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Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts

Aili Mu & translated by Julie Chiu & Howard Goldblatt

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-231-13848-2
Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Anthology of Chinese short-shorts ranges from exotic to downright weird.

Apparently, short-short stories (under a thousand words) have taken China, Taiwan and Hong Kong by storm. Whence this collection representing what the editors’ introduction cites as a global phenomenon. In China, short-shorts are not merely the province of creative-writing programs or literary contests, but have a mass readership in magazines and newspapers. This anthology attempts to bill as literature what are essentially anecdotes à la Paul Harvey. Whether the culture barriers are too opaque, the translation issues too thorny or self-censorship too rampant, the most avid reader of international literature may find these stories vague and puzzling. Division into 15 sections with seemingly arbitrary theme headings, e.g. Governance, Controversy and yes, Weirdness, imposes no real coherence. A few of the pieces are gently ironic, while many amble aimlessly—the majority of these 91 tales are more accurately characterized as sketches. In “Losing the Feet,” a shoe clerk is drawn to a customer with smelly feet, and when she disappears, his own feet start to smell. “The Beat” involves a son’s gift of a metronome—delayed by a garrulous old geezer—to a mother who, in retirement, is pursuing her lifelong dream of learning the piano. “A Cup of Tea” captures a petty bureaucrat’s anguish over not offering tea to a non-tea-drinking superior, and then over apologizing for his lapse. Readers may not grasp the outcome of certain stories (“A Capable Man Can’t Handle a Small Case,” “Cat”). Some smack of horror (“Flies,” “Chimney Smoke”). Occasionally, entries succeed by rendering a socioeconomic phenomenon concrete: the food chain of trash trucks and trash-pickers, in “The Cycle”; or by illustrating a peculiar prejudice: a male obstetrician risks offending by delivering babies and pays with his life for his skill (“Small-Hands Chen”). Other stories echo Western fables (“The Crow and the Fox”) or pop songs (“Black Umbrella”). Too few achieve the emotional precision of “A Knock at the Door” or “An Encounter with General Zhou.”

A curiosity at best.