Sebastian Veg’s review essay of City at the End of Time: Poems by Leung Ping-Kwan 梁秉鈞 (edited by Esther Cheung) and Dung Kai-cheung’s 董啟章 Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (translated by the author with Bonnie McDougall and Anders Hansson), titled “Putting Hong Kong’s New Cultural Activism on the Literary Map,” has been published by the MCLC. Here’s how it ends:
the images of Hong Kong that emerge from these two collections are similar: far from the Cantonese patriotism of kung-fu films or the proudly apolitical but hugely successful taipans and tycoons of the business world, here the everyday experience and the successive reinventions of a many-layered postcolonial history are what define a new sense of belonging to Hong Kong. Both writers engage in soul-searching about the marginal position of the city, about investing with meaning a place that is not and does not aspire to become a nation-state, a place that identifies with aspects of Chinese culture but that has always cultivated its distinct “southern” difference. In these and other ways, these two writers are harbingers, not only of the emerging local sensibility that is beginning to find its translation into social movements and debates, but also of a new way of thinking about the relation between national and cultural identity, about colonial memories and postcolonial nostalgia that questions many of our assumptions about the position of the contemporary writer.
At Public Books Eric Hayot writes about the presentation of China in literature available to readers of English, by way of a review of Gail Tsukiyama’s A Hundred Flowers, Christopher Buckley’s They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, Dung Kai-cheung’s 董啟章 Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (translated by the author with Bonnie McDougall and Anders Hansson), and Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke 阎连科 (translated by Carlos Rojas). Here’s how Hayot frames his discussion:
… these four novels—two satires, one melodrama, and one modernist pseudo-documentary—might all be grasped as part of the contemporary social call to understand China, to see it clearly, to name or frame it, to place it in relation to local or global politics, or to locate it inside recent or universal world history. In the last decade economic historians like Ban Wang and Kenneth Pomeranz have demonstrated that the Chinese economy dominated the planet from about 500 to 1500 CE, creating the world’s first global economic system. The possibility of China’s return to that position of dominance—and here I ask all readers to call up a mental image of a sleeping dragon awakening—is what has folks on both sides of the Pacific trembling, in fear or glee, for the “Chinese century” to succeed the American one. “China” is thus one of the names of the global future as we imagine it.
China is also, therefore, an intellectual and social problem, for everyone. What is China to us today—assuming the “us” includes (and how could it not?) the wide variety of people who think of themselves as “Chinese”? What kind of place is it? What must we know to comprehend its nature (if it has one)? What would it mean to recognize ourselves (again, the first person plural includes the Chinese) as people who want to know what China is, and who are willing to work hard, as authors and as readers, to understand it? How will such an understanding return us, like fiction, to a new vision of the world we have known until now?
Click on any of the images to link to the essay.
My review of Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, by Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章 and translated by the author with Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall, has been posted at Rain Taxi. Here’s how it begins:
“No one, wise Kublai,” says Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, “knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it.” In Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, Hong Kong’s Dung Kai-cheung writes, “All places are misplaces, and all misplaces are misreadings,” and “The prerequisite for the setting of boundaries on maps is possession of the power to create fiction.”
Jonathan Hart reviews Bei Dao‘s 北島 The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems (New Directions), edited by Eliot Weinberger, speaking “about these translations as if they were poems in English on which the reputation of the poet stands in the English-speaking world.”
He concludes that “Bei Dao’s poetry translates well in its bold imagery and implicit and oblique politics, using nature in a symbolism of indirection that is as subtle as it is apparent,” but he only mentions poems translated by Bonnie McDougall (Bei Dao’s early work) and by Weinberger (Bei Dao’s more recent work), not mentioning the poems translated by David Hinton.
For another recent collection of Bei Dao’s poetry in English, see also Endure (Black Widow Press), translated by Clayton Eshleman and me.
Douglas Robinson, Chair of English at Lingnan University, has reviewed Translation Zones in Modern China: Authoritarian Command versus Gift Exchange, by star Chinese literary translator Bonnie McDougall, for Modern Chinese Literature & Culture. Here’s an excerpt:
In one sense, the core of the book is McDougall’s recollections of living in Beijing from 1980 to 1983, working full-time as a Chinese-to-English translator for the Foreign Languages Press (FLP) and translating poetry by Bei Dao and other “unofficial writers” on the side. […] This is the strategy that makes for some awkwardness in the book: McDougall is constantly converting her personal experiences into an academic ethnography of an institution, while also frequently reminding us that most of what she is telling us she knows from personal experience. The book is neither frank memoir nor memoir disguised as something more impersonal and academic; it is both at once, and to achieve that effect it travels a shifting line of conjunction between the two.
There are also great advantages to this strategy. One is that, at least part of the time, we are situated in a temporal phenomenology that gives us a sense of the insecurity of real life lived in time–the fact that one never knows, experiencing a given state of affairs, how long that state is going to last, and whether it’s going to get better or worse. When McDougall arrived in Beijing in 1980, the Cultural Revolution had ended just scant years before; the forces that had organized and fueled that dark period were still around, and seemed occasionally to be gathering strength, as in the “anti-spiritual pollution” crusade of 1983 and 1984. At several points McDougall gives us a sense of the fear many felt at the time that the campaign was a resurgence of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping was then just beginning to liberalize the Chinese economy, and the first signs of that opening, whose blossoming we see so clearly today, are visible in this period as well. What we see in the transitional period she describes is not a stark contrast between “China then” and “China now” but significant historical tensions and continuities that help us understand not just the PRC from 1980 to 1983, but something like the last half century of Chinese history.
The Hong Kong Advanced Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Studies has just posted Cris Mattison’s interview with Hong Kong writer Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章, one of the SAR’s most inventive authors. His novel Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City 地圖集, which mixes fiction with documentary history to chronicle the city of Hong Kong, will be out this summer in English translation by Bonnie McDougall and Anders Hansson. Here’s an excerpt from the interview where he discusses his work as related to translation and world literature in the broad sense, responding to a critique people have leveled against certain writers of modern Chinese literature for nearly a century (I expect Xi Chuan would give a similar response):
DKC: I said my language is influenced by English because since I studied Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong much of my reading has been done in English. The influence is not just in terms of subject matter and literary forms but also of sentence structure and diction. My Chinese has been regarded by some language purists as “Europeanized,” which is meant to be a criticism for not writing in a proper Chinese. It is in this sense that I said the language of Atlas “lends itself to translation.” By this I mean not that it is simple to translate, nor do I mean that it is written with the intention of being translated, and thus gaining international attention.