not sure why I am posting this, but at least you can get an idea of my project this way

November 10, 2005

Chinese Literature has a history and depth that far outweighs the amount of literature created by most Western civilizations. As John Louton pointed out in his lecture, during the Classical age of Roman civilization, China produced twice as much material as Rome. Along with some of the first novels ever to be written, Chinese writers have also employed other genres to create their works, including short story. But along with the short story, there is also the genre of short short stories, which have experienced an revitalization over the past 30 years. Short shorts are usually only one to two pages in length or around 1,500 Chinese characters.

According to Liu Haitao in his essay “Origins of the Chinese Short Short Story”, the earliest short stories appeared in China during the Qin dynasty (221-206BC). Many of these short stories were not as long in length as even today’s short short stories and they many served as commentary about different social phenomena. One such story Han fei zi (Waiting for Hares by the Stump) told the story of a farmer who upon seeing a hare run into a stump in his field and die decided to stop working and watch the stump every day waiting for another free meal (p423). Later dynasties brought about changes in stories towards deeper meanings beyond the everyday life, of which two stories “Ganjiang Moye” and “Han Ping fu fu” demonstrated more complex plots and also a tendency to act as commentary on the rulers of the time. Generally speaking ancient Chinese short stories are agreed to have reached their peak during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties.

Through reading and analyzing these short short stories, one can gain both a better understanding of Chinese culture and the role literature plays within it. Chinese short short stories have several similarities that link many of them together. First most of them are very character driven. The story “A Soldier’s Wife” by Liu Wanli tells of the devotion of Sister Xia to her love who is a soldier in a far away post. The character of Sister Xia is key to the story and Liu Wanli uses several specific details to help create a picture of her, “She looked really charming when she chuckled” and her caring to her lover’s ailing parents. These details help make the story of Sister Xia come to life. Due to the short amount of space available the writers must find ways to create human characters with very few words, although this doesn’t always mean that the characters are named. The stories “Women Bandits”, “I Don’t Know Who I Am”, “A Relationship Long Broken”, and “A Buddhist Convent” are all examples of unnamed protagonists. In some cases this serves to focus on the universal themes of the story, such as in “A Relationship Long Broken” which tells the story of disagreements between a couple. Others remain without names to help the story appeal to many different people of different backgrounds.

Some of the Chinese short short stories also use first person narrators. For example the story “Restaurant Business” by Liu Wanli is told in a very matter of fact manner about a recent college graduate who goes to work for a friend of his father. The story progresses with little fanfare, in much the way that it would conversationally. Eventually at the end the narrator learns that his “uncle” is actually using the restaurant as a means of covering up the money he stole while serving for the government. Although it is impossible to know for sure, several the stories with first person narrators seem to be drawn from real life events that happened to the author. In his essay “Finding Materials for the Short Short Story” Ling Dingnian talks about two main sources, the first being personal experience and the second personal observation. First person narrator allows the author to tell his/her story more directly to the audience. Another example of this is the story “Holding You” by Ma Shaoxian which mirrors’ the authors own wish to hold the body of her dead son at his funeral. This story also differs from many of the other stories in that its main object is conveying an emotion experienced by the author. Even though much is learned about the main character through the emotion experienced, this story sticks out from the others.

While many of these short short stories stick to a fairly traditional style, a few use different techniques including multiple shifts in time period. The story “My Wife’s Hands” by Gao Weixi switches from his beginning time setting to several periods through out his wife and his courtship and marriage. Also at the end it becomes very self referential when the author declares his intention to write a short short story in honor of his wife’s hard working hands. Another unusual story is “Should I Stay or Go” by Harry J. Huang in which the entire story consists of a short telephone dialogue between a daughter and mother.

Despite the many different techniques employed by these Chinese writers, one commonality remains the need to have a twist or unique ending. The vast majority of these stories lead up to an ending in which the true nature of a character is revealed, love conquers or fails, or one of the ironies of life is revealed. In his essay “The Art of Ending the Short Short Story” Sun Fangyou writes, ” If a short short story is to win by its size and length, it has to rely on its hidden meaning, condensing the most thought possible inside the smallest space available.” In other words each of these writers work to create an ending that will drive the point of their story home to the reader or reveal the hidden joke. A good example of this twist at the end occurs in Zhong Zemei’s “Bragging”. The story tells about an invention by a doctor that will allow people to brag more easily. Soon the world becomes obsessed with bragging and the doctor continued to perfect his machine. Eventually it is perfect, but just as it is finished his wife brags about how she invented the machine, not the doctor. In the end because the world can no longer differentiate between the truth and bragging the wife becomes famous instead of the doctor and all the doctor gets is a divorce.

Reading Chinese short stories can also provide a glimpse into Chinese culture. In Harry J. Huang’s anthology of Chinese Short Short Stories he divides the stories into 12 categories; Teasing in Life, Human Harmony, Loving Parents, Caring Children, Sweet Romances, Love in the Air, Missing the Heart, Broken Strings, Love Bubbles, Wits at Risk, Humans & Animals, and Ancient Stories. Through looking at the stories in each of these categories one can learn a little bit more about Chinese life. Both Teasing in Life and Wits at Risk deal mainly with incidents in life where assumptions prove to be false or one is required to think ones’ way out of a situation. In one story a suicide club ends up being about suicide prevention, a man who thinks he will be hit from a truck, hides at home only to have his home crushed by a runaway truck, and man sent to the country for his “Rightist” ways is unable to clear his name many years later because the government has no proof of his “Rightism”. The next three categories all deal with different aspects of Chinese family life, from disobedient children, to more modern issues of divorce and its effect on families. It is interesting to have stories about parents who sacrifice themselves for their children right next to a story about a young boy who in an attempt to make himself into a genius commits suicide. The next five categories deal with various forms of romances, between widows, divorces, young people, mistresses and widowers. Several of the stories stress the devotion of lovers even through incredible odds and one of the stories even tells the tragedy of a young couple who commit double suicide because of the HIV-positive status. Humans & Animals contains more traditional folk stories that deal with talking animals and their significant impact on human lives. Ancient Stories contains work by writers from the 5th century, the 4th century and the 17th century.

Overall I found reading these stories to be both interesting and bewildering. Sometimes a story would be confusing in its ending and despite the excellent English translation I could tell that I was missing a lot of the story. Other times I was really impressed by the modern issues covered in these stories including child suicide, AIDS and village corruption. This project allowed me read more deeply into Chinese literature and attempt my hand at some creative fiction. Previously I had only really worked with poetry, so I enjoyed the challenge of imitation some of the stylistic points I found in connection with Chinese short short stories.


  1. Hi Abbi,
    I read your review of An Anthology of Chinese Short Short Stories with great interest. I am considering the possibility of including it in my future work, such as essay(s), either in Chinese or English, or both. The only payment is a copy where your review appears, if it is published. If you agree, please let me know.

    Harry J. Huang

  2. In June 2019, Harry J. Huang published an anthology trilogy entitled A New Anthology of Chinese Short-Short Stories. The three books–each has its own subtitle– include the 121 stories of his first anthology published in 2005 which you have review, and 173 newly translated stories. Every one of the 294 stories was carefully selected and translated.

    The three books are available on Amazon.com

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