Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused

Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused is a translated anthology of short fiction that came out of China roughly between the years 1985 and 1995. In other words, this is the China of Deng Xiaoping: authors are shaking off the trauma and restrictions of the Cultural Revolution and living through the beginning of today's modern capitalist China. The events of June 1989 are never directly alluded to, although it should be noted that roughly half the stories were published before Tiananmen Square, and roughly half were published after.

The twenty-one stories vary widely in style and subject matter. Some strike me as more traditionally told short stories, while others seem quite avant-garde and experimental (Shi Tiesheng's 'First Person' and Yu Hua's 'The Past and the Punishments'). But I do have to admit that I haven't actually read very much Chinese fiction, and what seems to me to be a novel and interesting way of telling a story might be standard in another culture's literary tradition.

Despite the title of the anthology, there's no direct criticism or mockery of the Chinese central government within these pages. After all, Deng-era China may have been more open than what came before, but it was hardly a paradise of free speech. There is certainly satire aimed at local politics -- Li Xiao's 'Grass on the Rooftop', for instance. I've read just enough Chinese fiction that mocking local officials stands out as a theme when Chinese authors get satirical -- for example, in Xiaolu Guo's UFO in Her Eyes, which I read last year. There are also satirical barbs aimed at Chinese society of the 1980s -- see Wang Meng's 'A String of Choices' and Bi Feiyu's disturbing 'The Ancestor'.

The stories in Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused are disturbing, bloody, and occasionally perplexing. As such, I recommend them highly.

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