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Paying tribute to the first generation of migrant workers

Author  :  GAO DAN, ZHU JUN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-09-12

Happy Dreams

Author: Jia Pingwa

Translator: Nicky Haman

Publisher: Amazon Crossing

On Aug. 23, Amazon announced it would distribute an English version of Jia Pingwa’s novel Happy Dreams via its online outlets in 14 countries. The novel, published in 2007, tells the story of a farmer named Liu Gaoxing (Gaoxing, “happy” in Chinese) who moves to the big city for work.

Bai Ye, president of the Chinese Association of Contemporary Literature, said Jia Pingwa is particularly adept at telling stories using authentic Chinese dialogue and means of expression. However, Jia’s highly personalized narrative style with distinct Chinese tastes and a strong Shaanxi flavor posed tough challenges for translation work. Nicky Harman, the translator, said English slang is used with restraint, in order to help communicate effectively while reminding the reader that Liu is a Chinese man. It requires much concentration and experience, Harman said. 

In the novel, Liu comes to the city in the year 2000, when China’s urban population represented 42 percent of the entire country’s population. By the end of 2016, the figure had climbed to 58 percent. Li Jingze, the vice-president of Chinese Writers Association, said that in these figures, we can see stories of other “Liu Gaoxings” in the migration of hundreds of millions of people.

The motivation behind this mass migration is the pursuit of dreams. Jia Pingwa said that 20 years ago, the first generation of migrant workers flocked into the city. Those possessing no skills or techniques made a living by collecting recyclable items from the trash. That was when China commenced its large-scale construction efforts nationwide and witnessed massive numbers of migrant workers pouring into cities. Liu, the protagonist, is one of them. 

As farmers migrated into urban areas, they were aware that they are different from the people born and raised in the city. As someone born in the countryside, Jia believes he is someone who can understand migrant workers. He argued that the many problems people like Liu encountered were difficult to solve. With the evolution of the times, new challenges also keep emerging: There is almost no young labor in rural areas in China. Young laborers choose to stay in cities, even when they don’t have jobs. The second or the third generations of migrant workers have no attachment to the farmland like the first generation do, and most of the time they are not recognized by the cities they live in.

Jia’s works are realistic and down to earth. He said one element of literature is a clash with society. Literary works may be ahead of the times, presenting new ideologies. The future-oriented nature of literature must conflict with reality, thus generating tension between the two sides. Jia said literature’s purpose is to better people’s lives from multiple aspects. In the novel, Liu encountered many dismal aspects of fate while he kept seeking rosy things in life. Jia said he hopes the readers can see from this novel how farmers gradually take root in cities, what difficulties they encounter and what their living and spiritual conditions are like, in an era when huge changes have taken place across China. 




Editor: Yu Hui

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