Merrimon Book Reviews

The Dowager Empress Cixi

Sun Yat-sen
Chinese revolutionary and political leader known as the Father of Modern China. Sun played an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

Mao Zedong, 1935

From Merrimon Book Reviews
Feathered Serpent
Feathered Serpent by Xu Xiaobin
by Xu Xiaobin

Better read in an academic environment or bookclub with more supplemental material
I ordered this book in part on account of the publisher's description of this book as being one of the most important works of 20th century Chinese literature. Although Chinese literature is not my forte, I have a keen interest in exploring international literature. I have mixed feelings about this book. Generally, I find that FEATHERED SERPENT would be a fascinating book to study in an academic setting or in a book club with input from others but a difficult book to read as a pleasure nighttime read or as an introduction into Chinese literature.

FEATHERED SERPENT is a book lush and lyrical in its descriptions, descriptions that lead the reader into the setting and tone of the story. The narrative structure is non-linear and shifts between first and third person. Xu Xiaobin gives a reader a feeling for the changes in Chinese culture through the generations, generations whose stories are intertwined. Distinctions are not clear. Some events seem to be illusions while others have a sense of realism. The publisher introduces the author to an international audience as "A political satirist in the guise of a mystical writer". For readers less familiar with the intricacies of Chinese political thought, the mystical element feels is more accessible and seen the most clearly. Mystical writing in and of itself tends to add a challenging element to reading so FEATHERED SERPENT has many elements adding together to make a reader non-conversant in Chinese literature feel lost within the narrative without much grounding.

Several aids at the back of the book do help the reader, such as a table of the generations, a list of the main characters, a very abbreviated list of historical dates in Chinese history. This is simply not enough to aid the reception of this book in an international environment. Many works of classic literature often have introductions. While these introductions are often elementary compared to the beauty of literature, they do give the non-academic reader some touchstones for a more satisfying read. As part of Atria's International Edition program, FEATHERED SERPENT is a welcome edition that makes the works of international authors more accessible to a North American public. With this goal in mind, a goal I heartedly welcome, the publisher needs to go that extra step with this book and others in the program and provide a introduction and thoughtful book club questions at the end which can often help to guide a reader and pinpoint certain scenes. While I am not conversant in Chinese literature, I have a strong background in literary studies (10 years in Comparative Literature graduate school). I am probably the target audience for this book and this line of books more than some others I read. I enjoyed many aspects of the prose enough to enjoy the process of reading the book from page to page, but I also know I missed whole levels of the book that would interest me greatly. FEATHERED SERPENT would be a fascinating book to read in an academic setting or for those with more knowledge of Chinese literature and politics. This reader certainly hopes that the publisher does a better job of proving ancillary aids to improve the reception of these books to a wider audience --- which is after all, the point of this line.

Publisher: Atria (February 2009)
Translators: John Howard-Gibbon, JoanneWang

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
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