“CHINESE FICTION IS HOT,” announced an October 23, 2012 Bloomberg Businessweek article by Christina Larson, which described an increased Western appetite for English translations of Chinese literature. This rise in interest began well before Mo Yan became the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in Literature that month. Penguin Books established its China division in 2005, the first of several Western publishing houses to arrive in the country seeking to serve as a bridge between Chinese- and English-language readers. The company made a big splash early on when it spent an astounding $100,000 on the English rights to Jiang Rong’s best-selling novel Wolf Totem. Though Jiang Rong has hardly become the household name among foreign readers that it is in China, Penguin’s move might be more important for signifying the company’s dedication to translation; Penguin China now releases a handful of translated novels each year.
But what to translate?
The Chinese literary market is massive, fragmented, and of uneven quality, as Julia Lovell documented in an essay for the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. Publishers often churn out books barely touched by an editor’s hand, while novels posted in online forums to evade state censorship might be widely read but poorly written. Genres popular in China, such as the “officialdom novels” chronicling the trials and tribulations of civil servants, might not make much sense to readers outside of China, unless they happen to have plot points that resonate with events making headlines (one recent work in the genre involves a fallen bureaucrat facing execution for corruption). And while foreign publishers like Penguin have certainly seen an uptick in Western interest in Chinese fiction, that growth started from a low level. Even Mo Yan might not really crack the U.S. market once the Nobel glow fades. After all, while the Paris-based Chinese writer in exile Gao Xingjian became globally famous when he won his Nobel in 2000, his novels are far from best-sellers.
But, cynical though it may sound, sex sells.
Thus it might not be surprising that Penguin China has chosen to release an English translation of Sheng Keyi’s 2004 novel, Bei Mei, or Northern Girls: Life Goes On. Sheng’s book, translated by Shelly Bryant, is a raunchy and provocative account of the lives of “Northern Girls,” young women who moved from rural China to the manufacturing boomtowns of the country’s southern coast during the 1990s and early 2000s (a topic explored, much more sedately, by journalist Leslie T. Chang in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China). Sheng herself was a migrant laborer in the 1990s, before she turned to a writing career in 2001 and Northern Girls draws on her observations of life in the south for its material. In fact, Sheng writes in a new afterword, “[t]he hardships they [migrant laborers] encounter are actually more shocking than anything I’ve recorded, reaching well beyond the scope of what is represented in my novel.” This is, sadly, difficult to imagine.
The book’s protagonist, 16-year-old middle-school dropout Qian Xiaohong, is blessed — or cursed? — with enormous breasts, “much too large for civilised, polite society.” In the small Hunan province village where she’s grown up, Xiaohong’s real sin isn’t her figure — no one, of course, can blame her for that — but rather the pleasure she takes in flaunting it. Caught in bed with her brother-in-law, Xiaohong flees the village, first for work in a nearby town, then for the opportunities offered by the southern city of Shenzhen.
Xiaohong’s physical attributes attract both attention and suspicion, as men and women alike are fascinated by her but also wary of how her presence might destabilize their lives. This preoccupation with Xiaohong’s breasts, however, leads almost everyone in the novel to underestimate her mind; principled, shrewd, and ambitious, Xiaohong refuses to sell her body, either as a prostitute or surrogate mother. She works in a hair salon, a toy factory, a hotel, and a hospital, each move vaulting her another rung up the ladder, as Xiaohong exaggerates her skills and reinvents herself bit by bit. When confronted with her inability to speak an unfamiliar dialect, Xiaohong articulates what turns out to be her guiding principle: “Then we learn! There’s nothing that can’t be learned.”
The other half of that “we” is Li Sijiang, another Northern Girl who accompanies Xiaohong to Shenzhen and proves her most loyal companion in the alien city. The wholesome and innocent Sijiang wants no part of the drama that Xiaohong thrives on; she’s content to trudge along in her friend’s shadow, merely hoping to earn enough money to open a hair salon of her own, marry, and settle down. Xiaohong’s dreams are vague, though it’s surely not a coincidence that the “Qian” of her surname is also the Chinese character for “money.” But she dreams big: “Can I be the big boss of a company? Will I make loads of money? Become famous?”
Plenty of obstacles stand in the way of Xiaohong and Sijiang achieving their goals. Xiaohong initially imagines Shenzhen as “a romantic city that seemed to have risen right out of the lines of a poem, its streets filled with dignified men.” In fact, she and Sijiang find the metropolis gritty and the men predatory, quick to exploit the girls’ lack of sophistication. Sijiang proves especially vulnerable, and some of Sheng’s most moving passages come when Sijiang first reluctantly aborts a pregnancy and later mistakenly undergoes a forced sterilization at the hands of the family planning authorities. The men of Northern Girls are almost entirely unredeemed: some are conniving and exploitative; some are weak and conflicted. None are a good catch, and all of the Northern Girls seem better off on their own.
But when Xiaohong is present, there are always men, mesmerized by her breasts before them. Though Xiaohong professes an interest in having a boyfriend, she never pursues a lasting relationship, instead treating sexual desire as an itch to be scratched with any man available. Sheng seems uncertain about the message she wants to convey regarding sex and gender dynamics in the migrant communities of Shenzhen. In the Wild Wild West of China’s south, are women free to do as they like and sleep with whomever they please? Or, at the end of the day, do conservative traditional gender norms still prevail? At times, Xiaohong is assertive and confident, sure that she can manipulate any man in her path (even the policemen, whose authority instills fear in other migrant workers), and she appears indifferent to gossip about her exploits. But when one of her lovers professes his love for her, she refuses to believe him, because “[t]here was no reason for him to really love a girl who had worked in a salon and a hotel, nor was there a reason for any man to.” And although throughout the book Xiaohong has consistently examined marriage and found it wanting (at one point, Xiaohong sees a bride and describes her as “bound” by the jewelry she wears), toward the end of the novel, she suddenly wishes her life were a bit more like her sister’s: “Even though her brother-in-law liked to have his fun, the couple always slept side by side, quarreled with one another, made love and worked together in the fields.” Despite this momentary longing for a more settled life, Xiaohong remains in Shenzhen to continue her endless search for something more ... whatever that indescribable “something” is.
Xiaohong can be a frustrating protagonist — what does she really want out of life? — but she is also, despite all her experience, a teenage girl far from home struggling to thrive in a chaotic environment. A little uncertainty is understandable, given how frequently she hops jobs and even industries. When nothing is fixed from one week to the next, imagining two or three years into the future must seem impossible.
Even her body changes toward the novel’s end, destabilizing Xiaohong’s view of herself. Her breasts inexplicably start growing again, swelling in size until they literally cause her to fall to the ground. Xiaohong is no longer voluptuous and sexy; in the book’s final pages, she ages by the paragraph:
Her feet were still plodding forward at a steady pace, like an old beggar woman. [...] She saw a bus stop about five hundred metres away. Five hundred metres! But honestly, even if it was just five metres, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to make it. She couldn’t carry on, couldn’t manage to move those two sacks of rice any further. She no longer thought of them as breasts, but as two beggar’s sacks, waiting to be filled up with life and achievement. They were not a source of happiness or pleasure. They just kept weighing her down, pulling her down towards the ground.
In Northern Girls, Penguin China isn’t offering English-language audiences the cream of the Chinese fiction crop; the book is less The Great Gatsby than Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, this translation enables foreign readers to learn, from someone who has been there, about the lives of young women on the margins in the ever-changing landscape of urban China. Sheng’s writing is occasionally unpolished and sensationalist, and the intermittent appearance of a narrator who addresses the reader is distracting. Nevertheless, the book as a whole comes across as a primal scream, a demand that readers acknowledge the financial, emotional, legal, and sexual exploitation suffered by millions of Northern Girls who have migrated to China’s cities in search of work.
Northern Girls ends on an ambiguous note, leaving Xiaohong one among the crowd on the streets of Shenzhen. Sijiang, broken and defeated, has returned to Hunan; the body that she once flaunted has become unrecognizable to Xiaohong. But she’s still clever and ambitious, so perhaps the future isn’t so bleak. As the English subtitle says, “Life Goes On.”
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine and editor of The China Beat.