On Translations of Popular Chinese Literature

I recently read a novel, written by the Chinese author Zhang Henshui, called _The Shanghai Express_.  The original title in Chinese is pinghu tongche 平滬通車.  The plot is fairly sentimental, and for that matter, implausible.  I won't give away the story, but suffice it to say that a wealthy Beiping banker (Beiping was the name used for Beijing after Nanjing became the national capital in 1927) falls for a beautiful young southern woman while traveling on a train from Beiping to Shanghai.  What made this such a great read was the author's  eye for detail. 

Zhang Henshui takes us into the everyday world of mid-1930s China from the vantage point of a train.  The three classes of cars--1st, 2nd, and 3rd class--allow the author to explore the many different levels of Chinese society.  By concentrating on characters riding in each class, he is able to reveal not only their mentalities but also their interactions.  He paints a rich picture of life on the train, including descriptions of what people ate, how they dressed, what they drank, what cigarettes they smoked, what sorts of conversations they had, and how they passed their time.  The frequent stops the train made allows him to showcase regional variations down the China coastline (not coincidentally, the novel was serialized for a travel magazine).  He even includes fairly detailed passages on the logistics of train travel.  While the ending is somewhat disappointing and predictable, one finishes the novel with a deeper understanding of what a train trip in China was like during that period.

Zhang Henshui was a "popular" novelist of the early 20th century, and one of the most prolific writers of his time.   He is said to have written 110 novels in his lifetime.  Like Shanghai Express, most of these were serial novels published in newspapers.  His most famous story, Fate in Tears and Laughter 啼笑因缘 was one of the most popular novels of his age.

During my research on Old Shanghai nightlife, I encountered many serial novels in the so-called "mosquito press".  These were small tabloid journals, of which hundreds were published in Shanghai during the Republican Era.  This was the reading matter for most of Shanghai society.  Comparatively few people read the highbrow journals, which gave birth to the literature now considered canonical--i.e. the literature associated with the May Fourth Movement and eventually canonized by the CCP. 

Yet today, if a person is searching for Chinese literature from the Republican Era translated into the English language, mostly what she will find is the canonical literature.  Lu Xun, Lao She, Mao Dun, Ding Ling--these are the authors whom countless students of Chinese literature and culture read in translation.  One is hard pressed to find examples of "popular" literature such as that of Zhang Henshui.  Apparently only three or four of his novels have been translated thus far. 

Why the discrepancy?  Here are some possible reasons.  (Since I am not an expert in Chinese literature, my understanding is rather limited, but here are my impressions):

1)  Since it is not canonical, popular literature is not considered as worthy of translation and discussion.  This is the most obvious answer, though the reality is slightly more complex.  In fact, several major studies have been done on popular literature in the Republican Era, from Perry Link's Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies (U Cal Press, 1981) to the latest, Zhang Henshui and Popular Chinese Fiction, 1919-1949 by Thomas Michael McClellan (Edwin Mellen Press, 2005). Let me return to this point below.

2) Translations don't count for much in the academic world.  Scholars of language and literature focus their energies on writing monographs and articles that dissect Chinese literature, rather than making that literature available to a wider audience.  

3) There isn't a market for popular literature in translation.  Highbrow literature on the other hand has a market, since it tends to get used frequently in university courses.  Teachers of Chinese literature make far less use of popular literature in their classes.

4) Chinese scholars consider this literature to be unrepresentative of the Chinese spirit.  There is a sense of shame at the vulgarity of such literature, which emphasizes romance and emotion over rationality and reason.  It is telling that most of the studies and translations of popular literature appear to have been done by Westerners.

5) Everyday life is considered a vulgar topic, far less important than the world of ideas.  It is only when everyday life is used as a background to illustrate themes of social injustice (the most common topic for highbrow literature) that it becomes important.  Otherwise, the minutiae of the everyday is only fit for ragpickers (to use a metaphor adopted by Walter Benjamin). 

6) In conjunction with (5), pop lit like pop culture (cf Andreas Huyssen, The Great Divide) is gendered female, while canonical lit is gendered male.  Female = shopping, dress, make-up, food, lifestyle, romance, i.e. the "small things" in life.  Male = politics, society, nation, war, the "grand ideas". 

These points are of course all debatable, and may be contested by people who are far more knowledgeable in the field of Chinese literature than your humble servant. 

The final point I'd like to make is that there is a definite need for more translations of popular literature.  Zhang Henshui's novel does an outstanding job of bringing us into the everyday world of Chinese society in the 1930s.  It is highly readable and fun--as pop lit should be.  The translator William Lyell has done a fantastic job of rendering Zhang's text into colloquial English, and he's even given it a 1930s flare by translating place names as they would have been done in the 1930s. 

(On an aside, I plan to incorporate this novel into a course I am teaching for the Dartmouth program in Beijing this fall, which focuses on Beijing and Shanghai in the 1920s and '30s.  That we are planning to take a train ride from Beijing to Shanghai during the program makes the inclusion of this novel even more appropriate.  The students will have a chance to ruminate on the similarities and differences between train travel in the '30s and now.)

Translations of Chinese pop lit would also give China scholars more opportunities to incorporate these fictional works into their  scholarship.  The works of Zhang Henshui, Bao Tianxiao, and many others are tremendously valuable to historians who wish to penetrate the everyday world of Chinese society during the Republican Era.  Yet who has time to wade through all those original texts that are hidden amidst hundreds of xiaobao tabloids?  It also takes a considerable degree of expertise to penetrate the colloquialisms and references to daily life made in these stories.

Finally, general readers would profit greatly from more translations of popular Chinese fiction.  People seeking to understand Chinese society will have a very limited view if they only keep to the canonical works, which tend to fall into the category of "social realism".  More translations of popular novels would broaden their horizons immensely.

Unfortunately, given the state of academia today, I do not see this happening any time soon.  Most scholars seem to feel it a waste of time to focus on translations, when they could be working on that next great monograph--or if they do translations, they focus on canonical authors (recently Zhang Ailing seems to have been incorporated into the canon).  Yet those scholars should keep in mind that the audience for their monograph will be quite limited, perhaps to a few hundred people at most, whereas a popular work of fiction could potentially reach thousands.