Writing Between Two Languages12 min read

An interview with Chinese novelist Xie Hong – Sun Jicheng

Ed: Xie Hong is an award-winning Chinese author and poet, currently living in Shenzhen. Originally from Guangzhou, he graduated from East China Normal University with an economics degree, then studied English at the Waikato Institute of Technology in New Zealand. He began writing poetry in 1985, but turned his attention to prose fiction in 1993. His first English novel, Mao’s Town, was published in 2018, recounting the effects of the Mao era on a small Chinese town as seen through the eyes of a small boy. His translator, Sun Jicheng, talked to Xie Hong (in Chinese) for us about his life and work.

Sun Jicheng: You are one of the few Chinese novelists who write in English. Why did you decide to write in English?

Xie Hong: It was mainly due to my English-speaking environment. After moving to New Zealand, I decided to study English again, which I had not used for many years. In addition, in 2014, translators such as [yourself] began to translate my short stories to English. Dr. Kong Ruicai, the critic, encouraged me to write in English. He said that there were examples of successful Chinese writers, such as Ha Jin, who did this. At first I thought it was a joke, but then I really tried it.

How is the translation of  your short stories going?

My first translated short story was The End of the Game. It was also my first Chinese work published in World Literature Today, in 2015. After that, Pathlight published my story ‘Bonnie’s Faces’, Renditions published ‘Drifters’ and ‘Who Flies in April, and the China Channel published ‘Fracture.

At present, I still write in Chinese in small amounts, mostly short essays. My English novel is proceeding systematically. As for the translation and promotion of my other short stories, I entrust this mainly to my translators, such as Sun Jicheng and Hal Swindall, who are translating one of my short story collections. These stories will be published one by one in magazines when they are done.

What preparations did you make for your English writing?

I studied English at university and majored in English while in New Zealand. At the beginning, reading English books was difficult for me. It was not easy to change my reading habits. I borrowed many science fiction and detective novels from the library to help maintain my interest. I also liked to write small articles outside the class. By doing so, I gradually established my confidence in reading and writing in English. I also read local English newspapers, as well as literary works such as Hemingway’s short stories, and Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I also usually watch one English film every day, which is helpful.

How long did it take you to complete the English novel, Mao’s Town?

It took me about two months, because the story is not very long. But the editing and revising process took a long time. The most time-consuming part was the preparation, thinking about the themes I wanted to write about. I don’t want to write anything that is too long. As long as you are brilliant in expressing your ideas, you don’t need to go to great lengths to express what you want to say.

I was fortunate to meet Tui Allen, author of the novel Ripple, a famous writer in New Zealand. She was willing to read my manuscript, liked the novel and gave me many great suggestions as well as later editing it.

Choosing to write in a certain language means that you are choosing a certain value system and thinking pattern”

How did your experience living overseas influence your writing of Mao’s Town?

Living in a different place gave me a strong sense of loneliness. As a traveler, I also developed nostalgia for the vastness of this world and gained a renewed aesthetic appreciation. Changes in my language environment led to changes in my thinking habits, from Chinese to English. The large number of English books and local newspapers I read led me to consider more directly local cultural life and transformed my thinking about the world.

How is writing in English different than writing in Chinese?

Language is closely related to culture, values, thinking patterns and so on. Choosing to write in a certain language means that you are choosing a certain value system and thinking pattern. I found that when I wrote stories about contemporary Chinese reality, they were so close to “reality” that they lacked imaginative elements. However, the strangeness of the English language to me allowed me a certain distance from reality, which enhanced my  imagination of the world I was writing about.

Do you face certain conflicts and difficulties when writing in English about China? How do you resolve them?

At the beginning, there were conflicts between these modes of thinking, but they turned out harmoniously later on. After returning to China in 2015, I mainly wrote some short articles and columns for FT Chinese [Financial Times] and other media. My Chinese novel-writing stopped. For most of the time, I was engaged in English writing and I was used to thinking in English. Moving from one mode to another is not a big problem for me now. I am a Hakka from Guangdong Province, so I have no difficulty in changing from Cantonese to Putonghua. Nor have I ever encountered any difficulties in changing from poetry writing to novel writing.

Your Chinese writing began with poetry, then moved onto prose – at first short stories, then long ones. Why is your first work in English a novel rather than a short story?

I focused on poetry until 1993. Later, I felt that poetry was not enough to express my views on China’s rapid changes, so I turned to writing short stories. I found that they were suitable for me to express more completely my ideas about the world. More than ten years later, I turned to writing novels.

Mao’s Town is the first English novel I published. Before writing it, I wrote two English short stories, which boosted my confidence in English. Originally, I planned to write ten short stories in English and then assemble them for publication. When I asked Ha Jin, the Chinese-American writer, about English writing, he suggested that I start by writing long novels because it was easier to publish and enter the world of English writing. I followed his advice, and turned my short story into a longer novel.

For you, are there differences between poetry writing and short story writing? What are the connections?

There are various differences. Poetry writing is more about expressing an individual’s thinking at a certain moment in time, while the novel may be the result of several stages of thinking. I have more than ten years of experience writing poetry, which has trained my sensitivity toward language. Those years of poetry writing helped ease my transition from poetry to prose. But in terms of their conception, they are both similar in that they create large and general meaning from small and specific detail.

Why do your novels generally focus on the stories of ordinary people?

I am such an ordinary person myself. I am familiar with “small” and ordinary people and so I know their emotions and sorrows. Moreover, the “ordinary” person is often more sensitive to social changes. They are the peripheral nerves of society, which means their fate is closely related to all of society. They are mirrors reflecting social changes in China.

Mao’s Town is narrated from the perspective of Bao Guo and is based on his memories. Why do you employ the narrative perspective of children in a small town, rather than set the novel in a big city like Shenzhen?

It is said that childhood memories accompany people for their entire lives. My ancestral hometown is Shenzhen and I live there now, but my birthplace is in Chongyang, a small town in northern Guangdong province. I spent my childhood and my youth there, and I carry memories of that place with me. During the Cultural Revolution, I lived there, and that period of my life had a huge impact on me.

When I was writing Mao’s Town, I was already middle-aged, which is perhaps a time when people pause to reflect on history. I am, however, not a historian, so I use what I am good at – writing – to express my thoughts on a topic.

Many writers born in the 1960s have written about the Cultural Revolution, such as Yu Hua, Bi Feiyu, Su Tong, Ye Zhaoyan and Yan Geling. Why did they start to explore this subject only after they were already published authors?

Writing about historical subjects requires two qualifications. One is to have life experience, a clear historical view. The other is to have significant writing experience.

Authors write about this subject from a variety of perspectives. In your opinion, what makes your writing about it unique?

My novel is simple in structure and rigorous in logic. I only provide facts and a story, and I make no judgements. This technique may be more suitable for overseas readers. The story belongs to China, but the expression of the story is universal.

I think the Chinese language is, to a certain degree, a closed system. China boasts a long history and culture, resulting in a situation in which people within the group can comprehend each other without much explanation, while outsiders cannot. As a result, a Chinese story written by Chinese writers may struggle to communicate its ideas to overseas readers.

The daily life of a small town that I depict in Mao’s Town is a picture of all of China during the Cultural Revolution.”

The novel is about two families, Sun and Bao Guo’s. Sun’s family is full of warmth, wisdom, a high quality of life, and the pursuit of beauty, while Bao Guo’s family is stuck admiring them. We can tell from your narration that you also admire Sun’s family. Where does this admiration stem from and why do you choose to tell the story of these two families?

It should be the common goal for all humanity to pursue truth, goodness and beauty. I also present this desire for a better life in my writing. Choosing two families in the novel allows me to present conflicts which drive the plot of the story. In addition, the intersection of the two families allows me to showcase my pessimistic worldview. As we say, “The dream is plump but reality is skinny.” We must always be vigilant because the bad is often more powerful and can destroy the best of our world.

Part of the reason why I wrote this novel was to explore the darkness and viciousness of human nature, and the conditions that allow their emergence. The Cultural Revolution was a great catastrophe in China and in the history of humankind. It is never sufficient for us to describe it in our limited words. But the horror of that period will eventually come back to us, so writing about it felt like my duty.

How do you view your protagonists and their roles in these historical events?

My protagonists are ordinary people who feel powerless. In the Cultural Revolution people had no sense of security. Sun’s father, mother and sister all suffered. But this wasn’t just the fate of ordinary people. Powerful leaders such as Liu Shaoqi also died undeservedly for their crimes. No one could escape from fear and insecurity. The daily life of a small town that I depict in the novel is a picture of all of China during the Cultural Revolution.

This novel also reveals your strong sense of openness, and the idea of going out to see the world. Is this awareness related to your experience overseas?

I moved back to Shenzhen at the beginning of China’s reform and opening up period. Being close to Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, living in Shenzhen gave me more opportunities to learn about the outside world. In those days, Hong Kong TV was all that we watched. People in Guangdong have always been open and inclusive, which is a characteristic that developed long before China’s reform and opening up. My time overseas has only strengthened this quality in me.

Are you satisfied with Mao’s Town? Among all your works, which one do you think is the most successful? Why?

I am very satisfied with Mao’s Town. While I was writing, it was as if God was helping me and the story came so naturally to me. I believe that Tattooist, my novel in Chinese, is the only novel that can be considered equivalent.

It seems that your writing has succeeded in the English-speaking world. Can you talk about your experience so far and expectations for the future?

In fact, my experience of publishing in the English-speaking world has not been smooth. A novel is not the same as poetry, in that it needs to consider the reader market. Few publishers are willing to publish works that have no readership, and it is particularly important whether a novel is suitable for local readers. I have come to understand that Chinese translated works are not easily accepted by overseas publishers and readers. Chinese authors have an illusion that Chinese is like Esperanto, spoken and accepted by most people in the world. In fact, Chinese is just considered a secondary language overseas, while English, French and Spanish are major languages. 80% of original documents in the United Nations are in English, 15% in French, 4% in Spanish, and the remaining 1% in Russian, Arabic and Chinese. 

In addition to language, the values of a work are especially important. No matter whether the writer is from developing or developed countries, their writing can be appreciated by English readers so long as the work’s values are clearly communicated. This question is worth our deep consideration. Some people think the reason a Chinese book is unpopular overseas is due to bad translation. I think it is more important that the values of the work conform to a universal “human” standard, not just a Chinese one. ∎

Xie Hong, Mao’s Town (Whyte Tracks, April 2018).
Translated into English by Sun Jicheng with contributions by Ju Mei, a lecturer at the School of International Exchange, Shenzhen University. Edited by Brian Spivey.