Han Dong | Interview

Han Dong & Philip Hand

Han Dong was born in 1961 in Nanjing, and shortly afterwards he and his parents were banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. After going on to study and teach philosophy at Shandong University and colleges in Xi’an and Nanjing, Han Dong began writing and publishing poetry and by the 1990s was regarded as one of the finest avant-garde poets of his generation. He has since become increasingly influential as an essayist, short story writer, blogger and novelist. His story, ‘The Wig’, was the focus of the 2012 Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, which received over seventy entries, all translations of Dong’s hilarious and enigmatic story. The winning translator, Philip Hand, spoke to the author about the drawing inspiration from the classic comedies of the Ming and Qing dynasties, his poetry and enticing the reader.

PH: The central character in your story, Hu Yanjun, is somewhat hard to like – drawn, as he is, to wearing a wig in order to assert his self-importance and unable to take it off without masturbating – but does likability really matter in stories?

HD: I don’t like Hu Yanjun, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I dislike him. I guess readers won’t like the character, and that could be something of an obstacle as they are reading. But this story wasn’t written to make readers like it. I’m not writing for Reader’s Digest – if I were, this would certainly be a failure. If my goal were to write a story about a character whom everyone likes, then of course I wouldn’t be writing this. So it doesn’t matter to me. It’s OK to dislike Hu Yanjun and still to like this story. They’re two different things.

Your prose can often be quite spare, with few descriptive flourishes, and yet there’s an underlying humour that can be explosively funny. Do you have a different goal to your reader’s emotional responses when it comes to being funny?

I like humour, particularly deadpan humour, what they call ‘black humour’ in literary studies. But it doesn’t just come from translated literature: in the episodic novels of the Ming and Qing, you find traces of this sense of humour everywhere. Humour is not just an emotion, it’s a worldview; an epistemology, perhaps. Understanding is a precondition for humour – in Chinese, there’s a saying: ‘You smile when you see through someone.’ It’s when you understand something that doesn’t exactly work logically. This is a ‘broader’, more spacious kind of understanding. Inflaming readers isn’t a good thing; I want to entice them. The ideal is that I just do my own thing, write my own way, and other people are drawn in when they’re drawn in. I’m against compulsion, forcing anyone else to accept what I write. I want to inspire readers to read actively. A writer’s narration should be a little passive, a little cold. I have an extraordinary respect for readers, which I express by not compelling them or trying to pander to them. On the surface, this can look a little cold, but it comes from an underlying respect.

Whose sense of humour do you enjoy among the classical novelists of the Ming and Qing dynasties?

The Ming/Qing novel is a very mature form. I find the humour doesn’t lie in the works of a specific author, but in the verbal style of the genre. Unlike with translated or western novels, in Ming/Qing or classical Chinese novels there is not much emphasis on the writer. Personal style is absent. Authors competed instead on their ‘effectiveness’ within a unified framework. This has both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side there is a very mature, adaptable literary form; on the negative is suppression of individualism in narrative. Contemporary Chinese novels basically use western forms, for reasons connected with authorial responsibility and the desire for personal expression.

In your novels dedicate a lot of time and attention to external appearances and narrative, and relatively little on the ‘inner world’ of your characters – their emotions, thoughts and motivations. Is that because you want to express their characters through their actions?

A lack of subjective introspection is a feature of Chinese novels. In western novels, on the other hand, there is a very rich vein of psychological description. For me, I don’t have a problem with the subjective or with psychology, I just don’t want to open up a gulf between my subjective parts and objective parts. I want to write novels that are incisive and sharp; I also want my novels to have a recognizable form. The author must be in control, not the material: the parts of the novel which are still unwritten inform the writing I’m doing now. It mustn’t be the other way around. If what has been written so far determines what I have not yet written, that would be a failure for me. A novel has only limited space; only a few things can be written down; others exist, but are unwritten. When you are determining what to write and what to omit, you must look to see if there is sufficient tension in the material, whether it can create traction.

Does the same motivation drive the writing of poetry and fiction? When you write a poem, you are expressing a concept and a rhythm; does narrative fiction also develop out of a rhythm? Or do the characters in a fiction drive its development?

Of course it’s different. An array of forces drive the ‘forward motion’ of a novel. Of course, plot and character are key, but concepts and structure are also extremely important. There are a lot of moving parts in fiction, and you have to coordinate between them. A novel touches on every aspect of human life, including its frameworks and structures, and its temporal coordinates, so it absolutely is a replay of the Creation. A novel must concern itself with many levels of integration and structure, so ultimately the novel is a hub. This isn’t a motivation, the novel itself is a hub.

Rhythm is clearly very important in your poems, but where does rhythm in modern Chinese come from? Do you use classical metres? Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have a conspicuous stress system like English, so what do you use to create rhythm?

I don’t use classical metres. You’re right to say that when I write poetry, rhythm is a very important consideration. But I understand it as tone, or perhaps the expression of tone is closer to my meaning. Modern written Chinese is a language in constant use, as is spoken Mandarin. In use, rhythms or tones develop naturally, so for me it is very important to pay attention to people’s speech and tone. I also try to listen to my own speech to hear my own intonation. A voice is like a singer’s distinctive sound; there is often something qualitative or textural. There is no such thing as a completely rule-bound language; or if there is, it contains no poetry. But in a living language, in a language that is used and breathed by individuals, there are captivating rhythms. They are subtle, difficult to see or to capture. But a poem stands or falls on these rhythms.

To what extent is your work an expression of your personality, sense of humour and world-view, or is fiction not about expressing the author as an individual?

I honestly don’t know. I just want to write good books. I want people to think that they are well written, not to go searching for me in my books. If there are readers who think that something I’ve written is all right, then I’ve succeeded. If all they take away from the book is a sense of what kind of a person I am, then that’s a failure. In theory, I’d rather be anonymous. If I could create things that people enjoy, and take pleasure in that without attention, that would be great. There would be no need to say who wrote them, or who they belonged to. I have reservations about the capitalist commandment that ‘private property is inviolable,’ and about individualism. Universal principles like these are not applicable to achievements on the level of culture. Artistic wealth should be owned and enjoyed by all humankind. Once a work is finished, its link with the author is only needed to ensure copyright and royalties. There is no need to demand any other kind of connection.


You can also read Philip Hand’s winning translation of Han Dong’s story, story, ‘The Wig’.

The Wig
Religion Against Humanity