Yu Xiaodan 于晓丹 – 80s Lovers 《1980的情人》

I’ve been working on a sample for Yu Xiaodan’s novel, 80s Lovers since I first finished reading it in April of 2012. I’m finally making it more available to the public in the hope of gaining the novel more attention, since it’s really a lovely work of fiction. Yu Xiaodan, herself, is a very interesting character. Graduating from university in the 1980s, she worked into the ’90s as a translator on works such as Nabokov’s Lolita and the short stories of Raymond Carver. In the ’90s, she made a drastic career change, moving to New York City to study fashion and becoming a lingerie designer. She now divides her time between New York and Beijing, writing and designing.

About the book: “Her name was Mao Zhen.” Central character Wen’s opening recollection thus sets the stage for Yu Xiaodan’s bildungsroman about a student and the woman who proves to be his most challenging course of study. Weaving stories within stories, 80s Lovers is at once the tale of a young man’s coming of age in a brave new world, a portrait of a young woman with a heart buffeted by both guilt and passion, and triangles drawn by types of love that defy categorization. Set among the universities of Beijing during the heady days of China’s liberal awakening of the 1980s, Yu’s restrained and elegant prose brings to life a heart-wrenching ballad about the living trying to survive in the shadow of suicide.

You can read the first several chapters in Chinese here.

80s Lovers

Chapter 1

      Her name was Mao Zhen.
      At least that was her name the last time Liang Wen saw her, twenty years ago.
      It was May, and the rain fell in bursts that day, a hot, sticky smell of earth rising to the apartment. A raindrop clung to the lashes of her round, swollen eyes. It split in two with a blink. The thumb and forefinger of her left hand worried at her lips continuously, tearing away dead skin a piece at a time.
      She had spent the whole day reading against the headboard of the bed. Wen could still remember that on the cover of her book there was a city corner coated in a heavy layer of yellow earth. In the foreground a wide-angle lens had stretched a cobblestone road particularly broad, and in the background, the lofty spire of a church towered before an ashen sky. It was almost five in the evening when she said she was hungry. They went down and found the most respectable-looking restaurant on Deshengmen Outer Street for dinner.
      After they’d finished eating, Wen watched her go back upstairs before he went around to the police station behind her building. He retrieved his bicycle from the courtyard of the station and rode back to the news bureau.
      That was the last time he saw her.

You can continue reading by downloading the full sample here at Paper Republic, or you can contact me for a packet which also includes a full synopsis (spoilers!) and my reaction to the work. I welcome any (constructive) criticism or suggestions.

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Liu Dianxue 刘殿学 – Grandpa Luo’s Little Wooden House 罗幺爹的小木屋

Liu Dianxue is a Han Chinese writer born in Jiangsu Province in 1942, but later moved to Xinjiang where it seems he has since resided, serving in various positions in local writers associations (in China, these are pseudo(?)-governmental institutions that give writers salaries). Perhaps surprisingly, he writes micro-fiction full of black humor and satire of contemporary bureaucracy and culture.

You can find the source text of this story here.

Grandpa Luo’s Little Wooden House

      Grandpa Luo should die soon. He turned 86 this year, already twice as many years as the Devil gives most people.
      A day ago, he had Young Tiger pull out his little wooden house to dust it off and sit it in the sun.
      This little wooden house had been made ten years earlier when Grandpa was often sick, and Young Tiger’s heart told him he better get his gramps’ coffin started and see what the future had in store. Who would have guessed that this would have fixed up Grandpa? His illness got better, his back stopped hurting, his legs quit aching. Grandpa could eat and sleep now. He was happy and active, too. The Devil must have been pretty busy down there and clean forgot to take care of Grandpa.
      Grandpa Luo leaned on his walking stick, watching Young Tiger clean his coffin.
      Young Tiger was a good grandson: this time he had asked someone to buy some national-standard varnish from Guangzhou. This varnish was different from the previous kinds: it was black—and bright, too. Gramps really liked it when he saw this. Before the varnish had dried, he bent over and saw his own silhouette reflected clearly inside.
      After he finished painting the little wooden house, Young Tiger put it outside to dry in the wind.
      The wind blew for three days. The next night, just as Young Tiger was heading to pack up the shed, Village Head Tian stumbled through the dark. He quietly called Young Tiger outside and stammered: “Tig, I’ve got something to talk to you about.”
      “What’s up?”
      “I’ll be straight with you. Uh, the Township Chief asked me to come… His father passed away this afternoon. The Chief had a coffin made years ago, but he doesn’t like it. It’s red, and he thinks it’s ugly. He says his pops worked hard his whole life, and since life’s gotten better for us, he wants to treat him to something a bit nicer now that he’s gone. He said he saw the black coffin you varnished for your gramps the other day, said it looked pretty good, said he wants to borrow it. He asked me to come over and talk to you. After everything’s done, he’ll get another made for your gramps.”
      Tig listened, and after a long while finally said: “Mr. Tian, this is something you’ll have to talk to gramps about.”
      “No. The Township Chief said it was best we didn’t let your gramps know about this. If he found out, it wouldn’t go over well. Some people will come pick it up tomorrow morning before it’s light out. After everything’s done, the Township Chief will have a new one made and brought over. If we take care of this quietly, your gramps will never know the difference.”
      “Ah, Mr. Tian, I’m afraid it’s no good.”
      “What’s no good? The Township Chief has worked all year round, taking care of everything for everyone, and now he’s asked you this little favor, and you say it’s no good?”
      Tig didn’t say anything.
      The next day, five brawny men brought carrying poles and rope, softly entering the Luo home before it was light out. They carried out the black coffin without a sound.
      That black coffin was really a good one—and the color was just so great! It was made from a Korean pine ordered from India by Old Luo’s son-in-law, who worked at a tree farm. It had also been at home, kept safe from the sun for over ten years, and just coated with a new layer of national-standard varnish. It felt heavy as hell to the four brawny men carrying the coffin on their shoulders, their steps faltering and kicking up dust. As soon as they got it to the door of the Township Chief, they let loose ragged pants for air.
      The Township Chief knew at first sight such a special coffin would suit his pops. Delighted, he lifted the coffin’s lid to see how heavy it was. When he opened it, all anyone heard was the Chief cry “Ah!” He fell to the ground, out cold, white foam spewing from his mouth.
      Frightened, everyone circled the coffin and peered within: Grandpa Luo was stretched out straight, eyes wide open. Next to his head, a can of pesticide lay askew.

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Chen Hao 陈浩 – Three Poems

Chen Hao is a post-1980 generation singer-songwriter from Shanxi Province. He is found performing in live music spaces around the Gulou neighborhood of Beijing under his stage/nickname: Haozi 浩子. If you hear of a performance coming up, I would recommend dropping in. While his song lyrics are rich with imagery and narrative, his poems are instead short and very direct thoughts–sometimes cryptic, other times simple and amusing. Here are three untitled pieces of his:


I think
I will still be very careful,
try my hardest not to disturb his poetry:
leave those white spaces quite white,
those scribbles so black.


一波未平 一波又起.

Turning my head to see my friend,
I wanted to laugh.
I couldn’t help but be that way,
but then I wanted to restrain.

for a long time I kept smiling,
one urge rising before the last had fallen.

数了五个枣, 红的.
蒽, 5点.

I count 5 jujubes, red.
Hmm, 5 o’clock.
Deep night, late watch.

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Ma Yuan 马原 – Little Zhaxi and His Load of Wonderful Thoughts 小扎西和他的一大堆美妙的想法

Ma Yuan is an “avant-garde”/experimental writer popular in the 1980s. After college, he worked in Tibet, where most if not all of his stories are set. I first read a couple of his stories my senior year in college in China’s Avant-Garde Fiction. I immediately took to his casual and playful, if somewhat irreverent, writing style. He introduces himself as the narrator, gets lost on tangents, and interrupts himself. Critics then and now are perplexed by this brief window of literature as well as Ma Yuan’s abrupt stop to writing.

The the story I’ve selected here to translate is one of the shortest in a book believe to be called Ma Yuan’s Collected Works: Book 3 马原文集-卷三, which I have in the form of a PDF. You can view the source text in the second half of his blog post.

Little Zhaxi and His Load of Wonderful Thoughts

      A young man that drives a truck in Lhasa usually has more than one—and usually a whole load—of wonderful thoughts.
      Little Zhaxi’s 21 years old. Little Zhaxi drives a Japanese-made Isuzu. Little Zhaxi is in fact a…young man…that drives a truck…in Lhasa.

      What was he thinking when he was out in his truck?
      He was thinking he would first buff the windshield all shiny, then he would buff the hood, buff the vents, and buff the flatbed.
      (He always forgot to buff his big beautiful nose. His eyes had early on grown muddled from all-night dancing and all-night card games. The only shiny part of his face—shiny without buffing—was his teeth.)
      After this, he thought about how much money he would make this trip: 8.5 tons; 1170 kilometers; 22 cents per ton-kilometer (transportation expenses); deduct 20% for commission; cut the calculation in half for returning empty; and in this way so on and so forth, et cetera, et cetera.… This is usual, fixed income. On top of that, he also thought maybe someone will want to catch a ride; one way makes 50 yuan. Of course it’d be best if there were two people—two going out and two coming back. Additionally, he thought if he came across a group of people on pilgrimage, then they could sit on the bed of the truck, and… Everyone has thoughts about how to get rich.
      He then thought about how it’d be best if he didn’t come across any hotheads. He worried most about other people’s cars hurting his. He and his buddies had all gotten their cars together, and now after all the bumps and scrapes, only his was without a scratch—like brand-new.
      He might also have had thoughts about some other things, but who really knows?

      When he dropped off the truck after his shift ended, he was thinking again.
      Of course, he first thought about buffing the truck.
      He thought mom was definitely making some savory yak butter tea. He thought he’d first drink dry a cup, then head to the public bath to wash up with a solar shower. He thought he’d scrub himself dog-tired, go home and plop down on his khaden mat where he’d sleep a beautiful sleep until midday the next day when the sun would shine on his ass.
      When it got to be nighttime, he thought about going to the Cultural Center and spending 2.80 yuan. He wanted to spend three hours breakdancing (very popular presently), and he wanted to do it on a dance floor flashing with red and green lights, accompanied by a band. He was willing to get dog-tired again.
      He thought it was too early to go straight home from dancing. He thought about a couple of driver buddies no doubt lying around pretty bored, and he thought they of course would be one short for a game; either mahjong or dice would be fine.
      When it got bright out, he yawned and stretched, and he thought he would first go home and get a bite to eat, then he’d go to the eighth stall on the eighth corner of the Barkhor and buy that prewashed denim jacket he was looking at last time (35 yuan, not a bad price).
      He thought he would go home again and sleep a couple of hours. Then he thought he would get up and go sit at the sweet teahouse at the base of the Potala Palace and drink down his pocket’s 70 cents of loose change.
      He did not think he would run into me.
      He raised his teacup and sipped, and it burned his mouth a bit. It was then I recognized Little Zhaxi from the back. From his posture, I could tell that he was ambling along in those wonderful thoughts of his. I walked over and patted him on the shoulder, and he looked around.
      He said: “Hey, Big Ma.”
      I said: “Whatcha thinking about?”
      He said: “I’m thinking… When I’m out in my truck I should find a beautiful girl looking to catch a ride—a fat one would be best. One that can make tea. One that can cook. One that will sleep with me and have kids. Big Ma, I’m thinking I ought to find an old lady!”
      So it goes.

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Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 – Three Poems

On October 8, 2010, Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. These three poems were found on this site. My translations and others are also posted in the comments section here on Paper Republic.



A Night Without Moonlight

This night is a night without moonlight,
and alone, I pace along the riverside.
Oh, my dear one–already you’ve
gone to that far away place.
With only stars flashing, flashing,
this night is a night without moonlight.
Unattended shadows drift in the wind,
and this deepens my heart’s anguish.
Oh, far away stars–
you teach me what is distance.
This night is a night without moonlight.
In dark mood, I hear my blood
gurgling forth from my heart
Oh Ocean–you truly know:
when Sun grows great as you, so is my time of death.
This night is a night without moonlight.
The flowers on the table already sleep.
The clock sighs its even breaths.
Oh Time–stop!
I fear this blinking passing.



The eagle sees the earth
and thinks the world is grey.
The chicken sees the sky
and thinks the world is blue.

Humankind’s tragedy, too,
is often not living
in our own world.



She came to my home,
entered the front gate,
walked down the path,
and stood in the center of the yard.

She says: This rooster’s gorgeous.
I laughed.
Then she says:
This piglet’s really beautiful.
I laughed as before.
Still she says:
This flower’s really pretty.

I know what she said were lies,
but my heart is still warm.

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Sinmay Zau 邵洵美 – Seasons 季候

Reading an article about Emily Hahn, an expat writer and socialite in pre-Liberation China, I read about her Chinese lover, Sinmay Zau (Shao Xunmei, 邵洵美, 1906-68). Here is a poem of his found on this site:




First time I saw you, you gave me your heart;
and inside it there was a spring morning.
Second time I saw you, you gave me your words,
but unspeakable was the raging fire of summer.
Third time I saw you, you gave me your hand;
inside it you held the leaf-fallen deep autumn.
Last time I saw you was my short dream;
in it was you and a flock of winter wind, too.

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