For a country with such a long history and rich culture, China’s literature is arguably overlooked by the rest of the world. Yet, there are many treasures to be found for those looking for China-focused literary gems, whether you want to learn more about Chinese culture and eastern philosophy, or you need a fiction fix, be it a time-honored classic or mind-bending sci-fi. Here I bring you six incredible books to provide an introduction to the fascinating world of Chinese and China-based literature.
The Nobel Prize winner’s most famous work
It was a watershed moment for Chinese literature when Mo Yan became the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. When presenting him with the award, the Swedish Academy said Yan creates work that “with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary”.
At his best, Yan’s magical realism sits alongside the likes of Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Gunter Grass. Red Sorghum, his first and most famous work, is the perfect starting point for any reader new to Chinese literature.
The story revolves around three generations of a family in Shandong province. Stretching from 1923 to 1976, the narrator tells the story of his family, first as distillery owners making sorghum wine, then as resistance fighters during the Second Sino-Japanese war, and finally through the Cultural Revolution. It’s Yan’s distinct blend of magical realism and history that makes Red Sorghum such essential reading.
If you like this, you should also try Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
An eye-opening look at the lives of migrant workers
China has changed more in the past 30 years than any country in modern history. The impact that has had on society is a rich source for non-fiction writing, and there’s no shortage of books on the subject. If you’re only to read one, however, let it be Factory Girls by Leslie Chang.
China is home to more than 100 million migrant workers who travel from tiny rural towns to giant metropolises to earn a living. However, little was known about their day-to-day lives until Chang spent three years following two young women working in Dongguan. With Factory Girls, we get a rare up-close and personal look at the human face of China’s manufacturing boom of the early 2000s.
If you like this, you should also try Wild Swans
Hugo Award winning hard sci-fi
When The Three Body Problem won the Hugo Award in 2015, Cixin Liu became the first Asian writer to win the prestigious science fiction prize. But there is no hint of tokenism about the nature of the win. This is hard science fiction at its most original and thought-provoking.
The first of three books, The Three Body Problem revolves around Earth’s discovery of alien life. The main characters are Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who makes first contact with the aliens, and Wang Miao, a nanotechnology professor who finds himself dragged into a virtual reality game called the Three Body Problem. As tempting as it is to reveal more, it’s better you discover how the story unfolds yourself.
Honestly, Liu is less interested in characters and prose. Here, it’s ideas that take center stage. While some readers might find this off-putting, those who stick with it will be rewarded. Liu has crammed more new ideas into his trilogy than the entire sci-fi genre has managed in years. Go in with an open mind and be prepared to be blown away.
If you like this, you should also try The Dark Forest and Death’s End
One American’s experience of living in Sichuan in the 90s
Many foreign writers have tackled the China experience in recent years, but few have done so quite as eloquently as Peter Hessler. For many, the The New Yorker staff writer is the definitive voice of foreign literature about the Middle Kingdom. The most famous of his works is River Town.
The book deals with Hessler’s time teaching in Fuling, Sichuan, on a Peace Corps mission in 1996. While the small city, close to the Yangtze River, is known for its rural way of life, Hessler finds it on the brink of reform and cultural awakening. He writes in detail about his relationships with his students and colleagues, his interactions with government officials, and his explorations of the city and the surrounding area.
Although it’s now more than 25 years since Hessler wrote about Fuling, River Town still serves as an excellent entry book for newly arrived foreigners or those planning a move to China. If you’re in either of these camps, it could give you some perspective on and understanding of the country and its people. It might also help you avoid some of Hessler’s newbie faux pas!
If you like this, you should also try Oracle Bones
One of the four classical novels of China
Known in Chinese as Si Da Mingzhu, there are four famous and revered classical novels in Chinese literature. The works include Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, Water Margin by Shi Nai’an, and Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. While all are worth exploring, I particularly recommend the most recent of the classics, Dream of the Red Chamber, which was written by Cao Xueqin in the 18th century.
Dream of the Red Chamber is believed to be at least semi-autobiographical, mirroring the rise and decline of the author’s own family and the Qing Dynasty. Cao’s magnum opus is remarkable, not only for its huge cast of characters, but also for its depiction of life and society in 18th century China.
Not for fainthearted readers, this is an epic tome in every sense. The last translated print by Penguin Classics divided it into five books with a total of 2,500 pages.
If you like this, you should also try Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West
An ancient military text that still has resonance today
Perhaps the best-known book on this list, The Art Of War has had a lasting impact on the West, whether on politicians, businesspeople, or rappers. Yet, while the name The Art of War is known by many, surprisingly few have actually read Sun Tzu’s iconic military text.
Sun Tzu, a military strategist in the Eastern Zhou period of Ancient China, wrote The Art Of War in the 5th century BC. Yet, his writings on alliances, warfare alternatives, delay tactics, and the use of deceit are still studied 2,500 years later. At just 60-odd pages, it doesn’t take long to get through The Art of War. Just don’t take it all too seriously…
If you like this, you should also try The Analects of Confucius
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Keywords: China books for expat readers
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