‘First rate’ – Shi Cheng – Short stories from Urban China Edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua and Ra Page

Comma Press is a Manchester non-profit outfit which specialises in themed projects, as far as I can see mostly short story collections. They have published a few city based collections, of which Shi Cheng (meaning Ten Cities) is their latest – a literary tour of ten Chinese cities. There’s a handy map at the front so geography nerds can look up exactly where each story comes from.

The short story format works well for these authors. Their stories cover various themes but share a certain style, which is clean, clever and down to earth. In comparison to the short stories of Yiyung Li, which is the nearest thing I’ve read, they are less refined (or at least less Westernised) and show a China which is more mundane but also more diverse. And apart from a rare moment of clunkiness, the translations are first rate.

The collection opens with a story from Hong Kong called ‘Square Moon’, in which a young woman meets a foreigner who lives in a haunted house. Moving Northwards to Guangzhou, ‘But what about the Red Indians?’ is a coming of age story about two childhood friends with a slightly unsubtle ending.

Chengdu’s contribution, ‘Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Yilu’, is narrated by the friend of a woman who wants to kill her husband. Apparently aesthetics are an essential criterion when choosing a murder weapon:

“The main thingwas to put a stop to the vegetable knife. Kangkang just doesn’t have any style, she would totally take the vegetable knife. You might as well use a watermelon knife, aesthetically speaking.”

‘Rendezvous at the Castle hotel’, from Xi’an, is a slightly scandalous tale involving a newcomer to the Xi’an poetry scene and a couple of elderly Japanese tourists. My favourite story of the bunch was ‘This moron is dead’, from Nanjing, an absurd but atmospheric tale about how the city deals with a dead man on the pavement. Set in Beijing, ‘Wheels are round’ is the story of a mechanic who constructs a car out of scrap parts.

“I can say with confidence that no more thana handful of human beings have ever laid eyes on a car like that one: it was a monster. Its skin was still rusted sheeting – I mean not a speck of paint –that was all he could afford. Never mind that, there wasn’t even enough to go around: he’d been obliged to make a convertible…the front wheels were smaller than the back wheels, and the whole car seemed to lunge forward angrily.”

Whilst they aren’t overtly political, a few of the stories nod at political developments. Shenyang’s story ‘Squatting’ documents the city rulers’ increasingly ridiculous measures to rid the city of crime, whilst ‘How to look at women’ references past events more directly, including a character who has become a trusted friend of a family he once spied on.

Although (as I’ve already mentioned) the stories share certain commonalities, each one has quite a different feel. Unfortunately I don’t know China enough to be able to say what is down to the author’s style and what is a reflection of the city in question’s culture. But together they show a China which is less sensational, more intellectual than the China which tends to appear elsewhere.

Any Cop?: An impressively deep and varied selection. I enjoyed this (and learnt from it) even though I know little about the Chinese literary scene; I expect those who know China will enjoy it even more. Comma Press has published the same kind of city collections from other regions which I’ll definitely be checking out.

Lucy Chatburn

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