Contemporary Chinese fiction searches for more Western readers

As more Western literature makes its way into China, Chinese writers are becoming increasingly eager to have their works read by the vast English-speaking population of the world. But these writers and their Western readers have only one small publishing house to turn to for English translations of contemporary Chinese fiction and essays -- a Peking-based quarterly magazine called Chinese Literature, and its book division, Panda Books. ``At the present time, Chinese writers are very keen to be known abroad,'' says Yin Shuxun, associate editor of Chinese Literature. ``Because of the closed-door policy before, they have had no chance to get in touch with the outside world. In recent years a lot of foreign literary works were introduced into China and published and there are many magazines that are now devoted to translations of foreign stories. At the same time, Chinese writers . . . need to have their work translated and introduced to the outside world.''

The problem, Mr. Yin says, is that Chinese Literature and Panda Books are not enough to satisfy the demand by writers.

``Some of the leading writers have written articles in newspapers saying there is an imbalance in the exchange of Chinese and American literature, and this is a serious problem that should be taken into consideration,'' says Yin. ``Since Chinese Literature is the only English magazine introducing Chinese writings, we are under pressure to translate more of their works. The voice is very strong.''

Mr. Yin and the director of the magazine's translation department, Xiong Zhenru, were in New York recently as guests of the Washington-based United States-China Peoples Friendship Association to generate more interest in Chinese writing in the United States. With them on their visit was Hu Shiguang, a poetry translator for the magazine who is presently working as a Chinese language teacher at New York University.

Chinese Literature was founded in 1951 -- two years after the Communist takeover -- by leading members of the government and important writers of the time to satisfy an interest outside China in ``how new China's writers were working,'' Yin explains. Up until now, however, the Western reader looking for a good story and fine writing would probably have been disappointed. Western observers say that China's most famous writers of the '30s and '40s did their best work before the 1949 takeover. After that, writers came under strict government control and were eventually forced to turn out revolutionary propaganda. By the late '50s, many writers were imprisoned as ``rightists'' and counterrevolutionaries for refusing to cooperate.

But the worst was yet to come. With the Cultural Revolution in 1966 came an end to any kind of creative freedom, even as present-day Chinese writers and editors know it. Writers were banished to the countryside to labor as peasants as part of Mao Tse-tung's ``rustification'' program, or sent to prison, or murdered. Lao She, whose character in his novel, ``The Rickshaw Boy,'' was hailed in the New York Times Book Review in 1945 as ``a hero all America will love,'' was drowned by a band of Red Guards.

Chinese Literature continued to be published throughout the Cultural Revolution, and it reveals the fervor which Chairman Mao and his xenophobic revolution had wrought. In September 1966 an excerpt from Mao's book, ``Quotations from Chairman Mao,'' appeared on the first page of the magazine. ``Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause,'' Mao intoned.

For the next decade, covers depicted Chinese people marching in the fields, building weapons, or holding high China's flag. The contents of the magazine included news stories about Mao, with everything he said appearing in bold type. There were countless poems written about Mao with titles such as ``Chairman Mao's Radiance,'' ``A Gift for Chairman Mao,'' or ``I Love Chairman Mao.''

Since the acceptance of more literary freedom began in 1979 with Deng Xiaoping's open-door policy, Chinese writers and others who wanted to write about their suffering during the Cultural Revolution flooded the country -- the world's most populous -- with stories and short novels. Yet, it is only within the past few years that some Chinese fiction, after more than a quarter of a century of suppression, achieved a quality acceptable to Western readers. It is these works which have been appearing in Chinese Literature. And though the magazine is still backed by the government, its contents today are far different from what has ever appeared in it before.

``We aim to choose those works which will arouse interest in the Western reader,'' Yin says. ``We put stress on contemporary writing of ancient pieces. In the '50s we had published a lot of ancient stories, which were successful. We are still doing this, but we like to stress what's happening on the contemporary scene because this is a flourishing period and we should introduce our best to the world.''

To meet the increasing demand for English translations of Chinese writing, Chinese Literature recently started Panda Books, which at present issues about 10 titles a year, according to Yin. There are plans for issuing more, he notes, but still hardly the amount he believes necessary to accommodate the outpouring.

Younger writers are especially sought out and encouraged, Mr. Hu explains. ``The main distinguishing feature of the young writers is that they are keen observers of the society,'' he says. ``They are doing a lot more experimenting than the old writers because they don't have as much restraint, and I think eventually they can adopt their own, unique style. . . . The hope of Chinese literature in the future depends upon these talented young writers.''

The main problem in the US -- the magazine's most important market -- is circulation, Yin feels. The total English circulation is 40,000, a quarter of it in the US. The magazine's overall circulation has doubled in the past five years, says Yin.

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