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?
Week 2 of Non Fiction November brings us one of the most stimulating and thought provoking topics of the whole event.
Pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)
I got the idea for my topic from television news reports over the past week. It was full of stories about conflicts and protests. Police and protestors squaring up to each other on the streets of Hong Kong. Catalonian separatists taking to the streets in Barcelona. Thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters camping out in central London.
People around the world are challenging the status quo, resisting authority and campaigning for change in increasing numbers.
So I thought I’d take a look at books that can enlighten us about some of the most significant social movements from the last century. Ones that represented a paradigm shift for the country concerned.
Racial Equality in South Africa
I’ve chosen three books which deal with different periods of time in South Africa’s troubled history of relationships between the various ethnic groups within its population.
Cry, The Beloved Country was written in 1948 just a few months before the South African government introduced the apartheid system, effectively a form of racial segregation. It was a policy that remained in place until 1994.
Through the different voices in the novel Alan Paton dramatises the differing attitudes within the country that would lead, he believed, to hatred and disharmony.
He wasn’t wrong, as Nelson Mandela’s acclaimed autobiography Long Walk to Freedom shows. Mandela reflects on his role in the campaign against the apartheid regime, which became increasingly violent with brutal crackdowns by the government. But Mandela also talks about the importance of reconciliation between the country’s racial groups and how he sought to embrace that principle when elected as the country’s first black head of state.
Did he succeed? The picture of post apartheid South Africa depicted by one of the country’s leading authors, J. M Coetzee, is rather bleak. His Booker prize winning novel Disgrace is set at the time of Mandela’s government and shows a country in transition where the shifts in power between the different racial groups have created new tensions.
Communism In China
For 10 years until 1976. the lives of people in China were governed by the dictats of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The objective was to preserve Chinese Communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. But it caused huge damage to the country’s economy and led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people (some estimates put the death toll as high as 2 million.)
Wild Swans by Jung Chang is a must- read work for anyone interested in modern day history of China. Through the experiences of 3 generations of women in her family, Chang reveals a tragic tale of nightmarish cruelty but also shows the extraordinary bravery of the country’s citizens.
I’m pairing this with a memoir. Mao’s Last Dancer recounts how Li Cunxin was plucked from a poor village to become a ballet dancer, part of an experiment by Mao’s wife to put China on the world stage. Having endured a brutal training regime in which every aspect of his life was controlled, he was allowed to go to the USA as an exchange student. And there he discovered everything he had been told about the West was a lie.
Madeleine Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is my fictional choice for two reasons. Firstly because like Mao’s Last Dancer it deals with the effects of an oppressive regime on creative and artistic talent (in this case, musicians). But more significantly because it gives us a sense of the instability that continued in China long after the Cultural Revolution came to an end. Thein builds the tension powerfully, showing how it culminates in the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when troops and tanks fired at demonstrators.
Nationalism In India
I’m slightly cheating here because The Jewel in the Crown is actually the first book in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and to get the full benefit, you do need to read all them. Scott’s novels take place in the concluding years of the British Raj in India; a time when tensions are running high between the colonial ‘masters’ and the people they are meant to govern.
The quartet begins in 1942 and ends in 1947 as India gains its independence, marking the end of decades of violent and peaceful protest. 1942 is significant because it’s the year when the man who had lead the nationalist movement – Mahatma Gandhi – launched the the Quit India movement demanding an end to British Rule of India.
So it’s only fitting that my non fiction choice is a book which focuses on the man synonymous with Indian independence. The Words of Gandhi is a selection of the man’s letters, speeches, and published writings giving his thoughts on daily life, cooperation, nonviolence, faith, and peace. It’s a great book to dip into and a source of motivation and inspiration.
Peace sadly did not come to India as my fiction choice shows. Neil Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, is set against a background of the Naxalite movement in the West Bengal region of the country. It was a Communist Party of India armed struggle against large landowners to forcibly take away their lands and re-distribute it amongst the landless. One of Mukherjee’s main characters gets swept along with the spirit of the movement.
I suspect I’ve left out many books that would make good reading partners on this topic. Anyone have some recommendations for me?
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.
I’m surprised there hasn’t been much on line chatter about Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Amidst the chatter about the contenders for the 2016 Man Booker Prize she seems to have been overlooked and yet this is one novel that deserves to be read more widely.
This is a novel about what happens when a political regime flex its ideological muscles and dictate how individuals should live their lives. The regime in question is the Communist Party of China under the direction of Chairman Mao and his successors. If you’ve read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, you’ll already have a good grounding in the history of the People’s Republic of China and the disastrous consequences of projects like The Great Leap Forward.
Thien’s novel covers some of the same historical period as Chang’s account but is more contemporary since it includes the build up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.
This is an astonishingly ambitious novel not only because of the vast swathe of history that Thien covers but because of the large number of characters she introduces and the blend of fact and fiction. Her characters are people who are who leap off the page and in whose company you delight. – from the wonderfully named Big Mother Knife and Swirl to the unassuming Sparrow (one of the musicians) and his talented daughter Zhuli. They have to manoeuvre every subtle change in ideology, trying to make sense of their world and all the time longing to keep hold of the western music they revere.
The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.
I know some bloggers thought some sections the book dragged but that wasn’t my experience. It’s definitely a book that you have to read with full attention because of its dual time narrative which switches between and the vast array of ideas woven into the text. Thien seems to have constructed her narrative along musical principles. She introduces a motif or a theme; explores it, expands it and then lets it fade away only to return to it at a later stage though in a slightly different note. So compellingly does she write about the music adored by Sparrow, his daughter and his mentee that I felt compelled to get a copy of some of the key pieces – especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations whose recordings by Glenn Gould with whom the trio feel a particular affinity.
There is another musical reference which I didn’t discover until reading a few other reviews of the novel. The title is an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”
Author: Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Published: 2016 by Granta Books.
Length: 473 pages
My copy: Provided by Shiny News Books for whom I wrote a more detailed review
During the Maoist regime of 1970’s China, reactionary individuals were packed off to the countryside to be cleansed of their bourgeois attitudes and made ideologically pure through daily toil and close contact with the peasant stock.
For the two central characters of Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, their exile in a remote village close to Tibet provides an education far removed from that desired by the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. A chance encounter leads them to a suitcase full of forbidden books by Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert. They devour the books huddled over an oil lamp in their barren room, often reading throughout the night until the first light of dawn. Literature becomes their passion and a way of escaping the desperation of their situation.
When the Little Seamstress enters their lives, their passion for books and their passionate desire and love of this beautiful tailor’s daughter coalesce. She too goes through a process of education but the result is not one the boys expect and the experience has a profound effect on their lives.
In essence this is a story of the joy and despair of young love or of ‘love against all the odds’. It’s a poignant tale but what stops if from being overly sugary is the way Sijie interjects humour into his narrative. In the very first scene the two boys convince the village headman that the violin sonata they play is called “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao”. Later they sit on a filthy bed, feeling the lice creeping up their legs to hear some true songs of the mountain peasants only to find they are meaningless and bawdy ditties.
Though it’s a slim book – more of a novella really at only 160 pages – but it packs in a lot of symbolism. The themes and motifs of the books they read in many ways parallel the experience of the trio with their references to exile and illicit love. When a snake bites the hand of the seamstress leaving a permanent star, we get an early warning signal that this Garden of Eden is likely to become a lost paradise before the book is over.
If I have a gripe with the book it’s the treatment of the ending. It felt as if the author had run out of steam after recounting a moment which is the dramatic turning point of the story – and couldn’t find a way of finishing expect to do a quick summary of what happened subsequently. It was disappointing to find the lives of these three engaging characters dismissed so rapidly.