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Reading China

‘Take a simple gesture,’ says the acclaimed author of The Good Women of China, Xinran, ‘like the act of handing someone a glass of water. How many ways are there of describing that, in English?’

In Mandarin, there are more than twenty different verbs available, to represent this apparently straightforward act — each with its own individual nuances, relating to the mood and social standing of the person who is handing the glass over, and their attitude to the person who is receiving it. These can range from a heartfelt desire to please (glass proffered, held at the bottom) to hostility and contempt (glass held with forefinger and thumb, like it is something unclean): holding the glass with your hand around the rim is a sign of a serious lack of sophistication. Each has its own separate word.

No wonder, then, that translating the work of Chinese writers into English is such a complex, sometimes frustrating, but also potentially rewarding business. Xinran was discussing the task of ‘translating China’ recently at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, in a session sponsored by the AHRC. She was appearing alongside prize-winning poet Yang Lian, who gave the audience a taste of his linguistically rich verse — including a poem about Chinese artist Ai Weiwei – together with an English rendering.

Also taking part in the discussion was Dr Anne Witchard, who is a lecturer in the Department of English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster, and lead researcher on a project entitled China in Britain: Myths and Realities. The project, which is supported by the AHRC under the theme of ‘Translating Cultures’, looks at wider notions of China being ‘translated,’ examining the role that stereotypes have played in shaping perceptions of China and Chinese people in the West, and how they continue to do so.

‘I’d had very little contact with or understanding of Chinese people,’ says Anne. ‘But when my children were small, they had a childminder in the local nursery, in Chinatown. I’d been interested in histories of Modernism and the avant-garde in London, but I began to notice two things — first, how often Chinese people were associated in books and newspapers, around the turn of the twentieth century, with opium dens, prostitution, and various other social ills of the time. And then how similar was the tone of some of the reports (this was in the late Eighties) of Triad gang activity in the Soho I was living in.’

Anne has written particularly on representations of Limehouse, London’s original Chinatown, contrasting sensationalist accounts of the 1920s — books like Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series (the first of which appeared in print a century ago) — with the only fictional portrayal of Limehouse written by a Chinese person, Lao She’s novel Er Ma (Mr Ma and Son), which showed how tough things really were for the Chinese community at the time.

A shop in Limehouse in the 1930s.

Why did Chinese people get such a bad press in Britain? According to Anne, the roots of sinophobic prejudice here go back at least to the eighteenth century, when China was seen as shut off from the rest of the world — an ancient society, but also a stagnant, decrepit and decadent one. Then, following lurid press reports of the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century, anti-Chinese prejudice gave rise to its own term: Yellow Peril-ism, or the irrational fear of East Asian people as a threat to western civilization.

The China in Britain project has seen a series of conferences being held, to discuss the way that British East Asian people have been portrayed in a variety of media — film, theatre, dance, poetry — and, frequently, their under-representation in those media. With the odd exception (such as David Yip, star of The Chinese Detective and Brookside), British East Asian actors, for example, have generally been absent from British plays, film and TV. ‘So often, history has been whitened out,’ says Anne. Writers need to do more, Anne says, to create the parts that East Asian actors can play.

The Chinese community in Britain has had surprisingly little visibility, given its long history, and which has seldom had its story told. This at least is a situation that Anne Witchard’s work is helping to remedy — she’s collaborated with playwright Daniel York on The Fu Manchu Complex, at the Ovalhouse in London, while James Yeatman’s Limehouse Nights, staged in Limehouse Town Hall, was based on Anne’s first book Thomas Burke’s Dark Chinoiserie: Limehouse Nights and the Queer Spell of Chinatown (2009), which looked at the notoriety of the Limehouse Chinatown at the turn-of-the-century, as reflected in popular literature and film. Anne has also been involved with recent attempts to record the oral histories of the original Chinese community in Limehouse.

And when China and Chinese people are represented now, Anne says, all too often it is still in stereotypical terms. ‘Just look at the clichéd way of describing the growing economic strength of China – endless books with “dragon” in the title, and always with an implicit threat, of China taking over the world. Or look at the way that the British media jumps on stories of food-doctoring in China: there’s still the connection of China with deceitfulness and poison.’

But perceptions of China have not always been negative. Anne’s project has led her to look at the under-researched contribution of chinoiserie (an artistic style based upon Chinese work) in relation to Modernism, and particularly the way that chinoiserie influenced avant-garde art and literature in the early twentieth century. Ezra Pound, for example, used his own translations of Chinese poetry (using a crib — he couldn’t read it himself) to transform English language poetry. Anne’s work coincides with a trend in research, to emphasise the contribution of other cultures to Modernism in Europe and the US, and to see Modernism as a global movement.

And Anne sees cause for optimism in the way that things are beginning to change, when it comes to British representations of China and Chinese people – not only with the East Asian community in the UK beginning to be more vocal, but also with growing interest in Chinese film and art, and increasing numbers of young people in Britain learning to speak Mandarin.

As the poet Yang Lian says, translating between one culture and another can be a creative force, a ‘process of mutual discovery.’ The title of one of Yang Lian’s own poetry collections, The Third Shore, alludes to Walter Benjamin’s idea that such translations are a ‘third language’, making something new from the language they are translated from, and the one that they are translated into. Perhaps now, with interest in the country increasing as it emerges as a major global power, we’ll see new, more positive ways of ‘reading China’.

For further information, please go to China in Britain: Myths and Realities

For further information on the Cheltenham Festivals, visit their website.

Article by Matt Shinn

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