review: our colourful world by ling dingnian

Over Chinese New Year this year, I received as a gift a copy of a book called Our Colourful World. It’s a collection of 54 short stories by mainland Chinese writer, Ling Dingnian. On the cover of the book, he, or perhaps his publisher, describes his writings as mini-novels. That really doesn’t translate well into English. They are actually pure short story format, as we understand the term, with most stories coming in between 1000 and 2500 words. But regardless of whether we call these short stories, mini-novels or micro-fictions, they are the work of a master story teller.

I’d never heard of Ling before. Born in 1951, he comes from Taicang (coming under the jurisdiction of Suzhou) in Jiangsu Province and in the introduction we find he has published 45 books and 5,000 articles over the span of his writing career. This work is a collection of his best material and each story is presented in both Chinese and English.

The stories are loosely classified according to colours under six headings: history displaying a bleak colour; culture demonstrating a unique colour; warmth diffusing the orange colour; youth shining in a blue colour; anxieties wrapped in a purple colour; and alien land revealing an exotic colour. While these headings have some significance, the stories flow seamlessly.

I once heard it said that China is a place where every day you see something you don’t normally see every day. These stories capture something of the vast breadth of life in China, both new and old, in all of its unpredictability. The collection starts with some stories from old China, including the imperial examinations and Japanese occupation, and soon they branch out in all directions, covering many aspects of life in modern China, with attention placed on people of very different ages and levels of achievement. Ling has a knack of quickly sketching characters with special interests and skills, and weaving a satisfying story around those characters. There are even two stories about a favourite subject of mine: jade carving.

Apart from the skill in creating a setting and introducing a character with the minimum of words, Ling’s experience as a writer especially shows in the way he ends a story. Ling’s not afraid to leave the reader with an open ending, often hovering on the dilemma that has suddenly emerged for the character in the telling of the story. For example in A Girl who Jumped off a Building, schoolgirl, Chongchong, blames her father for the early death of her mother who was hit by a car while he was overseas, the argument being that instead of venturing overseas he should have stayed at home. While on a holiday in Hainan with her father, she jumps out of a hotel window and luckily survives. Her father sits by her bedside telling her about his terrible experiences overseas. This leads her to reconsider her judgement of him, the last lines of the story being:

Chongchong is wondering: Had she gone too far? Does her father deserve to be forgiven? She feels perplexed and doesn’t know what to do.

So if you want to read this collection, don’t expect neat and tidy endings where all issues are resolved by the end of the story (a common formula for the short story form). These short stories serve as a window into the rich detail of a moment of a character’s life before they swiftly move on.

Connected to the above comments about Ling’s unpredictable story endings, when reading short stories, we need some sort of revelation by the end of the story, and these stories do leave us feeling satisfied here too. As we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of his many characters, we want to know how each character handles them. One word that comes up in several stories is that of yuánfèn (缘分) meaning fateful coincidence. It is a phrase that can easily come up in conversation anywhere in China today. It is most often used in the context of love, but may apply to any meeting of people.

In many of the stories, we also get some revelations about Chinese culture in a contemporary context. It’s harder for me to pin this down. It’s not just because of the names of people and places but, in these stories, we get fresh glimpses into what ever it is we label as Chinese culture. And this is valuable at the moment as we see a push by some Western powers to place a brake on China’s economic expansion through the creation of what I believe to be false narratives about China. We need cross cultural understanding more than ever before and sharing well written literature such as Our Colourful World is a wonderful way to achieve this.

The English translation is done by Zheng Susu who presently lives in Australia. It is very clean and clear translation and mostly invisible which is how we want a good translation to read.

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