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The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature: Writings from the Mainland in the Long Twentieth Century Paperback – August 22, 2017
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“[A] worthwhile anthology …. that manages to combine the established canon with less-well-known selections…. [Its] breadth and variety…will, one hopes, encourage new readers to explore more Chinese literature in full translations.”
- Julia Lovell, New York Times Book Review
“An excellent collection. ”
- Liz Carter, Los Angeles Review of Books
“[A] big, groundbreaking introduction [to modern Chinese literature]…an eye-opening success.”
- Steve Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor
“[A] superb and suitably massive compendium of Chinese literature that stretches from the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 to the present….A treasure trove for any reader interested in Chinese literature.”
- Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
“A brilliant and unique compilation. From Yu Dafu’s touching tale of finding friendship (1923) to Bei Dao’s account of what it was like to grow up in an apartment containing only three lightbulbs (2010), you will be enchanted by this collection. The Big Red Book changes the way we read our own literature.”
- Marjorie Perloff, author of Wittgenstein’s Ladder and Unoriginal Genius
“This is the first anthology to give adequate attention to the diverse, challenging literary currents of the past three decades, when writers built on and expanded the literary creativity of the first half of the twentieth century. With the help of this volume, we see the dry spell of the Mao period as merely an enforced interlude in a century of creative ferment.”
- Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University
“These writings belong to no single canon, obey no single aesthetic or ideological code, advance no one agenda. They are simply the equipment that helped three generations of Chinese men and women find their way through the dangerous twentieth century, and to read through it is to join them on their journey.”
- Haun Saussy, University Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Chicago
“Exceptional. Yunte Huang, scholar, poet, and translator, brings his literary erudition, poetic sensibility, and personal background to bear on his selections from a rich diversity of genres. For the general reader, this ‘big’ book is heavy but reads ‘light’ because it is lucidly presented with smooth translations and succinct introductions. . . . It provides a subtle but ironic counterpoint to the ideological weight of Mao’s Little Red Book.”
- Leo Ou-fan Lee, Sin Wai Kin Professor of Chinese Culture, Chinese University of Hong Kong
About the Author
Yunte Huang is a Guggenheim Fellow and a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Transpacific Imaginations and Charlie Chan, which won the 2011 Edgar Award and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. Having come of age in China as a student in the time of Tiananmen, Huang now lives in Santa Barbara, California.
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Like the other major English-language anthology of modern Chinese writing -- the Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature (second edition, 2007) -- this book was divided into three parts. Here it was 1911-49 (the Republican era) and -- as with Columbia -- 1949-76 (the revolutionary era) and 1976 to the present (post-Mao). The focus was entirely on mainland China, unlike with Columbia, which added writers from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The poetry selections ranged from the 1910s to 2000s, with many poets from the 1920s-30s and 1980s-90s. There was much attention to poetry; the anthology's compiler is a poet. Many earlier and later writers overlooked by Columbia were included here, such as Hu Shih, Guo Moruo, Liu Bannong, Bing Xin, Wen Yiduo, Mao Zedong, and especially Hai Zi, whose expressive works should be better known.
Another strength of this collection was its inclusion of some works from 1949-76, a period neglected by the Columbia anthology as far as the PRC was concerned. Obviously this time wasn't a peak in writing from the mainland, but it was good to see something from the time, to get an understanding of the period and learn what later authors would rebel against. Here there was poetry and a set of quotations from Mao Zedong, a short story showing a true believer in socialism who tried to improve things at his workplace, and an excerpt from a play from the 1960s that blended revolutionary realism and romanticism, as Communist guerillas fought the Japanese during World War II.
The prose selections ranged mainly from the 1910s to 80s; there were only two works from more recent times: an excerpt from the novel Soul Mountain (1990) by Gao Xingjian and an excerpt from Bei Dao's memoir of a return to Beijing, City Gate, Open Up (2010). The lack of much prose from the past two and a half decades was surprising and felt like a missed opportunity to introduce new writers. There was even a lack of stories set during the Cultural Revolution.
Many of the novels excerpted were the major novels of modern China: Family (1933), Border Town (1934), Rickshaw (1936), Tales of Hulan River (1942), Red Sorghum (1986), Raise the Red Lantern (1987) and Soul Mountain (1990); it was good to have them all in one place. Standouts for this reader included Border Town (by Shen Congwen) -- whose excerpt showed the warm relationship between a father and his grand-daughter -- and Raise the Red Lantern (by Su Tong), in which a woman taken into a rich family as a concubine began to learn who were her friends and enemies. Tales of Hulan River (by Xiao Hong), although filled mainly with long passages of description, conveyed well the harsh landscape of northeast China, the seasonal cycle and hardy inhabitants. The main criticism here would be that more recent novels -- by writers such as Wang Shuo and Yan Lianke -- ought to have been included.
Although many of the novels excerpts in the book were enjoyed, a number of the short story selections were disappointing. There was too much plodding realism and not enough pieces with strong narratives and powerful symbols. This differed from the Columbia anthology, which contained no excerpts from novels at all but offered many strong stories, including ones by Wu Zuxiang, Xiao Hong, Eileen Chang, Chen Cun, Lao She and Qiao Dianyun.
As for the essays, this book had six in full or in part -- compared to more than 30 in the Columbia anthology -- but it was notable that only prewar writers were included. This was a missed opportunity to include authors from more recent decades such as Ba Jin and Gao Ertai, who wrote on the Cultural Revolution, or others such as Dai Qing, Fang Lizhi, Feng Jicai, He Xin, Li Zehou, Wu Zuguang, Xu Jilin and Murong Xuecun, who have written on contemporary issues.
Just seven of the 48 authors in the book were women, although it should be noted that the percentage in the Columbia anthology isn't much higher. Scholar/translator Julia Lovell has argued that more female writers could've been included in the present book (Lu Yin, Ru Zhijuan, Xu Xiaobin), as well as more prose writers from the 1990s (Dong Xi, Han Dong, Xu Zechen, Zhu Wen). Earlier writers missed included Wu Zuxiang and Zhang Tianyi in the 1930s, Qian Zhongshu and Eileen Chang in the 1940s, Mo Shen in the 1970s, Wang Shuo in the 1980s, and a later writer was Yan Lianke in the years after 2000. (The editor tried to include major works by Qian and Chang, but couldn't get permission from their estates.)
Scholar/translator Perry Link has attacked this book for omitting the jailed Nobel Prize-winning activist Liu Xiaobo, as well as other critics such as Liu Binyan, Zheng Yi, Su Xiaokang and Liao Yiwu. This should be kept in mind, but on the other hand the collection did include some critical pieces, and the Columbia anthology didn't contain any of these writers either, so why should the present book be singled out?
Critical pieces included an excerpt from the 1990 novel Soul Mountain, which described a search for spirituality and connection amid rampant consumerism; the works of its author, Gao Xingjian, have been banned in China. The 1994 poem by Yu Jian, "File o" -- a standout of the collection -- depicted a bleak life lived from cradle to grave under observation by a police state. Its ending could be taken to refer to a well-known essay by Lu Xun from the 1920s, in which Lu called for a spiritual renewal and described China as an iron house without windows, indestructible but whose inhabitants were suffocating. The anthology ends with the text of the 1986 song "Nothing to My Name" by Cui Jian -- a spokesperson for the silent majority -- a song that has been taken by many to call for liberalization. Also included was the poetry of Yu Xinqiao, a popular poet who was jailed by the government for eight years in the 1990s.
The editor mentioned the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign, which claimed half a million victims, the disaster of the Great Leap Forward in which millions of people starved to death, the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre. So for this reader, the fact that he omitted Liu Xiaobo and other critics didn't make him a lackey of the Chinese CP. It's true, though, that he tended to shy away from writers of recent decades.
To sum up, the book was a welcome collection of Chinese writers. Its strengths were its collection in one place of excerpts from a number of important novels from the 1930s to 1990, its inclusion of worthwhile poets who were missed by Columbia, and its inclusion of a sample of prose from 1949-76. The main weaknesses were the lack of new and interesting prose writers from the 1990s and after, such as Yan Lianke -- which meant a lack of much writing showing what it felt like to live in China today -- and a lack of contemporary essayists. Although some critical voices were included, more would've been appreciated.
For a collection of harsher voices, there's Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused (1995), which presented short stories from 1985 to 1994; strong writers from this period included Kong Jiesheng and Bi Feiyu. A collection of 28 Chinese authors, mostly from the 1990s, is Fissures: Chinese Writing Today (2000). An interesting anthology with a range of opinion from left to right, including essays from Liu Xiaobo as well as Liu Binyan, Su Xiaokang and many of the other essayists mentioned above, is New Ghosts, Old Dreams (1992). For Liu Xiaobo alone, there's No Enemies, No Hatred (2012), a collection of his writings from 1989 to 2009.
Modern novels that have stunned this reader with their political satire are Please Don't Call Me Human (1989) by Wang Shuo, which satirized Chinese behaviors in a way that Nathanael West did for the U.S. in A Cool Million (1934), and Serve the People! (2005) by Yan Lianke, which treated the massive gap between past and present values, among other things. There's also The Noodle Maker (1991), by Ma Jian, a bleakly comic book of linked stories in which Chinese people responded to economic liberalization.
Poems by Hai Zi have been collected in Over Autumn Rooftops (2010). Other collections mainly of Chinese prose include The Vintage Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction (2001) and Modern Chinese Stories and Novellas 1919-1949 (1981).
Excerpts from the present collection:
"Those red flags, leaflets / Violent images those / Belts buckled with clenched fists / And bloodthirsty slogans all stiff and fallen / Those victimizers and victims / Will never return / The love of an entire generation castrated / Will not return." (Zhai Yongming, "The Language of the '50s")
"Starting from tomorrow, become a content person / Feed the horses, split wood, roam the world . . . Give a warm name to every river and every mountain / Strangers, I send you my blessings / I hope for you a splendid future / I hope that you lovers become family / I hope that in this dusty world you become content / I only hope to face the ocean, as spring warms and flowers open." (Hai Zi)
"I keep asking endlessly / When will you go with me? / But you always laugh at me / I've nothing to my name / I'll give you all my dreams / Give you my freedom too / But you always laugh at me / I've nothing to my name / Oh! When will you go with me? / Oh! When will you go with me? (Cui Jian)
"Spring, summer, autumn, winter -- the seasonal cycle continues inexorably, and always has since the beginning of time. Wind, frost, rain, snow; those who can bear up under these forces manage to get by, those who cannot must seek a natural solution. This natural solution is not so very good, for these people are quietly and wordlessly taken from this life and this world. Those who have not yet been taken away are left at the mercy of the wind, the frost, the rain, and the snow . . . as always." (Xiao Hong, Tales of Hulan River)
One final word: The quick questions, of course, are so thoughtful (KUDOS to the would-be geniuses at Amazon!) that they have ZERO APPLICABILITY to the work in question. Yet more children strive to demonstrate their brilliance, doing so with the characteristic shallowness of thought and immaturity of action that underscores the modern "computer scientist." LOL-apalooza!!!