It was 1989

Tank Man on display in Beijing’s Military History Museum – David Moser

I was in Beijing, and it was 1989. This fact did not seem at all remarkable to me at the time, of course. It was January, I was on the campus of Peking University, and there were no telltale signs that the coming spring would be such a momentous one, though in retrospect numerology provided an omen with the confluence of all those auspicious nines – 1919 for the May Fourth movement, 1949 for Liberation, even 1789 for the French Revolution.

There was, to be sure, something in the air – a feeling of seismic shift. Deng Xiaoping’s decade had unleashed a torrent of creative chaos, and students felt a growing sense of impatience and empowerment. I had heard accounts of a professor called Fang Lizhi who was openly talking about democratic reform to auditoriums full of college kids, and there had already been a brief wave of student demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing, the rumblings of which could still be felt on the Peking University campus, known as Beida.


12 Best Chinese Contemporary Fiction Books

Must-read novels and short stories from modern China

The China Channel is selling its soul and running a short summer series of listicles: on literature, film and China books. We begin with the fiction, focusing on contemporary fare from the last decades, to better give a feel for modern China through its novels. The list is selective and subjective, and partly determined by what is available in translation.

We deliberately left out Chinese writers overseas – Gao Xingjian, Ha Jin, Ma Jian, Guo Xiaolu, Amy Tan and Yiyun Li to name a few, all of whom could have formed another list of their own – to focus on novelists and short story writers living in the mainland. We also favoured an urban rather than a rural focus, as it's so much more relevant to the China that most visitors see. For sure there are plenty of fantastic titles that we’ve missed – but this will be a good start for the curious, and we hope it inspires you to find new favourites and rediscover old ones.


My Old Faithful

The botany of a marriage – fiction by Yang Huang

As soon as I set foot in the nursery’s garden I find the auspicious flower: a red double peony. Its huge blossoms burst forth as if brimming over with rose-red joy. I stand in awe, while the store clerk tells me its strong stems never fall, even in the harshest weather. Its name, Old Faithful, makes it perfect for my home, as my husband and I are going to have our thirtieth wedding anniversary in two weeks.

“Yes,” I say.

I carry the potted peony to the storefront. My husband is talking to a young woman with a fluffy, chrysanthemum-like hairdo. “Can you give me a hand?” I call out to him. The woman glances at me, backs away into the crowd, and boards the bus.

My husband takes my heavy pot and clamps it onto the back seat of his bike. “You scared away some business,” he tells me with a smile.

“What sort of business?”

“The bawdy kind.” He crisscrosses the pot with a nylon rope and fastens a dead knot. “I’m pretty sure she was a prostitute.”


In the Gutter, Looking at the Stars

Harvey Thomlinson reviews Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa

Among the middle-class denizens of the literary city, outsiders like Jia Pingwa often feel a responsibility to inscribe their own people within its walls. Some such sense seems to have informed Happy Dreams, which follows poor laborer Happy Liu from Freshwind – a Shaanxi village like the one where Jia grew up – to the provincial capital of Xi’an, where Jia now lives as a successful author, his international reputation currently cresting.

The novel persuasively sketches the continuities that bind city and countryside in modern China as Happy and his friend Wufu are received by their mercurial fellow villager Gem Han, who has made it big as one of Xi’an’s four kings of trash. They are assigned a patch of Prosper Street to pick trash, and lodgings at Leftover House, in a muddy urban village where migrants survive amid squalor. Jia Pingwa’s perceptiveness shines through in startling details about the bare boards the poor sleep on, the stale food they eat, the hurtful contempt they suffer. The descriptions of maggoty toilets will stick in some readers’ throats like the moldy bread that Happy and Wufu subsist on.