8/3/19

&: 迪兰先生, world famous Sinologist / 第29届书博会



I remember, trips to China used to be my escape hatch, when I got fed up standing behind the counter at a liquor store, renting some dingy apartment behind a youth hostel, or working overnight at a hotel, chasing homeless men out of the stairwell... I'd take whatever job, stay until I fucked things up, ended up starving or locked up, then do the cycle over again, go back home for a year or two, catch a flight back into Shanghai to try again. I managed to get a degree in Chinese, but it was mostly because I didn't feel like doing anything else. Part of it was trying to understand the girl I was with, as if getting a degree in Chinese, knowing the language and the history would somehow help me unfuck my relationship with her. I liked literature, I thought I could be a writer, so learning the language opened up an entire universe of books, centuries of writers that I'd never read, and I could translate them, too. That's how I came to this. I never imagined anyone would ever introduce me as a 汉学家, a Sinologist—makes me think of Pulleyblank, Kubin, Spence Malmqvist, guys like that, maybe Barmé, but mostly aging, resolutely anti-communist professors that are often photographed in robes and have Taiwanese wives. Those kinds of men don't really exist anymore, or they're retired. But I don't fit even with a younger breed of Chinese professors. I'm not in academia; I took a few classes in Classical Chinese but I still struggle to make sense of it; and I've never been interested in Chinese philosophy. But I don't fit anywhere else. Westerners engaged with China, if I can break them down into 士农工商-type categories would be Sinologist, China watcher (meaning mostly natsec think tank people, but also journalists), then the merchant and finance class. So, going to China to opine about Chinese literature, I must be a Sinologist. You look at the world of Chinese fiction in English translation, it's only China-focused academics working on it. Thirty-five books translated in 2018, just looking at fiction and poetry, outside of a few exceptions (Anna Holmwood, Jeremy Tiang are names that I caught), they're academics, rather than frustrated writers that just happen to speak Chinese.

I told a story over dinner the other night, about getting locked up in Datong. One of the men—Cai—from the Public Security Bureau was writing a novel about Ming loyalists using martial arts to fight back against the Qing. I'd see him once every morning when I went out to dump the shit bucket, once again later when he came in to inspect our cell, and he'd sometimes call me across the yard to sit in his office and smoke cigarettes. I think I brought up Cao Naiqian 曹乃谦, maybe he did, but he mentioned how he knew him, since Cao had been with the PSB before retiring. Cai had worked some of the same rural areas where Cao had worked, too, so he had his own stories, and he figured he might be able to get Cao to come visit me. It seemed ridiculous to me, even then, taking a meeting with Cao Naiqian while locked up in a Shanxi detention center. The meeting never happened, which is for the best. I was thinking about that, though, just five years ago I was locked up with petitioners, talking about Cao Naiqian with a prison guard. The year before Datong, I'd managed to get a story published in a literary magazine and got a thousand bucks, thought that was a big deal. So, I figured that was as good as it could get, and that'd be fine, maybe publish a short story collection with a small press, if I was lucky, hopefully not get locked up for too long, but if I did, who cares? And I was thinking about that, right before going on stage, introduced as a 汉学家, to banter with Jia Pingwa in my halting Chinese about a forthcoming translation of Qinqiang.

I did it, though. I'd met Yan Hui 颜慧 before, so she knew what to expect. Wang Chunlin 王春林 talked enough for everyone on stage. Jia Pingwa doesn't give a shit. And I tried to illustrate the difficulty of translating Qinqiang with the example of Xia Tianzhi asking Xia Yu to put on a recording of《辕门斩子》after he disowns his eldest son, the difficulty of putting context behind it for readers not familiar with 杨家将, despite the importance of it in the novel to the story of Xia Tianzhi and his wayward son, then I think I mentioned how I discovered《废都》and maybe a few other things.

(But as a world famous Sinologist, it is shameful to be stuck with being called 迪兰, not having thought ahead and chosen a suitably literary Chinese name. 王迪 was suggested to me as a possible option, since it's too late to make major changes. I thought about 皇帝轮, from the Journey to the West line, "皇帝轮流做, 明年到我家," get the King in there, also works as a transliteration of Dylan, but I'm not sure it works, and it's probably too late to solve the problem now.)