China’s Feng Tang: Translating the ‘Beijing, Beijing’ Of His Peers

Feng Tang / Provided by AmazonCrossing
Feng Tang / Provided by AmazonCrossing

‘Sexuality Is Almost My Trademark’

“Why didn’t you take your stupid Three Gun briefs home?” she asked. “They were clearly dry already, dry as they would ever get, but you didn’t take them back. Why? After looking at them all day, I would go out and dance all night.”

The clever cover design for the first English translation of Feng Tang's Beijing, Beijing is by David Drummond
“One truth was equal to one cup of beer.” Cover design by David Drummond

What the author Feng Tang does in Beijing, Beijing is the same thing he says he does in all his work: he tells the truth. And always, always with sex, he stresses. “Sexuality is almost my trademark.” As his lead character Qiu Shui has it:

The kind of truth that you would not say lightly to your mother or to the Party.

That kind of truth has made him a literary star at home in China. The Beijing-born writer — now “42. No, 43. No, wait, I’m 44” — is exploring a generational experience from the 1990s so widely identifiable for his colleagues that his life is catching up with his fiction. He has Qiu Shui say in his book:

One summer evening in Beijing in 1994, I said, “I want to be a writer. It’s my destiny to write ten novels, ten timeless novels.”

He’s getting there. This soft-spoken, gentle conversationalist sits with me, hunched in concentration as he scans his literary output in his mind: “Six novels, two essay collections, one poem collection, one short story collection. And I’m writing two more novels.” One of his novels is banned by Beijing. For sexual content.

He has been writing for almost 30 years, he tells me. And in his books, he watches his fellows with a sharp eye for their frailties:

His strategy involved eating a lot of food with his fingers, then drinking strong alcohol and using it as a pretext to do inappropriate things. He would attempt to stroke Liu Qing’s thigh with his greasy fingers, saying things like, “I love you, my heart is breaking into a million pieces. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. I want you so badly.” Every once in a while he came up to me and asked for my professional opinion, as a gynecology student, on his stupid questions about women.

“Someone told me that when you’re looking for a wife, you should do the Coke-can test,” he said. “You get an empty Coke can, and if she can pee into it without making a mess, she’s a gem. It means she definitely has a tight pussy. You’re the expert. Do you think this test is supported by science?”

And did I mention that Feng Tang is a doctor of gynecological oncology?

What you’ll find in Feng’s work is a wry gift for social observation and a self-conscious narrative voice that recalls the best work of Henry Miller.

Feng writes skin-to-skin with the political and economic forces that have shoved and jostled him and his friends for three of the most transformative decades in China’s history.

My personal favorite Feng title: At 36, I Had No Doubts.

AmazonCrossing: ‘Around 150 Books Translated’

Fortunately for those of us who want to read the work of this singularly self-aware artist, Feng is one of the many authors whose work is being translated by AmazonCrossing. This breezy, engaging translation of Beijing, Beijing by Michelle Deeter is Feng’s first novel to be translated into English and was released near the end of March.

Not familiar with AmazonCrossing? It’s one of the 14 imprints of Amazon Publishing. Sometimes referred to as “A-Pub,” Amazon Publishing is the traditional wing of the retailer’s publishing operation, not part of the self-publishing platform and tools for which most people connect Amazon and authors. Amazon Publishing functions as a straight-ahead publishing house.

Sarah Jane Gunter
Sarah Jane Gunter

Among these imprints, AmazonCrossing may be the most successful so far on its own terms. Introduced five years ago, in May 2010, it has become what Stephen Heyman reports in The New York Times is, again this year, the largest producer of translated work in the States. And under the direction of its vivacious, engaged publisher, Sarah Jane Gunter — formerly of Amazon-Luxembourg and Amazon-France — Crossing is crossing a line that will surprise some in publishing: this imprint is winning friends for Amazon.

At London Book Fair in April, Gunter spoke with me about the process her imprint uses to keep expanding its output. “Last year, for example,” she told me, “we published around 50 original-language acquisitions in German. This year we’ll do around 90. And some of those German-language authors, we’re now translating into English.”

To keep that engine running, Gunter has teams in various parts of the world, spotting likely work. And one way the company is able to produce as much as it’s doing is by booking translators far in advance. When a team finds someone whose translation work they like, she says, they’ll look ahead in their production calendars and reserve that translator’s services for 18 months or so at a time. The same in-country team that identifies a good candidate for translation then helps market the book when its translation is released. A book thus is carried, full circle, by its most enthusiastic supporters in the company.

Gunter and I spoke briefly last week at BookExpo America (BEA) but more extensively in London, where she told me, “We have published around 150 books, translated into English since we started in 2010. Fifteen different languages, 18 different countries — everything from literary prize-winners to bestselling genre fiction.”

When Heyman writes at the Times about AmazonCrossing, he’s basing part of his report (as we all do) on the work of the tireless Chad Post at the University of Rochester. Post’s Three Percent is a much-valued hub of interest for people interested in international literature. Gunter calls Post “the score-keeper.” Quite right. It was from his analysis that the rest of us learned that the Dalkey Archive was being surpassed in 2013 by AmazonCrossing for sheer numbers of translated titles into the English-language market.

A new, vigorous No. 1 in the translation field is big and happy news in the community of readers who love translated works: Post’s “Three Percent,” after all, is named for an understanding that “only about 3 percent of all books published in the United States are works in translation.” My guess is that Post adopted that name before digital publishing had exploded the level of output in the US. Today, I’d imagine that far less than even 3 percent of what’s produced in the States is works in translation. AmazonCrossing has arrived not one moment too soon.

And as Post tells Heyman, AmazonCrossing is “doing a lot of things that most translation publishers don’t do: romance, thriller, young adult books, things that are definitely in that chick lit category” — not limiting itself to literary work, as some translation houses do.

Queen of the Trailer ParkThis is an important key. When in April I mentioned some of the “shirtless men kissing beautiful women” romance covers (my phrase, not hers) that I’d seen at times on the AmazonCrossing list, Gunter — a good sport — was quick to say, “Hey, if they’re good stories, we like them.” The subtext there, of course, is that if they’re good stories they’ll also sell, and shirtless men kissing beautiful women do tend to find the legions of buyers that our best literary writers might only dream of attracting. AmazonCrossing is succeeding, in part, because it’s not locked into an idea of one fiction classification or another. Post is right to highlight the fact that it handles both serious work and entertainment genres.

Meanwhile, there are Amazon KDP authors — Kindle Direct Publishing — being approached by AmazonCrossing, too, Gunter told me, for translation to English from their French, Spanish, or German originals. This week’s release of Alice Quinn’s Queen of the Trailer Park is one of these instances, translated from the French by Alexandra Maldwyn-Davies.

What’s more, AmazonCrossing is good news for English-language authors because it’s widening its catalog in “the other direction”: translating US writings into other languages.

Example: the Chicago-based author of Unimaginable, Dina Silver, has just seen her book’s release this week by AmazonCrossing in a German translation by Irena Böttcher, Das Unvorstellbar.

Among some of the key releases ahead in the next few months from AmazonCrossing:

  • Hot Sur by Colombia’s highly regarded Laura Restrepo, a thriller in a translation by Ernesto Mestre-Reed, 21 July.
  • The Elven, by German author Bernhard Hennen, fantasy in a translation by James A. Sullivan, 1 August.
  • Karsten Flohr’s The Last Voyage of Sigismund Skrik, historical fiction translated from the German by John Brownjohn, 1 August.
  • The Werewolf of Bamberg, by Oliver Pötzsch, Book 5 in his hugely popular historical thriller series, The Hangman’s Daughter, once more with translator Lee Chadeayne, 13 October.

And in London, Gunter and her associate Gracie Doyle told me about a Chinese author, a very good one, who might be at BEA in New York. Feng Tang.

Five releases

冯唐 Feng Tang: ‘A Very Serious Hobby’

Although Amazon-China’s Billy Huang joins us, ready to translate, Feng handles English with dogged skill, patiently searching for his words.

He tells me that he comes from, and writes about, what I might describe as a sort of pocket in recent Chinese history. It’s a brief interval, maybe no more than 10 or 12 years, in which those of his age group, urban Chinese youth born in the 1970s, reached young adulthood under severe pressure to get ahead and generate wealth for their families. China was in its stunningly fast flip-flop from communism to something closer to capitalism. And every family, Feng says, looked to the offspring to bring home a piece of the new bacon.

Feng Tang in Washington, D.C.
Feng Tang in Washington, D.C.

Even now,  you sense that a fevered pace is ingrained in this guy. He perches more than he sits on the chair beside you. A lot of Americans might relate to the air of restless self-expectation that seems to drive him. That’s exactly what he writes about. That’s how he travels, too: between the 28th of May and 2nd of June when he arrived back in Beijing after BEA:

  • Feng was one of three Chinese authors to speak at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
  • He also met with a lecture hall filled with 300 intrigued students and others at Columbia University.
  • He spoke as part of the Chinese delegation to BEA and he did a signing of Beijing, Beijing. “More than 50 volumes sold,” he tells me in a note from Beijing. For those who think that an Amazon Publishing book will never be seen in a Barnes & Noble? — think again. These events were at the Barnes & Noble at Broadway and West 82nd Street on the Upper West Side. David Drummond’s design for Beijing, Beijing has “AmazonCrossing” prominently displayed on its back cover: hands across the retail battlefield.
  • And “during my spare time,” he tells me in that note, “I ran a half-marathon in Central Park. So everything was good.”

In our interview, we begin by talking about the times when things were not so good.

‘Good, good, good, be a good boy’

Thought Catalog: You started writing very young.

Feng Tang: Very young. I finished my first novel, Happiness, when I was 17.  And I tried to forget about writing then. Because at that time you had only one purpose in your life, given by your parents, and it was money. Money, money, more money.

TC: Was this a result of the one-child-per-couple rule?

FT: Not exactly that. It was because our parents spent most of their lives in the Cultural Revolution. At that time, they had no voice; just follow whatever [dictates] were given to them. Finally their children had a choice to reach, to earn more money. “You have so much freedom to do things,” parents told children. “Forget about anything else. Just focus on going to the best school, going to the best company, earning the best salary.” My generation was like, “Good, good, good, be a good boy.”

TC: This is what Beijing, Beijing is about.

FT: This is what it’s about. But the people born in the 1980s in China, they tended to have more choices. For example, Yao Ming, the basketball player. If he was born in the ’70s, he’d be forced to learn English, math, go to university.

'Everything Grows'
‘Everything Grows’ (Wan Wu Sheng Zhang

TC: He wouldn’t have had the option to be an athlete.

FT: No.

TC: And why such a fast change? Why was this success-focus into which you were born so brief?

FT:  Two reasons. One would be that by 10 years later, most of the key positions were taken by my generation. And two, after a certain amount of money, people were coming to realize there are other things in life. You can relax a little bit. Too much McDonald’s.

TC: And while the pressure was on you, writing wasn’t considered the right way to make money, was it? In our society, writing isn’t a way to make a lot of money unless you’re one of the lucky few like Stephen King.

FT: That’s right. Same for us. Until three years ago, writing was for me a very serious hobby.

TC: I love your phrase, “a very serious hobby.” We have many authors working and living this way here in the States.

100 Poems of Feng Tang (Feng Tang Shi Bai Shou)
100 Poems of Feng Tang (Feng Tang Shi Bai Shou)

FT: I told myself after my first novel that writing was a waste of my time. I went to medical school [Peking Union Medical College, 1990-1998]. Medical school can be very tough. So after medical school, I went to Emory University in Atlanta for an MBA. In Atlanta, they have CNN, they have Coke. Then I did a summer internship in Bergen County, New Jersey. I felt extremely bored. They only have Italian restaurants.

TC: This is when you were recruited by McKinsey & Company in Beijing.

FT: The brutal McKinsey years [during which he rose to a position as a global partner]. After the first six months, I came back Atlanta to revisit my friends and find a nice quite place to finish the last half of Everything Grows. I finished it almost within 10 days. I did nothing but running, writing, eating very simple foods. It was similar to what Jack Kerouac talked about his writing of On The Road. Your writing at that kind of time is bigger and more complicated than when you just think about it. Everything Grows has had a translation in French 10 years ago, and a film has just been made, released in the cinema two months ago. It’s quite a success.

TC: Do you like the film version of the book?

FT: Half-and-half. It’s a pity, I guess, the golden time for cultural serious movies is gone. You cannot compete against commercial movies. The average audience for films is 20, 21. They take it as complete entertainment.

Feng Tang speaks to students at Columbia University in New York
Feng Tang speaks to students at Columbia University in New York

‘My New Novel Will Sell One Million Copies’

Even after writing Everything Grows — which with Happiness and Given a Girl At Eighteen would turn out to complete a trilogy about Beijing’s youth — Feng continued to hold high-ranking corporate positions, working 80 and 90 hours per week, until just a year ago.

Feng Tang signs copies of 'Beijing, Beijing' at the Barnes & Noble at Broadway and West 82nd Street, New York
Feng Tang signs copies of ‘Beijing, Beijing’ at the Barnes & Noble at Broadway and West 82nd Street, New York

His real name is Haipeng Zhang, and he’s also known as Henry, Bloomberg tells us. He resigned in July 2014 as CEO of China Resources Medication Group. Until then, Feng had produced 10 books — those novels and collections he talks about — while working in upper management and c-level corporate appointments. He tells of visiting his parents in San Francisco for Chinese New Year and spending every moment except meals writing as fast as possible.

With his resignation from China Resources last year — amid allegations of corruption in the company’s parent corporation — Feng says, “I did some thinking about how I should spend my time. I decided not to take any fulltime job.”

Feng Tang, his pen name, now spends 40 to 50 percent of his time, he says, in investment consulting. “The rest of my time I focus on the writing and the reading.”

Feng Tang's 'No, Woman, Don't Cry'
No, Woman, Don’t Cry

He tells me that he has just published a new novel in China, titled — after Bob Marley — No, Woman, No Cry.  It’s about, he says, a man who tries to escape both his personal relationships and his society, only to find, “you can’t run away from your own humanity.”

And he’s confident of how the book will perform in the market:

My new novel will sell one million copies in two years. It’s been out for one month and already it’s sold 20,000 copies.

TC: Is this success because you’re so well-known now? Or because of the book itself?

FT: A combination. In reputation, I passed through the breaking point three years ago. And this is something I want to discuss with you: I don’t know why I sell. When I first published Everything Grows and had my first book-signing session, only four people showed up. Two weeks ago when I did a book signing in China, 2,000 people showed up. They tell me even pop stars don’t always have that scale of event.

TC: This is celebrity status, Tang.

FT: Yes. People recognize me on the street. And I don’t know why.

‘Oneness’ Made Many

For all the gracious humility of his conversation, Feng’s tone is that of a man confessing an embarrassing event to a confidante. His sudden jump to notoriety echoes the experience and writings of some of the States’ indie bestsellers. Hugh Howey, for example, has talked eloquently of the complete surprise with which he discovered the takeoff of his online sales in 2011 of the original 60-page, goofy-looking Wool novella.

For Feng’s part, here is a clue: his own 2011 novel called Oneness, has been published only by Cosmo Publishing in Hong Kong but has found an avid audience. It’s the one that’s banned by Beijing.

It’s my fifth novel and it cannot sell in mainland China because it has too-heavy sex content. And monks. From one perspective, you can call it a purely erotic book. But from another perspective, it’s talking seriously about religion, sex, in the Tang Dynasty when people tended to be more liberal. Even Taiwan refused to do the book. But it’s really profound Buddhist philosophy: it says that you shouldn’t polarize things. Being rich is the same as being poor. In China I am somebody now, in the US, I’m nobody now, but I’m still the same person. This is what it means. It has become the best-selling novel in Hong Kong history.

'Beijing, Beijing'
‘Beijing, Beijing’

A fixture on the Hong Kong airport bestseller lists for four years, Feng says, Oneness — and its tale of what one critic describes as  Buddhist monks and nuns “achieving enlightenment through unorthodox means” — has sold more than 100,000 copies. And while that may not seem huge, remember that it’s available only in Hong Kong. Unlike later works, such as No, Woman, No Cry, it cannot be sold to the vast mainland market. By contrast, Feng says, “Every year, I can sell 100,000 to 200,000 copies of Beijing, Beijing,” which is widely available on the mainland.

And may such profitable controversies as these follow Feng from one translation to the next.

“Stay tuned,” says AmazonCrossing’s Gracie Doyle sweetly when I give her my list of the Feng novels I’d like to read in English.

For now, Beijing, Beijing is our entry point into the work of a complex, accomplished artist-of-his-times whose prose, like his conversation, is intimate. Feng Tang’s words lie close to the affections of his fellows. His agile intelligence translates their hearts and their minds for us. And we realize that these are our contemporaries. We know them, after all:

We spent exactly fourteen nights there — I counted. The huge bed in the middle of the room was like our own fish tank, and we swam in it naked. When we got hungry, we ate the provisions from Olympic Light Supermarket. When we weren’t hungry, we drew sustenance from each other’s lips…

When we were tired, we slept, tangled in each other’s bodies. When we weren’t sleepy, we touched each other and inhaled each other’s addictive scent. I tried my hardest to remember the exact scent of every surface of her body and the exact texture and elasticity of each part…

Her long black hair brushed back and forth across my chest and my abdomen, and I felt my body sinking into the dark depths of a lake. I brushed my hands through her hair, like two paddling oars. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to dissolve into her body. If we dissolved into one form, the world would be a perfect place. There would be no difference between right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, good and evil. The future would not require wisdom or knowledge. Little Red had probably killed me in my previous life…Or perhaps we’d simmered together in the same meat sauce. TC mark

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