Books on China

Apr 30th, 2004, 06:53 AM
  #1  
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Books on China

I am traveling to Shanghai and Beijing in May for my first trip to China. I like to find books set in or about a country before I go to get some literary background. Think reading Les Miserables and the Scarlet Pimpernel before a trip to France or Goethe before a trip to Germany. Do you have any recommendations or books relating to China? I loved "Riding the Iron Rooster" by Paul Theroux and "Imperial Woman" by Pearl Buck. I have tried Amy Tan but I am not a fan. Thanks!!
marianna1 is offline  
Apr 30th, 2004, 07:32 AM
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Two books of nonfiction which are highly regarded and highly recommended are:

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

and

Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

You can check the reviews on Amazon.com and get more ideas for other books.
easytraveler is offline  
Apr 30th, 2004, 09:45 AM
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The best single-volume introduction to the realities of life in modern China, is Jasper Becker's highly readable 'The Chinese', which covers just about everything. Becker is a long-time resident of China, and was formerly a correspondent for the South China Morning Post there. 'Real China' by John Gittings is in the same vein, and although dating slightly now is a very good read. If you want to go a bit further back Becker's book on the Cultural Revolution era 'Hungry Ghosts' is first class, but not cheering, revealing as it does some of the 'revenge cannibalism' of the period.

As Wang Shuo, bad boy of Chinese literature said in a recent interview with Time, "I never believe any history written by Chinese". There are rather a lot of liberties in Jung Chang and Nian Cheng, both writing about times now long gone. Wang Shuo's novels, at least two of which are available in English (including 'Playing for Keeps') show contemporary China's underside, although they can be a little hard to understand without having some experience of young modern Chinese already.

Rather easier to read and easier to find overseas, Ha Jin's novels, mostly set in northeast China in the 60s capture the China of those days with an appealing wistfulness, and without the self-righteousness and soft focus of Jung Chang or Nian Cheng. One of the pleasures of Ha Jin's short stories is that they never seem to go anywhere, but in going nowhere tell you more about the Chinese than most travel titles which set out to do precisely that, and more than the run-of-the-mill confessional books which appeared en masse after the success of 'Wild Swans'. The full-length novel 'Waiting' is particularly poignant. Also try 'Ocean of Words', and 'The Bridegroom'.

A slightly less easy read are the novels of Mo Yan, again several easily available in English, although one of these was made into a classic film by Zhang Yimou. 'The Republic of Wine' about a detective investigating rumours of gourmet baby cookery is unlikely to be similar to anything else you've read of late, if ever.

The Chinese classics can be bought very cheaply at English-language bookstores in China, but many find them a bit depressing. In 'Outlaws of the March' (also known as 'The Water Margin', and bowdlerized into a popular children's TV series shown in the West in the 60s), the heroes are infanticides. 'The Dream of the Red Chamber' (also known as 'The Story of the Stone') might be more appealing (I haven't read this), along with the fantasy version of the travels of Xuanzang, who went to India to bring back up-to-date and authoritative sutras, known as 'Monkey' or 'Journey to the West'.

If you pass through Hong Kong, consider picking up the English translation of 'Officialdom Unmasked', translated and abridged from a 19th century novel by T. L. Yang. It's a story of official corruption and the bribery necessary to get anything done which will resonate with anyone living in China today. It would be very funny if it weren't so sad.

Must of the China of 'Riding the Iron Rooster' no longer exists, and Theroux was a bit clueless, but it's hard to find good accounts of contemporary trave, and especially none as well-written. 'River Town' by Peter Hessler, about two years spent teaching in a small town on the Yangtze, is the best of recent foreign efforts, although slightly softened for an American audience, I think. A rare Chinese travel title available in English is 'Red Dust' by Ma Jian, although this is about a solo odyssey around China in the early 1980s. The best travel books about China ever are Peter Fleming's 'News from Tartary' and Owen Lattimore's 'The Desert Road to Turkestan', both about travel in the first part of the last century, but sharply observed, often comic, and extremely sympathetic. Nothing from modern times comes close.

You might care to try Nobel prizewinner Gao Xingjian's 'Soul Mountain', part novel, part travel account, although I thought this demonstrated well the problem of the Chinese exile, who has
PeterN_H is offline  
Apr 30th, 2004, 10:10 AM
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i just finished reading wild swans - it's fantastic...highly recommended.
asykes1 is offline  
Apr 30th, 2004, 10:17 AM
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Sorry, I'm having some technical difficulties today. The previous version somehow got posted before it was edited extensively and finished off.

The best single-volume introduction to the realities of life in modern China, is Jasper Becker's highly readable 'The Chinese', which covers just about everything. Becker is a long-time resident of China, and was formerly a correspondent for the South China Morning Post there. 'Real China' by John Gittings is in the same vein, and although dating slightly now is a very good read.

As Wang Shuo, bad boy of Chinese literature said in a recent interview with Time, "I never believe any history written by Chinese". There are rather a lot of liberties in Jung Chang and Nian Cheng, both writing about times now long gone. Wang Shuo's novels, at least two of which are available in English (including 'Playing for Thrills') show contemporary China's underside, although they can be a little hard to understand without having some experience of young modern Chinese already.

Rather easier to read and easier to find overseas, Ha Jin's novels, mostly set in northeast China in the 60s capture the China of those days with an appealing wistfulness, and without the self-righteousness and soft focus of Jung Chang or Nian Cheng. One of the pleasures of Ha Jin's short stories is that they never seem to go anywhere, but in going nowhere tell you more about the Chinese than most travel titles which set out to do precisely that, and more than the run-of-the-mill confessional books which appeared en masse after the success of 'Wild Swans'. The full-length novel 'Waiting' is particularly poignant. Also try 'Ocean of Words', and 'The Bridegroom'.

A slightly less easy read are the novels of Mo Yan, again several easily available in English, although one of these was made into a classic film by Zhang Yimou. 'The Republic of Wine' about a detective investigating rumours of gourmet baby cookery is unlikely to be similar to anything else you've read of late, if ever.

The Chinese classics can be bought very cheaply at English-language bookstores in China, but many find them a bit depressing. In 'Outlaws of the Marsh' (also known as 'The Water Margin', and bowdlerized into a popular children's TV series shown in the West in the 60s), the heroes are infanticides and murderers, but 'honest', and therefore glorious. 'The Dream of the Red Chamber' (also known as 'The Story of the Stone') might be more appealing (I haven't read this), along with the fantasy version of the travels of Xuanzang, who went to India to bring back up-to-date and authoritative sutras, known as 'Monkey' or 'Journey to the West'.

If you pass through Hong Kong, consider picking up the English translation of 'Officialdom Unmasked', translated and abridged from a 19th century novel by T. L. Yang. It's a story of official corruption and the bribery necessary to get anything done which will resonate with anyone living in China today. It would be very funny if it weren't so sad.

Must of the China of 'Riding the Iron Rooster' no longer exists, and Theroux was a bit clueless, but it's hard to find good accounts of contemporary trave, and especially none as well-written. 'River Town' by Peter Hessler, about two years spent teaching in a small town on the Yangtze, is the best of recent foreign efforts, although slightly softened for an American audience, I think. A rare Chinese travel title available in English is 'Red Dust' by Ma Jian, although this is about a solo odyssey around China in the early 1980s. The best travel books about China ever are Peter Fleming's 'News from Tartary' and Owen Lattimore's 'The Desert Road to Turkestan', both about travel in the first part of the last century, but sharply observed, often comic, and extremely sympathetic. Nothing from modern times comes close.

You might care to try Nobel prizewinner Gao Xingjian's 'Soul Mountain', part novel, part travel account, although I thought this demonstrated well the problem of many a Chinese exile, who has nothing to write about except China, but is left stranded in the past as modern China drifts away into an uncertain but rapidly very different future. At the opposite end of the literary spectrum, Wei Hui's unjustly celebrated 'Shanghai Baby's success is based on the fact that it's China's first sex-and-shopping novel. It's trash, and no more represents modern China than officially air-brushed accounts of the heroism of heroic workers. But it does represent one aspect of young, big city life, much as 60s/70s novels like 'Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me' or 'Groupie' represented that era in the West.

Foreigners resident in China in the pre-communist era produced some excellent and enjoyable accounts of life there (although there were many fatuous ones, too), amongst the most charming of which are: Peking Story by David Kidd, The Years that were Fat by George Kates, City of Lingering Splendour by , and The House of Exile, by Norah Walm, most deservedly still in print. None of these writers were particularly sympathetic to the expat mentality of the time (not much different from that of many modern expats) and all are writing about the Chinese and what they admire. Of accounts of expat life, the novels 'Peking Picnic' and 'The Ginger Griffin' by Ann Bridge, best-sellers of their day (the 1920s) are still in print, and enjoyable.

For very readable and enjoyable histories about particular events and individuals in China's history, just about anything by Jonathan Spence, but particularly 'The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci', 'God's Chinese Son', and a compilation of the Kangxi emperor's diaries and edicts into a narrative in the emperor's own voice.

The recently published 'Wild Grass' by Ian Johnson, formerly Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beijing, is an account of three attempts by private individuals against the government, to prevent the inadequately compensated destruction of their homes by corrupt officials, to investigate the death in custody of a relative, and to resist illegal and onerous taxation. The complete antidote to the boosterism which would have you believe that Shanghai's shiny towers and disposable incomes of $1000 per annum are representative of China as a whole.

Finally (sorry about the stream of consciousness approach here), if you like Pearl Buck, 'The Good Earth' is the one to read.

I could go on at even greater length, but perhaps this will give you a start.

Peter N-H
http://members.shaw.ca/pnhpublic/China.html
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Apr 30th, 2004, 11:39 AM
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I enjoyed Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama.
brendon is offline  
Apr 30th, 2004, 05:15 PM
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gb
 
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I enjoyed Iron and Silk and Ha Jin's newest book.
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May 2nd, 2004, 02:04 AM
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Wild Swans is wonderful and I found "Real China" a real education when I was travelling in China a few years ago. Glad to know that a real expert (Peter) thinks it still worth reading.

There are a few novels that I've really enjoyed that you might be interested in, esp if you are going to Shanghai. They are all basically about western contact/interference/misunderstanding, - "historical fiction" I suppose.
"Now we are Orphans (Kazuo Ishiguro)
"Empire of the Sun" (J G Ballard)
"The Ancestor Game" (Alex Stone)
"An Insular Possession" (Timothy Mo).

The last is set in Canton (or, I should say, Guangzhou).

alice13 is offline  
May 2nd, 2004, 09:25 AM
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I think Peter is being unduly harsh on some authors and unduly generous to others.

He prefaces one paragraph by stating: "As Wong Shuo, bad boy of Chinese literature said in a recent interview with Time 'I never believe any history written by Chinese'." Then, without catching his breath, he continues: "There are rather a lot of liberties in Jung Chang and Nian Cheng, both writing about times long gone." Running these two thoughts together implies that Jung Chang and Nian Cheng were writing "bad" history. To be perfectly frank, neither author is writing "history" but "biography" or "autobiography".

Nian Cheng, who wrote about her experiences in a Chinese prison and of her sufferings in the 1960's and 1970's, allows one a window onto the horrors of what went on in China at that time. She lost her daughter, her treasured antiques, her possessions, and nearly her life as well. If some of her facts may not be on target, so what? It's a riveting book about her personal life. To characterize her descriptions of her sufferings as being "self-serving" is a truly unbecoming comment to make.

On the other hand, I would never recommend Peter Fleming or Owen Lattimore, neither of whom were fluent in Chinese. Lattimore, indeed, claimed to be a "Mongol" expert. Lattimore is a very controversial figure and has both his promoters and his detractors. In reality, a lot of his "facts" should be disputed. AND he does claim to be writing "history".

In place of Lattimore and Peter Fleming's amateurish writings on Chinese Turkestan, I would recommend Edward Shafer. Much more accurate and more fun to read are his "Golden Peaches of Samarkand" and his "Ancient China", part of the Time-Life series on the Great Ages of Man. If you really are interested in Chinese Turkestan, you should become familiar with names like Paul Pelliot, Sir Aurel Stein, and Sven Hedin, among many, many others (including PeterN-H, who has written a single travel volume, which I have on order but have not read as yet).

Jonathan Spence is a good recommendation. He has written a huge volume on modern China. Spence is a very well respected scholar, now teaching in the States. If I have one objection, it is that he doesn't read Manchu. At least, he didn't, when I met him many years ago. To write on China's great emperor, the K'ang-hsi (or modern China's romanization system: Kangxi), without knowing Manchu is like writing about Napoleon and not being able to read French. Nevertheless, Spence writes very well and I would recommend any of his books.

For mystery fans, there are the incomparable works of Robert Hans van Gulik (NO! Not his monumental work on Chinese sex!) with his fictional creations on Judge Dee. A marvellous character! It's mystery set in a historical setting. If you enjoy reading books like Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose", then you will enjoy the Judge Dee stories. However, Eco and van Gulik are very, very different.

IMHO, you will not understand the cacophony that is modern China unless you read some of the historical works and see when and how China started. China today is rooted in China past.

The best travel guide book on Chinese history and culture is the Blue Guide by Frances Wood. However, it is appalling for its lack of practical information, like hotels, trains, etc. For that information, PeterN-H's recommendations in either Frommer's Guide or J.D. Brown's "China, The 50 Most Memorable Trips" would be the unchallenged leader.

easytraveler is offline  
May 2nd, 2004, 04:08 PM
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I'm sorry, I'd been meaning to put in the missing author of 'City of Lingering Splendour', which is John Blofeld.

I'm sorry, too, that the list I gave is so long. If I had to draw up a short list (but only if I really had to), it would probably be Becker for a very readable comprehensive account of modern China, Lattimore and Blofeld for beautifully written, detailed, and sympathetic descriptions of the China which visitors would still like to find, both born from long residence and fluency in one or more Chinese dialects.

Blofeld's Beijing is a far more colourful and comprehensively described one than that of most authors, including it does conversations with a morally dubious singing master, a description of the more decorous end of the prostitution then (and now once again, but less decorously) widespread, as well as the picnics with literati and talks with Daoist monks also found in accounts of those less familiar with the city or the language.

Lattimore's China is even more remote, since his account is of buying his own camels and joining a caravan across the Gobi to Xinjiang. We may visit the modern versions of restaurants mentioned by Blofeld, but short of taking a train to Zhangjiakou (formerly Kalgan, and definitely not recommended) we won't be following Lattimore. But his account of the journey, of the personalities of the caravan, their means, methods, traditions, dialects, etc. is as detailed and intimate a portrait of one aspect of China as any ever written.

And if forced to choose one Chinese novelist, I'd probably plump for Ha Jin, since he's easily accessible in English, and his short stories in particular seem almost inadvertently to reveal a great deal about the Chinese mind-set, as well as about the period immediately leading up to the current relatively prosperous one. There no soft focus, no attempt to glorify, and no attempt to impress the reader; there's just narrative as bare of incident as most lives were then, and very many still are today.

I hope this short-list of four titles is more useful.

Peter N-H
http://members.shaw.ca/pnhpublic/China.html
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