Reincarnations: Chinese novels translated into English and into film – by Nicky Harman

This piece is by Nicky Harman of Paper Republic:

Many libraries stock both books and films – a good film can encourage people to read the book, and vice versa, and it can be very interesting to compare a book with its film, to identify the changes and to understand the reasons behind them. For this blog, I have selected five Chinese novels or novellas available in English translation,  that have been turned into films for international audiences. The films are of books by Geling YAN, ZHANG Ling and JIA Pingwa, and I have been lucky enough to translate one book by each of them.

The Flowers of War, by Geling Yan, tr. Nicky Harman (Harvill Secker)

Several of Geling Yan’s novels have been translated into English – and her well-researched historical dramas with strong characters and human interest lend themselves to cinematic adaptation. One of her best-known stories, The Flowers of War, appeared in two incarnations in the same year (2011): the English translation of the book and the film of the same name, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale. As the translator of the book, I knew the story inside out, and was particularly conscious of the story’s transformation from book to film. The original title of the book in Chinese is Jinling shisan chai, ‘The Thirteen Girls of Jinling’, where chai, literally ‘hairpins’, is used poetically to refer to the thirteen schoolgirls who are trapped inside a church during the Japanese attack on Nanjing in 1937. A direct translation of the title doesn’t have the same flavour as the original Chinese, and by the time I was commissioned for the translation, the new English title The Flowers of War had already been agreed for both the novel and the film. The novel is based on a true story: the schoolgirls are joined by a group of prostitutes seeking refuge from the atrocities being perpetrated in the city, and a handful of wounded Chinese soldiers. The elderly European priest does his best to protect them in the church. When the Japanese arrive at the church door and demand that the priest hand over the schoolgirls for their ‘entertainment’, the prostitutes decide to go in their stead, thus saving the schoolgirls from rape and probably butchery. Despite the strong storyline, only the bare bones of the book survive in the film. A new dimension is introduced, in which Bale plays a mortician who pretends to be the priest (who has died) and falls in love with the prostitute Yumo. This is quite a departure from the book, in which the priest is very much alive, and the love affair is between a Chinese soldier and Yumo. One imagines that the plot was re-written to make the Hollywood star the focus of the love story, in order to enhance the film’s appeal in the west.

White Snake and Other Stories, by Geling Yan, tr. Lawrence Walker (Aunt Lute Books)

Another Yan Geling novel that has been transformed into a Zhang Yimou film is set a few decades later. The title of the novel in Chinese is Lu fan Yanshi (The Criminal Lu Yanshi) and of the film adaptation, Coming Home. The title was not the only change. The story takes place during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Lu Yanshi escapes from a labour camp in northwest China and heads for home. When he and his wife attempt to meet, he is betrayed by his daughter, who has been promised the lead role in the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women if she turns him in. Three years later, Lu Yanshi is rehabilitated and allowed home, but his beloved wife is by now suffering from amnesia and no longer recognizes him. Although this is a Cultural Revolution story, Zhang Yimou plays down the political background in the film. Clearly, there was some censorship involved, and in this respect, Eva Shan Chou offers insight in her review of the film in the webzine ChinaFile:

Coming Home

‘… Given the extent of official censorship [in China], it’s a safe bet that almost no one under 35 in the audience had any prior knowledge of the events that form the backdrop to the story, or of any other traumatic events in post-1949 Chinese history. Nor, after viewing Coming Home, would such a person have learned much more … Zhang’s sidestepping of sensitive topics seems consistent with the important commissions that he has received from the Chinese government…’ Yan Geling is a screenwriter as well as a novelist but she did not write the screenplay for Coming Home, and (according to Eva Shan Chou) has replied to critics keen to hear her views on the deviations from her novel: ‘Why don’t you go ask the censors.’

Xiuxiu, the Sent-down Girl

Not all of Geling Yan’s stories are altered so drastically for the cinema. For her novella Celestial Bath (also translated by Lawrence Walker and published in The White Snake and Other Stories), the author wrote the screenplay herself. The title was changed, to Xiuxiu, the Sent-down Girl, but the film follows the plot of the original novella faithfully. A teenager, Wen Xiu (affectionately called Xiuxiu), is stranded in remote countryside after the Cultural Revolution, her only friend a Tibetan herdsman called Lao Jin. In a desperate attempt to be allowed to return to the city and her family, she resorts to prostitution. Finally, in despair, she asks Lao Jin to shoot her. He does as she asks, and shoots himself as well. The film, directed by Joan Chen, came out in 1998, and is available to view on Youtube.


Zhang Ling is another author who writes historical drama, mostly notably her epic story about the early Chinese immigrants to Canada, Gold Mountain Blues, which I translated into English. In 2010, her novella Aftershock (not available in translation) was made into a film by Feng Xiaogang. It was the first IMAX film shot outside the US, was China’s highest-grossing domestic film in 2010, and attracted favourable reviews in America, where it came out in the same year. In the story, twins are trapped under rubble during the devastating earthquake in Tangshan in 1976. The mother is forced to choose between rescuing her son or her daughter. She chooses the son. Miraculously, the daughter survives but never finds her parents. So far, the film keeps to the original plot. But then the plot begins to develop rather differently. In Zhang Ling’s novella, the girl suffers further traumas: she is raped by her adoptive father; later, after settling in Canada, she becomes estranged from her own daughter and attempts suicide. There is no happy ending. By contrast, the film sets out to be redemptive and ‘warm-hearted’. Su Xiaowei, the writer of the screenplay, explains: ‘Much more of the story is devoted to describing daily life and warm-hearted emotions. After the earthquake, people overcome their grief, regain a sense of calm, and get on with their lives….After all, a film should offer a sense of warmth and consolation.’ For further insights on the transformation of this novella to the screen, see Bruce Humes’ ‘Zhang Ling’s “Aftershock”: The Movie, the Screenwriter and the Part-time Censor’. Aftershock, the film, is entitled Tangshan Da Dizhen in Chinese, is available with English subtitles on Youtube and DVD.

Happy, by Jia Pingwa

My fifth book is an example of how a radical divergence between the book and the subsequent film can be disconcerting, indeed hilarious. Jia Pingwa is one of China’s most respected authors. Two of his novels have been translated into English, Ruined City and Turbulence, both translated by Howard Goldblatt, and my translation of his novel Happy will be published as Happy Dreams (Amazon Crossing, 2017). Happy tells the story of the eponymous Happy Liu, a Charlie Chaplin-esque trash-collector, his hooker sweetheart, his luckless friend Wufu, and their trash-collector buddies. It is gritty, at best bitter-sweet, and doesn’t pull its punches. The film version, entitled ‘Happy’ (Gaoxing) and directed by Ah Gan, is a slapstick comedy, complete with Bollywood-style song-and-dance routines (including a Chinese version of Ode to Joy), and an airplane, home-made by Happy, in which he ferries his dead friend Wufu back to the village for burial. (But it’s such a bumpy ride that it shakes Wufu back to life.) Ah Gan and Jia Pingwa share the credits, but one wonders what Jia felt about the transformation. ‘Happy’ is available on Youtube, in Chinese only, with Chinese subtitles.

If you would like to know more about Chinese films, especially those adapted from novels and stories, why not go and explore Brigitte Duzan’s Chinese movies website.

[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic Collaboration, Feb 2017]

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