China Travel Guide
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From the Epic and Thrilling to the Personal and Challenging, Here’s What You Should Read and Watch Before Going to China

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Discover China in all of its beauty and complexity through the works of some of the country's most renowned artists.

With almost 6 thousand years of intrigue and plot twists, China is often touted as the oldest surviving civilization. The empire has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and the language, dress, and customs have changed beyond recognition, but China remains, as it did in Marco Polo’s day, one of the most fascinating places on earth. Start your trip with a little armchair travel and check out these recommended works from some of the county’s most interesting contemporary artists.

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PHOTO: Anchor Books
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To Live by Yu Hua

Though initially banned in China, Yu Hua’s 1993 novel is now considered a classic of Chinese literature. It tells the story of Xu Fugoi who starts out as a privileged young man who gambles away all of his family’s money. Over the course of his life, he and his family endure a string of hardships and Fugoi transforms from the spoiled son of a rich landlord into a kind peasant. By the end of his life, he has only an ox for company, but still he perseveres.

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Raise the Red Lantern by Su Tong

This collection of three novellas explores how China’s old ways continued to prevail in the early 20th century. The first of the novellas is Raise the Red Lantern, which was adapted into a widely acclaimed film starring Gong Li, tells the story of a young woman who leaves college after her father dies by suicide. She becomes the fourth concubine of a wealthy merchant only to find herself enmeshed in the cruelty and dysfunction of the household. Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes follows the story of a family over the course of a year as they endure sickness, poverty, and uncertainty. The third novella, Opium Family, tells of a wealthy landowning family of opium growers who are brought low by their own corruption and greed.

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PHOTO: Open Letter Books
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Frontier by Can Xue

This surreal novel from Can Xue (a pseudonym that means “dirty snow, leftover snow”) takes place in the small community of Pebble Town, at the base of Snow Mountain. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different resident. Though translated into English in simple, precise language, the effect of this experimental text is purposefully hazy and mystifying. For readers, it can be challenging and intoxicating all at once.

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PHOTO: Penguin Books
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Red Sorghum by Mo Yan

The novel (which contains five volumes entitled “Red Sorghum,” “Sorghum Wine,” “Dog Ways,” “Sorghum Funeral,” and “Strange Death”) tells the story of three generations of a family caught up in the turbulent years that gripped rural China in the 1920s and 30s, with threats from without (Japanese invaders) and from within (clashing warlords). Though frequently brutal and violent this vividly rendered novel is as haunting and lyrical as it is unforgettable.

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PHOTO: Harvard University Press
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No Enemies, No Hatred by Liu Xiabo

When writer and human rights activist Liu Xiabobo was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010 he was unable to accept the honor as he was serving an 11-year sentence for “incitement to subvert state power.” In 2017, Liu died of an unspecified illness when Beijing refused to release him so that he could seek medical treatment abroad, despite the insistence of family, medical experts, and foreign governments. This collection of selected essays and poems (chosen by Liu’s wife) challenges China’s government and champions the dignity of those targeted by its tyranny, as only the country’s most famous dissident could.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Ang Lee’s wuxia (a genre that focuses on the adventures of martial artists in ancient China) epic tells the story of a 19th-century martial arts master who, having decided to retire, entrusts his legendary sword to a fellow warrior and subject of his unspoken love. But when the sword is stolen from the house of a nobleman by a mysterious thief he finds that the past isn’t so easy to leave behind. It’s a film that balances stunning action set pieces—staged everywhere from crowded tea houses to the remote reaches of the Gobi desert—with beautifully rendered themes of duty, love, and regret.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Kino Lorber
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A Touch of Sin

This stark drama from Jia Zhangke is loosely based on actual news stories, telling the tales of four different people—a man pushed to his breaking point by the corrupt oligarchs that control his town, a killer, a woman navigating an affair with a married man, and a young man who leaves a factory to work in a host club that caters to wealthy women—and how their lives overlap, if only for the briefest of moments. It is a bleak, violent, and unflinching examination on China in its modern, capitalist age.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of IFC Films
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Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

This documentary examines the life and work of artist and activist Ai Weiwei. It follows him as he prepares a piece in which he gathers the names of 5,000 students killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—deaths he believes were caused due to corrupt local officials’ negligence in the construction of the collapsed schools.

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In the Heat of the Sun

Set during the Cultural Revolution, In the Heat of the Sun is a coming of age story about a teenage boy nicknamed Monkey. With their parents distracted and school out of session, Monkey and his friends are free to roam the streets of Beijing. The dreamlike quality of the film allows it to play with and comment on the elusive nature of memory.

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Yellow Earth

This period piece, set in the 1930s, follows the story of a young communist soldier who travels to Yan’nan, a city in the Shaanxi province that was the epicenter of the Chinese Communist revolution. He’s been tasked by the propaganda department to collect happy folk songs, only to find that the people in Yan’nan have only known hardship, so all of their songs are sad. Director Chen Kaige’s debut marked the rise of Chinese cinema’s Fifth Generation.