Weighing rice in Shanghai, 1945 © 2010 Arrufat Photograph
Last year I decided to combine my love of audiobooks and modern Chinese fiction. I thought I might create a way for listeners to grow a little more familiar with China and its people. After all, good audiobooks draw listeners into each character’s perspective, into their mind and emotions, as they navigate the world around them. What better way to get a sense of a time and place? It’s effortless and entertaining and even easily portable.
These ideas have now materialised into Silk Gauze Audio (SGA). SGA is a new audiobook imprint and accompanying website designed to help English speakers discover and access China through fiction. Sometimes we will also publish ebooks of the titles we record.
During 2019, SGA will focus on modern Chinese classics – novels and short stories written in the first half of the 20th century. These works were intrinsically intertwined with the social and political development of modern China. Read them, listen to them, and you can understand what underpins the China that exists today.
I’m thrilled to have recorded SGA’s first titles and curious to see how they’re received. The collection starts with one novel – Rickshaw Boy – and four Selected Short Stories by the prominent and popular author Lao She. A native of Beijing, Lao She is renowned for his lively use of local vernacular and for bringing a wry humour to his realist style of storytelling. You can read more about Lao She’s life here. His words have been reworked into vivid English by veteran translators Howard Goldblatt (Rickshaw Boy) and Don J Cohn (Selected Short Stories). The audiobooks will be released in the coming weeks and some of the short stories will be available for free for a limited period.
One caveat. When I was researching the collection, I found few modern Chinese titles were easily available in print. I could find no good quality audiobook versions either. It turns out, of the hundreds of novels and short stories written by the eight authors we profile on the launch of SGA’s website, only a small proportion are currently available in translation. Even fewer are available outside university libraries. No wonder they are little known in the West.
That’s not to say, Chinese fiction isn’t of interest outside China. Contemporary works are being translated and published in English. A Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Mo Yan, the first Chinese recipient. Overseas writers, many with Chinese heritage, are writing about 20th Century China to some acclaim too. Stories of the Cultural Revolution have been a hot topic in recent years. I will turn to these titles in future.
But, as Lu Xun said in his introduction to the anthology Straw Sandals in 1934: “We have an old saying: “If the lungs and viscera could only speak, the doctor’s diagnosis would be put to shame.” I think that even if they could speak, what they had to say would not necessarily always be reliable. Still, they would report things no physician could find, unexpected things, absolutely true to life.”
The modern Chinese classics that SGA will record and recommend over the next year will come directly from the pens of those who experienced the visceral experience of living in China between 1920 and 1949, a period of seismic upheaval and transformation. They will form a tapestry of the founding years of modern China. Each will be selected for its capacity to absorb and entertain, to effortlessly steep each reader in a world that may seem strange initially but will grow familiar and appreciated as the chapters click by.