Novelist and dramatist Lao She was a leading figure in 20th century Chinese literature, specialising in humorous and satirical novels and short stories. His comic masterpiece MR MA AND SON has been translated into English four times since it came out in China in 1931. The version by Jean M. James was the first to be published, by the Chinese Materials Centre in 1980. This one is no longer available, but in 2014 Penguin Modern Classics published a fresh translation by William Dolby, notable for its convincing use of English idiom.

she-dp061259-plaque-1000Born to a poor family in Beijing in 1899, Lao She – real name Shu Qingchun – travelled to London in the 1920s to lecture in Mandarin at what was then the School of Oriental Studies. A blue English Heritage plaque at 31 St James’ Gardens in Notting Hill commemorates the five years he spent living in London – he is the only Chinese person to date to be honoured in this way. While in London Lao She read widely; he was particularly impressed by Dickens and by Modernist writers such as Joyce and Conrad.

MR MA AND SON draws on his experiences of the London of this period. It depicts life in the area then known as Chinatown, which prior to its destruction in World War Two was a small community located around Limehouse docks in the east of the city. The eponymous protagonists are shopkeepers struggling to find their feet in English society. Lao She’s book details the unfriendliness, racial and class discrimination and narrow-minded patriotism the Mas encounter, providing an alternative, Chinese perspective on 1920s Sinophobia. The author’s mordant wit makes it a hilarious as well as discomfiting read.

Another Chinese classic first published in English in 1980 – but written in 1598! – is THE PEONY PAVILION by Tang Xianzu. A tragicomic romantic opera and panorama of Chinese society, it’s a masterpiece of Ming dynasty drama. Cyril Birch’s translation captures (I am told) the elegance, lyricism and subtle, earthy humour of the original, and has been used for some spectacular productions.


THE STORY OF THE STONE (also known as DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER and variations of the same) is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels and generally acknowledged as the pinnacle of Chinese fiction. Written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century, the tale of the rise and fall of a great family – and, by extension, the Qing dynasty – is thought to be semi-autobiographical. Running to several volumes (twice as long as WAR AND PEACE), it creates a vivid, richly detailed picture of the social, cultural and spiritual life of the age.

THE STORY OF THE STONE features a huge cast of characters. At its heart are the tangled stories of the three main protagonists: a young man called Jia Baoyu and two young women, Xue Baochai and the ill-fated Lin Daiyu. This epic novel is so famous among readers of Chinese that ‘Redology’ has become a respected branch of academic studies. Contemporary speakers and writers still sprinkle their works with its phrases.

The book is notable for having been written in the vernacular rather than in classical Chinese. The dialogue is in the Beijing Mandarin dialect that later formed the basis of modern spoken Chinese, and in the early twentieth century the text of THE STORY OF THE STONE was used both by lexicographers to establish the vocabulary of the new standardised language and by reformers promoting the written vernacular.

Cao’s epic work was edited and re-edited over time, and some of the chapters are believed to have been written, or completed, by another hand. The history of its translation into English has also been a chequered one. Numerous partial translations or excerpts were published from the early nineteenth century onwards, but David Hawkes and John Minford were the first to translate the work in its entirety. The first volume of their complete edition appeared in 1973; another four followed, in 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1986. Nicky Harman, currently the vice-chair of the Translators Association and herself a distinguished translator from Chinese, describes the Hawkes-Minford translation as ‘an inspiration: both extremely readable and awe-inspiring in its ingenuity, for example in its seemingly effortless renderings of the poems’. Another notable complete translation, by the husband-and-wife translation team of Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, was published in China just a few years later under the title A DREAM OF RED MANSIONS.

Finally, brief mention must be made of the Polish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose collection A CROWN OF FEATHERS AND OTHER STORIES was also published in English in 1973. The following year it shared the National Book Award for Fiction with Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. Singer – famously – wrote in Yiddish; these stories were translated into English by the author, Laurie Colwin and others. In the documentary film ‘The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer’ we are told that the author dreamed of having a harem of women – specifically, he said, ‘a harem of translators’, which he felt ‘would be heaven on earth’. Hmm…