“I Am Fan Yusu”, by Fan Yusu
My life is like a book that’s dreadful to read – fate has made its bookbinding very messy. I am from Xiangyang in Hubei, and started to do private teaching at the local village school when I was twelve. If I hadn’t left, I would have continued to teach and would have become a proper teacher. But I couldn’t bear to stay in the countryside and view the sky from the bottom of the well, so I came to Beijing. I wanted to see the world. I was twenty years old then.
Things were not easy after coming to Beijing. It was mainly because I was lazy and stupid, and because I was not skillful with my hands and feet. What other people could do in half an hour, would take me three hours. My hands were too slow – slower than most people. I worked as a waitress at a restaurant and would drop the tray and break the plates. I just made enough money to keep myself from starving. I wasted two years in Beijing; I was the type who couldn’t see the flame of my dreams. Then, I rushed myself into marrying a man from the northeast of China.
Within a time frame of just five or six years, we had two daughters. But their father’s business was doing worse and worse, and he started to drink heavily every day and became aggressive. I simply couldn’t bear the domestic violence and decided to take my daughters back to my village in Xiangyang to ask for help. He never even came looking for us. I later heard he went from Mongolia to Russia. He’s probably lying drunk on some Moscow street now. In my hometown, I told my mother that I would go and raise my two daughters myself.
During our childhood, my sister and I used to lie leg-to-leg in bed reading novels. When our eyes got tired, we would chat for a bit. I asked my sister: we’ve read countless biographies, which famous person do you admire the most? My sister said: I cannot see or touch the people described in these books, so they can’t really convince me. The person I admire the most is our brother.
“Out of all the people in our lives that we can see and touch, it is our mother I admire the most.”
I listened to her, but I could not accept what she said. Sure, we cannot see or touch the people in our books. But out of all the people in our lives that we can see and touch, it is our mother I admire the most. Our brother is nothing but a child prodigy.
My mother’s name is Zhang Xianzhi and she was born July 20, 1936. At the age of fourteen, she was asked to become the director of the local Women’s Federation because she was a good speaker and problem-solver. She started doing that in 1950 and held that job for forty years, even exceeding the reigning time of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. However, that is not why I admire my mother.
When my mother was only a few years old, she was betrothed by my grandfather to the next-door neighbor, my father. The arrangement would later financially benefit my mother’s brother. My father was a handsome and elegant man in his younger days, but the relationship between my parents was not good at all and they would fight every day.
For as long as I can remember, the impression I had of my father was like that of the shadow of a big tree: you can see it but it is of no use. He did not talk, his health was not good, and he did not have physical strength. The care for the five children in the house was fully in my mother’s hands.
My mother was a rural woman who was born in the evil old society, and she had never attended a single day of school. But she picked out the names for me and my four siblings. She named my oldest brother Fan Yun [‘yun’ for ‘cloud’], and the younger brother Fan Fei [‘fei’ for ‘fly’]. She hoped they would grow up like the dragon and the phoenix, riding the clouds and mounting the mist. She gave us three sisters names that were far more casual. My oldest sister was named Fan Guiren, meaning that she was conceived when the osmanthus flowers were in bloom. My other sister was born at the time of the plum blossom, so she should have been named Meiren [梅人 ‘plum person’] but because it sounded the same as the word for ‘moldy person’, it was an unlucky name and she was called Fan Meihua [梅花 ‘plum flower’]. I was the youngest child, born when the chrysanthemum flowers were in bloom, so my mother named me Fan Juren [‘ju’ for chrysanthemum]. When I was twelve, I read that year’s most popular romance novel Misty Rain, written by auntie Qiong Yao. I then changed my name into Fan Yusu [‘yu’ for rain, lit: ‘the nature of rain’].
From when he was little, my eldest brother would study independently but he had no talent for going to school. Every night he would rather sleep than study and he did not pass the college entrance exam in the first year. The next year he was also not admitted. My brother was upset and said that if he would not pass the college entrance examination he would leave the countryside. He wanted to become a writer and go to town. Our family is very poor, and with my two sisters both being disabled and having to see doctors for many years, we didn’t have a dime. But because brother wanted to be a writer, we had to invest in him. He exchanged the household’s wheat and rice for money and bought literary books and classics for it. Without grain, we ate sweet potatoes. Fortunately, not one of mother’s five children starved to death, and not one child complained that there was not enough food.
“My mother had five children, and not one of them was worry-free.”
My oldest brother read and wrote for several years, but he did not become a writer. He had a very thick literary air about him, he did not care about his appearances, and he would talk a semi-comprehensible gibberish. In the village, these kinds of people would be called “literature drinkers,” much despised like the character Kong Yiji in the work of Lu Xun.
However, my brother and Kong Yiji were in different positions, because my brother had our brave mother. Thanks to her, not one person would give my brother a look of disdain.
Mother was very eloquent. When she spoke she sounded like a state leader. She was a matchmaker for a long time, the people in Xiangyang would call her “Red Leaf.” She would not charge a penny and just did it to help out – we would call it a volunteer nowadays. In the early eighties of the last century in rural areas, every family had many babies, and the boys would grow up and marry, the girls would grow up to be married off. People with a talent like my mother were most welcome.
That my oldest brother did not become a writer and never left the countryside was not a pressing matter. But it was a big deal for him to get married. In the village, people like my brother were called ‘literary madmen,’ not worthy of marrying. But since we had such an awesome mother, who could sell black as white, she turned brother’s shortcomings into an advantage. With my mother’s majestic power and prestige, our dirt-poor household found my big brother a wife as sincere and honest as a spring pagoda tree.
After getting married, my oldest brother was still pedantic. He said to mother that although the village government body was small, it was still part of the government’s abuse and corruption. He wanted my mother to quit her job as village official because he found it disgraceful. At that time, although I was young, I thought my big brother was acting silly; what corrupt officials were nibbling on two sweet potatoes for dinner every night?
But my mum did not say anything, and she resigned from the village government after forty years.
Five months after my big sister was born, she got a high fever and developed meningitis. At that time, the traffic was not convenient, and my mother made my fast-running uncle carry my big sister for thirteen miles to the Xiangyang city center hospital. But the hospital could not cure my big sister’s disease. My sister did not have a fever, she was mentally retarded.
According to my mother, the injections were too heavy in those days, and she said my big sister had been poisoned by drugs.
Big sister was imbecilic, but my mother never gave up. She believed she had the power to change this. She believed in Western medicine, she believed in Chinese medicine, she believed in spiritual healing, – she would hold on to any remote chance.
Often someone would come to our home telling us that in this or that place there was this immortal person or some spirit. Mother would let father help my big sister to pray to a talisman, and to drink spiritual water. Every time they had hope, and every time they were disappointed. My mother never gave up.
My younger older sister had polio. She continuously received medical treatments until the age of twelve. She had surgery on her legs and then slowly improved.
My mother had five children, and not one of them was worry-free.
I used to be very pretentious.
I am my mother’s only healthy little daughter, born when she was nearly forty years old. During my childhood, my mother was busy and never paid much attention to me. When I was about six or seven years old, I taught myself to read novels. This is not something to boast about since my sister and cousin could read books as thick as bricks. The only thing that made me really proud of myself as a child, was when I read a vertically printed version of Journey to the West in traditional characters. No one knew it and no one praised me. It was just me being proud of me.
“If a person cannot feel happiness or satisfaction in life, they simply aren’t reading enough novels.”
At that age, it was easy to become arrogant. My grades were the best of my class. I never paid attention to class, instead I revisited the novels I read in my mind. I must have read the novel Mei Laoyue a thousand times in my mind.
When I was in primary school, the literary publications that came out the most were the ‘educated youth literature,’ which would teach people about escaping train ticket fares, stealing vegetables from fellow villagers, picking fruit, beat the guard dogs of peasant households, and scheme to make a dog stew.
Looking at these novels, I felt so happy that we were nibbling on two sweet potatoes for every meal. We didn’t need to steal, didn’t need to fight, there were no people hitting me, and we also had two potatoes, and could do some light reading. At that time, the young me developed a way of thinking that if a person cannot feel happiness or satisfaction in life, they simply aren’t reading enough novels.
I didn’t just read educated youth literature, I also read Robinson Crusoe, The Mysterious Island, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, In the World, The Stories of Uncle Lei Feng, The Song of Ouyang Hai, or Golden Light. By reading these novels, I became thoroughly familiar with Chinese geography, world geography, Chinese history, and world history. Just tell me the name of a place, and I know where in the world it is, in which continent. Name a river and I know in which of the world’s oceans it flows.
At the age of twelve, I was about to burst. I wrote “walk barefoot to the end of the world” on any blank piece of paper in my room. In the summer vacation when I was twelve, I walked away without saying goodbye and went down south to see the big world.
I chose the south because of a story in a magazine I saw in 1982. It was about a philanthropist who was specialized in taking care of homeless children. She took in a boy from the streets who slept in cement pipelines in the winter and whose legs had frozen and had to be amputated. It left a deep impression on me, and I knew that if I would go and wander around Beijing, my legs could freeze and I could lose them.
“With my short hair and dirty, unwashed face, I looked like a homeless boy nobody cared about.”
As I had learned from the seventy-two tricks from educated youth novels, I sneaked in without a ticket and went to Hainan Island, where flowers bloom all year long. There are papaya and coconut trees on the streets. Lying under the tree, you can eat papaya and drink coconut milk. When I grew tired of eating fruit, I went through garbage bins to find something to eat. It was the lifestyle of the heroes in my books. With my short hair and dirty, unwashed face, I looked like a homeless boy nobody cared about. Human traffickers couldn’t see my gender and didn’t notice me.
But I grew tired of this life. There was no school to go to, there were no novels to read, and there was no mother. I’d wandered around Hainan Island for three months, and decided to return home. I stowed away the entire journey and arrived back to my hometown, returning to my mother’s side.
Once I came back, there was only my mother who would still love me with her caring eyes, but my father and eldest brother hated me to the bone and said I had made them lose face. In the village, my oldest male cousin from my father’s side went to my mother and said I had made the entire family Fan lose face and that she should give me a good beating and drive me away.
At this time, the twelve-year-old me experienced an awakening. In our Xiangyang village, if baby sons (boys) would leave for several days and come home, it would be a trivial matter. But if a baby girl (daughter) would only leave the home, she would be like the eloped criminal from classic novels. In our village, no girl had ever done such a thing. By leaving home, I had hurt my virtue and shamed my family.
I was embarrassed to face people and was too ashamed to go to school. The crucial point was that I also did not have the courage to wander off. How could I go on living? I was just surviving.
Mother did not abandon me. This time, my child prodigy second eldest brother had finished college, and as a person with a high IQ and EQ became an official. Mother ordered my child prodigy brother to seek a private teacher’s job for the twelve-year-old me. He let me teach in a remote primary school and found a place for me.
The years slipped away and crumbled. In the blink of an eye, mother’s five children were all grown up. My mother had searched for a medical treatment for my oldest sister for twenty years but still had not cured her illness. In the year my sister turned twenty, she caught a high fever and medical treatment was ineffective. She died.
My second elder sister grew up and became a literature teacher at a rural middle school. When she was teaching, her gifted scholarly boyfriend went to Shanghai to seek a different future. My sister, a thousand classical poems stored in her mind, bitterly said: “Only those who cannot read a single character have a poetic quality.” My sister then found an illiterate man who had not attended a single day of school and hastily made arrangements for herself.
My oldest brother was still in the village working on the land. While he was weeding, spading and shoveling, his dreams of becoming a writer were shattered. Big brother is still farming now, and he lives his days in bitterness. He is no longer asking why, nor lamenting his faith.
My second brother who was already accomplished at a young age had turned to gambling at the age of forty. Maybe it was because he had too much luck as an official, but there was only one word for my brother’s gambling: losing. My brother took on high-interest loans after losing his money. Before long, he could no longer pay off his debts and would spend every day running, moving, and hiding to shake off debt collectors. He also lost his official title.
Due to the hypocrisy of the world, my brother had no friends or family left. Late at night, he would pace back and forth over the Han River bridge.
At this time, my mother stood up and consoled my brother all the time. Mum said that her forty-year-old son was a good kid. That it was not his fault, that he was misguided by his government official friends.
My mother said that she was sorry that she had not let my brother stay in school longer. If he could have returned, he might have passed the university exam in such a way that he would be admitted to a university in a big city, and would have become a government official of a major metropolis, where the officials are of high quality and where he would not be misguided and would not have become a gambling addict. Mother said: you’re not dead, the debt is not bad, there’s nothing to be afraid of – just keep on living a good life. With my mother’s love, my brother is still living strong.
When I returned home to Xiangyang with my two daughters after leaving the violence in my home and my alcoholic husband, my mother was calm and collected and told me not to worry. But my oldest brother avoided me like the plague and wanted me to leave and not cause him any problems.
According to the tradition of rural Xiangyang, adult daughters are like spilled milk, and my mother did not have the power to help me. My mother was a strong politician, but she did not dare to stand up against China’s five thousand years of three principles and five virtues. My loving mother told me, it is not important that my baby could not attend school, I will pray to the gods every day that they will give you a way to make a living.
“I understood that I was now merely a passer-by in the village where I was born and raised.”
At this moment, I realized I no longer had a home. For us as poor rural people, it is very hard to get by in life, and the affection between family members naturally is not that deep. I did not resent my brother, but I understood that I was now merely a passer-by in the village where I was born and raised. My two children were even more like rootless, floating duckweed. In this world, we only had my mother who loved us.
I took my two children to the capital and became a nanny. I looked after other people’s children and had one day off every week. In a rented room in Picun, east of the fifth ring road, my oldest daughter looked after her younger sister.
I was really lucky, as the family where I worked were local tyrants that were on the Hurun list of the rich and powerful. My employer’s wife had two children who were already grown up. I looked after the baby of my male employer’s mistress.
The mistress of my employer had a boy and a girl, the oldest kid was studying at an international school, the little girl was a three-month-old baby. My employer hired a Shaolin martial arts instructor for his son, and opened a space of three hundred square meters in his own home office building, fitted with pickets, sandbags, and parallel bars….all for the bastard son to use by himself. Besides studying martial arts, he also found him a live-in Renmin University graduate tutor responsible for picking up the child from school and dropping him off, and also guiding him in doing his homework and taking him to martial arts practice. He also taught the six-year-old kid computer programming.
I was only responsible for the three-month-old daughter. The little baby slept irregularly and would often wake up in the middle of the night. I would nurse her and rock her to sleep. At those times I would think of my two girls in Picun. They did not have a mummy to bring them to bed. Would they have nightmares? Would they cry? I kept thinking and thinking, and cried silently. Thanks to the late night, nobody saw my tears.
My female employer was 25 years younger than my male employer. Sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night to comfort the baby, and would see her sitting on the sofa with her delicate make-up, waiting for her husband to come home. Her figure was more graceful than a model’s and her face was prettier than that of film star Fan Bingbing. But she was still like an imperial concubine from a Palace drama, painstakingly flattering her husband as if she would not be fed if she did not honor him. Maybe if her predecessors would have enough of the bitter, she would not have put up this useless struggle.
Every time I would absent-mindedly ask myself if I was living in the Tang dynasty, in the Qing dynasty, or if this was the new socialist China. But I had no supernatural powers, I haven’t time-traveled!
My eldest daughter made two friends of the same age who did not attend school. One was named Ding Jianping, the other Li Jingni. Ding Jianping came from Tianshui in Gansu, and did not go to school because mum had left dad, and because dad was angry. Dad said that public school did not allow migrant children to attend, and that they could only attend migrant sponsored schools which would have countless different teachers within one semester – the quality of teaching was poor. Anyway, nothing would come of it and he would not let them attend to save some money.
Li Jingni did not attend school because her father had his wife and children in his hometown. He also had Li Jingni by cheating on her with Li Jingni’s mother. When Li Jingni’s mother discovered she had been cheated, she angrily left. She did not want Li Jingni. The father was a kind-hearted man who did not abandon Li Jingni. But he said that Li Jingni was an illegal child without a residence permit, and that the migrant sponsored school in the city was an illegal school with no credentials. The children attending this school were not registered by the Ministry of Education, and would not be allowed to study in high school or college. Li Jingni was an illegal person, and did not need to attend an illegal school to become illegal in two ways.
I thought of this unlucky reminder of the Ministry of Education, and wondered who implemented this destructive policy for the children of migrant workers? The newspaper said that the Ministry of Education does this to prevent lower schools from misreporting the number of students, and falsely receiving teaching fundings. But why can’t the Ministry of Education punish those minor officials rather than the children of migrant workers?
I had my mother praying for my two children to live happy and long lives. There were three bigger children looking after my youngest child and I felt at ease – my children were doing very well. The three kids would sing the song “Our motherland is like a garden, its flowers are bright-colored” to my younger daughter every day, with great joy.
Beijing’s Picun [Pi village] where I live, is a very interesting village. Chinese people know that in the suburbs of Beijing, farmers are millionaires because their old real estate has become very valuable. The nouveau riche likes to flaunt their wealth with their cars, watches, and leather bags. We don’t do that kind of flaunting in Picun. We flaunt our dogs. We have more dogs than anyone else. I have a friend whom I got to know in Picun, Guo Fulai from Hebei’s Wuqiao, and he is a construction worker in Picun who lives in a construction shack. Every day, one of the Picun villagers comes to inspect the shack with an army of twelve dogs, much to the embarrassment of the migrant workers in the shack. Guo Fulai coldly described it in the article “Picun Village Dogs,” published in Beijing Literature. It expressed the voice of migrant workers.
“A book that has never been read is like a person that never really lived, and it makes me sad to see.”
My landlord was the village secretary, and was regarded as the village’s former president. The landlord was a politician, and felt it was beneath him to raise an army of dogs; he just had two. One was a Scotch Collie, the other a Tibetan mastiff. The landlord told me that the Scotch Collie is the world’s most intelligent dog and that the Tibetan mastiff is the world’s most courageous and fierce dog. The brightest dog and the bravest dog as an alliance – they were invincible. My children lived in the official residence of the Picun retired president, and they had the best security on earth. My children and I felt that this was a happy life.
After my eldest daughter learned to read novels, I continuously went to the Panjiayuan market and many flea markets and waste collection stations to buy over 1000 jin [±500 gram] of books. Why did I buy so much? There are two reasons, one is that it is very cheap to buy per jin, the other is that the books at these waste collection stations are too new. Many are still laminated. A book that has never been read is like a person that never really lived, and it makes me sad to see.
Before, I never wrote essays. But now, if I have the time, I will write a long novel with pen and paper about the previous and current lives of the people I know. I barely went to school and I have no confidence; I will write this to satisfy myself. I already thought of a long title: “To Meet Again.” Its story is non-fictional, everything is true. The source of art is in life, and this life is incredible. Every person in my work can be verified. I always think of how I could write this novel even better to please myself.
When the Picun “Worker’s Home” started a literature group course, I attended it for a year. I had time to attend the class that year because I needed to take care of my youngest daughter, and I’d found a teaching job in the neighboring village of Yingezhuangcun at a migrant school. The wages at migrant schools are low and everyone would qualify, they gave 1600 [±230$] per month. Later, when my youngest daughter was a bit bigger, she could go to school by herself and buy her own food. I gave up teaching and became a baby-sitter, which paid more than 6000 [±870$] per month. I came back to see my youngest daughter once a week and stopped going to the Worker’s Home.
I’ve always felt that I am an insensitive and weak person. Looking at the newspapers, I would always just look for a basic overview. If you look at the newspapers of the past decades, before migrant workers started coming to the city, so before 1990, the suicide rate of China’s rural women was the world’s highest. They would hang themselves and make a terrible scene. Since they started working, the newspapers said they did not commit suicide anymore. But then a new odd word appeared: “Motherless Villages.” Rural women no longer committed suicide; they ran way. In 2000, I read a report titled “wild mandarin ducks are likely to separate”, about the fragile marriages of migrant workers who are living apart from each other. The women who run away also are married women living in a different place.
In Beijing, in these villages within the city, there are many of these migrant children without a mother. Perhaps people like to divide into groups because birds of a feather flock together. The two friends of my eldest daughter both were children like this. Their fate is miserable.
My eldest daughter followed the subtitles on the TV and became literate, reading newspapers and novels. Later, when she no longer needed to take care of her little sister, she started working as a laborer at the age of fourteen. While working hard, she studied more trades. She has turned twenty this year and is now a white-collar worker with an annual salary of 90.000 [±13.000US$]. In comparison, Ding Jianping and Li Jingni of the same age as her, have become screws in the world’s factory – because there was no one to pray for them. They are lined up like Terracotta warriors, leading a puppet-like life.
Anyone who has ever raised a cat or a dog knows how they will guard their cubs. Similarly, people are mammals. A woman who abandons her child lives with a bleeding heart.
Throughout the many years of my working life, I found that I could no longer trust people. All my contacts were quite superficial, and sometimes I was even afraid to greet people. I helped myself get better through a psychology book, from which I learned it was “social anxiety”, also called “social phobia.” Once it deteriorates, it can turn into a “clinical depression.” It can only be cured with love. I thought of my mother’s love for me, and that in this world only my mother will forever love me. I thought about this so hard every day, and my mental condition did not deteriorate.
“I can only be here, writing these words, expressing my shame. What else can I do?”
This year, my mother called me on the phone and told me that our production team was collecting land to build the Zhengwan high-speed train station. The residence permit of my daughters and me and the whole family of my big brother is still registered in the village, where we have land. With the village confiscating land, they only give 23.000 yuan [±3330U$] for an acre. It is unfair. The team leader posted an announcement that every household needed to send a legal representative to file a complaint with the government, and needed to fight for their own rights. Since my brother was out to work, my mother was the only one who could represent our family.
Mother told me that she followed the legal rights team and went to the town hall, county administration, and city hall. Wherever they went, they were pushed back by the youngsters working as guards to maintain social stability. The captain of the legal rights team was sixty years old, the youngest member of the team, and he broke four ribs. The guards were conscientious about my eighty-year-old mother, and they did not push her, but they did pull her away by the arm. In doing so, they dislocated her shoulder.
The acre of land was bought up for 22.000 [±3185$] altogether. Per capita it is already very little, but how can the few people who cannot work continue to live? There are no authorities who want to think about it, there are no people willing to think about their soul. In every corner of the Divine Land, it is this way, and everyone has accepted the misfortunes as decreed by fate.
I think of the cold wind in the first month of the lunar year, and how my 81-year-old mother is still fighting for her children who did not make something of themselves, how she is running for her children. I can only be here, writing these words, expressing my shame. What else can I do?
What can I do for my mother? Mother is a good person. In my childhood, most of the people in our village were picking fights with the immigrants from Jun prefecture behind our house, who moved there to repair the Danjiangkou reservoir. The most famous person of the Jun Prefecture is called Chen Shimei, who was executed by Bao Qingtian. Jun Prefecture city is now underwater. My mother, as a strong person within the village, on top of the pyramid, always appeared to stop the bullying of the immigrants. When I grew up and came to the big city to survive, I became the weak one at the lowest rung of society. As the daughter of a strong rural woman, I was often bullied by people in the city. I would then think: do people bully others who are weaker than they are to get a physiological pleasure? Or is it how genes work? Since then, I have had this idea that I will pass on love and dignity to everyone I meet who is weaker than I am.
Can’t you always do something in life? I am incompetent, I am so poor, but I can still do something!
In the streets of Beijing, I embrace every disabled homeless person. I embrace every mentally ill person. I use my hugs to pass on mother’s love, to return mother’s love.
My eldest daughter told me that since she went to work at a cultural company, she gets a bottle of Huiyuan Juice every day. My daughter is not used to drinking juice. Every day after work, she will take the drink to the homeless grannie who is collecting scraps at the waste bin near the company gate, and she will give it to her.
– – End – –
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Top 30 Classic TV Dramas in China: The Best Chinese Series of All Time
This year marks 60 years of Chinese TV drama. These are the best Chinese TV dramas of all time.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Chinese TV drama since the airing of the very first (one-episode) drama A Mouthful of Vegetable Pancakes (一口菜饼子) in 1958 – the same year in which the very first Chinese television station started broadcasting (Bai 2007, 77).
The drama, live broadcasted by Beijing Television, sent out a message of frugality, as one young girl warns her sister not to waste food by remembering her of their difficult past and brave mother, who died of hunger while even refusing to eat the last bit of food, a vegetable pancake.
Much has changed within those sixty years. After a time when the production of TV dramas practically came to a standstill during the Cultural Revolution, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a boom in the popularity of television dramas, along with a spike in households that owned their own TV. From 1980 to 1990, the number of household television sets in China increased from 5 to 160 million (Wang & Singhal 1992, 177).
Since the 1980s, mainland China has gone from a country where most television dramas were imported from outside the country, to one that has the most thriving domestic TV drama industry in the world.
Some TV dramas in this list have become classics through time, some are fairly new but have already become classics within their genre.
This list has been fully compiled by What’s on Weibo, based on popularity charts on Chinese search engine Sogou’s top tv drama listings of all time, together with ranking on Douban, a big Chinese social networking service and influential media review website, and also based on academic sources that note the importance of some of these TV classics.*1 We will list a recommendation list of relevant books at the end of this article.
Most of these series will have links redirecting to available versions on Youtube or elsewhere – unless written otherwise, they do not have English subtitles. Please share English subtitled versions in the comment section if you found them, we’ll add them to the list.
This article is focused on those classics that have been important for the TV drama industry and audiences of mainland China. Although several of them were produced in Hong Kong or Taiwan, the majority is from the PRC. These dramas are listed in chronological order of appearance, not listed based on rankings.
Here we go!
#1 The Bund / The Shanghai Bund (上海滩)
Produced in Hong Kong
Noteworthy: “The Godfather of the East”
This TV drama became such a sensation across China in 1980, that it also became known as the Chinese equivalent to the classic Godfather series.
Actors Angie Chiu and Chow Yun-Fat star in this Hong Kong drama, that is set in the underworld society of 1920s Shanghai, and revolves around the tumultuous love story between Feng Chengcheng and Xu Wenqiang.
The series has become such a classic that it still plays an important role in popular culture of China today, with newer films and TV dramas also being based on the original series (the 2007 mainland China TV series Shanghai Bund, for example, is a remake of the 1980 original). If you ever go to karaoke, you’re probably already familiar with the shows’ famous theme song ‘Seung Hoi Tan’ (上海滩) by Frances Yip (see here).
#2 Eighteen Years in the Enemy’s Camp (敌营十八年)
Genre: War Drama
Watch the first episode here on Youtube.
Noteworthy: “The first TV drama produced by CCTV”
Eighteen Years in the Enemy’s Camp is somewhat of a cult classic in China. Despite the fact that the TV drama itself was somewhat poorly produced, it still gets high ratings on sites such as QQ Video or Douban today.
At a time when the Chinese TV drama market was still dominated by imported television series (from Hong Kong, US, and other places), Eighteen Years in the Enemy’s Camp was the first drama series made by CCTV (Bai 2007, 80), directed by Wang Fulin (王扶林) and Du Yu (都郁).
The story revolves around the Communist Party member Jiang Bo (江波), who spends 18 years undercover in the “tiger’s den” (虎穴), the enemy’s camp, as a National Army officer, thwarting the Nationalists’ plans until the 1949 victory of the Communists.
Fun fact by Ruoyun Bai (see references): despite the fact that the entire show is about the Nationalists Army, not a single Nationalist Army uniform could be found for the cast. The uniforms that were used, were not up to par: the main character had to leave his coat’s collar unbuttoned because it was too tight, and always has his hat in his hands because it was actually too small to fit his head (2007, 80-81).
#3 Ji Gong (济公)
Directed by Zhang Ge (张戈)
All episodes can be watched here on YouTube.
Noteworthy: “Influenced by Charlie Chaplin”
This popular TV series is centered around Ji Gong, the folk hero and Chan Buddhist monk who lived in the Southern Song and, according to legend, had supernatural powers and spent his whole life helping the poor.
The main role is played by renowned Chinese artist and mime master You Benchang (游本昌). In an interview with CRI, the actor once said that he was heavily influenced by his idol Charlie Chaplin for this role, sometimes even imitating some of Chaplin’s gestures.
#4 Chronicles of The Shadow Swordsman (萍踪侠影)
Directed by: Wang Xinwei (王心慰)
Produced in Hong Kong
Episodes available on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “Perfect Chemistry between Leading Actors”
This classic TV drama features actors Damian Lau as Zhang Danfeng and Michelle Yim as Yun Lei, whom are often praised by drama lovers for their perfect chemistry in these series. Of the many adaptations there are of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel Chronicles of The Shadow Swordsman, many say this is their favorite.
#5 New Star (新星)
Directed by: Li Xin (李新)
Noteworthy: “A drama anyone over 50 will remember”
This CCTV mini-drama, based on the novel by Ke Yunlu (柯云路), tells the story of a young Party secretary fighting against corruption. Before Heaven Above (later in this list), it is thus one of the very first dramas to focus on corruption as a theme, and it also caused a buzz at the time for doing so – most people over 50 in China today will probably remember this TV series today.
#6 Journey to the West (西游记)
Episodes: 25 for season one, 16 episodes for season 2
Directed by Yang Jie (杨洁)
Watch on Youtube (with English subtitles!) here.
Noteworthy: “Shot with one camera”
This is an all-time favorite TV series in China that is still rated with a 9.5 on the TV drama database of search engine Sogou. It has been an instant classic from the moment it was first broadcasted by CCTV in October of 1986.
Journey to the West (Xīyóu jì 西游记), published in the 16th century (Ming dynasty), is one of the most important classical works in the history of Chinese literature, and tells the story of the long journey to India of the Tang Monk Xuánzàng, who is on a mission to obtain Buddhist sutras. He is joined by three disciples, the pig demon Zhū Bājiè, the river demon Shā Wùjìng, and Sūn Wùkōng, who is better known as the Monkey King in the West.
The Monkey in the series is played by Zhang Jinlai (章金莱), also known as Liu Xiao Ling Tong, who recently recalled in an CGTN article that: “it was 30 years ago and we’d got only one camera. We walked around China’s picturesque areas and took 17 years to make 41 episodes. 17 years equals Monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage for the Buddhist scriptures.”
#7 “The Dream of Red Chambers” (红楼梦)
Directed by: Wang Fulin (王扶林)
Watch with English subtitles on YouTube here.
Noteworthy: “The first entry of Chinese tv drama into the global market”
Even today, this CCTV TV series from 1987 is still rated as one of the best Chinese television series of all time on Sogou, where viewers rate it with a 9.6.
Like other series in this list, this is an adaptation from a classic literary work; Dream of the Red Chamber (Hónglóumèng), one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, which was written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century during the Qing.
In June of 1987, this TV drama became the first Chinese television series to be exported to Malaysia and West-Germany, making it “the first entry of Chinese tv drama into the global market” (Hong, 32).
#8 The Investiture of the Gods (封神榜)
Genre: Fantasy/Costume Drama
Directed by: Guo Xinling (郭信玲)
The first episode is available on YouTube here.
Noteworthy: “Based on the classical novel Fengshen Yanyi“
This TV series is based on the classical novel Fēngshén Yǎnyì (封神演義), also known as Investiture of the Gods or Creation of the Gods), written by Xu Zhonglin and Lu Xixing. Famous Chinese actor and painter Lan Tianye (蓝天野) was praised for his role as Jiang Ziya in this drama.
The (female) director Guo Xinling (1936-2012) was a Party member who worked on many televised works during her career.
Just as many others of the series in this list based on classic novels, there are remakes of these series in recent times.
#9 Yearnings / Kewang (渴望)
Genre: Family drama
Directed by Lu Xiaowei (鲁晓威) and Zhao Baoguang (赵宝刚).
Noteworthy: “China’s first soap opera – a national craze”
Yearnings is also known as China’s real first soap opera, which caused a sensation across the nation – sales of TV sets surged, and streets were empty when it aired.
The story’s time spans from the Cultural Revolution until the 1980s reform period. The series, set in Beijing, tells the story of working-class woman Liu Huifang and her unlikely marriage to the middle-class Wang Husheng, a university graduate who comes from a family of intellectuals. When Huifang finds an abandoned baby, she adopts it against the will of her husband.
As the first TV series that focused on the hopes and dreams of ordinary Chinese people, the success of Yearnings was unprecedented, and it formed the beginning of Chinese television drama as we know it today.
#10 River of Gratitude (江湖恩仇录)
Directed by: Mao Yuqin (毛玉勤)
Watch first episode on Youtube here
Noteworthy: “A true classic – it’s nostalgia!”
One of the main stars in this series is actress and producer Wenying Dongfang (东方闻樱), who also starred in A Dream in Red Mansion (1987).
By commenters on Douban, this series is described as a “cult classic.” Although some say the quality of the series, now, looking back, is somewhat substandard or silly, according to many, the nostalgia of seeing it in the early 1990s and being excited about it seems to play a major factor in why people still grade this one as a true classic – it’s nostalgia!
#11 Wan Chun (婉君)
Produced in Taiwan
Noteworthy: “The first Taiwanese TV series filmed in mainland China”
Wan Chun is a 1990 Taiwanese television series about a girl named Wan Chun and her three adoptive brothers, that is based on the 1964 novel “Wan-chun’s Three Loves” (追尋) by Taiwanese writer and producer Chiung Yao, and which is set in Republican era Beijing.
This is the first cross-strait co-production, as a Taiwanese TV series filmed in mainland China. Wan Chun was followed up by the 1990 Taiwanese television drama series Mute Wife based on Chiung Yao’s 1965 novelette of the same name.
#12 The Legend of Qianlong (戏说乾隆)
Genre: Imperial drama
Produced in Taiwan (Taiwan-mainland co-production)
Watch on Youtube here
Noteworthy: “The beginning of a genre”
In today’s TV drama environment of China, dramas that focus on life during the imperial era are ubiquitous, with titles from the Imperial Doctress to Story of Yanxi Palace being everywhere.
But when this drama aired in the early 1990s, it was something quite new. The Legend of Qianlong, also known with the English translation A Fanciful Account of Qianlong, tells the (fictional) stories of the Emperor Qianlong’s Tours of Southern China.
It was the beginning of a drama genre that turned out to be hugely popular, with many new television series focusing on emperors and empresses in their youth or their tumultuous lives during the height of their power (Barme 2012, 33). Perhaps, this 1991 series will always be a classic just because it was one of the first within its genre.
#13 The Legend of the White Snake (新白娘子传奇)
Produced in Taiwan
Noteworthy: “One of the most replayed TV series”
As many of the classics in this list, this hit TV series is also based on a folk legend, namely that of Madame White Snakee, a mythical snake-like spirit who strives to be human, which is a source for many major Chinese operas, films.
The 1992 TV series stars Angie Chiu and Cecilia Yip. In 2016, it was still one of the most replayed TV series. Even on IMDB, it is rated with an 8.2.
#14 Beijinger in New York (北京人在纽约)
Noteworthy: “The first Chinese-language TV show to be shot in the United States”
The TV series Beijinger in New York, also known as A Native of Beijing in New York, based on the novel by Glen Cao (Cao Guilin), was a hit when it was first broadcasted broadcast nightly on CCTV and watched by millions of Chinese.
The story follows the immigrant life of cello player and Beijinger Wang Qiming (王起明), who arrives in New York in 1980 together with his wife, and begins working as a dishwasher the next day.
The TV series marks a first in several aspects. It was the first Chinese-language TV show to be shot in the United States, but it was also the first time ever for the production of a Chinese TV drama that a bank loan was used in order to make it possible (Bai 2007, 83); in other words, it also marks the start of a more commercialized TV drama environment. FYI: the bank loan that was used was a total of US$1.3 million.
#15 I Love My Family (我爱我家)
Directed by Ying Da (英达) et al
First episodes on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “First Mandarin-language sitcom”
I Love My Family (Wǒ ài wǒjiā) is one of China’s first popular sitcoms, and the first Mandarin-language and multi-camera sitcom, that aired from 1993 to 1994. It has since been rerun on local channels countless of times.
One of the show’s central stars is Wen Xingyu (文兴宇), who was a popular comedian and director in mainland China.
At the time of I Love My Family, sitcoms were mostly characterized by their low production cost; three episodes were made within five working days (Di 2008, 122).
#16 Justice Pao (包青天)
Genre: Historical drama
Produced in Taiwan
Some episodes on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “From 15 to 236 episodes”
This series is themed around Bao Zheng (包拯), a government official who lived during China’s Song Dynasty, from 999 to 1062, and who was known for his extreme honesty and uprightness. Award-winning Taiwanese actor Jin Chao-chun (金超群) plays this role.
The series was originally scheduled for just 15 episodes, but was received so well when it aired on Chinese Television System, that it was eventually expanded to 236 episodes.
The story of Justice Bao is still a recurring topic in the popular culture of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. There was the 2008 Chinese series Justice Bao, and the 2010 New Justice Bao, that also starred Jin Chao-chun.
#17 Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义)
Noteworthy: “400,000 people involved in the production”
This is another classic TV series produced by the CCTV, and that is also adapted from a classical novel (same title, written by Luo Guanzhong). Its director, Wang Fulin (王扶林), also directed the CCTV’s first TV drama Eighteen Years in the Enemy’s Camp, and A Dream of Red Mansions.
The production of Romance of the Three Kingdoms is especially noteworthy because the productions costs broke all kinds of records at the time; the production of the 84 one-hour episodes took four years, total costs were over 170 million RMB (±US$25 million), and around 400,000 people were involved – the larghest number of people involved in a production in the history of Chinese television. THe show has been watched by some 1,2 billion people around the world (Hongb 2007, 127).
#18 Heaven’s Above (苍天在上)
Genre: Corruption drama (or ‘anti-corruption drama’ 反腐剧)
Directed by: Zhou Huan (周寰)
Noteworthy: “First drama about high-level official corruption”
In late 1995, the CCTV drama Heaven Above (Cāngtiān zài shàng) debuted on Chinese TV as the first TV series about high-level official corruption in the PRC.
It would certainly not be the last, as ‘corruption dramas’ became wildly popular – it is the entire focus of the 2014 book Staging Corruption by scholar Ruoyun Bai.
#19 Foreign Babes in Beijing (洋妞在北京)
Genre: Urban drama
Noteworthy: “Foreign women in Chinese dramas”
Foreign Babes in Beijing (Yáng niū zài Běijīng) was one of the new kinds of dramas that featured foreigners in China. This series focues on two Chinese men and two American women, of which one seduces one of the Chinese (married) men. The show was a big hit in the mid-1990s.
One of the show’s actresses, Rachel Dewoskin, later wrote the recommended book Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China about her experiences of playing in the show and her life in China at the time.
#20 My Dear Motherland (我亲爱的祖国)
Noteworthy: “Rated with a 9.1”
This 1999 series is still rated with a 9.1 on Douban today. The series tells the experiences and hardships of three generations of Chinese intellectuals during the tumultuous (war)history of China’s 20th century, starting during the May Fourth Movement in 1919.
Chen Jianbin (陈建斌) is one of the famous actors starring in this TV drama as Fang Xuetong.
#21 Yongzheng’s Dynasty (雍正王朝)
Noteworthy: “Qing drama as export product”
Yongzheng Dynasty is one of many so-called “Qing dramas” – TV dramas that focus on palace life during the 1644-1911 Qing Dynasty. According to scholar Zhu (2008), one of the reasons that dynasty dramas such as these became so enormously popular in mainland China is that (1) certain social and political issues can be discussed in the shape of stories and settings that are very much removed from modern-day China, allowing for more relaxed censorship policies on storylines and dialogues, and (2) that the reconstruction of “history” allows room for artistic interventions (22).
This epic TV drama was loosely based on historical events in the reigns of the Kangxi and Yongzheng Emperors, and became one of the most watched television series in mainland China of the 1990s. Also outside of China the show became very popular, making the so-called ‘Qing dramas’ an export product.
#22 Towards the Republic (走向共和)
Noteworthy: “59 hours of historical drama”
This is one of the most important TV series in this list. On Sogou ratings, Towards the Republic, which is also known as For the Sake of the Republic (Zǒuxiàng gònghé), is one of netizens’ top all-time favorite series, rated with a 9.7.
The CCTV TV drama tells the story of the historical events in China from 1890 to 1917 – the time during which the Qing Dynasty collapsed, and the Republic of China (1912-1949) was founded. Important historical events such as the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Hundred Days’ Reform (1898), the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and the Xinhai Revolution (1911) are all featured in this epic drama, that mainly focuses on the lives of Li Hongzhang (Chinese general in late Qing), Empress Dowager Cixi, Sun Yat-Sen, and Yuan Shikai.
The historical drama was not without controversy, and some parts of it have been censored in mainland China. The original series had 60 episodes, which was later brought down to 59. The TV drama has also been a fruitful topic for scholars for its representation of history. In the 2007 book Representing History in Chinese Media: The TV Drama Zou Xiang Gonghe (Towards the Republic) by Gotelind Mueller, the entire series is analyzed in how history is portrayed and narrated.
#23 Crimson Romance (血色浪漫)
Genre Youth drama
Directed by: Teng Wenji (滕文骥)
Watch on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “Romantizing the Cultural Revolution”
There are almost 40,000 netizens ranking this 2004 TV drama on Douban, where it scores a 8.7.
The TV drama, which is also known as Romantic Life in English, dramatizes memories of the Cultural Revolution, focusing on a group of friends, their hopes and dreams, and their romantic life. It is set in Beijing in the late period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
#24 Fu Gui (福贵)
Noteworthy: “Based on the novel To Live“
The drama is based on the 1993 novel by Yu Hua (余华) To Live (活着), which focuses on the struggles of the son of a wealthy land-owner, Xu Fugui, amidst the tumultuous times of the Chinese Revolution. The story became well-known by the movie of the same title by Zhang Yimou, which became an international success.
#25 Ming Dynasty in 1566 (大明王朝1566)
Genre: Historical drama
Directed by: Zhang Li (张黎)
Available with English subtitles on Youtube
Noteworthy: “Scoring a 9.7 on Douban, rated by 55,000 users”
Ming Dynasty in 1566 (Dàmíng wángcháo), starring Chinese actor Chen Baoguo (陈宝国), is a Chinese television series based on historical events during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (1507-1567) of the Ming dynasty. It was first broadcast on Hunan TV in China in 2007.
On Douban, more than 55000 people have reviewed this movie at time of writing, coming up with a score of 9.7, one of the highest in this list. The drama was also broadcasted in other countries, such as South Korea.
#26 Dwelling Narrowness (蜗居)
Genre: Urban Drama
Directed by: Teng Huatao (滕华涛)
Watch on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “Focusing on China’s urban real estate bubble”
Also known as Snail House, this TV drama was all the rage back in 2009 for its focus on the crazy housing market in urban China and the lives of ordinary Chinese who are struggling to survive in the city while living in small spaces. Dwelling Narrowness, based on a novel by the same name, tells the story of two sisters with very different lifestyles who are looking to find a home in Shanghai (or actually, the fictional city of Jiangzhou, that basically represents Shanghai), and improve their quality of life, each in their own way.
The real estate bubble is a major theme throughout these series, and the TV drama was much-discussed within the frame of Chinese urban dwellers becoming “house slaves” (房奴). In the year of its broadcast, Wall Street Journal featured an article dedicated to the series and the discussions it triggered online.
#27 The Red (红色)
Genre: War drama
Directed by Yang Lei (杨磊)
Noteworthy: “Patriotism as its key theme”
War drama The Red (Hóngsè) receives a 9.2 on Sogou, showing its success over the last four years.
Edward Zhang (Zhang Luyi 张鲁一) stars in this drama as an ordinary worker in Shanghai who gets caught up in underground circles at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and unexpectedly becomes part of a decisive moment in Chinese modern history. Perhaps unsurprinsginly, ‘Patriotism’ is a key theme throughout The Red.
#28 Moral Peanuts – Final Season (毛骗 终结篇)
Episodes: 10 (in this season)
Directed by: Li Hongchou (李洪绸)
Watch on Youtube here.
Noteworthy: “A gang of friends who con people out of their money”
Moral Peanuts is a multiple season series (started in 2010), that follows a gang of five young friends who live together and earn their living in a fraudulent way. The series is characterized by its cliffhanger endings and its ‘grey’ portrayals of its characters.
#29 In the Name of the People (人民的名义)
Genre: Corruption drama
Directed by: Li Lu
Available with English subtitles here.
Noteworthy: “The Chinese ‘House of Cards'”
In the Name of the People is a 2017 highly popular Chinese TV drama series based on the web novel of the same name by Zhou Meisen (周梅森). Its plot revolves around a prosecutor’s efforts to unearth corruption in a present-day fictional Chinese city by the name of Jingzhou.
In 2017, this TV drama became a true craze on Chinese social media and received a lot of coverage in (international) media for being comparable to the American political drama House of Cards. The BBC described it as “the latest piece of propaganda aimed at portraying the government’s victory in its anti-corruption campaign.”
#30 White Deer Plain (白鹿原)
Genre: Contemporary historical drama
Directed by: Liu Jin (刘进)
WAtch with English subs at New Asian TV here.
Noteworthy: “The epic TV drama took nearly 17 years to prepare and produce “
This TV drama has consistently been ranking number one in Baidu’s and Weibo’s popular drama charts last year, and is now ranked with an 8.8 score on sites such as Douban. Although it is somewhat tricky to call such a present-day drama a ‘classic’, we’ll take the chance.
White Deer Plain is based on the award-winning Chinese literary classic by Chen Zhongshi (陈忠实) from 1993. The preparation and production of this series reportedly took a staggering 17 years and a budget of 230 million yuan (US$33.39 million).
The success of the novel this TV drama is based on, has previously been compared to that of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. White Deer Plain follows the stories of people from several generations living on the ‘White Deer Plain,’ or North China Plain in Shanxi province, during the first half of the 20th century. This tumultuous period sees the Republican Period, the Japanese invasion, and the early days of the People’s Republic of China. The series is great in providing insights into how people used to live, from dress to daily life matter. The scenery and sets are beautiful.
Some Book Recommendations Based on This List:
Want to know more? Check out our various Top 10s of popular Chinese TV Dramas from 2013 to present here.
*1(We kindly ask not to reproduce this list without permission – please link back if referring to it).
Bai, Ruoyun. 2007. “TV Dramas in China – Implications of the Globalization.” In Manfred Kops and Stefan Ollig (eds), Internationalization of the Chinese TV sector, 75-99. Berlin: LIT Verlag.
Bai, Ruoyun. 2014. Staging Corruption: Chinese Television and Politics. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Barmé, Geremie. 2012. “Red Allure and the Crimson Blindfold.” China Perspectives, 2012/2, 29-40.
Di, Miao. 2008. “A Brief History of Chinese Situation Comedies.” In Ruoyun Bai, Ying Zhu, Michael Keane (eds), TV Drama in China, 117-129. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Hong, Junhao. 2007. “The Historical Development of Program Exchange in the TV Sector.” In Manfred Kops and Stefan Ollig (eds), Internationalization of the Chinese TV sector, 25-40. Berlin: LIT Verlag.
–. 2007b. “From Three Kingdoms the Novel to Three Kingdoms the Television Series: Gains, Losses, and Implications.” In Kimberly Besio and Constantine Tung (eds), Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture, 125-143. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Zhu, Ying. 2008. “Yongzheng Dynasty and Totalitarian Nostalgia.” In Bai R, Keane M, Zhu Y. (eds), TV Drama in China, 21-33. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press; 2008
Wang, Min and Arvind Singhal. 1992. “Kewang, A Chinese Television Soap Opera With A Message.” Gazette 49: 177-192.
Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.
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.
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 preference 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.
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.
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 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
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
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
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.
by Jonathan Spence, 1991
Although this work, more elaborate than the aforementioned 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
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.
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
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
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
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Get on BookDepository: Age of Ambition
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.
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 that it is not 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.
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.
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?!).
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.
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 cannot understand the current environment without understanding where it came from – and this book provides a full overview of that environment from 1919 to 2007.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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.
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
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Book Depository: Little Rice : Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream
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.
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
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Audiobook: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
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
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.
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
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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
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● (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.
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