Marguerite Duras describes a crowd in French Indo-China (in 1930): 'The clatter of wooden clogs is ear-splitting, the voices strident, Chinese is a language that's shouted the way I always imagine desert languages are, it's a language that's incredibly foreign.' This impression is familiar to me, from National Service days in Hong Kong and the British New Territories. Yet, at the same time, Chinese poetry does sometimes seem to translate more readily into English than French poetry does, partly because its beauty does not depend so much upon the sound. Chinese 'ideograms', as the dictionaries put it, 'symbolise a thing or an idea but not a particular word or phrase for it'. When Cantonese audiences watch a film in Mandarin, they have subtitles (printed vertically, on either side of the screen), for they cannot understand the sounds: but they share the same ideograms for the things and ideas. This fact about the Chinese language, or languages, has a bearing on both the style and the subject-matter of Dai Houying's impressive novel about modern China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution: the poetry is in the things and ideas, the clash of ideograms in challenge and response, not in sounds, echoes, national resonances. Stones of the Wall, though deeply concerned with love between men and women, is quite remarkably different from The Lover - and 'goes into English' more easily.
LRB 23 January 1986 | PDF Download