Paul French selects ten recent translations of Chinese fiction into English to take to the beach this summer to ponder China more deeply as you work on your tan rather than your business plan…
Contemporary Chinese literature is a window into China’s soul. Whether you want to profile your customers, work out who should be your target audience or just understand your friends, neighbours and partners better, reading fiction can be far more illuminating than a dozen business tomes and university case studies.
Love and betrayal in China: Nothing But the Now, Wen Zhen (trans: Dave Haysom)
Seven short stories beginning with ‘Night Train’, the tale of a divorcing couple who decide to make their last journey together before parting forever. ‘Shepherd’ depicts a romance between a teacher and a student; ‘Lungfish’ pits a quiet wife against a garrulous husband; and ‘You’re Still Young’ tells a story of an unhappy woman who doesn’t want to have children. These and all the other stories in this collection are revealing of Chinese life today, personal relationships, societal pressures and ordinary people’s responses to emotional decisions.
Tradition and change in contemporary rural China: The Funeral Cryer, Wenyan Lu
Cambridge-based Lu writes about the strangest, and yet most traditional, of jobs – the professional mourner. Again though, as with so much Chinese fiction at the moment, a strained personal relationship is also at the heart of the story. The book has been praised for its tragic-comic style and for being an illuminating depiction of a ‘left behind’ society, the rural China so many of us never see.
Exploring the capital’s underbelly and underclass: Beijing Sprawl, Xu Zechen (trans: Jeremy Tiang and Eric Abrahamsen)
Xu is a multi-award-winning Chinese author and is sometimes seen as the air to the liumung (hooligan) authors of a previous generation, most notably Wang Shuo. Originally published as short stories, these tales of marginal life on Beijing’s endless fringes hang together well as a novel. Featuring a collection of wanna-be hutong hipsters, gig economy survivors, recent migrants, bored country kids come to town, low-life criminals, thugs and ex-jailbirds, this is not the tourist’s Beijing, and nobody much is living the “China Dream” out in the sprawl.
The lingering legacy of the Cultural Revolution: Ninth Building, Zou Jingzhi (trans: Jeremy Tiang)
These vignettes are drawn from the author Zou’s experiences in the Cultural Revolution, first as a schoolboy and then as a teenager exiled to the countryside. With no particular interest in politics, Zou’s life in the ten years of chaos is sheer tedium, wasted youth and a big dollop of gallows humour. Even if you’ve never read Zou before you’ve probably experienced his work as a regular screenwriter for directors such as Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai.
Family sagas from political upheaval to economic globalisation: The Shaanxi Opera: A Novel, Jia Pingwa (trans: Nicky Harman and Dylan Levi King)
Jia Pingwa comes with accolades – the Mao Dun prize for one among many. A good big beach read – around 700 pages – for the China Watcher is The Shaanxi Opera, which tells the tale of the Bai family, once the most powerful family in the region, who have fallen from status. The decades after the Cultural Revolution and the early period of reform and opening up have not been kind to their fortunes, though their daughter, Snow Bai, is an opera star. Conversely, the Xias, enthusiastic members of the Party, are on the rise as their son Wind Xia moves up through the cadre ranks. So when a marriage between Snow and Wind is announced, who can lose? Perhaps only the local outcast named Spark who dotes on Snow. But society, culture and the world are changing…
China’s poetic history: A Century of Modern Chinese Poetry, edited by Michelle Yeh, Li Zhangbin and Frank Stewart
Holidays are the time to indulge yourself in a big book – and one you can randomly dip in and out of is sometimes a decided pleasure when kids, swimming pools, sightseeing and lunch buffets get in the way of your reading. This anthology might be the answer, including modern poetry from the Chinese-speaking world from the 1910s to the 2010s. Featuring the work of 85 poets from mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, it contains more than 280 poems, both canonical and ‘newly discovered’, and reevaluated in the light of changing tastes. Start at the beginning and work your way assiduously through, or just let the pages open where they will.
Magic and fantasy in China’s far west: Bearing Word, Liu Liangcheng (trans: Jeremy Tiang)
Set in an apocalyptic, imagined ancient Xinjiang where an endless war has been raging for a century, this land is full of wandering ghosts (that only donkeys can see!). Hsieh is thrust into the care of Ku, who is tasked with bringing her across the immense desert between the two warring kingdoms on a journey that will take a year. Liu Liangcheng is from Xinjiang, so the descriptions of the deserts and towns, as well as the plethora of languages spoken, is rendered vividly. Something very different to take away in your suitcase.
A satirical look at China’s Cultural Upheavals: Golden Age, Wang Xiaobo (trans: Yan Yan)
We’ve had to wait a long time for a translation of cult-favourite writer Wang Xiaobo’s massive-selling novel, first published in the 1990s. Praised by Chinese cultural figures as diverse as Ai Weiwei and Jung Chang, at the time, it won legions of fans for being explosive and subversive – the very idea of mocking life and the party during the Cultural Revolution was considered a kind of sacrilege, but also a kind of release. Twenty-one-year-old Wang Er is stuck in a remote mountain commune herding oxen and dreaming of losing his virginity. His dreams come true in the form of beautiful doctor Cheng Qinyang. Their illicit love affair, the dirty-minded Party officials who enjoy their forced confessions a little too much, and Wang’s life under the Maoist yolk with friends, family and lovers is at times simply unputdownable (a much-overused phrase which just happens to be true in this case).
A Chinese writer out there in the world: Elsewhere, Yan Ge
Yan Ge was born in Chengdu but has since lived around the world and has been settled in Dublin for nearly a decade now. Elsewhere is her English language debut, though regular readers of Chinese fiction in translation may well know her previous books The Chilli Bean Paste Clan and Strange Beasts of China. Elsewhere is composed of nine tales, both contemporary and ancient, real and surreal, ranging from China to Dublin to London and Stockholm. What links them is that they are all about dispossession, longing and the diasporic experience.
What is the future of the village in China?: The Sacred Clan, Liang Hong (trans: Esther Tyldesley)
A fantasy that sheds light on the plight of many Chinese villages faced with an ever more urban China and fearing endemic poverty and being left behind for good without young people or services. Wu Township is hollowing out. Its most capable sons and daughters have long since uprooted from their birthplace on the central plains to fuel China’s economic miracle in its metropolises and factory towns. The ancient trees now sit in the shade of a modern aqueduct, funnelling even the village’s precious water to the metropolises beyond. A novel that shows that big political issues can be very personal.