Contemporary Chinese Literature mooc

Course: ChinaX Book Club: Five Authors, Five Books, Five Views of China
Length: 5 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: David Wang
Quote:

How can literature and literary analysis allow us to understand the dynamics of contemporary China?
China’s historical and cultural transformations, and its imaginary and actual engagements in everyday life are vividly dramatized by five Chinese authors featured in this course…. This course will employ the tools of close reading, discussion, and analysis to explore issues that concern the Chinese people, and ponder the power (and limitations) of literature in imagining China anew.

I started Harvard’s ChinaX series a couple of years ago; I loved the first couple of segments, but lost interest as we moved into the medieval period and never completed it. Recently I saw this offered as another part of the series. I’m way too intimidated to read Chinese literature on my own, so I thought it might be an interesting way to get some kind of glimpse into what I was missing.

To my surprise, I had read two of the authors discussed. An excerpt of Mo Yan’s novel POW! appeared in TNY right after he won his Nobel Prize, and I read Ha Jin’s story collection A Good Fall a long time ago and made a mess of it (I’m embarrassed every time I see those posts come up, since I had no idea what I was doing). Neither of those works was involved in this course, however.

The works that were discussed were:
∘ China in 10 Words by Yu Hua
∘ Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan
∘ Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke
∘ Waiting by Ha Jin
∘ The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

I took this as a “recreational mooc” and thus didn’t read the works. Each week focused on one author/book. After an introduction of the author, with some reference to the specific book, a passage from the book (usually about 10 pages) was presented with numerous detailed instructor notes and questions. This was an annotation exercise, the idea being to respond to the instructor material or add your own notations. I found the instructor notes very helpful, and also a bit intimidating: they pointed out things I never would have considered if I’d been reading the book. Some of this is just a more analytical way of reading – a discussion of free indirect discourse, for example – and some was in references to Chinese culture and history that’s outside my knowledge. Of course, reading books is a great way to get that knowledge, but it helps when they’re highlighted and explicitly explained.

Other material for each week included an interview with the author (these were in a Chinese dialect – I’m assuming Mandarin, but how would I know – with English subtitles and transcripts), and discussions between the instructor and a couple of PhD students. A set of “reader’s guide” style questions was provided for each book, giving further guidance to personal reading. All grading was in self-reporting; I skipped that entirely.

Yu Hua’s China in 10 Words, the only nonfiction covered in the course, served as both an entry into the class, and a wrap-up, as the course is situated within a series about understanding China. An entry survey asked us to come up with ten words we connect with China, prior to reading the works or taking the course. Given the coincidence of taking this during a pandemic that began in China, and living in a country with a leader whose racism is front and center, it was a bit disconcerting [Note: I took this course in the Spring; this post has just been sitting in my notes document since then, but I… well, I forgot about it until I saw it the other day]. I connect China with the philosophies of the Warring States period, with the poetry of the Tang (or is it Song, I get them confused) dynasty, and with bits and pieces I’ve encountered in other moocs. At the end of the course, the instructor and his grad students came up with their own list of ten words to summarize contemporary China; they of course know a lot more than I do about it.

Initially, I thought Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke would be the book I’d be most likely to read on my own, just based on the description: a satiric novel about a kind of travelling circus of disabled people from a poor village who turn to entertainment for economic survival. From the excerpt included, I get the impression there are important nuances that I couldn’t follow, so I’m not sure it’s where I would start.

By the end of the course, Ha Jin’s Waiting seemed like the best entry point: a novel about a man trying, for twenty years, to divorce his wife so he can marry the woman he loves. Yet I would be reluctant based on my past inability to connect with Ha’s stories in A Good Fall. Perhaps I’ve learned a little about reading since then? The author has an interesting story: he was in the US as a student when the Tiananmen massacre occurred, and he decided then he would write only in English from then on and never return to China.

Wang Anyi also has an interesting story, and her The Song of Everlasting Sorrow reflects it alongside the history of Shanghai: a woman struggling against prohibitions, coming into her own voice. This turned out to be the most easily readable for me (at least, of the excerpts in translation that were provided), so that makes it tempting as well. Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, a “native soil” novel about peasant China (their word, not mine) rounded out the field.

I’m not sure I’m ready to take on any of these works; I’ve read very little translated fiction. At some point I’ll read something someone’s written about one of these books, or maybe another Chinese novel, and that will spark me into action. I’m glad this class gave me an overview to find some footing.

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