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Reviewed by:
  • The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai
  • Chloë Starr (bio)
Han Bangqing . The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai. Translated by Eileen Chang, revised and edited by Eva Hung. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. xxviii, 592 pp. Hardcover $29.50, ISBN 0-231-12268-9.

The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai (Haishang hua liezhuan, more frequently translated as Biographies of Shanghai Flowers) is a work beloved of literary critics. However, as even Eileen Chang, the original translator of this edition of Han Bangqing's novel notes, it was "not a bestseller when first published in 1892" (p. xxi). Eileen Chang's own English translation of the novel comes to us posthumously, "unearthed" among her papers held at the University of Southern California. Chang's two-volume translation of Han's novel into modern standard Chinese, with the spoken sections rendered intelligible to readers beyond Shanghai, had been successfully published in 1983, and this English version stems from around the same time. We might infer that she did not wish this translation to see the light of print: it is clear from Eva Hung's revisions that this was a major task.

The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai is one of the first examples of modern installment publishing in China, appearing serially in the journal Haishang qishu, edited by the author Han Bangqing himself, before the magazine folded and the chapters were published as a full novel. Patrick Hanan, David Der-wei Wang, Alexander Des Forges, and Catherine Yeh have all written at length about this book: as a "city" or Shanghai novel, as an example of "depravity fiction," as an exemplar of innovative narrative structures, as one of the forerunners of Wu dialect novels. The novel certainly has its fans: David Der-wei Wang in his foreword calls it "the greatest late Qing courtesan novel" (p. ix) and claims it may well be "the greatest work of nineteenth-century fiction." For those of us who teach late Qing fiction, it is immensely helpful to have the novel translated for use in undergraduate courses where students do not have sufficient reading facility in Chinese. Of the genre commonly termed "courtesan," "depravity," or "red-light" fiction, there still is only one full novel in English to assign. Qing fiction is a growth area of study, and the importance of having a selection of novels available in English is difficult to overstate. With a growing body of extremely interesting work on both historical and literary themes relating to courtesans-in gender studies, on opium, modernity, or fashion in the Qing-this is a timely translation of a work that provokes debate on each of these themes. Since, as David Der-wei Wang writes in his foreword, "Han Bangqing understands that being a courtesan is a profession, or an art, of faking virtues and indulging desires" (p. xi), the novel ought also to be perfect reading matter for contemporary reality TV society.

An English edition of a Qing novel is a difficult work to review in an academic journal, especially where the publishers, Columbia University Press, seem [End Page 418] unsure whether this is an academic text for study or a novel for general and pleasurable consumption. The presence of a foreword, occasional footnotes, and Hung's informative appended essay "The World of the Shanghai Courtesans" all point to the former, while aspects of the editing suggest a wider audience. Wang's foreword describes the significant effort it took to produce a polished version of the novel in English. Even with a full translation from Chang, this is a third-hand version, translated by Chang, edited by Lillian Yang, and fully revised and edited by Eva Hung. Hung writes in the afterword that the manuscript of Chang's translation was a rough draft, with no consistency in proper names or romanization, and with the odd section of text missing, but that the greatest problems were in "language, cadence and style" (p. 530), since Chang had opted for a literal rendition, closer to Chinese than English syntax. Hung can only be lauded for persevering with rewriting; she estimates that 60 percent of the finished translation is her own (a proportion reversed in credit, since...


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