complexity of human relationships in China. Take, for example, family relationships. In “Winter Scenery” the grandmother spends a night building a snowman to cheer up her leukemic granddaughter before she dies of exhaustion in the cold and becomes a snow statue. In “Dentures” a patient suffering from advanced liver cancer goes back to Shenzhen to avoid causing any trouble for his son in Kong Hong while also trying to shield his mother from the news of his death. In “My Father’s Note” an old lung cancer patient eats food left by diners in a restaurant and sells recyclables to save money for his pensionless wife. On the other hand, we also see how pressures in everyday life and human pettiness can get in the way of family relationships. “My Home, My Family” shows how cramped housing causes a man to quarrel with his wife constantly and how, after much struggle, he finally gets a coveted two-room apartment, only to see his marriage collapse and his son miss the small one-room bungalow where the family used to live. “Voice Message” describes how a man became more and more confused about what he really wanted as he spent many years quarreling with his wife over meaningless trifles in life. Whether they are marked by love, sense of responsibility, nobility or pettiness, the characters in these and many other short-short stories reveal how family relationships function in the circumstances in contemporary China.
The subject matter of the trilogy is, of course, not limited to family relationships. The short-short stories that describe other areas of life in today’s China, particularly what goes on in officialdom, are equally interesting. Many authors in the trilogy view Chinese society with a jaundiced eye, expressing their criticism either directly or obliquely. In “Tigers Don’t Eat Humans” the author describes how the tigers on Jingyang Mountain, where the famed hero Wu Song in the classical novel Water Margins killed a tiger with his bare hands, became so disgusted with the smell of banknotes in people’s pockets in the 1990s that they stopped eating humans. Here we clearly detect the author’s disapproval of the pursuit of money that swamped China in the wake of accelerated economic reforms. Government officials often become targets of mockery. In “Calligrapher” we see a bureau chief only good at writing the Chinese characters that mean “agree.” In “Seventy Percent” we are told cadres in a city spend seventy percent of their time trying to consolidate their power and get rid of potential rivals. In “A Drifting Bus Terminal” successive Party secretaries of Dafa County come up with showy, ever-changing construction projects to impress the world, repeatedly relocating the town’s bus terminal for no good reason. Whereas other parts of Chinese society, for all their flaws, are still portrayed by many authors in the trilogy as not lacking in redeeming qualities, officialdom is almost universally viewed as deserving of criticism and mockery rather than sympathy and understanding.
Last but not least, the short-short stories in the trilogy, regardless of their subject matter, are all highly readable. Whether it is a result of the contributors’ response to a key expectation in Professor Huang’s calls for submissions or a result of Professor Huang’s selection process, the readability of the short-short stories, largely coming from the unexpected twists in the plotlines, entertains and instructs readers as it defamiliarizes both the everyday world and our perceptions of the everyday world. Due to their readability, it is a joy to read the short-short stories in the trilogy.
The City University of New York
About Yunzhong Shu
Yunzhong Shu (B.A. M.A. Beijing Normal University; Ph.D. Columbia University) is a professor of Chinese and Chair of the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures at Queens College, the City University of New York. His research is focused on modern Chinese fiction. He has published Buglers on the Home Front: The Wartime Practice of the Qiyue School and articles in English and Chinese on a wide range of topics in modern and contemporary Chinese literature, including the influence of Zou Rong and Zhang Taiyan on Mao Zedong, late Qing fiction, A Ying’s fiction about revolution, contemporary fiction about military life, contemporary historical fiction, experimental fiction, and works by Yu Dafu, Yang Mo, Li Ruqing, Wang Shuo, Li Rui, Chen Zhongshi, Zhou Meisen, Yan Geling, Zhang Ping and Li Peifu. He has also published English translations of works by the contemporary literary critic Liu Zaifu.