The breadth and scope of Chinese literature is at times hard to fathom. With such an array of literary history, as well as non-fiction offerings, at your disposal, the task of finding a good, dependable novel to read from the country can often feel intimidating.
As coronavirus-instigated self-isolation becomes prevalent all over the world, we’ve compiled a list of ten excellent novels, short story collections and novellas so you can exercise your literary muscles in your downtime. Click on the images or the titles to buy these titles on Bookshop.org, a site that supports local independent book stores in the US and UK.
This book of translated Chinese science fiction short stories comes from the Gansu-born writer and translator who brought the world an English translation of Liu Cixin‘s famed The Three-Body Problem, as well as his own award-winning short “The Paper Menagerie.” With a name that recalls Italo Calvino’s mesmeric China-based Invisible Cities, Liu here perhaps proposes the idea of the allegorical nature of science fiction stories today.
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The release of this collection in 2016 was met with much praise and led to a follow-up anthology in the form of Broken Stars in 2019. As good an introduction to Chinese contemporary science fiction as you could hope to find, the anthology includes works from key modern writers such as Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan and Hao Jingfang.
After the overwhelming success of animated film Nezha in 2019, this 16th century novel looks set to impact the world of Chinese cinema in major ways over the coming months and years. Originally titled Fengshen Yanyi or Fengshen Bang (also going by the English title, The Creation of the Gods) the classic of Chinese literature has proven to be a source of endless inspiration for TV and movie screens, most recently coming back into the limelight for providing inspiration for Nezha, as well as the recently delayed Legend of Deification, and the upcoming Fengshen Trilogy live-action movies, which have been compared to The Lord of the Rings.
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If you’re keen for a challenging, possibly time-consuming read, this lengthy book is right up your alley. Consisting of 100 chapters, with a variety of stories that describe myths surrounding Chinese gods and demons, Investiture of the Gods is both a nice introduction to Chinese mythology, as well as the stories behind some of the country’s biggest upcoming cinematic releases.
One of China’s most intriguing writers, Eileen Chang, has been called the “fallen angel of Chinese literature” by none other than director Ang Lee. Chang was born into an aristocratic Shanghailander family in 1920. While she established a lofty reputation as a highly-stylized and detail-oriented writer with the publication of books like The Golden Cangue in the mid-’40s, her standing in the Chinese literary world came crashing down when her husband was deemed a Japanese collaborator after World War 2. It wasn’t until the ’70s that her works were rediscovered by literary scholars.
Love in a Fallen City, published in 1943, was the first of Chang’s works to appear in English. The novella takes wartime love as its focus, describing the convoluted marriage and relationship arrangements of the Bai family, touching on a number of important societal issues that still ring true in today’s China.
Find Love in a Fallen City on Amazon here.
Qian Zhongshu’s sole novel has made a huge impression on readers around the world since it was first published in 1947. Reference, for example, the LA Review of Books review of the novel, which states that the writer may well be deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature for Fortress Besieged alone (the review was published 15 years after Qian’s death).
Designated by celebrated critic C.T. Hsia as one of the most important Chinese novels of the 20th century, Fortress Besieged revolves around Fang Hongjian, possessed of a fake university degree, and his efforts to find a job in China after returning from abroad, as well as his ill-fated marriage.
We’re stretching the definition of “Chinese fiction” here a little, but it’s hard not to include Chinese American author Ling Ma’s book of the moment on a coronavirus reading list. Published in 2018, the Fujian-born writer’s story features a mysterious disease that emerges in China before spreading out across the globe and bringing people’s lives to a grinding halt.
Featuring flashbacks to moments set in Fujian as well as the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, the book follows Candace Chen attempting to navigate a post-apocalyptic landscape where, like all great zombie stories, it’s not clear whether she should be more fearful of those infected by the disease or those who have “survived.” But more than that, Severance is a laser-focused satire that takes aim at late capitalism and office politics, while also remaining charming and carrying an emotional kick.
One of only two Chinese recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature (the other being Gao Xingjian, who relinquished his Chinese citizenship in 1998), Mo Yan is among the most important and well-known Chinese writers of the past century. Yan has been praised for his narrative style, which combines unique, colorful set-pieces with historical substance.
This 2006 novel, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, took Yan just 42 days to write. Despite that, the book takes place across a period of 50 years, offering an insight into historical occurrences such as The Great Chinese Famine, Cultural Revolution and Reform and Opening Up.
A transplant to Shenzhen herself, Sheng Keyi’s books tend to revolve around migrants, women and China’s poor. In this highly rated novel, Sheng addresses the phenomenon of migrants who move to the diasporic southern metropolis, Shenzhen.
Featuring a smorgasbord of shady, hungry characters, the novel follows protagonist Qian Xiaohong, who must navigate the hardships of dead-end jobs with the help of her fellow “northern girls.” A novel that is perhaps as relevant to the country’s migrant issues today as it was when it was published back in 2004, this is a heart-wrenching coming of age story perfect for the quieter moments of your self-isolation.
Shanghai-born, San Francisco-residing writer Meng Jin released her debut novel, Little Gods, at the beginning of 2020. The novel has stellar reviews thus far, a lot of which have made the point that Meng turns the typical immigrant story on its head.
Framing the story of family, memory and legacy within the relationship between a mother and her daughter, Little Gods sees the tale of physicist Su Lan played out as her daughter Liya returns the mother’s ashes to China, a country she no longer remembers. Through conversations with key characters in her mother’s life, the story of Su Lan is brought together, with lessons about identity, fulfilment and more at stake.
Often called China’s best-living author, Yu Hua established his lofty international reputation with the publication of To Live, which was initially banned in the country but is now regarded as one of China’s most important novels. While To Live transported readers back to the period of the Cultural Revolution in China, Brothers is a more contemporary offering.
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Providing varying tales of success as related to the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, Yu Hua’s comedic approach in Brothers sees the writer adopt plot lines revolving around cosmetic surgery and beauty, having been inspired by a trip to the US and China’s preparation to host the Miss World competition in 2004.
Banned in China for being too decadent, Zhou Weihui’s first novel caused a storm of controversy upon publication. While it initially proved successful in Shanghai, the novel was later banned by the Chinese government, who then proceeded to shut down the publishing house responsible for the book’s release for three months.
Dealing with themes such as drugs, sex and youthful apathy, Shanghai Baby provides piercing and honest insight into the lives of young college graduates in the Chinese metropolis.
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