Tag Archives: books

Overlooked in 2010

As part of Sina Books’ year in review feature, critic Xie Xizhang (解玺璋) introduces some worthy books that did not receive the attention they deserved last year. The article’s title, “Overlooked and overexposed literature of 2010,” extends the promise of some deserving take-downs, but the only overexposed title Xie mentions is Han Han’s ill-fated literary journal Party (独唱团). Here are his underexposed titles:

Heaven/Tibet (天·藏) by Ning Ken (宁肯). A philosophical novel by the author of the well-received City of Masks (蒙面之城, 2001), which was nominated for the 2009 Newman Prize. Xie writes,

Seriously overlooked, it came to the attention of just a small minority despite being an extraordinarily good work. Apart from showing the history and culture of Tibet, the author how Wang Mojie internalized Tibet; one could say that this is Ning Ken’s own process of internalization. In this novel he writes of a thinker, and he inspires the reader to think as well. Some writers today call themselves word-slingers, and their novels are formed by piling words together. Not so with Ning Ken. His fiction is formed from thought. He is an author who is  willing to think, and his works are heavily imbued with logical thinking. In this novel his “thoughts” are numerous and profound, and even contains an essential reflection and suspicion toward thought itself.

The author discussed his writing in an interview with the Beijing Evening News in October, and Paper Republic has more English-language information about the novel.

Flowers of Purgatory (炼狱之花) by Xu Xiaobin (徐小斌). A fairy tale about a princess from an undersea kingdom who tries to navigate the unwritten rules of the modern entertainment industry. I picked this up mid-year but Xu’s narrative rhythm wasn’t what I was looking for at the time and I put it down two chapters in. I’ll have to take a second look. Xu’s family epic Feathered Serpent (羽蛇, 1998) has been translated into English, and Dunhuang Dream (敦煌遗梦, 1996) is forthcoming this year from Atria.

Judas in Bloom (犹大开花) by Du Chan (杜禅), a writer from Henan, is a satire about the intellectual establishment. Critics quoted on the cover call it a modern version of The Scholars (儒林外史, 1750) and a prose version of the ground-breaking TV series “Stories of an Editorial Board” (编辑部的故事, 1991). Before reading Xie’s article, which praises the novel’s memorable characters, I’d never even heard of Judas in Bloom.

Canticle to the Land (大地雅歌) by Fan Wen (范稳). Fan began his “Tibetan Land” trilogy before the Tibet craze of the past few years. This, the third volume, tells an engaging love story involving a Tibetan storyteller, French missionaries, domestic turmoil in China, a living Buddha, and the engagement between different cultures and religions.

Lu Xun’s Mustache (鲁迅的胡子) by Jiang Yitan (蒋一谈) is a collection of short stories told in simple, direct language that stands in conscious opposition to the massive, overstuffed novels that excite newspaper book reviewers.

The Legendary Huang Yongyu (传奇黄永玉) by Li Hui (李辉) is a critical biography of the early 20th-Century artist.

Wang Meng’s Dream of the Red Chamber (王蒙的红楼梦) by Wang Meng (王蒙), who distilled a lifetime of reading the classic novel into twenty-seven lectures.

Xie also picks one translated book: The Red Wheel (红轮) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Secret numbers

During a trip to the Sanlian bookstore yesterday I discovered a shelf of language pamphlets published by Language and Literature Press (语言出版社). The series sort of resembles those “Very Short Introductions” as limited to the language arts field, and although the writing in the two that I picked up wasn’t particularly engaging, at 3 yuan or so per volume you can’t really go wrong.

The series includes titles by Ji Xianlin and Zhou Youguang; I picked up Numerals in Chinese (汉语的数目字) by Su Jinzhi (苏金智), of whom I know nothing except that one previous publication was a critique of Y.R. Chao’s scholarly work.

Here’s an interesting bit:



Numerals in coded argot frequently use character substitutions that take the form of written transformations. In commercial transactions, people often use a separate set of numerals in the pursuit of profit. A popular code for numerals in the Ming and Qing era jade sector ran 旦 (dàn), 竺 (zhú), 清 (qīng), 罢 (bà), 语 (yǔ), 交 (jiāo), 皂 (zào), 未 (wèi), 丸 (wán), 章 (zhāng), where each of the ten digits is hidden within a written character of the code. A coded argot once used in Suzhou employed the same technique, except that the result of the written transformation was stated explicitly: one was “the bottom of 旦”, two was “工 dug out,” three was “horizontal 川,” four was “目 on its side,” five was “incomplete 丑,” six was “broken 大,” seven was “the bottom of 皂,” eight was “the top of 公,” nine was “unfinished” [完 and 丸 are homophones, and an unfinished 丸 is 九], and ten was “the heart of 田.”

Gangsters frequently used their own set of numerals in their internal activities.

The book does not provide any examples of underworld usage.

I think I prefer the jade numerals as opposed to the hand-holding Suzhou system. Baidu Baike’s entry on 隐语, provides a slightly different version: 旦底、断工、横川、倒目、扭丑、交头、皂尾、分头、未丸. Ten is left off.

I speak braille

Life as a blind masseur

Life as a blind masseur

Bi Feiyu’s Tuina (推拿, a traditional form of theraputic massage) won acclaim and awards in 2008 for its portrayal of the lives of blind masseurs in Nanjing.

Tuina is a slow-moving, character-driven novel in which nothing much happens in the first third beyond introductions and background information, but once you get used to the pace of the author’s plain prose, it’s a hard book to put down. Each of the dozen or so masseurs has a story to tell about being blind in China today. Some are touching love stories, others are tragedies in which personal desires go unfulfilled in a society that has certain expectations of people with physical disabilities, and still others are harshly cynical about a culture that is blind to the interests of people who cannot see.

One of the bleakest, and funniest, stories is about Du Hong, a late arrival to the massage business who started out as a piano prodigy. After discovering she had a talent for music, her teacher set her straight about the way the world works:

Du Hong, you don’t know, you don’t understand! You’re blind, so where’s the future in becoming a singer? You’re not deaf, and you’re not mute, so where will you get by singing? Where’s the special education? Ah, how can you understand? In special education you’ve got to find something difficult, do something you’re unable to do. Like a deaf-mute singing, or like a physically-disabled person dancing, or like a mentally-challenged person inventing something. Each of these shows off the school and the miracle of education. In short, a disabled person only has the power to touch people’s hearts, to move a generation, and to shake society when she endures incredible hardship and puts herself through the fire to do something that is difficult or even possible for her to do, and does it well. What’s so special about a blind person like you singing? All you have to do is open your mouth. But playing the piano is hard. The hardest thing for a blind person is to play – the – piano. Understand? [62]

Du Hong eventually quits her studies after learning first-hand exactly why her playing touches people’s hearts. At a benefit concert, she chokes and turns in an awful performance, yet the crowd gives her a standing ovation. Afterward, the host interviews her for the cameras:

And then with a flourish she asked the big question: “And why did Du Hong come to perform for you all today?” Yes, why? Du Hong  herself wanted to hear the answer. A hush fell over the gallery. The host answered her own question in words that would bring a tear to your eye: “Poor Du Hong” came “to repay of society — all of you grandfathers and grandmothers, all of you aunts and uncles, all of you older brothers and sisters, all of you younger sisters and brothers — for the love you have shown her!” The violin music that had been playing in the background swelled up underneath the host’s words and echoed through the hall and throughout every corner of “society.” [64]

Language plays a noticeable role in the novel. Speech registers separate blind from sighted, although it’s not made clear exactly what that means. For example, Doc Wang, a masseur who returned to Nanjing from a high-paying job catering to foreign clients in Shenzhen when the economic downturn at the turn of the century evaporated his business and torpedoed his stock investments, often describes his old friend Sha Fuming as “talking like a sighted person,” and occasionally the narrator will observe that a statement that would have seemed entirely normal coming out of the mouth of someone who could see was surprising to hear from a blind person.

Written language also shows up briefly. The back story of Sha Fuming, who co-founded the massage business where most of the book is set, involves an episode in which he skips class to visit a bar with a sighted woman who introduces herself by writing her name on his hand with a piece of ice. He has to tell her, “I…can’t read.”

Sha Fuming was telling the truth. He spoke Chinese, but it wasn’t genuine Chinese, it was a special language. More precisely, it was braille. He had never spent any time learning Chinese characters, even though he knew the Three Hundred Tang Poems by heart. [123]

Chinese Braille is printed twice in the book: once when Sha writes his name in droplets of water for the woman (“That’s…so cool!” she says), and once on the cover. It’s mentioned a few other times, but Bi Feiyu isn’t really concerned with the mechanics of surviving as a blind person in Chinese society so much as the feelings that are created by the experience.

Code switching in The Tibet Code

The whole world wanted the rights to this book

The whole world wanted the rights

The story that drives the five volumes (so far) of The Tibet Code (藏地密码) revolves around a grand quest for the wonders of Tibet’s legendary past: the treasures of a lost temple, the race of mystics who guarded it, and a massive, ferocious variety of Tibetan Mastiff, known in the historical records as the Purple Qilin.

Although the mythology in Volume I is dispensed with a regularity that keeps the story moving at a decent pace, the plot is really nothing more than a wild goose chase: after traipsing back and forth across Tibet in search of clues that won’t be revealed until later volumes, our heroes assemble their elite adventure team and, in the final pages of the book, are finally prepared for the true quest to begin. Unfortunately, judging from the table of contents for Volume II, that appears to be a trip to the Amazon, a plot twist for which Volume I laid absolutely no groundwork.

Mandarin is the dominant language of conversation for the characters in The Tibet Code, and when they switch to Tibetan it’s noted in the narration but not marked in their speech, with one interesting exception. Early on, Tibetan mastiff breeder Chomo Jampa is telling his mentor, professor Fang Xin, about the legend of the Purple Qilin. He begins by translating the texts into Mandarin. This reads perfectly well, but his pauses frustrate the professor, who asks him to continue in Tibetan.

So he switches to Tibetan (which for some reason the author chooses to describe as “fluent,” even though that should go without saying for an ethnic Tibetan born and raised in the region). Tibetan conversations in the rest of the book are rendered in straightforward Mandarin, but in this case, the character is reciting an ancient text, presumably in classical Tibetan of some sort. To convey this, the author uses classical Chinese for this portion:


The emperor Langdarma loved hunting and delighted in chasing wolves across the wilderness. When he ascended the throne he declared Buddhism abolished, dismissed the monks and forced them to go hunting, destroyed images, and did not submit to the will of heaven.

The Tibet Code was originally published online and appears to actually have been edited somewhat before appearing in print, at least judging by the polished and expanded classical Chinese passages. I’m not all that eager to read any more of it again, however.