Chinese literature translated into English

If you are looking for good Chinese fiction to read in English, you’ll want to see this article, which ends with a list of recommendations. Via CDN.

The Discussion: 17 Comments

Richard, thanks for referencing the list!

I can personally vouch for David Hawkes’ translation of Cao Xueqin’s famous Story of the Stone (also known as A Dream of Red Mansions or A Dream in the Red Chamber). I considered it the best book I read that year.

It really is an amazing novel, all the more so in light of the puzzle surrounding its origins (to some degree autobiographical?). It’s no wonder it holds such a revered place in Chinese literature.

I was particularly struck by the frank portrayals of the main character’s bisexuality (note to those not aware: romance and sex between men was widely tolerated – even celebrated – throughout most of China’s history, perhaps more culturally pervasive even than ancient Greece, although most Chinese today are sadly unaware of this remarkable part of their cultural heritage).

All Chinese know this magnificent novel as the love story between mischievous, artistic, spoiled rich-boy Jia Baoyu and melancholic Lin Daiyu, painted against a vivid depiction of a super-wealthy family’s fall from imperial grace. However if I mention to a local anything about Jia Baoyu’s romantic interludes with not one but two other guys, I usually get blank looks of disbelief. Even gay Chinese guys don’t know what I’m talking about.

This makes me suspect the version most Chinese read must be slightly “edited” … X-(

Thanks again, Richard. Can any other commenters provide recommendations for other works (on the list or otherwise)?

June 16, 2005 @ 7:15 pm | Comment

Shanghai, I really appreciate you comment – now I’m going to hunt down Story of the Stone.

June 16, 2005 @ 7:52 pm | Comment

Slim, fascinating. I think you and Echo should have a Chinese literature thread all to yourselves.

I’m always open to suggestions.

We did the Story of the Stone at Uni (Chinese Studies major) and what you say about romance and sex between the sexes as being not just tolerated but celebrated for large parts of the history of the Chinese civilization is exactly what our professor told us.

He was a Chinese history/literature nut and he also told us exactly what you just hinted at above, i.e. the current versions of Story of the Stone and 金瓶梅 (Jing1 ping2 mei2) are very heavily abridged, particularly of the romantic/erotic scenes.

Have you never commented to a mainlander about how racy Jingping Mei is for a novel written in the Ming Dynasty and they look at you and clearly have no idea what you’re talking about? That’s because modern versions are all edited by Victorian-esque purists of the CCP.

Even towards the end of the Qing, at the beginning of the last century, love between the sexes was a perfectly normal and acceptable part of Chinese life.

Even the very recent movie 霸王别姬 (Farewell My Concubine) contained very clear themes and references to this aspect of Chinese culture.

June 17, 2005 @ 3:46 am | Comment

Sorry, “Jin1” Ping2 Mei2 not “Jing1”

June 17, 2005 @ 3:47 am | Comment

yeah I thought the Story of the Stone, also in the Hawkes translation, was as good as fiction gets … would race home to read another few hours each night, can still pretty much reach out and touch some of the characters. would love to be able to smack a bit of sense into one or two of them as well!

speaking also of jin ping mei, I enjoyed reading it in an admittedly old clunky translation by someone called Clement Egerton, fortunately it was a later edition where the dirtiest bits were in English and not in the latin that was used for them in his original translation.
but I remember that someone was, slowly of course, getting through a new translation I think in Penguin.
just been googling but unsuccessfully, does anyone know who the translator is?

June 17, 2005 @ 3:29 pm | Comment

about 金瓶梅 (Jing1 ping2 mei2). i was always told that there is 金瓶梅 (Jing1 ping2 mei2) and then there is something else called the REAL VERSION of 金瓶梅 (Jing1 ping2 mei2). So keep an eye on what you think you are reading.

June 17, 2005 @ 3:38 pm | Comment

a lot of talented flautists in 12th century china, that’s for sure.

June 17, 2005 @ 3:48 pm | Comment

eswn. what does that all mean?

June 17, 2005 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

john, there are two versions of the book. there is a sanitzed version and then there is the REAL THING. the sanitized version is that which you can find if you walk into a respectable bookstore and look on the publicly display shelf. the REAL THING might have to be under wraps somewhere. in english translation, it is hard to tell.

basically, the book has no real literary merit as such. it is derived from one of the stories within The Water Margin, but exploring the sexual aspects.

All I can say is: YAWN!

June 17, 2005 @ 4:35 pm | Comment

aaaaaaahhhhhh. Thanks.

June 17, 2005 @ 4:37 pm | Comment

to elaborate on jinpingmei, it is worse than plain vanilla pornography because it is pretentious. every goddamn chapter starts and ends with some properly metered poems. an even bigger YAWN! but literary scholars love it and make a deal out of it. an even bigger than big YAWN!

June 17, 2005 @ 4:52 pm | Comment

Soul Mountain by Goa XingJian has been in English translation for several years. Can get it in HK. But is it available on the mainland? Hard read. Will not review.

June 17, 2005 @ 8:06 pm | Comment

Soul Mountain is very hard reading, almost like a dream. I read half of it and really loved it, but finally just gave up, it required so much concentration. I still remember some of the sentences, they were so beautiful (or at least the translator’s sentences were beautiful).

June 17, 2005 @ 8:16 pm | Comment

of the four masterworks of the ming era i highly recommend the sidney shapiro translation of shuihu zhuan (outlaws of the marsh) for a better understanding of the traditional chinese hero (the exaggerations are just hilarious, great reading). as well, reading outlaws allows one to make more sense of the socialist realism literature of the mao era (which is also great stuff, try li hsin-tien’s bright red star, classic).

in terms of traditional erotic literature, perhaps even more racey than jin ping mei is patrick hannan’s translation of li yu’s rou pu tuan (the carnal prayer mat) which has been called the fanny hill of traditional chinese lit (doubt you’ll find it on the mainland however).

June 18, 2005 @ 1:36 am | Comment

Martyn, I am not as well-read in Chinese classics as you imply. ๐Ÿ™‚

The topic of male-male sexuality in China and Chinese history is fascinating (well, at least to a gay guy like me it’s fascinating).

I read a translation of another of the great Chinese materpieces, “The Scholars” (I’m not sure of the Chinese name, maybe Julin Waishi) by Wu Chingtzu (sorry for Wade-Giles, maybe it’s Wu Qingzu)

One of the main characters is openly homosexual. He is portrayed very favorably as a handsome, honorable, well-educated and cultured person. At one point the “gay” scholar organizes local male hookers into a drag show (I kid you not), complete with a panel of judges and prize.

In another memorable sequence, someone tricks him into a visiting a monastery because there is an unusually handsome young monk residing there. The monk turns out to be an ugly old man, much to the disappointment of the “gay” scholar, who later thrashes the fellow who tricked him.

For anyone interested in China’s historic tolerance for homosexuality, I strongly recommend the thoroughly researched and documented “Passions of the Cut Sleeve” by Bret Hinsch (University of California Press, 1992). It’s really amazing.

June 18, 2005 @ 1:45 pm | Comment

Martyn, by the way, in a recent thread (I’ve lost track, there are so many now at Peking Duck!) you asked about shipments from

Once or twice a year I order a “cultural life boat” shipment of books and CDs from Amazon. I have never had a problem. One shipment even included Dr. Li Zhisui’s “Private Life of Chairman Mao”. No shipment has ever shown any signs of being opened or tampered with.

Of course, this kind of thing varies with region in China. What’s true of Shanghai might not be true for your locale …

I have had only one mishap ordering books. One time I special-ordered a book from a publishing house, and it never arrived – although it was definitely shipped and signed for by someone at a Chinese post office.

Since the book was 19th century British fiction (“All the Duke’s Children” by Anthony Trollope) I suspect it was simply misplaced or lost, not confiscated,

Probably the greater danger is from Amazon itself. I was just reading about how Amazon prices may vary by customer! For example, if you have a history of ordering certain books, the price you are quoted may be *higher* than the price of someone who just dropped in, or who has a cookie on their pc from one of Amazon’s competitors. Caveat Emptor!

If you have any lingering doubts, try a test order of one small book. Good luck!

June 18, 2005 @ 2:24 pm | Comment

‘The Scholars’ you say? I’ll keep an eye for it. In fact I think I know just the place to get it. I wouldn’t mind a flick of that myself as it sounds like a bit of a hoot.

Another observation re this topic, I get the impression that China’s current intellectual elite (such as Zhang Yimou, director of Farewell my Concubine) are all fully aware of the acceptance of homosexual love in Chinese history and are comfortable with it.

I would guess that the characters and depictions of homosexual love and lust in Farewell My Concubine is entirely accurate for it’s historical setting.

I think it’s one of those things that the elite are aware of but not the masses. Huge generalization but there you go.

Many thanks for taking the time to advise re Amazon. I’m going to try out ordering JChang’s new Mao book.

June 19, 2005 @ 5:33 am | Comment

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