Chinese novels that give a sense of place

I was asked by the Foreign policy magazine to recommend two or three novels that give a sense of place. below is my selection.

To Live by Yu Hua

The novel chronicles the life of Xu Fugui (the given name, ironically, means ‘fortunate and noble’), filled with tragedies. It opens with Fugui, a son of a wealthy landlord, gambling away the family fortune. Then the revolution led by the Chinese Communists dramatically alters his fate. One after another, his family members perishes: his son dies from selling blood; his daughter from childbirth, and his only grandson, being starved for too long, loses his young life from eating too many beans. In the end, the old man is left alone with his old cow. Yet he keeps going – just to live.

The dark tale is lightened by the humour and strangely, there’s also a defiance, almost uplifting spirit: Fugui examples the quality of many older generation of Chinese – their ability to take suffering without bitterness.

The novel is made into a film by renowned film director Zhang Yimou.

White Snake and Other Short Stories, by Yan Geling

The title piece tells the story of a famous ballerina during the Cultural Revolution. The mad political movement, launched by Chairman Mao in 1966, attacked any culture or indeed anything with any aesthetic value. Sun Likun, still in her prime, is detained at the warehouse of the provincial theatre. Being deprived of her passion and her dignity, the diva slips into a middle-aged fat and vulgar woman and behaves like one. Standing in front of the upstairs window of the warehouse in her holely tank-top, she smokes cheap cigarettes and blows sunflower husks at the construction workers who always look up at her lustfully. Once in a while, she suddenly lifts her white trunk legs above her head, showing her pink underwear, which no longer serves its function.

Then a mysterious young commissar, dashing in his uniform, starts to visit Sun. This wakes up the ‘white snake’ from her hibernation and once again, longs for life, love and her profession. And there’s a surprising but satisfying twist in the end.

It’s a very Chinese story set against a turbulent recent history but something people anywhere in a world can relate to as the author contemplates human nature and affairs.

Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke

China isn’t particularly known for its magic realism or absurd novels. Lenin’s Kisses, by the award-winning writer, is one of the few in such a genre and an outstanding one. The comic-tragic satire centers on a money-making scheme coined up by a greedy local official in a mountain village in central China’s Henan province – to buy Lenin’s embalmed body and to install it in a grand mausoleum. Beneath its absurdity, one can have a real flavour of the money-worship fever that has swept China since its reform and opening up.


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