Tell me a story set in China

Fiction is the pathway to non-fiction

Freya Cox

PHOTO: Photo by Theodor Lundqvist on Unsplash

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

24 April 2020

The absence of Chinese literature in Australia is holding us back from truly engaging with the Asian Century, writes Freya Cox.

The sharing of stories is a powerful way by which people from different countries connect, share ideas, and come to understand each other. When we share stories, we evoke emotions that transcend divides of language, geography, religion, and race; we experience empathy, sadness, joy, and connect on a deeper human level.

Stories also have the ability to provide us with more nuanced understandings of how others’ societies, politics, and cultures operate; they become more real to us through the power of the written word and we gain valuable insights into other ways of life.

In Australia we have access to numerous novels written about the experiences of youth in Western countries, but much less popular fiction set in Asia, specifically China – the emerging powerhouse of the world. Young Australians devour novels set in the United States, in Europe, in Canada, while our bookshelves remain noticeably bare of books detailing the lives of modern young adults in China. This contributes to our youth identifying solely with Western countries and having less understanding of and drive to access the opportunities offered by closer connection with Asia.

If you want to ‘make it’, New York, Paris, London, are still seen as the places to go. Brooklyn lofts have been made so iconic in literature, TV, and film, that Australians have already picked out the very area of New York they wish to live in. Shanghai and Beijing, even though they are closer, aren’t on our metaphorical maps.

Although we are heading straight into the Asian century, our eyes are still turned to Europe and America when it comes to dreams of university exchanges, travel plans, and career trajectories.

Literature has the ability to put places on our map. Hannah Kent’s spellbinding debut novel, Burial Rites, set in Iceland made readers all over Australia get out their computers to Google ‘Iceland’. A country very few Australians knew much about was suddenly being discussed by groups of friends and talked about online, and as a collective our knowledge and curiosity about Iceland increased.

Now, Sally Rooney’s novels are the next big deal in literature. Set in Ireland, they portray the lives of university students. Australian students read them with fascination, relating to the living and the learning contained within, and for them ‘Ireland’ solidifies a little more as a place. They can imagine and relate to its people and understand how they operate, even if this understanding comes from fiction. But there is no equivalent big hit that regales us with the tales of university students in Shanghai and how they spend their days.

As China increases its economic and political power over the Indo-Pacific region, there needs to be a stronger creative flow between Australia and China, a sharing of modern stories. Australians need a deeper knowledge of cultural and political aspects of China, and a more nuanced understanding of the Chinese psyche and values, to be able to make the most of our proximity to this rising power.

This could come about through changes to the Australian school curriculum which remains very Australian and Eurocentric. Incorporating more novel studies set in China could introduce children to this culture from a younger age. There could be more English translations of best-selling Chinese novels made available in Australia. More creative solutions include running writing competitions or providing grants for authors to write stories set in China.

Turning our focus from Europe to Asia will be a slow cultural shift; there is no quick and easy solution. However, educators, the Australian government, and literary organisations can support this shift by encouraging the creation of and publicising literature set in China.

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