Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China - These tough and bleak tales from China's booming cities show humanity enslaved again by the pursuit of wealth
Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China, Edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu & Ra Page, Comma Press, 2012.
AUTHORS: Jie Chen, Han Dong, Diao Dou, Cau Kou, Ding Liying, Ho Sin Tung, Yi Sha, Zhu Wen, Xu Zechen and Zhang Zhihao.
‘Everyone in the whole country knew this place was full of money, you only had to bend down and pick it up; everyone in the whole country also knew that opportunity here was like bird shit – while you weren’t looking it would spatter on your head and make you rich…'
To the West, China may appear an unstoppable economic unity, a single high-performing whole, but for the inhabitants of this vast, complex and contradictory nation, it is the cities that hold the secret to such economic success. From the affluent, Westernised Hong Kong to the ice-cold Harbin in the north, from the Islamic quarters of Xi’an to the manufacturing powerhouse of Guangzhou - China’s cities thrum with promise and aspiration, playing host to the myriad hopes, frustrations and tensions that define China today.
The stories in this anthology offer snapshots of ten such cities, taking in as many different types of inhabitant. Here we meet the lowly Beijing mechanic lovingly piecing together his first car from scrap metal, somnambulant commuters at a Nanjing bus-stop refusing to acknowledge the presence of a dead body just metres away, or Shenyang intellectuals conducting a letter-writing campaign on the moral welfare of their city. The challenges depicted in these stories are uniquely Chinese, but the energy and ingenuity with which their authors approach them is something readers everywhere can marvel at.
A young woman races across Chengdu one evening to stop her best friend from murdering her cheating husband...
A student staying with his friend's family in Harbin becomes obsessed with a girl at a train station who he doesn't even know...
A disillusioned newspaper columnist in Shanghai receives a disturbing phone call one night from a distressed housewife..."
If you are interested in Literature and Chinese Urban Culture, here’s one for you: Shi Cheng: Short Stories From Urban China. (edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinhghua and Ra Page, published by CommaPress). This collection of short stories by a few of China’s hottest and most talented contemporary writers offers non-Chinese readers with an insight in what’s going on in Urban China and a peek into what Literary China has to offer nowadays. All stories take place in cities throughout China: Harbin, Shenyang, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The authors use the environment of the city as a theatre in which the stories are to be unfolded. All of them do this in an amusing yet not pulpy way: stories by the hand of contemporary writers like Han Dong, Jie Chen, Xu Zechen (link to personal website for Chinese-readers here) and, my personal favorite, Cao Kou, are written in witty, obscure, realistic and cunning styles. There’s something in this collection for all tastes. My favorite story must be “Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu” by Cao Kou, a story which sets in Chengdu. As for the question whether Kangkang is actually going to kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu, I urge those who want to know more about Chinese Urban Culture or Chinese Literature to please DO find out, it’s worth it! - fangruben
"Comma Press is a Manchester non-profit outfit which specialises in themed projects, as far as I can see mostly short story collections. They have published a few city based collections, of which Shi Cheng (meaning Ten Cities) is their latest – a literary tour of ten Chinese cities. There’s a handy map at the front so geography nerds can look up exactly where each story comes from.
The short story format works well for these authors. Their stories cover various themes but share a certain style, which is clean, clever and down to earth. In comparison to the short stories of Yiyung Li, which is the nearest thing I’ve read, they are less refined (or at least less Westernised) and show a China which is more mundane but also more diverse. And apart from a rare moment of clunkiness, the translations are first rate.
The collection opens with a story from Hong Kong called ‘Square Moon’, in which a young woman meets a foreigner who lives in a haunted house. Moving Northwards to Guangzhou, ‘But what about the Red Indians?’ is a coming of age story about two childhood friends with a slightly unsubtle ending.
Chengdu’s contribution, ‘Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu’, is narrated by the friend of a woman who wants to kill her husband. Apparently aesthetics are an essential criterion when choosing a murder weapon:
“The main thing was to put a stop to the vegetable knife. Kangkang just doesn’t have any style, she would totally take the vegetable knife. You might as well use a watermelon knife, aesthetically speaking.”
‘Rendezvous at the Castle hotel’, from Xi’an, is a slightly scandalous tale involving a newcomer to the Xi’an poetry scene and a couple of elderly Japanese tourists. My favourite story of the bunch was ‘This moron is dead’, from Nanjing, an absurd but atmospheric tale about how the city deals with a dead man on the pavement. Set in Beijing, ‘Wheels are round’ is the story of a mechanic who constructs a car out of scrap parts.
“I can say with confidence that no more thana handful of human beings have ever laid eyes on a car like that one: it was a monster. Its skin was still rusted sheeting – I mean not a speck of paint –that was all he could afford. Never mind that, there wasn’t even enough to go around: he’d been obliged to make a convertible…the front wheels were smaller than the back wheels, and the whole car seemed to lunge forward angrily.”
Whilst they aren’t overtly political, a few of the stories nod at political developments. Shenyang’s story ‘Squatting’ documents the city rulers’ increasingly ridiculous measures to rid the city of crime, whilst ‘How to look at women’ references past events more directly, including a character who has become a trusted friend of a family he once spied on.
Although (as I’ve already mentioned) the stories share certain commonalities, each one has quite a different feel. Unfortunately I don’t know China enough to be able to say what is down to the author’s style and what is a reflection of the city in question’s culture. But together they show a China which is less sensational, more intellectual than the China which tends to appear elsewhere.
Any Cop?: An impressively deep and varied selection. I enjoyed this (and learnt from it) even though I know little about the Chinese literary scene; I expect those who know China will enjoy it even more. Comma Press has published the same kind of city collections from other regions which I’ll definitely be checking out." - Lucy Chatburn
"Shi Cheng – literally translated as Ten Cities – is a collection of short stories that represent China’s ever-expanding urban population. The chosen authors are described as ‘defining the literary scene in China’, and this translated collection allows Western readers an insight into modern Chinese literature at its finest.
The tales are organised geographically, charting the nation from South to North. Each story offers a different perspective of China’s great cities and the people who inhabit them, with the collection’s exploration of the interior worlds of the Chinese forcing aside any generalisations that may be adopted by a Western readership.
The translations are fluent and sensitive: even words or concepts that have to be expanded upon for the sake of Western readers are undertaken seamlessly, managing to be informative without seeming out of place. Indeed, rather than acting as a barrier, the East-West cultural divide makes the translation of Shi Cheng all the more fascinating for its Western readership, allowing them to experience a culture that is – in some ways – far removed from their own. From the outset of a handful of the short stories, for example Ho Sin Tung’s ‘Square Moon’, a sense of otherness is achieved through the protagonist’s distinction between the Chinese and, as she puts it, ‘foreigners: ‘there is…a foreigner sitting not far behind her’. Throughout the story, the word ‘foreigner’ sticks out like a sore thumb, used as a generalisation that highlights the disparity between the Chinese and those Westerners who, in the protagonist’s eyes, merely inhabit China. Similarly, Ding Liying’s ‘Family Secrets’ reveals a disparity between China and the West with regards to the media, with Ding Liying conveying a Chinese distaste for Western gossip columns, which are portrayed as tacky and insensitive.
In addition, the reader’s sense of foreignness is highlighted through phrases such as ‘You know what those [slums] are like. You’ve seen them’ in Cao Kou’s ‘But What About the Red Indians?’ The Western reader is, of course, unlikely to be familiar with the slums of Guangzhou, and this direct address comes as a stark reminder of the reader’s status as an outsider. Stories such as these leave Western readers feeling at once privileged and somehow included, yet simultaneously bewildered and alien. The reader is allowed a rare insight into the intricacies of Chinese society, while remaining on the outside. The self-consciousness of the reader is akin to that of the tourist, and indeed Shi Cheng’s Western readers can be described as a kind of literary tourist.
While this sense of literary tourism equates, on the whole, to a pleasurable read, at times the style employed in certain stories is problematic. It is difficult to tell whether a Chinese critic reading the short stories in their original language would also find certain stories in the collection somewhat lacking, or whether some stories are simply lost in translation. This dilemma is expounded by the fact that is impossible for the average non-Chinese-speaking reader to compare the English translation of tales such as Yi Shou’s ‘Rendezvous at the Castle Hotel’ or Zhu Wen’s ‘How to Look at Women’ to the original texts, and thus it is difficult to tell whether the translator or the author is at fault. Either way, the English versions of these two stories appear to be a random agglomeration of events without structure or a proper ending, yet also without the finesse of a skilfully written postmodern short story. This is especially true of ‘How to Look at Women’, which reads like the opening chapters of a novel rather than a completed short story. The ending of Diao Dou’s ‘Squatting’ also seems incomplete and slightly anti-climactic, though the main body of the tale succeeds as a delightfully ridiculous absurdist story, commenting upon the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.
In spite of these few problematic tales, Shi Cheng is – on the whole – a well-rounded collection of short stories. The conveyance of human nature and emotions is poignant and at times hilarious, for example in Jie Chen’s ‘Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu’ – a tongue-in-cheek story that explores infidelity and female friendships. Credit must also be given to its translator, Josh Stenberg, who uses a tone perfectly judged to convey the cattiness and underhand comments that can form part of the female interior world.
Likewise, Zhang Zhihao’s ‘Dear Wisdom Tooth’ uses the ache caused by a wisdom tooth as a metaphorical device, portraying the key events in the protagonists’ married life: ‘That hateful wisdom tooth you’ve got buried inside you is really me’. The story’s frank and conversational style works well, with the reader taking on a voyeuristic role, and again Josh Stenberg stands out as a masterful translator, able to confer the subtleties of human emotions into familiar, colloquial English.
Other stories, while specifically conveying the lives of Chinese citizens, ring true throughout a number of recently industrialised and urbanised nations. Xu Zechen’s ‘Wheels Are Round’ tells the familiar tale of country folk moving to the city in search of a better life, addressing rural-to-urban migration on a personal level as opposed to as a collective movement. Zechen masterfully captures the ambition and ingenuity ofChina’s urban working classes, while humorously addressing the limitations of the city: ‘everyone… knew that opportunity here was like birdshit – while you weren’t looking it would spatter on your head and make you rich. From what I’d seen, however, there were fewer and fewer birds in Beijing…’
Han Dong’s ‘This Moron is Dead’ is an especially fascinating tale, in light of the recent viral video that depicts a Chinese child being hit by a car while dozens of onlookers stand by and do nothing. The video and ‘This Moron is Dead’ both raise important questions about certain cultural attitudes in China: in a land which is home to over one sixth of the world’s population, does human life become increasingly devalued and expendable? In ‘This Moron is Dead’, the crowd’s nonplussed reaction to a dead body in the middle of the street would suggest an increased immunity to human suffering; however Han Dong’s protagonist goes on to universalise the phenomenon of emotional desensitisation, explaining that ‘People are creatures of feeling and instinct…We only react to movement and understand what we live through.’ Yet, the dead man appears in all the protagonist’s photos of a blossoming cherry tree on the same street, the implied symbolism suggesting that life and death are inextricable, despite what the protagonist may think.
It is this bold imagery alongside a pervasive element of fatalism that makes Shi Cheng such an interesting and enjoyable read. As the tales shift from Southern to Northern China, the reader is able to witness and experience a variety of micro-cultures, from different cuisines to varying attitudes towards marriage. The majority of these short stories are thoroughly engaging in terms of their attention to detail and highly descriptive imagery. The name Shi Cheng encourages the reader to see China not as a single land mass but as a nation split up into a number of districts, each with their own traditions, dialects and cultural attitudes. Equally, each tale is not so much about the city it takes place in but about a handful of individuals within that city. It is all too easy for the Western reader to become swept up in generalisations, and whilst Shi Cheng provides the reader with an invaluable insight into China, the stories ultimately deal with human nature – that which transcends national and international boundaries." - Debjani Biswas-Hawkes
"In the 1980s, the word "Cheng"(meaning "city") would ring a powerful and romantic chord in every Chinese person's ear. Phrases like "Jin Cheng" (entering the city), or "Cheng Li" (inside the city wall) imply the modernity of Western life; a place shiny and free, like the gondola of a hot-air balloon floating over New York or Hong Kong. "City" meant beautiful women and money, and everything decadent. As the vast movement of people from country to urban areas reached its height in the 1990s, there was a nationwide hit from a young female singer, Ai Jing, called "My 1997", which expressed this dream of the city. One line, "I want to go to Hong Kong, I want to see the decadent flowery world", summed it all up. In the early 1990s, 90 per cent of the population comprised peasants, even though, by 2007, 93 per cent of people over the age of 15 were literate. Most Chinese "citizens" started from illiteracy; few understood modern technology.
Now 20 years have passed, and the majority of Chinese are no longer drowning their feet in the muddy water of rice fields or whipping their buffalos to force them into farm work. Instead they "jin cheng" – they entered the cities – and became those crazed and anguished denizens whom we find in this short-story collection. The book contains ten rather dark and hard-headed stories, set in ten Chinese cities. They are written by well-known Chinese writers (mainly poets-turned-novelists).
The most impressive story, "This Moron Is Dead", reads like a Chinese version of Waiting for Godot. Written by one of the best contemporary Chinese poets, Han Dong, it's set in his city, Nanjing, an old capital with many maple-tree lined streets. It is about a nameless man considered to be a "moron" but who is already dead - we encounter him lying on the ground. Passers-by place a cardboard fruit box on the head of the corpse and write "this moron is dead" in order to warn people not to trip. Everyone begins to loathe the corpse who basks in the warm sunshine. In the end, a girl turns up who wants to take photos by the cherry tree next to the corpse. More and more citizens gather around to get their photos taken, leaving the corpse lonely and wasted. There are shouts of "Good-for-nothing", as they vent their scorn for the fly-eaten rotting body, accusing the dead "moron" of polluting the city.
A Western reader might ask how a society can become so indifferent towards others, so devoid of basic humanity. But just read the next story in Shi Cheng. You are in the icy northern city of Harbin, about which writer-filmmaker Zhu Wen provides a bleak story of struggling families, dog-like human existence, all under the pressure of money-making. A man's value is reckoned to be worth three pathetic decomposed pickled cabbages.
Set in Shenyang, Diao Dou's "Squatting" is even more absurd. Citizens are banned by the security services from walking around after 8pm. So if you are outside, you have to squat in the street all night to avoid breaking the absurd law. The same goes for the Beijing story "The Wheels are Round" by Xu Zecheng. As a reader, you might think you are in a story set in 1950s China during the great famine, or back in the 19th century when the Opium War impoverished town and country. No, you are in a series of prose scenes, in true social-realist style, but set in contemporary China.
As I was going through each story, I felt as if I was entering a sphere of human suffering wrought in burning fire and darkness. This phrase echoed in my mind: "how the steel was tempered". These stories tell us how the lives of these cities and citizens, or peasants-turned-citizens, are being tempered. The stories seem to say that one has to go through the fires of hell to reach some different stage of existence. The road to commercial urbanisation seems to be a harder one than the road to socialism.
As thousands of millionaires emerge from urban society, there are millions of lowly folk crushed under the wheel of money. Is that the general truth of how we have to build our cities? When I was a teenager, I didn't know who Elvis Presley was, but I knew every detail of the Russian novel How the Steel was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky. In middle school we learned through this book how heroes were tempered: those communists wounded in war, striving through ideological struggle. These were stories for us, young pioneers, to develop our own hard-headed spirits.
But these heroes have disappeared among the rising skyscrapers. The supermen are no longer communist heroes. They are all from America: the Bill Gateses and Warren Buffets. Now the Chinese citizen asks: how to become one of them? If you can make 100 yuan by chopping someone's leg or arm off, then take the job quickly since there is a long queue behind you. Think about Russia or China today. How could nations that have gone through such an absolute revolution end up in the same place? Are we really at the end of history? Is humanity to be obliterated by the grotesque greed for money? As much as we must thank the writers of this collection for revealing the world of Shi Cheng, we cannot forget the translators – Nicky Harman, Eric Abrahamsen, Brendan O'Kane, Julia Lovell and many more, who have worked to build a bridge between China and the West. Without them, Chinese literature would still remain an empty chair in world literature." -
"Each city is unique in countless ways but there is a language of city life, in the narratives of collective living and individual existence, that is understood in any dialect. The Manchester short story specialists, Comma, understood this when they published the 2006 anthology, Decapolis, which featured ten stories by ten writers, each set in one of ten European cities, and the 2008 Middle Eastern equivalent, Madinah. Shi Cheng (which means “ten cities”) is the latest such experiment, with the stories taking the reader northward across China, from Hong Kong to Harbin. Edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinhua Liu and Ra Page, these stories in translation demonstrate to English-speaking readers that contemporary China’s cities are adequately stocked with the particular and the universal.
This, of course, makes Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xi’an, Wuhan, Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenyang and Harbin all eminently suited to short fiction, would they but know it. Short story writing (as distinct from its direct ancestor, the oral folk tale) is not an automatic cultural component in the way that novels, poetry and drama are essential ingredients of what a society needs in order to understand that it’s a society, to go alongside systems of government or belief, the means to house and feed the populace, transport, criminal justice and all that carry-on. Short stories develop in a cellular fashion and if you find as many as ten writers in one place – and that place can be a book – working in the form, it’s likely that some, if not all, have needed persuasion and nurturing before trying out the form. Several of the writers in Shi Cheng have more prominent backgrounds as poets, journalists and novelists than as short story writers. This is hardly a new nor an exclusively Chinese phenomenon: in Comma’s 2008 The Book of Liverpool, over forty years after he was first published, Brian Patten’s contribution was his short story debut.
The diversity of backgrounds among the contributors, as much as the geographical spread, gives Shi Cheng a distinctive texture. There is a sense of adolescence about some of the stories here, with Jie Chen’s Chengdu-set Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Lilu a particularly revelatory example. Adolescence, in this context, is a quality of tone and narrative energy within which we can see a radical, transgressive approach but also quite a callow approach to the short story form. The comic timing – in the self-absorbed narrator’s commentary on her frantic but nonetheless meandering dash over to her friend, Kangkang’s, home to facilitate the killing of Kangkang’s philandering husband, “That Fucker Zhao Lilu” – is beautifully judged in Josh Steinberg’s translation:
I left home at 5:20. I washed my face with a cleanser, and then put on moisturiser and liquid foundation even though it was still uneven on my nose. My nose has the texture of orange peel, and unless I spend twenty or thirty minutes putting foundation on, it looks awful. But, for Kangkang’s sake, I had to risk it.The story evolves through this running commentary, knitting together a three-way conflict, but gives us a lingering image rather than resolution. This tells of a playfulness with narrative, and it’s there also in Yi Sha’s Rendezvous At The Castle Hotel, set in Xi’an, which changes tack like an episode of The Simpsons from a literary take on the All About Eve template of a veteran sidelined by a younger rival, via a murder mystery, to a consideration of the unreliable narrator. Ding Liying’s feather-light yet slyly macabre Family Secrets and Cao Kou’s urgent, colloquial And What About The Red Indians? similarly toy with the set-up, the telling and the completion of the story. The effect is that of writers, collectively, finding their way around short fiction and simultaneously finding uses for this most ancient and conservative form to say something about the China that’s as it ever was and the China that changes by the day. The characters, across all ten stories, come across as hungover from all the changes in their society, and the sense of alienation is overwhelming.
This alienation is most memorably depicted by Han Dong (pictured) in This Moron Is Dead and Diao Dou in Squatting. “This Moron Is Dead” are the words written on a piece of cardboard placed over the head of a dead man lying on the pavement at a Nanjing bus stop. This is satire that should be surreal and Pythonesque but Han Dong convinces us – much like a George Saunders – that the people going about their daily business, taking no notice of the dead fellow human, other than to take precautions against the body becoming an obstacle or distraction, are lifted straight from the street and slotted onto the page.
Diao Dou manages a still more extravagant satire in Squatting which brilliantly revolves around the earnest and civilised, if a little bumptious, efforts of a group of socially-concerned intellectuals to issue checks and balances, by means of letter-writing campaigns, on the way in which Shenyang society is managed and policed. When a crime-fighting decree forces everyone out on the streets after dusk to move only in a squatting position, Animal Farm and the world of Avaaz create a narrative blend that hollows out your laughter as it leaves your throat.
You can’t make this journey in just ten stories and the Damon Runyan-type figures populating Xu Zechen’s Wheels Are Round, Ho Sin Tung and Zhu Wen’s nods to the ethnic juxtapositions at the northern and southern extremities of the collection, and the very dark treatment of love throughout, give a taster of the life and literature there is to appreciate in contemporary China. This collection is a lively primer: This Moron Is Dead and especially Squatting make it an essential purchase.- realtimeshortstories.wordpress.com
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