Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style.
“Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.”
That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters.
Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring?
It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense.
The disconnection between the couple doesn’t escalate into a separation or a divorce. Even though the wife admits she hates her husband, she still succumbs to his lust and even takes an active part occasionally. The husband eventually suffers a stroke and dies, not because he learns about his wife’s adultery, but because of his own long-time debaucheries. Therefore, the husband’s death functions more as a twist than a climax leading to a falling action. The story has no confrontation. For example, when the daughter moves out, she does so under the guise of wanting a quiet place to study. The mother suspects the real reason but the family never discusses it overtly. The family remains unbroken, at least in appearance.
A similar use of alternating narrations divulging the miscommunication in a relationship can be found in quite a few Anglo-American novels: Evan S. Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, and, most recently, Margot Livesey’s Mercury. But, unlike Tanizaki’s work, these stories tend to create a dramatic build that invites a self-revelation. Take Mercury. Donald, the husband, gradually realizes that he and his wife, Viv, have grown so apart that she needs a gun to protect her real love, a horse. Their disconnection, the core conflict, is slowly revealed and climbs to an irrevocable moment, the climax—Viv fires the gun and shoots Donald’s friend. The relationship is thus damaged: Viv goes to the jail, leaving Donald unsure about his feelings. All those inner emotions breed the characters’ actions, which in turn transform the family dynamic. The narrative is thus an analytical search for the reason why their intimacy falls apart—since when did they stop listening to each other? Fates and Furies, set in a more traditional matrimony in which the wife assumes a domestic role while the husband works to support the family, also dedicates itself to uncovering the hidden face of a relationship. The wife’s side of the story wrenches apart the husband’s golden boy formula and indicates that she’s the real puppeteer of the “happy marriage.” Both novels are seeking the “truth.”
In The Key, by contrast, the disconnection between the couple is established as a premise rather than a conclusion:
Ikuko, my beloved wife! I don’t know whether or not you will read this. There is no use asking, since you would surely say that you don’t do such things. But if you should, please believe that this is no fabrication, that every word of it is sincere. I won’t insist any further—that would seem all the more suspicious. The diary itself will bear witness to its own truth.
This is from the husband’s first letter. It’s clear the couple lack mutual trust at the beginning of the story. In that regard, Tanizaki has no interest in discovering an underrepresented or repressed voice or exploring a mystery within the relationship. He cares more about the dark psychology of human beings: the pleasure we take from jealousy and infidelity, and our sadistic tendencies. Unlike his Western counterparts, Tanizaki isn’t using the case of a problematic marriage to teach a lesson. The dark side of humanity is what all of us are born with; a mishandled past trauma or a long-time subjugation are both oversimplifying the complications of relationship.
In Tiger Writing, Gish Jen uses the word “interdependent” to describe the East Asian mode of self-conception, as opposed to the “independent,” the West’s mode:
The first—the “independent,” individualistic self-stresses uniqueness, defines itself via inherent attributes such as its traits, abilities, values, and preferences, and tends to see things in isolation. The second—the “interdependent,” collectivist self-stresses commonality, defines itself via its place, roles, loyalties, and duties, and tends to see things in context.
As a Chinese woman, I am surprised to see Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife dare say to her in-law, “Next time you want to see your grandchildren, you give me a call.” Likewise, American audiences may consider those East Asian women who are obedient to their in-laws’ unreasonable commands weak and cowardly. At the danger of stereotyping, according to our conventions, those women are strong and mature because they embrace a holistic picture of family and understand that humility is the key to a harmonious life.
Gish Jen also talks about her father’s distinct memoir-writing mode. After describing the Chinese traditional morning-greeting rituals, she concludes:
This is not a modern, linear world of conflict and rising action, but rather one of harmony and eternal, cyclical action, in which order, ritual, and peace are beauty, and events spell, not excitement or progress, but disruption.
Stormy as the relationship in The Key is, the marriage remains stable—the couple copes with the commotions of life within an orderly framework. A peaceful, present story—like the rituals in East Asian everyday life—is thought beautiful.
The plot difference in these modes of writing also brews structure variance. Very often, the wandering quality of East Asian stories confuses and bothers readers from outside this context. Matteo Pericoli, viewing The Key through the lens of architecture, compares its structure to “two buildings made of huge fin walls whose cantilevering floor slabs slide into the other’s like the pages of two books.” According to him:
The floors of the “double” building therefore alternate, as though one of the buildings has even numbered floors and the other only odd. To go from one level to the next—say, from the fifth to the sixth floor—we’d have to go downstairs, exit one building, enter the other, and go back upstairs.
To Pericoli, this is a “huge” and also “meaningless” effort. I can see his point, but again I notice the structure difference roots from our distinct ways of thinking.
But what if Ikuko reads this, what will she be likely to do? Will she worry about me, and try to control her sexual instinct? I hardly think so. Even if her reason demanded it, her insatiable body would refuse to comply. Short of my collapse, she will never stop insisting on gratification.
Doubtless she will ask herself why I am writing this. “He seemed to be doing so well lately,” she will think; “but he’s been forced to give in, hasn’t he? I suppose he means to frighten me, so that I’ll be less demanding.”
The Key is full of similar fantasies where the narrator projects his thoughts onto his wife and even presumes her response in order to modify his imaginative behaviors. Paranoid though it may seem, this psychology is very typical in East Asian culture as I experience it—we tend to make conjectures about others’ reactions to the extent that we can be trapped in our endless imaginations, rarely taking action.
Last year when I came to the U.S. for the first time, I struggled to ask American friends for a ride, even though they expressed their willingness to help—“Just give me a call.” But I didn’t dare ask, afraid that my need would inconvenience them. In China, the car owner would ask me each time she goes out—“Jianan, I’ll go get groceries from Walmart this afternoon. Would you like to come along?” As you can see, it’s the car owner who foresees my reluctance to bother her and thus makes a further move to anticipate my need.
In the fabulous Japanese film director, Shunji Iwai’s 1995 movie, Love Letter: it is only after the main character passes away that his dream girl finally discovers he loved her, when she finds her name written on numerous library cards in their high school. Recently a story went viral in China and Japan; it tells of a Japanese programmer who coded the name of his love into a video game he’d invented. But he never confessed his love, remaining single in his entire life. “But why?” I remembered my American peers widening their eyes when I told such stories. It’s not the humiliation we may suffer if being turned down, but the concern that passions might upset the loved ones’ harmonious life—we don’t want our personal happiness or sadness to become their psychological burden. We prefer doing “small, good things” (Raymond Carver) to brighten up their days without asking for anything in return. This one-sided caring, or so-called “pure love,” is considered the highest form of romance in East Asian culture. Jun’ai, the Japanese word for “pure love,” means “genuine, dedicated love” according to the Japanese dictionary.
Turning to Tanizaki’s work, readers are urged to journey back and forth between the husband’s and wife’s respective projections and even paranoias; how many of them are true remains a mystery. Again, Tanizaki has no interest in diagnosing the marriage; he embraces a larger scope: because our ways of communication can never do justice to the chaotic, ambivalent, and ever-changing human mind, mutual understanding becomes a luxury we can ill afford.
Apart from the recursive quality of narrative that may read as repetition or lack of focus to Western readers, the profusion of objects and details in East Asian texts may also seem unnecessary and baffling.
One critique I often receive from my workshop is that I need to trim down certain details in my writing, particularly in the beginning. I didn’t understand why the slow pace bothered my American peers until, again, I stumbled upon a very similar narrative mode used by Gish Jen’s father. “Written over the period of a month and totaling thirty-two pages, it does not begin à la David Copperfield with ‘I was born’; in what we will come to recognize as true interdependent style, my father does not, in fact, mention his birth at all.” (Gish Jen, Tiger Writing.) Instead, Gish’s father opens with an elaborate family history and a comprehensive depiction of their household—another example of an interdependent mind. Different from Western stories that value the personal, concrete textures of life, a successful East Asian fiction must relate to a larger social-historical picture.
I enjoyed reading Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker recently, but it also struck me that if the same story was written by a Chinese writer, it probably wouldn’t receive the same amount of attention. Right from the beginning, it is clear that the story would focus on a woman’s personal dating experience:
Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines.
In her 1943 story titled “Sealed off,” Eileen Chang, a then emerging Chinese writer, dealt with a very similar subject matter—romance as a game between narcissism and self-pity and women’s one-sided creation of the object of their love. By contrast, Chang’s story opens with almost a panorama of the people living in that moment, which may seem clunky next to the concise opening of “Cat Person:”
The tramcar driver drove his tram. The tramcar tracks, in the blazing sun, shimmered like two shiny worms oozing out from water: stretch, then shrink, stretch, then shrink. Soft and slippery, long old worms, slinking on and on and on…the driver stared at the wriggling rails, and did not go mad. The tramcar would have gone on forever, if the city hadn’t been shut down. It was. The streets were sealed off. “Ding-ding-ding-ding” rang the bell. Each “ding” was a small, cold dot: dot after dot, they formed a line that cut through space and time.
The tramcar stopped, but the people on the street started rushing around: those on the left rushed over to the right, those on the right rushed over to the left. The metal shop gates came rattling down, all in a single sweep. Matrons tugged madly at the bars. “Let us in!” they cried. “At least for a little while! There are children here, and old people too!” But the gates stayed tightly shut. The two sides glared at one another through the bars, feeding off each other’s fear. On the tram, people were fairly calm. They had somewhere to sit, and though the tram interior was shabby, it was still quite a bit better, for most passengers, than their rooms at home.
Chang goes on and on to portray almost every passenger in the tramcar; in fact, the main characters, Wu Cuiyuan and Lu Zongzhen don’t appear until seven paragraphs later. These seemingly redundant descriptions extend the themes. The story is set in Japanese Occupied Shanghai, when Japanese authorities often blocked the road to search and arrest underground resistance fighters—thereby “Sealed Off.” It is in this very short time and on this temporarily stopped tramcar, two strangers, out of pure boredom, begin to flirt and even think they are in love. Chang doesn’t only show women’s particular anxieties when embarking upon a romance, but also the general selfishness and indifference of people—even war fails to make them compassionate. Without this elaborate opening and an echoing ending, the story would be too narrow to hold standing in modern Chinese literature.
One famous anecdote of Sōseki Natsume, an outstanding Japanese novelist in the Meiji period, follows that he taught his students the appropriate Japanese translation for “I love you” should be “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” East Asian stories lay great emphasis on the richness of themes, which, too, may derive from our unique ways of communication, where “beating around the bush” is common, to avoid any possible conflict and embarrassment. Similar cultural implications are embedded in our stories to channel our emotions, but it is often the case that Western readers fail to decipher them and are thus bewildered and even bored.
A striking example is the translation of the 1968 Nobel Prize laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s early masterpiece, “The Izu Dancer.” Shockingly, the English translation appeared at first in an abridged form; Edward Seidensticker, the translator, streamlined the plot by cutting the parts which he thought irrelevant to the center theme.
“The Izu Dancer” mixes elegant reminiscences with lyrical fiction, telling a high school boy’s first romantic encounter with a young traveling performer. Again, it may hardly fit in the West’s category of “love story,” because nothing dramatic ever takes place. The two closest points towards intimacy are perhaps when the Izu dancer addresses the protagonist as “a very nice person” and when she comes to see him off at the port. No kiss, no hug, not even a vocal goodbye; they just keep gazing and waving at each other. After a close study of the curtailed version, I am very sad to find the most scintillating details of this story were all “pruned.”
In the opening chapter of the original, the narrator runs into an elderly man in a teahouse. A horrible scene: the man, suffering a stroke years ago, is bruised and swollen all over, as if he was drowned. Beside him stand piles of yellowish letters and moldy medicine bags—he asks every traveler for any potential prescription to cure his illness. The narrator, in a indifferent tone, describes the elderly man as “a monster in the mountain” and says he can’t believe the man is still alive.
In the ending chapter, there is an echoing scene cropped in the English. When the narrator boards the return ship, a stranger who looks like a miner asks him to escort an old woman to her destination. After the accidental death of her son and daughter-in-law, she is left with three little grandchildren; she holds a girl with either hand, a baby on her back, “her eyes look empty and miserable.” The narrator agrees to help.
In Chinese, we have a particular term to refer to those seemingly unrelated details, Casual Touches (闲笔). We believe the best writers are not those who show a refined mastery of a self-contained story, but who can add beautiful touches here and there effortlessly to stretch and strengthen a story’s meanings. In Kawabata’s case, the two vignettes are crucial to the narrator’s self-awareness. In the beginning, though born into a privileged family in Tokyo, the protagonist loses his parents at an early age. Taking the tragedy personally, he grows cynical and apathetic. (He calls himself a “misanthrope.”) We feel no empathy in his observation of the old sick man. But the love toward the Izu dancer gradually connects him to the lower-class people and to anyone who might previously have seemed unrelated to his life. From the dancer’s family, he realized that most people had suffered, were suffering, and would suffer much more hardship than he had. (Eikichi, the dancer’s elder brother, lost his second child on his performance trip; the Izu Dancer probably wouldn’t avoid entering into prostitution later on.) Therefore, he understands human woes are universal and inevitable. Also, the cheerfulness and kindness of Eikichi’s family moves him, affects him, and revives his capacity to give and love.
I did not know when evening came, but there were lights on when we passed Atami. I was hungry and a little chilly. The boy opened his lunch and I ate as though it were mine. Afterwards I covered myself with part of his cape. I floated in a beautiful emptiness, and it seemed natural that I should take advantage of his kindness. Everything sank into an enfolding harmony.
In the original, the old woman is mentioned again—she functions like a test for the narrator’s compassions, and thus confirms his maturity. This eventual self-reflection is also trimmed and modified in English.
[…] I was immersed in a beautiful emptiness. Now I felt free to accept people’s kindness. I imagined taking the elderly woman to get her ticket at Ueno Station. Of course I’d do that. Everything blended into a harmony.
In his book review “Orphans,” Mark Morris points out “The Izu Dancer” is about cleansing, purification: “A narrative vision that generates impulses of release, near jouissance, by means of an effacement of adult female sexuality and its replacement by an impossible white void of virginity.” But without those seemingly unessential details, Western readers may take it for granted that Japanese culture—or East Asian culture—worships female virginity in an obsessive, if not morbid, fashion. But Kawabata has carefully built the links between the dancer’s innocence and human kindness and empathy, the protagonist’s personal romantic feelings and his connections to life in a general sense. Sexuality, in this regard, is not the West’s notion to mark a teenager’s independence, to mark the time that he needs to leave his parents and start his own life—Kawabata means quite the opposite, sexuality lifts an individual out of his self-absorption and engages him in a larger social landscape, with his people and country. In East Asian context, the notion of pure love teaches us to give and care with no intention to win or take.
“The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” The line conveys genuine feelings not only because the one who says it is shy, but also because they want to express gratitude to the loved one, as if to say, “you’ve opened my eyes/heart to the beauty of life.” The conventional love in East Asian context doesn’t necessarily culminate in the union of a small family, but in the contribution of harmony of society.
Sadly, it is often the case when Westerners find themselves unable to translate our subtleties and inferences, they may tag those as distracting and, if not having the liberty to cut them, would probably skip them altogether.
Image Credit: Pexels.