This is an attempt to write about Howard Goldblatt's translation of Ruined City 废都 by Jia Pingwa 贾平凹, maybe notes for something more formal, maybe just a guide for myself to find stuff later, or maybe an excuse to pull out parts I like.
I started reading the original for the first time around 2006, when it was still officially banned. I managed to finally work my way all the way through it sometime around 2013.
When the book was unbanned several years ago, an English translation followed, completed by the most famous translator of modern Chinese literature, Howard Goldblatt. It came out through the University of Oklahoma Press (they also published my translation of Dong Xi). I have skimmed it many times, but I have to admit that I have never read it very closely.
So, there will be summaries and notes and quotes, but probably also some critiques of the translation and maybe even some attempts at making my own translations. Maybe. We'll see. It's a way to force myself to read it.
If you know nothing about the book, a brief explanation: the novel that made Jia Pingwa famous, published in 1993, banned shortly after. Jia returned to writing, but never really wrote a purely urban novel again (that's set to change, though). It's about a famous, established writer from the countryside, who's lived in the provincial capital for years, and gets mixed up with a rival from his old hometown. There's also lots of sex, which is one reason why it was banned for over a decade.
Page 12 to 22. An exquisite opening.
I’ve always been in awe at the way Jia Pingwa opens Ruined City.
He begins with an yìshì 异事, a "peculiar affair,” a “strange thing." These are what Kam Louie calls "strange anecdotes," which have deep roots in Chinese literature, but which crop up again in the roots-seeking fiction of the 1980s (see: “Searching for Cultural Roots: Rediscovering Things Confucius Did Not Say”), as writers looking to record folk religion and looking for something to fuel their own magical realism rediscovered supernatural tales.
Here, the yìshì begins with two friends visiting the tomb of Yang Guifei 杨贵妃. They find a crowd of people scooping up handfuls of dirt, take some of their own, and plant flower seeds in it. When a flower starts to grow, they decide to take it to the Yunhuang Temple 孕璜寺, where Abbot Zhixiang 智祥大师 makes a prediction that it will “bloom on four-stems, but it will be short-lived.” That prediction comes true. But the story ends with one of the men accidentally pouring boiling water over the plant while drunk.
It ends anticlimactically, as the yìshì anecdotes in Jia’s novels normally do: “Devastated by what he had done, he smashed the pot, after which he fell ill and was sick for a month.”
The book then slides into a second yìshì, but without introducing it as such. Looking out over a cityscape, someone looks up and sees four suns, all arranged in a “T” formation (or a 丁 formation). Jia pans down to a beggar standing on a traffic island, dressed in a silk banner stolen from the Yunhuang Temple, who recites a satirical poem about the nine urban classes.
And then we get the new mayor of Xijing hearing about the satirical poem, which is circulating through the city, and a young man named Huang Defu 黄德复, one of the mayor’s trusted advisors. This shifts us abruptly from yìshì to guānshì 官事 (there must be a better antonym for yìshì, but I hope this works), the affairs of bureaucrats. Plans are made to revitalize Xijing, the ancient Western Capital:
The mayor wasted no time in seeking appropriations from the central government, at the same time that he was amassing local funding in support of a project of unprecedented scope: it included refurbishing the city wall, dredging the moat around it, and building an amusement park, rich in local color, on the banks of the moat. He also rebuilt three city avenues: One with Tang dynasty architecture was designed for the sale of books, art, and porcelain. On a second avenue, styled after the Song dynasty, local and provincial snacks were sold. Local handicrafts, folk art, and specialty products were available on the third avenue, which boasted a mixture of Ming and Qing architecture.When the beggar recites another poem criticizing the mayor, we focus back on him, making his rounds as an unofficial recycler, winding up back at Yunhuang Temple, where he watches the qigong masters teaching breathing exercises.
Abbot Zhixiang has a premonition that something strange was about to happen (yìyàngzhīshì 异样之事). The next day a relic of Sakyamuni is discovered in a temple not too far from Xijing. That night he sits in meditation and says to himself: “‘These days … there are hardly any wolves, vermin, tigers, or panthers still in the world, for they have all been reincarnated as human beings. That is the source of so much evil. Meanwhile, great numbers of qigong masters and people with odd talents have arrived in Xijing in recent years. Maybe the heavens sent them to save humanity.’” At that point, he decides to make his own contribution, and starts holding classes on qigong.
One of his students is Meng Yunfang 孟云房.
Qigong is only the latest fad he has taken part in. Seven years prior, he was obsessed with red tea fungus. He met his wife through the hobby of cultivating the fungus. The couple went through various other health fads, going from “laying on of hands” to vinegar eggs to a drink of chicken blood. “Unfortunately, the chicken blood produced an undesirable side effect: the wife’s pubic hair fell out.” When she goes to a neighbor to get a “secret remedy handed down from his ancestors,” Meng Yunfang rejects her and forces her to sign divorce papers.
He marries another woman, named Xia Jie 夏捷, and they move together to a small home near the Yunhuang Temple.
When Meng starts hanging around the temple, the abbot spots him:
On one occasion he was met by Abbot Zhixiang, who stopped him from running off by saying, “Don’t I know you?”
Meng nodded. “The abbot has a wonderful memory. Apparently you remember me.”
“Of course I do. Did that plant of yours die?”
“Yes,” Meng replied, “and everything turned out just as you had predicted.”We return suddenly to the start of the novel, making the first complete circuit.
And I’ll include this, even though I’ve gotten as far as I want to get: he meets a young nun named Huiming 慧明. And we get another kind of shì 事, which is Fóshì 佛事, Buddhist affairs, which is what Meng Yunfang claims he’s doing when his wife catches him flirting with the nun. So, we go from The Tomb → The Flower → The Temple → The Sun → The Beggar → The Mayor → The Temple → The Flower, from yìshì 异事 to guānshì 官事 to Fóshì 佛事, beginning with Meng Yunfang (without knowing it’s him, or who his friend is) and ending with Meng Yunfang.
In ten or so pages, we get an idea of what sort of world we’re about to enter (with real magic and false), various levels at which to observe it (from the mayor’s office, from the temple, from the streets), a mixture of registers (a poem in doggerel, the Buddhist language of the temple and Meng Yunfang, dirty jokes (the situation with Meng Yunfang’s wife’s pubic hair) and bureaucratic verbiage).
Qigong 气功: A fifth of China's urban population was "directly exposed to qigong during the 1980s or 1990s, either attending healing lectures or practicing qigong gymnastics and breathing exercises in parks and public spaces" (this is from "Embodying Utopia: Charisma in the post-Mao Qigong Craze" by David Palmer, in Nova Religio, 2008). In 1990, CCTV broadcast a documentary called Chinese Superman 华夏超人, a four part documentary about qigong master 气功大师 Yan Xin 严新, who claimed mystical powers. It drew the link between his practice and scientific discoveries, positioning qigong as a phenomenon that could be explained through modern science. Yan Xin also famously claimed to have put out a forest fire. Many of the masters were quite powerful. Zhang Xiangyu 张香玉, who claimed healing powers, managed to hold rallies in Beijing after June of 1989, because she had the support of key Party members. In the 1990s, many of the masters were rolled up. Zhang Hongbao 张宏堡, leader of Zhong Gong 中功 and alleged rapist, ended up escaping to America where Trent Lott supported his asylum. Li Hongzhi 李洪志 and his group mostly fled to America, where they have helped destabilize the political system. What a great detail to include qigong in this novel!
Page 22 to 33. Idlers, male anxiety, anthropology.
The translation reads: Over a period of years, Tongguan County, four hundred li east of Xijing, had become home to iderlers and ne'er-do-wells who complained about anything and everything, settling over society like a swarm of bottleneck flies. One of that crowd, a man named Zhou Min...
At first I suspected ”bottleneck flies” was a typo and was about to riff on it. But now, I’m not so sure. Searching for the term, I find the first hits in other Goldblatt translations. In Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh: "Bottleneck flies were already swarming over them." In The Garlic Ballads: "Green bottleneck flies had settled on it." In Red Ivy, Green Earth Mother: "She felt like a piece of rotten, oozing meat, covered with maggots in the blazing sun, with blue bottleneck flies buzzing in and out." Other than that, there's a paper called "The Surprising Genetics of Bottlenecked Flies" in Science in 1987, but that's about genetic bottlenecks. It’s not a typo but I’m not sure why an editor wouldn’t slice it out.
What does the original say? 西京东四百里地的潼关，这些年出了一帮浪子闲汉，他们总是不满意这个不满意那个，浮躁得像一群绿头的苍蝇。其中一个叫周敏的角儿... Just cāngying 苍蝇. Could it be blue bottle fly? Probably. Is that what Goldblatt had in mind? I can only assume.
Carlos Rojas has written a whole paper on this novel and sort of about flies. It’s called “Flies' Eyes, Mural Remnants, and Jia Pingwa's Perverse Nostalgia,” positions, 2006. Howard Goldblatt’s “bottleneck” fly reminded me to check that essay.
But anyways, we’re introduced here to a central character, Zhou Min 周敏, and a place called Tongguan 潼关, which is eighty miles east of the capital. Zhou Min meets a beautiful young woman at a dance hall. It turns out that Tang Wan'er 唐宛儿 is married. Eventually, Zhou Min and Tang Wan'er flee to Xijing and rent a house.
Their passion cooled after a month or so, and their money was running out. To Zhou Min, this was what a man could expect from being with a woman. Wan'er was beautiful and glamorous, they were living in a big city, and yet none of this brought him the satisfaction he sought or helped him find what he was looking for. There were new movies to see, fashionable clothes to wear, and plenty of accessories to buy. What he lacked were new ways of thinking, fresh ideas. There were no changes in the morning sunlight scaling the city wall, the same flowers bloomed in the garden, and even though women now wielded more authority than their husbands did, they were still limited to one day—Women's Day—on March 8th. An eighty-year-old man could be a bridegroom, but he was still an old man. Zhou Min who was nore mired in depression, could not reveal these thoughts to Wan'er, and was reduced to making his way to the city wall in the mornings and evening to play his flute. But that did not solve the problem of finances, so he went looking for work, and found it at the neighborhood Clear Void Nunnery, where several side rooms were being renovated. Since the workers were paid daily, he was able to buy a fish and a half jin of fresh mushrooms each day to take home for her to make dinner.Masculine anxiety, which there is a lot of in Jia Pingwa’s work. Zhou Min stood out in the countryside for his pale skin and louche manner, hanging out at dance halls and seducing married women, but in the city, he finds that he stands out, still, as a man without new ideas, still rusticated. In the course of his work, Zhou Min meets the nun named Huiming. She introduces him to Meng Yunfang. Meng and Zhou become fast friends. Zhou eventually asks Meng if he might be able to get him a job with a newspaper.
And we get some of the cultural anthropology that makes up a lot of the novel, with Meng Yunfang explaining two types of xiánrén 闲人: shèhuì xiánrén 社会闲人 and wénhuà xiánrén 文化闲人 (some work on Jia Pingwa’s novel gives a translation for xiánrén as “idlers.”).
I wrote somewhere else that “Jia is an anthropologist as much as he is a poet.” I was referring to his work set in the countryside of Shaanxi, where he’s fond of describing folk traditions, but it’s just as true in this work set in the city. That’s what’s going on in these descriptions of the various xiánrén. The first group:
"I'll tell you. There are two types of special individuals called 'xianren': one type is known as social xianren. There might have status in society, they might not; they might be employed they might not be. For the most part they are energetic, spirited, capable individuals who like to meddle. They enjoy moving commodities around, they're good at meditating, they love to eat, drink, gamble, and go whoring, but they do not smoke opium. They pull scams, but they don't mug or rob people. They know how to create a disturbance and how to put one down. ... They are represented by four individuals, their unofficial leaders, widely known as 'the Four Young Knaves.' ... Want to know how best to describe them? You can get a good idea by listening to their jargon. They don't call money cash, they call it 'handles.' A good buddy is a 'steel brother,' getting on with a woman is 'drilling a hole'..."And the second group:
"Now I want to tell you about the second type: cultural xianren. There is a person in Xijing who hasn't heard of the Four Young Knaves. But the 'Famous Four' are even better known. ... The painter Wang Ximian is number one. He is forty-five years old, a former jade factory carver who began painting in his spare time, and became famous within a few years. He was recruited by the Xijing Academy of Traditional Art, but chose instead to go to the Wild Goose Pagoda as artist in residence. ... His income far exceeds that of other painters. What sets him apart is his uncanny ability to copy the masters, from Shi Tao to Bada Shanren down to Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi. …These four figures all represent various facets of the postsocialist literati, liberated or cast adrift from a culture industry regulated by the state. Before Reform and Opening, cultural products could not really be commodified. But in postsocialist China, commodifying cultural products was a necessity.
Wang Ximian 汪希眠, for example, has steered clear of more legitimate institutions, where he could rise in the artistic bureaucracy, to seek his fortune selling forgeries at the Wild Goose Pagoda. Rather than being sustained by the state, he makes a living off tourists: "The pagoda is an essential tourist attraction for foreigners, among whom his paintings are extremely popular, especially his albums."
Wang Ximian is clearly not a wénhuàrén 文化人, motivated by and defined by art and culture, but a wénhuà xiánrén 文化闲人, first and foremost a xiánrén 闲人, an idler or layabout, and only by how he makes a living connected to the world of wénhuà 文化.
"For the next in line, walk down any street or lane in the city to look at the shop signs, and you will know the name Gong Jingyuan. During the Republican era, the shop-sign calligrapher everyone wanted was Yu Youren. But even at his peak, Yu was not as popular as Gong Jingyuan. Like Wang Ximian, he has to drive the women away, but he isn't burdened with Wang's infatuations. He has a good time with whoever comes along and quickly forgets her when it's over, which is why so many women call themselves Gong Jingyuan's lover, all of them women whose names he is unable to recall. ... The problem is, he's addicted to mahjong and can lose as much as a thousand yuan in a night. He covers his losses with calligraphy. He has been arrested three times for gambling, and each time the police let him out after he wrote calligraphy for them. ...It’s interesting, reading into Gong Jingyuan 龚靖元—and the other figures here—something of Jia Pingwa. Jia, like Gong, is a renowned connoisseur of local food, and his calligraphy is also up all over the city, especially at restaurants. But the gambling addiction separates him somewhat.
And we get another aspect of the postsocialist literatus: making a living on the margins, or having close contact with life on the margins—shèhuì xiánrén 社会闲人 living off of wénhuà xiánrén 文化闲人.
"The third person is Ruan Zhifei, head of the Western Philharmonic orchestra. He started out as a Shaanxi opera performer whose father had taught him such tricks of the trade as fire breathing, hair tossing, and tusk playing. But when the local opera began to lose its appeal, playing to dwindling audiences, he quit and organized a local song-and-dance ensemble with all of his opera performers. ... But in recent years, as the popularity of the song-and-dance ensembles waned, the members of the troupe have drifted away in two groups, one moving to the countryside, the other opening dance halls in the city. Even at the unheard-of cost of thirty yuan to get in, those places are mobbed every night.Jia’s later novel Qinqiang 秦腔 picks up some of this (as do other books, but this one in particular), with opera troupes going rogue in the city, doing anything to make a living, and finally disbanding. While performers in the time before Reform and Opening would have been guaranteed a living and an audience, times are tough for someone like Ruan Zhifei 阮之非, trained originally in the local opera.
"The fourth individual ... lives a quiet, unassuming life. Although his wife runs the Taibai Bookstore near the Forest of Steles Museum, he neither has nor cares about money, and is content to stay home and write about things that interest him. ... Where those four are concerned, he is at the top of the heap and is the most accomplished; his fame is the most far-reaching and he comes from hometown—Tongguan."That fourth individual is the central character of the novel: Zhuang Zhidie 庄之蝶. We’ll save more discussion of him for later, but it’s interesting that he’s marked out as different from the other wénhuà xiánrén.
Meng Yunfang secures a job for Zhou Min at the Xijing Gazette by writing a note in Zhuang Zhidie’s name to someone named Jing Xueyin 景雪荫, who works for the Department of Culture.
Dance halls, gēwǔ 歌舞厅 and wǔchǎng 舞场, started to spring up in the late 1970s as not much more than rented spaces with a boombox and some cassette tapes. Social dancing fell victim to the 1983 strike hard campaign against liúmáng 流氓 crimes and the atmosphere of concern over social liberalism. By autumn of 1984, dance halls began to re-open, with heavy restrictions which were eventually lifted in the late 1980s. The dance halls were for the urban working class, local and migrant. They were a place for couples to court and sometimes a place for migrant men to pay for the company of a young woman (the notorious mōbā 摸吧 or mōmo wǔtīng 摸摸舞厅 or hēiwǔtīng 黑舞厅 or hēisānqū 黑三曲 or fùfèi wǔtīng 付费舞厅).
Page 33 to 39. Looking at the translation, the arrival of Zhuang Zhidie, a cow.
Goldblatt's reputation as a translator has taken a beating over the years, at least among fellow translators. I don't love all his choices in this book. I wish his translation was ruder in places. But I'm mostly satisfied.
I thought it might be fun to take a few samples, mostly at random and check them out against the original, and attempt my own translation.
Tang Wan'er knew that Zhou Min was out looking for work, since she hadn't seen him all day, so she warmed up the leftover noodles before taking a hot shower, rinsing out her mouth, and changing into a perfumed bra and panties to reward him on his return. But she waited and waited, finally sitting up in bed to read. It was quite late when she heard footsteps at the door. She quickly lay down, covered her face with the book, and pretended to be asleep. When Zhou Min knocked at the door, it swung open on its hinges, unlocked. He saw that the bedside lamp was on, but she made no noise, so he carefully lifted off the book and saw that she was asleep. He stood there for a moment drinking in the scene, then leaned over and gently kissed her on the mouth. She surprised him by opening her mouth and clamping her teeth around his tongue.
"So, you've been awake! What's the idea of lying here half-naked with the door unlocked?"
"I've been waiting here, hoping to be visited by a man with rape on his mind!" she said.I'm using this section mostly because I want to know what “perfumed panties” are.
So, and now I’ll attempt by own translation, intentionally avoiding what Goldblatt has done already, just to make it interesting:
Tang Wan'er didn't find it unusual that Zhou Min had been gone all day. She figured he was out looking for work. In the evening, she heated up the cat's ear noodles that she'd make for lunch, then went to wash up. She rinsed her mouth out, and changed into some fashionable lingerie that she spritzed with perfume. She was ready to thank her man in the way that a woman should. After a while, when Zhou Min still hadn't come home, she lay down on the bed and cracked a book. She was awoken hours later by footsteps outside. She stretched, and covered her face with the open book. When Zhou Min knocked at the door, it swung open, unlocked and unlatched. He saw that the light was still on over the bed. Since Tang Wan'er seemed not to be awake, he reached out to take the book off her face. She looked as if she was sleeping deeply. He stood for a while and watched her, then, without really thinking, he bent down to kiss her on the lips. Tang Wan'er opened her mouth and bit him. Zhou Min jumped back in fright.
"I thought you were asleep!" Zhou Min said. "What the hell are you doing laying here half-naked with the door unlocked?"
"I was hoping a rapist would come in and find me," Tang Wan'er said.Not much difference, I suppose. And now we know what perfumed panties are (喷过香水的时兴裤头和奶罩, or, literally, "spritzed with perfume fashionable underwear and bra").
But let’s keep going.
妇人问："景雪荫长得什么样儿，这般有福的，倒能与庄之蝶好？" 周敏说："长得是没有你白，脸上也有许多皱纹了，脚不好看。但气势足，口气大，似乎正经八百，又似乎满不在乎的样子，喜欢与男人说笑的。" 妇人把男人的头推到一边，嫌他口里烟味大，说："哪有女人不喜欢男人的！" 周敏说："我听孟云房说了，她是个男人评价很高、女人却瘪嘴的人，她没有同性朋友。" 妇人说："我猜得出了，这号女人在男人窝里受宠惯了，她也就以为真的了不得了。如果是一般人，最易变态，是个讨厌婆子。她出身高贵，教养好些，她会诱男人团团围了转，却不肯给你一点东西，这叫狼多不吃娃，越危险的地方越安全。" 周敏说："你这鬼狐子，什么都知道，可潼关县城毕竟不是西京城。她若是那样，庄之蝶一个条儿就那么出力？！"Again, I feel as if Goldblatt’s rendering could be improved upon...
"What does Jing look like?" Wan'er asked afterward. "She's a lucky woman to be on such intimate terms with Zhuang Zhidie."
"You have nicer skin; she has wrinkles. And ugly feet. But she has a commanding presence and speaks with authority. She impressed me as a woman who likes to flirt."
Wan'er pushed his head away because of his smoker's breath. "Show me a woman who doesn't!" she said.
"Meng says she gets high marks from men, but that she has no female friends."
"I'm not surprised," Wan'er said. "She's obviously been spoiled by men, which of course boosts her ego. Sooner or later, most women like that turn into shrews. But a highborn woman with a decent upbringing can wrap men around her finger and give nothing in return. How does it go--wolves don't eat their young, and there's safety in numbers."
"You're quite a know-it-all, aren't you, you sly fox? But Tongguan is no Xijing. If she's what you say, how could a note from Zhuang Zhidie have such an effect on her?"But let’s see:
"What does this Jing Xueyin look like, anyways? Lucky woman to be so close with Zhuang Zhidie."
"She's darker than you are, lots of wrinkles... She's got ugly feet, too. She carries herself well, though. She's got a way with words, I guess you could say. But I could never tell if she was taking me seriously, or if she couldn't give a damn. She's a bit of a flirt."
Tang Wan'er pushed Zhou Min away, wrinkling her nose at the stale smoke on his breath. "That's normal," she said.
"The way Meng Yunfang told it, she's the type of woman that men admire and women despise. All of her friends are men."
"I could've guessed," Tang Wan'er said. "She's been spoiled by the men in her life for so long that she thinks she's really something special. She's lucky to come from a good family. If she hadn't, a woman like that would be a terror for her husband. As it is, she can run the men in her life without ever having to give anything up to them. You know the saying, 'a wolf doesn't eat its pups.' The safest place for her is also the most dangerous."
"My clever little fox," Zhou Min said, "you forget that this is Xijing, not Tongguan. That note from Zhuang Zhidie disproves everything you just said. You should've seen the effect it had on her."Well… what does all this prove? Let’s keep a close eye on the translation, but I don’t think I did anything groundbreaking here. I still feel as if I don't know what Tang Wan'er is talking about with wolves eating their puppies.
But anyways, that gets us into this section, with Zhou Min delivering a jade bracelet in thanks to Xia Jie for the help of her husband, and asking her about Zhuang Zhidie, trying to figure out exactly why he has such power over Jing Xueyin.
That night, Tang Wan'er demands more details, then tells Zhou Min that she's fantasizing about fucking Zhuang Zhidie. Shortly after that, Zhou Min starts to read everything Zhuang Zhidie has written.
Zhou Min takes up his post at the Xijing Gazette, eventually getting an offer to write something. Tang Wan’er suggests he write up the story of Zhuang Zhidie.
He writes a lengthy piece using gossip from Xia Jie, without actually naming Jing Xueyin. Before the article goes to print, he tries to get an audience with Zhuang Zhidie, who has so far been back in Tongguan.
Zhou Min arrives at the Writers Association and sees a man drinking milk from a cow: “The man laughed and patted his prominent belly before lying down, taking one of the cow's teats in his mouth and squeezing.”
Just remember him.
But Zhou Min still can’t find Zhuang Zhidie.
Tang Wan’er suggests they have a banquet to welcome him back to the city. Meng Yunfang sets it up.
Page 39 to 53. Dinner party, Wang Cuncai, love at first sight between Tang Wan’er and Zhuang Zhidie.
Zhou Min and Tang Wan'er prepare to greet Zhuang Zhidie. Tang Wan'er prepares by trying on various outfits. Zhou Min goes over to a restaurant down the block to borrow everything they'll need. Meng Yunfang and his wife arrive with a bottle of osmanthus liquor and a bag of apricots.
Meng Yunfang goes into the kitchen and starts cooking. But after a while, when Zhuang Zhidie doesn't show, Meng goes looking for him. He goes to the Clear Void Nunnery, where he runs into Huiming. It's not stated but the timing seems to suggest that they did more than chat, since an hour passes before he returns to the house and sees Zhuang Zhidie's scooter parked in the alley.
Zhuang Zhidie is standing in front of a used book seller’s stall, and he shows Meng Yunfang a copy of his own collected works, dedicated to Gao Wenxing 高文行. Zhuang signs it again, and puts it in his bag, preparing to send it back to Gao.
When he finally arrives, Zhou Min and Tang Wan’er are impressed by how casual and friendly the famous writer is, and note that he hasn’t lost his Tongguan accent.
This section contains a fun Jia Pingwa repetition in it, about the performer of “Hanging a Painting.” This is a common feature of Jia’s novels, repeating scenes and references. The most repeated has to be the story about a man learning about a devout monk that sealed himself in a box and remained perfectly preserved even after death, and then a layman trying to copy that feat and ending up a puddle of sludge and bones.
The translation reads:
“Have you seen Tongguan’s Chen Cuncai in the flower drum opera Hanging a Painting?”
”I’ve seen many of Dance Master Chen’s performances,” Tang Wan’er replied. “He’s in his sixties and wears tiny shoes, yet he can leap onto the back of a chair, toss a paper ball into the air, and kick it before it lands. He was popular before Liberation. People in Tongguan used to say they’d rather watch Cuncai dance in Hanging a Painting than rule the nation.”
”Opera is one thing, dance is another,” Xia Jie said. Red-faced, Wan’er sank down into the sofa with a perplexed look, more or less tuning Xia Jie out.And the original:
庄之蝶说："你看过潼关陈存才的花鼓戏《挂画》吗？" 唐宛儿说："陈老艺人的戏我看过，六十岁的人了，穿那么小个鞋，能一下了跳到椅被上，绝的是抓一个纸蛋儿，空中一撂，竟用脚尖一脚踢中！解放前他就演红了，潼关人说：宁看存才《挂画》，不坐国民天下。" 夏捷说："戏剧是戏剧，舞蹈是舞蹈，那不是一回事的。"唐宛儿脸红了一层，便窝在沙发里不动，似听非听地迷糊着。And let’s look at Qinqiang written almost two decades later…
I’ll use my translation:
“If you go to see a big concert in Xijing, you’ll see how pathetic these opera shows are.”
“It wasn’t always like that,” the woman said. “Caiwa, back in the day… When he performed Hanging a Painting, everyone saw it. They even had a saying: I’d rather see Caiwa sing Hanging a Painting than be the leader of the whole Republic of China.”
“But that was back in the ’20s!” the man said.
“Well, we have our Mrs. Wang now.”
“That old bird that does Picking Up the Jade Bracelet wherever she goes, right? Supposedly, she gets a red sash…”
“I’m serious.”The original:
“你要是在省城参加一次歌星演唱会, 你就知道唱戏的寒碜了!” “我可告诉你, 王财娃演戏的时候,咱县上倒流行一句话: 宁看财娃《挂画》,不坐民国天下。” “那是在民国。” “现在 有王老师哩!” “不就是一辈子演个《拾玉镯》,到哪儿能披个红被面么。” “你, 你……” “我说的是事实。”I show the translation uncorrected here, to show I’m not above self-criticism. I’ll let you draw your own red Xs over my mistakes.
But I had no idea what Jia Pingwa was talking about! It was one of the outstanding issues that I asked him about on my penultimate trip to Xi’an ahead of completing the book, but his answer was so vague that I realize now I would have had to know what he was referring to before I asked.
He uses two different names—Chen Cuncai 陈存才 and Caiwa 财娃—and seems to suggest both are locals to their respective regions—Tongguan 潼关 and Shangluo 商洛—but I’m sure anybody familiar with local opera would get that the reference was to Wang Cuncai 王存才, Pu opera 蒲剧 performer of the Republican Era.
Supposedly, the huadan 花旦 role in Pu opera involves a fair amount of balance work 跷功 (on stilts, basically), acrobatics, and, occasionally, chair work 椅子功. I’ve now seen a modern performance of Hanging a Painting 挂画 with Du Lina 杜丽娜 in the same role, along with the Yuncheng City Pu Opera Troupe 运城市蒲剧团, mounting the chair as Wang Cuncai would have done.
The performance is available here. The thin, elegant Du Lina probably has an easier time of it than Wang Cai would have. Having only seen the performance done by Du Lina, I have nothing to measure it against. Her singing is fantastic, though. I can say that.
Let’s return to Ruined City.
It’s clear from that passage that Zhuang Zhidie and Tang Wan’er have something going on.
After slicing the pork, Wan'er turned on the gas stove, and as the flames popped, she let her thoughts roam. She placed a small mirror on the chopping board, which allowed her to see Zhuang in the other room. As far as looks go, he can't be considered handsome, but it's strange how after only just meeting him, I find him so appealing, looking better by the minute. Back home in Tuangguan, Zhou Min impressed me as a smart, capable man who had some talent. But Xijing is, after all, Xijing, and next to him, Zhou Min merely looks clever. By this point in her reverie, the oil had turned hot, and she hurried to dump in the tofu. But she mistakenly tossed in some wet ginger. Pow! Hot oil spurted out of the pan and spattered on her face. "Ow!" she cried out, dropping into a crouch in front of the stove.She returns to the party, but Tang Wan’er’s exasperated appearance, and the new imperfection in the form of a blister on her cheek, seems to set Zhuang Zhidie on fire. He excuses himself to the bathroom and masturbates while thinking about her.
I like the image of Tang Wan'er looking at herself looking at Zhuang Zhidie. It calls to mind another observation in the book (and repeated in Qinqiang, as well)—someone asks the gender of a fly on a mirror and the response is: it has to be a female fly, because even female flies love looking at themselves in the mirror. She is looking at the object of her desire, but also looking back at herself.
Also, somewhere in there, Zhou Min realizes the pot-bellied man he saw drinking milk from a cow on the road was Zhuang Zhidie.
Page 53 to 64. The Niu family, puttering, instruments of torture.
Instead of going home after the dinner party, Zhuang Zhidie goes to see Ruan Zhifei at the Writers Association (the Literary Federation in Goldblatt’s translation), then back to his place for more drinking.
Ruan Zhifei takes Zhuang on a tour of his apartment, showing off his imported wallpaper and furniture, then letting himself into his wife's room, where a man is in bed with Ruan's wife. Ruan doesn't seem surprised by the scene, and when Zhuang asks who it is, he refuses to answer. Ruan gives Zhuang a pair of women's shoes, since he has a surplus. Zhuang leaves and tries to get in touch with Jing Xueyin, possibly to gift her the shoes.
At this point, we hear the legend of the Niu family.
Fifty-five years earlier, an eccentric by the name of Niu had lived on the bank of the Wei River in the northern outskirts of town. ... At the time, General Yang Hucheng had ended his bandit career in central Shaanxi and become a powerful force in Xijing. He invited the eccentric Niu to be his aide. ... Soon thereafter, the Henan warlord Liu Zhenhua laid siege to Xijing. After meeting stiff opposition for eighty days, Liu tried the Japanese tactic of tunneling into the city. The residents knew what the enemy was up to, but did not know where the tunnel ended, so at night they buried earthenware vats filled with water and regularly checked to see if they were disturbed. ... The eccentric arrived, dressed in traditional garb, and after walking through the city, street by street and lane by lane, he rested on a boulder at the martial-arts school to smoke his water pipe.
"Dig here to create a lake," he said after twelve puffs on his pipe. Yang Hucheng was doubtful, but he had all the city's water brought over. The tunnel ended at the bottom of the lake, and when it broke through, all the water flowed out of the city. Liu Zhenhua was forced to retreat. A grateful Yang rewarded the eccentric with a house on Shuangren fu Avenue ... so his son moved into town.Zhuang's wife, Niu Yueqing 牛月清, is the granddaughter of the eccentric. His son, and her father, established a water company at the site granted to him by Yang Hucheng 杨虎城.
And flies appear again:
He took the brick from the scooter rack and carried it inside.
"Don't bring that filthy thing into the house!" Niu Yueqing complained.
"Look closer," Zhuang said. "It's from the Han Dynasty."
"You've piled up so many of those in the other house that people can't get in the door; now you want to do the same here. You say they're from the Han; well, the flies in the house are from the Tang!"Carlos Rojas refers to the flies in Ruined City (and in the preface to Old Xi’an, where there are also flies from the Tang) as “transhistorical spectral presences whose imperial-period associations stand in open defiance of the forward march of modernity.”
It’s a beautiful piece of academic writing, but I’m not sure I get it. It doesn’t matter.
Niu Yueqing’s mother lives in the apartment, too, and she is a bit of a spectral presence herself, sleeping in a coffin, and obsessing about her deceased husband, who she thinks she can still see.
For the rest of the section, Zhuang bullshits with his wife, and his friend, Zhao Jingwu 赵京五. We learn that the best hulutou 葫芦头 (not unlike conventional paomo 泡馍, in that stale bread is broken up into the broth, but with pork intestine in it) can be found at Chunshengfa 春生发 in Nanyuanmen 南院门, but the product at Fushunlai 福来顺 is inferior. Zhao Jingwu explains his love life. Zhuang’s wife goes out to return a back scratcher. Zhao eventually invites Zhuang Zhidie to see an old home that the mayor is going to demolish. When his wife returns, he tries to give her the shoes, but she turns them down for being “instruments of torture.”
I thought Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review was quite perceptive in his observation that Ruined City is “remarkable for its willingness to putter along through the everyday, in contrast to so much modern fiction that insists up spectacular and dramatic incident after incident.” This section is a fine example of that.
Page 64 to 75. Calligraphy.
Zhao Jingwu introduces a job to Zhuang Zhidie: write about my aunt's cousin's chemical plant. He takes Zhuang to see the old house that he mentioned before.
I quite like the extended descriptions of the home:
A detached protective guard on the frame, peeling black paint on the doors, and six missing metal fasteners marred the gateway. A pair of unicorns in relief decorated the high bluestone gate pier. Iron rings were inlaid in the outer walls, which were fronted by long purple stones. Seeing how intently Zhuang was looking everything over, Zhao told him that the rings were for tethering horses, while the long purple stones were known as mounting stones. In earlier days, rich families rode horses down the street; bells fastened to the reins rang out, and the hoof beats pounded rhythmically. ... The carving on the gate pier particularly impressed Zhuang, who said that the residents of Xijing had excavated and restored just about everything else, but no one had paid any attention to the pier gate carvings. If he went around making stone pier rubbings, he could publish a book of them.Zhao leads Zhuang into the courtyard, which is home to several families and Zhuang himself, who has a room in the back. Zhao explains how the process of reform in the 1950s tossed out the wealthy residents and installed the poor. It turns out that Zhao is a descendant of the wealthy family that was once the sole tenant of the courtyard home. "The whole street was ours," he says.
Zhuang draws a comparison between the dilapidated courtyard and his own hometown:
"The world is changing all the time," he said. "This is what a once-magnificent home has deteriorated into. Pretty soon even this will be gone. Tongguan is my ancestral home, and as one of the most strategic spots in the Central Plain, it has been the site of many glorious chapters in our history. But ten years ago, the county seat was moved, and the town became a wasteland. I went back not long ago and sat in one of the old buildings. I couldn't stop sighing. When I came back, I wrote an essay about it; maybe you read it."
"I did," Zhao replied, "which is why I invited you here today. Maybe you can write about this sometime."Zhao Jingwu tries to run him through the collection of antiques that he has collected in his room, but Zhuang Zhidie is distracted by a woman cradling a baby out in the courtyard. It turns out that she’s a maid for a wealthy family, and looking after the child at home. Zhuang is taken by her beauty.
Zhao gives Zhuang a pair of bronze mirrors, asking for one of Wang Ximian's paintings in exchange.
Director Huang 黄厂长, the factory owner, arrives.
The factory boss agrees to take them out for hulutou and gives Zhuang a bottle of liquor, candy, and cigarettes. "Foreign cigarettes are too strong for me," he says, which is what Jia Pingwa told me when I tried to give him a pack of Marlboros after he gifted me a carton of Zhonghua.
Zhuang Zhidie writes a piece of calligraphy for the factory boss:
Zhuang thought for a moment, then wrote:
The wind dances gracefully when the butterfly comes
The person departs and the moon laments
"What does that mean?" Zhao asked. "The butterfly [die] in the first line is clearly from your name, and the moon [yue] in the second line is probably your wife, Niu Yueqing. I can figure out your use of 'gracefully' and 'laments,' but not 'comes' and 'departs.'"I feel Goldblatt’s pain here, since these sorts of things are impossible to translate without tossing in some of the original, which reads: 蝶来风有致, 人去月无聊.
He goes on to write a couplet for Zhao Jingwu:
There is no heavenly message for savage demons
The moon is dark in the presence of starlightThe original is: 百鬼狰狞上帝无言；星有芒角见月暗淡
But, anyways, suddenly there’s a knock at the door. It’s the nanny from the courtyard. She wants to meet the famous writer, but calls Zhuang a liar when he claims to be the man she’s looking for, since he looks a bit shabby. He asks her name. It’s Liu Yue 柳月. He finally convinces her by writing a couplet:
In the wild the sky presses down on trees
By the clear river the moon comes near peopleIt’s a line from a Meng Haoran 孟浩然 poem, called Spending the Night on Jiande River 宿建德江: 移舟泊烟渚，日暮客愁新。野旷天低树，江清月近人。
The boat is moored beside the misty island,
As the sun goes down, my sorrow grows anew.
Out on the plain, the trees and heavens meet,
The moon seems close to me on this clear water.Zhuang Zhidie tries to get her to come on as his maid, but Zhao Jingwu interrupts, saying she has a contract with another family. The final agreement is that Liu Yue will join Zhuang’s household after the contract expires.
Page 75 to 82. Feet, cows.
A particularly masterful section, running from Tang Wan’er flirting, Zhuang’s foot fetish, a boozy dinner, nighttime street scenes, and the wisdom of a cow.
Zhuang Zhidie decides to stop off at Zhou Min's place on the way to dinner and finds him out but Tang Wan'er home.
He gazes into her eyes and sees himself looking back: "He looked into her eyes, in which a tiny human figure appeared. It was his reflection.” It recalls Tang Wan’er looking at him in her mirror, too, I think.
He tells her that he can tell her fortune by studying her physiognomy. That includes her beautiful feet:
Zhuang reached out but stopped before touching her and simply pointed to a spot below the ankle. She took off her shoe and raised her foot until it nearly touched his face. He was surprised by how lithe she was and noticed what a dainty foot she had. The transition from calf to foot was flawless, her instep so high it could accommodate an apricot. Her toes were as delicate as bamboo tips, starting from the long big toe and progressing down to the short little one, which was wiggling at that moment. Zhuang had never seen such a lovely foot, and he nearly let out a shout.He rushes out to grab the box of shoes that his wife turned down. He slips the stilettos onto her feet and rushes back to have lunch with the factory boss and Zhao Jingwu.
He gets wasted at lunch, then rides back home on his scooter, telling his wife he's going to spend his wife at the Literary Federation compound. When he goes out again, he runs into an old friends:
The fading sunlight created a haze. Birds on the drum tower set up a din as wonton and kebab peddlers turned on lanterns and fired up stoves in front of the gate. Children crowded around an old man selling cotton candy. Curious as to how it was made, Zhuang walked over and watched the man spoon sugar into the spinning head and saw it emerge as fine, cottony threads. When he looked up, he spied Aunty Liu and her milk cow walking up to the gateway. ... When the cow saw him, she mooed loudly, sending children scrambling away in fright. "You haven't bought any milk in days, Mr. Zhuang," Aunty Liu said. "Aren't you staying in the compound?"And we finally get the story of the cow: Aunty Liu was originally a "vegetable peddler" on the outskirts of the city, and Zhuang met her on a research trip, after which he suggested she buy a milk cow.
That night, after Zhuang sees the cow outside the Literary Federation, Aunty Liu leads it over to the wall, where Zhou Min is playing his flute.
The cow turned thoughtful as she lay on the ground chewing her cud:
When I was at Mount Zhongnan, I knew that the history of humans is tied up with that of cows. To state it differently, either humans evolved from cows or cows evolved from humans. But that's now how they see it. Humans say they evolved from apes. How could they possibly think that? ... Humans lie in order to have a clear conscience while keeping us enslaved forever. ... Are cows, like fleas, so insignificant that they have no reason to exist in this vast, chaotic world? No, we are enormous creatures—large bodies, four strong hooves, and steely pointed horns fit for battle—and yet, in a world where humans are under assault by all other wild creatures, cows alone stand by them ... Ah, you humans! You have conquered cows by forsaking fairness and with the invention of the whip.The cow describes her mission, to "infiltrate this flourishing city in a cow's native state of being."
I am a philosopher, I truly am. I must keep close watch over this city to evaluate the lives of its human inhabitants and serve as a bovine prophet during the transitional period between humans and cows.What does all this mean?
Is the cow another one of Zhuang’s women? If so, what does it mean that he suckles at her teat while debasing himself in the road, crawling around in the dirt? Maybe Zhuang’s women nurture him, while also forcing him to debase himself, too. Zhuang’s foot fetish and Tang Wan’er’s feet in his face feels as submissive as crawling under a cow to drink its milk.
Is there meant to be a connection between the cow—niú 牛—and Zhuang’s wife—Niu Yueqing 牛月清? Maybe.
Zhuang tells Aunty Liu to buy a cow because the milk in the city is “watered down.” Does he see in the cow something of himself, bringing authenticity from the countryside, to a city of “watered down” writing/masculinity/living? Yes, there must be something to that.
Why is it a “transitional period”? Does that have anything to do with the titular state of the city? What is the relationship between the humans and the cows and the “wolves, vermin, tigers, or panthers” that the abbot mentions have disappeared because they have all been “reincarnated as human beings.” I don’t know.
The cow will appear again, so maybe we’ll get some answers.
Page 82 to 94. Gossip.
Back at Shuangren fu, Zhuang Zhidie is pressing real money to spirit money to make it more effective in the underworld, and Niu Yueqing is having a ring made for Zhuang out of some silver hair ornaments she inherited. He goes out into the road to burn the spirit money, while Niu Yueqing's mother calls to the dead to come and get it. They gossip for a while about a woman up the block that's become pregnant, then some idle talk about how people evade family planning policy. While they're burning the paper, "the Wang woman" 王婆婆 comes over.
The Wang woman was a “one-time prostitute,” probably before Liberation, judging by the detail that she married a secretary to Hu Zongnan 胡宗南, who retreated to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. She had...
...borne him a son who died in a motorcycle accident as a young man. A few years later, the former secretary died, leaving her, a childless widow, to live out her days alone, hard, lonely days. She had opened a private nursery in her spacious home two years before. Since she lived nearby, she visited often to gossip. ... Some six months earlier, she had wondered aloud why Zhuang and Niu Yueqing still did not have a child at their age, a comment that Niu Yueqing's mother found heartbreaking. She explained that her daughter had been pregnant the year after she was married, but because they were not ready to have a child, she had had an abortion. The second time, they had said that he wanted to wait till he was fully established before having a child, so that pregnancy was also terminated. ... The Wang woman said she knew of a secret formula that guaranteed not only pregnancy, but the birth of a son.Niu Yueqing is unable to conceive again. She gets some patent medicine from the Wang woman, which is supposed to guarantee results. That night, she pushes Zhuang Zhidie to have sex with her. He’s unable to maintain an erection.
Zhuang was deflated; Yueqing was unsatisfied. She told him to bring her to orgasm with his hand, after which they rolled over and went to sleep. Not another word was spoken that night.The next day, Zhuang goes out to the factory, gets a tour, and pounds out an article. His work done, he gets an urge to see Tang Wan’er.
He doesn't want to risk seeing Zhou Min, though, so he goes to a small local bar to drink. A young man at the counter is so distracted by a magazine article that he accidentally takes some sausage off Zhuang's plate.
"What are you reading that has you so absorbed?" he asked.
"You wouldn't know, but this is about Zhuang Zhidie. Do you know who he is? I've read his works in the past but had no idea he's just like us."
"Is that so?" Zhuang said. "What does it say?"
"It says that Zhuang was a foolish child. In elementary school he thought teachers were the greatest people in the world. Then one day he went to the toilet and saw his teacher urinating. It was an eye-opener. 'Even teachers need to pee!' he said, as if they never needed to relieve themselves. Naturally his teacher glared at him, but didn't say a word, while Zhuang looked on and wondered out loud, 'Do teachers have to shake it, too?' Complaining that the boy had a low sense of morality, the teacher reported this to his father, who gave him a good beating."It's the latest issue of Xijing Magazine, and Zhou Min's article, "Stories of Zhuang Zhidie." He decides to keep reading, hoping to learn something about himself:
Zhuang could make you happy and he could embarrass you. He could tell you how to recognize a female fly by seeing where it lands; if it alights on a mirror, it is female, for even a fly wants to be pretty. When he is dragged over in a public place to have his photo taken, he can put on a miserable look and say he was a horse in his previous life, not a warhorse or a beast of burden, but a beribboned pony at a tourist site, where it is mounted for picture-taking. ... As he read on, Zhuang came to the part about a romance from years before with a coworker at a magazine office; with many things in common, they were deeply in love, but ultimately parted ways owing to a strange combination of circumstances. ... No name was given, but the outline of the story was clearly based on his relationship with Jing Xueyin. ... Where had Zhou Min gotten his material? What bothered Zhuang was how Jing would react after reading the article. ... Beset by worries, Zhuang put down the magazine and rushed over to the editorial office of Xijing Magazine, his desire to see Tang Wan'er gone.Page 94 to 103. Gossip, gossip, and more gossip.
There are some interesting things here, with Zhuang and the article in Xijing Magazine: Jia Pingwa is writing about Zhou Min writing about Zhuang Zhidie, but the reader might assume that Jia Pingwa is writing about himself.
Jia Pingwa’s association with Zhuang Zhidie is unmistakable, I would say. Their biographies are quite close. And when this book came out, part of the controversy around it was because of that identification between author and protagonist.
It’s not a particularly Chinese literary thing to see the author in his creation, and read in autobiographical elements, right? But… I would say it’s more common in the Chinese literary world to conflate the two. Bonnie S. McDougall’s Fictional Authors, Imaginary Audiences: Modern Chinese Literature in the Twentieth Century is the best resource on this, I think, in general, and the idea of autobiographical writing lending authenticity to work, and the idea of an audience projecting itself onto the writer (and another idea: "...the 'self' which is invoked in many twentieth-century Chinese literary works is not necessarily the 'self' of the individual but the 'self' as a member of the particular social group to which they belong.”)
There’s also in the idea still popular in China that literature should be didactic, the problem of “moral responsibility” of the author—what I mean here is: the author has a responsibility for their work, so they are closely identified with it, maybe especially if it communicates what are seen as bad moral lessons (and see Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and his Fictional World by Yiyan Wang for more on this in particular).
So, when the novel goes to print and people start worrying about the sex and corruption and general moral disorder in the book, part of the problem is that Jia is seen as the protagonist.
And their biographies are similar, too, all that aside: both arrive from the countryside and become literary stars, and both have somewhat complicated love lives, etc. I don’t want to gossip, though.
It’s interesting, though.
You have to wonder who Jia Pingwa is gossiping about while having Zhuang Zhidie decry gossip-as-literature.
This section begins with a lengthy explanation of how Zhuang Zhidie came to be an editor at Xijing Magazine twelve years earlier and how he met Jing Xueyin. He decides to stop by his old office and get to the bottom of the article.
Zhou Min appears, serving tea to Zhuang, who is gossiping with his old co-workers.
”Zhuang Laoshi, this is my first article, so please don’t be stingy with your views.”
Putting the lighthearted banter aside, Zhuang said that he had come specifically because of that article, which he found somewhat troubling. Zhong tensed up.
”What bothers you about it?
”Everything is fine except for the part about my relationship with Miss X. It was overblown, and there could be repercussions.”
”I considered that,” Zhong said. “I asked Zhou Min where he got his material, and he said it was all based on fact.”
”It looks real, but the way it’s written, it feels different. No names are mentioned, and yet the circumstances of the people involved are self-evident. You know that Jing Xueyin and I were close, but we never had a romantic relationship.”Zhuang and the editor, Zhong Weixian 钟唯贤 come to an agreement that someone from the magazine will go to Jing Xueyin and explain what’s going on. After that, a mahjong game begins between Zhuang, Gou Dahai 苟大海, Li Hongwen 李洪文, and Xiao Fang 小方. The gossip continues. They talk about the boss, Zhong Weixian:
”That man has suffered plenty,” Gou said. “On top of being labeled a Rightist for twenty years, he married an awful woman. She came here last month and, in front of everyone, scratched his face bloody.”
”What can he do?” Zhuang asked. “They were already living apart when we were together in the Department of Culture, and he panicked every time she came to see him. We encouraged him to get a divorce, but she wouldn’t hear of it. I don’t know how he’s managed all these years, especially now that times have changed.”Zhuang Zhidie is happy to gossip, but Zhou Min broke a key rule: keep it around the mahjong table. You can’t print gossip in a magazine! Everyone knew about Zhuang’s love life, but nobody was shameless enough to try to profit off of it.
The men around the table eventually settle on who’s going to pay for lunch (it’s guànchang bāozi 灌肠包子, translated as "pork jelly buns"). They go out to a teahouse after, and Zhuang walks home alone late in the evening, thinking about Tang Wan’er—but instead of her, he runs into the beggar we saw at the start of the book, who gives us another blast of doggerel about official corruption.