Chairman Wow!

October 8, 2009

Book Review: Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused

Filed under: Uncategorized — Carly J Hallman @ 11:35 am

chairman_mao_would_not_be_amused_170In Chinese literature, it seems that one day, peasants were toiling in the fields, red lanterns were being raised, emperors were frolicking with beautiful concubines, and the very next, Hong (protagonist in Mian Mian’s 2003 novel, “Candy”) was suffering from heroin withdrawals in a state mental institution in glitzy, gritty Shanghai. But, like China’s great leap from Communism to Coca-Cola, changes in its literature did not happen overnight—or without a fair share of bloodshed.

Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused,” a 1995 anthology of short fiction, is the definitive missing link in modern Chinese literature. Compiled and (beautifully) translated by Harold Goldblatt, a professor of Chinese at the University of Colorado at Boulder and editor of “Modern Chinese Literature,” this edgy collection of a neo-lost generation’s short stories would, indeed, plant a disapproving frown across the Chairman’s embalmed face. The stories’ writers, including notables Mo Yan and Chen Cun, paint a picture of a China in transition; in their fictional villages, there’s no shortage of murder, barren vegetable fields, adultery, or political corruption. While many of these topics, and the matter-of-fact style in which they are addressed, won’t strike jaded western-readers as particularly shocking (or at least not as shocking as these stories initially struck formerly-oppressed Chinese readers), it’s worth noting that twenty years before this book was published, the authors of such stories would have been labeled political dissidents with dire implications ranging from countryside relocation to death sentence.

Now, in 2009, fourteen years after its original publication, many of “Chairman Mao’s…,” fictional villages would be fictional ghost towns. In the biggest human migration in history, Chinese peasants have fled by the millions to cities—Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Hefei, Chongqing. Now, fictional Chinese women live in high-rises, wear Prada, smoke imported cigarettes and engage in illicit affairs with foreign men. Now, fictional Chinese men work for multi-national corporations and speed down city blocks in Mercedes-Benzes. But to get from the villages to where they are today, the Chinese first had to get angry, get violent, get educated, get out—these stories document this social shift with startlingly sharp clarity. In, “Chairman Mao…,” Goldblatt successfully assembled the pieces to a puzzle essential to our understanding of modern China—and, (thank our lucky yellow stars!) did not spare us any of the juicy, and wildly entertaining, details.

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