Friday, 12 February 2016

Why is China’s greatest novel virtually unknown in the west?

An illustration from the book

When I was a graduate student in Oxford many years ago I shared a house with a brilliant German sinologist who used to push translations my way, stroking his beard with a teasing smile: “Try this – you’ll really enjoy it.” Many visitors popped into our terraced house on Abingdon Road, and one night around the kitchen table I met a fascinating character, rangy with white hair and beard, and a twinkly eye. His name was David Hawkes.

A gifted linguist, he had directed Japanese codebreakers in his early 20s, during the second world war. As a student at Peking University, he had been in Tiananmen Square in 1949 when Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Later, as a teacher, he had done a wonderful translation of the Songs of the South, part of a poetic tradition earlier than anything that has survived in the west. Then he became professor of Chinese in Oxford, but, as he put it, “I resigned in order to devote my time to translating a Chinese novel … well, the Chinese novel”.

The book was Dream of the Red Chamber, also known as The Story of the Stone, written by Cao Xuequin. The critic Anthony West called it “one of the great novels of world literature … to the Chinese as Proust is to the French or Karamazov to the Russians”.

Hawkes eventually completed his great endeavour with the help of his son-in-law John Minford, who finished the last two volumes of the five, which were published by Penguin between 1973 and 1986. Hawkes’s translation was greeted as an introduction to “a masterpiece”, a “work of genius”, a “candidate for the Book of the Millennium”. When Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was given a copy of Shakespeare during his state visit to the UK last year, the new Chinese ambassador Fu Ying gave the queen the Hawkes translation.

The novel is an 18th-century saga, the tale of a noble family that falls from grace. It is full of incredible detail of the social, cultural and spiritual life of the time. Chairman Mao claimed to have read it five times – and thought everyone else should too. Today, everyone in China knows it, partly due to the much-loved 1987 TV version, which had the impact of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice in the UK.

Hawkes eventually completed his great endeavour with the help of his son-in-law John Minford, who finished the last two volumes of the five, which were published by Penguin between 1973 and 1986. Hawkes’s translation was greeted as an introduction to “a masterpiece”, a “work of genius”, a “candidate for the Book of the Millennium”. When Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was given a copy of Shakespeare during his state visit to the UK last year, the new Chinese ambassador Fu Ying gave the queen the Hawkes translation.

The book was written in dribs and drabs: each new chapter circulated among family and friends, often in exchange for a meal and a pitcher of wine. He died in 1763, heartbroken it is said, by the death of his only son. Death of the Red Chamber was finally published in print in 1791, but the text is still surrounded by controversy. There is a story that it had been censored because eminent people it satirised had been too thinly disguised. It is also debated whether the text we have is all his. Different endings survive, with a writer called Gao E claiming to have published the complete version according to the author’s wishes. Today, “redology” (Red Chamber obsessives are known as “redologists”) is a massive and still expanding field in China, with conferences, annual journals and a torrent of publications. Manuscripts still turn up. Mysteries remain unsolved.

Read more >>>

No comments:

Post a Comment