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Dragonworld: Four Short Stories from China

  • By Nicky Harman
  • 23rd December 2016
Read Paper Republic returned to Free Word Centre with another fantastic speed-book clubbing event, this time focused on four fantasy short stories from China. Translator Nicky Harman shares what translators and groups thought of each.

For our second speed-book clubbing event with Free Word as part of their Wanderlust series, the theme was Chinese surrealism and fantasy. By their nature, these stories can be tricky to understand; we were delighted that so many intrepid literary explorers turned out to discuss the four we selected. And delighted, too, with how Free Word Centre’s Hall was transformed into an intimate space for discussion.

Four translators, four stories, four tables… and a bell that rang every 20 minutes for the discussion groups to move along to the next table and the next story.


Read on to discover what the groups thought of each short story; you can read the stories by clicking on their titles.

Or, click below to listen to a recording of the event, including feedback from the translators and a Q&A with participants.

Listen now

by Zhang Xinxin, translated by Helen Wang

All four groups commented on dragons – Chinese dragons are supposed to be positive, yet the dragons in this story are destructive, chomping their way through the city. Is this a commentary on the environment, on urban life, on so-called human progress? Was it specifically Chinese to think in terms of generations? Comparisons were made with the 80s and 90s generations. We discussed the structure of the story, and the frames within frames; the theatricality and film-like qualities of the piece.

Much of the discussion concerned the narrator. The multi-dimensional story shifts in the narration, and some things are left hanging, unlinked and unexplained, as in a dream. Almost everyone said they could tell the story was written by a woman. Some people loved how she looks at the world through the eyes of Zhaishao, her 13-year-old inner geek, experiencing the purest love for the little girl / dragon. How much of the story is a commentary on social progress, and how much is a process of personal transition? Do we have to destroy things before we can break through and move forward?

I found these short group discussions incredibly useful – the participants in the groups have very diverse backgrounds and experiences, and this opens up all kinds of avenues for discussion.

Helen Wang

The Death of Zernik
by Zhu Yue, translated by Dave Haysom

In striving to find meaning in Zhu Yue’s story, we found ourselves cast in the same role as Zernik, a protagonist whose life seems to be entirely lacking in purpose until he blunders (or is placed) into this story of a duel. Many readers were intrigued by the setting – which is specifically not-Chinese, but not specifically anywhere else either (other than a generic pre-twentieth-century Europeland) – and how that setting was shaped by the decisions of the translation process.

It was interesting to hear how readers responded to The Death of Zernik in the context of the other three pieces we had chosen for this event. I had been struck by the story’s self-conscious artifice, and the way it seems to deliberately assemble stock characters (the loyal best friend, the arrogant general, the mysterious fortune-teller) and template locations (the snowy grove, the rowdy tavern) into a pastiche that uses familiar-seeming tropes towards an ultimately disorientating end. Yet, compared to the other three stories – more impressionistic in style and fragmented in structure – The Death of Zernik was generally regarded as a relatively transparent work. And I think that was exactly what Zhu Yue set out to write: a story that reads like a straightforward yarn, but lingers in the imagination afterwards in unexpected ways.

Dave Haysom

by Zhang Yueran, translated by Jeremy Tiang

The groups were – appropriately, given the title of the story – starkly divided into those who loved Binary, and those who were challenged by its ambiguities. Much of our discussions focused on attempting to define the meaning of the story. Is it about gender or sexuality? About death? About youth? About futility? About writing? If we concluded anything, it was that it is a beautiful, frustrating, Sisyphean story, one of dreams and ghosts and unfinished business.

Some of the groups were struck by the use of imagery, describing it as at once abrupt and flowing. We talked about how the elements that had been borrowed from other cultures – the fable structure and the knight – sat with those that were more distinctly Chinese in feel, adding to the sense of binary, or yin-yang, or opposites, that flows throughout.

Finally, we talked a lot about what the process of translation was like and I passed on some thoughts from Jeremy, the translator, who said:

The challenge was to remain true to the rather naive feel of the fable mode of storytelling, without having it come across as twee. There’s a lot of darkness behind the deceptively simple lines of the story, and I had to be very careful with word choice.

Everyone agreed that the excellence of the translation is a great partner to this powerful story!

Emily Jones

The Shades who Periscope through Flowers to the Sky
by Sun Yisheng, translated by Nicky Harman

We spent a lot of time discussing the title! It is taken from a Dylan Thomas poem, When once the twilight locks no longer, translated into Chinese by the eminent poet Bai Hua. One of the questions in the closing discussion was: What would we, as translators, change if we had to do our stories again? I would ask the author why he chose this title. (He is, in fact, very responsive to questions, but at the time, in 2012, I did not know him well enough.)

Two other comments stick in my mind. One reader said that the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape was so visual that one could imagine it being made into a film. Another was interested in how Shades differs from a classic Western-style crime story; after the ‘reveal’ (that he has confessed to the ‘wrong’ killing, and actually the police are trying to fit him up for the murder of his parents), there is a further episode – through the bars of his prison window, Rocky watches a dramatic solar eclipse, and the watchers outside are compared to the rebels in the film V for Vendetta. The (American) editor suggested cutting this, and we asked Sun Yisheng. He was firm: he wanted it to stay, and so it did.

– Nicky Harman


In the concluding discussion, several people tried to pin down a link, or commonality, between all four stories. It was suggested that they all shared a concern for truth and for justice. Someone also questioned whether this kind of writing, where reality is deliberately made opaque, or ‘encoded’, is a way of criticising society and the system in China today.

We reached no very firm conclusions, but I think it’s fair to say that we translators felt the audience’s comments enriched our understanding of the stories, and that the book clubbers went away feeling that they’d had an enjoyable evening. We received positive feedback in person and by email. Some people said it was their first time at Free Word Centre and they would definitely return for future events.

Translators at this event included:

Nicky Harman translates Chinese fiction, essays and poetry. Her most recent publication is Crystal Wedding (Balestier, 2016), longlisted for the FT Oppenheimer Emerging Voices Award.

Dave Haysom is a translator and editor of Pathlight, a quarterly journal of Chinese literature in translation. He has also written for publications such as Words Without Borders and China Dialogue.

Emily Jones’ most recent translation is Black Holes (Penguin China, 2014), a thriller by professor of law and novelist He Jiahong.

Helen Wang translates for both adults and younger readers, her most recent book being the children’s novel Bronze and Sunflower by CAO Wenxuan (Walker Books, 2015).

This event took place on 12 December 2016 at Free Word Centre and you can view the original listing here.

On the second Monday of each month, meet writers from around the world and hear them talk about their work. We also focus on their translators who help these books travel and open up discussions that cross the globe. Free Word provides a friendly space for you to ask questions of writers and translators as they share an exclusive insight into the creative process of storytelling.

Click here to explore the Wanderlust events we’ve held so far and read about (and around) some of the books we’ve featured.

You can also visit Free Word’s Wanderlust playlist on SoundCloud; we record each event so that you never have to miss out.

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