Three Novellas

Su Tong

Translated by Josh Stenberg


2010, 212 pages

ISBN 978-0-9836599-0-7 Paper $23.00
ISBN 978-0-9836599-1-4 Cloth $45.00

From the author of Wives and Concubines (titled Raise the Red Lantern in the acclaimed 1991 Oscar-nominated film by Zhang Yimou), Rice and many other major works of contemporary Chinese fiction comes a new collection of novellas that ranges from mystery in swinging prewar Shanghai to the violent gangs of the Cultural Revolution.
     In The Gardener’s Art, a family dispute ends in the disappearance of a wealthy dentist. As his wife and children plunge into crisis and suspicion, the clues of the case lead them into Shanghai’s seamy side. A brilliant evocation of a vanished pre-Communist time, in all its glamor and squalor.
     A Divorce Handbook is the bitterly funny tale of a man, unhappy in marriage, who comes up against the inflexible attitudes of a traditional society. One of the most perceptive works to chart China’s shifting social mores.
     In Tattoo, a lame adolescent is marked by the death of his brother in gang warfare. Overcoming his injuries through the practice of martial arts, he seeks to revive the flagging fortunes of his gang, but must face treachery and contempt at every turn.
     This volume by Su Tong demonstrates his mastery of the full sweep of twentieth-century China.

Su Tong burst onto the Chinese literary scene in the mid-eighties. Since then, his prolific and provocative work—seven novels, a dozen novellas, over 120 short stories—has kept him squarely in the spotlight, with translations available in a dozen languages. Su Tong won the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel The Boat to Redemption.

Josh Stenberg is a PhD candidate in Chinese theater at Nanjing University. He is also the translator of Su Tong’s Madwoman on the Bridge (2008) and the editor of Irina’s Hat: New Short Stories from China (2013)



"Su Tong (b. 1963) and fellow members of China’s youthful 1980s avant-garde won a global readership after the 1989 Beijing Massacre thanks to new novels rich in historical themes and storylines strong enough to inspire great films by China’s famed “Fifth Generation” of cinematographers. Su Tong’s breakout work was Wives and Concubines (1990), filmed by Zhang Yimou as Raise the Red Lantern (1991). In 2009, Su Tong won China its second Man Asian Literary Prize with his The Boat to Redemption.

"Tattoo is the second collection of Su Tong’s shorter fiction rendered by Josh Stenberg, a talented writer, translator, and Chinese opera expert who frequents Su Tong’s old haunts along the Shanghai-Suzhou-Nanjing axis. This book is an early offering from MerwinAsia, a two-year-old independent enterprise of Douglas Merwin already known for its translations of Chinese and Korean fiction, like M. E. Sharpe’s East Gate Books, an imprint Merwin founded and formerly edited.

"The three novellas collected here, written in the 1990s, are well selected and expertly translated. Su Tong’s 1992 novels Rice and My Life as Emperor already evidence the turn toward realism and portentous history often noted in post-Massacre works by Yu Hua (author of To Live), but Su Tong’s longer novels seem possessed by the bizarre, the

macabre, the obsessive, the inbred and incestuous—in David Der-wei Wang’s words, “family melodrama with a gothic touch.” The novellas here are sparer and not so showy, though they could still be called urban Chinese period pieces. A mystery of this collection, “The Gardener’s Art,” is set in 1930s Shanghai. The title story, which closes the volume, dramatizes primitive violence and the tattoos that served as “colors” for urban gangs of the 1970s just before Mao’s death. As always, Su Tong depicts bullying, vengeance, and cruelty, but here he renders these acts deftly and without sensationalism. The effect is not melodrama, but visions of pervasive ugliness, squalor, and malodor. The mystery piece, about a missing husband, is really a vehicle for exploring verbal harassment, snobbery, and paternal fecklessness in the eternal Chinese family and the neighborhoods hiding it. That novella continues the theme of the opening work, “A Divorce Handbook,” which details the rage of a woman scorned, her ability to enlist her birth family and China’s mean streets to achieve violent retribution, and the emptiness of her husband’s dreams for a better life. The raw passions of Chinese divorce emerge more quickly and adroitly than in Ha Jin’s Waiting. The tattoos in Su Tong’s novella of that name evoke his fascination with fetishes and obsessions, but now with the narrative economy of a master storyteller who has a fine grasp of human psychology."

— Jeffrey C. Kinkley in World Literature Today