Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Those Bad Chinese Girls

Now reading: Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarguhar and Michael Schoenhals
From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books Kathleen T. Horning

For those of you who don't know, I'm a bit of a Sinophile. I have a concentration in Chinese Studies and actually almost double majored in Chinese, except that... I studied abroad in China and therefore couldn't. (It had to do with how many credits were taken on campus vs. elsewhere.)

So, I was intrigued by this new generation of Chinese female writers and, overall, was disappointed. These new girls are no Ding Ling or Eileen Zhang, sadly. Most of their "critical acclaim" stems from the "China banned it! It must be good!" mindset. My main complaint with all four of these books is that their authors think they're the deepest, most insightful people on the planet when really, they're shallow and self-obsessed. (Not that I dislike shallow and self-obsessed, take my love of Bridget Jones.) Also, I tend to blame the author for things the protagonist narrator does. All these works are highly autobiographical, so forgive me.

So, first up was Chun Sue's Beijing Doll. I was excited about this because it was translated by Howard Goldblatt, who translates Mo Yan. I would go to Notre Dame in a heartbeat to study under Goldblatt.

Sadly, Chun Sue is no Mo Yan. She is a spoiled middle school student who'd rather drop out of school to screw random college guys than much else. She claims to be a great rock and roll expert but can't tell the difference between punk and grunge. (Seriously? You can't hear the difference between the Sex Pistols and Nirvana? Really?) Basically, this book was written when she was in her late teens, and it painfully shows. I think Chun Sue will look back on this book in five years and cringe. It also has this odd quality I can't define that really reminds me of Miss Sophie's Diary. That also really irked me about the author/protagonist's attitude-- she claims she's all rebellious and the only person to do these wild and crazy things but OH WAIT! Ding Ling was writing essentially this same story (but an oh so much better one) 80 years ago! She does however, have the most excellent line, "How can you get mad at an asshole for being an asshole?" (p93)

Next up is Mian Mian's Candy. Although Mian Mian and her narrator are older than Chun Sue, it maintains the same quality of "I'm so original and I'm so deep" when really being neither. Mian Mian's narrator, however, does have actual problems of poverty and drug use as she bounces between the southern boomtown of Shenzhen and Shanghai. Her descriptions of the characters she meets in Shenzhen are crazy. This character, unlike the others, is not a spoiled child thinking she lives some other life. The narrator is gritty, and her problems are gritty and harsh and there's prostitutes and drugs and gangs and robbery. My biggest complaint with Candy is the unevenness of the writing. Parts of it are really well done and when she wasn't pontificating on the deeper meaning of life, I really enjoyed it. And parts are poorly written and don't make sense. One of deeper thoughts that did make sense and didn't sound like stuff your average angst-ridden late-teen would write was "We'd grown up on movies from the Soviet Union and North Korea, but now we listened to music from England and sat in our kitchens eating instant noodles, wondering if we had AIDS." (p230)

And one of the more poignant sections, "If you knew my friend Apple, please listen to some Chopin. If you liked him, please don't use a candle to light a cigarette ever again. If you loved him, please leave the door open when you bathe, and let in some fresh air... Apple, we didn't wear black armbands, because wearing black armbands is too conventional and you're like us to look pretty." (pp255-258)

And now we're onto Wei Hui and her Shanghai Baby and Marrying Buddha. Wei Hui is Shanghai-ese spoiled spoiled spoiled who can think of nothing better to do, so she decides to become a writer, and because she's a writer, she must be tortured! Oh! It's so hard being her! It's so hard living the life of luxury and not having to care! Don't you feel sorry for her? Because she wants you to.

Also, Wei Hui is the most pretentious of the crop. And her writing, ugh. "A team of Japanese boys on roller skates looked like mounted butterflies as they showed off their techniques... their dyed hair like feather dusters." (p89). Tortured similes litter every page. Also, the translator did some weird things, such as " 'You're looking piaoliang [cute],' I said." (p90). I mean, piaoliang isn't some weird word that doesn't fully translate into English. She could have just said "You're looking cute". Also, from the context (more than I've provided here), we don't really need piaoliang defined--it was fairly obvious what it meant. So, why? She incessantly name drops to make herself sound smart and educated, but it doesn't work because she's really neither (at least, by Western standards, maybe by Chinese standards, I don't know.) Also! Check out the horribleness of this next paragraph, not only in style and but also sheer ignorance (which was not meant ironically!), "At the airport Flying Apple and I kissed a hasty goodbye that left my lips wet. Many gay or bisexual men have a special, fuzzy sort of tenderness that one finds in small animals, but I'm always aware of the AIDS risk. As Alanis Morissette put it, 'I'm sick but I'm pretty, baby'."

Marrying Buddha is better. I couldn't not read it, Shanghai Baby was so bad, it's like car crash reading-- I couldn't turn away. My main complaint with Marrying Buddha is the lack of copy editor. It's a sequel to the first, as Coco is on book tour for Shanghai Baby. It flips back and forth between her life in New York, and the story of her relationship with a new boyfriend and her life in China as she tries to put her life back together after they've broken up. Wei Hui still thinks she's deep-- "For I have seen almost everything there is to see of human illusion. I have glimpsed what lies beyond the lavender haze. I have witnessed the slow dissolution of life in all its guises and illusions and watched it fade." (p.17) but it's not as bad as her first book.

Really, my most serious complaint is lack of copy editor-- in addition to typos and misspellings, there are some fairly serious errors-- every chapter opens with some quotations. In one, she is quoting Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell, but it gets attributed to Candace Bergen instead. Also, her boyfriend, Muju, is referred to as Muji for about half a page. Then on p. 209 she says "That evening when I got home I turned on all the lights in the house, put on a CD by the Latin jazz great Gilberto Bebel called Tanto Teimpo..." now, I know the CD she's referring to, and it's great you should all get it, except it's by Bebel Gilberto and is called Tanto Tempo. Also, I'm not sure I'd call her a Latin jazz great, as she's Brazilian, and I kinda think of Latin music as being in Spanish, not Portuguese, and this is her debut CD and was released in 2000. But it IS a great CD, as is all of her other stuff, and there's a new album coming out this year and I can't wait!

The other weird thing about Marrying Buddha (to get back on track) is that no where in the book is a translator credited. When I read this, I thought that it might have been written in English, at which case Wei Hui gets a lot of credit for writing a better book, but in a brand new language. However, when I googled it, I did find this site, which states that Larissa Heinrich, of the University of New South Wales, translated it into English. This is the only mention I've been able to find of a translator. I am horrified that Heinrich could go through all that work and not recieve any credit whatsoever.

Hmmmm... Flickr and Blogger aren't playing nice rightnow... stay tuned for book covers!


Anonymous said...

you do know a lot about chinese female writers...but i can`t agree some of these thoughts...

Jennie said...

Which thoughts don't you agree with? Why? Have you read these books? I haven't come across anyone yet who has, so I'd love some discussion!

Anonymous said...

Hi! I must say this was interesting reading! Ive read both Wei Huis books and Bejing Doll. I liked Shanghai Baby, not the second however. I hated Bejing Doll the first time I read it, the second time I changed my mind.
I thought Marrying Buddha was pretiencious (hope you understand what Im trying to say ^^) and Wei was trying to be like sex and the city. But both bejing doll and shangahi baby was interesting because they showed a new China. And I dont think Sue is spoiled, I think she had a helluva time. She was deprest and i can recognise a younger self in her and her was of thinking.
If you want to talk further, please: