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That We May Live: speculative Chinese fiction, by various authors

by Dorothy Tse, Enoch Tam, Zhu Hui, Chan Chi Wa, Chen Si'an, Yan Ge

translated by Jeremy Tiang, Natascha Bruce, Canaan Morse, Audrey Heijns, Michael DayBook Cover

Two Lines Press, 2020

Publisher's Blurb

A woman impulsively decides to visit her grandmother in a scene reminiscent of “Little Red Riding Hood,” only to find herself in a town of women obsessed with a mysterious fermented beverage. An aging and well-respected female newscaster at a provincial TV station finds herself caught up in an illicit affair with her boss, who insists that she recite the news while they have sex. An anonymous city prone to vanishing storefronts begins to plant giant mushrooms for its citizens to live in, with disastrous consequences.

In this first book in the brand-new Calico Series, we bring you work by some of today’s most exciting writers from China and Hong Kong, including Dorothy Tse (tr. Natascha Bruce), Zhu Hui (tr. Michael Day), and Enoch Tam (tr. Jeremy Tiang). Lightly touching on issues of urbanization, sexuality, and propaganda, the collection builds a world both utterly disorienting and disturbing familiar, prompting the question: Where does reality end and absurdity begin in a world pushed to its very limits?

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Emma Part, 1/4/24

Emma PartThis collection of short stories is labelled as ‘speculative fiction’, a genre I am not so well read in, but I understand to focus on ‘possible’ futures that in some way depart from our own everyday experiences. The stories captivated me; I read them over two days on a trip to Copenhagen – it was the perfect coffee shop read (it paired very well with a pastry and a matcha latte). This feel of the stories reminded me of I who have never known men by Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman with their open-ended plots and capacity for multiple interpretations. I did however come away from each story feeling slightly confused, and some of the stories left me wanting a bit more, but arguably this is the norm with short stories. Overall, I interpreted these stories to centre on the themes of the destruction of what is natural, and an exploration on what has in modern times become society’s new ‘natural’.

Sour Meat by Dorothy Tse, Translated by Natascha Bruce

Grasping, ambitious men were everywhere in her industry, desperate for an opportunity to knock her down, and she had decided it was best to keep her body under wraps. And yet, even shrouded in thick clothes, the body of the woman beside her exuded a powerful, undeniable meatiness. (p.14)

I had previously never read any works from any of the authors in this collection, but after some research I have discovered that Dorothy Tse is well-known for her surrealist tales, and this story continues on that track. It follows the protagonist who at a train station meets a strange character, and ultimately takes an unexpected journey. Through the strange nonchalance of the protagonist, who seems to be disconnected from everything happening around her, the story is permeated by a strong sense of uneasiness. The sense of foreboding builds to a disturbingly ambiguous ending that left me dually repulsed and intrigued. From which I gathered that this story might be passing comment on the female body (but I couldn’t say with any certainty).

Auntie Han’s Modern Life by Enoch Tam, translated by Jeremy Tiang and The Mushroom Houses Proliferated in District M by Enoch Tam, translated by Jeremy Tiang

When the residents opened their front doors the morning after the storm, they’d find their street completely transformed, a seafood restaurant suddenly where a convenience store used to be, a stationery store now replaced by a comic book shop. Still, being used to this reshuffle taking place once every few years, they simply got dressed as usual and went off to work. (pp.96-7)

These two stories, although separated by another story, provided a sense of continuation to my reading experience, as they are written and translated by the same people, and (I would guess) are set in the same world. They both seem to comment on industrialisation and commercialisation, but they do so with a fantastical flair. I loved these fantastic elements; the houses that move around to confuse humans, giant, genetically enhanced mushrooms that serve as self-regulating and self-repairing houses. There was also a focus on the destruction of what is natural, and wilful continuation in the face of disaster (often at the expense of those deemed least important). The sense of decay that arose from these stories did arise in me feelings of despair about the state of our environment, although I cannot comment on whether that was what the author intended.

Lip Service by Zhu Hui, translated by Michael Day

Often women went out with- out anything special in mind but came home with their arms full of shopping bags. Then they did have a purpose after all. And beautiful women like her gained more by going out than a bounty of shopping bags. They squirreled away the envious glances of passersby, especially the surprise and admiration in the eyes of men, and stored them in their hearts. They said little had changed since the days when men hunted and women gathered. Men had clear goals, and women just grabbed what they could. Face-to-face with a beautiful woman like Hanyi, in the broad light of day, men only dared pierce her with the arrows of their gaze. Each arrow of admiration added to Hanyi’s store of confidence. (p.61)

I am very partial to a somewhat unhinged or self-destructive female protagonist, and this story fit that bill well. The narcissistic, looks obsessed news anchor that this story follows did at times remind me of a more toned-down version of Irina from Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts. This story explores how beauty serves as a way for women to progress in their careers, female rivalry that results from existing in a male-domineered workspace, male-female professional relationships and the taboo surrounding plastic surgery. At times, I felt it was hard to discern between the protagonist’s voice, the narrative voice and the author’s intentions. The fact that this author was male made me wary of a few generalisations towards women that could be more relevant in China but were still quite frustrating to read. I am unsure whether these generalisations were supposed to be satirical or not, but I guess it’s up to the reader to decide what to take from this.

The Elephant by Chan Chi Wa, translated by Audrey Heijns

He said: “This author describes the disappearance of an elephant and his keeper. It also mentions that for some unfathomable reason the body of the elephant kept on shrinking. We think that Ting Wai Ming is involved. Therefore, we must find him.” I said: “But that is fiction...” He retorted: “Don’t they say that truth is stranger than fiction?” (p.91)

This story explores the crossovers and contradictions between truth, rumour, public opinion, media narratives and official government narratives. The product is a story that I found a little difficult to wrap my head around. There were certain absurdist aspects, where characters were satisfied to live with false truths and follow premediated societal expectations, that left me exasperated. To summarise: an elephant goes missing and a woman is subsequently suspected and followed. I’m not too sure what more I can say.

A Counterfeit Life by Chen Si’an, translated by Canaan Morse

All talk of “position” was nothing but lies. It was and always had been a vast scam to make people willingly put themselves into spaces where they did not belong. Those people who were needed didn’t care at all about the desires of others. So why shouldn’t the people who weren’t needed step in and reconfigure it all on their own?  (p.129)

This story follows one man’s desire to go against the grain of society, and for that reason it had the feel of Chuck Palanuik’s Fight Club about it. Following this protagonist’s perspective provides an observer’s eye-view into the trappings of societal conventions. He creates his own path, diverging from the traditional idea of ‘occupation’, but his way of life has a bigger impact that he initially expected.

Flourishing Beasts by Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang

She laughed. “It’s not like that. Even with flourishing beasts taking care of them, trees will get attacked by bugs, they’ll rot away, they’ll die. It’s a law of nature. That’s all we get in this life, and all we can hope for is that we leave behind some good seeds.” (145)

This was a beautiful story – perhaps my favourite in the collection – that follows the mythical creatures ‘flourishing beasts’ as they follow the natural cycles of life. I found especially interesting the exploration of the sense of value assigned to beautiful objects, and the desire to own what is beautiful as a piece of property, sometimes at the expense of what is natural.

Overall, I felt the stories in this collection were translated masterfully, despite what I imagine would be the confusing, obscure, and ambiguous nature of the Chinese source text. The reading experience was a joy, even if I couldn’t always decipher what a particular story was about. As someone who is studying Chinese – English translation at the moment, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to translate such abstract stories, so I can only applaud the translators’ efforts.

Reviewed by Emma Part

Reviewed by Lorna Amor, 9/3/23

Lorna AmorThat We May Live is a varied collection of short stories from the speculative fiction genre. They are at their best when the semi-imaginary worlds within them are not over-constructed, when plots that could be taken from dreams that might rise to the surface of an afternoon nap, when you wake to darkening skies, woozy, not quite able to see and comprehend the line between dreamland and reality, unravel from outwardly ordinary points in reality only to spin into something wild and free.

Natascha Bruce’s indulgent translation of Dorothy Tse’s beautifully crafted "Sour Meat" stood out as one such dream-tale for me. This is uninhibited, sensual, beguiling, and tantalizingly unsettling writing. F is a woman in her forties who finds herself on a seemingly innocuous trip to visit her grandmother, furtively savouring a mysterious, pungent ‘tea’ as she travels by train. She spends the journey questioning the psychology of her interactions with others in a relatable manner before ending up in an all-is-not-as-it-seems situation in her grandmother’s village, with its heady, all-female atmosphere, the fermented brew taking centre stage. I loved the somehow inclusive tone of the narration - this all happened to F, but you get it, right? We get it? - and though the ‘sour’ and the ‘meat’ curiously didn’t resonate with the rest of the imagery for me, I loved how Tse works all the senses into making the ‘tea’, its production process, and its effects intriguing. I loved all the warm, fleshy, slippery detail, and the Alice-in-Wonderland twists and turns. I loved it, reread it, then immediately ordered Tse’s Owlish (just published in February this year, and also translated by Bruce).

Power and paranoia all feature in the social commentary within That We May Live. In Michael Day’s tidy translation of "Lip Service", and in Audrey Heijns’ translation of Chan Chi Wa’s "The Elephant", there’s paranoia regarding individuals as well as agents of the state, and in both of Jeremy Tiang’s consistent translations of Enoch Tam’s "Auntie Han’s Modern Life" and "The Mushroom Houses Proliferated in District M", Tam creates surreal urban environments in which neighbourhoods come and go overnight (through state-led remodelling by fungiculture rather than gentrification) and whole cities sleepwalk through social change.

Going against the tide of societal sleepwalking, however, a conceptual highlight very much grounded in reality but far-removed from socially accepted norms, was playwright Chen Si-an’s "A Counterfeit Life", compellingly translated by Canaan Morse. What if all those who don’t fit the tracks of the rat race, or who are just starting out and looking for a bump up onto the first rung of the career ladder, what if they were to just hang out on street corners, or in the lobbies of offices and hotels, and wait for opportunities for them to scam and weave their way to what is received as ‘success’? What if that were a career, a whole movement, in itself? A simple but innovative idea from the imagination of an observant flaneuse.

Calico books are translator-led so the short stories in That We May Live were selected by the individual translators. It’s a haunting collection of weird and wonderful tales and a great introduction to a number of contrasting authors and translators. Reading them collectively, I couldn’t help but notice the prevalence of ageing female characters and their repeatedly negative destinies. In Yan Ge’s character-driven "Flourishing Beasts" (also translated by Jeremy Tiang), women are turned into furniture, quite literally objectified, ironically or not, and in Zhu Hai’s "Lip Service", a news anchor on the cusp of passing her prime (only twelve years into her career!) feels the need to go to unappealing lengths to prolong her career. I began to query whether there was something innately speculative about the concept of aging, in women in particular, and optimistically concluded that perhaps this genre is actually a healthy arena in which to explore the giddying possibilities that imaginary worlds can offer to an ageing female protagonist. From a publishing point of view, when women struggle enough with objectification and (dis)approval in reality, why not seek out the upbeat fictional possibilities, and/or include equally alarming speculation on the ageing of men?

Reviewed by Lorna Amor

Reviewed by Simona Siegel, 7/8/21

Simona SiegelThat We May Live is a collection of short stories from different authors with different plots, but with one thing in common: they will blow your mind and shake your perception of reality. If you like reading about dystopias then this book is a perfect match for you.

Seven stories, seven different backgrounds, seven surprising plot twists. It is hard to choose which story was my favourite as each one I read seemed to be followed by one which was somehow even more interesting and unexpected.

In “Sour Meat” the reader meets a woman travelling to the village of her grandmother -- not only a train journey, but more like jumping down the rabbit hole. Trying to understand family relations, womanhood and her own sexuality, she becomes a part of the community. There is a rather strange ending, as the author leaves it to the reader's imagination what happens to her. The topic of women exploring their sexuality and identity in general is a rather new topic in China, and this was one of the main reasons why I wanted to read this book after reading the synopsis.

“Lip Service” was the most bitter sweet of the stories. The reader meets a beautiful woman in her forties, struggling with getting old and being replaced by someone younger. The mindset of wanting to be forever young and fighting ageing is present in almost every culture. And it is even worse for women who are being constantly persuaded either by family or by the public, that being young is more attractive and that the old are unwanted. This leads to many mental health issues, and these women can be, as the main protagonist, exploited by men who promise them unrealistic futures.

In the story “A Counterfeit Life” we meet with a man who by accident creates a job for himself as a substitute persona, who attends different social events on behalf of others. At first it sounded ridiculous to me but after a few paragraphs it felt increasingly plausible, until I started to wonder if anybody is actually doing something similar. The story is a great reminder that people are not as unique as they like to think, and almost anybody can be replaced.

“The Flourishing Beasts” by Yan Ge was the most interesting one. I had previously read her novel The Chilli Bean Paste Clan and it is one of my favourite books by a Chinese writer, and I would to read the full book version of this short story, because it is clear that the story about the trees morphing into women living in the Temple of Antiquities has real potential for an exciting plot. After a long period of the One-Child-Policy, there is a significant discrepancy in the male and female populations in China, and I can imagine the pressure not only on men to find a girlfriend and get married, but on women as well. They may feel like someone's, too precious and too much in demand, with no time to reflect if this is in fact the life they want to lead.

All these short stories can be read purely as a form of science fiction, or the reader can choose to find within them the hidden messages reflecting current social issues. Sex, sexual identity, ageing, the search for one's identity -- these are just some of the issues that people have to face nowadays. All these stories create a very interesting world of fantasy, which in many ways resembles the reality in which we all live.

Reviewed by Simona Siegel

Reviewed by Ruth Matanda, 14/4/21

Ruth MatandaThat We May Live is a bold piece of contemporary speculative Chinese literature. The genre allows the stories to be grounded in reality to an extent whilst also blending elements of the supernatural and futuristic; this lets the authors find creative ways to criticise our society and social practices by pointing out how bizarre and nonsensical they are. The anthology does a wonderful job in exploring risks that come with changes but often makes no effort to reassure us that everything will work out. Instead, we are left feeling unfulfilled often due to the authors creating perplexing circumstances and yet never really explaining why these events are happening or the solution.

As with most anthologies there were some stories that I thought stood out more than others such as Enoch Tam’s “The Mushroom Houses Proliferated in District M”. The story examines the corruption of government officials and the ties they often have with giant corporations who prioritize profit over the wellbeing and needs of the people. As someone who is concerned about the environmental impacts multinational corporations are having on our environment and ecosystem, it was interesting to see Tam’s take on the topic. I particularly enjoyed how he addressed the monopolisation of certain industries by big corporations and illustrated the disastrous effects monopolisation tends to have on the lives of ordinary people and their surrounding nature. Tam’s commentary on how the garden keepers have dominated the “mushroom house” industry by having possession of technology that is only accessible to them is reflective of the society we live in where, despite being told the free market offers the chance to become entrepreneurs, corruption and money often make it possible for an elite few to control entire industries and markets. As in real life, change is presented as being part of development but development is not always beneficial to ordinary people.

Reading the anthology, I found that my favourite stories were the ones which heavily focused on the theme of change and I loved how they each portrayed change as something which is bizarre and and at times inexplicable and yet not completely random; whether it’s government controlled change or personal transformations like in Dorothy Tse’s “Sour meat”.

Other standout stories for me were Zhu Hui’s “Lip service” which does a great job of showing how women often navigate industries dominated by men and how power often tends to be superficial when it is wielded by women. Chen Si’An’s “A counterfeit life” which is my favourite story in the collection, also criticises the societal expectation of seeking a stable life and defies the idea of identity being something fixed and instead presents it as flexible as the protagonist literally puts himself in others’ shoes.

Overall, I think this collection is daring and each author doesn’t seem afraid to take risk, although personally I do feel as though not all of the risks did pay off as some of the stories left me feeling underwhelmed and at times unsatisfied as I found that they lacked clear direction. Nonetheless I was intrigued by the characters and felt that the blend of surrealism and reality were well executed.

Despite not feeling impacted by all the stories, I do feel That We May Live is a good glimpse at the emerging fiction that contemporary Chinese authors are producing and their eagerness to express their opinion on modern societal issues as well as age-old existential questions.

Reviewed by Ruth Matanda

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe, 27/3/21

Bizarre and confronting, That We May Live is a collection of seven audacious short stories from Mainland China and Hong Kong authors reflecting on societal troubles affecting not only the country but globally. Contributing authors include renowned names, such as Yan Ge, and some lesser known. All are prolific creatives. Beyond fiction, Chan Chi Wa is also a film critic; Chen Si’an is a poet, translator and playwright with plays having been performed internationally; Yan Ge has been a published short story and novel author since she was seventeen; and Zhu Hui is editor-in-chief of journal Yu Hua; just to name a few of their accomplishments.

Many of the stories add to the #MeToo conversation. In ‘Lip Service’ the female protagonist is a nationally adored and respected news anchor, yet behind the scenes she is at the sexual mercy of a male executive. With age running away from her, we read how she literally pays lip service as a means to maintain her job for as long as she can. In ‘Flourishing Beasts’ women metamorphose into prized wooden furniture, at once desirable and revered yet also collected and utilised objects in the possession of men. In this way, the women furniture resemble imperial concubines.

However, in ‘Sour Meat’ and ‘A Counterfeit Life’ we see examples of women being masters of and relishing their sex lives. Sour Meat has been compared to Little Red Riding Hood as the story begins with a granddaughter making an impulsive visit to her grandmother. As she draws closer to her grandmother’s rural town, the protagonist gradually awakens to the reality that it is not only her and her mother who have enjoyed the aphrodisiac tea brewed by this matriarch, but many women in the region. The male protagonist in A Counterfeit Life falls for a young new recruit but his age and experience is not enough to convince the recruit that she should be a lifelong acolyte. In Mao’s China, sexual activity was functional, a means to produce the China’s future workers, not something for pleasure. These two stories seem to be the authors’ explorations of how women might enjoy living autonomously.

Other topical issues addressed by the stories is celebrity culture, urbanisation and government control. The story that resonated with me most was ‘A Counterfeit Life’. Here we see a man fall into becomin a professional fraudster, sustaining himself by attending ceremonies and meetings by impersonating invitees. The reader is confronted with the harsh reality that many of us are not as unique as we might think, easily impersonated or replaced by a mimic. On the other hand, we can be consoled by the idea that we can become who we want to, if only we open ourselves to risk, observe those around us and respond appropriately.

One uniting feature of these stories is their speculativism. They stretch our boundaries of what we consider normal, asking at what point is an occurrence bizarre, impossible, fiction? Viewers of TV programmes ‘The Mighty Boosh’ or ‘Monty Python’ are likely to appreciate the authors’ approach.

This collection is the first in the Calico series, which claims to provide “…a vibrant snapshot that explores one aspect of our present moment, offering the voices of previously inaccessible, highly innovative writers from around the world today.” While these stories are not to my realist taste, they certainly provide a relief of contemporary concerns. They also provide readers with a taster of each author’s style, a springboard from which one can dive into their longer literary pieces or other non-literature creations, or at least a glimpse into what is coming out of China.

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe

Reviewed by Kevin McGeary, 22/5/20

Kevin McGearyThat We May Live is a strikingly good-looking book, especially the title pages for each story which contain fine calligraphy and quotes from the stories themselves. It has no introduction, no apparent mission, but does contain some very good writing.

‘Lip Service’ by Zhu Hui is about a successful woman who has illicit and esoteric sexual activities with her boss. The writing of female sexuality from a male author is a refreshing break from the suffocating own voices movement, as promoted by author Kosoko Jackson.

One of the more exciting stories is ‘A Counterfeit Life’ by Chen Si’an, in which the protagonist shows up in various locations to report for jobs that he has not been selected for. He observes: “It turned out that anyone with a pulse could do jobs like these. They required no technical skill; you simply had to be reasonably well-dressed and uncommunicative.” His life improves immeasurably, but he ultimately grows disillusioned, concluding: “I don’t see what’s so interesting about turning into a person you originally weren’t. It’s not even a real transformation, it’s just a performance.”

In “Sour Meat” by Dorothy Tse, a woman makes an impulsive visit to her grandmother, reminiscent of “Little Red Riding Hood”. She has become disillusioned with adult life, finding that ‘grasping, ambitious men were everywhere in her industry, desperate for an opportunity to knock her down, and she had decided that it was best to keep her body under wraps.’ Upon visiting her grandmother’s town, she finds herself in a town full of women obsessed with strange fermented beverages. ‘Sometimes she felt transformed into the ocean itself, like she was a flowing liquid without any defined shape. Sometimes she felt like an oil slick, like all she needed was a tiny spark and she’d roar into flames.’

The sign-off piece ‘Flourishing Beasts’ by the British Isles-based millennial author Yan Ge is one of the strongest. It is about a species of trees that morph into women and are raised at The Temple of the Antiquities. They are tended by human women. The central character, who was tended by her mother while young, looks for human comforts in this strange reality:

"Back home, I used what was left of my Dutch courage to rip the chair apart. I picked up the backrest and broke the face right across my knee. Sure enough, there it was, a strip of red amongst the white: a human tongue. I tried to pull it out, but it was embedded so deep, as if the wood had absorbed it into itself. There was no way to retrieve it."

The stories have no common location or theme, the authors are of different sexes and generations, and the only thing that seems to unite them is that they belong to the Chinese diaspora. It is altogether a sumptuous but head-scratching piece of literature.

Reviewed by Kevin McGeary

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter, 9/3/20

Michelle DeeterThose who love reading about urban dystopias should definitely read this book. A range of authors present seven bite-sized stories that may take place somewhere in Asia or perhaps on another planet.

The stories are creepy; they might actually become our reality someday. The conversion of land that was used for graves into housing developments has happened in many cities before. Young college graduates can become so desperate to find a job that they create new “jobs” out of whole cloth. People in the entertainment industry make shocking decisions because are terrified of being replaced by someone who is younger and more attractive. Only “Sour Meat”, by Dorothy Tse, is surreal throughout. “Sour Meat” feels like the kind of dream that a person should tell their psychiatrist about.

My favorite story was “A Counterfeit Life” by Chen Si’an. The protagonist is having trouble finding a job in the big city when he accidentally gets mistaken for a wedding emcee. He is dragged into the room and does a terrible job, but he still gets paid for his time, which becomes a lifechanging moment. He starts showing up at meetings hoping that some delegates or speakers fail to turn up, and even teaches a score of young people to do the same thing. Even though he manages to make a decent living and feels proud of the way he has helped others find jobs, the story does not end on a happy note.

One thing that I found disappointing was the lack of names for cities and even some characters in many of the stories. Characters are called D or E, cities are named City A and City B.  I have no idea why this became a trend in Chinese literature, but I personally think it is a missed opportunity to provide a detail about the story’s setting. There could be advantages such as avoiding censorship, or presenting a story that could just as easily have occurred in Birmingham as in Beijing. The loss of detail feels like a corner of the sketch has been left blank, in my opinion. It’s harder to get into the story.

Despite being written by different authors and translated by different translators, the stories fit surprisingly well together. They could have happened simultaneously in alternate realities of some crowded megacity. I enjoyed the tiny snapshots of each protagonist’s life in each story. The protagonists are swept up in “this constantly changing world” as it is described in “A Counterfeit Life”. Rather than being fearful or critical of the change, they simply go with the flow. The way each story manages to run against my expectations makes it even more interesting.

Reviewed by Michelle Deeter