Nanjing 1937: a love story by Ye Zhaoyan, tr. Michael Berry<br/>The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa, tr. Adriana Hunter

While China's film-makers linger in the exotic past, its novelists are now discovering more modern tragedies. Aamer Hussein follows their quest
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The Independent Culture

In the mid-Eighties, a younger generation of Chinese film-makers caught Western attention with a series of poetic works, steeped in traditional culture and set in the aristocratic or peasant milieux of China's recent past. Their themes were equally compelling for Chinese brought up on a diet of socialist realist fictions that detailed the toppling of feudal tyrants by zealous revolutionaries, or the valiant struggle against Japanese imperalism. Several directors based their films on experimental fictions by young writers who had recently discovered Western modernism along with the classics – proscribed by the Maoists – of their language. Writers produced some fascinating hybrids, re-evaluating the past from a non-ideological perspective. A handful were presented to a British readership in the wake of films they inspired, among them Mo Yan's Red Sorghum and Su Tong's Raise the Red Lantern.

With Tiananmen Square in 1989, publishers' focus changed from the glamour of Chinese culture to the traumatic memories of young survivors of the Cultural Revolution. Film-makers, on the other hand, seemingly tempted by international finance and a need to escape from an uncomfortable present, continued to churn out increasingly stereotypical heritage melodramas about drug-addicted aristocrats and incestuous peasants. Their exoticism satisfied the West's taste for chinoiserie and was probably passed by the censors at home as an indictment of decadence. Translated fictions, though few, reflected these trends.

Ye Zhaoyan was the author of one such story, made into a representative example of Chinese celluloid exotica: Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon. But far from returning to the perfumed boudoirs and opium dens of his previous work, Nanjing 1937: a love story looks (like Hong Ying's controversial K: The Art of Love) at the lives of Westernised intellectuals against the backdrop of a Republican China threatened by Japanese aggression. Nanjing 1937 was a bestseller in China.

Ye's approach here is far from exotic. His translator helpfully points out a range of Chinese influences, including the expat Eileen Chang, with whom Ye shares a laconic yet detailed style and a preoccupation with eccentric emotional experience. Unlike the elliptical Chang, however, Ye is often expository. He weaves stories within stories in a manner reminiscent of traditional Chinese digressions, stopping to explain, rather than illustrate, a motivation, a thought or a feeling, then changing point of view.

Deng Wenyu, his Western-educated central character, has his precedents in the spineless antiheroes of pre-Maoist writers Lu Xun and Lao She. Yet he comes across as a comic original. Whether Deng is intended as a metaphor for the Chinese national character is left for the reader to interpret, as are the sometimes heavily signalled parallels between Deng's pursuit of the unwilling object of his affections and strategies of warfare.

Ye is a clever writer, whose disingenuousness seems as much a narrative trick as his use of teasing links between private stories and public events. This is a novel preoccupied with the moral survival of ordinary people in extraordinary times. Though Ye assiduously documents the approach of the Japanese, he retains a relentless focus on the domestic and trivial: Deng's epistolary courtship of Yuyuan, the attempts by Yuyuan's husband's mistress to rid him of her. Deng's encounter with Yuyuan's dashing, unfaithful flyer husband, from which he inevitably emerges the loser, is the comic trump in a narrative game stacked with humorous set-pieces.

But Deng keeps his best cards for the poignant finale. When, after various detours including a divorce and the heroic death of Yuyuan's husband, Deng and Yuyuan come together, history catches up with them. Ye doesn't detail the Nanjing massacre, merely suggesting it by showing us his protagonists attempting to flee the besieged city.

Ye's scene painting is economical, yet his evocation of the period and the beleaguered city seems flawless. In spite of the patchy translation, this is the most generous and satisfying novel to emerge from China in a long time.

In The Girl Who Played Go, Shan Sa also looks at the Thirties and the Sino-Japanese encounter, but differences between her novel and Ye's are more enlightening than any comparison. Shan is 15 years younger than Ye, she lives in Paris, and by writing in French has probably distanced herself from Chinese literary debates. In spite of comparisons, her charged, poetic "franco-chinese" style has little in common with her fellow francophone Dai Sijie's buoyant rhythms. Her approach does, however, resemble recent cinematic evocations of feudal China, and Hollywood potboilers such as The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Rebellious maidens battle with feudal traditions in teahouses dense with opium smoke; lovers exchange flowery dialogue seemingly subtitled by Pearl Buck.

Shan's narrative juxtaposes the voices of the eponymous Chinese teenager and a Japanese soldier disguised as a native, who spies on nascent revolutionaries. She has a tragic love affair which results in an abortion, he consorts with local whores. They meet in Manchuria, but come together too late, united only in tragedy.

The theme has potential, but the period has been done before and better: by Amy Tan, for example. Shen doesn't handle passion well, and the novel's desultory sex adds little more than sensation to a melodramatic story. Her intense lyricism amounts all too often to overkill. One can visualise the film version, though: directed by a Hollywood name, financed by multinational corporations, filmed in Hong Kong with a cast of diasporic stars.

Aamer Hussein's latest collection of stories is 'Turquoise' (Saqi Books)