Let’s Talk about Love and Duty and Being Nice to People

By Dave Haysom

Pictures of Shi Tiesheng show him wearing the standard issue baggy jumper and squareish, plastic-framed glasses sported by intellectuals of the eighties, and—almost invariably—smiling. Sometimes his wheelchair is in view and sometimes it isn’t. The cause of his disability was usually only vaguely mentioned in the profiles published during his life, and in the numerous fulsome obituaries penned in 2010. It was an illness, or it was an accident, or it was botched medical treatment, or it was some permutation of the three. Shi Tiesheng himself, in an interview with Laifong Leung included in the 1993 volume Morning Sun: Interviews with Chinese Writers of the Lost Generation, is less equivocal when asked what exactly caused the damage to his back (Leung’s translation):

In the first year, I had to carry thirty-five to forty kilograms on my shoulder over a mountain. I had to do this three times in one morning for the pay of two work points, which, when converted into cash, works out to five cents. It was a dirty and tiring job.

Shi Tiesheng was one of millions of zhiqing (“educated youth”) who were relocated from the cities to China’s rural areas in the late sixties and early seventies. He could hardly have been closer to the key events that make up the historical narrative of the Cultural Revolution: he was a student at the Tsinghua University Middle School, the original headspring of the Red Guard movement. And it was the inundation of Red Guards saturating China’s cities that spurred the intensification of the “Up the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” program whereby Shi ended up moving to the Shaanxi countryside in 1971.

The hardships endured in this period are not necessarily a taboo topic. Before the decade was even over, in fact, a whole genre of fiction dedicated to the subject (“Scar literature”) was allowed to flourish (with the important proviso that all the unpleasantness be blamed on the Gang of Four, just to be on the safe side). Even so, it is not hard to imagine how Shi’s life story might, when viewed from just a slightly different angle, be deemed sensitive enough to warrant being quietly shunted into the shadows; how that ever-present, unignorable wheelchair could become an emblem not of the inscrutable machinations of destiny, but of the failings of an incompetent and uncaring party. But Shi Tiesheng has never been kept away from the spotlight. On the contrary, his most famous essay, “The Temple of Earth and I,” is a mainstay of the national school curriculum, read, studied, and (according to an overwhelming majority of people I mention it to) loved, by generation after generation of students.

Although some of his stories and essays have been published in academic journals (including a translation of “The Temple of Earth and I” by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, Shi Tiesheng continues to be underrepresented in English. So I was excited when, earlier this year, Chenxin Jiang at Asymptote Journal suggested I could try pitching some nonfiction by Shi Tiesheng for inclusion in their autumn issue. When you start reading in a second language you soon end up with an archipelago of your writers: the authors you discovered yourself (in a Columbus “discovering” America sort of way), through your own reading exploration. I think of Shi Tiesheng as one of my writers: I started reading his short stories early on in my study of Chinese, and he was the first writer I attempted to translate. But as I reread essay after essay I found myself coming up with reasons to reject each of them. It’s the same when I recommend him to people, and end up becoming overly defensive—anticipating and forestalling possible criticisms in advance. Yes, I say, he writes about his disability, but that doesn’t make him the kind of worthy writer who we read more out of a sense of duty than for actual enjoyment. Yes, he writes about his Christian faith, but don’t expect any fervent proselytizing. Yes, his work is often steeped in undiluted emotion, and he talks without any embarrassment about love and duty and being nice to people, but.

But what? This one turns out to be the hardest to explain away. Because there is something off-putting about it—something that makes me squirm, just a little, in awkwardness. And, unlike the other two points I mentioned, it’s undeniably something that is actually there, rooted in the text, rather than the preconceptions I worry people might be bringing along with them. While browsing through some old discussions on Paper Republic I found a remark from site co-founder Eric Abrahamsen that perfectly summarized my uneasiness on the subject:

Chinese culture in general loves it some melodrama. Readers don't mind being tugged about by the heartstrings; in many cases they expect—nay demand—to be so tugged. Much writing that I would otherwise consider pretty damned good […] is largely killed for a western readership by the presence of full-speed-ahead damn-the-torpedoes emotionalism. Shi Tiesheng is someone who strikes me as ill-served by this aesthetic gap. He is a brilliant, concentrated writer, but his best pieces will often end up on a note like "I love my mother" or something equally unfashionable.

“The Temple of Earth and I” certainly fits this description. Shi has written several essays that follow a similar pattern: he describes a particular place or physical object (a tree, for example, or a wall, or a particular corner of the Temple of Earth park) that triggers memories of an interaction with someone from his past (a childhood friend, his grandmother, or—yes—his mother) who, he now realizes, he treated badly. And it was exactly that—this heartstring-yanking—that made me hesitate to propose them to Asymptote.

When I finally did settle on a piece, I concluded my pitch by remarking that “while Shi Tiesheng is never over-sentimental, he nevertheless does not allow the fear of seeming sentimental to deter him from getting at the truth.” I said “over-sentimental”, but really, the prefix was unnecessary. Any degree of sentimentality is too much. Robert C. Solomon’s essay “In Defense of Sentimentality” begins by summarizing the case for the prosecution:

Sentimentality is a weakness; it suggests hypocrisy. Or perhaps it is the fact that sentimental people are so… embarrassing. (How awkward it is to talk to or sit next to someone weeping or gushing, when one is dry-eyed or sober.) Or perhaps it is the well-confirmed fact that sentimentalists have such poor taste, and sentimental literature is, above all, literature that is tasteless, cheap, superficial, and manipulative—in other words, verbal kitsch. Such mawkish literature jerks tears from otherwise sensible readers, and sentimentalists are those who actually enjoy that humiliating experience.

The closest word to “sentimental” in Chinese is probably shanggan—a relatively straightforward term whose two characters equate to “hurt” (shang) and “feeling” (gan). And while it can be used in a negative sense, it doesn’t carry the pejorative connotation  that the English term does. Without going full-Wharf here, we can nevertheless acknowledge that our language offers us an abundance of words to choose from when expressing our distaste toward emotional excess (go back to the Solomon quote and count them).

I was reminded of all this more recently, reading Let’s Talk About LoveCarl Wilson’s 2007 contribution to Bloomsbury’s “33 1/3” series, updated last year, in which, rather than rhapsodizing on the subject of one of his most beloved records, he attempts to deconstruct his feelings toward Céline Dion’s 1997 multiple-diamond-encrusted-platinum bestseller. This is his starting point for a wide-ranging exploration of the way we define ourselves through our taste in music. Céline Dion continues to be popular in China: her duet with Chinese songstress Song Zuying (she sang “Mo Li Hua”—“Jasmine Flower”—in Mandarin) and the inevitable follow-up of “My Heart Will Go On” was one of the talking points of the 2013 Spring Festival Gala (China’s biggest annual TV event, watched by 700 million-odd viewers). And many of the questions Wilson raises about the schmaltz in Dion’s music are worth appropriating for the purposes of this cultural comparison. At one point he asks: “Is it best to keep the schmaltz drained off of art […] or is a cooler, drier musical place one where some fundamental human need has been left to shrivel?”

And, later on: “But what of the fact that it is hard to imagine a male performer today having a hit by singing about his mother, at one time a regular occurrence in popular song? Is that topic inherently less artful than singing about fucking?” It’s not hard to imagine a male performer in China having a hit by singing about his mother, because that’s exactly what happened in 2006 with Taiwanese megastar Jay Chou’s “Ting Mama de hua”—“Listen to Your Mom.” No one who has ever experienced a night out at a karaoke bar in China should find it hard to accept the premise that the standards are different when it comes to public expressions of emotion. There comes a point at which you cease to be surprised when the most reserved and retiring of your friends or colleagues steps up to the microphone and proceeds to pour all of his or her heart into a bravura performance of a tear-jerking ballad, without the slightest hint of self-consciousness or embarrassment.

Even with the benefit of a snifter or two of baijiu, I’m never able to put my inhibitions aside completely when the microphone ends up in my hand. And my own sentimentality alarm klaxon is just as easily triggered as anyone else’s—at least, it is when I’m reading in English. But in switching to Chinese I become a slightly different reader, with a slightly skewed set of priorities when it comes to evaluating writing. One reason is scarcity: you come to prize certain qualities that seem harder to find in a different writing culture, even if your Native Reading Self might not have ranked them as a particularly high priority. Another is related to the idea I mentioned before about the writers you identify as “yours.” You end up with a whole new personal canon, growing up around your original set of preferences—and this results in a different configuration of the gaps into which you can slot new authors. The sentimentality in Shi Tiesheng’s essays and stories doesn’t put me off when I read them in Chinese. I wouldn’t necessarily mention it as one of the things I love most about his writing: I would be more likely to list instead things like the way he drifts from precise description of concrete details up into airy philosophical abstraction, and back again, in a way that seems entirely natural and unforced; the naturalness of his dialogue (when describing conversations with children, in particular), and his ability to evoke a character with a single pitch-perfect line; his subtle slips between different time periods within a single passage; the way he employs light and shade in his physical description; the importance of literature itself as a theme throughout his work. But writers come off the peg, and we can’t mix and match the bits we like—and even if we could, I don’t know for sure whether I would still appreciate these things as much if (to borrow Wilson’s phrase) we were to drain the schmaltz out of Shi Tiesheng.

Am I going too easy on Shi here? It might be tempting to throw our hands in the air, declare “because cultural relativity” and leave it at that. But isn’t there some objective aesthetic standard we can apply, proclivities for karaoke aside? Solomon mentioned the word “hypocrisy.” A piece of writing that might purport to be an unadulterated gush of emotion is—just like all other works of art—a performance. And just like all other works of art, it involves a certain degree of deception—more so, in fact, because it denies the fact of its artifice. But hypocrisy? I don’t think that applies to Shi Tiesheng. For one thing, he writes in a carefully refined prose style. Take this example from “The Temple of Earth and I” (in Gernant and Chen’s translation):

If seasons are analogous to the scenery in the park, then spring is a path sometimes white and sometimes black and damp, clusters of poplar flowers floating in the now-overcast now-sunny sky; summer is the dazzling, burning stone benches, or the cool shady stone steps covered with lichen—a few fruit peels and a folded wrinkled newspaper someone left behind; autumn is the large bronze bell—in the northwest corner of the park is this large discarded bronze bell, the same age as the park, a patina all over it, and inscriptions on it that are no longer clear; winter is the old sparrows, with few feathers left, on the ground in the grove.

This is not writing that is trying to conceal the fact that it has been laboriously buffed and polished over a process of many drafts. What’s more, the content of Shi’s work doesn’t deny its artifice either—in fact, he often drops metaliterary arrows throughout the text (the presence of characters who are writers, for example) to point the reader’s attention to the fact that ­writing is occurring. And perhaps the criticism shouldn’t apply to Celine Dion either—at least, not if we listen to Wilson, who posits the idea that “we’ve mangled one nostrum of craft, which warns against artists ‘expressing themselves’ by just blurting emotions out confessionally, into another (an)aesthetic principle that art should not be expressive or cathartic for the audience.”

That spectrum—from author to audience—is where we come back to again when we look at the practical matter of what a translator can actually do. Toward one end, we have Nabokov’s infamous four-volume translation of Eugene Onegin, remaining scrupulously close to Pushkin’s original regardless of how indigestible the resulting text might be for an English audience; toward the other, extremes of audience-specific localization like Albert Cornelius Ruyl’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew into Malay (cited in David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear?) switching fig trees to banana trees in response to the inconvenient nonexistence of fig trees on Sumatra.

So what is a translator to do? Decide that the Western world is just going to have to deal with its emotional constipation, whether it likes it or not, and force it to wallow, reluctantly, in the goopy tenderness? Or—acknowledging the translator’s responsibility to try and ensure the audience in the target language are able to appreciate and enjoy the work as much as the readers of the original—attempt to find ways to tone it down, even at the risk of betraying (and note how the metaphors we use for assessing translation—fidelity vs. treachery—are emotional in tone too) the sense of the original? There are certain ways translators from Chinese to English can tweak the text. Repetition, for example, is usually less jarring in Chinese than in English, so cutting and rephrasing is fairly uncontroversial practice when a paragraph is studded with a particular word or phrase. But this is right up there on the verbal surface, in the texture of the translation; our problem of sentimentality lurks much further down. Perhaps one of the eternal quandaries of the translator—how to deal with Chinese names—is closer. The basic choice is between translating the literal meaning of names, or pinyin transliteration of sound. The current trend is toward the latter; in the words of another Paper Republic luminary, Brendan O’Kane:

Don't translate names. Ever. It leads to "Princess Jade Phoenix" chinoiserie, which is almost never the effect you want, and it gives readers the impression that Chinese people just walk around addressing each other as "Resist-America Wang" and "Old-Three Zhang," which is not the case: the names aren't completely meaningless, but the meaning of the characters is nowhere near as in-your-face as this.

Maybe the instinctive “bleurgh” we feel when we read a name like “Princess Jade Phoenix” is not so far removed from the way we recoil from a surfeit of filial affection in the work of a writer like Shi Tiesheng (who, incidentally, did his future translators a favor by giving all the main characters in his novel Wuxu Biji [Jottings on Principles] letters of the alphabet instead of names—another example of the self-conscious sense of artifice noted above). But even if we accept that diluting the sentimentality might be a valid priority for a translator, the question still remains: how can this be achieved, short of a full-scale bowdlerization of the text?

In the end, Asymptote was happy with the essay I eventually settled on: “The Year of Being Twenty-One,” which narrates the year Shi Tiesheng spent on his return from Shaanxi in the Beijing Friendship Hospital, waiting to find out if his disability would be temporary or permanent. It is not short of schmaltz: among other things, it constitutes a paean to the strength of the hospital’s eponymous force. The ending of the essay focuses on one particular Chinese word: jingshen. As we saw with the word “sentimentality” itself, the borders of abstract concepts are particularly fuzzy when we attempt to map from one language to another. Jingshen can variously be translated as vigor, vitality, energy, consciousness, spirit, soul, essence, or mind. The final sentences go something like this: “In the hazy patches of science; in the chaos of destiny; you can only turn to your own jingshen. Everything we believe in—no matter what that might be—comes from the promptings and the guidance of our own jingshen.” Try filling in that jingshen blank with each of those different possible translations (and then, for Céline’s sake, try "heart" too), and see how it slightly changes the emotional shade of the sentence—and thus the paragraph, and thus the whole essay. The act of translation consists of thousands of similar decisions, each one shutting off a few of the infinite number of possible translations you could have produced—some of which are juicy with emotion, others dry and dispassionate—until you end up with just one. And you can only hope it’s one that makes neither author nor audience feel like retching.


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