National Absurdity7 min read

Harvey Thomlinson reviews David Hull’s translation of Pidgin Warrior

Zhang Tianyi’s long-interred Pidgin Warrior, now resurrected in David Hull’s translation, marches us to 1930s Shanghai, where national identity is, as ever, an anxious question. This particular stage of China’s perennial crisis of the “Western challenge,” ongoing since the humiliation of the “unequal treaties” of the Opium Wars, has acquired existential urgency thanks to the Japanese military invasion. Bristling Confucians prescribe a restoration of tradition while liberal pragmatists call for Westernization to “save China,” and Marxists are on the rampage to destroy “feudal culture.”

Pidgin Warrior is a bravura satire of this Chinese identity crisis, framed by the Japanese incursion. The novel opens with an aristocratic Beijing family fleeing for Shanghai amid a tide of desperate humanity. Ensconced in temporary lodgings, the family endeavors to keep up standards while in the refugee garrets, where grand committees mushroom with names like ‘Save China from Barbarians’ and debates rage about the best way to combat the Japanese menace. This scenario allows Zhang Tianyi to unfold a cinematic scroll of Chinese society, from pompous poobahs to penniless cooks, all far from blind to the potential to derive certain personal satisfactions from the quest for national salvation.

At the center of all this is the splendid comic creation of Shi Zhaochang, the titular pidgin warrior. His type, in a book which leans to caricature, is the familiar one of the useless elder son with a penchant for daydreaming. Twenty-something Zhaochang’s weakness is his obsession with kung fu novels, his heroes the mountain-leaping masters whose lore he takes literally, his mentors the legendary generals Guan Yu and Yue Fei, whose portraits in his bedroom impede his masturbatory fantasies.

In the febrile debates around national identity, Zhaochang is clearly on the side of traditionalists who look to a Chinese cultural renaissance for salvation from “devils,” and his thoughts reveal him as a bigot about Western “spiritual pollution.” Having interpreted several innocuous incidents as signs of a latent kung fu ability, Zhaochang is heart-set on finding a master to train him, so that he may cleanse China of foreign evil.

Zhaochang insists on interpreting the world in terms of his kung fu delusion, with the reader fully in on the joke. A mud pellet scornfully tossed from an upper balcony by a spiteful brother becomes a miraculously propelled sign of a paramour’s inner kung fu power. Zhaochang’s rationalizations become particularly contorted in his interior monologues when he pays his respects to Guan Yu and Yue Fei.

While Zhaochang is a Don Quixote, alas, he has no Sancho Panza to watch out for him, and in the melting pot of Shanghai there is no shortage of con artists willing to take this ingenuous simpleton for every dime. Soon a fake “Supreme Ultimate Master” arrives to accept Zhaochang as a disciple, complete with a gang of sidekicks to devise elaborate schemes to convince Zhaochang of their guru’s miraculous powers. Also eager for a bite of Zhaochang’s unearned family wealth is “Woman Warrior of National Salvation” Miss He, the lusty leader of a song and dance troupe, whose forbidden attractions animate anxious fantasies about pink bloomers on a washing line.

The humor, irony and exaggeration of the book are a departure from the realism for which Zhang Tianyi’s early short stories are renowned, reflecting a wider trend in Chinese literature of this era. Realism, once Lu Xun’s prescription for the national sickness, came to be criticized in more leftist times as individualist and bourgeois. The figure most associated with the introduction of a new “humor” is Lin Yutang, but Zhang Tianyi’s sharper satire and nose for hypocrisy are more reminiscent of Qian Zhongshu, author of the masterful novel Fortress Besieged.

Zhang himself is often labelled a left wing writer, and several scenes in Pidgin Warrior do seem designed to frame Zhaochang’s fantasies as manifestations of bourgeois individualism. At times he appears to feel a physical repugnance for “low class people”; in one unpleasant incident, Zhaochang tests his kung fu mastery by humiliating a young servant. Meanwhile, the elite plot to spend the subscription funds for their “save the nation” committees on rent for larger houses.

The satirical object of the book appears to be the hypocrisies of a divided nation, and yet it is hard to take this political purpose seriously when it often feels like a mere pretext for the pleasure of irreverent interventions in the discourse of national identity. In Chapter Three, the reading of a petition to save the nation is derailed by an interminable debate about different calligraphy styles, while Chapter Seven delivers a delightful page-long digression in praise of Suzhou pumpkin seeds.

As for the characters in Pidgin Warrior, so for their creator Zhang Tianyi, a native of Hangzhou, where the cultural past is inscribed in the very landscape. In satirizing traditional culture in such loving detail, Zhang is also celebrating it. Central among authorial pleasures are ceaseless wordplay and giddy shifts among bad Mandarin, demotic Shanghainese and thick Hunan accents. The punning is as relentless as a Marx Brothers film, sometimes relying on so detailed a knowledge of Chinese culture that Zhang offers footnotes, as when the name of a Northern Song calligraphist Mi Nangong 米南宫 is misunderstood as Mi Tiangong 米田共, three characters which together make “shit” (shi 糞).

The chaotic language of the book, with its sprawling polyglot cast and colloquial registers, seems designed to demonstrate the impossibility of national unity. Meanwhile, beneath this effervescent discourse, its sublime object, the primordial nation, appears hopelessly unknowable. Zhaochang’s uncle mocks the very notion with his obsessive theorizing on “national essence,” which he defines as “that inborn thing that people of the area have in common.” His attempts to identify this mysterious substance with particularities such as “steamed bread” and “hot peppers” only highlight the absurdity.

Into this no man’s land between the language lines boldly advances translator David Hull.  One can only doff a tin hat at him – faced with puns that don’t work in English and register challenges many translators may have deemed unsolvable, he soldiers on. One character, for example, swerves between atrocious Mandarin and native Shanghainese, with occasional transliterated English, which in David Hull’s translation delivers us passages like:

He plays the pee-yah-no olke a fever in China, he plays so good! He’s written a lotta songs too. Tonight in our patriotic song and doance, we’re having him play pee-yah-no – DONG dah DONG, DONG dah DONG! Pos-i-lutely-ly wonderful!

In Chapter three, the rickshaw (baoche) which one character suggests a guest take to her home is misheard as “turtle” car (wangba che), roughly a “bastard car.” The words are a half-rhyme in Mandarin Chinese but not in English, an issue which Hull has finessed by means of a neologism: “dickshaw.” Elsewhere, the same character uses the Mandarin “dog” (gou’er) as a transliteration of the English word “girl.” Here the translator simply opts for a lexically deviant spelling, “gerl.”

Hull is resourceful in seeking period-plausible semantic equivalents for slang, coming up with terms like “darb” – which I had to look up, knowing only the Australian use of it as slang for cigarette – for “darling.” “Motherfucker” is ever the Mandarin translator’s best friend because of its close semantic correspondence to the popular curse ni ma de (literally “your mom”), which peppers this book.

This is precisely the kind of novel that at one time may have been deemed untranslatable, but perhaps the notion of total equivalence in translation is as chimerical that of the primal nation. Now technology and the growing legion of students of Chinese as a second language are reducing the gap between readers and texts, allowing each reader to effect their own translation. The word play of Pidgin Warrior not a closed system, but a collection of free-floating ideas, drifting across time and language in Hull’s translation. In this respect, Pidgin Warrior is not only a pacy read, but an essential source for students of Chinese history and literature, and philosophers and cultural critics with an interest in theorizing national identity. In Zhang Tianyi’s creation we have a classic icon who deserves his place in the anxiously pleasurable discourse of the Chinese nation. ∎

Zhang Tianyi, David Hull trans., The Pidgin Warrior (Balestier Press, December 2017)