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  • Transnational Criticism and Asian Immigrant Literature in the U.S.:Reading Yan Geling's Fusang and Its English Translation
  • Wen Jin (bio)

Although the name Yan Geling may mean very little to U.S.–based academics, Yan is often commended by scholars in mainland China and Taiwan as one of the most important Chinese-language authors in the United States.1 Before she came to the U.S. as a student in 1989, Yan had published three novels in mainland China, where she was born in the late 1950s. During and after her study at Columbia College in Chicago for an MFA in fiction writing, she continued to write in Chinese, publishing award-winning short stories, novellas, and novels in the U.S., Taiwan, and mainland China.2 In 1995, she won a United Daily News Best Novel award for Fusang, a historical novel set in nineteenth-century San Francisco's Chinatown.3 The titular figure, Fusang, is abducted from a village in Guangzhou [End Page 570] (Canton), brought to the U.S. on a cargo ship, and sold into a Chinatown brothel. As a Chinatown prostitute, Fusang draws pleasure from all of her sexual encounters without becoming attached to any one of her johns. Presented as an enigma, Fusang solicits competing interpretations from both the various characters in the novel and its diverse audiences. In 2001, the novel was translated into English as The Lost Daughter of Happiness and published simultaneously in the United States and Great Britain.4

Written in Chinese about the transnational traffic in Chinese women and nineteenth-century Chinatown life, Fusang provides a prime example of how Chinese immigrant authors in the United States destabilize nation-based conceptions of literary genealogy, such as "American" literature and "Chinese" literature. As it has been translated into English and read in the country where most of the plot is set, the novel also resists literary categories based on language, such as "Sinophone" and "Anglophone" literature.5 Fusang, like many Chinese-language novels written in the contemporary U.S., is best accounted for by such hybrid categories as Asian American/immigrant literature or Asian diasporic literature, which, though beholden in many ways to nation-based and language-based modes of classifying literary texts, foreground how writings by Asians in the U.S. cross national, racial, and ethnic borders, as material objects as well as aesthetic forms.6 How do critics, then, interpret an Asian immigrant or diasporic text like Fusang in light of, but without being constrained by, the various critical contexts it inevitably travels across? What reading strategies can they use to lay bare as well as intervene in the political underpinnings of these critical contexts? This essay attempts to provide preliminary answers to these questions by considering, in relation to each other, [End Page 571] the characterization of the titular figure Fusang, the differences between the Chinese original and its English translation, and the critical responses the novel has generated in different contexts.

In examining the transnational circulation of Fusang, this essay is indebted to and in dialogue with scholars who have investigated how Asian American texts give rise to diverse critical discourses in different geographical contexts. Sau-ling Wong's important essays on Maxine Hong Kingston and Nie Hualing have illuminated the ways in which the academic politics of Taiwan and of mainland China shape the criticism of Chinese American texts there. Other scholars have discussed the American or overseas reception of U.S. ethnic authors, such as Filipino American writer Jessica Hagedorn, Pakistani diasporic writer Bapsi Sidhwa, and Korean American/immigrant writers Chang-rae Lee and Jay San Rhee.7 My essay uses the example of Yan Geling's novel to further complicate this emerging transnational mode of criticism in two important ways.

First, this essay draws attention to the textual alterations that accompany the novel's entry into different contexts. The English translator of Fusang and Yan's editor at Hyperion, for example, agreed to excise or shorten many passages in the Chinese novel, as well as to make the translation read, in the words of Cathy Silber, the translator, more like an "English-language novel."8 Passages that are removed from or abbreviated...


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