To Westerners China has often seemed a monolith, speaking with one voice—whether that of an ancient dynasty, a socialist state, or an economic powerhouse. Chutzpah! New Voices from China shatters this illusion, giving Western readers a rare chance to listen to the brilliant polyphony of Chinese fiction today. Here, in the realms of realism and fantasy, and portraying worlds lyrical, gritty, or wildly avant-garde, sixteen selections—three of which are nonfiction—by up-and-coming Chinese writers take readers from the suburbs of Nanjing to the mountains of Xinjiang Province, from London’s Chinatown to a universe seemingly sprung from a video game. In these stories one may encounter a sweet, lonely fabric store owner or a lesbian housecleaner, a posse of shit-talking vo-tech students or a human hive-mind. A jeep-driving swordsman girds himself for battle by reading Borges and Nabokov. A Beijing-raised Kazakh boy hunts for his lost heritage. A teenager plots revenge on the bureaucrat responsible for demolishing his home. A starving child falls in love with a water spirit. These stories, collected by Ou Ning and Austin Woerner, and offered in English by leading translators of Chinese, travel the breadth and depth of China’s remarkable literary landscape. Drawn from the pages of Chutzpah!, one of China’s most innovative literary magazines, this anthology bids farewell to the tired tropes of moonlight and peach blossoms, goodbye to the constraints of socialist realism. In their place it introduces us to the imaginative power, boundless creativity, and kaleidoscopic diversity of a new generation of Chinese fiction.
About the Author
An artist, curator, and cultural activist based in rural Anhui Province, Ou Ning is author of New Sound of Beijing. He served as editor-in-chief of Chutzpah! magazine (2011–2014), from which this collection is drawn.
Austin Woerner is translator of Doubled Shadows: Selected Poetry of Ouyang Jianghe; he was the English editor for Chutzpah!
Read an Excerpt
New Voices from China
By Austin Woerner, Ou Ning
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
A Brief History of Time By Xu Zechen
TRANSLATED BY ERIC ABRAHAMSEN
My friend Qingzhou went to Sichuan on a business trip, and on May 12, 2008, he was buried under a small four-story building. Before he realized he was in an earthquake, he assumed the building was swaying because he'd drunk too much. He'd downed nearly a liter at noon, but it was worth it — he'd closed the deal. He felt himself collapsing drunkenly, his body listing to one side, all his movements in slow motion. It wasn't the way the news described it later, the whole world transformed — bang! — in an instant. His last thoughts before he blacked out were: This is some booze. When it puts you down, the whole world comes rattling down with you. I've never had anything like it. Over a decade working in sales, he must have drunk a thousand kinds of alcohol: baijiu, red wine, yellow wine, black rice wine, green fruit liquors, domestic-made, imported, name-brand, handcrafted, and bathtub-brewed. He'd been drunk so often he had early-stage liver disease and a duodenal ulcer; he had experienced light stomach bleeding nearly a dozen times, heavy bleeding four times — they'd had to remove a third of his stomach. Yet none of that could compare to what he'd drunk today. It was an odd brand; he didn't know where the client had gotten it. It was good stuff, mellow in the mouth but with plenty of kick, and what a sense of accomplishment it produced: when you went down, the world went down with you.
He didn't know how much time had passed, but when he awoke he found he had no arms or legs. He couldn't lift anything, couldn't stretch anything, and then he began to feel pain. He opened his eyes and realized with a shock that something rough was pressed up close to his face. If his eyelashes had been any longer, they would have brushed against it. It was covering him from his head to down below his stomach. He couldn't see it, only feel it — when he inhaled, his belly, whose size testified to his prosperity over the past few years, pressed against something flat and solid. Qingzhou was in pain. He smelled dust and concrete, and the world was still rattling, the sounds muted as though they were passing through mountains of stone. Did I drink up an earthquake? he wondered.
According to video materials from the rescue operation, and to Qingzhou's own memories, he had been trapped under a section of flooring. He owed a lot to that rough chunk of flooring: the whole building had collapsed like kindling, and they only saved five from the wreckage. When the flooring fell, it landed propped up on bricks to either side of him, leaving him a little breathing space, and saving his life.
— Were you afraid?
— I was.
— Of what?
Qingzhou emerged from the hospital three months later, enclosed in plaster and splints. Eventually he regained his old toughness and started answering his friends' questions. His face was blank and his eyes were distant as he described his brush with death. Only someone who'd died and come back again could reach that place.
— What was I frightened of? Sure, I'll tell you everything. There's no reason to stay silent. At first I was frightened of the earthquake itself. No one told me there'd be an earthquake. I was only five when the big Tangshan earthquake happened; all a five-year-old cares about is his dinner. I knew an earthquake was a terrible thing, but I didn't really know what one was like. Now I was in one, and I had no chance to react, I wasn't even sober. Of course I was afraid. After that it was fear of pain, and death. The pain alone was enough to kill you. Look at my hands and feet. There's nothing to see, of course. They were so pulverized that you could have rolled what was left into dumplings. I was afraid of death — scared to death of death. Since then I've thought, if I'm going to die, let me die in an instant, with a whump. Don't tell me first, don't make me wait around. Under that piece of flooring, I felt at first like I was just waiting for death, and I was afraid. Later, though, I stopped being afraid. The world went quiet, like everything would be taken care of. It was all up to fate whether I'd live or die. If it had been you, you'd have accepted it, too. I was afraid of other things: solitude, loneliness, and time — endless time. Before then, I'd never realized how long a minute, or an hour, or a day could be. As long as a lifetime. I was in a hole, in the dark, and though I could strain my eyes until they popped, all I'd see was that dim, rough flooring, nothing but concrete. I was far away from everyone, a world apart from them all, so distant I seemed to be the only person in the whole universe. You remember what that Russian cosmonaut said when he landed on the moon? He called it "bone-deep loneliness." That's a good phrase. All your bones frozen in complete loneliness. I thought: just let me die. I hoped the flooring wouldn't hold up, that it would come down neat and clean and put an end to time and darkness. To me, death would have been a deliverance from that world of darkness.
— You didn't die.
— I didn't die. Well, I basically died.
— Can you tell us about it?
— Of course. Like I said, as long as you survive, pain, death, loneliness, and time are no longer frightening — of course you can talk about it. I'm saying later on I got hungry and thirsty, mostly thirsty; later the hunger sort of went away. After all that alcohol I'd drunk, water was taking its revenge on me. There was no water to drink, and I had no way of drinking my piss, and after a day ... maybe less than a day; my only sense of time was of its length, unending and unchanging, nothing else. Day and night no longer existed for me. I'd lost a lot of blood through my hands and feet, and I was utterly exhausted. I slept and woke, woke and slept, my body as stiff as if it were rusted in place. In my dreams I felt like I would catch fire, like my whole body was smoking: the corners of my eyes, my lips, throat, guts, and hair, even my soul. Do you believe in the soul?
— I do. I saw it with my own eyes, shriveling from thirst, smoking from thirst. The soul itself is like smoke, and half-awake I saw it streaming out from my smoldering hair, coalescing into a second self within the narrow space under the flooring. I watched that self slowly seep out from under the concrete, and re-form again outside the wreckage. I saw him leave the ruins and the earthquake behind, and head for the train station.
— What was he doing?
— Retracing my steps. He was going back by the road I'd come on.
To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about.
— When your soul leaves your body, that means death. When I thought I was going to die, I immediately relaxed, as if I'd been released, and I lay as languidly as if I were floating on summer waves. Haven't you heard that when a person dies, their soul retraces the entire course of their life? I hadn't heard it before, either. I'll tell you about it.
That day, the soul of my friend Qingzhou passed through the ruins. It knew the way through the ruins. The soul of thirty-seven-year-old Huang Qingzhou arrived at the train station, intending to take the train back to Beijing. When Qingzhou went on these business trips, he always set out from Beijing, flying like a bullet to destinations around the country. The way his job worked, if he wasn't asleep in bed, then he was on a train or a plane, or else he was at the negotiating table or the dinner table — more often the latter, as we Chinese prefer to do our negotiating over drinks. As Huang Qingzhou's soul rode the train, the buildings, the trees, the fields, the wilderness, and the distant horizon all rushed continually backward. The trip was so long that Huang Qingzhou was thirty-five by the time he arrived in Beijing. Little worth mentioning had taken place during those two years, apart from work and travel. But his thirty-fifth year deserved a visit because that was the year he'd gone bankrupt. In 2006, as the wallets of many individual shareholders were swelling, Huang Qingzhou lost his shirt. He himself wasn't sure how it had happened, but several years of savings went up in smoke, just like his soul, and when the wind began to blow, that smoke vanished in wisps, never to coalesce again.
Huang Qingzhou's soul took the subway back to his house in 2006. His wife had had it all figured out and abandoned him the instant disaster loomed. The divorce papers lay on the pale-green glass tea table in the living room. Huang Qingzhou signed them. His wife was eight years his junior, and luckily they hadn't had children yet. He sat on the sofa they'd bought recently — this was before they'd divided the property, and he hadn't known whether it would go to her or him. They'd been happy on the way to buy furniture at Lanjinglijia, an honest-to-goodness pair of newlyweds. Huang Qingzhou's soul smoked a cigarette on the sofa, then left. Unless he was mistaken, he'd bought that pack of cigarettes at the 7-Eleven outside the gate to their compound. He walked out to the road and found it nearly deserted. The few people he met were wearing face masks, hurrying along and avoiding each other as though they were afraid of being robbed. The bus was entirely empty except for the driver and conductor. He slapped his forehead — this was 2003, the year of SARS. He looked down at his belly. In 2003 they'd stayed in their apartment for three months without going out, and besides eating, he'd done nothing but watch movies and play games, as a result of which he'd gained several pounds. He'd found every movie with Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Steven Chow in it and watched them all; he'd also mastered Three Kingdoms and Empire in the shortest time possible. Huang Qingzhou began to run toward his office, ran fast enough to outrun SARS. In the lobby of the office building, as he was entering the elevator, he collided with the vice president of his company, spattering his coffee on the man's coffee-colored suit. The vice president's beetle brows drew together.
— Robbing a bank, are we?
— I'm sorry, I'm late for an interview at Baolonghua, I'm very sorry.
He'd seen Baolonghua's job advertisement in the paper. To a twenty-seven-year-old man who had only just thought to seek his fortune in Beijing, the positions and salaries advertised looked pretty good. He'd worked at a different company previously, pulling in clients. Never mind the exhaustion, it paid almost nothing, and what had he come to Beijing for if not to make money? In the interview, he sat across the table from the vice president, whose coffee-colored suit gave off a strong coffee odor. Despite his limited experience, he guessed from the smell that the coffee came from Starbucks. The vice president hired him. Before handing him the contract that detailed his healthy compensation, the vice president asked him a question on behalf of the president:
— In your two years in Beijing, what experiences have you had that are worth relating?
Huang Qingzhou thought for a bit, then answered:
— I had a job I didn't like, and it was running me ragged. People were always scowling at me, and I felt like a sucker for being so enthusiastic. I took part in the anti-U.S. protests after the bombing of the embassy in Belgrade, but before I'd gone two blocks, I met someone from my hometown who'd just arrived in Beijing. He was nearly faint from hunger, and I thought saving him was the more pressing task, so I treated him to donkey-meat sandwiches. You can't let a comrade starve to death, right? Also, one time I went back to my hometown — it was flooding there, and water was everywhere. It was the worst flood in a century, and I nearly drowned working on the dikes.
When he'd finished, the vice president laughed and said, All right, welcome aboard.
In fact he could have said much more. Now, Huang Qingzhou's soul was returning the way it had come. As he passed a bank on Zhongguancun Street, he glanced inside. A group of familiar-looking people were lined up at the counter. He went in to withdraw some money. It was early 1998; he'd just come from a small town and didn't know how to use his bank card yet, so he went to the counter with his bank book each time. There was hardly anything in the account. He got in line behind a young woman, and the two began chatting out of boredom. The line was long, and frustratingly slow.
— What are you here to do? he asked.
— Make a deposit.
— How much?
— A thousand. I just got a bonus.
— What a coincidence, I was going to withdraw a thousand. Look, you're going to deposit, I'm going to withdraw — why don't you just give the money to me? We can cut out the middleman and skip this line.
The woman blinked at him, then actually handed over the money. He took it, thanked her, then headed out the door and started running. He had to admit that the joke had been a half-hopeful con to begin with ... but he'd succeeded! She hadn't yet learned to think on her feet. He needed that one thousand yuan: he only had eight hundred left in his own account. He ran straight from the bank back to his flophouse, where the three-story, 110-square-meter building was crammed with a total of forty-two beds. He'd rented one of them five days ago. It was near the door, which was usually left ajar, and he liked being able to get a little fresh air. Inside the building, the stench of socks, flatulence, bad breath, and long-unwashed bodies was so dense you could light it with a match. When he'd asked around the area about this building, he'd been advised not to rent there — they'd said that with that many people packed together like swine, the stink could kill you. He'd rented anyway; it was cheap.
The soul of my friend Qingzhou emerged from the flophouse into the night, and went into a pedestrian tunnel. He'd spent his very first night in Beijing in this tunnel. He put his bag down and sat on the ground, then curled up against the ice-cold wall and was just drifting off when a city management officer ran up shouting. Huang Qingzhou knew nothing good would come of this, and he snatched up his bag and fled, the officer in pursuit. After twenty meters, the officer gave up the chase, but Qingzhou kept running, for five kilometers at least. He tasted the pleasure of running as his body warmed. On the very first day of his life in Beijing, Huang Qingzhou felt the pleasure of warmth. Before he knew it, he had run straight out of Beijing.
In a little southern town, a thousand kilometers away, he was a bespectacled middle-school teacher. He'd had a few failed love affairs, and been involved in a few failed business deals. You can't help being unlucky in love: no one wants their heart broken, but who can avoid it? But his business failures, as Qingzhou had seen it back then, were purely due to the dastardliness of his students' parents. Why, while the students were still in his class, were his business deals with their parents so profitable, while the moment the students graduated or transferred, he began to lose money? He promised himself then that if he ever had children and entered into a business relationship with their teachers, he would do what was right and proper, and not inflict losses on the teachers just because his children had moved on. He would never burn his bridges. Huang Qingzhou's soul entered the run-down moon gate of the middle school's employee residential area, and he saw himself sitting idly in his fifteen-square-meter dormitory. A thick journal lay before him, and on it a Hero-brand fountain pen that had drunk its fill of Hero-brand ink. His unexceptional life as a teacher had left him with nothing much to write about.
— You don't believe I kept a journal? Qingzhou said as I helped him lift his plaster-wrapped arm. It was a kind of exercise. I kept a journal before I came to Beijing. Good habit, you say? I was forced. My parents forced me to keep it, starting when I was a child; after a while I got used to it, and then it bothered me not to keep it. My parents were hoping I would become a great writer, if not a Dostoevsky then at least a Gorky. I stopped after I got to Beijing. Twenty million people all heaped together like ants — what was so special about me that I needed to keep a journal? I was up to my eyebrows in work, talking my jaw off with clients; why would I go home and continue talking to my journal? But the stuff I wrote while I was still teaching is pretty interesting. I'll show it to you someday. Where was I? Right, my soul. He went into the school campus and looked at the journal I'd opened. He went back through it, step by step, until he knew everything ...
Excerpted from Chutzpah! by Austin Woerner, Ou Ning. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface: The Story of Chutzpah!, by Ou Ning and Austin Woerner,
A Brief History of Time, by Xu Zechen,
A Village of Cold Hearths, by Sheng Keyi,
The Balcony, by Ren Xiaowen,
Retracing Your Steps, by Zhu Yue,
Paradise Temple, by Lu Min,
Interlude: Excerpt from A Dictionary of Xinjiang, by Shen Wei,
The Failure, by Aydos Amantay,
Dust, by Chen Xue,
The Curse, by A Yi,
Unfinished — To Be Continued, by Li Zishu,
Philosophy in the Boudoir, by He Wapi,
Interlude: An Education in Cruelty, by Ye Fu,
War among the Insects, by Chang Hui-Ching,
Monsters at Volleyball, by Lu Nei,
Who Stole the Romanian's Wallet? by Wang Bang,
Coda: Excerpts from Nine Short Pieces, by Li Juan,
List of Authors,
List of Translators,