A 30-something Chinese writer has won one of the United States’ most prestigious literary awards for her short story set during the Cultural Revolution, but readers in her home country are concerned over what they see as damaging stereotypes.
Shanghai native Jia’nan Qian was one of 20 writers honored this year with an O. Henry Prize, named after the acclaimed American short story writer and a fixture in American literature since 1919. Her story “To The Dogs” stands alongside works from high-profile authors including Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr and bestselling writer Sally Rooney, author of the BBC/Hulu-adapted novel “Normal People.”
Jenny Minton Quigley, the editor of this year’s collection of O. Henry-winning short stories, said they were selected from 1,000 works published in magazines and literary journals. She described the winners as “a cluster of 20 glimmering stars, each a small consolation, together a small constellation.”
“We hope you are dazzled,” she wrote in an announcement Tuesday.
But in China, Qian’s home country, many seemed unimpressed by her award-winning story, instead accusing her of looking at China from a foreign gaze.
On review site Douban, a social platform filled with discussions on culture-related issues, users argued that Qian’s story — written in English — depicted a stereotypical image of China and thus betrayed the author’s intention of catering to Western readers. Through her writing, Qian paints sharp, evocative scenes of a rural town.
“I cannot think of a word (to describe it) other than ‘kitsch’,” one Douban user commented. “I’m not arguing that Chinese aren’t supposed to write about our traumatic memories and history in English and for English readers, but the author’s attitude is ugly. Considering her dedicated efforts to please white readers, the fact that she won the award is not surprising.”
“I read it. It’s completely consistent with Westerners’ impressions of ‘ignorant and uncivilized’ China,” wrote another Douban user.
Amid the flurry of criticism, Qian’s story has also been commended for portraying the realities of rural areas through a fictional medium.
“The story is fierce but also kind of realistic,” one user commented. “The scenes — dogs devouring human excrement, flies swarming like black funnels, and dogs mating on the streets — were familiar to me as someone who spent his childhood in rural areas from 2000 to 2008.”
“To The Dogs” begins at a railway station on a hot summer day in Shanghai. The 15-year-old protagonist, Zhao, is traveling to the remote town of X. The year is 1972, and he is being sent “to be reformed by the peasants because my class status wasn’t right” during China’s decadelong Cultural Revolution.
In her story, Qian presents the life and times of that chaotic period from the perspective of Zhao, an urban elite who was sent to work at a rural magnet production factory. In an essay in the literary magazine Granta, which also published “To the Dogs,” Qian said she invited several dinner guests who had lived through the Cultural Revolution to hear their stories before she started writing the piece.
A screenshot of a social media post by literary magazine Granta, announcing the publication of Jia’nan Qian’s short story “To The Dogs.” From Facebook
“‘To the Dogs’ is based on the life story of one of my dinner guests,” Qian wrote. “It’s still fiction, but I won’t be a killjoy and tell you which parts are imaginary.”
Chen Fanghao, a researcher in modern Chinese literature at Shanghai Normal University, told Sixth Tone that the story reinforces the Western imagination of China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, including its portrayal of rural versus urban life and the implication that hygiene and sanitation are lacking in rural areas. However, Chen praised Qian for her writing style and rich details, which meet lofty literary standards set by European and American writers.
“But the main reason why many Douban users are angry is because Qian deliberately ‘flatters’ Western readers by exposing China’s ugliness,” Chen added. “She’s ‘selling’ China to gain a foothold in Western writing circles.”
As of this week, Qian’s name is now enshrined among other high-profile Chinese writers whose stories have won O. Henry Prizes. They include Yiyun Li, who won the prize in 2012 for her short story “Kindness,” and acclaimed author Ha Jin, who had back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2009.
Qian declined Sixth Tone’s interview request but shared news of her achievement on microblogging platform Weibo, saying the award-winning story will be included in this year’s “Best American Short Stories,” a prestigious anthology from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: People Visual)