From 1980 to 1991, seven titles of Gulshan Nanda’s Hindi popular fiction were translated into Chinese without Western involvement, and Kaṭī pataṅg alone spawned nearly twenty adaptations in both theatrical and picture-story book forms. This essay argues that Nanda’s popular fiction contributed to China’s cultural reconstruction in the 1980s by fulfilling the previously repressed need of Chinese readers for entertaining novels that conveyed a desired moral order, by enabling Chinese translators of Indian literature to engage with the literary debate about the re-evaluation of popular literature, and by helping revitalize Chinese theatre in a time of crisis. This paper shows the complexity of transnational flows of popular literature by presenting a Trans-Asian example that relies on the melodramatic appeal of the works, their relevance to local issues, and the scholarly engagement in the host culture, rather than the author’s global stardom or the marketing strategies of multinational publishing companies.
1 Introduction: Gulshan Nanda’s Transnational Popularity and World Literature
When interviewed by a Chinese scholar in 1985, the leading Hindi author and a pioneer of the “Nayi Kahani” (New Short Story) literary movement, Rajendra Yadav (1929–2013), was appalled at the extraordinarily enthusiastic reception of Gulshan Nanda (1929–1985) – one of the best-selling writers of Hindi popular fiction in the 1960s and 1970s – in China. Labelling Nanda’s writings as “vulgar” and “formulaic,” Yadav suggested that the “international recognition” the Chinese translations had given to Nanda was a “heavy blow to India’s literary circles” (Yin 134).1 The interview was published in a respected Chinese literary journal in 1987, but Yadav’s polemic on behalf of “India’s literary circles” did little to curb Nanda’s continued popularity in China.
From 1980 to 1991, three novels and four novellas by Nanda were translated directly from Hindi into Chinese, among which Kaṭī pataṅg (The Severed Kite, 1968) alone sold 251,400 copies.2 Among Nanda’s works, Kaṭī pataṅg is particularly noteworthy, not only because it marked his debut in China and had the largest sales, but also because it led to an impressive body of theatrical and comic adaptations, a rare phenomenon of textual contact in the history of Chinese reception of modern Indian literature. Set in contemporary North India, Kaṭī pataṅg has a tangled plot about a runaway bride who lives in disguise as another woman, and the story spawned at least 14 theatrical adaptations and five lianhuanhua (picture book) adaptations in China in the 1980s and 1990s. The theatrical adaptations included ten in various forms of xiqu (indigenous Chinese opera), three in the form of huaju (modern Western-style drama) and one in gewuju (song-and-dance drama) form. These adaptations, as I will show, were not discrete practices inspired directly by the translated novel but rather developed along three parallel strands, each based on a “core adaptation.”
Before arriving in China, Gulshan Nanda’s novels had enjoyed great popularity across the Hindi hinterlands in the 1960s and 1970s. With over 50 titles to his name, Nanda was the most prolific and successful writers of Hindi popular fiction of his time, who redefined the notion of “bestseller” in the Hindi book market.3 However, world literature theorist Pascale Casanova would have hardly considered Nanda an author capable of gaining international influence given his lack of literary “consecration.”4
First, Nanda lacked the recognition of literary critics in India, let alone in the so-called “centers” of the international literary field, such as Paris, London, and New York. Yadav was not the only gatekeeper of contemporary Indian literature who viewed Nanda and the popular genre he represented with disdain. The noted novelist and journalist Khushwant Singh (1915–2014), echoing Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the cultural field as an “economic world reversed,” argued that although “monetarily successful,” Nanda had “no standing whatsoever in the Hindi-Hindustani world of letters” (Singh 268–69). As a result, Nanda does not appear in any literary history of India/Hindi, anthologies of modern Indian literature, noted literary awards, or other formal recognizing institutions that could bolster the cross-border transmission of his works.
What also accounts for Nanda’s lack of national consecration – and hence his limited potential to go abroad – was the lack of effective translation and circulation. Although available in a few non-Hindi vernaculars, such as Urdu and Marathi, Nanda’s works remained linguistically and geographically confined to particular parts of India, especially in the north and west. Despite the fact that five of Nanda’s novels had been translated into English by the 1970s (English translation is supposedly an effective method of consecration) and four published in Delhi, these translations circulated poorly even locally.5 The limited impact of these English translations is perhaps because they were produced by obscure translators and published by small local publishers that did not have the same distribution network and marketing strength as Nanda’s Hindi publishers, such as the Hind Pocket Books (Mandhwani Chapter 2). The failure to target a local audience made it even less likely that these English translations would capture a foreign readership.
However, the exceptional popularity of Gulshan Nanda’s novels in China from 1980 to the early 1990s defies Casanova’s theories on transnational textual flow. This was neither facilitated by Western or Indian literary gatekeepers’ consecration nor enabled by the translation into English or other dominant European languages. Rather, all the novels were selected on the basis of the Chinese translators’ own preference and interests, and they were translated directly from Hindi. It is equally striking that such a large-scale and multi-layered transnational literary phenomenon thrived completely without government involvement or the capital operation of international publishing houses.
Following David Damrosch’s definition, this essay treats Nanda’s popular fiction as having an undeniably “effective life as world literature,” because it was “actively present within another literary system beyond that of its original culture” (4; emphasis in original). However, I also intend to push Damrosch’s definition further by asking who decides what becomes world literature in a trans-Asian context – the host culture, the guest one, or the gatekeepers in Western Europe? If national and international consecration applied so little to Nanda’s case, what factors made his “afterlife” in China so “effective”? Does popular fiction become transnationally impactful for different reasons, compared to more “literary” genres?
In order to draw a clear picture of the Chinese reception of Gulshan Nanda, this essay looks at two different sets of texts – that is, literary translations and theatrical adaptations of Nanda’s popular fiction – from different methodological perspectives. My analysis of the literary translations, on which the theatrical adaptations were based, focuses mainly on paratextual elements (i.e. translators’ notes) rather than the translations themselves. This is not only because the original Hindi works, as my comparative reading suggests, were translated very faithfully, but also because the paratexts provide key information about the rationale behind the selection of Nanda in the first place. By contrast, my discussion of the adaptations pays primary attention to the adapted plays, because they contain distinct traces of textual metamorphosis that are not often explicitly stated in associated paratexts. My different ways of treating these two sets of texts help foreground the particular aspects of Nanda’s fiction that appealed to different kinds of Chinese readers, as well as how Chinese translators and adapters emphasized these aspects to make locally significant points. I argue that the spatial-temporal contingencies of the host culture – post-Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) China – are crucial to understanding Nanda’s cross-border popularity. Nanda’s novels, and Kaṭī pataṅg in particular, contributed to China’s cultural reconstruction in the 1980s in three ways: first, they fulfilled the previously repressed need of Chinese readers for entertaining novels that nonetheless conveyed a desired moral order; second, they enabled Chinese translators of Indian literature to introduce a newer image of India and engage with the wider debate in the Chinese literary field about the re-evaluation of popular fiction; and third, Kaṭī pataṅg helped revitalize Chinese theatre in a time of crisis by offering a compelling melodrama that could be adapted in multiple ways.
2 Kaṭī pataṅg: A Relevant Indian Melodrama
As the first translated, highest-selling, and most frequently adapted Gulshan Nanda novel in China, Kaṭī pataṅg epitomizes the constitutive elements of Nanda’s fiction and helps us understand its appeal. Following John Cawelti’s classification of genre-fiction formulas, I read Kaṭī pataṅg as an effective “melodrama” characterized by a combination of generic hybridity, intensified effects, and moral fantasy (44–47).
Kaṭī pataṅg blends three major genres of popular fiction: adventure, crime fiction and, to a greater extent, romance. Set in contemporary North India, the novel tells the story of a runaway bride, Anjana, and follows two entangled plotlines. The first plotline focuses on Anjana’s experiences by portraying how she is propelled by circumstances to live under the disguise of her dead friend Poonam, a widow, and how she falls victim to the blackmailing of her old lover Banvari, who sets her up as the poisoner of her father-in-law and leads to her imprisonment. The second plotline centers around the love relationship unfolding between Anjana and Kamal. Key moments of this plotline include Anjana’s realization of their mutual liking, her confession to Kamal in a letter which accidentally falls into the wrong hands, and Kamal’s decision to forgive Anjana for abandoning him on account of her good heart.
The novel thus offers more pleasure than a simple love story. For instance, the initial chapters read more like Anjana’s solo adventure, marked by her extensive travel and the many incidents she encounters en route. This physical journey later turns into a psychological one after Anjana settles in the villa under the disguise of Poonam. But the novel also reads like crime fiction, as the author presents a variety of thrilling elements typical of the genre, such as blackmailing, murder, plotting, counterplotting, and detection. Interestingly, while a policeman steps in to investigate the murder, it is Kamal who actually holds the “detective function” (Orsini 247–53). While the adventure episodes characterize Anjana as a brave and independent woman, the detective episodes focus on Kamal and portray him as an intelligent and chivalrous hero who travels back and forth to find witnesses, collect proofs, and sets up the counterplot that will eventually exonerate Anjana.
Another reason why Kaṭī pataṅg had a special hold on both Indian and Chinese readers is Gulshan Nanda’s deployment of melodramatic techniques to intensify the novel’s emotional effects, such as directing the reader’s attention towards key “moments of crisis” (Cawelti 264). Apart from a whirlwind of dramatic external crises like the train accident and the poisoning, Nanda ensures that the work affects the reader persuasively by introducing numerous internal crises that reveal the protagonist’s psychological dilemmas. Set episodically between external crises, these internal crises create interstitial spaces where the narrative temporarily pauses, and the reader can penetrate into the protagonist’s mental world. This objective is achieved mainly through spatial arrangements. Anjana’s bedroom, for instance, is a crucial space where she can enjoy momentary but important privacy. While offering an undisturbed place for Anjana to dodge public inspection, the bedroom is a place for her to look through without being looked at, and, most significantly, to stop acting as Poonam. The bedroom also enables nuanced depiction of her internal struggles through affecting soliloquy and detailed depiction of her facial expressions and actions with a camera-like movement. In fact, the cinematic nature of Kaṭī pataṅg made the novel highly adaptable. Many moments of crises, both internal and external, were used directly in the theatrical and lianhuanhua adaptations to maximize visual and emotional impact.
A third and final characteristic of melodrama is its “moral fantasy of showing forth the essential ‘rightness’ of the world order” (Cawelti 45). Like most melodramas, Kaṭī pataṅg supports the idea that “good is rewarded and evil is punished” by giving the story a happy ending after several acts suggesting that the good may in fact fail. For Anjana, the reward is two-fold: justice and romantic love. If we consider the timing of Kaṭī pataṅg’s appearance in China – only four years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, both justice and romantic love were important themes that might have led to the novel’s popularity, because they gave expression to feelings that had been repressed during the Cultural Revolution and contributed to the reconstruction of the moral order and humanism in post-Mao Chinese society.
First, personal and romantic love emphasized the importance of individual desires that had previously been subordinated to collectivism. Nanda’s depiction of the love between Anjana and Kamal is never sensuous. While eroticism is stressed in the villain’s hotel scenes, they never contain explicit sexual description and the author clearly suggests a relationship between love of carnal pleasure and moral decay. This controlled representation of individual love chimed with the generally puritanical and morally charged public discourse about love in China in the early 1980s, which would have made the novel at once tempting and officially acceptable. In fact, the novel’s moralistic potential for educating people about love, as we shall see below, was taken even further in the pingju adaptation.
Second, the emphasis on justice in Kaṭī pataṅg – in the sense that the innocent are ultimately exculpated while the guilty are punished – befit the political environment in China at the turn of the 1980s, which was marked by a movement called “bringing order out of chaos and distinguishing the true from the false” (boluan fanzheng). The way in which Kaṭī pataṅg attracted Chinese readers and spectators resembles the enthusiastic reception of the Hindi film Awaara (1951) in China in the late 1970s.6 In this film, the “depiction of justice resonated powerfully with people who had suffered through many political upheavals as well as the legal anarchy of the Cultural Revolution” (Conner 47). If Awaara impressed post-Mao Chinese people mostly for its call to use the law instead of bloodline as the criteria to define good and bad, Kaṭī pataṅg did so by emphasizing the importance of a person’s moral fiber and qualities expressed through interpersonal relationships, such as forgiveness, trust, and affection among family members, friends, and lovers. The fact that these values and relations had been challenged during the Cultural Revolution might have led Chinese readers to search for them in works of fiction. After all, the socio-political milieu at a particular juncture may substantially determine the way a text is read.7
Also noteworthy about the novel is its social fabric and the author’s treatment of social issues, particularly regarding women. As a heroine-oriented melodrama, Kaṭī pataṅg presents a narrative about widowhood under patriarchal pressures that is considered as “vraisemblable” because the characters’ “actions answer … to a body of maxims accepted as true by the public to which the narrative is addressed” (Genette 242). Although experience of widowhood in India varied greatly by this time, Nanda draws a plausible picture of the duties and responsibilities (zimmedārīs) widows were expected to fulfil by describing Anjana/Poonam’s selfless domestic life and showing how the seemingly big-hearted patriarch and society (samāj vāle) reacted when she behaves “unconventionally.” For instance, Anjana/Poonam is encouraged to go out, but there are clear boundaries that become verbalized once they are crossed, if she goes out walking alone or comes back too late. A widow’s re-marriage seems to be possible and even encouraged, but the father-in-law insists to marry her off “like a daughter,” not the widowed daughter-in-law, so as to maintain the family’s honor (izzat) (Nanda Kaṭī 164). At numerous places, the social perception of a widow’s remarriage is described in explicit terms: while Anjana/Poonam herself calls it a “sin” (pāp), Kamal’s father refers to a widow as a “moth-eaten apple” (ghun lag gayā seb) (Nanda Kaṭī 166, 171).
Gulshan Nanda’s depiction of the predicament of women, especially regarding widowhood and arranged marriage, were not unfamiliar to Chinese people in the early 1980s.8 In fact, they were used by Chinese critics, especially female critics, as a point of reference to activate a “relational comparison” (Shih) between the textual world and the world they lived in. In her assessment of the huju (Shanghai opera) adaptation of Kaṭī pataṅg in a 1984 article, Shen Weide praises Anjana’s escape from an arranged marriage and Kamal’s love for a widowed mother as rebellious attitudes toward “feudal” marriage. Referring to Anjana and Poonam by using the Chinese idiom “beautiful women are always ill-fated” (zigu hongyan duo boming), Shen also links their repressed subjectivity and dependence on men to a similar array of problems faced by Chinese women in pre-socialist times and, to a lesser extent, in the present. This self-reflexive reading process led to comments on the recent efforts by the Communist Party to enact new laws to protect women’s rights. In this respect, she regards Kaṭī pataṅg’s huju adaptation as an artistic piece that depicts Indian life but is also of practical relevance to China (Shen 41). Interestingly, while neither the novel nor its Hindi film adaptation shows if Anjana and Kamal will (and can) ultimately get married, almost all Chinese adaptations end with a wedding scene or agreement, suggesting that a conjugal union is underway. This alteration can be seen as the Chinese adapters’ way of providing a more unequivocal answer to the social questions Nanda’s novel raised.
3 Defending Popular Literature
Gulshan Nanda’s higher symbolic capital in China was due largely to the strong scholarly elements underpinning the translation of his novels. Nanda’s works became available in China mainly through academic channels, which resulted from China’s revived institutional effort to bolster Indian studies in the country. Although little is known about how Tang Shengyuan – the first Chinese to introduce Nanda by translating Kaṭī pataṅg – encountered the novel,9 it is clear that later translators obtained Nanda’s novels from the book collection at the South Asia Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The institute received subsidies to purchase books directly from India for research purposes from the late 1970s onward. Members of the institute enjoyed considerable freedom in selecting titles from the catalogues provided by Indian book dealers, and their selection of previously unintroduced authors like Nanda was often based on interest or “instinct.”10 The case of Gulshan Nanda shows how the Chinese reception of Indian literature in the post-Mao period departed from the values and practices of the 1950s, a decade of high socialism.11 Whereas translations of Indian literature, and foreign literature in general, during Mao’s time had been largely a state-driven affair, dominated by “progressive” authors with leftist orientation like Premchand and Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004) and largely dependent on “writerly contact” (Thornber 2) facilitated by cultural diplomacy, by contrast, translations of Gulshan Nanda epitomize the relatively loosened cultural environment in 1980s China, when translator-driven selection and market-oriented publication became possible.
As soon as texts become accessible in the host culture, the motivations for translation can be complex, and the case of Gulshan Nanda in China serves as a good example. To be sure, regarding academic translators as creative intermediaries does not invalidate their roles as pleasure-seeking readers. In fact, the two translators I interviewed both emphasized that their enjoyment of Nanda’s novels was a crucial impetus to their translation, which is proof of the effectiveness of Nanda’s melodrama, as shown above.12 However, some more intellectual considerations were also at work.
One of the main reasons why the younger generation of Chinese Hindi specialists chose Gulshan Nanda was their shared intention to introduce a younger image of India by translating novels set in the contemporary period and pay attention to recent social changes in India. This choice reflected the renewed public interest of China in the current affairs of India after nearly two decades of ignorance caused by the break-up of Sino-Indian relations and the domestic turmoil in China.13 From the perspective of expectation, Nanda’s melodramas are ideal texts to fulfill this purpose, because they thematically and aesthetically depart but not completely break away from formerly favored progressive Indian novels, thus generating a combined sense of novelty and familiarity. To take Kaṭī pataṅg as an example: centered on an upper middle-class Hindu family located in Nainital, a small town that had been a British hill station, the novel portrays a refined social setting of postcolonial India that combines tradition and modernity. On the one hand, time and again we encounter various signs of Hindu tradition, such as arranged marriage, the chaste widow and a woman’s propriety (maryādā), which are frequently dealt with in Premchand’s works. On the other hand, Kaṭī pataṅg demonstrates genteel and modern social interaction centered around clubs, birthday parties, western music, speaking English, drinking tea (not chai) and coffee, which may appear attractive to Chinese readers who had known India primarily in terms of its ancient history, rural society and religious thoughts.
As a result, there is a special function conferred on Nanda’s popular fiction in Chinese translation that would have escaped his Hindi readers: in China, Nanda’s novels were treated as epistemological pathways to, and ethnographic accounts of, contemporary India. This explains the seriousness Chinese translators demonstrated in presenting Nanda’s novels: they adopted a meticulous translation style to enable a precise representation of details; they wrote prefaces that highlighted the author’s engagement with social themes; and they inserted footnotes to explain cultural specificities and religious references, such as mehendi and Shiva, despite the fact that these entertaining stories ought to be read with uninterrupted pleasure. In fact, this added ethnographic value seems to have often characterized the transcultural flows of popular fiction and applied not only to transnational scenarios like China-India but also to translingual ones within the same country (Gupta 169).
Interestingly, in terms of production quality, pricing, and location of sale, the Chinese translations of Nanda’s works bore little difference from those of canonized modern Indian writers. For instance, Nanda’s Kaṭī pataṅg and Premchand’s Gaban (Embezzlement, 1931), were brought out by the same publishing house in the early 1980s, printed on the same kind of paper in similar format, priced at the same level (about 0.38 yuan per 100,000 words), and sold side by side in bookstores. This comparison suggests that the structural difference between popular fiction and “high-brow” literary fiction was obfuscated in the Chinese translations of Indian literature (and perhaps other foreign literatures). However, the blurred line between the two categories should not be interpreted as the translators and publishers’ ploy to sell popular fiction as “highbrow” masterpieces. Rather, most Chinese versions of Nanda’s novels positioned themselves unambiguously as “popular fiction” (tongsu xiaoshuo) by including prefaces or translator’s notes that defended the genre as intellectually and artistically rewarding. In this way, the translators of Gulshan Nanda self-consciously engaged with one of the most vibrant literary debates in 1980s China: the debate about re-evaluating popular literature.
The opening up of Chinese literary sphere following the end of the Cultural Revolution enabled previously repressed popular genres – romances, thrillers, detective novels, and martial arts fiction – to resurface and develop in the 1980s (Link Chapter 5&6). Yet the enthusiastic consumption of popular texts, both Chinese and foreign, also faced difficulties. For example, formerly dominant literary ideologies lingered as some hardline leftist cultural authorities continued to indiscriminately label popular fiction as “unhealthy,” “backward” and “detrimental to the development of socialist Chinese literature.”14 This tendency gradually weakened in the 1980s due to increasingly tolerant social culture and decreasing political intervention in literary production. According to Wu and Yu, the evolution of popular literature in China during this decade can be divided into three phases. The germination phase (late 1970s–1982) was mainly marked by a revalorization and republication of old popular works deemed “harmful” during the Cultural Revolution. The flourishing period (1983–1986) witnessed the emergence of a large number of periodicals specializing in popular literature, the enthusiastic introduction of martial arts fiction and romance from regions like Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the development of critical discourse about popular literature facilitated by relevant scholars, magazines and seminars. What follows was the maturing phase (from 1987 onward), which featured establishment of several national-level organizations devoted to the writing and studying of popular literature as well as a systemization of theoretical debate about the genre (45–60). However, as popular fiction grew into a highly profitable business in the mid-1980s, a wave of illegal books and periodicals that featured pornographic and violent content proliferated in the marketplace, leading to the state’s nationwide “anti-pornography, anti-illegal publications” (saohuang dafei) campaign in 1989. The ephemeral but strong presence of these publications led to the stigmatization of popular fiction as a whole. Meanwhile, a considerable number of Chinese writers and critics, echoing Rajendra Yadav, held the idea that popular fiction was intrinsically inferior to “refined literature” (ya wenxue). This disparaging attitude towards popular fiction met with challenges from a broad group of literary practitioners and I see the translators of Gulshan Nanda as integral to them.
As critical discourse about the values of popular literature mainly started from the mid-1980s or the flouring phase, it is understandable that the translation of Kaṭī pataṅg, published in 1980, did not engage critically with the genre at all. Rather, it was Xue Keqiao’s preface to his 1991 translation of Nanda’s Sisakte sāz (Sobbing Musical Instruments, 1971) that proves to be a good example of intervention in the debate on popular literature. In the preface, Xue expounds on the controversial reception of Nanda in India, highlighting the polarization of his image between “an excellent novelist most favored by the people” and an oft-criticized figure “kept away from the literary gates” (I). For Xue, Nanda’s case is quintessential of the paradoxical situation a popular fiction writer faces in any culture. Reflecting upon the refined/unrefined (ya/su) binary, Xue argues:
The reason [why Gulshan Nanda’s novels have been off-limits in India’s literary circles] is simply because what he wrote is popular fiction (tongsu xiaoshuo), something that has been charged with “not appealing to refined tastes.” Here, the refined and the unrefined are pitted against each other. However, no literature has been absolutely refined or absolutely unrefined at any time and in any place. Isn’t our Shijing (The Book of Songs) refined? It has been hailed as a classic because it appeared extremely refined to later generations. But among the three parts that constitute Shijing, feng (ballads) is unrefined compared to ya (odes) and song (hymns). Don’t the Vedic Saṃhitās of India look extremely refined? They do, in the eyes of later generations, hence their status as sacred books. But they nonetheless contain a good deal of unrefined lyrics orally composed by uncultured people in ancient times. In today’s China and India alike, there are some people who produce unrefined writings but instead sell them as refined literature. Yet it is the same group of writers who show no sympathy for what they call “unrefined literature.” This is unjust and intolerable.Xue I–II
Xue questions the arbitrary division of literature into the two oppositional categories of refined and unrefined. Using examples of ancient literary texts both Chinese and Indian, he further suggests that the division between the two categories is historically mutable and conceptually ambivalent. It can even become politically manipulated as the authority to define what is (un)refined is often held by literary gatekeepers. While many Chinese advocates of popular fiction tried to defend the genre within the refined/unrefined framework (Hu “Yasu”), Xue’s defence is exceptional because he proposes doing away with the framework altogether. Instead, upholding the triad of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” (zhen shan mei) as a better set of criteria, Xue suggests that appraisals should be made on the basis of a work’s specific aspects such as theme, characterization, and emotional effects rather than abstract taxonomies.
4 Between Indianization and Indigenization: Staging Kaṭī pataṅg
The impact of Gulshan Nanda’s popular aesthetics on Chinese culture was not limited to the realm of literature but also penetrated into other artistic practices such as theatre, thus making this transnational phenomenon a trans-generic one as well. During the 1980s, Kaṭī pataṅg spread extensively in the theatrical sphere of China along three parallel strands, each based on a “core adaptation” with a specific strategy of representation. The three “core adaptations” belonged respectively to the western-style huaju (spoken drama) and two indigenous forms of Chinese opera – pingju (ping opera) and huju (Shanghai opera). All received positive reactions from theatre-goers and critics alike.15 That these different theatrical forms all turned to Indian popular fiction in 1983 without the sign of mutual influence shows how Chinese theatre practitioners tried to renovate their repertoire in a time of crisis.
Chinese theatre began to undergo severe setbacks in the early 1980s, partly because of the popularization of films and television and partly because of the decline of government funding due to policies of economic reform (Yang). Under such circumstances, playwrights and directors drew on foreign works to attract spectators. While the plays by canonical western dramatists like Shakespeare were the ones most enthusiastically adapted, the example of Kaṭī pataṅg proved that Indian popular fiction was no less inspirational a source for creating thematically and formally appealing adaptations. Following Linda Hutcheon, I treat each “core adaptation” of Kaṭī pataṅg as “a creative and an interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging” (8). In the following pages, I focus on the huaju and pingju adaptations for they demonstrate two substantially different strategies of appropriation – Indianization and indigenization.
The huaju adaptation Duanxian fengzheng (The Severed Kite, 1983) by Wang Yansong and Chen Yuhang from Shenyang Huaju Troupe, Indianized the novel in a highly self-conscious way.16 In this case, Indianization not only meant the preservation of cultural-specific signifiers such as the names of characters, places, and objects but also entails an increase of the “sense of India” by bringing in new elements such as Indian-style songs and dances. The huaju form, featuring realistic spoken dialogue, allows the insertion of these elements, which is less possible for indigenous operatic forms characterized by relatively fixed singing and performing conventions. A valid explanation for the adoption of the Indianization strategy is that the late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed an increased public interest in Indian culture shaped by the countrywide release of Hindi movies, Awaara in particular (Conner).
The Indianization of works in the huaju adaptation first presents all the names of characters and locales in transliterated form as they appear in the translated novel. Moreover, new and more well-known locales are introduced – such as the passenger to Agra and the “Oriental Express” to Bombay in the railway station scene – in order to reconstruct an imaginary geographical canvas of India, in which the story is more familiarly anchored. Occasionally, Indianization operates in the huaju adaptation through a subtler strategy of foreignizing Chinese elements. In one scene, Anjana/Poonam’s in-laws, Lala Jagannath and Shanti, try to persuade Kamal to embrace re-marriage:
Wang and Chen Act 3
Do not let unnecessary thoughts further confuse your mind. “Once bitten by a snake, ten years in fear of a well rope” (yizhao bei she yao, shinian pa jingsheng) is certainly not a good attitude.
That’s what Chinese people say.
Chinese people are good at drawing lessons from experiences. I think the saying describes Kamal’s situation well.
This is a strategy that distances the audience and brings it closer at the same time. On the one hand, it reaffirms the Indian setting within the textual world of the play by identifying China as the foreign and unfamiliar. On the other hand, the evocation of a well-known local proverb immediately establishes an extra-textual fraternity between the Indian characters and the Chinese audience.
Like the adaptation, acting was also considered an important part of the Indianizing process. The portrayal of Indian characters involved more than wearing traditional Indian costumes and imitating basic moves of Indian dance. As most of the huaju adaptations were associated with Shanghai Theatre Academy which followed the Stanislavskian approach, the acting method prevailing in China’s theatre training in the 1980s (Yang 171), actors were meant to “experience” the roles and the culture they inhabit before acting on stage. With little agency to go to India at the time, the Chinese actors drew upon various local India-related resources – legacies of the previous China-India cultural contacts ranging from contemporary theatrical and film exchanges to ancient translocation of Buddhism – to create opportunities of cultural immersion and gain familiarity with “Indian” life. For example, prior to performing Duanxian fengzheng, the students at Shanghai Theatre Academy imitated the acting of imported Indian movies like Awaara, studied an earlier Chinese performance of Kalidasa’s Sanskrit play Abhijñānaśakuntalā (The Recognition of Shakuntala, c. 500 CE), and visited a local Buddhist temple (Dai 185). The mixture of heterogeneous elements indicates that “India” was then conceived by Chinese people generally as one whole, rather than in terms of social, cultural and linguistic specificities.
A different type of cultural immersion was employed in preparing the caidiaoju (color tune opera) adaptation of Kaṭī pataṅg in the southwestern province of Guangxi. Here the actors visited a local Overseas Chinese Farm (huaqiao nongchang), where some Chinese nationals expelled from India after the 1962 border conflict and their relatives of Indian descent had settled. Through interviews, the actors gained better knowledge of the customs, religious beliefs, and moral outlook of the “Indian people” (Dai 232). As these examples suggest, the Chinese reception of Kaṭī pataṅg should not be considered merely as a 1980s phenomenon, but one that is anchored in the longer history of Sino-Indian relations.
Unlike the huaju adaptation, the pingju adaptation Feng luo wutong (A Phoenix Landing on a Wutong Tree, 1983) engages a completely different strategy: an indigenizing strategy that naturalizes the Indian story to fit the Chinese context in general and the artistic structure of pingju in particular. Pingju is a traditional operatic form from the central north of mainland China, which is less enthusiastic about staging contemporary life and incorporating foreign themes than southeastern China (where huju, Shanghai Opera, is from) and some other traditional operas of the coastal areas. With the setting transmuted from contemporary India to ancient China (roughly the Ming Dynasty), Feng luo wutong was a truly novel creation for pingju practitioners and fans alike in the early 1980s. The transformation is so dramatic that no trace of India can be found in the adaptation. Consequently, there was little room for formal experiments with Indian elements, as in the huaju case. This suggests that Kaṭī pataṅg was attractive to Chinese adapters not only for its “exotic” cultural trappings but also for its melodramatic narrative.
In keeping with a major principle of Chinese indigenous theatrical arts that a good work should provide education in the form of entertainment (yu jiao yu le), the pingju adapters highlighted the moral aspects of the narrative. In addition to justice and evil, they stressed the contrast between physical attraction and moral scruples in pursuing love. As one of the adapters recollected, the idea of writing Feng luo wutong did not come directly from reading the translation of Kaṭī pataṅg but from a discomfort with the “unhealthy trend” popular among Chinese youngsters to increasingly favor appearance over integrity when choosing their partners (Wang 24). Kaṭī pataṅg was appealing, because its narrative at heart was about a woman’s relationship with two men of contrasting moral standing. In order to achieve their educational aim, the adapters made the good-looking man bad and the unattractive one good, and they made the heroine, attracted to the former at the beginning, ultimately choose the latter.
Indigenizing Kaṭī pataṅg entailed replacing certain objects and places with things that could match the ancient Chinese setting; for instance, the train was turned into a donkey chart and the police station the county court (xianya), an important local judicial institute in Imperial China. In a more sophisticated example of indigenization, the characters were renamed – Anjana became Zhang Jinfeng (“jinfeng” literarily means “golden phoenix” and suggests her beauty and noble ancestry) and Kamal, Wu Tong, a homophony for wutong – the Chinese term for Chinese parasol tree. According to Chinese folklore, although plain in appearance, wutong is the only type of tree on which the phoenix lands. By aptly weaving the names of the heroine and hero into the title “Feng luo wutong,” which means a phoenix landing on a wutong tree, the adapters used the Chinese allusion to foreshadow the union of the couple. From this highly referential naming system, the average educated Chinese theatre-goer could readily extract a wealth of information about the physical features and moral fiber of the characters and their mutual relationship even before seeing the performance.
While representing the story of Kaṭī pataṅg with stock pingju arias, dances, and acting techniques, the adapters also experimented with endangered indigenous artistic forms to meet certain narrative and aesthetic ends. Like the novel, Feng luo wutong climaxes with a direct confrontation between the good characters and the villains, with the heroine first being falsely accused and then proven innocent. As a result of contraction, the pingju adapters merged the novel’s final scenes – Anjana’s questioning at the police station, Kamal’s investigative effort, and the counterplot and arrest in the hotel room – into a single act that takes place in the county court, where the melodramatic “moral fantasy” plays out. In order to avoid didacticism, the adapters drew upon the theatrical form shuanghuang – where one actor speaks behind a chair, while the actor in the front acts out the story – to turn the trial scene into a comedy. Though the history of shuanghuang dates back to the Qing Dynasty, it had rarely appeared on stage during the Cultural Revolution and was almost a “lost art” by the early 1980s (Wei and Zhou 7).
The shuanghuang scene is performed by Wu Tong and the County Magistrate Hu as Jinfeng is about to receive court trial. Like Wu Tong, Hu is extremely upright, but physically ill-favored, intertextualizing the famous historical/literary figure Judge Bao. Since Hu begins to stammer badly as the case gets increasingly complicated, Wu Tong decides to hide behind him to speak and let him perform, which enhances the role-playing twist in the novel. In order to allow Jinfeng to tell the truth, Wu Tong/Hu threatens her with punishment, but without the intention of seeing it through. Through her response in a 49-line aria, Jinfeng recounts the entire story and reveals her love for Wu Tong:
I dare not conspire to murder anyone for their money.
I changed my name only to keep my promise to a friend.
Let me tell you the whole story.
Don’t be afraid! [Wu Tong darts out to cover Hu’s
mouth, while Hu pushes Wu Tong back, hurriedly]
Oh, my beloved Wu,
I hope you’ll readily forget me,
May an ideal spouse accompany you for a lifetime.
[Deeply moved, Wu Tong steps out. Magistrate Hu pulls him back in position.]
Li et al. 118–20
No gourd is perfectly round, just as no one is perfectly good. As long as you acknowledge your mistake, I will still love you …
[Shaking his hands quickly in disapproval] No, no! [Zhang Jinfeng transfixed]
[Correcting himself] No, I mean, I will not blame you!
As we can see, the shuanghuang scene enables Wu Tong to be present without being physically visible. The humor of the shuanghuang mainly plays out through what I call “momentary breaches of contract” – a slip of the tongue or a failure in hiding due to the characters’ uncontrollable thoughts and emotions. In this way, the moralistic message “no gourd is perfectly round, just as no one is perfectly good” is conveyed in an entertaining way.
The influx of Gulshan Nanda’s Hindi popular fiction into 1980s China marks a significant episode of modern China-India literary relations, not just because of the sheer scale of its circulation but, more importantly, because of its deep penetration into and interaction with local cultural practices. Arguably, the only Indian writer who had ever enjoyed this level of popularity among Chinese people is Tagore. Starting as a scholarly initiative in the literary field and contributing to the rejuvenation of Chinese theatre, the cross-generic trajectories of Nanda’s melodrama in translation and adaptation further raised his literary stature in China. In a 2006 Chinese anthology of twentieth-century Indian classics (Hu Yindu), the works by Gulshan Nanda appeared side by side with those by Rajendra Yadav, Nanda’s fierce critic. Adopting the idea that popular fiction and modern classics are not two exclusive categories, the editor appreciates Nanda’s skillful combination of storytelling and social criticism and also recognizes the melodramatic elements in Yadav’s seemingly modernist short stories. The striking juxtaposition of Nanda and Yadav in a Chinese anthology of modern Indian literature – a phenomenon almost unheard of in the Indian context – shows that the sharp antithesis between popular literature and high-brow literature established in their home culture can become destabilized in a foreign culture. One factor that contributes to this is that when received transculturally with an expectation for ethnographic details or as “windows into foreign worlds” (Damrosch 15), popular texts often gain an extra layer of significance in the host culture.
This essay has engaged with world literature scholarship by foregrounding two lesser-explored topics: the spatial-temporal configuration of contemporary China-India relations, and the genres of popular literature. In the first case, I suggest that China and India in the second half of the twentieth century constituted a “significant geography” (Laachir et al.) that was no less dynamic than that of the colonial period, which has received some scholarly attention (Das; Mangalagiri). In my view, China-India forms a fascinating transregional Asian context that merits further exploration. While they belong to separate “world regions” (Lewis and Wigen 157–88) – East Asia and South Asia – characterized by distinct cultural and linguistic differences, they have shared historical legacies and faced similar developmental challenges. As we have seen in the Chinese reception of Kaṭī pataṅg, it was the text’s potential to activate an interplay between unfamiliar cultural trappings and familiar social issues that engendered curious and productive literary contact, even though the geopolitical relationship between the two countries remained competitive. This argument could also explain the recent craze of Chinese audience for Aamir Khan’s Hindi melodramas – consider how Dangal (2017) addresses serious issues like women’s struggle in a patriarchal society and authoritarian parenting through a story largely located in a North Indian village. Linking Kaṭī pataṅg to Dangal not only charts a peculiar Trans-Asian trajectory of popular aesthetics, but also shows that Asia works as an “imaginary anchoring point” and a self-rebuilding method (Chen 212) not just as an abstract formulation but also in practice.
As to the second area of inquiry, this essay expands the scope of the 2017 book Crime Fiction and World Literature, which focuses on highly canonical western authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and the Scandinavian authors who recently became a phenomenon. This focus seems to suggest that the transnational flow of crime fiction – and of popular fiction in general – is possible only when the writer enjoys global stardom or benefits from the “globalized mediascape of contemporary popular culture” (Nilsson et al 3). The example of Gulshan Nanda enriches our understanding of popular literature as world literature by offering a different paradigm in which the author had no precedent global reputation before entering the host culture, and the travel of his popular texts was not managed by multinational publishing companies. Scholarly driven and commercially channeled, the Chinese reception of Nanda’s popular fiction was instead a result of its melodramatic appeal and relevance to local issues as well as the enthusiastic engagement of local cultural agents. The wider argument arising from this case study is that the transnational circulation of popular fiction constitutes its own kind of world literature, governed by different rules, dynamics, and channels from those of high literature.
I thank Prof. Francesca Orsini for her insightful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I also thank the reviewers for their suggestions, from which I have benefitted a lot. This research is supported by the China Scholarship Council.
Translations are mine unless stated otherwise.
In fact, Nanda is the second most translated Hindi author in China, second only to Premchand (1880–1936), the father of modern Hindi fiction. The translation of Nanda’s popular fiction into mandarin Chinese has also led to the translation of a few titles into minority ethnic languages like Mongolian and Uighur. The intra-China translingual reception of Nanda further confirms the broad appeal of his writing to readers from diverse cultural backgrounds.
While previously a Hindi novel would qualify as a “bestseller” with a print run of 3,000–5,000 copies, the first print order for Nanda’s Jhīl ke us pār (The Other Side of the Lake, 1971) reached 500,000 copies, “a phenomenon unheard of in Indian publishing history” (A Staff Reporter 5).
For Casanova, “consecration” is an act of granting literary capital that allows a work from the “peripheries” to enter into world literature. She argues that “critical recognition and translation are weapons in the struggle by and for literary capital,” and Paris is “the chief place of consecration in the world of literature” (17–21, 23, 127).
The five translated titles are: Air Hostess (Ṭuṭe paṃkh, 1968), Frozen Lips (Patthar ke hoṃṭh, 1967), Love at Crossroads (Kaṭī pataṅg, 1972), Neel amal (Nīl kamal, 1968) and The Sinner (Kalaṃkinī, 1969). According to Ghosh (9), Gulshan Nanda was in fact the Hindi writer whose novels had been most frequently translated into English by the mid-1990s. However, an English-reading elite living in Delhi in the 1990s, who craved Nanda’s novels, was simply unable to find any of these English translations (Kesavan).
Awaara was first screened in China in 1955. Re-released in 1979, the film evoked much more fervent response from the Chinese audience than it did in the 1950s.
This argument is supported by a comparison between the way in which Premchand’s Godān (The Gift of a Cow, 1936) was interpreted by Chinese readers in the 1950s and in the 1980s. In the preface to his 1958 translation of Godān, Yan Shaoduan’s interpretive focus was on the novel’s depiction of the plight of the Indian peasantry. However, in a 1980 article by Shi Zhujun, Yan’s wife, in memory of her husband who had been labelled a “class enemy” and died in a labour camp during the Cultural Revolution, the author recounted how she was separated from Yan and forced to expose his “crimes.” This experience led to a new approach to the text: when re-reading it after a decade of catastrophe caused by the Gang of Four, Shi was now deeply touched by the enduring love between the novel’s protagonist Hori and his wife, Dhaniya (Shi 114).
Although a new marriage law had been in practice since 1950 which prohibited interference with the remarriage of widows and emphasized free choice of partners, these problems still existed in the 1980s, especially in rural areas and small towns, and frequently appeared in the public discourse of China. See, for example, Ren.
The translation’s paratexts provide nothing but a brief synopsis of the novel. The only information about Tang I have gathered is that he joined the Hindi division of Radio Beijing (today’s China Radio International) in the late 1970s after studying Hindi at Beijing Broadcasting College (today’s Communication University of China). Interview with Trinetra Joshi, 20 Oct. 2017.
Interview with Xue Keqiao, 19 Jul. 2016.
Chinese translation of modern Indian literature came to a halt after the 1962 border conflict between the two countries and was restored in the late 1970s (Jiang and Jia).
My interview with Xue Keqiao on 19 Jul. 2016, and with Zhou Zhikuan on 19 Sep. 2016.
The Sino-Indian border war in 1962 led to a serious setback in bilateral relations, which became normalized in 1976 when the two countries restored ambassadorial relations.
For the attack of Feng Zhi, a veteran translator of German literature, on the journal Yilin’s (Translation Grove) publication of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (1937) in 1979, see Li.
The success of the three core adaptations spawned over ten further adaptations in other theatrical forms across the country. The huaju adaptation became part of the curriculum at Shanghai Theatre Academy in 1985 for training huaju actors and directors and was adapted into caidiaoju in Guangxi and into musical form in Sichuan. The huju adaptation produced by Shen Ying at Taicang Huju Troupe later became available in other popular operatic forms in Eastern China, including yueju, yongju, and xiju. The pingju version, created by Shijiazhuang Pingju Troupe in North China, inspired adaptations in Beijing Opera as well as Southern theatrical traditions like qiongju in Hainan and hanju in Guangdong. All these adaptations of Kaṭī pataṅg emerged in the 1980s, among which the huju version continued to be staged in the early 2010s.
Due to the unavailability of the original version, my analysis of the huaju adaptation is based on an unpublished version used in a 1985 performance by a group of students at Shanghai Theatre Academy. The two versions were produced by the same playwrights.
A Staff Reporter. “Paperback Sale Up by 200 Per Cent.” The Times of India 17 Jun. 1971, 5.
Casanova, Pascale. The World Republic of Letters. Trans. M.B. Debevoise. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005.
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Chen, Kuan-Hsing. Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2010.
Conner, Alison W. “Trials and Justice in Awaara: A Post-colonial Movie on Post-revolutionary Screens?” Law Text Culture 18 (2014), 33–55.
Dai Ping. Chuying de jiyi: Shanghai xiju xueyuan peiyang shaoshu minzu yishu rencai jishi 1959–2006 (The memories of young hawks: A chronicle of the training of artistic talents from minority ethnic groups at Shanghai Theatre Academy, 1959–2006). Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 2007.
Damrosch, David. What is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003.
Das, Sisir Kumar. “The Controversial Guest: Tagore in China.” China Report 29:3 (1993), 237–73.
Genette, Gérard. “ ‘Vraisemblance’ and Motivation.” Trans. David Gorman. Narrative 9:3 (2001) , 239–58.
Ghosh, Dipali, ed. Translation of Hindi Works into English: A Bibliography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1995.
Gupta, Suman. “Big Issues around A Small-scale Phenomenon: Vernacular Pulp Fiction in English Translation for Indian Readers.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 48:1 (2013), 159–75.
Hu Guangfan. “Yasu gongshang bian” (On appealing to both refined and unrefined tastes). Qiusuo 2 (1989), 80–85.
Hu Guangli, ed. Yindu ershi shiji jingdian xiaoshuo (Twentieth-century Indian classics in fiction). Ha’erbin: Ha’erbin chubanshe, 2006.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.
Jiang Jingkui and Jia Yan. “The History of the Production of India-related Knowledge in Post-1950 China.” History Compass 16:4 (2018). Web. 20 Jun. 2019.
Kesavan, Mukul. “Kamala’s Agony.” Outlook India 30 Jun. 2008. Web. 20 Jun. 2019.
Laachir, Karima, Sara Marzagora, and Francesca Orsini. “Significant Geographies: In Lieu of World Literature.” Journal of World Literature 3:3 (2018), 290–310.
Lewis, Martin W. and Kären E. Wigen. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Li Jingrui. “Waiguo wenxue chuban de yiduan bozhe (Some twists and turns in the publication of foreign literature).” Chuban shiliao 2 (2005), 28–37.
Li Yongxin, Wang Fuquan, and Ma Youtian. “Feng luo wutong (A phoenix landing on a wutong tree).” Shijiazhuang xiju 4 (1984), 87–124.
Link, Eugene Perry. The Uses of Literature: Life in the Socialist Chinese Literary System. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.
Mandhwani, Aakriti. Everyday Reading: Commercial Magazines and Book Publishing in Post-Independence India. 2018. SOAS, University of London. PhD dissertation.
Mangalagiri, Adhira. At the Limits of Comparison: Literary Encounters Between China and India in the Colonial World. 2017. University of Chicago, PhD dissertation. Web. 20 Jun. 2019.
Nanda, Gulshan. Duanxian fengzheng (The severed kite). Trans. Tang Shengyuan. Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin chubanshe, 1980.
Nanda, Gulshan. Kaṭī pataṅg (The severed kite). Delhi: Hind Pocket Books, 1968.
Nilsson, Louise, David Damrosch, and Theo D’haen, eds. Crime Fiction as World Literature. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Orsini, Francesca. Print and Pleasure: Popular Literature and Entertaining Fictions in Colonial North India. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2009.
Ren Guojun. “Lue lun fengjian hunyin zai dangqian de biaoxian ji weihai (On present manifestations of feudal marriage and their harmfulness).” Zhengfa luntan 1 (1980), 72–78 & 23.
Shen Weide. “Yibu yiguo qingdiao de chuanqi: xi du huju Duanxian fengzheng (A Chuanqi of exotic character: A pleasant reading of the Huju Duanxian fengzheng).” Jiangsu xiju 6 (1984), 40–42.
Shi Zhujun. “Chongdu Gedan yi Shaoduan (Rereading Godān in memory of shaoduan).” Dushu zazhi 11 (1980), 113–18.
Shih, Shu-mei. “World Studies and Relational Comparison.” PMLA 130:2 (2015), 430–38.
Singh, Rahul, ed. Khushwant Singh’s View of India. Bombay: IBH Publishing Company, 1974.
Thornber, Karen Laura. Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009.
Wang Fuquan. “Pingju Feng luo wutong de bianxie qianhou (The process of adapting Feng luo wutong).” Shijiazhuang xiju 4 (1984), 24–25.
Wang Xianpei and Yu Kexun, eds. Bashi niandai zhongguo tongsu wenxue (Popular literature in 1980s China). Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe, 1995.
Wang Yansong and Chen Yuhang. Duanxian fengzheng (The severed kite). Unpublished Huaju Adaptation of Kaṭī Pataṅg. Shanghai: Shanghai xiju xueyuan, 1985.
Wei Xikui and Zhou Huan. “Qiaozuo chuxin xi dongren: Shijiazhuang shi pingju tuan yanchu guangan (An innovative and touching play: My impression of Shijiazhuang Pingju Troupe’s performance).” Shijiazhuang xiju 4 (1984), 7–8.
Xue Keqiao. “Yizhe xu (Translator’s note).” In Huan wo xiangsi zhai (Pay me the debt of lovesickness). Trans. Xue Keqiao. Beijing: Zhongguo guangbo dianshi chubanshe, 1991, I–V.
Yang, Daniel S.P. “Theatre Activities in Post-Cultural Revolution China.” In Drama in the People’s Republic of China, eds. Constantine Tung and Colin Mackerras. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987, 164–80.
Yin Tong. “Yibu yindu fanyi xiaoshuo yinqi de fankui (The feedback triggered by a translated Indian novel).” Waiguo wenxue pinglun 2 (1987), 134.