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Loud Sparrows Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts Selected and translated by Aili Mu, Julie Chiu and Howard Goldblatt Columbia University Press/ Weatherhead Books on Asia: 304 pp., $24.50

December 31, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds | susan.reynolds@latimes.com

IN his foreword to this anthology of dazzling pieces, Bei Dao (pseudonym of Chinese poet and activist Zhao Zhenkai) remembers Mao Zedong's 1958 campaign against the sparrows that were threatening to take over Beijing. For three days, students stayed home from school to bang on pots and pans and stand on balconies to prevent the sparrows from landing there. More than 400,000 sparrows died, leading to a plague of insects, which in turn set off a famine that, Bei Dao tells us, "caused more than 20 million people to die of starvation."

"Short-Shorts," like those in this collection, are an extremely popular commercial form in China. They are a cross between poetry and prose, and they have inspired entire journals (the "Journal of Selected Short-Shorts" has more than half a million subscribers), not to mention newspaper columns, books and public art.

Sometimes known as "one-minute fiction," "palm fiction," "snapshot fiction" or "urban legends," short-shorts have an ancient history: Their roots are in the Tang, Qing and Ming dynasties; they surfaced again in the 1960s in China, accompanied by the slogan "Everybody writes." Seen in this light, short-shorts bear a slight resemblance to blogs -- written by the people and for the people. They also bear some resemblance, as the editors point out in their introduction, to the "art of leaving blank," of "articulating the most important by what is left out, like the expressive blank areas often found in traditional Chinese brush painting."

The 91 short-shorts collected here were written over the last three decades by serious and dedicated writers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and especially the Chinese mainland, where there are more than 400 literary journals and magazines dedicated to the form. The pieces are divided into 15 categories, such as Grooming, Choices, Controversy, (In)fidelities and Weirdness, each accompanied by a cautionary tale in the form of "flash fiction," by translator Howard Goldblatt, written to set the mood of each section. Some of the short-shorts are all dialogue, others are tableaux: a winter night; a haunting dreamscape; an everyday situation, like standing in line.

The language is mostly spare and simple, devoid of pyrotechnics yet full of affection and meaning. In "Mothballs," by Chen Kehua, a woman describes the smell of her boyfriend's coat: "And so they don't say another word. He takes her hand and carries it into his overcoat pocket. They walk off together. Such cold, dry weather is rare in Taipei. His tan overcoat, with its turned down collar, gives off the faint smell of mothballs, carried in the air by the wind. Only just taken out of the closet, it seems. As she leans close to his shoulder, she thinks: A man's body cannot smell any better than this." Objects and details (a chair, a teapot) shine with a strange relevance, as if the artist had cropped photographs to better contain them. Somehow, their stories continue beyond the frame, in the mind of the reader.

Most of the pieces are beautiful and thought-provoking. Some are silly, some are too easy. But a breeze of aesthetic freedom flows through all of them (a diversity, a youthfulness, a spring in their step), making them fun to read. Experimental fiction may have more outlets in China than it does in America, where the publishing world struggles on a procrustean bed of rigid categories and corresponding marketing plans, squeezing out all the lovely, unfinished, hard-to-read, unfilmable material by unknown writers.

Such a wide range of human emotions in various situations emerge from these pieces -- a kind of intimacy that has an entirely different quality from the pieces that one might find on the Internet. These writings seem -- possibly because they are printed in the traditional way, on paper -- as though they were meant for you, the reader, to reflect upon and sometimes to follow what they advise. Perhaps it is just the wisdom that accompanies restraint. "Short-shorts belong, after all, to the family of fiction," writes Wei Jinshu, in one of the many glosses on the form that accompany the pieces, "small as a sparrow, they have all the vital organs."

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