Edited and Translated by Shouhua Qi
Reviewed by Jennifer Feeley
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2012)
In an age of diminishing attention spans, stories that can be read in the few minutes it takes to wait for the bus, stand in line, or smoke a cigarette are valued for their ability to entertain on demand. Mobile technologies such as text messaging and micro-blogging on cell phones and tablets spur both the production and consumption of this economic genre—the shortest of these works can be contained within a single computer screen or a few text messages. Flash fiction (微型小说), or short-short fiction, is by no means a recent phenomenon, however. Shouhua Qi, editor and translator of The Pearl Jacket and Other Stories: Flash Fiction From Contemporary China, traces its multiple origins thousands of years back to Aesop’s fables from ancient Greece and the Chinese creation myths of Nüwa, Fuxi, and Pangu (11). In his four-page preface, Qi enumerates some of the charming Chinese appellations for this condensed narrative form, including “pocket-size story” (袖珍小说) and “palm-size story” (掌篇小说), which conjure up images of their small size (tiny enough to be tucked into a pocket or held in one’s palm), while “one-minute story” (一分钟小说) and “smoke-long story” (一袋烟小说) evoke their brief duration. (Other popular terms in English are microfiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction, and short-shorts.) While there is no agreed-upon word limit, most tales average around 1,500 Chinese characters, with the longest rarely exceeding 2,500. As Qi reflects, these works are “1,000-meter high hills,” not towering mountains (12). In spite of this bare-bones storytelling, the basic structure of a full-length story remains intact, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, though certain details are implied rather than explicitly spelled out. It is a no-frills genre.
The Pearl Jacket joins another recent anthology, Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts, in making a diverse corpus of Chinese-language flash fiction available in English, in most cases for the first time.[ 1 ] While The Pearl Jacket primarily bills itself as a collection of contemporary Chinese flash fiction, a few earlier examples also are featured, with entries dating back to the 1920s and 1930s. Among the collection’s 120 stories, one finds works not only from Mainland China but also Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Instead of following a chronological trajectory, the pieces are arranged by seven topical categories: “relationships,” “family,” “portraits,” “society,” “truth and art,” “existential moments,” and “the strange and extraordinary.” Some of the more prominent showcased authors include Lu Xun, Yu Dafu, Guo Moruo, and Shen Congwen from Republican China; Wang Meng, Jia Pingwa, and Feng Jicai from the PRC; Liu Yichang from Hong Kong; and Li Ang and Yin Di from Taiwan. While publication dates are listed when known, with few exceptions, Qi does not provide background material on the writers or texts, nor are any Chinese characters given, therefore making it a challenge for readers to locate additional information about the authors and stories, particularly when it comes to lesser-known writers (footnotes are reserved for famous figures and textual and cultural references). Adding to the confusion, a couple of the authors’ names are transcribed incorrectly (e.g., “Jia Pingao” instead of “Jia Pingwa,” or “Wang Cengqi” rather than “Wang Zengqi”).
The stories in The Pearl Jacket sketch a panorama of topics and aesthetic styles, testifying to the richness of the genre. The pages are filled with historical accounts, fantastic tales, humorous anecdotes, social commentaries, romances, poetic reflections, and parodies, among others. Sardonic jottings on love, such as Yue Yong’s “The Girl in the Red Skirt” (2001), Ling Rongzhi’s “Odd Day, Even Day” (2002), and “Sweetheart” (n.d.) by Ku Ling, surprise with their sudden anti-romantic twists, while “A ‘Lovebird’ for You” by Xing Qingjie (2003) and “The Two Patients” by Jiang Zilong (1985) appease the sentimentalist. “Immortality” (2000) by Huang Keting, “Dance of the Pearls” (2004) by Xie Zhiqiang, and the grotesque “Parrot” (n.d.) by Tao Li read as fables, while the title story, Dong Rui’s “The Pearl Jacket” (2004), ventures into science fiction, crafting a glimpse of a posthuman future. Historical and fictional figures from China’s imperial past, including Qu Yuan, Cao Cao, Guan Yu, Wu Song, and Pan Jinlian, make cameos in many of the stories. In several instances, the past is used to satirize the present, as in Ling Dingnian’s “Cat and Mouse Play” (2004).
Other than their condensed narratives, what unites these works is their penchant for defying expectations with clever twist endings. He Kaiwen’s “Creativity” (2005) starts off as a tale of suicide but jackknifes into a critique of the cutthroat nature of the advertising industry. Meanwhile, Wang Renshu’s “Blowfish” (1936) is reminiscent of an O. Henry masterpiece in its depiction of an impoverished farmer’s backfired attempt to relieve his starving family of their suffering:
“Why, not dead yet?” he thought aloud softly.
“Pop! We’ve been waiting for you to eat together!”
“Oh!” He now knew.
The family scrambled to the table and ate with gusto. They hadn’t had any fish for so long and every tiny bite tasted delicious. Afterwards, he lay in bed quietly and soon fell asleep, waiting for the Dark Angel of Death to descend.
The blowfish, however, had been cooked for so long its poison had all disappeared. So the family lived and would have to suffer hunger again, day by day. (68)
In one of the shortest pieces in the collection, “Theme” (1925), the reader similarly is rewarded with a snippet of the acerbic wit of famed wordsmith Lu Xun:
“A male child was born to a family. The family was so thrilled. During the one-month birthday celebration, the family showed the baby to their guests, probably to invite some auspicious comments.
“One man said, ‘This child will be wealthy.’ He was duly thanked.
“One man said, ‘This child will be powerful.’ He received auspicious comments in return.
“One man said, ‘This child will die one day.’ He was rewarded with blows from everyone present.
“To say the child will die is telling the truth. To say the child will be wealthy or powerful is telling a lie. But the one lying was richly rewarded, while the one telling the truth was beaten.” (230)
Lu Xun’s contemporary Guo Muoro prefaces the oldest story in the anthology, “He” (1920), with the declaration: “Lately the short story has become quite in vogue among artists in the West. The shortest has no more than a dozen lines. Would the piece I’ve come up with below be worthy of the name at all?” (229). Guo’s comments suggest that he and his peers regarded the short story, particularly the short-short, as a “Western” literary trend against which they measured their own works. In Greater China, foreign-language short-shorts have been translated into Chinese and collected in numerous anthologies, no doubt influencing writers throughout the region. Connections also can be forged, however, between the conciseness and storytelling techniques of traditional Chinese fictional narratives and modern and contemporary Chinese flash fiction; selections from the heading “the strange and extraordinary” harken back to Tang chuanqi and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from Liaozhai but employ postmodern writing strategies. On this hybrid genre, Qi remarks: “Taking root in China’s fertile native cultural soil and drawing nourishment from influences inside and outside China, flash fiction has matured as a literary form” (11). Unfortunately, some readers may find Qi’s genealogy of Chinese-language flash fiction to be as pared down as the stories themselves. Qi claims that after the 1920s and 1930s, there was a dearth of Chinese flash fiction until its reemergence in the 1980s (12), thereby bypassing a half-century of literary production in Greater China. Statements such as “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 nearly wiped Chinese literature off the map” (13) come across as sweeping generalizations, not to mention Mainland-centric. Qi’s abridged history of Chinese flash fiction resumes in the PRC in the 1980s and 1990s, with the boom of periodicals such as the Journal of Microfiction and the Journal of the Short-Short Story, as well as the establishment of the Microfiction Association of China in 1992 (11). Yet as the editors of Loud Sparrows point out in their substantially more expansive introduction, this literary form also gained traction in newspaper columns in 1950s Hong Kong and 1960s Taiwan, thriving in the 1980s after being popularized via a column on “very-short pieces” in the literary section of Taiwan’s United Daily.[ 2 ] Because The Pearl Jacket encompasses stories not only from Mainland China but also Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, a more in-depth assessment of flash fiction in those areas would better contexualize the book’s contents.
In Hong Kong, flash fiction is gaining increased recognition as highbrow literature. In Taiwan, meanwhile, it straddles both the commercial and the literary. In the PRC, its popularity continues to explode by leaps and bounds, yet its potential for literary innovation is still being explored.[ 3 ] Perhaps the appeal lies in the fact that these works can be composed quickly, consumed instantly, and are immediately entertaining. In an era of self-made Internet celebrities, they invite the amateur to try his or her hand at becoming an author, while the formal constraints challenge more seasoned writers to experiment with the malleability of the genre.
The Pearl Jacket is a significant contribution to both world and Chinese literature, complementing the only other anthology of Chinese flash fiction available in English at this time. Qi served as the sole translator of the entire collection, and overall the quality of both the translations and the selections is good, but in a few cases the writing falls flat. Qi comes across as informed and enthusiastic about his subject matter, though the preface reads more like a work of flash fiction than a comprehensive introduction. These minor shortcomings, however, do not interfere with the reader’s overall appreciation of the stories themselves. This collection is sure to enchant flash fiction fans around the globe, the selections perhaps best savored pearl by pearl.
University of Iowa
[ 1 ] See Aili Mu, Julie Chu, and Howard Goldblatt, eds., Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
[ 2 ] Aili Mu and Julie Chu, “Introduction,” Loud Sparrows, xiii.
[ 3 ] Aili Mu and Julie Chu, “Introduction,”Loud Sparrows, xx-xxi.