"Contemporary Chinese literature is rich and colourful. There are all types of writers, so there are all types of writing, too. As I see it, the biggest problem facing Chinese literature is how to express today’s realities. Reality is more preposterous than fiction. It’s a difficult task to convey reality’s absurdity in a novel". author Yua Hua

From 1949 through the 1970s books were used as a propaganda device by the Communist Party and stories were about peasants, workers and soldiers and the great things they achieved. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the only reading material for many Chinese was Mao’s 'Little Red Book' and foreign literature was banned. In this period many intellectuals were branded as class enemies and killed. After the death of Mao literature made a comeback and most surviving writers were rehabilitated and since the 1980’s more freedom of expression has been allowed. But in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, that were an outcry for political reform, many cultural leaders were imprisoned or forced into exile. In the 21st century almost any book is available online in China.

Chinese Literature and Historical Fiction Books

 

During the Cultural Revolution, two teenage friends, Luo and the narrator, are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for 're-education', because they are the children of intellectuals.  In a remote village, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they carry buckets of excrement up and down winding paths and work in a coal mine. Luo and the narrator meet Four-Eyes, the son of a poet, who is also being re-educated. Four-Eyes is hiding a secret set of foreign novels that are forbidden by Chinese law. One of these banned books is from the writer Honoré de Balzac. They also meet the daughter of the local tailor, the little seamstress. With Luo's help the little seamstress learns about the outside world by reading the banned literature and as the two boys flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour the banned literature, the two friends find delight from their grim surroundings. And even the life of the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed. More about this beautiful story.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Daj Sije
Dai Sijie, who has lived and worked in France since 1984 spent the years between 1971 and 1974 in the a re-education camp in the mountains of Sichuan Province. Dai Sijie is also a filmmaker and in 2002 he released the film 'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress'.
 
 

I am also well aware that literature only has a minimal influence on political disputes or economic crises in the world, but its significance to human beings is ancient. Mo Yan

I believe that the power of literature is stronger than the power of tyranny. Ma Jian

Mo Yan

Mo Yan was born in 1955 in the countryside as a farmers son. Whilst working in a cotton factory at the age of 18, he witnessed the political campaigns the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. After having served in the People’s Liberation Army he started his career as a writer. Mo Yan is a pen name and means literally: "don't speak”. Mo Yan about his chosen pen name: “the name comes from a warning from his father and mother not to speak his mind while outside, because of China's revolutionary political situation from the 1950s”. Mo Yan together with Yu Hua and Su Tong are regarded as Chinese most influential writers from the post-Cultural Revolution period that started in 1976.  Major themes in Mo Yan's works are human greed and corruption, the Cultural Revolution and the China’ s family-planning policies. His international breakthrough came with the publication of his novel Red Sorghum in 1986, which was later adapted into a movie directed by Zhang Yimou.

 

In 2012, Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although hailed as a national hero by the Chinese government, there was also a lot of criticism from other contemporary Chinese writers like Ma Jian and artist Ai Weiwei.  He was the first Chinese Nobel prize winner who was neither in exile nor in jail and criticism was related to his ties and good relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. 

The Garlic Ballads - Mo Yan, 1988

Genre: historical fiction

For generations, the farmers of Paradise County have been leading a harsh life. The Communist government has encouraged them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as simple as they believe. A surplus on the garlic market ensues, and the farmers must watch in horror as their crops wither and rot in the fields.

Garlic farmer Gao Ma aches with love for Fang Jinju, whose parents are using her as a pawn in an arranged marriage. Defying her two thuggish brothers and her father, who in the past has savagely beaten her, Jinju, pregnant with Gao Ma's child, runs away with him but meets a tragic end. When the farmers rebel against the garlic farming policies, the police arrest Gao Ma and he is thrown in jail. Gao Ma's fate is entwined with that of another imprisoned protestor, Gao Yang, who preserves his sanity through the love of his wife and 10 year old daughter, who is blind. 

“His luminous prose lays bare the corrupt bureaucracy, grinding poverty and pervasive oppression borne by millions of inhabitants in the People's Republic”. Publishers Weekly

The Republic of Wine - Mo Yan, 1993

Genre: historical fiction

When rumors reach the authorities that strange and excessive gourmandise is being practiced in the city of Liquorland (so named for the staggering amount of alcohol produced and consumed there), special investigator Ding Gou'er is dispatched from the capital to discover the truth into the allegations of cannibalism. His mission begins at the Mount Lou Coal Mine, where he encounters the prime suspect, Deputy Head Diamond Jin. But wine and women lead to Ding Gou'er's downfall and during a drinking duel with Diamond Jin, the investigator loses all sense of reality, and he can no longer tell whether the roast suckling served is of the animal or the human variety. When he finally wakes up from his stupor, he has still found no answers to his mounting questions…

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Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China - Jung Chang, 1991

Genre: autobiography

This is the author's personal memoir that spans the twentieth century, recounting the lives of three female generations in China and contains the biographies of Jung Chang’s grandmother, her mother, and finally her own story; from a daughter of the communist elite and member of the Red Guards to being expelled to the countryside for re-education.

When Jung Chang’s grandmother’s was a child her feet were bound and at a young age she was given to a warlord general as a concubine. As the general lay dying, she fled with her infant daughter. That daughter grew up to become active in the communist movement during the civil war against the Kuomintang.  Following the Communist victory in 1949 she and her husband became senior officials. Jung Chang, their daughter, was raised in the privileged circles of China’s communist elite. But during the Cultural revolution her parents were denounced and tortured and Jung Chang herself was exiled to the edge of the Himalayas.

Beijing Coma - Ma Jian, 2008

This book is the story of Dai Wei, who grew up as the son of an accused "rightist" in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. 

As a student in Beijing, Dai and his fellow students press the government for democratic reforms. During the demonstrations in June 1989 and the massacre that followed at Tiananmen square, Dai is hit by a bullet in the brain. For the ensuing decade, Dai Wei languishes as a vegetable in his mother's home, moving back and forth in his trapped mind between memory and the present, and hearing visitors relate how the government has punished his surviving friends and how those friends moved on to find prosperity abroad or to participate in a rapidly changing China.

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The Private Life of Chairman Mao - Dr. Li Zhisui, 1994

The book is based on the memoirs of Dr. Li who was for 22 years one of the physicians to Mao Zedong.

Li discusses how he came to treat first the senior Chinese communist officials, then in 1954 Mao himself until Mao's death in 1976. It details the difficulties and frustrations faced by Li attempting to deal with the politics, infighting and personal conflicts of the upper echelons of the Communist Party of China, as well as the difficulties dealing with both Mao as a patient and other high-ranking officials, such as Mao's wife, the hypochondriac Jiang Qing, Mao's daughter Li Na, and the physically unstable Lin Biao. The book also discusses Mao's role in orchestrating events such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and various purges of members of the Communist Party. Gradually Li's initial sincere admiration for Mao as a leader of the country changes into contempt and personal dislike of the leader as he learns to know Mao's character.

Life and Death in Shanghai - Nien Cheng, 1987

Genre: autobiography

In August 1966, a group of Red Guards ransacked Nien Cheng’s home. As the widow of an official of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime and as an employee of Shell Oil and educated in the West, Cheng was regarded as an enemy of the state and she was imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement. But Cheng refused to provide a confession that she was a spy for "the imperialists", and was tortured as a result. When released from jail in 1973, Cheng found that her daughter Meiping, who had been studying to become a film actress, had been murdered by the Red Guards, although the official statement was that she had committed suicide. Under constant surveillance from the state, Cheng lived in China until 1980. She then moved to the US where she wrote this autobiography.

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Su Tong 

Set in China in the 1930’s Five Dragons, an orphaned young man on the verge of starvation, is fleeing the countryside to look for fortune in the city. It is a time of widespread famine, gang warfare and the Japanese military occupation.

Five Dragons is given a job in a rice emporium belonging to the Feng family and he eventually marriages the family’s daughter Cloud Weave who is made pregnant by a thug. After Cloud Weave runs off with her newborn son to become the concubine of the child's presumed father, Five Dragons immediately beds her jealous sister, Cloud Silk, on a pile of storeroom rice. But Five Dragons’ greediness, lust for revenge and power, carries everything and everybody around him to ruin. 

Rice - Su Tong, 2004

This books consists of three stories about the Chinese peasantry and the fading bourgeoisie in the era before the 1949 revolution.

In the novella Raise the Red Lantern the young woman Lotus has to leave college when her bankrupt father commits suicide and she becomes the fourth concubine of a rich merchant. Her life is confined to a room in the back of the compound and close to her room is a courtyard with a well. There are rumours that adulterous concubines are thrown into the well. When she observes shadowy figures throwing her friend Coral, the third concubine, in the well because she has been found with another man, Lotus retreats into insanity.

In 'Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes' a father has left to work in a town where he takes a mistress. Back in the village his wife, pregnant with her seventh child, makes a living planting rice for the local landlord. When the eldest child runs away to join his father, and five others die from cholera, she has only one option...

The third story “Opium Family" details the last years of the Liu clan, a landowning opium growing family.

Raise the Red Lantern - Su Tong, 1990

Born in 1963, Su Tong studied Chinese in Beijing, where he is currently living. He attained international recognition in 1993 when director Zhang Yimou produced the film Raise the Red Lantern based on his novella ‘Wives and Concubines’. After the movie the book was published under the name Raise the Red Lantern.

His work is often described as provocative and explicit violent and with depravity as theme. In interviews Su Tong explains that: “when he was 3 years old, during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, his mother carried him to another room when a bullet hit the family’s door, close to were he was sleeping: "This is my first memory, a memory about society and life…”.

Other Books by Su Tong: My Life as Emperor (2006), Madwoman on the Bridge (2008) Tattoo: Three Novellas (2011), Another Life for Women and Three Lamps: Novellas (2016). His book Boat to Redemption was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2009.

Xu Fugui, son of a wealthy land-owning family is a compulsive gambler. 

He gambles away his family's entire fortune, dragging his mother, pregnant wife, and young daughter into poverty. His father dies with grief and indignation. The Chinese civil war is occurring at the time and Fugui is forced to join the army. Years later, when he returns home, he faces the hardships that his family endured. His mother died, his daughter became deaf-mute and later his son dies. Yet, as Fugui's capacity for love and his understanding of others grow, he believes there is still hope that things will get better. 

The film 'To Live' based on Yu Hua's novel was released in 1994 and directed by Zhang Yimou. The movie was banned in China, and director Zhang Yimou was banned from film-making for two years.

To Live - Yu Hua, 1992

 

Yu Hua was born in 1960 en grew up during the Cultural Revolution and many of his stories and novels are marked by this experience. He took part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

 

His book Brothers (2006) was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. Other works include: China in Ten Words (2012), The Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (2012), Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China (2014), The Seventh Day: A Novel (2016).

See publisher Penguin for more books by Yu Hua

 

Every summer Lin Kong, a doctor in the Chinese army, returns to his village to try to end his arranged marriage with the humble and loyal Shuyu. Shuyu raised their daughter and cared for both Lin's dying mother and father. Lin feels no love for her, and once he meets Manna Wu, an educated and modern nurse at the hospital, he falls in love with her and feels that he must divorce his wife Shuyu and marry Manna Wu. But each time Lin returns to the city he has to tell Manna that he has not divorced yet and that they will need to wait another year for their marriage. 

Caught between the claims of two utterly different women and trapped in a culture in which adultery can ruin lives and careers, Lin will wait for 18 years. But waiting has its price and in the end he might loose both women.

'Waiting' won the National Book Award in 1999

Ha Jin was born in 1956 and joined the People's Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution. In1985 he went to the U.S. to complete his studies in  American Literature. He wrote poetry and novels including: In the Pond (2000), The CrazedJan (2004), War TrashMay (2005), The Bridegroom: Stories (2001)

A Map of Betrayal: A Novel (2015), The Boat Rocker: A Novel (2016)

American expat Paul Leibovitz lives on Lamma, a small island near the coast of Hong Kong. Paul’s young son Justin died and Paul is divorced and retired from work and by  living on Lamma he tries to isolate himself from the world.

Until one day he meets Elizabeth, an woman who went to Hong Kong with her husband to look for their missing son Richard, who is managing the family's business. Days later the body of Richard is found in Shenzhen, a Chinese city bordering Hong Kong. Together with his Chinese friend Zhang, who is a homicide detective in Shenzhen, they set on a dangerous journey to investigate the circumstances surrounding the murder of Richard.

Whispering Shadows - Jan Philipp Sendker, 2015

Genre: mystery novel, detective set in Hong Kong

 

"explore a side of Hong Kong tourists rarely experience” (Kirkus Reviews)

This is first book of the Rising Dragon series, the second book ' Dragon Games' was released in 2016.

Sendker also wrote books set in Burma.

 

Other Recommended and Bestselling Books China 

The Wangs vs. the World

Charles Wang, once immigrated to America, has lost his fortune that he made in the cosmetics industry. Gone are his material luxuries and pride. Faced with this loss he wants to return to China to reclaim his ancestral lands and make a fresh start in his home country. But before his family members are ready to join him Charles first has to make an adventurous  journey through America. 

Contemporary  Literature

Do Not Say We Have Nothing 

Shortlisted Man Booker Prize 2016

Ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a young woman called Ai-Ming into their home. Ai-Ming has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.  Ai-Ming tells Marie the story of her family in Revolutionary China and about the three musicians, who during the Cultural Revolution all struggled to remain loyal to one another but also to the music they have devoted their lives to. 

The Best Chinese Literature Books China Madeleine Thien

Dream of Ding Village

Yan Lianke 2012

Xiao Qiang tells the story of his village, where a blood contamination caused a large scale infection with AIDS. It is based on the true story of the blood selling scandal in Eastern China in the 1990’s and Lianke worked three years as an assistant to an anthropologist to study a small village decimated by HIV. Villagers were coerced in selling blood for money and even after many people became victims no action was taken by the Chinese government. No one claimed responsibility and families were torn apart by suspicion and grief.

The Chinese publication of the book was censored in China.

Shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012

Kinder Than Solitude: A Novel

Yiyun Li, 2015

The childhood friend Moran, Ruyu, and Boyang are involved in an accident in which a friend is poisoned. But was it really an accident?

Years later when they are grown up, Boyang living in China and Moran and Ruyu in America, they are still troubled by what happened when they were young. After nearly 20 years, will they eventually find out the true circumstances of that day and might one of them have committed a murder?

The Best Chinese Literature Kinder Than Solitude Yiyun Li

Wolf Totem

Chen Zhen works in China’s Inner Mongolia region as part of a movement to modernise the countryside. As he admires the lifestyle of the nomadic herdsmen there, he is also fascinated by the fierce and otherworldly Mongolian wolf. But when government policies threaten the wolves’ extinction, he sees an unfolding ecological tragedy—and a parable for China’s explosive growth.

In 2015 the book was made into the movie Wolf Totem.

Jiang Rong 2004

semi - autobiography

Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up

Xiaolu Guo, January 2017

This is a memoir of the writer who was raised by her grandparents in a remote fishing village. She recounts her life and perseverance from being abused in her young years by her grandparents to becoming a filmmaker (censored in China) and author.

China Dolls: A Novel

Lisa See, 2014

Just years before the outbreak of the Second World War three young women meet at the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco. The girls Grace, Helen and Ruby all have a Chinese background but face different challenges. By sharing their past secrets and future dreams they become friends. But with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, distrust and suspicion threaten to destroy their friendship and an act of betrayal changes everything.

Mambo in Chinatown

Charlie Wong grows up in New York’s Chinatown, she is the daughter of Chinese parents. Her mother, a former Beijing ballerina, died and Charlie is now living with her father, a noodle maker, and her younger sister in a small apartment. Unsure of her cultural identity, she feels that her world is limited. But when she gets a job at a ballroom dance studio she starts dreaming of a glamorous future. When her sister gets sick and her father wants to treat her only with traditional Chinese medicine she is torn between her newfound western identity and the cultural heritage of her father.

The Best Chinese Literature Jean Kwok
Tibet

Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet

Xinran

It is 1994 and the Chinese journalist Xinran spends two days in a teashop to listen to the story of an eldery woman, Shu Wen.

Almost four decades before, Shu Wen had gone missing inside Tibet. Now she is back in China.

In 1958 Shu Wen is just married to Kejun, when her new husband, a doctor in the army, is ordered to go to Tibet to help to subdue the Tibetan people and bring them under Chinese rule.

When Shu Wen is informed that her husband died in Tibet she wants to confirm the circumstances around his alleged death. But in order to investigate she needs a way to enter Tibet and she joins the Chinese army as a dermatologist and gets herself posted to the eastern region of Tibet. Eventually she decides to leave the soldiers and for almost 30 years she lives within a nomad family. During all those years she learns the Tibetan way of life and she never loses hope of finding out about her husband’s fate. Shu Wen ultimately solves the mystery of her husband's disappearance…but is this what she wanted to know?

 

note: Some critics doubt whether Shu Wen exists and if this book is based on a true story ( Xinran herself said that after the two days in which she spoke to Shu Wen, she never managed to find her again). But actually it doesn't matter, it is an impressive read anyway.

For more books from Xinran visit publisher site.

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