Why were you originally drawn to China?
As a teenager, I had always loved foreign languages, but until I was 20 I only had the opportunity to seriously study European languages. At that point, when I was studying for a history degree, my mother by chance lent me Jung Chang’s Wild Swans to coincide with a week during which I was studying 19th-century Chinese history.
I fell headlong into the book, an extraordinarily absorbing and well-crafted narrative of 20th-century China, and immediately after finishing it began exploring opportunities to study Chinese. I was lucky enough to be at a university, Cambridge, with a wonderful department of Chinese and I haven’t looked back since switching to Chinese in my third year as an undergraduate.
Your works cover a range of topics, from the Opium War to China’s obsession with the Nobel Prize. Which subject have you most enjoyed?
Writing about China’s Nobel complex, which has always been such a bizarre and inconsistent cultural phenomenon, was an easier task than researching the Opium War, a far more sombre and traumatic subject that understandably carries with it tremendous political sensitivities.
But in spite of the specific differences between the individual topics that I have researched, I think that both my writing and translation work are also united by interest in a common theme, namely modern China’s interactions with the world outside its borders and the way in which those interactions have transformed and defined China.
Modern Chinese literature is still a mystery to many people in the West. Why are Chinese writers distinctive and worth getting to know?
China’s literature is worth spending time on because it gives you insights that newspaper stories and non-fiction books cannot provide. Fiction gives you one individual’s intensely personal take on this extraordinarily diverse country, enabling you to experience it directly through their eyes and their choice of language.
What works or Chinese authors have had the biggest impact on you personally and professionally?
Naturally, I should mention first the contemporary books and authors that I have translated: Han Shaogong, Zhu Wen, Yan Lianke
, A Yi
In the case of all the contemporary writers that I’ve translated, I’ve been very fortunate – all have been very generous with their time and insights as I have translated their works. It’s been a privilege to know and work with them all. I’ve been very lucky to get to know Chan Koonchung
during my last few visits to Beijing, and have learnt a great deal from him and his partner.
Ou Ning, an omnicompetent editor, curator and poet, has been a wonderful guide to the complexities of contemporary Chinese culture. I would also like to make special mention of Mao Haijian’s history of the Opium War, The Collapse of an Empire – its painstaking archival research and lively narrative voice were an inspiration (and of course set an impossibly high standard) as I tried to write my own book on the Opium War.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have two projects on the go, one a history book, the other a translation. The first is a global history of Maoism; the way in which Maoist ideas, culture and practice travelled beyond China from the 1940s to the present day, to become an international force. I’m looking at, for example, the Maoist vogue in Western Europe and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, but also at the potency of Maoist theory and practice in contemporary India’s ‘Red Corridor’.
The research is taking me to China of course, but also around Europe, Southeast Asia, India and Latin America. I’m also working on an abridged new translation of Journey to the West, that masterwork of mischief-making from the Chinese literary canon. I’m finding it a perfect companion project to global Maoism: Mao himself frequently referenced the havoc-wreaking monkey king, Sun Wukong, in his own political career, and Mao’s Red Guards (and their European imitators in 1968) readily compared themselves to Wukong.