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What are you reading?


skylee
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Interesting. Just last week one of my tutors commented that she sees a lot of people in Europe reading in trains, busses, etc., that Chinese people don't read that much, and that she had read somewhere that Europeans read the most in the world or something like that.

 

I know that China has a very high literacy rate, but isn't it also true that it has a lower percentage of educated people than in the West?  In addition, as far as I know it lacks a concept of "liberal arts."  People who get educated in China learn mainly in their major, isn't that correct?

 

When I worked in China, one of my colleagues at the Foreign Languages Press said that one of the reasons there were so many bad translations in our unit that we foreigners had to clean up was that the level of general knowledge in China, even among the educated, was very low.   People who had been abroad generally produced better work not because their English had grown in leaps and bounds but because they had learned more generally speaking.

 

Isn't there some kind of connection there?  It seems like you'd be less likely to take a serious interest in literature if you'd never been exposed to it.

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On 2/7/2022 at 12:02 PM, alantin said:

How is this different from what you're doing?

 

Well, I think the biggest difference is that Yu Hua reflects a broader cultural trend--a trend that might result in the scarcity (or perceived scarcity) of Chinese books. Most Westerners don't read Chinese books (last time I checked, I think only 6/1000 American university students study Chinese, and out of those 6, the great majority likely don't go on to further cultivate/use/study it). I am indeed the mirror inverse of many of my fellow Americans. My English reading is for work and study, and when I read recreationally, it's usually Chinese. If the majority of Americans were like me, the American fiction market would probably collapse. :)

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On 2/7/2022 at 8:26 PM, Woodford said:

If the majority of Americans were like me, the American fiction market would probably collapse.

 

There might be a lot more understanding between the US and China too...
Though if the Chinese really read that much western literature, it doesn't seem to translate to very good understanding of the west...

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On 2/7/2022 at 8:18 PM, Moshen said:

I know that China has a very high literacy rate, but isn't it also true that it has a lower percentage of educated people than in the West?  In addition, as far as I know it lacks a concept of "liberal arts."  People who get educated in China learn mainly in their major, isn't that correct?

 

When I worked in China, one of my colleagues at the Foreign Languages Press said that one of the reasons there were so many bad translations in our unit that we foreigners had to clean up was that the level of general knowledge in China, even among the educated, was very low.   People who had been abroad generally produced better work not because their English had grown in leaps and bounds but because they had learned more generally speaking.

 

Isn't there some kind of connection there?  It seems like you'd be less likely to take a serious interest in literature if you'd never been exposed to it.


I have no idea. I have never considered that but I have hard time buying that. I would expect the countryside to be less educated than the cities, but then again the crazy competition in the job market would seem to push people to get better and better (or higher) education. Though exactly in their major and for the sole purpose of securing a job. All of my co-workers in our Chinese office have master's degrees in contrast to most in our main office having bachelors, and my Chinese tutors' seem to have masters degrees and one is a doctor in the making... My impression is that for leisure, they seem to be a lot more often into history than liberal arts.

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Possibly also: the novel as a mainstream form is still pretty new in the western tradition, let alone the Chinese one. Writing novels perhaps isn't something that necessarily happens in bulk in any culture, it needs the right environment to foster it. And China is definitely not the right environment to foster creative writing for public consumption. I don't know what character traits are most commonly found in novelists but I imagine they resent control over what they can write more intensely than, say, a team of scriptwriters on a new drama series. So probably lots of China's best novelists are locked up or too frustrated to write.

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On 2/7/2022 at 7:42 PM, realmayo said:

And China is definitely not the right environment to foster creative writing for public consumption.

Hey @MoonIvy I bet you have an opinion on this 😄

 

On 2/7/2022 at 7:42 PM, realmayo said:

I don't know what character traits are most commonly found in novelists but I imagine they resent control over what they can write more intensely than, say, a team of scriptwriters on a new drama series. So probably lots of China's best novelists are locked up or too frustrated to write.

A very fertile imagination, I expect, is the most commonly character trait found in novelists. Some probably resent the limitations the government puts on them (and then find ways around that), but there must be (there are!) plenty of people who enjoy writing about heroes and princesses and love and adventure and whatnot, never getting political. As to quality, it's possible that the government control plays a role, but a bigger issue I think is that the Chinese publishing industry is not a place that really fosters or rewards good writing. The kind of editors many Western publishing houses have, who make suggestions to authors and help them make their book better, is not really a thing in China. Publishers have a monopoly on ISBN, you can't publish a book without an ISBN, and as a result publishers can sit back and charge aspiring authors for a number. The lucky ones get a grant from the publishing house so they can publish for free. The system is not very good. (And of course that is in turn a result of government control, but even with that control, the system could be better.)

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Living in China has its advantages, and one is being able to go to the library and pick out random novels to read (I pick out multiple, and take home the one I think is most readable).  I find unknown titles tend to be easier to read than well-known ones.  In this way, I found 谢谢你曾来过我的世界 by 仲尼.

 

Thus far it's been fairly interesting: 仲尼's half-brother has just died, then we rewind time, and learn about his half-brother through 仲尼 6-year-old eyes.  Innocent 仲尼 doesn't understand his half-brother's peculiar behavior, he just thinks his half-brother is cool.  But the reader realizes that his white powder isn't "medicine", that it's not normal to have garbage bags of cash hidden in the ceiling, that there's good reason his mother does not want 仲尼 spending time with his half-brother, etc.

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As @Lu already said, there are definitely authors get resent the rules, and they seem to keep getting stricter and stricter. I definitely do agree that it's hinders their creativity in some areas, but at the same time, it forces the authors to be even more creative to get around the rules. It all depends on what type of content an author wants to write. There are authors and readers who enjoy content about heroes, romance etc (these are very popular themes), things that don't involve politics or religion. I'm one of those people, I like to read ancient setting novels with fantasy elements, and usually about how the heroes saves the world or solves a great mystery. Whenever there's politics or war...I literally fall asleep. There is definitely room for fostering creativity, just in different ways. The rules and restrictions are annoying in some areas, but there's not that many rules where authors can't write anything at all. 

In the English publication world, I haven't seen anything similar to transmigration (穿越) and unlimited flow (无限流). They do exist in the English webnovel space, probably due to the popularity of the genre is Asian media. I know Japanese also has transmigration which is where I think in originated from. I'm not sure where the genre unlimited flow came from. Unlimited flow is a sub sci-fi genre I believe, I'm not that familiar with it, I've just started my first unlimited flow novel (末日乐园) and I'm still trying to understand what it means to be a unlimited flow novel. So there's definitely lots of creative work from Chinese authors, so creative that I'm like wow...I never even knew anything like that could exist! The very reason I picked up Mandarin was for all the amazing novels out there.

At the end of the day, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Someone who loves cheesy romance would find the most cheesiest thing to be the best novel ever written, then to someone who dislikes romance, it'll be considered absolute trash. 
 

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On 2/9/2022 at 4:48 AM, Lu said:

As to quality, it's possible that the government control plays a role, but a bigger issue I think is that the Chinese publishing industry is not a place that really fosters or rewards good writing. The kind of editors many Western publishing houses have, who make suggestions to authors and help them make their book better, is not really a thing in China.

 

It may also be the influence of the internet.  China became prosperous mostly during the era of the internet.  So it appears (from a distance) to follow internetty-business models which rely on algorithmic or volunteer curation more than professional reviewers.


E.g. The web novel scene seems to have a ton of energy, has lots of new content being generated and has lots of readers.  But it doesn't have a structure around it to invest in, build up and promote stars.  That's basically the function of the book industry in West.  Without a critical mass of editors, reviewers and literary opinion-makers, you won't be able to build up a sense of prestige for curious outsiders.

 

You have the same trends in the West too to dis-intermediate the publishers or have them just be a platform.

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I think all of these theories sound logical. I think the discussion started by asking where all the great (I guess, Grisham-style) polished bestsellers are, or where the great so-called literary novels are. To an extent, that question can't really refer to very recent writing. But it is interesting that much of the energetic creative new writing appears to be (a) online and (b) fantasy based. So you don't have to get your work okayed by a regulator/publisher, and you can steer clear of the sensitive ground of contemporary society. In fact if you look at most western novelists, it seems they are drawn to writing about contemporary society - it would be interesting if they would have become novelists in the first place if the freedom to write about that was restricted.

 

I mean, why are novels banned in China? Most of their authors knew they were running the risk of being banned. If it wasn't important for them to write about those topics, they would surely avoid them, in order to avoid being banned.

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On 2/9/2022 at 6:09 AM, phills said:

But it doesn't have a structure around it to invest in, build up and promote stars. 

Maybe not in the western webnovel scene, but in the Chinese webnovel scene, it's a completely different world. Take a look at this: https://ir.yuewen.com/en/company-profile.html 阅文集团 (China Literature) is the parent company to some popular webnovel platforms. There are so many published visual entertainment (anime, manga, drama) that started as a webnovel. Adapation contributes to the fame of an author and their work. Not every single one of those viewers will go read the book, but even if a small portion does, it's already huge!

I think most of us (including myself) are seeing this from a very restricted and narrow perspective. I'm sure there are loads of great published work that isn't online or fantasy, we're just not there standing in a book store or a library in China. Also don't take my interest as the only thing out there, I'm just a fantasy fanatic, I'm just not interested in contemporary novel, so I have no idea what that scene is like. Webnovel is just easy to access from outside of China. I would love to just be able to pop into a bookstore and see what's out there...but being miles away, that's not possible.

Also using Google to search for information probably won't be too representive, especially if you're search in English. Unlikely an English speaker would write an article about Chinese novels (that have no English translation) that 99.9% of the readers won't be able to read. If you want more information, you'll need to search in a Chinese search engine, in Chinese, so you'll find articles written by a Chinese native for Chinese readers.

Chinese is also a very difficult language, so there won't be many learners that would reach high literacy level. How many of you can pick up a physical novel (written for adults) and read it without using a dictionary? How many of you have easy access to Chinese novels? I know I don't, there are some online stores but it's extremely limited, expensive, and takes weeks for it to be delivered. We're not exactly the most representive bunch when it comes to the Chinese literature world.

My apologies if I might have missed a few things, I haven't been part of the convo and haven't back read everything. I just want to express that there is a massive world out there that isn't easy for us to discover due to various restrictions and what we see may not be the only things out there.

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On 2/9/2022 at 9:58 AM, MoonIvy said:

I'm sure there are loads of great published work that isn't online or fantasy, we're just not there standing in a book store or a library in China.

 

I fully agree this is perfectly possible - but I genuinely don't think there's any reason why it has to be so. It's not inevitable that a different culture, let alone a different civilisation, would match another one in terms of cultural output. Cultures and traditions vary. I don't think the Germans or the Dutch are particularly renowned for their poetic traditions compared to the English, but the Germans have produced far more philosophers and composers, and Dutch painters aren't exactly trivial, for example.

 

Or another example: if the past is a different country, then there's probably good reasons why lots of American soft-rock was produced in the 1980s but not in the 1940s or the 2020s.

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This discussion has been somewhat discouraging to me in that it has raised the possibility that If I keep plugging away at Chinese I won't reach a point where I will be able to read contemporary Chinese novels that I like - because they may not exist.  I have ZERO interest in fantasy and science fiction.  I have never read or seen the Harry Potter novels/movies or Lord of the Rings - because they don't appeal to me in the slightest.  I read detective novels, spy novels, crime novels and classic literature - I have three Henry James novels on my bedside table now, for instance. and I'm hoping to reread my two favorite Thomas Mann novels sometime soon - Dr. Faustus and The Magic Mountain. 

 

Maybe the perspective here is just an accident of who happens to be active in this forum, the tastes they have and their perceptions.  Hard to say!  But I guess I'd also be happy if I could read and understand the four classic Chinese novels.  Abridged versions of those are on my list as well.

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On 2/9/2022 at 12:13 PM, Moshen said:

 I read detective novels, spy novels, crime novels and classic literature - I have three Henry James novels on my bedside table now, for instance.

This is just my hunch: if it takes the typical learner a sustained period of reading, say, 30 to 50 novels, as part of becoming a fluent reader of Chinese fiction, then you should have no problem finding 30 to 50 good novels that you will enjoy and be glad you read. And then, I imagine, you'd have the skills to go hunting for more novels that may not appear or any 'best of' lists but that you find worthwhile. Fingers crossed!

 

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@MoshenDon't be discouraged, like I said, don't take my interest as the only things out there. When you mean by contemporary novels, you mean novels that are set in modern day? Do they need to be of a particular type? I'm not into detective, spy, crime novels so I don't know too much about this, but I have watched a few suspense/crime TV shows that are based on novels. I haven't read the novel, so from the TV drama perspective it was so good, so I'll imagine the novel to be amazing. They were 隐秘的角落 (novel name: 坏小孩 by 紫金陈) and 摩天大楼 (novel name: 摩天大楼 by 陈雪). 紫金陈 also has another novel (长夜难明) adapted to a drama called 沉默的真相. These just so happens to be TV shows I had watched, but I'm so sure there are loads of out there and definitely not limited to these few. 

阅文集团 says on their website (https://ir.yuewen.com/en/company-profile.html😞 As of June 30, 2021, the Company had 9.4 million writers and 14.5 million literary works on its online reading platform. Out of 14.5million novels, they are not all fantasy and science fiction. This is just one company, there are many others out there. I know there's also a whole webnovel platform dedicated to romance novels, and many recent popular romance novels originated as webnovels from that platform. There might even be one dedicated especially for other genres. And don't forget all the published books that don't start their life as a webnovel.

A handful of people that post here doesn't represent the 1.3billion Mandarin speakers in the world, and we are 100% not the only Mandarin readers in the entire world.

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Here's the link all the categories douban here: https://book.douban.com/tag/?view=type&icn=index-sorttags-hot#文学 if you look at the 推理小说 tag, there's 500k+ novels with that tag. I don't think you need to worry at all. That's enough for a life time, plus all the new novels that come out every single day.

Also you never know with the future, you might discover that you actually really like a genre you've never tried before. I've never in my life read a single science fiction novel and have had 0 interest (I hardly even watch movies or tv shows that science fiction), and recently got recommend 末日乐园, thought I'll give it a go at the audiobook, now I'm totally addicted. You know, maybe someday I'll give detective novel a go, and fall in love!

Even if you have tried them, they might be completely different when written by an author from a different culture. I don't like western urban fantasy novels with vampires, werewolfs...but I really love eastern urban fantasy with ghost, spirits, demons, it's completely different.

There's a sub-genre that's I've recently falling in love with. This subgenre doesn't exist in English literature, which is 种田...yes farming! I'm not even joking...I'm on my second book that has farming as a back drop. There are so many genres/subgenres that don't exist in English literature, someday you might discover one of these and absolutely fall in love with it.

Isn't one reason to learn Chinese is to discover what the culture has to offer? Discover something different, something new.

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On 2/9/2022 at 6:13 AM, Moshen said:

I read detective novels, spy novels, crime novels and classic literature

I think you should be more open to Chinese translations of Japanese novels in these genres. The translations I’ve come across have been quite good and the fact that they are set in Japan instead of China wasn’t too jarring. It’s much easier to know which ones are good, just see which ones were also translated into English. Once you’ve read a few you like, then hop over to Douban to check discussions about “if you liked X, then you’ll like Y”.

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