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 favoured an urban rather than a rural focus, and 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.
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.
To Live by Yu Hua, translated by Michael Berry – A classic and eminently readable novella spanning half a century of Chinese history, from the late Qing dynasty to the Cultural Revolution, through one moving riches-to-rags story
Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China, edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua and Ra Page – Each short story focuses on a different Chinese city, and this is the perfect introduction to some of China’s best young writers (and translators)
I Love Dollars and Other Stories by Zhu Wen, translated by Julia Lovell – Zhu Wen is a haunting author of the Chinese city, and the title story of this collection is pretty perfect in capturing disaffected urban malaise
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, translated by Cindy Carter – Set in the backwaters of rural Henan, this novel is an unveiled parallel of the blood selling AIDS scandal that shocked China in the early 2000s, and a compelling read
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi, translated by Michael Berry – Wang Anyi is one of China’s best writers, and doesn’t get enough credit. Her novel from the longtong alleys and faded glamour of post-war Shanghai is a treat
The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt – The most readable of Mo Yan’s novels, this countryside fable of corrupt officials and all around venality should put to bed any lingering notions that Mo Yan is a stooge
Playing for Thrills by Wang Shuo, translated by Howard Goldblatt – Nothing if not provocative, Wang Shuo has been dubbed the father of “hooligan literature”; Wild Beasts has inexplicably not been translated yet, so try this Beijing murder story
Wang in Love and Bondage by Wang Xiaobo, translated by Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer – Better known as an essayist, Wang Xiaobo has a dedicated following. This book collects three of his novellas, including his best known work The Golden Age
The Book of Sins by Chen Xiwo, translated by Nicky Harman – A collection of linked novellas and short stories from the dark side of China; something a little different, and not for the faint of heart (or stomach)
Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen – You might not have heard of Xu Zechen, but if you’re a Beijinger you’ll love this novel, which has everything from sandstorms to pirated DVDs
Death Fugue by Sheng Keyi, translated by Shelly Bryant – A surreal, sci-fi, genre-bending allegory of Tiananmen ending up in a parallel dreamland; her previous translated novel Northern Girls is also worth a read
A Perfect Crime by A Yi, translated by Anna Holmwood – A dark crime novel, closer to Albert Camus’ The Stranger than anything more hardboiled, and a sharp indictment of Chinese society, written by a former cop