Brian Hayes reviews Contemporary Chinese Short Short Stories, ed. Aili Mu
Most Mandarin textbooks incorporate Chinese culture into the learning process. Typically, the textbook’s protagonists find themselves in some conventional location in China (climbing the Great Wall, crowding onto a packed subway in Shanghai, visiting the Terracotta Army in Xi’an) and a Mandarin conversation ensues. This framework attempts to simultaneously teach Chinese culture and language. However grammatical structures, vocabulary and character recognition usually takes precedence over discussions about Chinese cultural mores. Readers are challenged to decipher what the textbook’s characters are saying, not necessarily why they say it.
At some point, formulaic textbook conversations and edited essays can wear down even the most ardent of Chinese learners. It becomes apparent to most students that there is a huge gap between the language provided in textbooks and authentic Mandarin source material. It is one thing to master sentence patterns and vocabulary lists, but quite another to become sensitive to the unseen cultural concepts that native Chinese speakers draw upon in their everyday interactions. Advanced learners are often simply told to go read texts written by native speakers, but the harsh reality is that many cultural allusions and references made by native speakers may not be appreciated or understood by the Chinese learner still finding his or her way to fluency. In short, after a few years of Mandarin study, learners often reach an impasse: textbooks and graded readers are too simple, and native-level writings and articles are too difficult.
Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories, a collection of stories written in Mandarin by native Chinese speakers, seeks the middle ground. Translated into English and edited by Aili Mu with the poet Mike Smith, the book successfully bridges the gap between standard Mandarin textbooks and authentic Chinese writings, while also teaching Chinese cultural concepts. Instead of hackneyed trips made by foreigners to historical sights and tourist attractions, emphasis is instead placed on everyday Chinese life. Readers get a sense of how traditional Chinese culture manifests itself in responses to disagreements, corruption, friendship, love and death, while the book’s 31 stories are clustered into nine themed chapters such as ‘governance’, ‘identity’, ‘marriage’ and ‘face’.
The book successfully bridges the gap between standard Mandarin textbooks and authentic Chinese writings”
As discussed in the introduction, Mu and Smith have chosen to represent three distinct types of Chinese authors: accomplished “celebrity” writers; writers in state institutions for art and literature; and so-called ordinary people with a passion for writing. All of the authors find ways to entertain, educate and surprise readers. For example, Chi Zijian’s story ‘Father Makes the Lantern’ asks readers to consider whether filial piety works in two directions: younger generation to older generation and vice versa. Li Lingling’s ‘Cuilan’s Love’ is included in the ‘yin-yang’ cluster of stories, and presents an example of how a strong-minded female character can reach her goals, especially when confronted by a relatively indecisive male character.
In addition to its focus on culture, Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories also proves an excellent language training resource. The Chinese-English parallel texts include vocabulary lists (which include pinyin, English translations, and example sentences) and discussion questions at the end of each story. A Chinese-only instructor’s guide is also included in the book’s final section, providing Chinese instructors with suggestions for classroom activities and quizzes. At an average length of only four or five pages, the brevity of the short-short stories allows the genre to be an effective resource. The number of protagonists, antagonists and plotlines in each story is kept small, and the stories can be re-read several times in a single sitting. This is not to say that the plotlines themselves are not challenging. Indeed, many stories have ambiguous endings and can be interpreted multiple ways.
Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories places scant attention to peoples living in China’s peripheral regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Macau (not to mention the overseas Chinese-speaking diaspora). Stories which focus on the inhabitants of these locations would have made it a more varied and distinct book. As it stands, readers seeking to understand how traditional Chinese culture does (or doesn’t) interact with contemporary realities along China’s periphery are left wanting more. Still, Mu and Smith have crafted a book that appeals to a wide audience, allowing Mandarin and English speakers to enjoy Chinese short-short stories in their native language, while advanced Mandarin learners are given a valuable resource.
Given today’s fraught juncture in relations between China and the outside world, it is more important than ever for residents both inside and outside of the nation to consider and understand various Chinese cultural concepts. That this book is composed of stories written by Chinese citizens but translated, edited and published in the West reminds us of how much that can be accomplished when Chinese and non-Chinese citizens work together, or at least in complement of each other. That, perhaps, is this effort’s most valuable legacy. ∎