Chinese literature: what to read and how to read it

By Brigitte Duzan - January 6, 2017 


Questions about how to choose what to read when willing to read Chinese literature, and especially fiction, are recurring ones. But the problem is not only what to read, it is also how to read.


Reading entails from the start a double problem: a problem of selection and a problem of appreciation. For a foreign reader trying to read Chinese literature, this double problem is a daunting one, made all the more difficult by the cultural gap, which starts with the language.


Originally conceived as a blog and developing into a website, was created with a view to helping bridge that gap, based on a few key ideas, including the conviction that online publication is the most efficient, most flexible way of gradually building up what is meant to be, in a fluctuating future, a kind of literary encyclopedia, that is a guide to reading.


But it is a selective one, reflecting personal readings, research, and aesthetic tastes. And starting from two main assumptions.


Assumption one: being non-Chinese, you don’t read a Chinese book the way you read any other book pertaining to your own culture. You can, but you often lose the gist of the story, be it fiction or, still more, non-fiction.


Chinese literature has indeed a universal appeal, based on shared longings, sufferings, fears, simple joys, bitter frustrations, and a similar human fate. Anybody can sympathize with a grieving mother, a dying soldier, an elated lover, an aging artist, and generally the common man around the corner, which might be your own neighbour.


Even the most ancient Chinese poems, those mostly anonymous of the Book of Songs (or Classic of Poetry) dating to the 11th to 8th century BC, are for a good part short pieces recording the voice of the common people like common people everywhere, with joys and sorrows, and little hope for Heaven’s support or the King’s benevolent help.


The difference comes with the expression of those feelings, which makes it unique, unique as individual expression, but


also as part of a culture which gives it a certain resonance. In that sense, the best Chinese literature has this same special quality as the ancient Chinese shanshui paintings, landscape paintings of "water and mountain" which the literati perceived as part of an inner experience, something that has to resonate with your own feelings, deep at the heart of your own self.


In that sense, too, this brings us to the second assumption.


Assumption two: anybody wanting to read a Chinese book does so because he or she has at least a vague interest in China, the country and its people.


The nature of this interest will direct the eventual choice to be made among a vast array of available titles. It is therefore best for any reader to be able to have a good idea of the content and style of the book, but also of the author’s personality and of the context of his writings. And knowing more about all of this will then help the reading too.


The first choice to be made is about the period: classical literature or modern and contemporary literature. Both are a reflection of their time, but written in a totally different language, a difference that may however be partially erased in a translation, especially given the tendency to “smooth” a text as you smooth wrinkles.


     In its first approach, chineseshortstories’ main interest focuses on modern and contemporary literature, because it gives the most vivid image of present-day China, but also because it is a rich period of experiments, starting with the language, from the beginning of the 20th century which saw the birth of the vernacular baihua, at the end of the 1910 : a new form of expression closer to the spoken language and closer to a broader readership than the literati of yesteryear, the field of experiment being the short story.


     Under the auspices of Lu Xun, the short story then became the ideal mode of  expressing sharp social criticism, and, as time went by and the failure of the 1911 Revolution became clearer by the day, increasing disillusion, grief, and qualms about the future.


Not that it was something unheard of; the short story is in fact the origin of fiction in China. The first stories, as fiction, found in ancient texts dating back even before Christ, were labelled xiaoshuo, literally “small talk”, gossips and chatter that the literati frowned upon and despised, as they despised the popular novels which began to appear in the 13th century, based on folk tales of lore.


So it was a revolution of sorts when Lu Xun paved the way for that same short story to become the foremost mode of


expression of the Chinese intellectuals of the 20th century, but revolution in literature was but one of the revolutions of the time.


     The short story came back to the fore after the Cultural Revolution, at the end of the 1970, when literature was revived and renewed.


The short story – and the novella growing in its wake for narrative purposes – was then the crux of another round of fruitful experiments following one literary movement after another all along the 1980’s, until its apex, at the end of the decade, in an avant-garde movement that was crushed not so much by the fateful events of 1989, but by a new trend which led to the development of commercial literature in the following decade.


Writers were urged, by editors, to write novels, and they did, giving rise to an unending flow of family sagas more or less modeled on Ba Jin’s Family, back in the 1930’s, or Lao She’s Four Generations Under One Roof, published in 1949. As these sagas chronicle the fate of families in all kinds of areas of the country, and usually span half a century from the end of the Qing Dynasty, they constitute a vivid illustration of changing ways of life in various parts of the land, as part of a historical process far from the main events of the period as learned in history books.


But the 1990’ also saw the rise of novels praised by Western critics, and readers, for their social and political criticism, sometimes expressed in jocular fashion, which makes them all the more attractive. These novels gave rise to a great number of translations, and their authors became world-famous. They include the 2012 Nobel Prize, Mo Yan, but others deserve at least equal attention, although they might not have so many available translations.


     The trend continued well into the 2010’s, but times are changing again. By the mid-2010’s, the novel is running out, and the trend is again toward the short story and the novella, written by young writers not so much of the riotous post’80 generation, but by the much more mature generation of those born in the 1970’s, who are eventually achieving recognition. Each one has his own style, but the majority of them build up a personal universe based on recollections of the past, and inner feelings about the present often hidden under a slight veneer of cold humour.


They publish in a vast array of literary magazines all over the country; the most difficult is to track them down, each discovery, often haphazard, through hearsay or tip from a critic, is the reward for the quest. And this quest is all the more difficult that the best of the short story and novella writers are now, in the last year or two, specializing in short shorts, xiao xiaoshuo.


The xiao xiaoshuo has become the most refined, demanding style, a cross of poetry, short story and essay. It is a new way of writing, but with its own references in the past, especially in one of the best Chinese writers of short stories ever, Pu Songling, at the very end of the Ming period, a man of letters who wrote in superb classical Chinese a collection of short stories still considered a model today: the Tales of the Liaozhai (from the name of his studio).


    This is a perfect example of the way styles and genres evolved, in China: even what seems revolutionary reflects an ancient tradition, one way or another. This is a reason why, even if your main interest lies in contemporary literature, classical literature gives a useful framework, not only for the sheer pleasure of its refined poetry and fiction, but also because it offers a wealth of references and quotations. This is the beginning of the story: how it all started.


Ancient legends, Tang Poems, Ming and Qing novels inform present-day literature in a number of ways. Those are verses and stories that Chinese children learn at school, and remember all their lives afterwards; they become part of their inner world.


The film director Zhang Lü, for instance, titled his first full - length feature “Tang Poetry” Tang Shi, a subtle exercise on the solace found in poetry remembered from the past in the dreariest moments in the life of a young boy.


When asked about his title and subject, Zhang Lü instantly replied, as if expecting the question: because Tang poems are parts of our life, even in the most difficult moment, there is always a poem, learnt by heart, that emerges from the past, something of the nature of dreams, that borders on the subconscious.


Some stories are old legends, creation myths, or just anecdotes in serious books, some dating all the way back to the Warring States period, some three or four centuries before Christ, books like the Han Feizi where they appear almost incongruous, but they have such deep meanings that


they morphed into everyday four-character expressions that are to be found everywhere in today’s writings.


Classical pre-Ming and Ming novels are especially interesting as sources of stories that are part, from the earliest age, of the subconscious of the Chinese people: Water Margins (or Outlaws of the Marsh), Journey to the West or Dream of the Red Chamber, to quote only three. These are not only fascinating stories, objects of the most serious research, they are also part of a sort of common popular subconscious that pervades writing and life.


Take the first one, for instance, a masterpiece of vernacular Chinese written at some time in the 14th century, we are not even sure by whom. This is the story of a group of outlaws who escaped arrest and punishment, for crimes allegedly committed for rightful purposes, by taking refuge in a swampy region called the Liangshan marsh; they are described as creating there a kind of unruly society, with its own codes of honour, fighting against a foul government.


The story is based on supposedly historical events recorded during the Song dynasty, and evolved from folk tales told by storytellers from the Southern Song on. They are known as the Liangshan heroes, and some of the stories are so famous that they are quoted for their symbolic value in literature and films, even today…


The novel is part of a rich set of collective images dating back, again, to the Warring States period: images of noble swords men fighting for justice and the redress of grievances, known as xia, at the core of the so-called wuxia literature. A term that has such a deep and variegated meaning that it is hardly translatable, as is the word for the Liangshan marsh: the jianghu, literally rivers and lakes, with its rich connotations of rightful rebellion and life at the margins. A word that often appears in today’s literature in expressions as simple as: this is very jianghu… which immediately calls to mind a whole set of images and ideas as subtle, pervasive and difficult to explain as the delicate scent of a flower.


Chinese literature is a world apart that can be read for its stories, but gains much more flavour when approached as a gate to a culture, and part of that culture.



Suggested readings for a start

(available in English translation)


·         Ancient Classics


- The Book of Songs, The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley, and edited with additional translations by Joseph R. Allen and foreword by Stephen Owen, Grove Press 1996.

- How to Read a Chinese Poem: A Bilingual Anthology, by Edward Chang, Book Surge Publishing, July 31st, 2007, 448p. 

- Outlaws of the March, translated by Sidney Shapiro, Foreign Languages (Library of Chinese Classics, bilingual edition), January 1999, 5 vol.

- Three Kingdoms: a Historical Novel, att. to Luo Guanzhong, unabridged edition translated by Moss Roberts, University of California Press, June 2004, 2 vol.

- Journey to the West, att. to Wu Cheng’en, revised edition (initially published 1983), fully translated and edited by Anthony C. Yu, University of Chicago Press, 2012, 3 vol.

- Cao Xueqin, Story of the Stone, or Dream of the Red Chamber, translated by David Hawkes, Penguin Classics, 1974, 3 vol.

- Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (published only in 1766), 104 stories translated by John Mindford, Penguin Classics 2006, 608 p.


·         Modern Classics


- Lu Xun, The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun (1918-1935), translated by Julia Lovell, Penguin Classics, 2009, 416 p. Including Diary of a Madman, Kong Yiji and other stories of Call to Arms Nahan, plus Old stories retold.

- Ba Jin, Family (1931), novel translated by Olga Lang, with long preface written by the translator in 1972, at the time of her translation, Doubleday & Co 1972 (reprinted 1979), 329 p.

- Mao Dun, The Shop of the Lin Family & Spring Silkworms (Bilingual Series in Modern Chinese Literature) (1932), translated by Sidney Shapiro, the Chinese University of Hong Kong 2001 (reprinted 2003), 200 p.

- Shen Congwen, Border Town (1934), translated by Jeffrey C. Kinkley,

- Lao She, Rickshaw Boy (1936), translated by Howard Goldblatt, Harper Perennial 2010, 320 p.

- Zhang Ailing/Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City, (1943), translated by Karen S. Kingsbury, New York Review Books Classics 2006, 321 p.


·         Contemporary Classics


Some Novels


- Wang Meng, The Bolshevik Salute (1979), a “modernist Chinese novel” translated by Wendy Larson, University of Washington Press 1989, 174 p.

- Mo Yan, Red Sorghum (1986), translated by Howard Goldblatt, Penguin Books 1993, 359 p.

- Jia Pingwa, Ruined City (1993), translated by Howard Goldblatt, University of Oklahoma Press 2016, 536 p.

- Yu Hua, To Live (1993), translated by Michael Berry, Anchor 2003, 256 p.

- Wang Anyi, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan, Columbia University Press 2010, 456 p.

- BiFeiyu, The Moon Opera (2000), translated by Howard Goldblatt, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009, 126 p

- Yan Lianke, Dream of Ding Village (2005), translated by Cindy Carter, Grove Press 2011, 352 p.


Short stories and novellas


- Wang Anyi, Love on a Barren Mountain (1987), novella translated by Eva Hung, Renditions Paperbacks 1991, 143 p. (1st part of a “love trilogy”)

- Han Shaogong, Homecoming? and other stories [including PaPaPa (1985) and WomanWomanWoman (1986)], four short stories translated by Martha Cheung, Renditions Paperbacks 1992.

- Ge Fei, Flock of Brown Birds (1989), translated by Poppy Toland, with a preface by Ge Fei, Penguin Specials 2016, 96 p.

- Ah Cheng, Three Novellas: King of Trees, King of Chess, King of Children (1984, 1985), translated by Bonnie S. MacDougall, New Directions 1990/2010, 208 p.

- Liu Xinwu, Black Walls and other stories, ed. by Don J. Cohn, Renditions Paperbacks 1990, 202p

- The Time Is Not Yet Ripe, Contemporary China’s Best Writers and Their Stories, ed. by Ying Bian, Foreign Language Press, Beijing 1991, 382 p. (Ten short stories of the 1980’s with introductions by Gladys Yang, Li Jun and others)

- Su Tong, Madwoman on the Bridge, 14 short stories translated by Josh Sternberg, Black Swan 2008, 304 p.





Short stories are underrepresented in available translations in English. There are more translations available in French for the period 1980’s-1990’s, thanks to the awareness, then, of several publishers and translators,but novels have since taken over, with the exception of some novellas requalified as short novels. Publishers still live with the assumption that short stories don’t sell.


Book publications must therefore be supplemented by literary magazines, such as Renditions (Hong Kong), Chinese Literature and Culture (New York/Guangzhou), Chinese Arts and Letters (CAL, Nanjing), which complement translations with useful articles about the writers and their works. Chutzpah/Tiannan, launched by Ou Ning, was an invaluable source of discoveries of young emerging writers while it lasted; published issues, including translations, remain precious.


Chinese short stories, and novellas, have long been the basis of Chinese fiction, and have recently gained new ground among young writers. They are one of the best introductions to Chinese literature, and to Chinese society, for a great many readers, as well as a way to deepen their knowledge of the Chinese language and culture for those who study it. This is where such initiatives as Pathlight, Read Paper Republic or chineseshortstories find their worth.


Then, when all is said, and read, another way to appreciate, and sometimes discover, Chinese fiction is to look into film adaptations, as Chinese cinema, from its very inception, has had close ties with literature. That was one of the reasons for the launching of the twin website of chineseshortstories:


But that would be another story…














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