China in Words, Images and Song

Recently, while rearranging our bookshelves by region rather than alphabet, I noticed a major gap in my personal geography of literature. While it didn’t surprise me that Poland, South Africa and Chile take up so much shelf space, the near-absence of an entire continent—Asia—felt shameful.

This year, I’m working to correct this oversight. In the wake of the Chinese New Year festivities in Melbourne—featured here in photographs I shot before and during the annual parade of Chinese Lions blessing the businesses of Chinatown—I’ve started with books by Chinese authors.

Mai Jia is China’s bestselling espionage writer, the country’s “answer to John le Carré,” as the Financial Times calls him. Since 2014, two of his novels have appeared in English, including In the Dark (translated by Christopher N. Payne). This labyrinthine and polyphonic tale relays the inner-workings of “Unit 701”—“a Chinese intelligence-gathering organization modeled on the seven directorates of the KGB,” Jia writes early in this philosophical thriller.

The publishers at Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters always point us toward intriguing work in translation, and Can Xue’s The Last Lover (translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) is a Kafkaesque web set in a nameless Western city about characters entangled in real and imagined relationships. Imagine a Chinese version of Murakami, Paul Auster and Georges Perec.

Ouyang Yu divides his time between China and Australia. His most recent novel, Diary of a Naked Official (written in English), purports to be the erotic diary of Anonymous, the deputy director of a publishing company in an unidentified Chinese city.

These are three windows into China. What an exciting life it is, knowing that as readers we pass through our days anticipating the stories of millions of others.

—Kevin Rabalais

This year I’m listening for unfamiliar musical shapes, strange scales, the music of faraway traditions. On Sunday evening in this lucky city of Melbourne, I went to Hamer Hall to listen to my first concert of the new lunar year, a performance of The Map by Tan Dun, the Chinese composer most Westerners first heard through his score for Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Map traces a sonic road toward ancient musical traditions of ethnic minorities in southern China’s Hunan province. Strange, unfamiliar, faraway: In the first movement we hear the orchestra respond to a video recording of a crying song, a song performed by professional mourners who wail and weep in musical anguish. It is haunting and intensely emotional. In another movement we see a video of a Miao singer, Long Xiane, perform a flying song, a piercing, resonant song of courtship sung between lovers in villages mountains apart. The orchestra’s solo cellist takes up the answering voice, the lover joining Long Xiane’s song. Here, Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen performs that part:

We are reading dangerously; let this be a year of listening dangerously, too!

—Daniel Stephensen

Chinatown, Melbourne
Photos by Kevin Rabalais




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