Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reading Chinese Fiction

Chinese civilization has always fascinated me. The uniqueness of the Chinese mind, the aesthetics, the creativity of the Chinese people over the centuries exercised enormous fascination on my curious mind.  

Early on I discovered Chinese literature. I love Chinese classics and have read all the great historical novels of the Ming and Qing Dynasties that were translated to English and German. Although years ago I studied Mandarin and could even read hundreds of Chinese characters, I was never able to master that language to such a degree that I could pick up a Chinese novel and read it in original. Like many readers in the West I had to rely on translations.

I first went to China in 1988 - only ten years after Deng Xiaoping introduced serious economic reforms and opened China to the West. Anyone visiting the Middle Kingdom at that time experienced a culture shock. I still remember my first trip to Beijing. I could stand in the corner and watch with an opened mouth what transpired in front of me. The contrast between the ancient, the Maoist and the clumsily emerging post-Maoist new China was so evident that one could only wonder how this Asian giant was ever going to make it. And look at China today and you are going to experience a culture shock of another kind.

China fascinates. Its culture and history became a very popular subject since the opening of China in the early 1980s. More and more people visit the country and more and more people study Chinese culture and language at the academic level. But the more we are comfortable with the modern China the more we look for the long gone exotic past.

Every year dozens of books are translated from Chinese or published in English to satisfy the thirst for the mysterious China that is no more. Authors venture into vast history of the imperial China with all the court intrigues and wars, but they also explore the difficult era of emerging Modernity and the battle between the old and the new. Many write about the darkest period in modern Chinese history - the Cultural Revolution that left China weak, bleeding and isolated. Others explore the new emotional freedom that came after the economic reforms started producing results. The freedom of expression in China is a project in the making and might take a few more decades before it is fully realized, but writers, artists and movie makers enjoy more freedom than they ever did before.

The Chinese are not the only people who love to write about China. Marco Polo was probably the first one, but Pearl Buck opened the door to a new genre in the world literature. To this day the Westerners and writers of Chinese origin living all over the Western world, pick up their pens to create mesmerizing fictions that are often highly prized by the critics and really worth reading.

By Dominique Allmon