Annie Ren is a PhD candidate at the School of Culture, History, and Language by day, and, more recently, a martial arts fiction translator by night! In this interview, Annie speaks to us about what sparked her interest in undertaking a PhD on Hongloumeng 紅樓夢 — a famous 18th century Chinese novel, known in English as The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone — and how the novel illuminates our understanding of contemporary Chinese society and the post-truth world. If you are looking for an entertaining and insightful Chinese film, Annie also has just the right recommendation for you!
1) Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born in Jiangsu province but because of my father’s occupation, (he is an engineering professor who has always aspired to a nomadic lifestyle), I went to school in a number of countries including Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Belgium and America until the age of ten. Then my parents decided to move back to China so I could learn to read and write in Chinese. Later, they decided that I should also become fluent in English so we moved to Perth where I attended high school. I came to ANU in 2011 for my undergraduate studies and have been here ever since.
2) What attracted you to the ANU?
ANU has a long history of engagement with Asia and Pacific and it is home to many of the world’s finest scholars. Of course, I knew none of that when I came here as a freshman. I simply wanted to study politics and thought Canberra was the right place to be.
I wasn’t wrong, but it turns out politics wasn’t really for me. I was more interested in the philosophical side of things. But by then political science had become very quantitative, and I wasn’t interested in predicting the next election results.
I was briefly serious about becoming an anthropologist but I soon discovered that anthropology isn’t just about collecting stories from people, you also have to analyse and theorise.
In the end, I think Goethe was right to say, “All theory is grey, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.” This is how I ended up in the humanities.
3) What's your all-time favourite Chinese movie? Can you recommend a recent Chinese film?
This is a tricky question. It’s like asking someone what’s your favourite European film. How does one choose between the scintillating colours of Wong Kar-wai, whose films are undoubtedly inspired by Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan modernity; or the delicate and restrained story-telling of Ang Lee, whose sensibilities are deeply rooted in traditional Taiwanese culture; or the grand historical narrative found in movies such as To Live or Farewell My Concubine which could only have been produced by those who lived through the turbulent years under Mao. Even this overlooks half a century of achievement in Chinese cinema.
It still amazes me to think that filmmaking as an art form developed almost simultaneously in China and in the West. Many of China’s finest writers wrote film scripts in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s. Hong Kong’s blooming film industry in the second half of the twentieth century benefited enormously from intellectuals and artists who escaped from the mainland after 1949.
In recent years, one of the best movies I’ve seen was Dying to Survive 我不是藥神, directed by a young mainland director called Wen Muye 文牧野. The movie addresses a number of social issues in China including the healthcare system, drug pricing and subsidies, and urban poverty. At the same time, it’s also highly entertaining. I think in their pursuit of serious subject matters, filmmakers often forget that movies should also entertain.
4) What sparked your interest to undertake a PhD on the famous 18th century novel Hongloumeng 紅樓夢 (known in English as The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone)?
I know it’s a cliché to describe something as “life-changing”, but in 2013 I took a course taught by Professor John Minford on this particular novel, and it really did change my life. I had grown up reading and rereading this book. As my Chinese got better, I switched from the manga version to the abridged version with pinyin, and finally to the full 120-chapter version. I had always thought this novel was impossible to translate, just as most of Chinese poetry is. But turns out, it has been so beautifully and masterfully translated into English under the title The Story of the Stone, and John Minford was one of the translators!
This novel is considered to be the finest in all Chinese literature, but in fact, it is not strictly speaking “Chinese”. The author Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 was a bannerman 旗人, a member of the privileged political and economic elite under the Manchu Qing dynasty. Culturally, the bannerman class embodied the best of both the Han Chinese and the Manchu world. This is something I learned from John. He’s been interested in bannerman literature since the 1980s. A colleague of mine at CIW, Christina Sanderson, is an expert on this subject.
As for the novel itself, it’s a gripping family saga, detailing the changing fortunes of a wealthy, aristocratic bannerman family. It’s also a heart wrenching love story, where the protagonist Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉, who was predestined to fall in love with his frail and beautiful cousin Lin Daiyu 林黛玉, was tricked by his family to marry another cousin. Beneath all this, lies the Daoist view that “life is but a dream” and the Buddhist path to enlightenment, of “seeing through the red dust”.
What I find most enchanting is the novel’s garden society, where Bao-yu and his talented young cousins regularly meet to discuss and compose poetry. Again, this is very much like the poetic gatherings attended by the bannermen and women of Peking. My thesis explores both the poetic world of the novel and of the bannerman society.
5) What do you find most challenging in translating prose and how do you deal with it?
When it comes to translation, I’m really an apprentice training under a master (or shifu). So whenever I have any questions I just turn to my teacher John Minford and he will always come up with an amazing solution. This kind of one-on-one tuition has always been at the heart of Chinese education, it’s called yanchuan shengjiao 言傳身教 (teaching through words and actions). It’s a process of osmosis, whereby you gradually and unconsciously absorb the way the other person thinks and behaves.
Previously, I had thought classical Chinese poetry was the most difficult thing to translate because you immediately lose the original metre and rhyme, not to mention all the classical allusions, which all educated Chinese once knew by heart, but need to be made explicit for the English reader. However, I think readers of poetry in general are much more patient and generous. They expect you to take some liberties, and because poetry is such a delicate thing that needs to be read contemplatively, readers don’t mind stopping to read a couple of explanatory notes. After all, even modern Chinese readers would need footnotes to understand classical poetry.
So now I have come to think that the most difficult thing to translate is Chinese fiction. Speaking for myself as a reader of fiction, I can’t be bothered to pause and read footnotes, I just want to know what happens next! The most challenging piece I had to work on recently was an essay by Louis Cha 查良鏞 or Jin Yong 金庸, the ‘King of Martial Arts’ fiction. Take a simple term like jiang hu 江湖 for example, which literally means ‘Rivers and Lakes’; but actually stands for an underground world made up of roving swordsmen, petty thieves, wandering Daoists, fortune-tellers, beggars, singsong girls, etc.
The world of Rivers and Lakes also has its own moral code, which differs from that of the Confucian establishment. Ask any Chinese reader and they can tell you all this, but how does one explain this background knowledge to English readers without them putting down the book?! Again, I’m lucky because I can simply turn to John’s marvellous three volume translation of Louis Cha’s The Deer and the Cauldron 鹿鼎記 for guidance. I think translation really is like learning a kind of kungfu.
6) As one of the contributors to the China Story Yearbook: China Dreams (forthcoming mid-April 2020), what insights does The Story of the Stone bring to our understanding of contemporary Chinese society?
For more than two millennia, the real Chinese dream has been the idea that “this floating life is just a dream” 浮生一夢. The origin of this understanding of existence can be found in the famous “butterfly dream” parable in Zhuangzi 莊子. It later reverberates through much of Chinese poetry and drama until it achieves its most magisterial expression in The Story of the Stone. This is why it strikes me as odd how the current regime has so blatantly promoted their rip-off version of the American Dream. Has it never occurred to them that the term “dream” has traditionally served as a warning that all glory, wealth, and fame will ultimately fade into history? Speaking for myself and some of my close friends, we live in daily hope that the current “dream” will pass.
After I was invited to contribute to the Yearbook, I somehow remembered my experience of travelling around China one time, when people started to lecture me on the “true authorship” of The Story of the Stone, all because of an article that had become popular on WeChat. (Interestingly, that article suggests the real author of the novel was a Han Chinese from Jiangsu.) The article of course, had no basis in reality, but it got me thinking about this post-truth world we live in — about the whole relationship between truth and fiction. I think now is a great time to revisit the novel because at the heart of this 18th century masterpiece, is the search for liberation and truth, a determination to see through the veil of dream and illusion, and a desire to provide the reader with both entertainment and enlightenment.
My own piece ‘From the Land of Illusion to the Paradise of Truth’ was written last year, during the height of the Hong Kong protests, where WeChat was used by the government to sway public opinion against the Hong Kong people. Since last December, WeChat was also used by whistle-blowers like the Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang to tell people the truth about coronavirus. The platform is now subject to even harsher censorship and more aggressive government propaganda. The nightmare continues…
To learn more about Annie’s research, please visit her student profile.
Read ‘Zhuangzi and his butterfly dream: the etymology of meng 夢’ by Annie Ren in the China Story Yearbook: China Dreams.