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"That Damned Thing She Said": 4 short stories about women in China

  • By Nicky Harman
  • 24th March 2016
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On 14 March 2016, Read Paper Republic hosted an evening of speed-book clubbing at Free Word Centre on contemporary fiction from China all about women. We asked people to read the short stories before the event, then come along to share their thoughts and questions with translators. Nicky Harman, a translator of Chinese fiction, essays and poetry who took part, reflects on the event and the feedback given on each story.

For one speed-book clubbing event: take four translated short stories, fifty-odd enthusiastic readers and a theme… (and four translators to lead the discussions, and a handbell to ring time every fifteen minutes.)

With International Women’s Day (8 March) in mind, Read Paper Republic selected four short stories from China, focussing on issues such as sexual freedom, political disappearances, “left-over” women, and compromising situations. The audience signed up and read the stories in advance, then came along to talk about each story in turn, in small groups. We held the event in three separate venues: in Beijing at the Bookworm Literary Festival on 12 March 2016, at Free Word Centre on 14 March, and at Leeds University on 19 March. You can listen to an audio recording of the Free Word Centre event by clicking here.

The Free Word event was a sell-out! That was the first piece of good news. More was to follow: our readers were enthusiastic, voluble in the discussions, and generous with their praise for the event. Not all of them liked every story, but they all had plenty to say about each of them.

Our general impression was that the two stories written by women, That Damned Thing She Said, and Missing, were the speed-book clubbers’ favourites. There’s more on those discussions, and authors’ comments, below. You can read the stories for yourselves by clicking here and see if you agree with the comments below…

She Who Picked Flowers, by Liu Qingbang, discussion led by Emily Jones

Readers of She Who Picked Flowers were frustrated at the fact that this was a very male story. No viewpoint was given to the central woman character, Song Tian’er. Because she is beautiful, she is an object. The older woman has more agency because she is not as good-looking, yet she uses this power to put her own sister-in-law in the shop window…. Everyone felt they wanted to know more about Song Tian’er. Why did she refuse the boss’s advances so stubbornly, given the likely dire consequences to her family? Emily concludes: “I don’t think anyone said this was their favourite story, but as discussion went on they all got very passionate about it!”

Mahjong, by Feng Tang, discussion led by Roddy Flagg

Mahjong clearly amused some readers and there was a good deal of speculation as to whether the heroine was a gold-digger or a woman who ended up making her own choices, rather than doing what society expected. In London, it was generally less well-liked than Damned Thing and Missing. However, just to show how readers’ groups can spring surprises, the Leeds speed-book clubbing event that followed on Saturday 19 March voted Mahjong their top favourite story.

That Damned Thing She Said, by Fu Yuli, discussion led by Nicky Harman

Damned Thing was a big favourite. The readers felt it had a sort of universality, was vividly imagined and emotionally powerful and that “we’ve all been there”. People commented on the sadness and loneliness of the heroine, and the claustrophobia of the settings (the train, the hotel bedroom). In Beijing, the group led by Eric Abrahamsen had a slightly different take on it: “… Both characters seem to be intent on ‘performing’ their gender roles.  Bun-face gets what he thinks is a mating signal, and everything he does after that is what he thinks a guy ought to do in that situation. For her part, Xiangxiang is a strong, independent woman who seems to be trying her damnedest to let go of that persona and be stereotypically female (weak and passive).”


FU Yuli was delighted that her story was being read in translation. In answer to London readers’ questions, she said:

I have come across so many women, especially middle-aged ones, who suffer from the same kind of loneliness and hopelessness [as Xiangxiang]. This is a part of marriage that is covered up and never talked about. I wanted to write about these women’s real lives.

Missing, by Li Jingrui, discussion led by Helen Wang

A lot of people volunteered that they liked Missing best of all the four stories, would like to read more by Li Jingrui, and would definitely buy a collection of short stories by her. Missing is about a wife’s search for a husband who has mysteriously disappeared (we assume detained by the security forces). Several readers drew comparisons with the desaperecidos of Chile and Argentina, and the mothers and wives who searched for them. (SPOILER ALERT!): There was a lot of discussion about the ending, where the husband reappears and the couple resume life without ever talking about those missing days; most argued that they thought it was a plausible ending, and liked it; that it was strong, sinister and menacing like the rest of the story, but in a different way.


Li Jingrui wrote:

I understand why readers might find the ending unrealistic, but in today’s China, there is a blurring of the boundaries between reality and unreality. At the beginning of 2015, when I published Missing, (《失踪》 in Chinese), the reaction from many readers was that I had written a Kafka-esque fable. But just a few days ago, a Chinese reporter [Jia Jia]* suddenly vanished while on his way from the mainland to Hong Kong. His wife and his lawyer have searched high and low but have so far failed to find any trace of him. People have read Missing again, and said to me: ‘Your story has become news.’ … My story may be sinister and frightening, but at least I gave it a happy ending, the man comes home and is reunited with his wife. I can’t say whether in the real world, the same happens to every missing person. Reality is much more terrifying and suspenseful than my fiction.

By popular request, Read Paper Republic is planning more short story speed-book clubbing with Free Word. In the meantime, we continue to publish our free weekly short stories translated from Chinese.

*Jia Jia is a free-lance journalist. According Philip Wen in the Sydney Morning Herald (2 March 2016):

Jia Jia’s friends believe he is being investigated in connection to an incendiary open letter which criticised Mr Xi’s handling of economic, domestic and foreign affairs and called on the Chinese president to resign “for the future of the country”. The letter has sparked intense interest among watchers of elite Chinese politics, but is unlikely to have reached the broader masses with references to the letter blocked on social media platforms such as Weibo and Chinese search engines….Jia has previously written pieces critical of China’s government and social problems, but had told friends before his detention that he had no involvement in the online petition.

Beginning in the autumn of 2015, a number of booksellers from Hong Kong have also gone missing in similarly mysterious circumstances, presumed detained on the mainland.

Nicky Harman translates Chinese fiction, essays and poetry. Her most recent publication is “Paper Tigers” (Head of Zeus, 2015), a collection of essays by the political blogger XU Zhiyuan (co-translated with Michelle Deeter).

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