Woman From Shanghai and the marketing of Chinese literature in translation

Woman From Shanghai, by Yang Xianhui, translated by Wen Huang

Yang Xianhui's Chronicle of Jiabiangou (夹边沟纪事), a book of stories of a rightist camp in Gansu Province during the 1950s, was recently translated by Wen Huang and published under the title Woman From Shanghai.

Subtitled "Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp," the book tells fictionalized accounts the author collected from former inmates of starvation and other horrors during the course of re-education through labor. When the stories were first published, the collection was called "China's Gulag Archipelago."

So what's a woman in a qipao doing on the cover? At the San Francisco Chronicle, Fan Wu describes the story in which she appears:

The title story, easily the most emotional account in the collection, depicts a wife's love for her convicted husband. The Shanghainese woman travels across half the country only to be told that her husband has recently died from starvation and was buried hastily without a tombstone in the desert. She stubbornly looks for his corpse, eating and drinking nearly nothing for days. When she finally locates his body, it resembles a mummy, with the flesh hacked off.

A disconnect between a book's cover and its content is not anything rare. In July, YA author Justine Larbalestier posted a public complaint to her blog expressing disappointment with the decision to put a photo of a white girl on the cover of her novel about a main character who is black (and inspired by WNBA star Alana Beard). And old classics are constantly being repackaged to appeal to particular audiences: check out Emily Brontë dressed up like Stephenie Meyer's Twilight.

The cover of Woman of Shanghai seems to follow a recent trend in book-covers in the west: the headless woman.* Nara Schoenberg noted the phenomenon in a 2008 article for the Chicago Tribune:

Other publishers offer explanations ranging from the practical - the lack of a surviving portrait of Jane Boleyn - to the aesthetic, to the psychological: It may be easier for a woman to identify with a book cover if she can't see the face of the woman depicted.

In the case of Mary, Harcourt creative director Vaughn Andrews said by e-mail, "We wanted to suggest a period, a style, and a certain atmosphere with the cover art, but the painting on our cover is not a Mary Todd Lincoln portrait, so we trimmed out the face.

"This leads the reader to the assumption of identity and permits them to use their own imagination regarding missing details."

Although Woman from Shanghai may not be written for the same audience as those books, it does appear to be marketed with a particular audience in mind.

Writing for the Book Review supplement in the August 30 issue of Southern Metropolis Daily, Berlin Fang, a translator who resides in Oklahoma, suggested that the Woman from Shanghai cover is symptomatic of a larger problem affecting China-themed literature in English, particularly memoirs by overseas Chinese. He argues that the related themes and similar marketing of many of these books creates an unbalanced impression of Chinese literature and of China in general among western readers:

Scar Literature Pushes Through America

Berlin Fang / SMD*

Peng Lun put up an image of the cover of an English-language book on his blog. On the cover was a Chinese woman in a qipao, only the lower half of her face and her bright red lips visible. The title was Woman of Shanghai, and the subtitle was "Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp." Peng Lun said that only after looking carefully did he realize that it wasn't a novel about China written for the pleasure of foreigners by an author of Chinese descent such as Lisa See or a light Chinese novel by a Wei Hui-style woman author, but rather an English translation of Chronicle of Jiabiangou, by Yang Xianhui. That's right: if you feel that cover blurbs are unspeakably vulgar, then take a trip to an American bookstore to see the China-themed books for sale — you'll probably be apoplectic.

Why is this the case? It's a complex issue that involves elements of confidence and cultural power, but for a short answer we can take a look at a few China-themed books that sell well on the American market. Many of the books on shelves in American book stores are memoir-style novels about the abominable Cultural Revolution, and there are quite a few memoirs as well, all of which lead to a confused sense of time. Bookstores here sell Emily Wu's Feather in the Storm: A Childhood Lost in Chaos (暴风雨中一羽毛), Anchee Min's Red Azalea (红杜鹃), Jaia Sun-Childer's The White Haired Girl: Bittersweet Adventures of a Little Red Soldier (白毛女), and also Rae Yang's Spider Eaters: A Memoir (吃蜘蛛的人) and Zhai Zhenhua's Red Flower of China: An Autobiography (中国红花). A few of Da Chen's books, such as Colors of the Mountain (山的色彩) and Brothers (兄弟, not the Yu Hua novel) also seem to be along these lines. Two American friends of mine recommended Brothers, and one even sent me a copy, but I have not read it yet. Like Garrison Keillor says, once you reach sixty you realize that life is catching up on you, and you find you need to give up doing certain things, like reading Russian novels.* I've reached middle age, when burdens are heaviest and time tightest. I read scar literature in Chinese back in my youth, so do I have to read it again in English and endure another round of suffering?

These books are trendy in America on the one had because of the first batch of overseas students to find their feet after the Cultural Revolution lived lives that were basically carefree and so were able to start writing. The Chinese writers who emerged were mostly a group born in the 50s and 60s who had spent childhood and adolescence during the era of rusticated youth and the Cultural Revolution that they described in their books. When they came to America, they were cut off from Chinese life, so what would you have them write? Having grown old, all that is left to that generation are bitter memories.

People who grew up in a transitional China had no place to find their feet. Hard at work, they had no means of writing about their lives in China during the 1980s and 90s, even though those experiences would be even more valuable when written out because they would tell of Chinese life in a different environment. But this requires time and means. If we take another look in another decade or two, overseas Chinese writers may present an entirely different picture.

Covers to the Chinese editions of Chronicle of Jiabiangou by Yang Xianhui

As Library Journal describes it, the majority of these memoirs are written by Chinese women who have come to America, and thus they mostly have the faces of Chinese women on their covers. Perhaps in some cases it is the man who supports the family after coming to America, so the woman has time to write. Subjectively, therefore, there is nothing wrong about the choice of subject matter, yet coming over and over, creates a phenomenon to the point that the publisher of the translation of Yang Xianhui's Chronicle of Jiabiangou hitched it to the "women's Cultural Revolution + Communist China + Scars" bandwagon. Evidently the publisher is very familiar with this road.

Some of Amazon's descriptions of memoirs of China are even more straightforward: there's the line "I was raised on the teachings of Mao and on the operas of Madam Mao, Comrade Jiang Ching,"* and a cover showing a Chinese woman. Such treatment is in line with the traditional understanding some American readers have of China: this is a painful place full of oppression and devastation. There is nothing wrong with an individual author writing about this material, but enough of it turns into a phenomenon that will prop up certain prejudices. Americans do not know much about China, so everyone takes advantage of the same familiar elements: Chinese restaurants are called either Panda or Great Wall. Reading about China, then, people anticipate pain and persecution, they expect to see wounds, little realizing that this is but one facet of China. Sometimes, to cater to westerners' stereotypes about China, authors will indulge in depicting persecution or even exaggerate their characters. On the Barnes and Noble website, an anonymous commenter wrote of Da Chen's Brothers, "The main characters seem improbable, larger than life."*

American readers also have a snobbish side. You might not find favor by pandering, but you'll end up strengthening publishing's prejudices and clogging up the road for other subject matter. Immigrant literature of other countries inhabits a much wider range of roles. Peng Lun recommended to me two novels this year. One was the biography of Sudanese immigrant Valentino Achak Deng*, in which Deng survives regufee camps in Africa to reach Atlanta only to be nearly killed by thugs, a contrast that brings a new force to immigrant literature. The other was Joseph O'Neill's Netherland,* whose protagonist is an immigrant living in post-9-11 America. Though the novel spares no efforts to mock and satirize the US, it made best-seller lists, won awards, and was recommended by Obama. This demonstrates that immigrants who pursue literature in a uncensored environment have the latitude to not adhere so rigidly to stereotypes.

Which reminds me of a seemingly unrelated topic that is actually slightly connected: the export of culture (and overseas Chinese have a responsibility here as well).

If you say that Chinese books published in the US are basically complaint literature divorced from a contemporary Chinese context — a uniform, rigid genre — then it's the same with movies. Check out Netflix, America's largest online movie rental company, and look under the foreign film category for Chinese movies. You'll see an expanse of flesh, or else a bunch of fighting, as if Chinese films are all sex or violence. Either the fist or the pillow, and we don't know how to shoot anything else.

At a national level, this appears like trade issue. According to the Yilin Publishing House website, Ever since China entered the WTO its cultural trade deficit has been growing. In the arts marketplace, the ratio of imports to exports is 10:1; for publishing, 6.84:1; copyrights, 10.3:1. And in the film market, the ratio in 30:1. In other words, China does not have all that much to export to begin with. But if this is the kind of stuff that does get exported, where does the problem really lie?

The US government has lodged another complaint with the WTO saying that China is engaging in cultural protectionism and that the country must further open up its markets. I support additional opening up, but it is our own problem as to whether we'll be able to compete after opening up, or whether we'll be able to go out ourselves. In China's film and book sectors, the current state of exports is truly abysmal. These are not trade problems, but cultural problems. Cultural problems must ultimately be solved by cultural means. Can official letterhead fix the problem of fists and pillows in exported movies and make-up on the covers of books?

* * *
Variant cover of Woman From Shanghai
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

In a wrap-up of a series of translation and publishing panel discussions held at the recent BIBF, Eric Abrahamsen of Paper Republic remarked on the difficulty of exporting literature and culture:

There is a fierce curiosity here about what foreigners think of Chinese culture. The little talks I was running were mostly related to the translation of Chinese literature into foreign languages, and there were many, many questions about how Chinese writers are received abroad, and palpable anxiety about why they're not more popular....I had difficulty handling such questions as "Do you think the anti-corruption genre of Chinese literature would be popular abroad?" and "Do foreign readers only want to read about the Cultural Revolution?"

In the case of Justine Larbalestier's Liar cover, considerable outcry among her fans and the book world in general led her publisher to back down and change the cover.

The cover of a different version of Woman of Shanghai that shows up in the catalogs of some online booksellers bears an even closer resemblance to Lisa See's Shanghai Girls.

Yang Xianhui's international publishers seem set on chasing the trend that Berlin Fang describes in his article, and despite the favorable reviews the translation has been receiving, it's quite possible that many readers will judge the book by its cover and either pass it over, or be disappointed by what they find inside.


  1. In addition, has a slideshow featuring eighteen such covers, and Dahlia Lithwick, who's writing an instant chick-lit novel for Slate, picked the working title Saving Face in a nod toward the practice.
  2. According to the author, Garrison Keillor said something along these lines on his radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion. Few program transcripts are available online, so I was unable to locate the original text.
  3. This line is actually the first sentence of Anchee Min's Red Azalea.
  4. The complete review can be found under Customer Reviews on B&N's page for the book:
    Interesting as a narrative on the Cultural Revolution. The prose style is hurried and awkward at times. The main characters seem improbable, larger than life. I think this writer has a lot of potential, and if tempered could write more compelling fiction.
  5. What is the What, by David Eggers, subtitled "The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel."
  6. Netherland was published in 2008. Fang renders the Chinese title as 地国, and says that a Chinese translation is due out in 2010.
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There are currently 6 Comments for Woman From Shanghai and the marketing of Chinese literature in translation.

Comments on Woman From Shanghai and the marketing of Chinese literature in translation

Joel, thanks for translating that article into English!

You're welcome. Thanks for your permission, Berlin.

For contrast, someone on the MCLC mailing list posted a link to the German edition of Chronicle of Jiabiangou (translated by Katrin Buchta):

There's got to be some middle ground here....

To people all over the world, the exotic is erotic. Just look at the American dvd covers to movies such as "Eat a Cup of Tea" (an Asian American movie) or "Infernal Affairs." A picture of a sexy, often mysterious, Asian woman sells a lot better than a picture that is more representative of the actual content. For a mainstream audience, the exotic must be marketed in a way that fits into familiar stereotypes. Otherwise, people just won't bite. And for an example of Chinese doing the same thing, read Dru Gladney's work on the exoticization of ethnic minorities in China. No Chinese documentary on the minorities of China is complete without a few tantalizing shots of Dai women bathing naked in a river.

I think Berlin's article makes a lot of sense, but I'd also suggest two other possibilities:

1) The young woman in a qipao might have certain demographic considerations, sales-wise. My mother and aunt (both white American women of retirement age) are in monthly book clubs with other women in their area. Each month, one person is in charge of picking a book for the group to read. Over the years, they've told me that various books about China have been chosen in their groups. Almost always, it seems, the book that is chosen is a book with a female protagonist, and through the emotional connection to her, the reader is able to "experience" and feel Chinese society and history. To some extent, this format makes sense because it's fairly engaging and gripping. Perhaps when reading foreign literature, many readers need a character they can relate to and empathize with in order to help navigate the seemingly abstruse and bizarre cultural differences. Perhaps the books cover was meant to help appeal to the "book club" demographic, so to speak. (I'm not even sure how you would go about appealing to the Gulag demographic).

2) From another point of view, when I think of a Chinese woman in a qipao, my first thought is of the cigarette ads from the 1930's Shanghai, which (for better or for worse) symbolize a cosmopolitan, and perhaps the most socially liberal and politically free time in China's 20th century. If one knows that the book is about a Chinese gulags, I think a qipao might give a sense of foreshadowing, knowing that soon women would be liberated into wearing uni-sex Mao suits, and might be punished for any earlier social excesses or intellectual free thinking.

But then again, I haven't read the book and don't know if that kind of interpretation is at all appropriate.

This is a fantastic post, Joel. Very thorough and enjoyable. I appreciate that you included notes. Please keep more like this coming.

An agent in the US recently told me women readers account for more than 70% of the US market for books, which explains the Fashion Magazine-inspired covers. Of course, I think there are still serious female and male readers out there, but the popularity of "pink books" and celebrity rags seems to indicate more often than not, what's easy is popular. What better way to soften and sell life in a work camp than by wrapping it up with an airbrushed qipao? Even pink book readers will love it!

It's amazing how a book with a fashionable cover for a depressing story actually sells well. I've ran into several blogs saying how they were totally unsatisfied with the book, deceived by the cover.

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