Paul French recommends some of the best Chinese novels, short stories and poetry translated and published so far in 2023. Each of these works has something vital to say about modern China and can deepen our understanding of the country
The interior life of urban China: Ghost Music, An Yu
From the acclaimed author of 2020’s Braised Pork comes another novel with a culinary feel – mushrooms and all things fungi this time. But the novel is really about urban lives that are seemingly content and comfortable yet viewed by society as unfulfilled. Song Yan wants a child, her husband isn’t interested, even rebuffing his Yunnanese mother’s persuasive arguments. Eventually, Song Yan bonds with her mother-in-law over cooking mushrooms and starts to have surreal, and perhaps revelatory, dreams.
A more diverse China than usually imagined: The Sojourn Teashop, Jia Pingwa (trans: Nicky Harman and Jun Liu)
In the smoggy polluted town of Xijing sits Hai Ruo’s teashop, where a group of friends, the Sisterhood, gather for tea and gossip. In their tales and anecdotes are many strands of contemporary Chinese life: Russian expats, hotpot tycoons, a tormented writer. However, money, debts and the ever-constant demand to strive for more threaten to pull the Sisterhood apart.
Taking the pulse of Hong Kong: Collected Stories, David TK Wong
Few contemporary writers capture the remaining vibrancy and buzz of Hong Kong as David TK Wong, who draws upon his experiences as a journalist, teacher, government official and businessman. These 18 stories feature barmen and labourers, jockeys and expat bureaucrats, scholars and tycoons – all navigating the metropolis as best they can.
Poetry from China’s Hui minority: How We Kill a Glove, Ma Lan (trans: Charles A Laughlin and Martine Bellen)
Ma Lan is a Muslim Chinese poet from Sichuan who worked for the China Construction Bank and now lives in America. Her work has appeared in numerous poetry and literary journals. Her poetry, largely of place, is at turns surreal and occasionally political in tone, sometimes physical and sometimes metaphysical, but always compelling reading.
Talking about Hong Kong through codes: Owlish, Dorothy Tse (trans: Natascha Bruce)
Owlish has been one of the most praised novels of 2023 so far. A surreal and often dystopian view of an imaginary city called Nevers that has obvious parallels with modern Hong Kong., Hong Kong author Dorothy Tse’s extraordinary debut novel is a boldly inventive exploration of life under repressive conditions.
Understanding memory, family and history through poetry: The Rupture Tense, Jenny Xie
Anhui-born, American-raised Jenny Xie’s new poetry collection bounces from social amnesia to the long-lasting fallout of the Cultural Revolution, dealing with how personal and collective memories can be a drain or a gain of the psyche. Many of the poems were inspired by the Cultural Revolution photography of Li Zhenshen, as well as the aftershocks of such dramatic and tragic historical events felt even years after and far away.
Troubled Teens: Bad Kids, Zijin Chen (trans: Michelle Deeter)
Think troubled teens are just a Western phenomenon? Think again. A man kills his wealthy in-laws, thinking it’s the perfect crime, but teenager Chaoyang and his friends saw it all. An opportunity for blackmail presents itself, and the kids start down a dark path that will lead to the unravelling of all their lives.
The Chinese underworld laid bare: Wake Me Up at 9 in the Morning, A Yi (trans: Nicky Harman)
A Yi is that rare and thrilling thing in Chinese literature – a genre writer. In this case (unsurprisingly from an ex-cop) a crime writer. His novel from a few years ago, A Perfect Crime, won several awards and saw him compared to the American master of the internal psychopathic killer novella, Jim Thompson. In his new book, mobster Hongyang is found dead after a night of debauched drinking. As his funeral draws near, those who knew him come together to look back on a life characterised by corruption, deceit and a flair for violence. Their recollections will keep Hongyang’s legacy alive, with terrifying consequences.
Journey into the wilds of China: Mystery Train, Can Xue (trans: Natascha Bruce)
A fever dream of a novel about a crazed train journey and a chicken-farm employee named Scratch. Can Xue’s work is known for being allegorical and stylistically unique. She creates a cast of passengers – a kitchen maid, a police officer, a mysterious “top-bunk” man – who all jump in and out of this freewheeling novella.
A 1920s novel of London through Chinese eyes: Mr Ma and Son, Lao She (trans: William Dolby)
Penguin Modern Classics has issued a new reprint of Lao She’s great novel of London, Er Ma, or Mr Ma and Son. It was reissued a few years ago in this translation by the former head of Chinese at Edinburgh University that had languished in the British Library’s archives. Lao She lived in London for four years in the 1920s, and this is his witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud homage to the city. It depicts London through a Chinese lens with a cast of bonkers missionaries, preposterous landladies, a daughter looking for a little love and the elderly Mr Ma and his son navigating their way through this most strange of lands.