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My Travels in Ding Yi

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Member Reviews

I was unable to understand this book and therefore could not finish it. I thought I would like the concept of a different narrator and a separate identity for the body while they are physically the same. 
Since I did not get past the 10% mark with this, I cannot provide a review on other websites as well
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Chinese literature in translation has become a worldwide phenomenon in recent years, with more and more outstanding Chinese novels being translated. And while authors from Japan to Latin America have become household names in English speaking homes over the past decade, Chinese literature is still fresh and exciting to so many. Case in point: My Travels in Ding Yi. While the author is no longer with us, this novel represents and fantastic and fantastical legacy of surrealism, epic world-bending, and a wonderfully unique insight into 20th century Chinese life. Much like the stories of Chen Qiufan and Yan Lianke, My Travels in Ding Yi represents some of the most inventive and surreal genre fiction from modern China.
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I usually enjoy non-linear, non-traditional narrator fiction... usually.  In this case, however, I found it difficult to get into the book at all.  It was SO non-linear and non-traditional, I could not even get the gist of the story.  In addition, the writing and language were not particularly beautiful or captivating.  I did not finish this book, so I will probably not be able to recommend it.  Thanks for the opportunity to try this new author!
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It was a (Dutch) short story entitled Notities van een theoreticus by Shi Tiesheng and translated by Mark Leenhouts (Tirade 2009) that made me decide to read this book. Those who read the short story (on www.dbnl.org f.e.) immediately get a good impression of Tiesheng's writing style: somewhat detached, philosophical, thoughtful, asking questions, making jokes, and a narrative style that can be called ‘gusty’. It is reminiscent of a stream of consciousness, but perhaps it is better to speak of two consciousness, because our protagonist who has known many hosts, including the writer, can also have a conversation with his host Ding Yi. Not immediately, because he ‘came to’ Ding Yi when Ding Yi has barely opened his eyes, but after a period of piggybacking and - sometimes - intervening to protect Ding Yi from the most seriously stupid things, there will also be a period in which fine conversations can be conducted. He explains to Ding Yi that not every human body has a soul and what the difference is between a (human) body with and without. 

***
Thing Yi was a bit confused: What do we do about this? 
Do about what? 
Soulless bodies. If we encounter them, what do we do? 
No need to worry. My man Ding is actually unlikely to encounter them.
Why? Think about a computer. You turn it on, but nothing appears on the screen no matter what commands you enter. Would you consider that an encounter? Think of a human form. You discuss feelings and love with them, and they just shout about food and drink. Have you encountered them?
***

It is these kinds of exchanges and these thoughts that constantly pop up - Fools are foolish because they are always deceive themselves - that keep you reading in search of another playful contemplation, because the story itself does not immediately grab you by the throat to pull you to the end. Fortunately, because that would undoubtedly have been at the expense of enjoying the teasing of our witty protagonist.
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I was drawn to this book about an entity that shifts from being to being because I greatly enjoyed books such as Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  This book differs from those in that it is told as a stream-of-consciousness in 156 short chapters.  While I loved the whole concept, the rambling, lack of cohesiveness annoyed me. The whole chapter dedicated to the synopsis of the film Sex, Lies and Videotape, however, did inspire to me rewatch the movie.  So there's that.
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Ding Yi is not, as might seem to be the case from the title, a place, but a person. The traveller in question is an unnamed spirit who occupies the bodies of various people. He started, in fact, with Adam, and was there, in the Garden of Eden, when Eve gave Adam the apple. He has since moved on to a Chinese boy, Ding Yi (born Ding Er) though he also flits into the body of our author, Shi Tiesheng.

Had this novel been written by a Westerner, our spirit would undoubtedly have been mischievous. While he does have a bit of the mischievous in him, he is more reflective, more philosophical and more curious about the human mind and the human soul.

Ding Yi may not be the ideal subject. It seems the spirit has an element of choice when selecting his host, not least because, at one stage, he considers abandoning Ding Yi, though he later relents. He also partially inhabits, as mentioned, our author. Other spirits, whom he talks to, seem to do better, one claiming that he inhabits the body of the US athlete Carl Lewis.

It is not entirely clear what form he takes. Others clearly cannot see him but Ding Yi is well aware of his presence. Indeed, the pair spar on several occasions (he tells Din Yi, for example, to stop smoking to which Ding Yi tells him to mind his own business). He can see not only Ding Yi’s physical body but also, to a certain degree, his mind and his dreams.

Despite his long history – Adam may have been the first but we learn that he has occupied many others, though details are not given – he seems to be remarkably ill-informed about what motivates humans. There are various aspects of humans that he does not really grasp. Two obvious ones are found in pretty well all humans, namely the desire to eat and sexual lust.

As regards eating, he comments apes, fish, dogs and horses have more difficulty evolving …because those apparatuses spend too much time eating. He, of course, does not. Ding Yi, when he grows older, spends much of his time lusting after various women, something the spirit cannot understand. Love, as we shall see, is something he does understand. Plain sexual lust he does not understand, though he sees its purpose. Why have sex? The answer seems simple – it’s the best way to pass genes on to the next generation while maintaining its diversity.

There is one other area where he does not fully understand human behaviour – nudity. He cannot quite see the function of clothing. What a bizarre business this is. First, why is nudity shameful? Why does having one’s bottom out incite ridicule? Bottoms and those wonderful buried slots are proper body parts.

In short, he is not terribly impressed with humans as a species. When first entering Ding Yi, he comments on my long journey I’ve actually mistakenly landed in an ape’s body – that useless tool! It led me around all day eating, sleeping, climbing. No passion, no love! Weary ignorance was always tied to me like a rope, though he admits humans are better than other animals. Why? What do you think the most prominent advantage of the human machine is? It’s play! It’s recreation! Moreover, it’s thought and taste! Poetry and painting, literature and drama, song and dance.

He does see the difference between humans: The difference between people is larger than that between people and pigs.

Much of the book is about how he observes Ding Yi, not always accepting what Ding Yi does, trying, often unsuccessfully, to influence Ding Yi in his behaviour and commenting endlessly to us, to Shi Tiesheng and to Ding Yi.

Ding Yi is alive during the Cultural Revolution and, as he is outspoken, gets into trouble. His father comes from a bourgeois family but they seem to have hidden this successfully and his father now works a a cook. However, Ding Yi is ashamed of him and tries to conceal his relationship with him.

One area where he does admire Ding Yi is his fortitude. Shi Tiesheng himself suffered considerably from ill-health and was ill while writing this book. Ding Yi gets cancer and considers suicide. (This is the point when the spirit thinks about leaving him). Ding Yi pulls through, being miraculously cured of the cancer and the spirit is certainly impressed.

The spirit has his own love life (and it is love not lust). He had fallen in love with Eve (the biblical Eve) and is now in constant search for her. He has seen her, he thinks, as a dancer and frequently looks at women, wondering whether she is Eve.

Sex, however, seems to be the big issue and when Ding Yi sees the film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (whose plot is described in great detail) and falls in love with the actress Qin E, it starts to dominate. Sex, Lies, and Videotape informs a lot of what Ding Yi, Qin E, the spirit and others talk about and do, ranging from erectile dysfunction (Graham, in the film suffers from it) to the love/sex issue. Ding Yi even writes a play based on the film.

The play, Empty Wall Night, and the film take up the rest of the book, as it influences the discussions and activities relating to love and sex. The spirit and others pose various questions on the subject. Why do people love? Because of loneliness. Because of distance. Because you’ve been surrounded by other people since you were born. and Why is love, the most beautiful feeling in the world, confined as much as possible instead of expanded as much as possible?. The spirit cannot fully grasp why it is not possible for someone to love many people or, indeed, for a group of people all to love one another. As he only seems to love one person – Eve – this seems an odd stance for him to take.

I must admit that, while I found this book interesting, I did find that it digressed a lot and that the spirit did go round and round endlessly on the topic. Yes, love and sex have many aspects and he did consider quite a few but at times I found myself skipping some of his discussions on love and sex. I fully accept that this may be the difference between a Western and Eastern approach. I also accept that this was Shi Tiesheng’s final book and, given the state of his health, he probably knew it, so felt he wanted to put everything into this work. However, if you want a detailed examination of love and sex from the point of view of a non-human, this book certainly does that.
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I'd love to be able to claim that I completely understood My Travels In Ding Yi, but in reality - or the daylight concept of reality at least (you'll need to read the book to get that!) - I probably nodded sagely at about a quarter of it, generally grasped another quarter, and just went with the beautifully poetic flow of the rest. Shi Tiesheng's philosophical stream-of-consciousness novel runs just over 580 pages in 156 short chapters and is dense with themes and ideas. I did experience a certain euphoric relief at reaching that last chapter, but that's not to say that the novel was an unpleasant read. It definitely isn't! Admittedly it was written from a very male perspective so certain ideas irritated me. A woman who is the unknowing object of unrequited love can in no way be said to be arrogantly ignoring the man!



Shi has a strongly romanticised view of love which is cleverly portrayed by the split-identity of his protagonist. Human male Ding Yi seems only to be aware of women for their physical attributes and seeks sex at pretty much any opportunity. He is also 'inhabited' by an ancient spirit who is/was the soul of Adam and whose sole purpose is to use a succession of human hosts in searching out the soul of Eve so they can be together again forever. For all their deep philosophical discussion - and there is A Lot of this - none of Shi's characters really came to life for me. I enjoyed spending time in their company and unravelling their swirl ideas, but felt each person was more intended to fulfil a literary function than to be representative of a rounded human being.



I admit I did seriously start to lose my understanding when the plot of the film Sex Lies And Videotape was the focus of a chapter. The plotline was recounted in some detail, but as I've never seen the film this whole section made little sense within the novel and repeated later references to it were lost onme. Maybe if you are intrigued enough to read My Travels In Ding Yi, you might want to stream that film first. For the right reader, I think this novel could be a masterpiece. For me, I'm stuck on the fence! There were times when I nearly DNF'd, but then other times when I was entranced by the prose. (All credit to Alex Woodend for the translation which must have been quite the endurance feat.) I loved epic South American stream-of-consciousness novels before, so had quite high hopes for this one, but it didn't really hit the spot for me.
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I really struggled with the writing style of this book. It was almost as if a disembodied spirit with ADHD wrote a novel in stream of conscious. Stream of conscious is often hard to read, but it is made harder in this case by the overactive nature of the spirit. The spirit, who has been around basically since the dawn of time, takes a long 156 chapter journey in this book. Time is relative and not exact, there are a lot of thoughts on a full range of topics, and as far as I am concerned there is no real story line or plot. This one just missed the mark for me. I have to give a lot of credit to Alex Woodend though because I imagine that this was quite the momentous task to translate.
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‘So I came to Ding Yi. Ding Yi was one of many roads, not your average road. Ding Yi was an independent soul and unusual person. Ding Yi had a concrete fate and non-abstract era. Ding Yi was an unrepeatable story and a representative of all history.’

Phew! With a sense of relief I got to the end of chapter 156. Yep, 156 chapters – OK most of them are short but this is an epic in every sense of the word. What to make of this 2006 Chinese classic that now receives its first English language publication?

This is the story of a nomadic, immortal spirit, who goes back in time to the first man in the Garden of Eden, and who now inhabits the body of the author, Shi Tiesheng, but who also once inhabited the body of our ‘hero’ Ding Yi. There is much play on the meta-textuality of it all, as the book quotes passages from Tiesheng’s other works, as well as conversations between the spirit and Tiesheng. Ding Yi’s story is one that develops during the time of the Cultural Revolution, so there is much made of personal freedom versus loyalty to the family and the state. It is also about sexual freedom, as Ding Yi explores this with Qin E and Lu Sa in some sort of polygamous relationship that develops. Over the course of Ding Yi’s life, the spirit and he ponder on a huge number of issues, as the book relies heavily on ideas and conversations and philosophies. The spirit is constantly searching for his Eve, the other half of himself that was lost with the expulsion from Eden: ‘Separation followed by searching is the primary intention of God’s creation – the only way this path could be maintained.’

It’s all a bit of a mish-mash; that’s not to say it isn’t good – some of the writing (and I have to commend the translation by Alex Woodend) is lyrical and deeply moving. But there is also a lot of distraction and dreams and, well, just general coming and going. Central to the book – literally, as it comes in chapter 84 – is a bizarre exposition of the entire plot of Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 film ‘sex, lies, and videotape’, which Ding Yi and his one-time bully and now friend Qin Han watch together. The film they watch is missing the last couple of minutes at the end, and thereafter the book references again and again the film and its characters. I can only imagine that this film somehow meant a lot to the late Shi Tiesheng, but it all got a little confusing as to exactly what it was that he was trying to say.

Clearly this was an important work when it was first published, and given the current political climate it is only to be applauded that this now gets a wider audience. In its scope and ambition, however, it seems to overreach itself, which is a shame because the author clearly is gifted with a poetic lyricism that draws the reader in. Worthy is the word I would use, and take that in whichever way you want. Life is a journey, it seems, and we are always looking for something that will constantly just elude our grasp. It reminded me just how astonishing was David Mitchell’s debut novel ‘Ghostwritten’, published in 1999, which explores a similar idea of a soul travelling between bodies. For me, that was a tighter and much more subtle work. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this, if at times just found it a little too self-referential. Recommended? Yes, but with reservations. 3.5 stars.

(With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this title.)
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So, I could be a bit dim. I mean, I didn't pursue philosophy at university beyond first year, so Shi Tiesheng's 156-chapter stream-of-consciousness journey through life, the universe and everything – by painstakingly recounted way of Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape – might be just be something that's rocketing over my head, satellite style, shooting across the heavens leaving a trail of profundity that I'll never grasp, dullard that I am.

Could be.

Or it could be that My Travels In Ding Yi is a bit of a mess. That it's 156 chapters of rambling in desperate search of an editor. But who would edit the work of a man who's a legend in Chinese literature? Who wrote as a way to explore the world following a paralysing accident? And who's now dead?

Yeah.

That's the problem. The book reads as a shaggy dog tale without the benefit of the tight rein that other famed shaggy dog wranglers exhibit. It's not as calculated as Sterne, say. There's no sense of planned capriciousness here; more a feeling that someone's getting their thoughts down on paper with the intention of forming them into something meaningful. (Except they never returned to do so.)

I have the feeling that part of the aim of the book is to encapsulate a gigantic journey, a whole arc into its covers. In the way Perec's Life, A User's Manual tries to shovel a building's whole history inside, or how Joyce's Ulysses shrinks a heroic cycle into one man's (admittedly busy) day. Here, there's a tale that spans creation – seriously, we're on the hunt for Eve of Eden fame – and reaches from that point forward throughout everyone who's ever lived.

The story, such as it is, is of a nameless spirit, who's hung around since pre-fig leaf Adam times, who enters the titular Ding Yi at the moment of his birth. Ding Yi is only the most recent stop on the spirit's investigatory trip through life, and he acts as a constant companion, interrogating and driving the hapless bloke through his life. Is he a fate? Is he along for the ride or is he at the controls? It's never made particularly clear.

What he is, though, is loquacious. Holy fuck can this spirit talk. And talk. He causes dreams, but also has a lot to say about sex, love, philosophy and the ideas of confinement and freedom. He also manages to namedrop a lot of authors and artists – read Borges, haven't you? – in a manner that immediately grates. Life may be a dream, but this one's a bad one.

(That's not even covering the chapter where <i>Sex, Lies and Videotape</i> is recounted in tedious, tedious detail..)

One of the neater things, I thought, was that the spirit <i>also</i> mentions that he's inside Shi Tiesheng, as well. To the extent that it's unclear who is real and who is not. Who's writing this book? Even the book seems to not know. It reminds me of <a href="https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Zhuangzi" target="_blank" rel="noopener">this quote by Zhuangzi</a>, undoubtedly intentionally:
<blockquote>Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.</blockquote>
It's a cool idea, but the book absolutely bogs down in minutiae instead of delightful questing. The sense of who is who (and whether they are constant throughout the work) is handled sloppily, and by the end of my time with the text I didn't care. It's a shame, as there's a lot here to like – but the author seems intent on confounding the reader at every turn. Interestingly, Shi Tiesheng uses the spirit at some points to try and engage in some form of self-critical reflection... but it never holds.

I wish there were more of <i>that</i>.

An alternate translation of the title is <i>My Sojourn In Ding Yi</i>, which, given the languid pace and wobbly lines of definition in the narrative, would be more suitable. Everything is porous, here. Shall we throw in a play that turns into a sex game but really is a communion with nature? Why not. How about some dead artists? A lover who never knew you existed? Some videos? Nudity? Lots of drinking? How about all at once? It's like a long cruise where the days become endless and you're not quite sure if it's shuffleboard or sunbathing next.

(Oh, and time is something that's malleable at best, and an inconvenience at worst. So don't expect that you'll be having a strong hold on the timeline of this thing: you'll be perfectly settled in one stage of life before being whipped back elsewhere. Or, if you're lucky, to a couple of times simultaneously.)

Alex Woodend's translation appears to be a pretty good job. There's not a lot of areas where we're left with the feeling that there's particular things missed because of an inability to transfer them to English. There's a couple of times where there's probably been some insertions to explain untranslatable homonyms, but for the most part the text reasd well, and I imagine as exactly thorny as Shi Tieshing intended.

(I'm certain there's deeper meaning to passages focusing about changes of fortune related to the Revolution, but I readily admit that my lack of knowledge in this area may be clouding the issue.)

There is undoubtedly someone out there for whom this would be a life-changing read. I'm just not that person. I found <i>My Travels In Ding Yi</i> to be a book that'd be more enjoyable if it would stop trying to impress upon the reader how goddamned smart and thoughtful it is.
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The narrator here seems to be some kind of conscious spirit, setting up residence in all kinds of host bodies including but not limited to Adam in Eden, the author of this book Shi Tiesheng (who interjects throughout), and of course Ding Yi. It's very hard to characterize Ding Yi because he's described as a dunce but also a shameful intellectual and at times even brilliant; he is everything, he is contradiction, he is survivor, he is however the narrator feels like making him sound from chapter to chapter. Even his name changes abruptly to Er but then reverts again back to Yi. Much is made of Ding Yi's relationships, interests, adventures and mistakes, but in no conventional format. It's almost as if the author published his notes on every topic and cultural reference he'd considered for a few years: religion, plastic surgery, prostitution, political protest, rape, advertising, homosexuality, etc are all touched upon, and many cultural references come up from Carl Lewis to Mohammed Ali, including an entire synopsis of the movie Sex Lies and Videotape. Something akin to Haruki Murakami and Bret Easton Ellis but without a story line. 

I just read Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star, it was a similar philosophical stream-of-consciousness tragicomic melodrama that didn't make a lot of sense to me, but it was only 81 pages long. My Travels in Ding Yi runs to 156 chapters.
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I loved this book . I couldn't put it down. I'm so hapoy it was translated from Chinese to English. I think it teaches us many things in a novel form. Absolutly wonderful. 

I would like to thank netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy free of charge. This is my honest and unbiased opinion of it.
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I really tried to love this book but I found the structure so jarring and fragmented and difficult to follow. This book requires a lot of time and mental prowess to understand what the author is trying to say. Sadly, it did not do it for me.
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Ceci est la première fois où je lis quelque chose de ce style. J'ai trouvé intéressant qu'une âme (est-ce une âme, un esprit, le petit diablotin sur notre épaule ou la bonne conscience?) vieille de plusieurs expériences terrestre se retrouve dans le corps d'un petit garçon, qu'elle qualifie elle-même d'un peu stupide. J'ai également trouvé intéressant l'idée d'une dichotomie intérieure au personnage principale, soit Ding Yi et cet esprit.
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If you like to read something different, exotic, paranormal, educational, inspirational, and creative you should read this book. 
I was fascinated with a very different approach of paranormal subject here. I dont want to spoil anything by giving away too much, but if you read this book you would be able to visualize a lot of things completely differently! That is a beauty of Asian writers! They teach us beautifully through their books!
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This novel was unusual and unexpectedly lovely. I *love* that this is a look at China written by a Chinese author. Such a treat that we are able to enjoy this work in English.
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