Posted by Joel Martinsen on Wednesday, November 28, 2007 at 2:11 PM
What can we learn from ants? Are they only good as ingredients in a dodgy aphrodisiac? Or can they teach us things about life and happiness?
A post on the Amoiist blog yesterday translated a sarcastic slate of awards from a Chinese BBS. The pig receives the 2007 economics prize because of the skyrocketing price of pork, the humble baozi wins the food prize because of the invention of cardboard baozi, a masterpiece of human ingenuity, and so forth.
Amoiist added a prize category of his own with a link to the Yilishen story:
There's a similar sentiment behind the recent novelty book, Ant (, "ant sleep-talk").
Ant comes from the studio of Zhu Yingchun, a book designer whose Stitching Up (不裁) was named one of China's most beautiful books in 2007 and was awarded a bronze medal in the 2007 Book Design Awards, run by the Book Art Foundation in Germany. Although Ant isn't as exquisite as Stitching Up (it's not uncut, for one thing), the slim volume is still quite attractively put together. Illustrations, which make liberal use of white space to provide room for jotting in the margins, depict ants crawling over all kinds of objects, both natural and man-made, and there are blank pages included at the back for readers to record their own thoughts (which they can then send in to the publishers for inclusion in future editions).
The bilingual text, written by Zhou Zongwei, a professor of education at Nanjing University, uses the life of an ant to provide insights on human life. As a line on the cover advises readers in a playful variation on the well-known proverb: "There is profit in interpreting the meaning of the ant" (). Here's the author's introduction:
The story follows an ant as it discovers the secret to a happy existence. It's sort of like a formicid version of that inspirational classic, Hope for the Flowers. Except that unlike caterpillars, when ants finish crawling around on the ground they don't sprout wings and take to the skies in a glorious triumph over adversity.
Despite its somewhat bleak outlook on life, Ant seems to have struck a chord with readers. Here's part of a reaction from Huang Jiwei, a noted essayist and book enthusiast:
One of the most interesting books your correspondent has read this year is based on the opposite assumption: humans are nothing like ants, but they ought to learn from them.
Life of Ants (蚁生, aka "Life of Antz"), by noted SF author Wang Jinkang (王晋康), is the story of an attempt to improve selfish, violent human society by making it more like an ant colony. The novel is set in the late 1960s, when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing and collectivism was the overriding ideal.
Sent down to the countryside, a young researcher who has invented an "altruism serum" derived from ant pheromones decides to use the workers at his farm as experimental subjects. The group of farmers and young intellectuals enjoys a brief period of happiness living in a true Communist utopia before everything goes to hell.
Each section of the novel is headed by an excerpt from a fictional treatise by the entomologist who unlocked the secret of the "altruism serum." Here's a translation of one of those excerpts:
Life of Ants is not very optimistic about humanity's prospects as an ant colony. For violating the tenets of Marxism by elevating ants higher than humans, the author of above treatise is targeted in a violent struggle session that opens the novel, and the events that transpire on the farm illustrate the dangers of scientism, demagoguery, and ideological extremism. In an interview with Novoland Fantasy Plus (幻想1+1), the magazine that first published Life of Ants last year, Wang Jinkang noted that he based much of the novel on the three years he spend in the Nanyang countryside in the late 60s.
Unfortuntately, the book isn't too widely available. The magazine edition is available used on Taobao, but the standalone volume released at the Chengdu International Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention in August seems to be available only from the editorial offices of the now-defunct World SF (blog link). It's well worth tracking down.
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.