Lao Ma - a collection of more than fifty examples of ‘flash fiction’ – short stories of fewer than 1000 words. Every word was written by Lao Ma, considered the founder of the genre in China and credited for turning this experimental format into a recognized genre of its own.
Lao Ma, Individuals, Trans by Li Qisheng and Li Ping
Individuals is a collection of more than fifty examples of ‘flash fiction’ – short stories of fewer than 1000 words. Every word was written by Lao Ma, considered the founder of the genre in China and credited for turning this experimental format into a recognized genre of its own. Perfect for teachers and students of creative writing, this powerful new volume will quench the thirsts of those who crave punchy, succinct fiction – during that rare five-minute break.While comparatively few people have heard of ‘Flash Fiction’, its literary craze is rapidly starting to take the world by storm. The rules are simple – every story must be fewer than 1000 words, with each narrative retaining the depth and influence of their full-length cousins.
It’s a genre steeped in fun, popularized to a mainstream audience by China’s Lao Ma – now considered by most to be Flash Fiction’s “global master”. While Ma set out to offer mordant wryly funny little vignettes of the absurdities and ironies of life in China, his work rapidly became a vital tool for teachers of creative writing who wanted perfect examples of short, short fiction.
With demand for the genre now growing in the UK and Europe, Ma is delighted to announce the release of ‘Individuals’ – the first book of its kind to hit the British shelves.
While most Chinese writers are addicted to long narratives, the stories of Individuals prove that brevity really is the soul of wit. Frustrated professors, pompous judges and devious careerists cross the pages of this book, as Lao Ma skilfully dissects the hypocrisies and ironies of life in China.
Individuals is a collection of very short short stories, so-called “flash fiction”: few if any reach 1000 words, most are quite a bit less. This 180-page book contains more than 50 distinct stories. The author Lao Ma, the pen name of Ma Junjie, has a day job as Professor of Literature at People’s University (Renmin Daixue) in Beijing.
Since so little of this sort of thing makes it into English, the book would be worth picking up for its novelty value alone. It helps, however, Individuals is very readable, that a number of the stories are rather good, and that all seem to have been ably translated by Li Qisheng and Li Ping.
Ma seems to have taken to heart the common admonition to write what you know: the vast majority of the stories take place in an academic environment. The subjects include the foibles of professors, the venality of administrators, the fecklessness of students and the silliness of conferences. The jacket blurb calls these “the hypocrisies and ironies of life in China”, but I imagine academics anywhere will find these vignettes all too familiar. Culture may not be universal, but if Individuals is anything to go by, academia is.
Most pieces are gently humorous if often ironic or sarcastic, but aren’t “hilarious” as Chinese novelist Yan Lianke puts it in his preface; perhaps we have different senses of humor. Some parts, however, are really quite funny. In “English Corner” about a place where students are supposed to speak English to one another:A student called Zhou met a student from his home village who taught him the line: “He isn’t heaven, he’s my brother.” This equates to our own saying: “Brotherly affection is as deep as the sea.”
In another story, a social misfit is being beaten up for, among other things, forcing himself on a secretary.
“Don’t waste your energy on him,” I said. “He’s a poet.” ...
“A poet? You should have told us earlier. We thought he was a scoundrel. Had we known he’s
A story that will strike a particular chord in, at least, Hong Kong is one called “Training”:... there is a street where various “training schools” have established themselves. They include, for example, the “Harvard Business School”, an “Oxford School”, the “Tokyo Veterinary College” and even a “United Nations Global Etiquette Training College”.
The most popular course was
“Key Skills for Displaying Wealth”. It taught people how to show off how wealthy they were, to act ostentatious and brag about it.
These very short stories may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For me, a “story” should have a bit of a plot and some characterization. Whether all of the pieces in Individuals are “stories”, therefore, is a bit of a matter of definition. Quite a few are what one might describe as situational anecdotes with a moral: think Aesop’s Fables transported to the Senior Common Room.
The style, both of writing and, it seems to me, construction, seems slightly and interestingly old-fashioned, manifested in the attention paid to petty officialdom, the naming of characters by their titles (Ms., Professor, etc.) and especially the sometimes somewhat anti-climactic endings. Some of this might be a function of translation but I suspect it is the result of Ma’s professional interest in literature. The result happily reinforces the tone of irony, gentle or otherwise, which suffuses the prose.
The book is however marred by some less-than-perfect production: errors in punctuation, inconsistencies in layout and even some misplaced text (at least in my copy). This would be a quibble, one that I could honestly recommend that readers overlook, except that the stories—simple, short, humorous, easy-to-understand and featuring tropes that are familiar in general and to Chinese in particular—would work well, I think, in regional high-school English classes. But books used in an educational setting need to get the details right. The publisher is to be heartily commended for bringing the book out, but it deserves a second edition after some polishing up. - Peter Gordon
In his preface to Individuals (the average length of Lao Ma’s stories translated in Individuals is just 700 words), Lao Ma even dares to take aim at Nobel laureate Mo Yan, in the course of expounding his own philosophy of fiction:
The 2012 Nobel literature laureate, Chinese writer Mo Yan, says a novel must be lengthy to qualify as an example of the art form. His major works usually weigh in at several hundred thousand words. According to Mo, “Any novel less than 200,000 words lacks dignity. A leopard might be fierce and brave but he is too short in stature to be the king of the jungle.”
By his standards, Mo Yan is a tiger of a writer.
Lao Ma contrasts Mo Yan’s approach with that the ‘short and concise’ stories of Argentine master Borges and states:
I side with Borges. Length is not a measure of literary value. Dogs both big and small can bark. Legs long and short can run.
Now for the first time, English readers can experience Lao Ma’s writing and judge its merits for themselves. Individuals will be available from March 5 at good bookstores in the UK and Ireland, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and all major digital retailers.
No-one can say exactly why flash fiction is becoming so popular. The ultra-short format, including stories as short as 300 words, is neither new nor Chinese. In the West, its roots can be traced back to Aesop’s Fables (620-560 BC) but in China, the godfather is Pu Songling – author of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (1740), a collection of supernatural tales written in the early Qing dynasty. So why is short and sweet coming back into fashion?
One theory is that flash fiction has become popular for its immediacy, precision of language and fusion of poetry and prose in an age of instant messages and microblogging. Most importantly, it’s a break from the norm, which in China is a slavish, establishmentarian commitment to the belief that ‘more is more’.
‘Many professional Chinese writers are paid in part according to their literary output, as measured by the number of words, which creates an institutional bias towards length,’ says Harvey Thomlinson, founder of publishing house Make-Do Studios, a Hong Kong-based publishing house responsible for bringing avant-garde writers such as Li Er and Chen Xiwo into the English language. Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan sums it up as: ‘Any novel less than 200,000 words lacks dignity. A leopard might be fierce and brave but he is too short in stature to be the king of the jungle.’
But it seems that the leopard’s time has arrived. Make-Do have just published Individuals, a collection of short stories from China’s master of flash fiction, Lao Ma. In some ways, Lao Ma (the pen-name of Ma Junjie) is an unlikely face for such a progressive genre. He is professor of literature at Renmin University in Beijing, recently ranked the third best in the country. Clad in beige chinos and a waspish ‘Regatta’-emblazoned polo shirt, he is no maverick – at least not on the surface.
And yet, his stories are as punchy and sardonic as any upstart; full of humour, wisdom and vim. The 178-page book contains 55 stories, some only a page long, which parody small-minded everymen, frustrated professors and pompous officials. His themes include corrupt examination systems and immoral behaviour (similar to Pu’s of 300 years ago).
The tales range from the fantastical to the realistic. For example, in ‘Silver Tongue’, an esteemed public speaker is afflicted with a rare condition that renders him mute, only cured by a healthy cash payment. In ‘Interesting!’, professor Young Hou rages about the pestilence of corrupt officials, only to apply for the job of deputy county chief himself – and not so he can fix the system from the inside.So how fictitious is Ma’s fiction, really? ‘The themes of my stories mostly reflect current affairs, spotlights or flash points on the current state of China,’ he says. ‘I’m not just an observer but a participant in my stories; I’m telling stories of the life I’m living and of those I’ve witnessed. The human failings I satirise are not just found in others but also myself.’
Are they a way of releasing pent-up frustration? ‘It might be a way to vent frustration... but I’d rather share my understandings through humour. Humour is more powerful than solemnity. A nation that can’t mock itself will always have a swaggering ego. In contemporary China this is evident in our political system, our economy and our daily lives.’
But Ma’s fiction does reflect real life events, sometimes with startling accuracy. In November, The Economist reported allegations that one of Ma’s staff from the student admissions department at Renmin University was caught trying to flee the country after being implicated in an embezzlement scandal. The official, Cai Rongsheng, was using a falsified passport to fly to Canada when he was stopped at Shenzhen airport, according to a separate report in the Legal Evening News. The sum embezzled allegedly reached ‘hundreds of millions’ of yuan in an investigation that looked into the practices of nine other institutions.
‘I have addressed similar themes in my stories – I even wrote a story about student-recruiting once. The corruption phenomenon in the recruiting procedure does exist in lots of Chinese colleges, but the incident that happened at Renmin University is an individual case and does not represent the whole situation,’ he says, reasserting the line between fact and fiction.
Lao Ma was born in Dongjiagou, a village just outside of Dalian. As a child he taught himself to read from newspapers, which he’d paste on the walls of the house. At school he shone. Ma achieved the highest marks in the gaokao college entrance examination in his county, which secured him a place at Renmin University. He wasn’t allowed to study literature as he wanted to however; his school head forced him to choose philosophy, a degree that at that time could lead to a job as a county magistrate.Ma first turned his hand to short fiction in 2008, though he started writing novels in the 1990s, taking inspiration from the titans of genre: Chekhov, Zoshchenko, Louis Borges and Shinichi Hoshi from Japan. His own works, such as Ai Hai Yo (Hey), Sha Xiao (Giggle) and Ge Bie Ren (Individuals) have gained him numerous awards.
While the Establishment might not be ready for flash fiction, Ma says it is not as unusual as it may first appear. ‘Chinese people have a cultural gene that favours big things, but we also have an idiom that “small is good”. Xiaoshuo [‘novel’] literally means “small tells”, so small things aren’t that unfamiliar to literary circles.’
For now, the tigers are still holding court, but the leopards are on the march. Flash fiction, it seems, may not be as short-lived as its name would suggest.
Individuals is a collection of 'flash fiction', the cover promising: "55 stories of less than 1,000 words". Lao Ma's stories are indeed relatively short, but there's more flesh than flash to them: at closing-in-on-a-thousand-words, as many of them are, they tend to be reasonably substantial; none is shorter than a single page. So readers shouldn't be expecting nuggets of succinctness. Nevertheless, Lao shows good command over his chosen form (or preferred length), managing to tell quite full tales without any feel of being rushed; for better and worse, these pieces almost all feel like stories that just happen to be (relatively) short.
A professor himself, the majority of Lao's stories involve characters in academia -- professors, students, administrators, support staff. Much as simple American stories might offer variations on the United States as a land of opportunity, Lao's tales depict a China in which anything can (and frequently does) happen -- those from humble origins can rise to great heights and the talented can stumble or be driven into lowly positions. Corruption in its various forms is so endemic that there isn't any guarantee of success even for those who seem to play that game particularly well -- but connections and the proper kowtowing to those who might help one's career generally prove far more useful than pure intellect or academic success.
The values of contemporary society lead to certain expectations -- which Lao amusingly takes to extremes, as in 'Silver Tongue', in which the narrator visits a once garrulous classmate of his, only to find him barely uttering a word. It turns out that:
He was earning so much from his lectures he'd decided that every single word he uttered was worth paying for. No payment -- in advance mind -- no talk.
'A Poet', on the other hand, presents a character who doesn't fit in at all, arousing the ire of all who have anything to do with him; the punchline is already foreshadowed in the story-title: it turns out he's a poet -- which immediately excuses him: "Had we known he's only a poet, we wouldn't have paid the slightest attention to him".
Officialdom in its various forms -- but especially governmental -- is deemed and shown to be almost entirely useless. As one of his narrators forthrightly (but only parenthetically) sums up:
(I must admit that most of us view government officials as stupid, incompetent, greedy, corrupt bumpkins, whose main role in life is to serve as a butt for mean jokes and jibes we spend our free time making up about them.)
While many of these stories follow a roughly similar arc -- often a situation that tends, in some way, to an extreme; the narrator not fully grasping what is going on, or why; an amusing definitive final twist or reveal -- there is enough variety to them that Lao does not wear out his welcome -- no small feat in a volume of fifty-five stories. In a way, many of these stories are predictable -- it's fairly clear where many of them are going, or will wind up -- and Lao is not one for radical surprises or changing the rules as he goes along; there's a genial safeness to them. Lao's tales are rarely outright provocative or cynical, but they are not bland either. And while they are not strictly realistic in their depiction of present-day China, they do give a good impression of life and opportunities (and corruption) there.
Individuals is consistently enjoyable, and a good sort of collection for dipping into. There's no need to gulp it all down at once, but it's a nice little volume to return to for a gently amusing and insightful occasional snack. - M.A.Orthofer