One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Social Experiment – by Mei Fong

In October 2015 the Chinese government announced major changes to their population policy, commonly known as the One Child policy. Instead of curbs that limited one-third of Chinese households to strictly one child, Chinese families across the nation could have two children starting from 1 Jan 2016. With incredible timing, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Mei Fong‘s book One Child was at the publishers! I was invited to review it for the Los Angeles Review of Books and found Mei Fong’s book very readable – there was a perfect balance of detailed research and stories of individual people in real circumstances. I particularly appreciated Mei Fong’s skilful vignettes – for example, the couple in Wenchuan, who, within days of losing their teenage daughter in the devastating earthquake, decide to try for another child. The odds are stacked against them (age, vasectomy, cost, friends and family avoiding them for fear of being asked for money or support) and you wonder if they are grasping desperately at straws. Yet Mei Fong slips their shoes on to your feet so softly that you find yourself wondering how you would respond in their situation. [This piece was written for the Global Literature in Libraries InitiativePaper Republic collaboration, Feb 2017]


One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, by Mei Fong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

HW: Mei Fong, it’s been a phenomenally busy year for you – thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I have to ask, did you know that changes to the One Child policy were going to be announced just as you were finishing the book?

MF: I had an inkling. Policy planners originally said the policy would last about thirty years from 1980, so when I started planning my book in 2013 thereabouts, people were already grumbling the policy was way past its sell-by date. There was a great deal of discussion among official and academic circles that suggested major changes would be made given all the problems it had caused with a worker shortage and gender imbalance. But it’s incredibly hard to predict the decisions of the Chinese Communist Party, so in the end, I was just very lucky.

HW: How did you come to research and write One Child?

MF: Some of the ideas and inspiration came from my time working and living in China full-time as a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal, but I only started working full-time on the book after I’d left the paper, and left China. So I did a lot of lengthy research trips there over the period of three years, seeking to find ways of storifying some big questions raised by the One Child policy. Like, are the children of the one-child generation really entitled and pampered, true Little Emperors? Or are they over burdened by heavy expectations? What does a country that will have more retirees than all Europe look like? What happens when there are hardly any women to marry? So I spent time in a hospice in Kunming, visited bachelor villages, took part in mass dating events, even visited a factory that made “replacement women” in the form of life-sized sex dolls.

China’s full of amazing statistics—the world’s biggest this or that—what I wanted was to bring to life the stories behind the numbers.

HW: From the book and the bibliography, it’s clear that you read a lot of English and Chinese sources, and, of course, most of your interviews will have originally have taken place in Chinese. Could you tell us about the process of doing your research in one language and then writing it up in another language?

MF: It was difficult because while I was raised in Malaysia in a Cantonese-speaking household, I learnt to read and write in English and Malay. I learnt a little Mandarin in graduate school, but only got more fluent when I was posted to work in Beijing full-time. At that time, I was quite ashamed of my half-baked Chinese skills, and intimidated because I knew as an ethnic Chinese, the expectations for me would be much higher than for some of my white counterparts. Nobody was going to praise me simply for being to say, “Ni hao!” But I remember a fellow journalist told me, “No matter what you do, there’ll be at least one billion people who will speak better Chinese than you will. So what are you going to do about it?” I took that as a challenge to do the best I could, with whatever tools I had at my disposal. Being able to speak Cantonese helped me pick up spoken Mandarin quickly, but I always had researchers to help—something I make very clear in the book.

HW: One Child has now been translated into Chinese. Could you tell us about that process as well? Did you translate it yourself? Is the Chinese translation identical to the English edition? How has it been received in China?

MF: Normally, the book would’ve been translated by a translator hired by the publishing company who’d bought the Chinese rights. But tightening censorship in China made it impossible to get the book published in mainland China. A mainland publisher there backed out of a deal to publish my book. Taiwan and Hong Kong, which used to be more open about putting out “sensitive” books, also tightened up, especially after several booksellers in Hong Kong were abducted by Chinese authorities in 2015. So I was in the weird situation where I’d written a book about China that most Chinese people couldn’t read! I didn’t want to accept this situation, so I commissioned a translation, paid for it myself and issued it as a free digital download. I’m hoping to make back my costs by crowdfunding on GoFundMe and Patreon. It’s an unusual situation, but I simply couldn’t see any other way around it.

What heartens me is the positive feedback I’ve gotten from Chinese readers, and, as well, other writers who are now encouraged to explore other ways of getting beyond the Great Firewall.

HW: Global Literature in Libraries is about bridging the gaps between translators, publishers and librarians. May we invite you to recommend a book translated from Chinese into English that you would love to see in libraries across the world?


A New Year’s Reunion, by Yu Li-Qiong and Zhu Cheng-Liang (Candlewick Press)

MF: One of my favorite books that I read to my children is A New Year’s Reunion which talks about a little girl, MaoMao. She only sees her father, a migrant worker, once a year during the Lunar New Year. MaoMao is initially frightened by the strange man she barely remembers, but soon warms up and they have splendid times celebrating with fireworks and making sticky buns. Too soon though, it’s time for her father to leave. It is beautifully illustrated, very touching and sad and is one of my kids’ favorite books.

Underlying this very simple story is the mass migration of workers from rural China who seek work in the big cities, but who find it extremely difficult to bring families with them due to China’s strict household registration rules. It’s simply horrible for family life. A construction worker I got friendly with in Beijing told me they call the folks at home the “3861 army.” I didn’t understand what he meant until he spelt it out—March 8 is International Women’s Day, June 1, Children’s Day.

The Ventriloquist’s Daughter: Between Fantasy and Reality – by Lin Man-chiu

Spring 2017 will see the publication of The Ventriloquist’s Daughter, by Lin Man-chiu, tr. Helen Wang, the fourth Young Adult novel translated from Chinese and published by Balestier Press. Originally from Taiwan, Lin Man-chiu has travelled extensively in South America, and her experiences there inspired this story. The following piece is adapted from the Author’s Preface in the Chinese edition (林满秋《腹語師的女兒》), and we’re delighted to have permission to publish it here. (This piece was originally prepared for the Global Literature in Libraries InitiativePaper Republic collaboration throughout February 2017)


The Ventriloquist’s Daughter, by Lin Man-chiu, tr. Helen Wang (Balestier Press)

On my travels through South America I heard many fantastic stories, but it was the ones about the child-souls of the Andes that truly captured my imagination. Five hundred years ago, when the Incas were still living in the Andes, child sacrifice was part of religious life. The Incas believed that offering a child to the gods was like sending the child to heaven, and that this act would bring blessings upon their people and upon themselves. For these reasons, many parents were willing to offer a child.

On the day of the ceremony, crowds gathered as the chosen children, holding a favourite doll in their arms, were placed on alpacas, and, to the rhythm of the panpipes, set off for the snow-covered mountaintops, five thousand metres above sea level. The journey took several days, and involved frequent rituals along the way. As they climbed higher, the villages became sparser, and the crowd gradually fell away. And, as the air became thinner, the children, starved of oxygen, began to feel sleepy. When they finally reached the ice-covered peaks, only the shaman and a few others remained to carry out the sacrifice. They bound the children’s limbs to their torsos, and laid them to rest in graves three metres deep, with their dolls beside them.

The children died in their sleep. Their souls could not to ascend to heaven, but were left to wander the snow-covered mountains. Sad and lonely, these abandoned child-souls saw the decline of the Inca Empire; they saw the Spanish colonists come and go, and saw the South American peoples fight to defend their sovereignty. Throughout these battles for political power, the child-souls saw the Inca population dwindle. They worried that their wandering souls might be forgotten completely. By the twentieth century, the Incas were buried in the ashes of history, and the child-souls were indeed forgotten by all but a handful of tomb raiders, half-believing in the old legend. One day, just such a tomb raider climbed to the top of a snow-covered peak and found his hoped-for treasure. When he returned home, the legend of the child-souls roaming the mountains was planted anew in people’s memories, this time with added colour: the child-souls had slipped inside cloth dolls, brought back by the tomb-raider to the human world.

The legend touched something inside me, and when I saw the child mummies in a museum in Argentina, The Ventriloquist’s Daughter was born. The story hinges on the relationship between a father and his daughter. Both know the pain of losing a loved one (his wife, her mother), and both come to regard a doll from an ancient burial as human. When the father’s beloved wife dies, he runs away from the role is expected to play in the hospital founded by his forefathers. He travels through South America, walking like a zombie from one town to the next, until one day, he comes upon a remote little village in the foothills of the Andes. At the lowest point of his life, he meets Carola, and his life is turned around. Casting off his name and profession, he becomes Carolo, the street ventriloquist. Carolo and his ventriloquist’s doll Carola become one, and in a life of make-believe, travel to all the cities and towns in South America.

Grieving for her mother, and longing for her father, Liur remains with her grandparents in the family house that is mired in sadness. Her life is like a stagnant pond, whose only source of fresh water are the postcards that arrive from South America. While she waits for her father to return, she finds solace by her mother’s grave in the forest at the back of the house. A few years pass and finally her hopes materialise: her father returns, bringing with him the doll he has promised her. But, never in her wildest dreams can she imagine the dark abyss into which the doll, Carola, will drive her.

Liur has been waiting for his love; she is the reason he has come back. Each longs for warmth from the other, but on the rare occasions when they are alone together, they are more distant than ever. Then, one moonlit night, Liur sees something that makes her hair stand on end: a strange ceremony that confirms her suspicions that Carola has magic powers. When eventually she makes the link between Carola and the child-souls of the Andes, she sees that her life is in danger.

In this story, I wanted to describe how Liur changes inside, and to register those changes through Carola. Little by little, Carola forces Liur to look deeper and deeper inside herself. The discovery of a secret, long since buried and forgotten, throws her into a frenzy. She cannot go back; she must go forward. She must battle between fantasy and reality. Will she be destroyed? Or will she find redemption?

– translated by Helen Wang

[GLLI – Paper Republic collaboration, Feb 2017]

Yu Rong’s paper cuttings

smoke_cvr_frontMr Pang and Mr Shou (that is, Mr Fat and Mr Slim) live on opposite sides of a river, together with their families. For some unknown reason they don’t like each other and are always fighting. Their children are not allowed to talk to each other – they don’t even let their dogs Pointy Ear and Round Ear play together. But then one morning the families are cooking breakfast. The white smoke from one of the fires mingles with the black smoke from the other. And when the families see this, they start to change their minds … Continue reading

Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) and Bambi

When Walt Disney’s “Bambi” opened in 1942, critics praised its spare, haunting visual style, vastly different from anything Disney had done before. But what they did not know was that the film’s striking appearance had been created by a Chinese immigrant artist, who took as his inspiration the landscape paintings of the Song dynasty. The extent of his contribution to “Bambi,” which remains a high-water mark for film animation, would not be widely known for decades. Continue reading

Bing Xin and The Little Orange Lantern

Bing Xin 冰心 (1900-1999) is a major figure in Chinese literature, and the Bing Xin Children’s Literature Award 冰心儿童文学新作奖 is one of the four major Chinese literature awards. This month, one of Bing Xin’s most famous works, The Little Orange Lantern 《小橘灯》,was featured on Brigitte Duzan’s website Chineseshortstories (including the memoir -essay in Chinese, her translation into French, and the background to the story). Inspired by Brigitte’s post, I have created a similar version for English readers here. Continue reading

Context and contradiction in translating Aroma’s Little Garden, by Qin Wenjun

We’re delighted to have a guest post by Tony Blishen, whose translation of Aroma’s Little Garden 《小香草》, by Qin Wenjun has just been published by the Better Link Press in New York. Having lived and worked in China in the 1960s, Tony is now a prolific translator of both fiction and non-fiction.  Aroma’s Little Garden is the first children’s book he has translated, and in November won a Shanghai Translation Publishing Promotion Award (《上海翻译出版促进计划》 翻译资助). And, My Father with a Heart of Stone, the final story in Aroma’s Little Garden, just won the author the fiction award in the 2016 Chen Bochui International Children’s Literature Prize. Congratulations to both of them!  Continue reading

Reflecting Teenagers on a Sichuanese Mirror: Yan Ge and her stories from Pingle Township

We’re delighted to have another guest post! Martina Codeluppi introduces a Young Adult story by Yan Ge, writes about her experience of translating Yan Ge’s work into Italian, and interviews Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman, who has translated Yan Ge’s work into English. Thank you Martina!   Yan Ge will be at the China Changing event at the Southbank Centre, London, on 16 December – come and hear her in person!  Continue reading