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?