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Best 30 Books to Understand Modern China (Recommended by What’s on Weibo)

The best books to understand modern China – from society and history to gender and (online) language.

Manya Koetse

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A list of the best English-language books on Chinese history, online environment, modern Chinese culture and more, recommended by What’s on Weibo.

In the What’s on Weibo inbox, we often receive messages from readers who are looking for recommendations of what books to read on various China-related subjects.

It led to a compilation of this list on our resource page of recommendations that readers of What’s on Weibo may also appreciate.

This list was compiled based on own preferences and that of many readers whom we asked about their favorite sources within this category. If you think certain books are not here that should be here within these categories, please let us know in the comments below and we might compile a second list in the future.

There are many great books out there on modern China, and a lot of them are written in Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Dutch, and many other languages – but for the scope of this particular list, we have chosen just to focus on the books that have come out in the English language.

 
ON CHINESE MODERN HISTORY
 

Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945

by Rana Mitter, 2014

Rana Mitter is a British historian and political scientist who specializes in China’s history, and we’re a huge fan of his refreshing perspectives and selection of topics. In Forgotten Ally, Mitter notes that “In the West, (..) the living, breathing legacy of China’s wartime experience continues to be poorly understood.” Mitter’s focus is essential because a proper understanding of China’s wartime experience is also key to understanding the development of modern China. Interestingly, outside of the USA, this same book is sold under a different title: China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival. This book became an Economist Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year.

Get on Amazon: Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945
Get on iTunes: Forgotten Ally – Rana Mitter
Get on Bookdepository: Forgotten Ally – Rana Mitter

 

Mao’s Great Famine – The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62

by Frank Dikötter, 2017 (2011)

It is estimated that more than 45 million lives were claimed during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) – a project that was meant to make China a greater nation than the United Kingdom within a time frame of 15 years. It is a dark and important period in the history of modern China that is written about with great detail in this work by Frank Dikötter, in which he explains how such an ambitious plan could have turned out so catastrophic. Dikötter’s research is impressive and not to be missed for anyone searching for deeper insights into China’s modern history.

Get on Amazon: Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62
Get on iTunes: Mao’s Great Famine – Frank Dikötter
Get on Book Depository: Mao’s Great Famine
Audiobook: Mao’s Great Famine

 

● Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

by Rana Mitter, 2008

Oxford University Press has a series of short introductions to over 200 different subjects, from Globalization to Foucault and from Shakespeare to Nothing. Well-written, compact, light-weight, and affordable, these books are the perfect starting point to any topic – and this edition is a great and concise introduction to Modern China; especially since it’s been written by the acclaimed Rana Mitter. (BTW the Introduction to Modern Japan by the excellent Chris Goto-Jones is also to be recommended.)

Get on Amazon: Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Get on iTunes: Modern China: A Very Short Introduction
Audiobook: Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Unabridged) – Rana Mitter
Get on Book Depository: Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

 

● Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present


by Peter Hessler, 2006

This is one of the works many of our readers recommend as a book that really helps to understand China. This is not a classical work on Chinese history – we were doubting whether or not to put in the ‘Chinese society’ section; it belongs in both. Through personal and historical narratives, Peter Hessler moves between present and history in this work, telling stories that go from the ancient oracle bones to modern-day urbanization.

Get on Amazon: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
Get on iTunes: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
Audiobook: Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China (Unabridged) – Peter Hessler

 

● The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History

by R. Keith Schoppa, 2000

If the Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History is not on your bookshelf yet, it should be. It is the to-go book on China’s modern history that is recommended to every student when first getting into the modern history of China. Schoppa has a very clear and no-nonsense approach to Chinese history, explaining the importance of crucial events over the past century and how they came to form modern China.

Get on Amazon:The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History
Get on Book Depository: The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History

 

● The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan Spence, 1991

Although this work, more elaborate than the aforementioned one by Schoppa, is one of the recommended essential works on Chinese modern history, we’d also recommend to consider Jonathan Spence’s Gate of Heavenly Peace as a book of choice for an introduction to modern China.

Get on Amazon: The Search for Modern China
Audiobook: The Search for Modern China (Unabridged) – Jonathan D. Spence
Get on Book Depository: The Search for Modern China

 

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

by Jung Chang, 2003 (1991)

Practically every garage sale or thrift shop nowadays has a copy of Wild Swans lying around since its immense success in the 1990s. The book is an account of the tumultuous Chinese 20th century from the perspective of three generations of women. It is a personal account of Jung Chang, the author, but offers a glimpse into an incredible time in the history of China in a personal and captivating way that more formal history books could never do. An absolute recommendation for anyone who wants to know more about how the Cultural Revolution and the period before and after affected Chinese women, families, and society at large.

Get on Amazon: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Get on iTunes: Wild Swans – Jung Chang
Get on Book Depository: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Audiobook: Wild Swans 

 
ON CHINESE SOCIETY & POPULAR CULTURE
 

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

by Ian Johnson, 2017

While many books on the transformation of Chinese modern society focus on the mushrooming of new companies, the rapid urbanization of China, or its staggering consumerism, Ian Johnson takes on an entirely different, yet so important, topic in this work; religion and spirituality in the post-Mao era. He does so in a way that sometimes reads like a novel, vividly writing about people’s attitudes on religion and how some have made it their life’s work to safeguard it. One person interviewed by Johnson for this book said: “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor. But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing and that’s a spiritual life.” This work is quite essential for anyone who wants to understand more about what happened to China’s religious life after the end of the Cultural Revolution – it gives crucial perspectives on it and creates an understanding among readers that Chinese religions may not be what you thought they were.

Get on Amazon: The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
Get on iTunes: The Souls of China – Ian Johnson
Get on BookDepository: Souls of China

 

Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World’s Most Populated Country

by Wade Shepard, 2015

Brand new skyscrapers and shopping malls, but silent streets and empty apartments. China’s so-called ‘ghost cities’ are a hot topic in the media nowadays. The city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia, is one of the most famous. In 2015, author Wade Shepard published this book about China’s ghost cities. Shepard’s account is refreshing in how he argues that the term ‘ghost cities’ is actually not that appropriate because rather than places that once lived and then died, these places are the future cities built by world luxury developers who are working on constructing new urban utopias all over China.

Get on Amazon: Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World’s Most Populated Country (Asian Arguments)
Get on iTunes: Ghost Cities of China
Get on BookDepository: Ghost Cities of China

 

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

by Evan Osnos, 2014

Like Peter Hessler, whose work is also in this list, Evan Osnos is one of the names that recurringly comes up when asking people about their favorite books to understand China. In Age of Ambition, Osnos focuses on ‘aspiration’ as being one of the most important ‘fevers’ that characterizes the transformation of China – a country where, besides this force of aspiration, there is also that of a strong authoritarian rule. Through the themes of ‘fortune’, ‘truth’, and ‘faith’ – all of which were not accessible to China’s older generations due to poverty and the political climate – Osnos captures the country’s current situation through the stories of men and women who took the risks to change their lives.

Get on Amazon: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Get on iTunes: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Get on BookDepository: Age of Ambition

 

China’s Urban Billion: The Story behind the Biggest Migration in Human History

Tom Miller, 2012

The phrase “the biggest human migration the world” has almost become a cliche now when media talk about China’s urbanization. But in this work, Miller goes behind that phrase to explain China’s transformation from poor country to economic superpower, and gives insights into how China’s so-called ‘urbanization’ is actually “bogus”, because many of those living in the cities have no access to urban services and facilities due to China’s hukou household registration system. The situation of China’s ‘floating population’ is essential to understand; it plays a huge role in the everyday topics being discussed on Chinese social media, too.

Get on Amazon: China’s Urban Billion: The Story behind the Biggest Migration in Human History (Asian Arguments)

 

Visual Political Communication in Popular Chinese Television Series

by Florian Schneider, 2012

Florian Schneider, lecturer at Leiden University, is an expert in taking popular phenomena or events in China and analyzing the greater discourse behind them. In this work, that was awarded with the 2014 EastAsiaNet Award, Schneider focuses on Chinese TV drama series; with China being one of the largest producer and consumer of TV drama in the world, this form of entertainment plays a significant role in the popular culture of China and is a powerful tool to guide public opinion. Schneider gives a nuanced overview of the complicated processes involved in producing TV dramas in China, examining important and highly interesting questions relating to the major players in the TV drama market and how they influence drama discourses, the political-ideological frameworks of television series, and the role of TV entertainment in regulating Chinese society. There’s just one downside to this publication – which is that it is not exactly cheap. However, it is very worthwhile for any student of China Studies or anyone interested in popular culture and (media) politics in China, so if you can’t purchase yourself you could ask your library to do so.

Get on Amazon: Visual Political Communication in Popular Chinese Television Series (China Studies)

 

China in Ten Words

by Yu Hua, 2011 (translated from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr)

“If I were to try to attend each and every aspect of modern China, there would be no end to this endeavour, and the book would go on longer than The Thousand and One Nights,” Yu Hua writes: “So I limit myself to just ten words.” By taking on ten different words and concepts, such as People (人民), Leader (领袖), or Revolution (革命), Yu takes readers through the social complexities and contrasts of modern China – its politics, history, society, and culture.

Get on Amazon: China in Ten Words
Get on iTunes: China in Ten Words
Audiobook: China in Ten Words (Unabridged)

 

Celebrity in China

edited by Louise Edwards,‎ Elaine Jeffreys, 2010

China has a booming celebrity culture, which plays an enormous role in the social media environment and popular culture in general. This is also the reason why this book in this list; it is the first book-length exploration of celebrities in contemporary China. In a collection of academic studies, this book goes explores a wide range of ‘celebrities’ in China, such as literary celebrities or online celebrities (who remembers Furong Jiejie, the first social media superstar?!).

Get on Amazon: Celebrity in China
Get on Bookdepository: Celebrity in China

 

● China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society

by Daniel Bell, 2010 (2008)

What is it like to be a Westerner teaching political philosophy in an officially Marxist state? Why do Chinese sex workers sing karaoke with their customers? And why do some Communist Party cadres get promoted if they care for their elderly parents? These are some of the questions addressed in this book by Daniel Bell, drawing on personal experiences to explain how Chinese society is transforming so quickly while still sticking to old traditions – of which Confucianism is one of the most important ones.

Get on Amazon: China’s New Confucianism
Get on iTunes: China’s New Confucianism
Get on Book Depository: China’s New Confucianism

 

Pop Culture China! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle

by Kevin Latham, 2007

Pop culture in China changes faster than the chef’s special of the day, but nevertheless, this work is still very relevant; it might miss some of the more contemporary forms of popular culture, but goes deep into the roots of pop culture in China back to the early days of the 20th century, the Cultural Revolution, and the early years of radio and television. Anyone interested in pop culture in China won’t be able to understand its current environment without understanding where it came from – and this book provides a full overview of that environment from 1919 to 2007.

Get on Amazon: Pop Culture China!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle
Get on Book Depository: Pop Culture China!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle

 
ON CHINESE (ONLINE) MEDIA
 

The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China

Edited by Jacques deLisle, Avery Goldstein, and Guobin Yang, 2016

It is somewhat difficult to recommend any book on China’s online developments; the changes are happening so fast that any book on the topic is bound to be outdated from the moment it is published. This academic publication, however, is an insightful work that consists of a total of nine chapters in which the authors make sense of China’s online environment. Both Chapter 2, in which Marina Svensson explains the idea of connectivity and Weibo’s ‘micro-community,’ and Chapter 2, in which Zhengshi Shi and Guobin Yang write about new media empowerment in China, are especially relevant in this publication.

Get on Amazon: The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China
Get on Book Depository: The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China

 

Micro-blogging Memories: Weibo and Collective Remembering in Contemporary China


by Eileen Le Han, 1st ed, 2016

In this 2016 publication, Eileen Le Han looks at the development of microblogging platform Sina Weibo from the perspective of collective memory. The author notes that there is a strong desire to remember what is happening and an anxiety over forgetting on this platform. What is remembered for what reasons, and what is forgotten? This book gives a profound insight into how collective memory is made on Weibo, and the role of Chinese media and journalism in this process.

Get on Amazon:Micro-blogging Memories: Weibo and Collective Remembering in Contemporary China
Get on iTunes:Micro-blogging Memories: Weibo and Collective Remembering in Contemporary China

 

Religion and Media in China

Edited by Stefania Travagnin, 2016

Okay, okay, there is some bias in recommending this book – as editor-in-chief of What’s on Weibo, I personally wrote one of the chapters in this book about the Confucian influences on the portrayal of women in China’s television drama (which actually all started with one of these very first articles ever published on What’s on Weibo). But the 15 different chapters in this book each give unique insights into the world of media and religion in China, such as that on Buddhism online or digital Islam, which will be helpful and refreshing to anyone interested in modern China and how it deals with religion and the media.

Get on Amazon: Religion and Media in China

 

Internet Literature in China

By Michel Hockx, 2015

Chinese internet literature, wangluo wenxue (网络文学), is a unique and fascinating part of China’s online culture, and Hockx is the first one to provide such a comprehensive and well-written survey in English of this phenomenon. Not only does he describe and explain the (short) history of Internet literature in China, especially focusing on the 2000-2013 period, he also provides examples of the innovative nature of online literature and analyzes how it pushes the boundaries of China’s highly controlled publishing system.

Get on Amazon: Internet Literature in China
Get on iTunes: Internet Literature in China
Get on Bookdepository: Internet Literature in China

 

Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet Is Transforming China and Changing Everything

By Liz Carter, 2015

Besides that Carter is a really fun and interesting person to follow on Twitter (@withoutdoing), she is also the author of this 2015 book that sheds light on China’s internet, censorship, government, and society in the Weibo era – with a focus on those years in which social media really flourished in mainland China.

Get on Amazon: Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet Is Transforming China and Changing Everything
Get on iTunes: Let 100 Voices Speak : How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything

 

Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China

by Daniela Stockman, 2014 (2012)

Daniela Stockman is a Professor of Digital Politics and Media at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. In this book, she offers an in-depth introduction and exploration of the various market forces in Chinese media, going deeper into the existing polarisation in discourses on media marketizing in China – which is that they either emphasize growing liberalization or growing control. She argues that in the case of the PRC, market-based media promote regime stability rather than destabilizing authoritarianism. This is not a light read but a very well-researched and elucidating work on China’s marketized media relevant to anyone studying Media or China’s media environment in specific.

Get on Amazon: Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China
Get on BookDepository: Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China

 
ON DIGITAL DEVELOPMENTS & TECH IN CHINA
 

The House That Jack Ma Built

by Duncan Clark, 2016

If you ever have been to a Chinese bookstore, you’ll know that there’s always an entire shelf or section dedication to Alibaba founder Jack Ma, the hero of post-socialist China. Hundreds of books have been written about him and his company. Because he plays such an important role in the business (and celebrity) culture of China today, we had to include at least one book about Ma in this list. According to Dutch China tech blogger Ed Sander, this book is worth reading for those who want to know more about the business side of how Ma created his empire. The initial chapters also focus on Jack Ma as a person, but generally dives deeper into the power of Alibaba and how the company was built, also creating more understanding on the scale and speed of China’s economic transformation in general.

Get on Amazon: Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
iTunes: Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
Get on Book Depository: The House that Jack Ma Built

 

Little Rice : Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream


By Clay Shirky, 2015

Little Rice is an easy-to-read case study that tells the story of the rise of one of the world’s largest mobile manufacturers – yet its name is still unknown to those less familiar with Chinese brand names: Xiaomi (literally meaning: ‘little rice’). So many books have already been written in the English language about the success of companies such as Apple or Samsung; Xiaomi does deserve more attention, and this account of the rise of this tech giant also shines a light on Chinese political power and how Chinese tech brands are shaping present-day economy in China.

Get on Amazon: Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream
Get on iTunes: Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream
Book Depository: Little Rice : Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream

 

China’s Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business

by Edward Tse, 2015

Tse’s book on some of China’s biggest and most relevant companies has become a very popular one within its category over the past few years. Tse does not just provide an oversight of the companies that are really changing the Chinese market and are impacting the world, but tells the story behind them and their motivations, with a focus on business strategies and China’s economic environment.

Get on Amazon: China’s Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business
Get on iTunes: China’s Disruptors – Edward Tse

 
ON SEX AND GENDER
 

Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower

by Roseann Lake, 2018

What’s on Weibo already featured an article on Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower and the author when it just came out earlier this year. Lake brings a deeply insightful and captivating account of China’s so-called ‘leftover women’ – the unmarried females who are shaping the future of the PRC. She does so in a playful way, telling the stories of China’s young, single females through the various women she has encountered during the years of living and working in China. For those familiar with the controversy about this book when it just came out with regards to Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher (also in this list), we recommend reading both books so readers can form their own opinion based on the texts at hand.

Get on Amazon: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Get on iTunes: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Get on Bookdepository: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Audiobook: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower

 

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

by Leta Hong Fincher, 2014

Fincher’s book on Leftover Women is a refreshing work within the topic of China and gender, which argues that the labeling of women as being “leftover” is part of a state-sponsored media campaign that has created a greater disparity between men and women in China today – contrary to a popular assumption that women have benefited from the market reforms in post-socialist China. Fincher explores and explains the challenges women in China face when it comes to issues such as real estate, economic well-being, and gender inequality within marriage. In doing so, this book has become an important work for anyone studying gender relations in China today.

Get on Amazon: Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China
Get on iTunes: Leftover Women – Leta Hong Fincher
Get on Bookdepository: Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

 

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China

by Richard Burger, 2012

Burger, who once ran Peking Duck, one of the first English-language blogs on China, offers a colorful and different perspective on Chinese culture and society through the lens of how it deals with sex. As the author points out, there are some dramatic contradictions when it comes to sex in China; on the one hand, society seems to be very liberal on sexuality, on the other hand, it is extremely repressed. Burger discusses a variety of topics, from marriage, views on premarital sex and virginity to prostitution and homosexuality.

Get on Amazon: Behind the Red Door: Sex in China
Get on iTunes: Behind the Red Door
Get on Book Depository: Behind the Red Door

 

Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China

by Leslie T. Chang, 2010 (2008)

Chang’s work has become a classic within its field, not just because of the highly relevant topic of this book, but also because of the captive narrative voice of the author. With the book being divided into two parts of The City and The Village, Chang describes how the economic rise of China has transformed the lives of many women, who have come from the countryside to spend days on end working in one of China’s many factories. This book focuses on the factory life of various women in Dongguan, southern China, and the hardships and hierarchy they face in everyday factory life.

Get on Amazon: Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China
Get on iTunes: Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China
Get on Bookdepository: Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China

 
ON (ONLINE) CHINESE LANGUAGE
 

A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language

by David Moser, 2017

Besides the fact that Moser’s writing style makes this a delight to read, A Billion Voices is just a work that any serious student of Chinese language should read as it provides great insights in how putonghua or standard Chinese came to be the common language of the PRC – even if approximately one third of the population does not even speak it. With so many languages and dialects alive in China today, Moser provides an essential and accessible linguistic history of China.

Get on Amazon: A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language
Get on iTunes: A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language
Get on Bookdepository: A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language

 

● (Bonus Mention -#31-) China Online: Netspeak and Wordplay Used by over 700 Million Chinese Internet Users

by Véronique Michel, 2015

As an extra mention on this list, for a fun and light work – China Online is a concise book by translator and multilingual netizen Véronique Michel, that offers an exploration into China’s rapidly changing society and its flourishing Internet environment, where new expressions emerge every day. Although any book on a topic such as this will inescapably be outdated from the moment it is published, Michels has nevertheless created an informative and entertaining introduction to China’s online language that will still be relevant as a reference to the popular expressions that once were (and some still are) – although it’s just a short and really light read, it does help to understand the environment and the ‘feel’ of this online culture where new Chinese expressions come from.

On Amazon: China Online
On iTunes: China Online
On Bookdepository: China Online

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.


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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bruce Moon

    April 20, 2018 at 2:58 am

    I would add Ian Johnson’s Souls of China and Frank Dikotter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s Hiatory and The Tragedy of Liberation.

  2. Avatar

    Mike Cairnduff

    April 20, 2018 at 11:51 am

    Wild Swans is still my favourite! An old classic 🙂

  3. Avatar

    Ed Sander

    April 20, 2018 at 10:08 pm

    Some more suggestions:

    On Chinese young people:
    Wish Lanterns – Alec Ash (probably my favourite of the last couple of years)
    China’s Millennials – EricFish (I liked this better than Oracle Bones)

    Business:
    China’s Super Consumers – Michael Zakkour and Savio Chan
    All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Lines of Marketing to China’s Youth – Mary Bergstrom
    Alibaba’s World – Porter Erisman

    Sex, Corruption etc:
    Red Lights – Zheng Tian Tian
    Anxious Wealth – John Osburg
    Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel – in Ho and Wen’guang Huang (on the Bo Xilai scandal)

    Various stories about China:
    From The Dragon’s Mouth – Ana Fuentes
    China Road – Rob Gifford
    Out of Moa’s Shadow – Philip P. Pan
    Environment:
    When A Billion Chinese Jump – Jonathan Watts

  4. Avatar

    LH

    April 22, 2018 at 8:14 am

    Adding another vote in favor of Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns, which along with Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition is my favorite book on Modern China.

  5. Avatar

    cathy

    August 30, 2018 at 9:46 pm

    In this Millennium right now cheating is becoming so common and normal, I don’t seem to understand why we as a people have to live our life’s that way. So much heartbreaks, you meet someone you fall in love with,which was not even genuine in the first instance, like it’s a normal way of life now. People find it hard to stay committed again. It’s becoming a thing. Getting information & data you need is not a big deal. Sometimes the truth needs to be unveiled by whatsoever means necessary. I’d suggest : SPYLORDHACK {@}- G-m-a-i-……. c-o-m or whatsapp or call……………..+1 (484) 964 3748

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China Books & Literature

Nineteen Eighty-Four Turns 70: Orwellian China and Orwell in China

“We still need independent, courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”

Manya Koetse

Published

on

First published

George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four turned seventy this week. For a country that is labeled ‘Orwellian’ so often, it is perhaps surprising that the modern classic, describing a nightmarish totalitarian state, is well-read within the People’s Republic of China and is not banned from its bookstores.

“Big Brother is Watching You” is the sentence that people around the world have come to know through the novel 1984 or Nineteen Eighty-Four, that turned 70 this week.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel about a nightmare future in the year 1984. It takes place in a totalitarian state where the Party is central to people’s everyday lives and where propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, and manipulation of the past are ubiquitous.

The book revolves around Winston Smith, a citizen of London, Oceania, who works at Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) and who secretly hates the society he lives in with its all-controlling Party, the ‘Big Brother’ leader, and the Thought Police.

Smith is critical of the workings of the Party and the lies it imposes, which then pass into history and become ‘truth’; as the Party slogan goes: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

 

“Orwellian China”

 

There is probably no other country in the world that has been described as “Orwellian” in English-language media as often as China has over the past few years. According to Google Trends, ‘China’ currently is one of the most related topics people in the US are searching for when they type in the word ‘Orwellian’ on the search engine.

The topic recently most associated with Orwell’s novel is that of China’s Social Credit System. In October of 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence addressed China’s nascent Social Credit System in a speech on China, calling it “an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life” (Whitehouse.gov).

Since then, George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four have been used more often to describe developments in China.

‘Orwellian’ and ‘China’ come up with more than 28,000 results in Google News alone, the term often being used with any PRC news that relates to technology, government control, and propaganda.

Ironically, many of the news reports addressing ‘Orwellian China’ and its Social Credit System (SCS) are, in the Orwellian tradition, spreading misinformation themselves, conflating different issues or presenting speculation as fact – see some examples of speculative reporting on the SCS in this list.

But also when reporting on China’s growing mass camera surveillance, the Xinjiang internment camps, the launch of the ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China’ [Xuexi Qiangguo] app, or the increasing use of facial recognition, the comparison to George Orwell’s 1949 classic is everywhere in the English language media world today.

 

一九八四: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in China

 

For a country that is labeled ‘Orwellian’ so often, it is perhaps surprising that Nineteen Eighty-Four is actually not censored or banned in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Since the first PRC edition of the novel was published in 1979, it has become a famous and well-read work that is available for purchase in Chinese or English in all big bookstores in Chinese cities or online via e-commerce sites as Taobao.com.

The famous sentence “Big Brother is Watching You” translates to “Lǎo dàgē zài zhùshìzhe nǐ” (“老大哥在注视着你”) in Mandarin, and often pops up on social media, together with terms such as “doublethink” (shuāngchóng sīxiǎng, 双重思想) or “Thought Police” (sīxiǎng jǐngchá 思想警察).

On Douban, an influential web portal that allows users to rate and review books, films, etc, various editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four (most of them translated by Dong Leshan 董乐山) have been rated with a 9.3 or higher by thousands of web users.

Reading 1984, by Weibo user @耀离Pinus.

“I like this book, it’s just a bit too dark for me,” some reviewers write, with others just saying the book is “very scary,” or seeing some resemblance with the classic works of Chinese authors such as Wang Xiaobo or Lu Xun.

WeChat blog Vopoenix recently stressed the importance of Nineteen Eighty-Four, writing that the novel is not anti-socialism per se: “What Orwell really opposes is fascism, totalitarianism, and nationalism (..), what he really supports is political democracy and social justice.”

70 years later, totalitarianism still has not disappeared, the blog writes: “(..) instead, it has evolved with the times in a more secret way (..). We still need independent, keen and courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”

One Douban reviewer writes about their thoughts after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, saying: “What scares me is that sometimes people will ridicule North Korea for being so shut off from the world, but what about us? We’re like frogs at the bottom of a well, but the scary thing is, we don’t even know we’re in the well.”

 

“Just a work of fiction to Chinese”?

 

Public sentiments about the 70-year-old Nineteen Eighty-Four novel bearing a resemblance to (present-day) China are seemingly growing stronger on Chinese social media recently. The book appears in online comments and discussions on a daily basis.

“I finished reading the book today,” one Weibo commenter writes: “The biggest thought I had is: this book is very suitable for Chinese people to read.”

“I can now imagine what those ten years were like,” one Douban user posts, referring to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Nineteen Eighty-Four is the first satirical book I’ve read that comes close to the situation in China. If you read it, you’ll know what I mean,” another reader writes.

Different from English-language (social) media, Chinese commenters are not mentioning the book in relation to the country’s Social Credit System at all, but in relation to the heightened censorship that China has recently been seeing in light of the China-US trade war, the Tiananmen anniversary, and the Hong Kong protests.

One Weibo blogger writing a critique about the growing “bizarreness” of the “elephant in the room” (referring to all those big China-related issues that cannot be discussed on social media due to censorship) attracted the attention of Chinese netizens earlier this week (see the full translation of post here).

Many commenters spoke about the Weibo post in relation to Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially when the post addressing the censorship was censored itself.

Some commenters are speculating that Orwell’s novel might one day be banned in China.

Others also wrote that it seemed “like a miracle” that the book was not banned in China, and some suggested it might still happen in the future.

“It will be forbidden very soon,” one Weibo commenter speculates.

“The future is becoming more difficult, really,” one netizen recently wrote: “It’s nearing 1984 (一九八四), and [we] might not be able to see it later.”

But, in Chinese online media, Nineteen Eighty-Four is by no means only mentioned in relation to China. There are also those blogs or news articles that mention the Orwellian aspects of the story of Edward Snowden, or connect Orwell to Trump’s America.

In late 2018, state tabloid Global Times denounced the ubiquitous Western media reports on “Orwellian China.” Author Yu Jincui wrote:

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic to Westerners, but it is just a work of fiction to Chinese and they are fed up with Orwellian style preaching from Western elites. This kind of conversation will lead nowhere.”

But many netizens do not agree with the fictional part. “Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a work of fiction, it is a record of our future,” one Weibo user writes.

“Is Big Brother watching me?” others wonder.

“The first time I read it, I just read it,” another Douban user says: “The second time I read it, I really started to understand. Here’s to George Orwell!”

Despite all speculation on social media, there are no indications that Nineteen Eighty-Four will be banned from China any time soon.

For now, even 70 years after its first publication and 40 years after its first Chinese translation, readers in the People’s Republic can continue to devour and discuss Orwell’s classic work and the mirror it holds up to present-day China, America, Europe, and the world today.

By Manya Koetse

PS: Some recommended reading on Social Credit in English:

* Creemers, Rogier. 2018. “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control.”May 9. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3175792.

* Dai, Xin. 2018. “Toward a Reputation State: The Social Credit System Project of China.” June 10, available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3193577 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3193577.

* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “China through a glass, darkly.” China Law Translate, Dec 24 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/seeing-chinese-social-credit-through-a-glass-darkly/?lang=en [24.5.18].

* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “Giving Credit 2: Carrots and Sticks.” China Law Translate, Dec 15 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/giving-credit-2-carrots-and-sticks/?lang=en [27.5.18].

* Horsley, Jamie. 2018. “China’s Orwellian Social Credit Score Isn’t Real.” Foreign Policy, Nov 16 https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/16/chinas-orwellian-social-credit-score-isnt-real/ [10.6.19].

* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Insights into the Social Credit System on Chinese Online Media vs Its Portrayal in Western Media.” What’s on Weibo, Oct 30 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/insights-into-the-social-credit-system-on-chinese-online-media-and-stark-contrasts-to-western-media-approaches/

* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Open Sesame: Social Credit in China as Gate to Punitive Measures and Personal Perks.” What’s on Weibo, May 27 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/open-sesame-social-credit-in-china-as-gate-to-punitive-measures-and-personal-perks/.

* Kostka, Genia. 2018. “China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval” SSRN, July 23. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3215138 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3215138 [29.10.18].

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Top 25 Best Fiction Books on China: Understanding Contemporary China through Modern Literary Fiction

A selection of the best modern literary fiction works that provide deeper insights into China.

Manya Koetse

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Literature or modern fiction can be a great way to understand more about a country’s culture, history, or society, as it describes events, feelings, atmospheres, and personal stories in a way that history books or more scholarly accounts could never do. This is a top 25 modern fiction works on China compiled by What’s on Weibo as recommended reading to get a better understanding of present-day China.

After doing a Top 30 on Best (Non-Fiction) Books to Better Understand China, we felt it was high time to give you a list of recommendations of modern literary fiction works focusing on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that also help to better understand the past and present of this rapidly changing society.

There are hundreds of novels and literary works out there on modern China, and a lot of them are written in Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Dutch, and many other languages – but for the scope of this particular list, we have chosen just to focus on the modern fiction books that have come out in the English language. We leave out fictional works focused on specifically Hong Kong and/or Taiwan here, because a top 25 just would not be enough.

Also, due to the scope of this list, we have selected those works that have come out after 1978, the year of the ‘Reform and Opening Up’ of China, mainly because this period marks a new era in Chinese literature and literature on China. Note that this list does not necessarily focus on ‘Chinese literature’ but on ‘literary works on China’ in general.

The earlier years of modern China have seen so many great literary works that are absolutely pivotal for anyone studying China, Chinese literature, or wanting to understand its past century, from the works of Lu Xun to gems such as Miss Sophie’s Diary (1928) by Ding Ling, a Fortress Besieged (1947) by Qian Zhongshu, the works by Eileen Chang or Louis Cha (Jin Yong), that they deserve a list of their own.

These are the 25 books we have selected based on your recommendations and our own. The list is numbered based on the original year of publication. Note that we have provided Amazon links with these books, and most will be available for sale in the US/Europe and elsewhere, but we would also recommend checking out your local thrift stores, Oxfam stores, garage sales etc. because you might unexpectedly find some of these gems there (we sure did!).

 
● #1 Red Sorghum: A Novel of China (Mo Yan) 

Year first published: 1986/1987 (红高粱家族), English translation 1992 by Howard Goldblatt

Red Sorghum by Mo Yan (莫言, real name Guan Moye, 1955) is a novel that has become very famous both in- and outside of China, one of the reasons being that the renowned director Zhang Yimou turned the novel into a movie in 1988. The novel tells the story of a family’s struggles spanning three generations in Shandong from the 1920s to the 1970s, through the Japanese occupation and the Cultural Revolution. The sorghum fields are constantly present throughout the book – it is the heart of the home, the provider of food and wine, and the battleground of war.

When Mo Yan became the winner of the 2012 Nobel prize in literature, some controversy erupted: Mo Yan is one of China’s most famous writers, but he is not a “social activist” or dissident, as many other internationally acclaimed Chinese artists and writers are. “Do cultural figures in China have a responsibility to be dissidents?” the Atlantic wrote in 2013. Perhaps the criticism was somewhat unfounded; after all, Mo Yan never asked to win the Nobel Prize. He said: “I hate partisan politics and how people gang up on opponents based on ideology. I like to come and go on my own, which allows me to look on from the sidelines with a clear mind and gain insight about the world and the human condition. I don’t have the capability or interest of becoming a politician. I just want to write, quietly, and do some charity work in secret. “ Mo Yan is also active on Weibo, where he sporadically shares his calligraphy.

Get on Amazon: Red Sorghum

Also worth reading by the same author:

 
● #2 Stick Out Your Tongue (Ma Jian)

First published in 1987 (亮出你的舌苔或空空荡荡), English translation by Flora Drew

This book by the exiled author Ma Jian (马建, 1953) definitely deserves a place on this list, even if it was just for the controversy it triggered once it was published. The publication of Stick Out Your Tongue sparked off the notorious “Ma Jian Affair,” which has since been called one of the biggest scandals in modern Chinese literature; it led to an immediate ban on the book within mainland China. Stick Out Your Tongue was targeted as an anti-nationalistic book for being “vulgar, obscene,” and for “defaming the image of [our] Tibetan compatriots” (Koetse 2009).

Stick Out Your Tongue (SOYT) resumes where Red Dust, Ma Jian’s first book, left off, for which the author traveled to Tibet and wrote a book about his experiences. SOYT is almost a dream-like novel. Short stories sketch a dark image of remote grasslands and dilapidated temples; a secretive, haunted place. The book tells about how an aging pilgrim reveals why he gave everything away in a Buddhist penance before walking into the mountains to die. Other stories tell about incest and rape. Although SOYT enraged both Han Chinese and Tibetans, Ma Jian said about the book: “The need to believe in an earthly paradise, a hidden utopia where men live in peace and harmony, seems to run deep in among those who are discontented with the modern world. Westerners idealize Tibetans as gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed. But in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and brutal as the rest of us. To idealize them is to deny them their humanity” (89).

Get on Amazon: Stick Out Your Tongue

 
● #3 Please Don’t Call me Human (Wang Shuo)

First published 1989 (千万别把我当人), English translation 2000 by Howard Goldblatt 

Wang Shuo (王朔, 1958) is one of China’s most popular and controversial authors, and is known as “the idol of rebellion for the youth” and a ‘celebrity writer’: most of his works have been turned into movies or TV series (Yao 2004, 432). Because of his cynism and bashing of literature elite, he became known as a “hooligan” writer who is quoted as saying things as: “The key is to make sure you f*ck literature and don’t let literature f*ck you.”

Please Don’t Call Me Human is a satirical and surreal novel on “the worthlessness of the individual in the eyes of the totalitarian state” (Abrahamsen 2011) as the author writes about an Olympic-like Wrestling Competition where China is determined to win at any cost and where the so-called National Mobilization Committee strives to find a man to reclaim China’s honour and defeat the big western wrestler.

Get on Amazon here

Also recommended by this author:

 

 
● #4 Soul Mountain (Gao Xingjian)

First published: 1990 (灵山), English translation 2001 by Mabel Lee

Gao Xingjian (高行健, 1940), who is best known for his Soul Mountain, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000. Unlike his fellow Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, Gao already left China in 1987, and later became a French citizen (He 2016).

Soul Mountain is largely autobiographical, based on the author’s 1983 remote travels to remote areas along the Yangtze river.  The protagonist of the narrative is on a journey to find the fabled mountain Lingshan (Soul Mountain), and along the way, he collects stories, lovers, and spiritual wisdom. The characters in the book are unnamed; instead, they go by pronouns such as “I”, “you” or “she,” detaching them from their personal names, harboring bigger stories about the origins of humankind and Chinese culture.

Get on Amazon: Soul Mountain

Also recommended by the same author:

 

 
● #5 Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Jung Chang)

Year first published: 1991

Practically every garage sale or thrift shop nowadays has a copy of Wild Swans lying around since its immense success in the 1990s. The book is often categorized as non-fiction, but reads like a literary novel, and cannot not be on this list; it is an account of the tumultuous Chinese 20th century from the perspective of three generations of women.

Wild Swans is sometimes called an example of ‘scar literature’ (伤痕文学), a genre that came up after the end of the Cultural Revolution in which authors shared the pain suffered by people during the 1960s, and which basically started with the publication of Lu Xinhua’s 1978 story “Scar.” Whether or not Wild Swans belongs in this category is up to debate, but what is undeniable is that this book offers a glimpse into an incredible time in the history of China in a personal and captivating way that formal history books could never do. An absolute recommendation for anyone who wants to know more about how the Cultural Revolution and the period before and after affected Chinese women, families, and society at large.

Get on Amazon: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

 
● #6 To Live (Yu Hua)

Year first published: 1993 (活着), English translation 2003 by Michael Berry  

To Live by Yu Hua (余华, 1960) is the novel that was most recommended to What’s on Weibo by readers upon asking for people’s favorite China books. The book has become an absolute classic, and follows the life of Fugui, a spoiled son of a wealthy landlord, who is changed forever after witnessing and experiencing the hardships of the Civil War and Cultural Revolution.

In 1994, this novel was used for the screenplay of the film by Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li, which was later denied a theatrical release in mainland China due to its critical portrayal of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government.

Buy via Amazon: To Live 

Other recommend works by the same author:

 
● #7 Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai (Wang Anyi)

First published in 1995 (长恨歌), English translation 2008 by Michael Berry & Susan Chan Egan

Wang Anyi (王安忆, 1954) is one of China’s most popular female authors, and The Song of Everlasting Sorrow is among her most famous works. The book traces the life story of the young Shanghainese girl Wang Qiyao from the 1940s, when Gone with the Wind played in Shanghai theatresuntil her tragic death after the Cultural Revolution, in the 1980s.

The city of Shanghai is at the heart of this book – its rooftops, its skyline, its birds, moonlight, sunsets its girls, and its gossip.

Get on Amazon here

 
● #8 A Dictionary of Maqiao (Han Shaogong)

Year first published 1996 (马桥词典), English translation 2003 by Julia Lovell 

Han Shaogong (韓少功, 1953) is a celebrated Chinese author who is also known as the leading figure within the 1980s ‘Xungen movement’ (寻根文学: literally ‘Finding Roots Literature’), a cultural and literary movement in mainland China in which writers started to focus on local and minority cultures as a new source of inspiration.

The narrative of A Dictionary of Maqiao takes places in an imaginary village in Southern China called ‘Maqiao.’ It is written as a dictionary, in which the author explains the words of the local language, and in doing so, tells the stories of rural China during the Cultural Revolution.

Get on Amazon here

 
● #9 Ocean of Words (Ha Jin)

First published in 1996 

This collection by Ha Jin (哈金, 1956, real name Jin Xuefei) won the 1997 PEN/Hemingway Award for best first work of fiction. Ha Jin was born in Liaoning, China, but emigrated to the US after studying in Massachusetts during the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Ha Jin is now an American national who writes in English.

Ocean of Words is a collection of short stories that all take place at the border between China and Russia during the early 1970s, after a series of border clashes, and focus on the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Not coincidentally, Ha Jin also served the PLA himself from the age of 14, and spent a year at the Russian border.

Get on Amazon: Ocean of Words 

Also recommended by the same author:

 
● #10 Falling Leaves (Adeline Yen Mah) and Once Upon a Time in the East (Xiaolu Guo)

Years published: Falling Leaves in 1997 and Once Upon a Time in the East 2017

These are two books under one number, since we did not want to choose one over the other; these female authors have a lot in common despite their different ages and backgrounds, and this also shows in their books.

Adeline Yen Mah (马严君玲, 1937) and Xiaolu Guo (郭小橹, 1973) are two female authors of a very different generation, but in these works, they both very much focus on their family stories and their struggle to find their own independence and voice. Although these works do give a peek into some parts of Chinese history, they are more about Chinese family dynamics and culture.

Adeline Yen Mah is a Chinese-American author who was born in Tianjin. Her mother died of childbed fever soon after giving birth to her, which was to be the start of a difficult and abusive childhood for Yen Mah, who grew up with her sisters, her fathers, and her cruel Eurasian stepmother. It is Yen Mah’s own story that is the focus of Falling Leaves

Xiaolu Guo is a British-Chinese author who was born in 1973 and then handed over to a childless peasant couple in the mountains by her parents. Aged two, and suffering from malnutrition, Xiaolu is left with her illiterate grandparents in a fishing village on the East China Sea, and does not meet her own parents until she is almost seven years old. Once Upon a Time in the East is written from the perspective of a forty-year-old Xiaolu, who lives in London and is now becoming a mother herself, and has the urge to revisit her past memories and roots of the past, that now seems like a “foreign country” to her.

Get: Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Daughter
Get: Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up

 
● #11 Shanghai Baby (Wei Hui)

Year first published: 1999 (上海宝贝), English translation 2001 by Bruce Humes

This is arguably one of the more controversial novels on this list, since it has sparked many discussions since its publication in the early years of the millennium, with many deeming it a “disgrace to Chinese culture” and a “shame to Chinese men.”

One of the reasons this book by Wei Hui (周卫慧, 1973) deserves attention is because it represents a genre of literature written by young female authors, known as ‘Beauty Writers’ (美女作家) who focused on topics generally deemed taboo in China around 2000. This book touches upon topics such as female orgasm, menstruation, oral sex, and other things that were somewhat rare to read about in modern Chinese novels before this time.

The novel revolves around the everyday life of the 25-year-old aspiring writer Coco, who works as a waitress in downtown Shanghai. The book, that is written as if it were the protagonist’s own diary, focuses on Coco’s life, her ambitions, (foreign) boyfriends, erotic encounters, and most importantly, on the city itself and the sexual awakening of a young Chinese writer on her way to success.

Buy via Amazon: Shanghai Baby a Novel 

 
● #12 Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie)

Originally published in 2000 (Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise), English translation by Ina Rilke

Dai Sijie (戴思杰, 1954) is a Chinese–French author and filmmaker who, as several authors on this list, was sent down to a ‘re-education camp’ in rural Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution. Much of his experience there was used in his book.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a captivating account that tells the story of two young men who become good friends with a local seamstress while spending time in a countryside village where they have been sent for “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution. Instead of a passion for Mao, they discover their love for (western) literature.

Get on Amazon here

Recommended by the same author:

 
● #13 Candy (Mian Mian)

Year first published: 2000 (糖), English translation 2003 by Andrea Lingenfelter

Just as the author of Shanghai Baby, Mian Mian (棉棉, 1970) is also one of China’s so-called ‘Beauty Writers’ (美女作家), whose works are characterized by its focus on the stories of a young urban female generation, leading a wild and extravagant lifestyle. For Shanghai Baby, Candy, but also for works such as Beijing Doll (2002, Chun Sue), it meant that their boldness soon also resulted in banishment within the PRC.

Candy tells the story of a young female high-school dropout who runs away to Shenzhen, where her new life is clouded by alcohol and drugs. About the book, the author writes: “This book exists because one morning as the sun was coming up I told myself that I had to swallow up all of the fear and garbage around me, and once it was inside me I had to transform it all into candy.”

Although it has been somewhat quiet around the author since her smashing debut and her lawsuit against Google, Mian Mian is still active on Weibo.

Buy: Candy by Mian Mian

 
● #14 Becoming Madame Mao (Anchee Min)


Year first published 2000

Anchee Min (閔安琪, 1957) is a Chinese-American author who is known for her works in which she focuses on strong female characters.  Becoming Madame Mao is a historical novel, that uses letters, poems, and quotations from original documents, detailing the life of Jiang Qing.

Jiang Qing, who is known as one of China’s most ‘evil women’, became ‘Madame Mao’ after her marriage to Mao Zedong. In this novel, Min shows another side of one of the most controversial political figures in the People’s Republic of China.

Get online: Becoming Madame Mao

Recommended by the same author:

 
● #15 Mao’s Last Dancer (Li Cunxin)

First published 2003

Just as a few other books on this list, such as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, this book officially is not ‘fiction,’ since it is an autobiography – but it still reads like a novel. Li Cunxin (李存信, 1961) is a Chinese-Australian former ballet dancer whose intriguing life story is what this book is about. Li is selected to be trained as a ballet dancer at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy when he is just a young boy, and later gets the chance to travel to America as a visiting student, where he begins to question the Chinese Communist doctrines which he has been raised with.

Many people might know this book because of the film based on this work, directed by Bruce Beresford, that came out in 2009.

Buy online: Mao’s Last Dancer

 
● #16 Northern Girls (Sheng Keyi)

First published in: 2004 (北妹), English translation 2012 by Shelly Bryant

Sheng Keyi (盛可以, 1973) is among one of China’s newer generations of writers who focus on modern China. Like protagonist Qian Xiaohong in her book, Sheng was also born in a village in Hunan province and then worked and lived in Shenzhen. Staying close to her own experiences, this coming-of-age novel is about a community of fellow rural ‘northern girls’ in a search of a better life in the bustling city. 

Amazon has it here

 
● #17 Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong)

First published in 2004 (狼图腾), English translation 2008 by Howard Goldblatt

Wolf Totem is an award-winning semi-autobiographical novel about the experiences of a young student from Beijing who is sent to the countryside of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. He lives with nomadic Mongols and learns from them, but also finds himself fascinated with the wolfs of the grasslands; their survival is threatened when are attacked by the government as ‘class enemies.’ The book became highly popular in China shortly after it was published, and more than a decade later, it still is very popular, especially since a film based on the novel came out in 2015.

Author Jiang Rong (姜戎 1946, real name Lü Jiamin) is very familiar with Inner Mongolia, as he went there at the age of 21 as “sent down youth,” and stayed there for eleven years. Wolf Totem is not just partly based on his experiences there, it is also a social commentary on the dangers of China’s economic growth and the destruction of culture, spirituality, and ecology.

To buy: Wolf Totem – a Novel

 
● #18 Dream of Ding Village (Yan Lianke)

First published in 2005 (丁庄梦), English translation 2009 by Cindy Carter

Yan Lianke (阎连科, 1958) is a leading author of modern Chinese literature; he is also called the Chinese author (inside of China) who has come closest to winning the Nobel Prize after Mo Yan. Dream of Ding Village was originally published in China, but then got banned. The narrative is about a place where poverty-stricken villagers are coerced into selling their blood and are subsequently infected with HIV by contaminated plasma injections. Although the book is fiction, these kinds of scandals, unfortunately, have taken place. Noteworthy enough, a Chinese film based on Yan’s (banned) book was made in 2011, called Love for Life (最爱).

About his work, Yan said in 2018: “China’s reality is complex and irrational. The people are always under the nation, their existence burdened by its great weight (..) I have been writing about people living under these circumstances, and believe my overseas readers can learn something universal from my stories about China.”

Buy: Dream of Ding Village

 
● #19 Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (Murong Xuecun) 

First published in 2006 (成都,今夜请将我遗忘), English translation 2013 by Harvey Thomlinson

Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村, 1974, real name Hao Qun) is one of the younger authors in this list, whose debut Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu instantly made him famous and was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. The contemporary novel is focused on the lives of three young men who struggle to make their way in the dynamic city of Chengdu where gambling, womanizing, corruption, and cheating have become part of their everyday lives.

Murong Xuecun is known as an anti-censorship activist who reportedly had 8.5 million followers on his Weibo microblog accounts before they were forcibly closed. For an excerpt of the book see The New York Times here.

Buy online: Leave Me Alone

 
● #20 The Flowers of War (Yan Geling)

Year published: 2006 (金陵十三钗), English translation 2012 by Nicky Harman

Many people might have heard of The Flowers of War because of the film by Zhang Yimou, who has often made films based on Chinese literary works by authors such as Mo Yan, Yu Hua, or Su Tong. This novella by Geling Yan (严歌苓, 1958), inspired by the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, is set in Nanjing during the gruesome history of the 1937 Japanese invasion, also known as the ‘Rape of Nanjing.’  This story focuses on an American church compound in the ‘safety zone’ where a group of escapees tries to survive the violent invasion of the city.

The Nanjing massacre is deeply engraved into China’s collective memory, and stills plays a major role in Chinese art, literature, popular culture, and politics.

Geling Yan is one of the few authors in this list that is also active on Weibo.

Buy via Amazon: here

Other recommended works by the same author:

 
● #21 Happy Dreams (Jia Pingwa)

First published in 2007 (高兴), English translation 2017 by Nicky Harman

Jia Pingwa (贾平凹, 1952) is one of China’s most prominent authors, and this imaginative work, that came out in English in 2017, focuses on the tough lives of China’s migrant workers. The story is set in Xi’an and focuses on trash picker Hawa “Happy” Liu, a rural laborer who has arrived in the city in search of work, and his friend and fellow villager Wufu.

To buy: Happy Dreams

Also recommended by the same author:

 
● #22 Beijing Coma (Ma Jian)

Year Published: 2008, translated by Flora Drew

Beijing Coma tells the compelling story of Dai Wei, who lies in a coma in his mother’s flat in Beijing, whose memories “flash by like the lighted windows of a passing train” as we as readers are sucked into the pages – going back to those dorms days and discussions that eventually led to the massive Tiananmen student protests of 1989.

Buy via Amazon here: Beijing Coma 

Also must-read by the same author (who also just released his new book China Dream (2018)!):

 
● #23 The Vagrants (Yiyun Li)

First published 2009

This is the debut of the award-winning Chinese American author Yiyun Li (李翊雲, 1972), which takes place the late 1970s China in an impoverished rural town named Muddy River, where two parents wake up the day their daughter Gu Shan gets executed as a ‘counterrevolutionary.’ The book is dark and gripping, focusing on a world of oppression and pain, as it tells the stories of a group of very different characters who are all connected to each other.

About her writing style, Li told an interviewer: “People would say I portray the world in a bleak way. It’s not bleak to me. I think what is bleak is when you create a veil to make the world feel better. Literature is one place we should be able to experience bleakness and brightness and anything in between. Literature should not make people feel comfortable, it should challenge the readers.”

Get on Amazon: The Vagrants: A Novel

 
● #24 The Fat Years (Chan Koonchung)

First published in: 2009 (盛世——中国,2013年), English translation 2011 by Michael S. Duke

The Fat Years is a science fiction book that tells of a dystopian future of China and its political landscape by Chinese author Chan Koonchung (陈冠中, 1952), and for many people, it’s one of the more important China fiction books that have come out the past decade. “After the world’s second financial crisis in 2013, the government clings to power only after it sends troops into the streets for a month of bloody killing. Finally, the government laces the water with a chemical that makes people feel happy and eager to spend money” (Johnson 2011). The book has never come out in mainland China.

China columnist Didi Kirsten Tatlow said about The Fat Years: “Rarely does a novel tell the truth about a society in a way that has the power to shift our perceptions about that place in a certain way, but ‘The Fat Years’ does exactly that.” 

Get via Amazon: The Fat Years

 
● #25 Lotus (Lijia Zhang)

First published in 2017

Lijia Zhang (张丽佳, 1964) is an internationally acclaimed author and public speaker. Inspired by the secret life of the author’s grandmother, who was sold to a brothel at age 14, Lotus follows the life of a young prostitute in an urban China that is rapidly changing.

Zhang has called the subject of prostitution “an interesting window to observe/explore social tensions” in China. Recommended by the same author is her memoir Socialism Is Great!: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China. Also check out this interview with Lijia Zhang on the WAGIC website.

Get on Amazon: Lotus

 

Some bonus recommendations:

Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen (徐则臣, 1978)

(First published 2008, 跑步穿过中关村, 2014 transl. Eric Abrahamsen)

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

(By Ken Liu 2016)

A Private Life by Chen Ran (陈染, 1962)

(First published 1996, 2004 transl. John Howard-Gibbon)

Raise the Red Lantern / Wives and Concubines by Su Tong (苏童, 1963) 

(First published 1990 妻妾成群, 2004 transl. Michael S. Duke)

Beijing Doll – A Novel by Chun Sue (春树)

(First published 2002 北京娃娃, 2004 transl. Howard Goldblatt)

 

Don’t forget to check out our top 30 of best non-fiction books on China.

 

By Manya Koetse

Note that due to the scope of this list we’ve applied several criteria. Books selected in this list are:

  • ..translated into English or written in English.
  • ..literary fiction works that take place in the People’s Republic of China, or in which Chinese modern history and/or society is an important theme, and that are relevant for people in getting a better grasp of Chinese history, society, urbanization, gender, literature, family relations etc.
  • ..not necessarily written by mainland Chinese authors, not necessarily originally written in Chinese.
  • ..published after 1978.

This list was compiled based on own preferences and that of many readers whom we asked about their favorite books within this category. If you think certain books are not here that should be here, please let us know and we might compile a second list in the future.

References

Abrahamsen, Eric. 2011. “Irony Is Good! – How Mao killed Chinese humor … and how the Internet is slowly bringing it back again.” Foreign Policy, January 12  https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/01/12/irony-is-good/ [24.12.18].

He Chengzhou. 2016. “Gao Xingjian’s Individualistic Revolt: Fiction, Biography, and Event.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 62, no. 4: 627-643. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed December 23, 2018).

Johnson, Ian. 2011. “On the Party Circuit, and Upsetting the Party.” New York Times, July 29 https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/world/asia/30chan.html [27.12.18].

Koetse, Manya. 2009. “‘Stick Out Your Tongue’: A Banned Book on the Health of a Nation.” Essay [Universiteit Leiden], published online December 2012: https://www.manyakoetse.com/stick-out-your-tongue-a-banned-book-on-the-health-of-a-nation/.

Yang, Lan. 1998. Chinese Fiction of the Cultural Revolution. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Yao, Yusheng. 2004. “The Elite Class Background of Wang Shuo and His Hooligan Characters.” Modern China 30, no. 4 (2004): 431-69.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

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