Thursday, 7 February 2013

'Shi Cheng - Short Stories from Urban China' (Review)

Comma Press is a small publisher that concentrates on short-story collections, and as some of those are translated into English from other languages, I've reviewed a few over the past year.  However, today's collection is a little different.  Whereas the ones I've read so far have been single-author works, this post will look at a book which takes us on a more varied literary journey...

Shi Cheng - Short Stories from Urban China (review copy from the publisher) is a recent anthology from Comma Press, which... well, it does pretty much what it says on the cover.  It contains ten different stories, each by a different writer and each concentrating on one Chinese city (Shi Cheng is Mandarin for 'ten cities').  The stories are arranged a little unusually in that they literally take us on a journey through urban China - we start off in Hong Kong, move onto cities like Xi'an and Nanjing, move up the coast through Shanghai and Beijing, before finishing off in the cold northern city of Harbin (and no train ticket required!).

The habitual reader of translated fiction probably has certain expectations about works translated from Chinese, thinking that they are likely to be controversial works on banned topics (e.g. Ma Jian's Beijing Coma) or stories about the hardship poor peasants face (e.g. Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village).  Shi Cheng, however, is a very different book.  It avoids any real explicit political message (although there are plenty of implicit stabs at Chinese politics) and concentrates on the way the average Chinese citizen lives their life in the big cities.  Strangely enough, it makes for a refreshing change.

One common topic is the importance of education in China, something we all hear about but can't quite grasp.  In Cao Kou's But What About the Red Indians? (translated by Rachel Henson), the main character in the narrator's story is a young man whose failure to succeed in the highly-competitive university exams is partly responsible for a shocking event later in life.  The protagonist in Ho Sin Tung's Square Moon (translated by Petula Parris-Huang) takes an art history major at university, instead of following the path of an artist, simply because there are better job prospects at the end of the course.

The stories also have a common focus on the urban divide, and many subtly criticise modern China's superficial consumer society.  Wheels are Round by Xu Zechen (translated by Eric Abrahamsen) looks at a group of illegal workers in Beijing, migrants from the countryside who try to scrape together a few Yuan on the black market.  The criticism is more scathing though in Han Dong's This Moron is Dead (translated by Nicky Harman), where a vagrant's corpse on the streets of Nanjing is greeted with both indifference and scorn...

A third important area is relationships, and if Shi Cheng is anything to go by, true love is a rare quality in China.  Infidelity abounds, and several of the stories use cheating as the focus of the plot.  Zhang Zhihao's Dear Wisdom Tooth (translated by Josh Stenberg) consists of a conversation between a married couple who are about to split up, where the man's embedded wisdom tooth serves as a metaphor for their marriage, but Ding Liying's Family Secrets (translated by Nicky Harman) is a much more chilling tale of the effects of infidelity.  As for Jie Chen's Kangkang's Gonna Kill that Fucker Zhao Yilu (translated by Josh Stenberg), well, I think I'll just leave that one to your imagination ;)

One of my favourite stories though does have a more political edge to it.  Diao Dou's Squatting (translated by Brendan O'Kane) is a clever allegory of how well-meaning reformers can be co-opted into supporting the status quo.  Starting with some concerned, well-meaning citizens and descending into farce through some Kafkaesque regulations, it is a bizarre tale with a cunning twist at the end.  It is definitely the story that has stayed with me the longest :)

Shi Cheng is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the average urban-dwelling Chinese, and the book is visually delightful as well, with a handy map to follow our route and a transport map of each city introducing its story.  And if, like me, you enjoy this one, Comma Press has a few more books you might be interested in.  You see, as well as this trip around China, you might want to wander around the Middle East (Madinah), or take a leisurely journey through Europe (Decapolis).  Forget your local travel agency - this is the way to see the world in comfort ;)