'The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature' is a sumptuous sampler

University of California English professor Yunte Huang presents work from nearly 50 Chinese writers spanning the last century.

The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature: Writings from the Mainland in the Long Twentieth Century, Edited by Yunte Huang W.W. Norton 624 pp.

University of California English professor Yunte Huang, author of 2011's utterly delightful "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History," is the editor of this big, deeply impressive new anthology from Norton, The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature, a 600-page collection of work from nearly 50 Chinese writers spanning the last century. In his Introduction, Huang describes the book as no less than “a search for the soul of modern China.”

Huang describes the progress of that soul as happening in a series of crises, starting with the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, continuing with the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, and extending all the way to 1989's Tiananmen Square massacre and beyond. The book's selections proceed in roughly chronological order, and there's fiction, nonfiction, and even a smattering of poetry (the title of Huang's book is a wink to "Mao's Little Red Book," and he includes both some of Mao's own poems and the tired, self-evidently false claim that Mao was an important or even talented poet).

An anthology such as this will inevitably stand or fall by the strength of its translators, and there's blessedly little in these pages that has the sour, clunky feel of poor rendition. Instead, the individual voices come through clearly, and Huang's brief individual introductions to each author are unfailingly helpful in setting them in their larger literary context. Lu Xun (1881-1936), for instance, Huang calls “the foremost writer of modern China,” telling readers that “When he died of tuberculosis in 1936, mourners covered his body with a silk banner that read 'Soul of the Nation.'” 

The short selection from Lu Xun's Preface to his "Call to Arms," translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, is rich with sensory details of 1922 Peking: “On summer nights, when there were too many mosquitoes, I would sit under the locust tree, waving my fan and looking at the specks of sky through the thick leaves, while the caterpillars which came out in the evening would fall, icy-cold, onto my neck.” From Mao Dun (1896-1981), “After Lu Xun … universally regarded as the greatest writer in twentieth century China,” we get a long excerpt from his 1930 novel "Rainbow," telling the story of a steamship making a circuit on the Yangtze River.

The book gives some intriguing glimpses into the role women played in China's literary life over the long century, including the controversial Ding Ling (1904-1986), whose life was “a powerful testament to the uneasy relationship between feminism and revolution in modern China.” A Communist party member and prominent literary figure in the 1930s, Ding Ling was targeted by a political purge in 1955 and exiled and imprisoned for 20 years (after which time, in Huang's odd phrasing, “She was rehabilitated in 1979 and allowed to write and publish again”). "The Big Red Book" gives us a short snippet from her subversive 1928 novel "Miss Sophia's Diary," translated by Tani E. Barlow.

There are popularizers in these pages, like Lin Yutang (1895-1976), who studied comparative literature at Harvard and received a Ph.D from the University of Leipzig in 1924, and whose best-selling books like "My Country and My People," "The Importance of Living," and "Moment in Peking" went a long way toward introducing East to West in the 1930s. And there are also gentle ironists, like Wang Men (b. 1934), whose razor-edged 1956 short story “The Young Man Who Has Just Arrived at the Organization Department” (translated by Gary Bjorge) is included here in its entirety. The wry tone of Ma Yuan, “the first Chinese postmodernist,” is well conveyed in every line of Herbert J. Batt's translation of “Thirteen Ways to Fold a Paper Hawk”: “The Buddha may well be an idol for all eternity, I thought to myself, as I hung around outside the front gate of the Jokhang Temple.” Innovative page-designs give a tantalizing sense of the experimental poetry of  Che Qianzi (b. 1963)  and Yu Jian (b. 1954).

A small handful of Huang's selections will already be familiar to an English-language audience. There are selections from Su Tong's "Raise the Red Lantern," for instance, and Mo Yan's "Red Sorghum," as well as from "Soul Mountain" by Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. That such familiar items tend to occur late in Huang's chronology is a hopeful sign; as the Western reading world becomes more wide-ranging in its taste for translated literature, the bounty of China's literary heritage is finding a larger audience.

There are problems with the books, mainly Huang's penchant for presenting small excerpts from much longer works (even though shorter, self-contained samples are in all cases available from their respective authors), which has the unwanted side-effect of making much of the contents here feel preoccupied or interrupted. But as a big, groundbreaking introduction, "The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature" is an eye-opening success.

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