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China Books & Literature

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

In a new book on China’s Leftover Women, author Roseann Lakes highlights the strength and merit of China’s unmarried women.

Manya Koetse

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With Leftover in China – The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower, author Roseann 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. A must-read book for this Spring Festival holiday.

As the count-down for China’s most important event of the year, the Spring Festival, has started, countless unmarried daughters and sons anticipate the reunion with their parents and relatives with some horror. “Why are you still single?” is amongst the top-dreaded questions they are facing during the New Year’s dinners at the family dining table.

More so than the bachelor sons, it’s China’s unmarried daughters in their late twenties and early thirties who came to be at the center of a media storm over the past decade. The so-called ‘leftover women’ (剩女 shèngnǚ) have become a source of critique, banter, worry, fascination, and inspiration for the media, both in- and outside China.

The term shèngnǚ became a catchphrase ever since the Chinese Ministry of Education listed it as one of the newest additions to Chinese vocabulary in 2007. The shengnü label is mainly applied to unmarried (urban) women in their late twenties or early thirties who are generally well-educated and goal-oriented, but who came to be associated with ‘leftover food’ because of their single status and long-standing beliefs about the right age to marry.

One 2015 survey by Chinese dating site Zhenai, that was held amongst 1452 single men and women, shows that 50% of Chinese men think that women who are still single at the age of 25 are ‘leftovers.’

 

SILVER LININGS

“I’m pro-active about finding a partner, but not to the extent that it gets in the way of other ambitions.”

 

After the success of much-acclaimed books such as Factory Girls (Leslie T. Chang 2008) and Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Leta Hong Fincher 2014), Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower  (2018) by Roseann Lake, Cuba correspondent for The Economist, brings fresh insights into the role and position of young women in a rapidly-changing society.

At the root of the ‘leftover women’ phenomenon and the media frenzy around it lies China’s One-Child Policy (1979-2015), the country’s imbalanced sex ratio, and traditional perceptions on wives and mothers being the building blocks of Chinese families and the nation at large.

Leftover in China is Roseann’s Lake first (non-fiction) book.

Lake describes how the onset of China’s One-Child Policy and a traditional preference for sons, together with the available ultrasound technology in the late 1980s, led to an enormous rise of abortions on female fetuses. The gender imbalance it brought about is most severe in China’s rural areas; in places such as Tianmen, Hubei, the gender ratio is a shocking 176 males to 100 females. It leaves villages full of men who are unable to find a bride and start a family. Guānggùn (光棍), they’re also called, literally the “bare branches” of their hometowns.

While the ‘bare branches’ reside in China’s more rural areas, the ‘leftover women’ live in China’s more urban areas. The ‘bare branches’ and ‘leftover women’ both have difficulties in finding a partner, albeit for radically different reasons. For the rural men, there simply are not enough marriage candidates, whereas for the urban women, there are not enough suitable marriage candidates. A major difference between the countryside and the urban environment is that China’s cities have seen a much better-balanced gender ratio, with parents pampering and pressuring their only child – whether it was a boy or girl.

Although Lake does explain the “gruesome cloud” of China’s One-Child Policy and female foeticide and the demographic problems it has triggered, she especially focuses on the “silver lining,” which is that the sociopolitical circumstances have also ‘forced’ parents to value their daughters more than ever before. Over the past decades, millions of Chinese daughters have been given the opportunities and liberties their mothers and grandmothers never had. Their increased educational and professional prospects have made marriage somewhat less of a priority for them.

While China’s unmarried, urban woman are often stigmatized by Chinese state media for being too ‘spoilt’, ‘picky’, or ‘promiscuous’ to marry, Roseann Lake casts an entirely different light on China’s urban bachelorettes as being determined, independent, and self-assured. “I’m pro-active about finding a partner,” one of the ‘leftover women’ in Lake’s book says: “But not to the extent that it gets in the way of other ambitions.”

 

CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING LOVE

“Leftover women are resisting ultimatums to wed because they want to marry for love, and not just for the sake of being married.”

 

Lake’s strong connection to Chinese culture and society jumps off the pages of Leftover in China, in which she playfully and compellingly offers a window into the female experience in modern China, explaining fascinating concepts that are unique to modern-day society. One such example is the ‘phantom third stories’ phenomenon; two-story houses with an unfinished ‘fake’ third story, built by unmarried men and their family to make the house appear more grandiose in the hopes of attracting a wife.

The interest in China started when Lake took a sabbatical from her job with the French government in New York, and went to Beijing. “I was only supposed to stay for three months,” she tells What’s on Weibo: “But shortly into my stay I bought a hot orange electric – Chinese – ‘Vespa’, and that changed everything.”

Journalist Roseann Lake.

As Lake was riding her scooter, which she lovingly nicknamed ‘Fanta’, she took in the city and all of its aspects, including its love and romantic relationships. On what first caught her attention within this field, she explains that it started one afternoon as she was riding her scooter in Beijing and spotted a very angry Chinese woman on the side of the road, screaming profanities at a man who appeared to be her romantic partner. The altercation turned violent, and it was not the first time Lake had witnessed such a scene between couples in public.

“I felt that something seemed afoul with the state of romantic relationships in China,” she says – which was a start of her interest and research into romance, love, and the role of Chinese women in this. “For thousands of years, marriage has largely been a mercenary, transactional agreement in China, made with the best interests of the key stakeholders – the parents – in mind.”

Romantic love as a reason for marriage in China, Lake says, is a relatively new concept. She tells What’s on Weibo: “Down the line, this better helped me understand the situation of leftover women – many of which, as I discovered, were resisting ultimatums to wed because they wanted to marry for love, and not just for the sake of being married.”

The topic of China’s changing marriage values and the generation gap in perceptions on love and marriage between parents and their daughters recurringly comes back in Lake’s book, for which she followed the lives of various ‘leftover women’ over a period of several years. Through the stories of women such as Christy, the CEO of a successful Beijing PR firm, or June, a “return turtle” who came back to the mainland after graduating from Yale, readers can get a grasp of the pressures and problems many single women are facing in China today.

An important lesson to draw from this book is that the phenomenon of China’s ‘leftover women’ cannot be explained through a unidimensional lens. Lake highlights China’s historical, societal, cultural, and economic dimensions in her approach of why this large group of unmarried women, despite all of their personal, academic and professional achievements, are still being labeled through their single status.

 

THE TOAST OF THE NATION

“There is irony and absurdity in the fact that these women are referred to as “leftover” but are really such an important part of China’s future.”

 

In 2016, an ad campaign by skincare brand SK-II titled ‘She Finally Goes to the Marriage Corner’ (她最后去了相亲角) gained huge popularity on Chinese social media. The short video showed how women, pressured to get married by their families and society, pluck up the courage to speak out and get their message heard.

The video received much praise, with many women protesting against the derogatory ‘leftover women’ label. CCTV recently also posted a feature article on social media in which various women plead for the elimination of the “leftover woman” or shèngnǚ label.

The campaign by SKII in 2016 ignited a movement that protested the ‘leftover’ label.

Why, then, would Lake still refer to the ‘leftover’ label on the cover of her book? About the book’s title, Lake says: “There was a different title that I preferred, but my publisher disagreed with it, so we compromised on ‘Leftover in China.’ It has grown on me. I’m told that for non-fiction books, the subtitle is just as important as the title itself, and I think “The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower” is apt. It underscores the irony and absurdity of the fact that these women are referred to as “leftover” but are really such an important part of China’s future.”

Throughout the course of writing this book, Lake spoke to many experts on the importance of China’s young (unmarried) women in shaping Chinese economics. One of them is Dr. Kaiping Peng, the founding chair of the Department of Psychology at Tsinghua University, who is quoted as saying: “The Chinese economic miracle has two secrets. The first are migrant workers, and the second are young, educated women.”

All the love, time, and money that Chinese parents and grandparents have invested in their only (grand)daughter has now paid off – not just for them, but for the economy at large. These well-educated and hard-working women play a powerful role in running China’s economic engine.

 

THE FUTURE OF CHINA’S LEFTOVER WOMEN

“Few people know that the most imbalanced year for sex ratio at birth in China was actually 2005.”

 

When talking about the future of China’s ‘leftover women,’ Lake suspects that they will continue to get married later in life or not at all – on trend with what is also happening in countries such as Japan or South Korea. “This would be much to the dismay of the Chinese government” Lake says, “- which desperately wants babies, but hasn’t done much to incentivize or make it easier for women to have them.”

Social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat also play an important role in the lives of these women: “When I was living in China and writing the first drafts of this book, there were a few groups on Weixin [WeChat] where women would chat, share articles, and plan gatherings. They’ve dramatically multiplied! More content is shared, more ideas are exchanged, and the ease of these platforms means that Chinese women abroad can easily remain a part of the conversation.”

Lake is more worried about the so-called guānggùn, China’s ‘bare branches’: “We all may imagine that the worst years for gendercide were in the 80s and 90s, when population controls were stricter in China, but I think few people know that the most imbalanced year for sex ratio at birth in China was actually 2005. That means that boys who are now 13 years old will likely have a harder time finding a wife than any generations of men before them.”

This Spring Festival, Lake is anticipating the launch of her book (release February 13, 2018), which has already been listed as one of the must-read books for 2018 by the South China Morning Post.

For China’s many bachelorettes, they’ll just have to face the nagging questions at the New Year’s dining table, but they need not worry too much about being called ‘leftover women.’ Through books such as these, the term loses its derogatory tone – it is becoming a badge of honor instead.

 
Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower by Roseann Lake is now available for pre-sale:
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 Book Depository: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower

By Manya Koetse

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©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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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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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Oi-lin

    February 20, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    Curious that this white author’s book does not reference Leta Hong Fischer’s pioneering work.

    • Avatar

      Sigrid

      May 7, 2018 at 7:04 am

      Because Leta Hong Fingers book is irrelevant to the topics dealt with in Lake’s book.

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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

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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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China Arts & Entertainment

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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