Both ideology and art are served, with varying results, in this nonetheless interesting collection of 21 stories by 19 Chinese writers, most of them little known or unknown in the West.
Though the balance of the stories were written since 1970, the shadows of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and a long history of repressive regimentation are visible on virtually every page. And though editor Li-Qun’s brief introductory remarks call attention to “Character-led [as opposed to narrative-driven] fiction,” the volume contains such undistinguished work as his own flaccid account of a young London woman’s dream of performing in Chinese opera (“From Beijing Opera”); Wang Ceng-qi’s shapeless portrayal of relationships among primary school teachers and staff (“Big Chan”); and Shi Tie-sheng’s “Fate,” a discursive autobiographical speculation on the role chance plays in human affairs. There are interesting characterizations in “Hong Taiti,” Cheng Nai-shen’s wistful tale of a gracious, compassionate woman humbled by the Revolution, and Chen Shi-xu’s “The General and the Small Town,” whose eponymous protagonist maintains his dignity and courage throughout the havoc wreaked by shifting political winds. Even better are Feng Ji-cai’s “The Tall Woman and Her Short Husband,” about a devoted couple ruined by malicious gossip and false allegations of treason, and Cai Ce-hai’s briskly told “The Distant Sound of Tree-Felling,” in which an elderly carpenter’s stubborn conventionality threatens the happiness that his long-suffering daughter and compliant apprentice seem destined for. Best of all are two stories by the gifted Su Tong (known here for such memorable fiction as Raise the Red Lantern and Rice). His “Cherry” is a beautifully developed (if unsurprising) ghost story, and “Young Muo” is a tragicomic fabliaux about an egoistic doctor’s son; both deftly display this underrated writer’s absolute mastery of narrative economy and realistic detail.
A very mixed bag, then. But as the only anthology of its kind currently available, well worth a look.