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Literature

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Liao Yiwu is best-known for his book The Corpse Walker, a colourful collection of interviews with oddballs, crooks, hustlers, toilet-attendants, ex-landlords, so-called rightists, garbage-collectors, and a variety of others whose voices are rarely heard in mainstream Chinese history. First published in Taiwan in 2001, and later in a variety of languages, The Corpse Walker quickly became a bestseller in the West, its success fanned along by the news of the book’s banning in China and Liao’s uncomfortable political position back home .

Liao’s recent book, God is Red, is another collection of interviews, this time with elderly Chinese Christians whose faith has brought them into conflict with the state. Published to an eager audience in the West, God is Red will be supported with author tours and book signings not previously possible, since in July 2011 – after seventeen unsuccessful attempts to leave China – Liao Yiwu secretly emigrated to Germany.

Given his reputation as a political dissident, it would be fair to imagine Liao Yiwu as a terribly earnest person. If he is this, it doesn’t come across in a first meeting – at least not in the conversation my friend Suna Xie and I had with him in Sydney last week. More than anything, Liao made us laugh with his dry irreverence, and a tendency to see life as a series of terrific stories. Even the sinister seemed darkly amusing in Liao’s hands, as if life were a perverse comedy choreographed by money and power. Read on …

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At The Zoo, Oakland, U.S. Image by Randy H.Y. Yau

Yan Jun is a creative polymorph. Search on his name on the Internet and you’ll come up with a list of roles – from experimental sound artist, to critic, to curator, to performance poet – and stories of his pioneering in China's underground music scene from the late 1990s to early 2000s. In 1998 he began the independent label, Sub Jam, initially to publish zines and later for music CDs; and in 2004 he established Kwanyin records for the release of more experimental works. From June 2005 to December 2010, Yan and his Sub Jam community organised a series weekly of performances called Waterland Kwanyin at the Beijing Bar, 2Kolegas, serving up rock, experimental and electronic music to an ever-morphing crowd of listeners.

Both Sub Jam and Kwanyin continue, supported by a regularly updated blog (see here for Yan Jun’s own), as do gigs, and the general greasing of communal and creative activities for which Yan Jun has become widely known. Meanwhile Yan remains one of China’s most important experimental artists, pushing the limits of sound, language and music in his own performances and recordings. Translator, Maghiel van Crevel once said Yan Jun makes things happen, and there is no doubt that Yan has this generative role. Raised in Lanzhou, but based in Beijing since the late 1990s, Yan is something of a creative catalyst, preferring the early and ambiguous stages of invention and putting a high value on the amorphous in artistic communities.

I met with Yan Jun last week in a Korean restaurant in Beijing, where we chatted over kim chi and corn patties. A generous conversation partner, Yan is modest yet brims with ideas; self-deprecating in both his philosophy and humour. Our discussion covered topics well beyond China’s experimental arts scene, and is chockers with food for thought, so I’ve posted a longer interview than usual here. Read on for Yan’s provocations on the role of art in an age of consumerism (ala Beijing’s 798 Art Zone) and that of culture in a new world shaped by the power of the Chinese economy.

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“The 1980s were the heyday of modern Chinese poetry. Poetry was like pop culture then – it played the role karaoke has today. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as karaoke, and every small city or town would have a place where people would get together after dinner and read poetry. It was such an everyday thing, so lively. Every night was like a mini-poetry carnival.

These days we have online communities. Every creative group has its own online communities – art, film, literature – but the most obvious is in the area of poetry, where the internet has had the biggest impact on the community’s development.”

Hu Xudong is Associate Professor at the Institute of World Literature at Beijing University. He’s also a poet, and was one of China’s first internet technicians, co-running an early website called New Youth (Xin Qingnian) which innovated with technology and language. What better person to give a lowdown on contemporary Chinese poetry, its origins in an ‘80s zine scene, and its internet iterations? Read on for a bird’s eye view.

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images.jpg Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, by Murong Xuecun, published by Allen & Unwin

Murong Xuecun is a leading independent writer living in China. He first built a following through publishing his work on various popular Internet sites, with Chengdu, Please Forget Me Tonight (2002) making his reputation. Subsequent work has included Heaven on the Left, Shenzhen on the Right, and Cherries from Eden which together with Chengdu … form his Cruel Youth Series.

Murong Xuecun's stories generally concern relationships between young men and women in modern urban China. His plots are full of twists and turns, with his ear for comic dialogue, and use of dialects. When asked what he wished to express in his works, Murong once commented: 'I wish I could write down the contradictions of human life and nature.' [ref]

On 16 February, 2011, Murong gave an informal lecture at the University of Sydney, co-presented by the China Studies Centre and Confucius Institute. Given in Chinese, with English translation by Chen Minglu, an edited version of the talk is reproduced here.

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In 2005, when Penguin opened their first China office, there were no other foreign trade publishers in the country. Books had never been branded, good literary translators were scarce, and the government maintained a tight control on the publishing industry. This was unfamiliar territory for a Western publisher, and those seeking to get a foothold would need a careful and unconventional approach.

Jo Lusby was Penguin’s appointed scout, employed initially for a scoping mission and later to run the Penguin China office. Lusby’s first move was to publish the Chinese bestseller, Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong in English, a book that went on to win the Man Asia Literary Prize and earn Penguin China a reputation both within China and internationally.

Since then, Lusby has made Penguin China an integral part of China’s publishing industry, building the relationships and making the investments necessary to make joint-publishing with China viable. While last week’s post looked at the globalisation of Chinese literature, this week’s looks at the globalisation of its publishing industry, in an interview with a pioneer.

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Boat to Redemption.jpgThe Boat to Redemption, by Su Tong, published by Doubleday

What is the status of contemporary Chinese literature within world literature as a whole? Should contemporary writers look towards the world or to local traditions for inspiration? And how to account for the apparent mismatch between China’s economic power in the 21st century and its cultural influence in the world? Around 50 speakers and another 250 listeners addressed these and other questions at the International Conference on the Global Significance of Contemporary Chinese Writing, held 29-30 October 2010 in Beijing.

Bonnie S. McDougall, eminent scholar and translator, attended the conference and has provided a report for Artspace China. This piece gives a broad overview of the themes and debates currently defining China’s literary scene, and of the authors engaged in these discussions. Many of these names and arguments will be picked up on in future posts, but you can start here for a lay of the land.

Apologies that I can't provide links for more of these authors and scholars - the English language websites often just don't exist. It's a sign of how small a percentage of this literature and intellectual discussion is available in the English language, i.e. to a global audience.

Bonnie S. McDougall is Visiting Professor in the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. A former student and lecturer at Sydney, she also taught at Harvard, the College of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, and Oslo University before being appointed founding Professor of Chinese at the University of Edinburgh. After retiring from Edinburgh in 2005, she was also Visiting Professor at the Chinese University and City University in Hong Kong. Many thanks to Professor McDougall for her account.

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Wang Gang's English.png English, by Wang Gang, Penguin Books

English-language publishers have been trying to crack the big Chinese book since Jung Chang’s
Wild Swans made it big in the early 1990s, hoping to kick-start a fad in contemporary Chinese literature. It hasn’t been easy, though, and twenty years later Chinese writing is still a grey area in the Western literary consciousness.

There are various explanations suggested for this, related mostly to the difficulty of translating Chinese literature into English and the lack of working relationships between the Chinese and international publishing industries. There’s a gap here that needs to be filled, but even in this era of intense globalisation few have the language skills, commitment to literature and publishing industry connections required.

Enter Paper Republic, a group of China-based translators working with both international editors and academic networks to promote contemporary Chinese literature abroad. Translators par excellence, they are interpreting industry conventions as much as languages, introducing the Chinese literary scene to Western publishers in a way they can understand. Paper Republic was co-founded by Eric Abrahamsen, my conversation partner for this week’s post.

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