In the world of contemporary Chinese literature, Su Tong needs little introduction, having authored seven full-length novels and over 200 short stories since 1983, when he was just a 20-year-old college student. But to readers in the West, he is perhaps best known for Wives and Concubines, a novella that was adapted into the Oscar-nominated film and art-house favorite Raise the Red Lantern.
Among his notable works that have been translated into English are Another Life for Women and Three Lamps, Binu and the Great Wall (Canongate), The Boat to Redemption (Black Swan), Madwoman on the Bridge and Other Stories (Black Swan), My Life as Emperor (Hyperion East), Petulia’s Rouge Tin (Penguin Specials), and Rice (Harper Perennials). In 2009, The Boat to Redemption took the Man Asian Literary Prize, making Su the second Chinese writer to win the award. Two years later, he was nominated for the International Booker Prize.
The novellas Another Life for Women and Three Lamps were published together by Simon & Schuster in 2016 as a 235-page book. “The two-novella book is also one of the three titles featured in the first volume of the Jiangsu Literature Translated series, which was launched by Phoenix Publishing and Media Group [PPMG] in December 2021 to promote Jiangsu literature and authors,” says deputy director Liu Qinqiu of PPMG’s global business development division. “This book is now available in Arabic, Italian, Korean, Spanish, and Turkish editions. In fact, Su, with his avant-garde and provocative writing style, is one of the most translated Chinese authors, with the majority of his works available in English, French, German, and Italian.”
The setting of the first novella, Another Life for Women, is a pickling shop, whose activities “embody the idea of cutting off, protecting, and partitioning from the outside world,” says translator Kyle Anderson. “The theme revolves around boundaries—physical as well as psychological—that are meant to shelter the story’s female characters even as there are cracks, exits, and windows that allow the outside world to come through into the women’s lives,” Anderson says. “Thus, some insects still manage to penetrate and enter that sealed-up world to breed and inhabit, with dead flies invariably finding their ways into the pickling jars.” And so, these outside influences enter the lives of these women with different viewpoints—on generational values, politics, and ideology, for instance—even as they isolate themselves from each other and the world.
“Imagery is one of the powerful tools Su Tong uses to weave his stories,” says editor-in-chief Yuan Nan of Yilin Press, a subsidiary of PPMG that specializes in original and translated literary titles. “In the Three Lamps novella, the backdrop is a war that is nonspecific, hazy, and heterogeneous,” Yuan says. “But the sense of anxiety, confusion, danger, pain, and terror are palpable through the characters, actions, dialogue, and surroundings. Su then sets out to explore and examine human nature, both good and bad, during this period of upheaval.”
At the center of the story, protagonist Xiaowan has to keep the three lamps in a porcelain bowl lighted so that her father can find his way back home to her and her critically ill mother. “The lamps are a metaphor for hope and warmth, while the porcelain bowl symbolizes fragility and destruction if the light is seen by the other party waging the war,” Yuan says.
On the whole, the collection Another Life for Women and Three Lamps revolves around women and their world. “Women are forced to fight to survive and, often, their main adversaries become their good friends,” Liu says. “The fights also made those women on the periphery wake up and take notice of the world beyond their own. The instinct to survive and create bonds is universal and human and is familiar to readers regardless of their geography and language.”
Su Tong leads the many established as well as new literary voices from Jiangsu Province that have gained international attention in recent years. Ge Fei, author of Peach Blossom Paradise, which has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature, and Lu Min, whose This Love Could Not Be Delivered was published by Simon & Schuster, are two such examples. Another of Lu’s works, Dinner for Six, which has been selected for inclusion in the second volume of the Jiangsu Literature Translated series, available later this year, will soon be out in English from Balestier Press and in Spanish from Adriana Hidalgo.