Translating Reform Era Fiction6 min read

Kevin McGeary talks to the translator of Empires of Dust by Jiang Zilong

Set in the fictional village of Guojiadian, Jiang Zilong’s Empires of Dust is a seven-hundred page tome that chronicles the rise and fall of Guo Cunxian, who transforms from impoverished peasant to formidable businessman. Described by the South China Morning Post as being “as epic, grandiose, ambitious, complex and turbulent as China itself,” this is the tenth novel by Jiang, who is often described as the father of China’s ‘reform literature,’ literature dealing with the reform and opening period after 1978. I caught up with co-translator Christopher Payne to discuss the novel, and the work involved in rendering it into English.

Of all the characters, Guo Cunxian goes through the biggest trajectory, from rejecting the sexual advances of Sister Liu to habitually committing infidelity, from eking out a living making coffins to becoming powerful and corrupt. Does he represent both the heroic and reprehensible qualities that made China’s economic boom possible?

Guo has very humble roots. His family did not participate in the Communist revolution – so no Red history to claim as their own – nor did they join up with the Party to become cadres or other revolutionary workers after 1949. They were the quintessential poor peasant family. This earthiness set Guo’s moral compass: he was the good family man, the good son who led his family after the death of his father. Indeed, his motive for departing Guojiadian in the first instance is to earn money to send back to his mother and younger brother. He does embody the heroic qualities of China’s economic miracle – the initiative, the drive, the thirst to bring wealth to his town, yet it is that very same wealth and power that destroys his moral compass. He loses his earthiness. It’s rather tragic. So yes, I think he does represent what has been both heroic and reprehensible about the dramatic changes China has endured over the course of the reform era.

The first time Guo Cunxian is punished by the law, he easily recovers and even seems to enjoy it. The second time it has a devastating effect on him and his family. The more he has the more he has to lose. Is this a novel that pines for a simpler time?

The novel does seem to pine for a simpler time, but it isn’t a nostalgic lament. Jiang realizes, I think, that that nostalgia goes nowhere – there is no going back. Even what we remember is perhaps not really what happened; we tend to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. I think Jiang understands that, which is why the novel shows the early days of New China as being as difficult as they are promising. So what is the simpler time: the time of food scarcity? The time of political movements? A pre-revolutionary past? I don’t think that’s the case. Empires of Dust, along with Jiang’s earlier novels, is about the reform era, hence the moniker of reform era literature (gaige wenxue) that is given to his works. I think, instead, that Jiang is forward looking. Yes, the reforms have come with a high cost, but a simpler time isn’t the way forward. There is more to lose, but perhaps that is what can rededicate people to work even harder toward a new future. We can learn from the tragic nature of this story, but that doesn’t mean looking backward to supposedly easier, simpler times.

To help find a wife for his brother Cunzhi, Guo Cunxian tries to add a small extension to their modest family home, and this sparks envious gossip. Does this teach us that even in a socialist system, class divides remain an imperishable part of human nature?

Yes, I would think it does. There is a false assumption that a socialist system erases these more puerile aspects of human nature, such as greed, but the blunt truth is that it does not. Even in a socialist system these impulses remain, and the promise of each person having the same opportunity as anyone else to work and receive equal return is a fallacy bordering on farce. I think Empires of Dust makes this plain. I know this is a somewhat pessimistic reading, and it would seem to contradict my answer above, at least to a degree, but I would say it’s the acknowledgement of these flaws that is necessary should society ever wish to overcome them. Jiang’s novel brings them out in full force, and we need to see and accept such aspects of human character before we can ever tackle them.

Guojiadian is not very fertile ground for prosperity. Jiang says early on that the land is “more salt than soil” but repeats throughout that land is the only asset of true value. Is there a moral lesson here that the characters should never lose sight of this, for example cars are said to have developed a ‘totemic’ quality? 

The novel does seem to reinforce the idea that land is the only true asset. Perhaps this has something to do with what has been identified in some scholarship as China’s indelible attachment to the land, the “yellow earth” as it has been called. I think here of Chen Kaige’s 1984 film Yellow Earth (Zhang Yimou was the cinematographer), and the parallel development of ‘searching for roots’ literature (xungen wenxue) in China in the mid 1980s, when writers such as Mo Yan got their start. Dynastic China was a land empire, not a maritime one. And land has always figured importantly in China’s classical texts and histories. Along with the Yellow River and the Yangzi, it has been the yellow earth that has supposedly defined China. There are traditional rites for the dead that vitalize the importance of land and the internment of ancestors. In dynastic times, people were once refused from moving away from home for these reasons, and even today China’s hukou home registration system dominates how and in what way people can access government services. So perhaps this is filtering into Jiang’s novel as embedded cultural understanding, and maybe that’s what Empires of Dust is touching on: China’s awkward and yet ever enduring relationship with the land.

Market liberalization enables Guo Cunxian to get rich, turning him arrogant and disdainful. However, the law-enforcers who give him his come-uppance are also an unappealing bunch. Where does this novel stand on the virtues of state intervention? 

That’s a question I’m not sure I can answer, but I don’t believe Empires of Dust comes down on either side of the argument. There is, on the one hand, the seeming acceptance that state intervention will happen (or has to happen), and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, the actors for the state are, as you say, an unappealing bunch, so there is perhaps little faith that the state can get it right. Maybe that’s the dance Jiang is describing: an endless two-step between a more laissez faire approach to the market, and a state-led approach that requires more intervention.

Jiang Zilong has a particular flair for sex scenes. Was it fun or difficult to translate these?

On the whole, I would say it was fun. Difficult, yes, but the fun outweighed the challenges! ∎

Jiang Zilong, Empires of Dust. (ACA Publishing, March 2019)