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One of the major problems facing me when learning Chinese is finding truly interesting books to read. Sure, I can find books I enjoy, but I have yet to find a book that I really can’t stop reading. Those that I have found so far have been translations from other languages into Chinese. I don’t say it’s bad to read translations, I’m just saying it would be better to find brilliant books originally written in Chinese.

The reason I haven’t found any brilliant books so far is partly because I’m not at a level where I can appreciate books just because of the language use, but it’s also because the kind of fiction I like is very scarce in Chinese. I like literature with cool, interesting or thought-provoking ideas. I don’t like historical novels or novels that are merely after describing historical or personal events. Thus, science fiction is one of my favourite genres.

A quest to find good Chinese science fiction

It seems to me that the Chinese are mostly looking backwards to history when looking for greatness. This is cool if you like Chinese history or historical settings, but not so cool if you don’t. This is just a theory, but I think it might explain why science fiction is much less popular in China than it is in the West. Still, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any Chinese science fiction, it just means that it’s less popular and less developed.

This is the first post of many where I will discuss books I read on my journey towards finding good science fiction in Chinese. It will probably take me many years, but I do hope that I will be able to gradually build up a comprehensive overview that might provide help to other learners of Chinese or to people who are simply interested in Chinese science fiction.

Reading 倪匡 (Ni Kuang)

Having looked online and talked with numerous native speakers about this, one name kept popping up all the time: 倪匡 (Ni Kuang). After having found a number of his books in a used bookshop, I started reading. After having read two novels and as well as having read and heard more about the author and his works, I feel that I’m in a position where I can say something about him in general.

First, here are the two books I read: 犀照 and 茫點:

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This isn’t science fiction

As you can see, it says 科幻小說 (science fiction novel) on both covers. I’ve heard that this isn’t the author’s own idea, but a label that the publisher puts on his books (he prefers 幻想, which means fantasy or illusion and is much more appropriate). In any case, it’s misleading, because neither of these novels (and I suppose most of his other works) is science fiction at all according to most definitions of the genre.

Instead, I would call his books mystery novels with supernatural elements. Sure, these elements are sometimes related to technology, but Harry Potter wouldn’t turn into science fiction just because someone said that his wand was created by an ancient race of star-faring aliens. The point is that it isn’t science fiction and if you start reading these books with the hope of finding good science fiction, you will be disappointed.

That in itself isn’t a problem, though, I like many kinds of novels and I’m not very narrow-minded when it comes to literature (just check my earlier book reviews). The fact that the novels themselves are pretty bad, even when read as mystery novels, is a much bigger problem. Now, you might think that’s because my Chinese isn’t good enough to appreciate the story or the language, but my complaints are of a more basic nature.

Plot summary of 犀照 (spoiler warning)

I don’t want to dwell too much on the actual books, but in case anyone is curious, I will include a brief summary of each book. Note that both summaries include spoilers, so skip this part if you ignore my recommendation and plan to read these books anyway.

In 犀照, the protagonist is contacted by an old friend who is well-known explorer of the South Pole. He has found something astonishing beneath the ice. He has sent blocks of ice for inspection and cautions that they might contain something very dangerous. However, the ice is perfectly clear and seems to contain nothing. Nothing but increasing confusion, gradual insanity and general psychological breakdown, that is.

The actual truth is much less interesting than the above description suggests. Trapped in the ice are microscopic organisms who are so small that they can move in solid ice and float around in the air. The madness comes from not knowing whether or not these organisms have the power to infest human minds.

It turns out that what the explorer has found in the south pole is a very unlikely collection of ancient creatures who inhabited earth long ago. How they were fixed into crystal clear ice in an exhibition-like fashion is not apparent and neither is how this is relevant for anything else.

Plot summary of 茫點 (spoiler warning)

In this story, the (same) protagonist is contacted by the brother of the Antarctic explorer in the above story (although the books were actually published in the reverse order). Since the protagonist is in a bad mood, he doesn’t hear him out, but instead leaves his wife to figure out what’s going on. It takes at least half the book before we learn anything significant other than that it’s related to mirrors and telepathy in some way.

It turns out that a new technology has been developed with which minds can be read, based on the telepathic communication between moths (yes, moths). Similar signals can be used both to receive thoughts (brain waves) and project thoughts (mind control of some kind).

This technology is then used by a go (the game) grandmaster to cheat in high-level go games, but he goes crazy when he (mistakenly) thinks that he’s been found out. Many other people are pulled in and declared insane because of things they see (because of the brain waves) but actually aren’t there. I’ve seldom read about so many people being declared insane and locked up in mental wards so quickly.

The ending doesn’t provide any real explanations, doesn’t leave any interesting questions and is just unsatisfactory in general.

Five common problems

I think these two novels have five problems in common, roughly sorted according to how serious I think they are:

  • Predictability – The plots of both these novels have been very easy to predict. This makes reading them boring, because it all feels like waiting for the main character to figure out what I figured out long before. There are two versions of this problem. The first is major plot elements that have predictable outcomes, the second is scenes that are predictable. The first kind is sort of okay because it can be argued that the way to that conclusion is the point rather than the conclusion itself, but when this happens for most of the scenes in the book it becomes seriously annoying.
  • Surprise inflation – Considering the fact that Ni Kuang uses the same main character in most books, it’s hard to understand why that character feels surprised whenever something slightly out of the ordinary happens. He feels surprised, stunned and dazed quite a lot (呆 and 愣 are very common characters in these books). You would think he’d grown used to encountering weird things, but no. In any case, this is a bit tedious to read, especially in light of the above complaint about predictability. An author should rely on surprising the reader to convey this kind of feeling, not writing about how surprised the main character looks or feels, especially when what’s supposed to be surprising is actually obvious to the reader.
  • No food for thought – I like science fiction because it makes me think. It shows me new possibilities and it sheds light on modern society, human existence and other topics I find interesting. Ni Kuang doesn’t really do any of this. There are some interesting things going on, but they aren’t discussed more than at a superficial level (what actual characters are thinking about a particular situation). It should be mentioned, though, that he does bring up madness, reality and normality in both novels and does it reasonably well. However, since the related phenomena are always fantastic or completely unrealistic in nature, they don’t feel very relevant to me.
  • Lack of internal logic – One of the most important concepts when writing science fiction is internal logic. For instance, it’s fine to say that faster-than-light travel is possible (even if it isn’t according to modern physics), describe some principles for how it works and then write books about it. But if you do, you need to follow your own rules, you need to provide your story with internal logic that makes sense and you need to show your reader that even though there are some fictional elements, the rest of the setting/story is rule-bound in some way. Just because you can break some rules doesn’t mean you can break all of them at once. Science fiction isn’t about letting the imagination run amok, it’s about letting it roam freely within certain restraints. In these two novels, however, there is no internal logical structure. In short, it feels like anything can happen for any reason. In my opinion, this is what places these novels firmly outside the science fiction genre.
  • Forced thrill – The author often creates situations which are supposed to be exciting without anchoring them in the plot. For instance, in 茫點, much of the suspense in the first one hundred pages comes from lack of communication between the main character and his wife. She tries to convey something important to him in a limited time using only hand gestures, but he fails to understand. A painful amount of text is spent on him trying to figure out what she actually meant. There is a phrase in Chinese that catches this pretty well: 故弄玄虛, or deliberately making something very mystifying and/or confusing. Mystery novels obviously need mysteries, but they should be real mysteries and not minor inconveniences blown up out of proportion by the author.

The quest goes on

Before I end this article, I’d like to point out that Ni Kuang is an extremely prolific writer and that I might simply have picked the wrong books. However, based on what I’ve heard from other people and read online, I don’t think that’s the case. I probably won’t read any more books written by Ni Kuang. The two I have already read seem very similar and have the same kind of problems.

That said, I don’t regret reading these two books. They did contain some cool ideas and some interesting parts, but they failed to give me something more than a brief moment’s escapism. I want something more from literature. I’m still looking for good science fiction in Chinese. My next project will be 劉慈欣’s 三體, which I’m quite sure is actually science fiction. If it’s good or not remains to be seen.

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Many people will tell you that children learn languages faster than adults. This is not true. However, it is true that children attain a higher level than adults in the long run (averagely talented children always reach fluency in their native language, adult learners of a second language don’t).  It is less clear why this is so. Is it because children’s brains are more plastic and can accommodate more quickly? Or is it simply that they practice relentlessly and have strong psychological and social reasons for correcting their own mistakes and adapting their language to their environment?

I’m inclined to think it is the latter, because after all, practice is what matters most. Children have no alternative to learning their native language if they wish to socialise with their peers and thrive in society. As a a second language learner, however, there are many incentives for not learning a language to a native level. The most important thing is of course immersion. If you are completely immersed in a language and have no alternative, you have no choice but to learn that language. However, as a grown-up Swede studying Chinese, I have lots of other choices. For instance, I’m writing this article in English and I chatted with a friend in Swedish yesterday. This kind of distraction distorts the immersion environment and inevitably leads to reduced language learning.

I have come to realise that if I’m going to learn Chinese to a near-native level, I have to do something drastic. In this case, I have decided to step up the immersion effort, which will mean that from now on, I will put severe restrictions on the use Swedish and English. This will have some quite far-reaching consequences. For instance:

  • I’ll stop reading/writing in English or Swedish on Facebook, Twitter and other websites
  • I won’t update Snigel.nu or reply to comments in English or Swedish
  • I won’t speak Swedish or English and will do my best to change my internal discourse to Chinese

Since I realise that this will cause some problems in the social sphere, considering that most people I know and care about don’t speak Chinese at all, so communicating with these people will of course be a problem. As you know, I’m not an unreasonable person, so I will allow myself to use Swedish or English on Mondays (weekends aren’t good because it would be impossible to contact companies or authorities in Sweden). This means of course that if you try to contact me at any other time, you will either have to wait or hire an interpreter or use Google translate. Some of the finer nuances of your message might be lost in translation, but I’m sure I will get the gist of what you’re saying. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but this is a sacrifice I have to make in order to reach my goals.

This immersion plan starts next week and will be active until further notice, but at least for three months (until the end of June, that is). It’s time to leave the surface and immerse for real. Bye!

*Update: This was of course an Aprils Fool’s Day post and I’m not serious. Everything up to the final few paragraphs are of course reasonable, but scheduling time to talk with family and friends (including receiving phone calls and so n) is quite unreasonable. I will listen and read as much Chinese as I can, but I’ve done that for years and I don’t think my English or Swedish-speaking friends suffer very much.

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