5 Must-Read Chinese Novels for 2019
Time to get your reading glasses on
by Jia Pingwa
Translated by the award-winning Nicky Harman, Broken Wings is a typically controversial novel from one of the giants of Chinese literature.
It’s the story of a young Chinese woman named Butterfly who is kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery in a remote mountain village. Her new ‘owner’, known as Bright Black, is a violent drunk whose lack of education and low income mean that he is unable to find a wife. He pays a trafficker 35,000 RMB for Butterfly, who is imprisoned in his cave, raped by him and several other men, and then gives birth to a boy. The novel is written in the first person and begins on Butterfly’s 178th day of captivity. It explores how the investment in Chinese cities has led to in a decline in rural areas, with women, money and resources all moving away.
Jia Pingwa is one of China’s most popular and prolific authors. His fiction mostly focuses on the lives of common people in rural areas within his home province of Shaanxi, and he often writes in his local dialect. One of his best-known novels, Ruined City, a contemporary social satire, was banned in China for 17 years because of its explicit sexual content.
Empires of Dust
by Jiang Zilong
Jiang Zilong is known as the founder of ‘Reform literature’ dealing with China’s industrial revolution beginning in the late 1970s. Most of his previous works are set in and around factories, but for this novel, he wanted to explore how the policy of reform and opening up has changed the lives of poor farming communities in China’s countryside.
Empires of Dust follows the story of a kind-hearted, hardworking and entrepreneurial peasant named Guo Cunxian who lives in an ordinary small village. He starts a business making coffins and eventually becomes rich, lifting his fellow villagers out of poverty in the process. However, the corrupting forces of money, desire and power threaten to destroy everything he has built.
The book took 11 years to write, and Jiang spent a long time in the countryside of several Chinese provinces in an attempt to reconnect with his roots. On his travels, the local people told him many folk stories, some of which he incorporated into the book. Jiang has described peasants as being the driving force behind China’s modernisation, and he wanted to understand their experience. This English-language version was translated by Christopher Payne and Olivia Milburn, who previously collaborated on the bestselling English translation of Mai Jia’s spy novel Decoded.
The Elm Tree: Seeds of Change
by Ma Pinglai
The Elm Tree: Seeds of Change is set in the hutongs of Old Beijing in the first half of the 20th century, beginning a few years after the fall of the Qing dynasty. Amid a chaotic city inhabited by merchants, hawkers and street urchins, the indolent protagonist, Qi Yuexuan, is torn between tradition and the new order and forced to reappraise his values. The novel documents a forgotten way of life that was swept away by foreign occupation and civil war.
Born in 1953, the author spent his formative years in Beijing. His education was truncated by the Cultural Revolution, and he spent six years in the military in Inner Mongolia. He returned to Beijing in 1975, where he worked in a factory and then took on various teaching jobs before setting up his own business in the mid-1980s after China had launched its policy of reform and opening up.
In 2003, Ma devoted himself to writing. He won the Lao She Literary Award for Outstanding Long-form Novels in 2014; two years later, The Elm Tree won the inaugural Haoran Literature Prize. He is a member of the prestigious Beijing Writers’ Association and has been referred to as the “upcoming superstar of Chinese literature”.
Mastiffs of the Plateau
by Yang Zhijun
Yang Zhijun has been hailed as China’s finest storyteller about the Tibetan highlands, and his writing has been widely acclaimed as the definitive work embodying the spirit of the Tibetan plateau and its people.
Based on first-hand accounts from the author’s father, Mastiffs of the Plateau centres around Tibet’s legendary mastiffs – a large dog breed that is at the heart the nomadic culture in that part of the world. The mastiffs are known for their fierce loyalty and strict moral code, in contrast to their mortal enemies, the wolves. The story follows a Han journalist and a mastiff as they struggle to save some children who have been caught up in a tribal blood feud.
The book began as the author’s own search for spiritual redemption. It became an instant bestseller that sparked China’s fascination with Tibetan culture, and Yang has since written two sequels, which were also bestsellers. The book was adapted into an animated film The Tibetan Dog, which was screened at France’s Annecy International Animated Film Festival and marked the first joint production between Chinese and Japanese film companies. A prolific author, Yang has won multiple awards for his works set in Tibet and the seaside city of Qingdao, where he currently resides.
A Crowded Silence
by Li Lanni
This powerful memoir follows the extraordinary life of Li Lanni, a former cancer patient struggling with depression in the 21st-century China.
Li grew up on military bases in remote mountainous regions where her parents were stationed, and she has spent most of her adult life working as a writer in the freewheeling commercial centre of Shenzhen, where, as part of the city’s first wave of migration, she has witnessed its dramatic economic development since the early 1980s. Her works include novels, screenplays and essays; her documentary script A Story of Macao, produced and broadcast by China Central Television, won the National Award of Excellence.
Following a long battle with cancer, Li was diagnosed with depression in 2003, and the deeply personal diary entries that she wrote soon after this make up part of A Crowded Silence. The book also explores mental health issues among the Chinese people and captures the life and times of a generation struggling for health and happiness in a rapidly changing society. First published in China in 2009, the book was selected to be part of the International Publications of Chinese Classics Project set up by the China News Publication Bureau. A French translation of A Crowded Silence was published in 2016.
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