Eight works of Chinese fiction

Make it your Chinese New Year’s resolution to get to know some of that country’s best novels


See also: Eileen Battersby''s review of Soul Mountain - a romantic book by a pragmatist


1FISHINGROD_WEBBuying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather by Gao Xingjian (Translation by Mabel Lee)

Having read Soul Mountain, you may feel that you have found a friend in Gao. You have. These gentle stories, scenes from a life and shaped by memory, are things of beauty.

Also interesting is One Man’s Bible, which is on the scale of Soul Mountain and tells the story of Gao’s Beijing childhood and later memories of life under communism where a foolish remark has a heavy price

2THE_VAGRANTS_WEBThe Vagrants by Yiyun Li

No one who had read and admired her first book, the collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, winner of the inaugural Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award would have believed that Yiyun Li, who writes in English, would have crafted this devastating (it is the only word worthy of it) novel in which a young woman, Gu Shan is executed for her loss of faith in the Communist idea. Her death comes after 10 years in prison. In any list of all-time great novels this would have its place.

Harrowing and unflinching, it is beyond praise. The strength of the story telling which includes the vile treatment of the young woman’s dead body; is to be found in Yiyun’s inspired characterisation of the bereft parents, the father an intellectual bewildered at his daughter’s fervour; and the mother, broken-hearted by the loss of her only child. Ironically, Yiyun Li’s second collection of short stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, which was also short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Award yet failed to win, is even better than her winning debut.

3WAVES_300_438_WEBWaves by Bei Dao (translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Susette Ternent Cooke) 

This first, and to date, only work of fiction from Bei Dao (meaning “Northern Island”) is the pen name of Zhao Zhenkai, widely considered one of China’s finest poets and the main figure of the Misty Poets who denounced the Cultural Revolution. It consists of the title novella and six other stories.

Waves is the one to look at as it is a study of the shared disillusion of China’s Lost Generation. It was written during the closing stages of the Cultural Revolution, and the various characters, thieves, drifters and factory workers as well as the expected intellectuals seek something to give their lives purpose. His treatment of social class is particularly interesting.

4USEDTODYING_WEBGetting Used to Dying by Zhang Xianliang (translated by Martha Avery)

Having spent 22 years in prison and forced labour camps as an “Enemy of the People”, Zhang Xianliang began writing after his “rehabilitation”. This autobiographical novel is the story of how difficult it is to survive. He is a witness and this also undercuts another of his books Half of Man is Woman (also translated by Avery) in which he not only told the political truths, he dared to write about the taboo sexual longing which both consoled and tormented people left with no hope.

5TRAVELLINGCOUCH_WEBMr Muo’s Travelling Couch by Dai Sijie (translated from the French by Ina Rilke)

The follow-up novel to his bestselling Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, this is a delightfully crazy picaresque in which the eponymous hero returns to China from Paris, intent on rescuing his first love. He had heard that she has been imprisoned for selling an article to a foreign newspaper. It is all a bit more complicated than that, and very clever in that particularly French way.

Rather more sombre is his Once on a Moonless Night which is about a search for an ancient text. It is also a love story and most movingly of all for a writer who enjoys his jokes, at times overly so, it is about language and identity.

6PERFECTCRIME_WEBA Perfect Crime by A Yi (translated by Anna Holmwood)

Previously known as Cat and Mouse, this impressively nasty account of a motiveless murder could well be said to mark a fiendishly clever point where Albert Camus nods benignly to Bret Easton Ellis. A Yi is known to readers of Granta, and the deadpan tone of the narrative does shock and compel in equal measure. The teenage protagonist is also aware of Dostoevsky.

It is as much about the society in which it takes place as it is about the killer or the crime. Interesting to see how shocked he becomes while watching someone else coldly murder a cat.

7DREAMOFDING_WEBDream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (translation by Cindy Carter)

“I died not from the fever, not from Aids, but because my dad had run a blood-collection station in Ding Village ten years earlier. He bought blood from the villagers and resold it for a profit. I died because my dad was the biggest blood merchant not just in Ding Village ... but in ... dozens of other villages for miles around.” The narrator, the dead boy, tells the story, based on real events, about how a blood-selling racket which developed into an expected blood-contamination scandal created a tragedy that was both heart breaking and absurd.

Yan Lianke, never a writer given to coyness, in this satiric allegory about a community in which innocent greed, selling one’s own blood, was viciously exploited by heartless crooks. Once the deaths began to multiply, the blood-buying merchants then turn their attention to the next obvious scam, selling coffins. Yan Lianke’s most recent novel, The Four Books, due out next month in an English translation by Carlos Rojas, confronts his country’s most shocking taboo, The Great Famine. It is heavy duty polemical satire at its most candid.

8DICTIONARY_WEBA Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Written in deliberately bad English, this is a wonderful comic romance from the gifted film maker/writer who was born in a fishing village in South China and has mastered English. Village of Stone, her first novel to be published outside China (translated by Cindy Carter) is based partly on her early years, trying to fit into village life. It is a very good novel.

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth followed A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and it follows the personal story of a girl, clearly her, intent on seeking a career in film-making. Her voice is really special; sharp and funny, highly intelligent and brilliantly observed. UFO in Her Eyes, set in 2012, tells what happens next after Kwok Yun, when cycling along minding her own business, sights an UFThing and investigates.

I Am China is the story of a romance unfolding against a political backdrop. Based in London since 2004, Xiaolu Guo brings a sense of detached ease to her work, her anger is ironic. Every word seems to count, and she brings a film maker’s eye to her imagery. Anyone on the lookout for an original and astute insight into contemporary Chinese life and the lives of the younger Chinese cultural exiles living abroad will learn a great deal from her writing.

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