Interview: Lao Ma

The Flash fiction master on why short stories become popular

Flash fiction master Lao Ma is leading Chinese readers towards a new genre. He tells Time Out why he’s not just a flash in the pan

No-one can say exactly why flash fiction is becoming so popular. The ultra-short format, including stories as short as 300 words, is neither new nor Chinese. In the West, its roots can be traced back to Aesop’s Fables (620-560 BC) but in China, the godfather is Pu Songling – author of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (1740), a collection of supernatural tales written in the early Qing dynasty. So why is short and sweet coming back into fashion?

One theory is that flash fiction has become popular for its immediacy, precision of language and fusion of poetry and prose in an age of instant messages and microblogging. Most importantly, it’s a break from the norm, which in China is a slavish, establishmentarian commitment to the belief that ‘more is more’.

‘Many professional Chinese writers are paid in part according to their literary output, as measured by the number of words, which creates an institutional bias towards length,’ says Harvey Thomlinson, founder of publishing house Make-Do Studios, a Hong Kong-based publishing house responsible for bringing avant-garde writers such as Li Er and Chen Xiwo into the English language. Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan sums it up as: ‘Any novel less than 200,000 words lacks dignity. A leopard might be fierce and brave but he is too short in stature to be the king of the jungle.’

But it seems that the leopard’s time has arrived. Make-Do have just published Individuals, a collection of short stories from China’s master of flash fiction, Lao Ma. In some ways, Lao Ma (the pen-name of Ma Junjie) is an unlikely face for such a progressive genre. He is professor of literature at Renmin University in Beijing, recently ranked the third best in the country. Clad in beige chinos and a waspish ‘Regatta’-emblazoned polo shirt, he is no maverick – at least not on the surface.

And yet, his stories are as punchy and sardonic as any upstart; full of humour, wisdom and vim. The 178-page book contains 55 stories, some only a page long, which parody small-minded everymen, frustrated professors and pompous officials. His themes include corrupt examination systems and immoral behaviour (similar to Pu’s of 300 years ago).

The tales range from the fantastical to the realistic. For example, in ‘Silver Tongue’, an esteemed public speaker is afflicted with a rare condition that renders him mute, only cured by a healthy cash payment. In ‘Interesting!’, professor Young Hou rages about the pestilence of corrupt officials, only to apply for the job of deputy county chief himself – and not so he can fix the system from the inside.

So how fictitious is Ma’s fiction, really? ‘The themes of my stories mostly reflect current affairs, spotlights or flash points on the current state of China,’ he says. ‘I’m not just an observer but a participant in my stories; I’m telling stories of the life I’m living and of those I’ve witnessed. The human failings I satirise are not just found in others but also myself.’

Are they a way of releasing pent-up frustration? ‘It might be a way to vent frustration... but I’d rather share my understandings through humour. Humour is more powerful than solemnity. A nation that can’t mock itself will always have a swaggering ego. In contemporary China this is evident in our political system, our economy and our daily lives.’

But Ma’s fiction does reflect real life events, sometimes with startling accuracy. In November, The Economist reported allegations that one of Ma’s staff from the student admissions department at Renmin University was caught trying to flee the country after being implicated in an embezzlement scandal. The official, Cai Rongsheng, was using a falsified passport to fly to Canada when he was stopped at Shenzhen airport, according to a separate report in the Legal Evening News. The sum embezzled allegedly reached ‘hundreds of millions’ of yuan in an investigation that looked into the practices of nine other institutions.

‘I have addressed similar themes in my stories – I even wrote a story about student-recruiting once. The corruption phenomenon in the recruiting procedure does exist in lots of Chinese colleges, but the incident that happened at Renmin University is an individual case and does not represent the whole situation,’ he says, reasserting the line between fact and fiction.

Lao Ma was born in Dongjiagou, a village just outside of Dalian. As a child he taught himself to read from newspapers, which he’d paste on the walls of the house. At school he shone. Ma achieved the highest marks in the gaokao college entrance examination in his county, which secured him a place at Renmin University. He wasn’t allowed to study literature as he wanted to however; his school head forced him to choose philosophy, a degree that at that time could lead to a job as a county magistrate.

Ma first turned his hand to short fiction in 2008, though he started writing novels in the 1990s, taking inspiration from the titans of genre: Chekhov, Zoshchenko, Louis Borges and Shinichi Hoshi from Japan. His own works, such as Ai Hai Yo (Hey), Sha Xiao (Giggle) and Ge Bie Ren (Individuals) have gained him numerous awards.

While the Establishment might not be ready for flash fiction, Ma says it is not as unusual as it may first appear. ‘Chinese people have a cultural gene that favours big things, but we also have an idiom that “small is good”. Xiaoshuo [‘novel’] literally means “small tells”, so small things aren’t that unfamiliar to literary circles.’

For now, the tigers are still holding court, but the leopards are on the march. Flash fiction, it seems, may not be as short-lived as its name would suggest.

Individuals is available from Garden Books, priced 80RMB.