Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Burst of Short Stories

I think most people have at some stage or another observed how things seem to come in groups. I'm not much of a short story reader, but recently, I've read quite a few. Yiyun Li's Ten Thousand Years of Good Prayers has received a lot of attention recently in the press, winning the Guardian award for best first work of fiction and being praised by many other reviewers. I snapped it up when I saw it a couple of weeks ago as it'd been on my wishlist for ages, and at the same time, I discovered I had a volume of short stories by another Chinese native already on my shelves; Waiting by Ha Jin.

Reading the two volumes side by side has made for some interesting comparisons. Although both deal with recent society in China, the generational difference is very marked; Ha Jin tends to write about issues confronting individuals of the generation above the one with which Yiyun Li concerns herself, and each author picks up on appropriate prevalent issues depending on which stage of development Chinese society is in. In Ha Jin's work, China struggles to prove her prowess to the West and modernise society. Families destroyed by an earthquake in one city are patched back together again with survivors from three different family units to form a new dysfunctional nuclear family. An American fast food restaurant successfully competes with local street vendors for business, but when the workers go on strike in an effort for fair pay they are fired and replaced with new workers. Two peasants are executed for making a joke about a workunit leader that was misconstrued as a slight against the dead Chairman Mao.

In Yiyun Li's stories, young men and women compete to escape the confines of China for the freedom and riches of America, then struggle to retain their Chinese identity and empathy with China. Caught between tradition and modernity, a young man educated in America struggles to tell his mother that the reason he keeps rejecting the potential matches she arranges for him is because he is homosexual; a woman moves to America after falling pregnant in order to seek a better life and finds hope that China cannot give her; a husband and wife battle to keep their family together in the face of rejection from society when one of their children is born mentally ill.

What struck me most was how much Chinese society has changed in such a short space of time. I know China has been trying to modernise, and having spent time there, I know there are massive divides between country and city, old and young, and new and old; but I've never been exposed to such expressions of these struggles. Both books are of course banned on mainland China (although probably not in Taiwan) and I am surprised that censorship doesn't feature more heavily in either set of stories. Not only in literature, but generally in freedom of speech in the media or even in what Chinese people are allowed to view from overseas media. In hotels, foreign news reports on China are often cut from broadcasts. Foreign papers arrive three weeks late and will sometimes have articles perceived as reflecting negatively on China's progress or development torn out. Everyone (in the West) knows that a massive quantity of websites are blocked in China - my blog is banned in China! (Not mine specifically; blogger appears to be banned.) But the Chinese are, by and large, unaware of the extent to which their government blindfolds them. Anyway, I've managed to go off course on my speculations about censorship; my point is really that China is going through a massive rapid social upheaval, and reading these two books together has provided an interesting record in literature on social problems.


Anonymous said...

Nice post! I think it is wonderful how both modernization and the immigrant experience have translated into such rich literature as different generations explore what it means to leave a culture behind (either temporally or physically) and learn how to navigate a new one....along the same lines, Gish Jen has some lovely short stories that deal with the tension of being an American born Chinese.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean The Bridegroom and Other Stories?

The Traveller said...

I do - I bought Waiting and read The Bridegroom instead. Thanks for pointing that out!