World Literary Tour: Visit China in 5 Books
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?
23 thoughts on “World Literary Tour: Visit China in 5 Books”
I have read a lot about China over the years, including most of those listed above, and lived there for five years until 2012. I really enjoyed Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong – it’s long but fascinating. I can also recommend Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu (this one is real life stories) and The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan. Most others I would recommend are not novels, but some very interesting and excellent reads are all Peter Hessler’s works (his wife is Leslie Chang who wrote Factory Girls – Leslie is American but they were both journalists in China and both fluent in Mandarin).
Dai SiJie has written other books since Balzac (which was made into an excellent film). I read Mr Muo’s Travelling Couch which I found very disappointing, and have a copy of Once on a Moonless Night, which I have yet to read.
Thanks Sue for this insight. i’ve read one book by Yan Lianke but wasn’t that wowed. Could just have been a case of the wrong choice of book though. I do have a Mo Yan on my shelf but its not the one you recommend – I’ll look that one up now though.
Ooooh, I made a mental note to put Do Not Say We Have Nothing on my wishlist ages ago, and promptly forgot about it – thank you for the reminder!!
Nice trip! I really enjoy Saijie’s book. The last Chinese book I read was an amazing scifi: https://wordsandpeace.com/2019/10/18/book-review-supernova-era/. I need to read more by this master. And next month, I’ll read this mystery for review: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/47364230-second-sister?from_search=true&qid=qSJZOggbI4&rank=1
I’ve mostly read Chinese-American stories of live in the US and then visiting and trying to connect/understand relatives that stayed. I did recently read one of their iconic novels, “Legends of the Condor Heroes”, and I’ll definitely look into the sequels when they’re translated. I also have another classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, I’ll get to one of these days.
Very good post. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was very good. The Good Earth–classic. I also would add Leslie Chang’s, Factory Girls [nonfiction], very readable about modern China’s factory workers; Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux [old now]. I love lists like this!
Thanks for the recommendation of the Leslie Chang, it covers an aspect of life in China I know nothing about.
I probably haven’t read enough from China – or at least not for ages. Plenty of ideas here, thank you! 😀
I haven’t read as much as I’d like. Mo Yang is one name on my list I hope to get to soon
I have very fond memories of reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Thanks for reminding me of it.
He doesn’t seem to have published anything since unless I have missed it. Are you aware of more recent work?
No, but it could be that his more recent work hasn’t been translated.
I’ve not read much from China and I would really like to. I can recommend Bronze and Sunflower, a classic Chinese children’s book. I notice that you already commented on my review!
The literature from China is rather an unknown quantity to me. I think i’ll do what I did before for other countries and reach out to former colleagues to ask for recommendations
I’ve read two books by Qiu Xiaolong, Death of Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer and loved both. I also loved Wild Swans by Jung Chang – a book full of courage and spirit, about her grandmother, her mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the Cultural Revolution.
Wild Swans is such a magnificent book – hard to beat it for non fiction. I think I read another ‘memoir’ which came out shortly after Wild Swans, called “Falling leaves”. Interesting but not as good as Swans.
An enjoyable tour! Years ago my father read the 1947 classic ‘Fortress Besieged’ by Qian Zhongshu, a satirical look at Chinese society and a novel I’ve always meant to read.
I haven’t heard of that – just looked it up and its available at a reasonable cost so will consider adding that to my ‘to buy’ list
I’ve read quite a bit from China, there’s a few publishers here who a while ago predicted that we would all become more interested in China, and they’ve introduced me to some interesting novelists.
Top of the list would be a droll satire about Chinese development called Lenin’s Kisses, by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas and anything else that you can find by him. It’s not so easy to hear about female writers from China but I can recommend Northern Girls, by Sheng Keyi, translated by Shelly Bryant and Love in a Fallen City, by Eileen Chang, translated by Karen S Kingsbury and Eileen Chang. Educated Youth, by Ye Xin, translated by Jing Han shows some of the transitional issues China is experiencing and its effect on family life, and, for a look at the life of a brutally poor man before communism, Rickshaw Boy, by Lao She, translated by Howard Goldblatt helps us to understand why communism took root in China.
I tend to avoid ‘Chinese’ books by Chinese in America, they are mostly written by Chinese people who haven’t been there for years and I find them unsatisfactory from the point of view of trying to understand the point of view of modern Chinese people.
I’ve read one book by Yan Lianke – The Explosion Chronicles – probably not his best. I like the sound of Educated Youth but just found its on sale in paperback for £18 which is rather steep.
Having read Amy Tan and Lisa See I now tend to avoid the ‘Chinese’ books by Chinese in America too. Pearl Buck was in a different category having spent so much of her life in China.
Thank you for the virtual tour. I don’t have any Chinese books I can think of at the moment but am sure I will remember as soon as I finish this comment. The detective series sounds fun.
The plots are not brilliant but the political and cultural context is what makes them interesting