Who likes short shorts?

Columbia University Press sent me a copy of Mu Aili and Mike Smith’s Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories: A Parallel Text. The book is, as you might have guessed, a collection of Chinese very short stories (4-5 pages at most) presented as parallel texts, with glosses for the hard Chinese words, author bios, study questions etc. It is intended to be used in advanced Chinese language and culture classes.

I mostly don’t teach advanced Chinese language, so I can’t say much to its use for that. I guess is it would work well in that context. It is hard to find good texts with teaching apparatus that are not old, and this is pretty modern Chinese. All of these are short short stories that seem to have been published in literary magazines about a decade a so ago. I suppose now these type of things would be entirely digital and appear only on-line. If you want a good way to teach your students the Chinese that people read on their phones today, this is your book.

I do teach about Chinese culture, and I will be using bits of the book in class (although not making them buy it) although I do have some problems with it. The reason I will use this and the reason I have problems with using it, is that the book is aimed at not only presenting Chinese texts, but also key ideas in Chinese culture. Thus there are sections on Li and Ren 礼和仁, Xiao, Yin-Yang 阴阳, Governance(统)治,Identity 自我, Face, 脸面,Romantic Love 情爱, Marriage 婚姻,and Changes .1

To some extent I can work with this. My History of East Asia (Rice Paddies) is a sort of chronological/thematic class. So to start we do the Shang and oracle bones and ancestors, but also the Chinese/East Asian model of the family through time. Then the age of 100 schools, but also Confucius as the model thinker and what a school of thought is in East Asia. I am planning on using a couple of the stories on Xiao, filial piety to show how parts of the multi-generational model of the family extend into the present. That is fine, but as a historian it gets my dander up to present things to students that make Chinese culture look unchanging. If a student reads the introduction to the Xiao section very carefully they will understand that the Classic of Filial Piety was not written by Confucius. If they are less careful they will not come away with that impression, or with any real entry into the evolution of the idea. Romantic Love today is not the same as Ming Dynasty 情爱, but that is not the impression a student would necessarily get from this. I realize that I am being pedantic, and that the point of the book is not to introduce students to the evolution of Chinese ideas about…anything, but the book is a bit too “5000 years of unchanging Chinese culture” to make me comfortable with the idea of building a class around it.

However, these are really good stories, and if you want to give your students a grip on Modern Chinese culture, there are some fine tales in here.


  1. Maybe add a section on Rebellion to fit in Water Margin and Mao Zedong?  

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