What Chinese books to read?

I recently posted about why it is so impressive when foreigners read Chinese literature, and have received a few responses asking for a list of recommended material. 

I admit I at first brushed off the request. I got my start on Chinese lit via my college’s curriculum, and then kept it up by regularly visiting the book store and library in China. Between graduating from college and maintaining an intellectual edge while living in China, I swam around a bit. I felt overwhelmed by the amount I did not know about China and subsequently despaired a little, complaining to other expats how I felt like I could just never learn enough. Then my more enlightened, older expat friend took me to the local second-hand book shops and showed me how he went about it. Books on sale are cheap, and any book is a learning opportunity, so why discriminate?

I spent a total of 10 RMB ($1-2 USD) every time I went to the book store, and came back with more books than I could carry. I also hit up my friends’ book shelves and the local library. I now have a book shelf  full of uncompleted books. But no need to despair! I take them down and read them at ease, reminding myself that since they are written in Chinese, it is better to be patient and read at my own pace rather than expecting to finish it all at once.

So that is exactly what I recommend if you live in China. If you speak any level of Chinese, you should definitely be trying to read in Chinese. As for specific books, let’s see…

I started with laowai [expat] literature. Rachel Dewoskin (whose father owns Deloitte) wrote about being a white female caricature on Chinese TV in the 1990s in Foreign Babes in Bejiing; Michael Meyers wrote about ancient Beijing’s last breath before the Olympics in The Last Days of Old Beijing; and Peter Hesslerhas a series of acclaimed books. Some expat literature I recommend over others, though will refrain from being too critical here as it can depend on where you are in your China-journey. I found expat lit to be engaging and learned quite a lot before coming to China. After living here for a stint and learning the language, expat lit started to be repetitive and unoriginal. Admittedly it is really hard to write expat lit because you are writing for an audience at home — generally, not other expats. Either way, good expat lit (do your research) is worth checking out for an introduction to China.

Chinese lit everyone should know: the classics, the modern pre-Mao’s, and the post-Mao’s. Like all cultures, China has its big-hitter classics that, if you don’t enjoy per se because they are old and clunky, are at least useful for understanding cultural references (like knowing basic stories from the Bible, or Grimm brothers’ fairy tales). These include Journey to the West 西游记, Water Margin 水浒传,Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国志,The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅,and of course Dream of Red Chambers 红楼梦. And finally, get yourself a book of Tang poetry 唐诗 to at least say you’ve given it a shot. The Tang dynasty was an incredible culturally rich time in Chinese history, a China I feel I barely know now, and it never fails to impress me. Though I don’t know how well it reads in English.

Modern pre-Mao, including a lot of “May Fourth” literature (lit from the 1920s and 30s that was part of China’s opening up to outside ideas). I’m partial to the essays of Hu Shi 胡适 and the short-stories of Lu Xun 鲁迅。These should be manageable in Chinese for people who have been learning for just a few years.

Post-Mao literature: occupies a special place in my heart. The website Today! 《今天》represents a lit magazine that was very popular in Beijing immediately after the fall of the Cultural Revolution (late 1970s). Many of its writers were exiled in the 80s, and they regrouped abroad to start up the magazine again. They have archives on that website that has poems, essays, and short stories from back when, and also up-to-date stuff of course. I’m partial to Bei Dao, whom I befriended this past year, who was previously nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. He and his cohort wrote The Decade of the 1970s 《七十年代》, released in 2008, which is a delightful conglomeration of their personal stories. He also wrote The City Gates Open《城门开》, about growing up in Beijing, which won the Hong Kong Book Prize in 2011.

Of course I am partial to Bei Dao and there remains many others. The blog Paper Republic is an excellent, up-to-date website on contemporary Chinese literature. And finally, the poet Xi Chuan 西川 is a name that people should know. His blog is delightful, mainly because he himself is a delightful person and an excellent poet. Lucas Klein has done several translations for him and I enjoy them quite a bit, even if I am more partial to prose.

 This is only a small, very small list of recommendations. Please reply and leave your own recommendations as you wish. I hope that it helps and the expats of China go raid their corner bookstores, and China-lovers abroad likewise raid their local Amazon. As I said in my first post in 2010, happy reading — 好好儿读啊~

This entry was published on July 18, 2012 at 9:09 pm and is filed under China, Laowai. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “What Chinese books to read?

  1. There’s also some risqué ancient Chinese literature such as “The Carnal Prayer Mat.” As far as modern Chinese lit, I am a big fan of Su Tong, namely “Wives and Concubines” and “Rice”. Laowai books can (occasionally) be good reads too – when they aren’t trying to prescribe ways to “save China from itself.” Alan Paul’s “Big in China”, about a foreigner who plays in a Beijing blues band, was fun. Food-writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper” was a unique spin on the laowai experience. Tom Carter’s photography book “CHINA: Portrait of a People” has a permanent spot on my coffee table. Paul French’s true-crime “Midnight in Peking” was gripping. And, of course, *anything* by Jonathan Spence. So many books about China, so little time…

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