Category Archives: Chinese authors
This time last year I was about to head to Hong Kong and their long weekend of celebrations to mark the Chinese New Year.
This year’s celebrations have a very different feel, sadly overshadowed by the mounting concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. Probably not the best time to be thinking of taking a trip to Hong Kong or mainland China.
But there’s nothing to stop us enjoying a virtual tour. So here are five novels that reflect different aspects of Chinese culture and history.
First we need some energy to sustain us on the trip. Red bean paste is a staple ingredient in many Chinese dishes, from soup to rice balls and mooncakes. The Duan-Xue family featured in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge have made a fortune from a hot, spicy version. The book relates the conflicts within the family but since many of the scenes revolve around eating, it also gives us a fabulous taste of the cuisine on offer.
Time to hit the streets of one of the country’s most fascinating, lively cities in the company of a detective from the Shanghai Police Department.
The Chief Inspector Chen Cao novels by award-winning author Qiu Xiaolong, are all set in the city in the early 1990s, a time when the country began its momentous drive to become a world class economic powerhouse. There are 11 titles which give a great insight into life at ground level and the gulf between high wealth and influence and the ordinary, poor residents. You also get a good sense of the influence exerted by the Party machinery and how it causes tension for people with integrity like Xialong. I’ve read and enjoyed some of the earliest titles like Death of a Red Heroine and Red Mandarin Dress.
Time for a little history I think.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie takes us to an earlier period of China’s history. In the 1970s the Maoist regime considered intellectuals dangerous and anathema to their ideology Thousands lost their lives, others were sent to the country to be re-educated by living with the peasants. Saijie’s novel follows the experience of two young boys despatched to a remote village to be cleansed of all tainted ideas.
For more recent history you won’t go far wrong by reading Madeleine Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing . It follows the effect of the oppressive regime on three musicians) who live through the Cultural Revolution. It culiminates in some highly powerful scenes as troops and tanks line up against demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, with horrific results.
But of course there’s more to this country than just big cities. The economic boom that’s financed all those futuristic buildings and remarkable skylines has really only happened on the eastern seaboard. Go west and the country is one of remote villages and vast stretches of open land.
Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth reminds us of a time when much of China was essentially rural, occupied by peasant farmers who were subject to the whims of nature. Buck shows one of those families whose fortunes rise and fall many times over. But no matter how desperate they become, they view the land as a source of emotional and spiritual nourishment as well as physical. Buck spent much of her early life in China as the daughter of a missionary and she writes with confidence about the country’s rural life and traditions.
It’s hard to do justice to a country with such a rich culture and history in just 5 books. I know there are many other books that deserve a place on this list. What would you put on your list?
Bean paste is a stable of Asian cuisine but I suspect for Westerners it’s an acquired taste. I tried the sweet variety a few times when I happened to be in China during the Moon Cake festival when the tradition is to present friends, colleagues and families with baked pastries filled with a paste made from red bean paste. (international brands like Haagen Daz have muscled in with an ice-cream version).
But my colleagues wanted me to experience the traditional version. The texture was fine but I would have liked a little extra sweetness. Nothing to really dislike but would I swap them for the British tradition of Hot Cross Buns? Sorry but no.
However, I never got to try the hot, spicy version of bean paste, a concoction relished by the inhabitants of Yan Ge’s fictional town of Pringle in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. The spicier and the more the paste makes them sweat, the better they like it.
The thing is, the townsfolk grew up with a hole in their tongues. In fact, they were almost born eating Sichuan pepper powder. Even rice porridge needed mala: the numbing, tingling ma of Sichuan pepper and the hot, spicy la of the chilli. They could not imagine life without that numbing-hot duo.
The paste is made in huge fermentation vats which contain “a bubbling mixture of broad beans which had been left to go mouldy to which were added crushed chilli pepper and seasonings like star anise, bay leaves and great handfuls of salt. As the days went by in the hot sunshine, the chilli peppers fermented, releasing their oil and a smell which was at first fragrant, then sour.”
It’s upon this product that the fortune of the Duan-Xue family is based. Youngest son Shengqiang was destined from an early age to run the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, got to leave the town and become a university professor and his sister Coral Xue built a career as a TV news presenter.
The matriarch of the family, the formidable “Gran”, is approaching her eightieth birthday so the siblings re-unite to organise a celebration that must be grand and classy, as befitting the family’s status, but absolutely not tacky. Skeletons come out of the closet and old rivalries are re-awakened as the big day gets nearer.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a tale of a family with secrets. It’s told through the eyes of Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and his glamorous wife Anqin. It’s clear she looks upon her father with affection yet the tone is irreverent for Xingxing holds no illusions about his propensity to drink and smoke heavily nor his serial womanising. Sex, nights out with his friends and plenty of food are what keep him sane as he tries to juggle the demands of his wife and mother (and keep his mistress hidden). The result is a series of humorous incidents which culminate in a personal crisis for Shengqiang and a threat to his mother’s reputation.
I found my sympathies going towards Shengqiang despite his attitude towards women. As a young man his bossy mother pushed into a lowly job at the chilli bean factory , insisting he had to earn his spurs the hard way, stirring the giant fermentation vessels Little wonder that Shengqiang has always felt he was second fiddle to his brother whose achievements his mother never lets him forget. His mother even chose his wife for him, deciding that Anqin’s family associations with the Party could help further her own family’s fortunes.
Shengqiang longs for a time when life was so much simpler. When he could hang out with his gang, play poker, get drunk and end up in a fight. But he, like the town in which he grew up has changed. Gone are the stalls and pushcarts where he could get noodles or cold dressed rabbit and chilli turnips spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes and griddled buns. Gone too are the scissor menders and knife-grinders. Even the familiar faces from his boyhood have gone in the name of ‘progress.’
… the whole of Pringle Town had changed. The cypresses and camphor trees of his childhood had been chopped down, the squeezed-in streets had been wrenched wider (but only a tad) and bright blue railings kept motorized and non motorized vehicles apart. … The result was that neither ars nor bicycles could get through. And as if that were not bad enough, the edges of the streets were ostentatiously ‘greened’ with saplings brought in from god knows where. … Worst of all the passers-by changed. It dawned on Dad that, without him being aware of it happening, the people walking up and down the street were strangers.
I suspect many of us who lived in small towns have seen similar declines as family-owned shops have been edged out by the big brands clustered on the fringes in souless precincts.
If only Dad had been allowed to tell his own story. Having his daughter as the narraor proved an issue for me. I know omniscient narrators can’t be everywhere and we make some allowances when they still relay conversations that they couldn’t possibly have heard. Xingxing tries to get around this by occasionally slipping in a remark about how she got her information from her parents, her gran and her father It’s believable up to a point but the further I got into the book, the more this issue niggled. No matter how close a relationship she had with Shengqiang I can’t believe he would have shared that amount of detail about his visits to a prostitute when he was younger or how he sated his sexual appetite with his mistress.
Words Without Borders described The Chilli Bean Paste Clan as China’s “best untranslated book” when it was published in 2014. It’s taken four years for the English translation by Nicky Harman to appear via Balestier Press. Asymptote Book Club members like myself got to read it when the club chose it for their May selection. It’s not a book I would have chosen personally although I would like to read more works by Chinese authors. I enjoyed it overall – it fitted my mood at the time – though its not a book I am likely to recall in a few year’s time.
Yan Ge has twelve young adult books to her name. She has been called one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. She is the winner of an English PEN award. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is intended as the first part of a trilogy of adult fiction
Maybe I was spoiled by the brilliance of Wild Swans by Jung Chang but any thoughts that The Good Women of China by Xinran would be similarly revealing about the lives of Chinese women today were sadly quashed.
Xinran is a journalist who worked for eight years as a presenter at a Chinese radio station. Touched by many letters she received from women she persuaded her bosses to let her reveal some of their stories. It was a bold move because some of those stories were critical of Chinese society and it’s ruling elite — exactly the kind of story subject to the country’s strictly enforced censorship rules. Though Deng Xiaoping had started a process of opening up the country in 1983, it was still risky to discuss personal issues in the media. But Xinran prevailed. She was, she said:
… trying to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breath after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years.
Over time she began pushing the boundaries, taking a risk that one mistake – even one comment – could endanger her career if not her freedom. Such was the popularity of her program that the radio station had to install four answering machines so women could call in and record their comments. Words on the Night Breeze became famous through the country for its unflinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in modern China. Xinran was hailed as the first female presenter to ‘lift the veil’ of Chinese women and delve into the reality of their lives. Her programme dealt with sexual abuse, attitudes towards disability, forcible removal of children from their mothers and a practice of pushing intelligent women into unhappy marriages with government leaders — marriages they could not leave because of the resulting damage to the husband’s reputation. Her stories concerned women of all different classes and ages and degrees of experience.
The most moving for me was the story of Xiao Ying, a survivor of an earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 which killed 300,000 people. In the subsequent chaos she was gang raped by soldiers. When her mother found her in a ditch, she kept pulling down her trousers, closing her eyes and humming. Xiao Ying was sent for psychiatric treatment. She seemed better after two and a half years, but the day before her parents were due to take her home, she hanged herself. She was 16.
Xinran was deeply affected by what she discovered, travelling the breadth of the country to track down some of the women whose stories she had heard. One of them lived in a poor shack next to the radio station, keeping body and soul alive by scavenging though Xinran discovered her son was a wealthy party official. Another woman she found in a remote hotel in shock after meeting again the boyfriend from whom she’d been separated 45 years earlier. Xinran sat with her throughout the night, slowly giving the woman the courage to speak about her life.
Centuries of obedience to the principles of “Three Submissions and the Four Virtues” (submission to fathers, husbands and sons), followed by years of political turmoil had made women terrified of talking openly about their feelings. Xinran won their trust and, through her compassion and ability to listen. Repeatedly they told her that she gave them a space in which to express themselves without fearing blame or other negative reactions.
If the ability to tell their stories, changed these women, hearing them also changed Xinran. Her youthful enthusiasm gave way to pain the more she learned and the more she understood.
At times a kind of numbness would come over me from all the suffering I had encountered, as if a callus were forming within me. Then I would hear another story and my feelings would be stirred up all over again.
By 1997, after a particularly traumatic visit to a community where women were denied sanitary product, whose wombs had collapsed through constant childcare, the pain became too much and Xinran left China for England. She wanted, she said to breathe new air and to feel what it was like to live in a free society. But she didn’t want to abandon the women who’d been encouraged by her programme – so she wrote her book to teach the west what it meant to be a woman in China.
It’s a worthy cause and there is little doubt that Xinran gave hope to thousands of women whose stories she heard and the millions more who listened to her programme. But it doesn’t make for a very good book. By the very nature of its subject The Good Women of China is an episodic book and each of the 15 personal stories she relates is touching. But it lacks objectivity and analysis. Instead of stepping back from a story and reflecting what this tells us about Chinese society, she’s onto the next example and the next and the next. Without analysis and reflection on whether these conditions have changed, it’s hard to comprehend if these are isolated examples or how representative they are of real life. Reading this book left me with too many unanswered questions.
About the book: The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is translated by Esther Tyldesley. It was published in 2002 by Chatto and Windus in the UK.
About the author: Xinran (the name means “with pleasure” ) was born in Beijing in 1958 and lived with her wealthy family until the Cultural Revolution separated them when she was seven. After working in a military university she became a radio journalist. Her talk show, Words on the Night Breeze, started in 1988; within three weeks she was receiving 100 letters a day, mostly from women. She moved to the UK in 1997, where she compiled their stories in The Good Women of China. Xinran is a columnist for national newspapers in the UK.
Why I read this book: I’ve been fortunate enough through my job to visit China and to meet many people from that country. The stories of their culture and how this is under pressure as the country becomes an economic power house and a force in international affairs, has fascinated me. I thought The Good Women of China would help me better understand the people of this country. This book is part of my 20booksofsummer reading list.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday looks to that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and asks what we’ll be reading this Autumn from our TBR. Making a list of what I’m going to read is always tricky for me since I don’t like planning too far ahead knowing that I am highly unlikely to stick to the list. I prefer the serendipitous approach where I can. Plus I have (foolishly??) embarked on a university module about children’s literature so will need to devote some reading time to those texts. But in the interests of playing along with the game here’s a list of books that might have a chance of being read in the next few months. I’ve gone for a mixture of Booker prize winners, crime, books in translation and classics.
- Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. I’ll be reading this as part of my Booker prize project. It won in 1988 (he went on to win the Booker again in 2001 with True History of the Kelly Gang. This will be my first experience of reading Carey’s work but so many people have said this is a great book that I will begin with high
- Another from my Booker list is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson which won in 2001. I know from various comments on this blog that it’s not to everyone’s taste but I dipped into it a few weeks ago just to get a feel for the style and didnt have an issue with what is generically labelled ‘Jewish humour’.
- An Elergy For Easterly by Patina Gappah: This is a collection of short stories that was on my #20booksofsummer list but I never got to finish
- Frog by Mo Yan. My knowledge of authors from China is pitiful so this is an attempt to remedy the situation,spurred on by the deeply moving experience of reading about the Cultural Revolution last week via Madeleine Thien’s knock out Man Booker 2016 shortlisted title Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Mo Yan won the Nobel literature prize in 2012. Frog, first published in Chinese in 2009 is ostensibly the life story of the author’s aunt, a midwife, told through a series of letters to a celebrated but unidentified Japanese writer. It covers a broader period than Thien’s novel because it goes back to the Japanese occupation of China, then moves ahead to the victory of the Communist party in 1949, the hunger and violent political upheavals of the first 30 years of communist rule and, finally, the lurch to a peculiarly rampant form of state-directed capitalism. It’s going to be powerful I suspect.
- Continuing on the theme of China, this seems like a good time to finally get around to reading The Good Women of China by Xue Xinran. She is a British-Chinese journalist currently living London and writing for The Guardian. The Good Women of China is primarily composed of interviews Xinran conducted during her time as a radio broadcaster in China in the 1980s. However, she also details some of her own experiences as a woman in China.
- English Music by Peter Ackroyd. This has been on my shelf since 2011.It was recommended when I asked for suggestions of books that would typify England. I ended up reading a different recommendation – Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea but now think it could be time to revisit Mr Ackroyd.
- Candide by Voltaire. This is book number 4 on my woefully neglected list of books for the Classics Club challenge. With less than a year to go I find I’ve read 28 out of the targeted 50 so time to put a spurt on.
- Ditto for the Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith which is on the list at number 5 and I did actually start reading it about a year ago but other things intervened. I don’t normally go for overt humour in novels but this sounded wry rather than laugh out loud.
- And now it’s time for some crime. Those misty/rainy days are perfect excuses for insulting in something a little dark but not too bloodthirsty. The British Crime Classics imprint sounds the perfect solution to me and thanks to the generosity of Ali at I am the possessor of The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts which is set deep in the English countryside. You can see Ali’s review here and why I’m keen to read this.
- 1947 club: This is an initiative by Karen at Kaggsy’s Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book which will run October 10-15. It’s only a few weeks ahead but I still don’t know what I am going to read. Maybe Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin which is based on the true story of a working class husband and wife who, acting alone, became part of the German Resistance. .More on the 1947 club is here
The order in which these books appear in my list has no significance at all. I reserve the right to read in whatever sequence I want ….
I equally reserve the right to read only some of them or indeed none of them if something else comes along that exerts a greater pull. 🙂
When a novel is shortlisted for the Folio Prize and the author is someone whose previous work has been shortlisted for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemmingway award, I expect to experience something pretty special. I’m glad that I didn’t know at the time I read Yiyun Li’s novel Kinder than Solitude, that the 2015 Folio judges were “looking for excellence” and they felt their shortlisted titles had “boldness and experiment.” Had I known that, my expectations would have been even higher and my disappointment consequently greater.
This is the story of four young people in Beijing. Moran and Boyang are close friends whose friendship is tested when Ruyu enters their life. Sent by her adopted aunts to live in the city, she’s constructed a barrier of icy-heartedness around herself that she steadfastly maintains despite Moran and Boyang’s best efforts to break through. A fourth member of their little group is Shaoi, a college student a student who, it’s hinted, may have been involved in the recent Tiananmen Square protests. In a macabre poisoning she becomes severely brain damaged.
By the time the book opens, twenty one years have elapsed and Shaoai has just died. Ruyu has moved to the USA. Twice married and divorced she has constructed a barrier around her life through which it seems no person or event can penetrate. Moran also emigrated and divorced, has plenty of creature comforts but has a largely sterile and solitary life. On the surface, Boyang is the only one of the trio that is enjoying life. He has remained in Beijing, a handsome intelligent man who drives a flash BMW and has a string of successful businesses, this ‘diamond bachelor’ finds happiness eludes him. He’s neither young enough to form genuine relationships with the girls he meets nor old enough to be a genuine sugar daddy.
It’s a simple premise for a novel in which a dual time frame is employed to show how the lives of members of this quartet are irrevocably changed by an event in their past. The publishers suggest this is a hybrid novel; a thriller in which the identity of the novel is gradually revealed and also a psychological examination of the way in which we are all trapped by the past.
I’m not convinced it lives up to either of those descriptions. It’s not really a mystery story because there are enough signals to make it obvious to any averagely intelligent reader which character was responsible for the poisoning. Observations on human nature abound certainly but instead of illuminating the action they too often border on the portentous or banal.
As an example, the narrator declares at one point:
Nothing destroys a liveable life more completely than unfounded hope.
And at another:
But how does one tell where one’s true self stops and makes way for all the borrowed selves?
Perhaps other readers have more tolerance that I did for such pseudo aphorisms.
It was brave of Li to make her central figures uninspiring and unsympathetic for much of the novel. Their current lives are bleak and sterile, full of suppressed and unspoken emotions. It’s not until at least halfway through the novel that we get beyond the confusing faux philosophy and begin to dig beneath the surface of the characters of the three survivors. It’s only then that the novel comes together but for me it was too little.
Kinder than Solitude is published in the UK by Fourth Estate.
My copy was provided by NetGalley