Socialist Literature for the Capitalist Era6 min read

Dylan Levi King reviews Empires of Dust by Jiang Zilong

Jiang Zilong’s novel Empires of Dust, newly translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne, is unlike anything else published in translation from Chinese in the past decade or so. Jiang, a 78-year-old native of Hebei Province, made a name for himself with A Day in the Life of the Chief of the Electrical Equipment Bureau (机电局长的一天), a 1976 novella first criticized for revisionism and then praised as the future of Chinese literature. Decades later, in 2008, came Empires of Dust (农民帝国), a sprawling epic of modern Chinese history that can only be defined as capitalist realism.

Jiang comes from the same literary background that produced established names such as Mo Yan, Yan Lianke and Jia Pingwa. All of those writers got their start with politically-approved hack work, too. But while they went in other directions, Jiang Zilong continued to write in a literary style codified in the 1950s. Although he published most of his major works in the 1980s and 1990s, and Empires of Dust in the mid-2000s, Jiang is something of a living literary fossil. To understand his work, one has to step back to the era of socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism.

With Empires of Dust, Jiang has crafted a capitalist realist epic”

Most accounts of the history of Chinese literature leave out the bulk of what was published between Mao Zedong’s 1942 infamous speech ‘Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art’ and the golden age of the 1980s – yet that period is the key to Jiang’s work. Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 could be taken as a good halfway point, as it was then that Soviet writers began to move away from textbook socialist realism – positive two-dimensional heroes, obvious villains, formulaic plotting, concern with workers and revolutionary consciousness – and those in the People’s Republic doubled down on it.

When the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, writers such as Jiang didn’t abandon the form, but simply changed the politics. Instead of collectivization and communal industry, they wrote paens to the household responsibility system and Township and Village Enterprises. With Empires of Dust, Jiang has crafted a capitalist realist epic. The novel’s hero, Guo Cunxian, rather than coming to the realization that his class is being exploited at the hands of the capitalist class and feudal lords, instead realizes the glories of entrepreneurship and the evils of radical leftist tendencies.

The novel opens with the junior capitalist Guo Jingtian, Guo Cunxian’s father, selling sticky rice cakes to the Japanese. His mother, from whom he got his capitalist genes, traded food for a teenage bride for her son. Guo Jingtian and his young wife continue the family line, but he soon winds up dead. The Eighth Route Army, arrives but things only get worse. What follows is a lengthy explication of the horrors of collectivization (stripping bark from trees, eating stews of insects, using an iron rod inserted in the anus to fish out hardened feces) contrasted with the entrepreneurial efforts of Guo Cunxian, who travels the surrounding countryside building coffins.

When Guo Cunxian returns to his home village of Guojiadian with a wife, the village cadres arrive and select Guo as the new unit leader, tasked with carrying out the policy directive of “lease holding” (explained in excruciating detail). But the book really starts to heat up in its second half, when Reform and Opening arrives. Guo is in the perfect position to put his entrepreneurial talents and official rank to the task of rebuilding his home village. There are poetic descriptions of machinery and their muscular operators, as Guo sets about developing China’s advanced productive forces:

Contentment welled up inside Guo Cunxian, as well as a feeling of warmth. He gestured to the young man to usher him in and show the machines at work, and was welcomed by a blast of hot steam. Pipes snaked in every direction, the machinery sparkled, and every man operating the instruments was a young strapping lad.

And there are detailed descriptions of Guojiadian’s market economy experiments:

There was so much to see there that even a whole day would not have been enough. At the food factory there were interesting things to see as well as samples to taste. Attached to it was a 20,000 square metre chicken farm, a 20,000 square metre pig farm, and a ten mu [0.67 hectare] dairy herd farm while the steel mill had all the air of being part of a massive enterprise.

This is not to say that the nearly 1,000-page novel is without nuance. Empires of Dust wasn’t written in the fever dream of 80s or early 90s market reform, but during the eras of Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents and Hu Jintao’s Harmonious Society: getting rich was still glorious, but it was clear that there had to be limits.

By the close of the novel, Guo Cunxian has become a member of the National People’s Congress, and, of course, has gotten gloriously rich in the process. But he has become a tyrant, just as wicked as those village cadres who tried to hassle him for selling coffins. He eventually runs afoul of the authorities, and the Party sets things right again.

Getting rich was still glorious, but it was clear that there had to be limits”

Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne had a monumental task set before them in translating Empires of Dust. The book is massive, and its literary qualities are secondary. There are extended lectures embedded throughout, delivered by cadres, peasants and policemen, and lengthy quotations from official documents, including one from the Chinese Academy of Sciences on Great Leap Forward food substitutes that includes basic instructions on processing corn and wheat roots into food. Having read some of the original, I sympathize. That being said, it’s a not particularly inspired translation, and reads like translations by academics usually do: 100% accurate, but in a language that is not quite modern English.

It’s clear that the two translators and two editors assigned to the book were not keen on making any cuts. There are many examples throughout the book of long sentences which just beg to be chopped up. There is also phrasing that might have worked in the original, but just comes across as awkward in English, such as the cringe-worthy: “He told her that it wasn’t money or wealth that would make a girl happy, but rather his manhood. As he spoke these words, he calmly and unhurriedly undid his pants, and of course, pulled that manhood out. It goes without saying that it was magnificent, tall and long.”

The flow of the narrative is further disturbed by parenthetical explanations of phrases, for example: “as Jingtian lay upon the kang (heated brick bed),” or even more egregious: “I told them that you didn’t have three heads or six arms, but that you’re a modern-day Nezha [a Chinese Buddhist deity] or Sun Wukong [Monkey King].” There’s a better way.

The choice of this particular book by its publisher, Alain Charles Asia, is unusual. The long list of untranslated Chinese novels includes many more important and potentially more popular choices – including some of Jiang’s better work, such as the 1986 Cultural Revolution novel Snake Spirits (蛇神). But the publication of Empires of Dust opens to English readers a wing of Chinese fiction that has been underrepresented in translation. ∎

Jiang Zilong, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne, Empires of Dust (Alain Charles Asia, March 2019).