A Cautionary Critique: Ten Contemporary Chinese Novels

Stephanie Chang Avila

In a country of 1.3 billion people, gaining national recognition is no easy feat. Rather than looking back to past literary classics, or exhuming the revolutionary memories of an older generation, Chinese novelists today write about the increasingly capitalistic and consumer-centered world they see and experience. These ten Chinese writers were either children or not yet born during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution in which ideological battles and political power struggles ripped China apart in the mid-20th century. They came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, during which China modernized, urbanized and consumerized at an unbelievably rapid rate. Their works reveal the post-revolutionary mindset of a younger generation more concerned about critical social issues as well as scandals, pop culture, comedy, consumerism, sex and money.

Detective Chen Series by Qiu Xiaolong (b. 1952)

Qiu Xiaolong, who now lives in Missouri, fictionalizes his native Shanghai in the Inspector Chen Series, harking back to the city’s historical reputation as the gritty, no holds barred ‘Paris of the East’. Set in the 1990s and written in English, Qiu Xiaolong’s whodunits follow the investigative flair of Inspector Chen, a corruption-free cop in Shanghai as he chases down Shanghai’s contemporary criminal masterminds. In developing Inspector Chen’s character, Qiu offers readers a true taste of daily life in contemporary Shanghai, from detailed descriptions of food and transport to the many diverse peoples that make up China’s most cosmopolitan city. In 2012, Qiu published Disappearing Shanghai, a collection of photographs and poems that reflect the changing face of Qiu’s beloved city.

Please Don’t Call Me Human, published in 1989, was one of Wang’s earliest works. The novel exposes the emptiness of political rhetoric and bitingly satirizes the Chinese urge to ‘save face’. Imagining an Olympics-like competition in which a heavy-handed government’s attempts to seek out a national hero result in his cheerfully willing degradation and humiliation for the sake of the nation. Vulgarly comedic, replete with slang and street language, the novel was (somewhat clunkily) translated into English in 2000. Be warned though that the novel makes many references that assume the reader’s knowledge of particular dates, names and events. Wang Shuo is one of China’s most popular writers who has been called a ‘spiritual pollutant’ by authorities for his ‘hooligan’ style. A child during the Cultural Revolution, Wang Shuo grew up in a chaotic milieu where familial authority had broken down. Delinquent, rebellious, indifferent — these are the markers of those who grew up during the heady days of the 1980s.

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (b. 1958)

Yan Lianke (Lenin’s Kisses, Serve the People!) tackles the sobering social scandals that have plagued China in the unregulated rise of capitalism in Dream of Ding Village. The poor rural villagers of Ding dream of getting rich and the village leaders have found the perfect solution: selling blood, it seems, is the path towards success. As local entrepreneurs vie with each other to set up blood stations and drain the villagers of blood, villagers happily exchange blood for new houses, new wives and new consumer goods. But then the peasants start to die one by one as reused needles and unregulated bloodletting has given rise to a mass AIDS epidemic. For the blood station entrepreneurs, however, this gives rise to another excellent moneymaking scheme — selling coffins — as the deaths pile up. Yan’s story is based on a real blood selling scandal that rocked China.

Summer of Betrayal by Hong Ying (b. 1962)

In 1989, protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square turned violent as the government responded in force. Hong Ying’s Summer of Betrayal uses this as the backdrop for Summer of Betrayal in which the protagonist, Lin Ying, ricochets between the political fallout of Tiananmen Square and the tumultuousness of her personal life after she finds her lover in bed with his estranged wife. Political powerlessness is paralleled by sexual rebellion as the shocked and bewildered students flounder, faced with a situation more serious than they had expected. External turmoil is matched by Lin’s internal confusion as Hong Ying reminds the readers that behind public breaking news events are individuals for whom life must go on. Hong Ying is amongst the best known contemporary Chinese writers. Her works include K: The Art of Love, a fictionalised account of the true story of Julian Bell and his Chinese lover that led to a major libel case in China, Concubine of Shanghai and an autobiography entitled Daughter of the River.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Li Yiyun (b. 1972)

Li Yiyun is a master of the short story. In a few short pages she captures the essence of contemporary Chinese worldviews and issues. For most Chinese people, how to care for one’s parents, how to bridge the chasm between an older generation that persevered through suffering and a younger, optimistic, capitalistic generation — these are the issues that matter. There is a deep sense of authenticity in Li’s portrayals that is revealed through subtle details: the father who hides his job from his own family to save face, the old woman who sacrificially protects her young charge, the elderly father who moves to America where he has nothing to say to his daughter and finds it easier to communicate with a stranger with whom he doesn’t even share the same language. Li’s artful storytelling leaves the reader with a deeply unsettled feeling as she captures the oft unspoken emotions that lay beneath the veneer of China’s post-80s success story.

The Girl Who Played Go by Sa Shan (b. 1972)

In Sa Shan’s first novel to be translated into English, a game of Go between a Manchurian girl and a Japanese soldier frames the story. Historically the quintessential game of strategy, Go is a game of siege and besiegement, traps and counter-traps. The Girl Who Played Go is set against the backdrop of events leading up to all-out war (the Second Sino-Japanese War). Narrated in parallel, alternating between the viewpoint of the Japanese soldier and the Chinese girl, one sees their lives shaped by the formative strategic conflicts and decisions of the age.

Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu by Murong Xuecun (b. 1974)

Historically, Chengdu has been the center of China’s food culture, and is famous for its laid-back lifestyle, mah-jong, teahouses and freer expression due to its distance from central authority. Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu reveals a China that is bawdy, rousing and flowing with excess, whether it’s excessive drinking, sex, gambling, corruption, or all of the above. Lives are lived to destruction, both of the self and of others. The dream of middle class life turns out to be empty and unfulfilling in a world where money is king.

Murong Xuecun made waves for his outspoken critique of censorship, revealing that he and other acclaimed writers self-censor their works. In 2010 at a literary awards ceremony, Murong Xuecun went on stage, made an imaginary zipping motion across his lips, and then exited the stage.

The Bird Saw Me by A Yi (b. 1976)

A literary crime fiction, The Bird Saw Me is a collection of short stories involving a surreal, bizarre story about a man who murders six people using a small knife. A Yi’s recent full-length novel, Cat and Mouse, is also a thrilling whodunit combined with psychological introspection. A policeman from 1994-2002, A Yi isn’t your typical Chinese writer. About those years, A Yi has said: ‘You think through your uniform. When people hold some kind of power, they become enslaved by that power. When I became a writer I began to think as a normal person again.’

1988: I Want to Talk to This World by Han Han (b. 1982)

Rebel race car driver, drop out, writer, singer, blogger and voice of a generation, Han Han wears many hats. 1988: I Want to Talk to This World by Han Han is a road trip novel in the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Through a series of dialogues and encounters, Han Han explores different faces of China. Whilst Han Han’s fiction has received mixed reviews, his non-fiction essays have a massive following. At the age of 28, Han Han made it the 2010 TIME 100 list of influential people. In the same year, he was ranked #48 on the New Statesman’s ’50 people that matter’. In China, Han Han’s blog is the most popular in the country. His every word is scrutinized, translated and dissected as representative of the mood of the post-80s generation.

Northern Girls by Sheng Keyi (b. 1970s)

In a country where an individual’s hukou, or family residence permit, determines where one can work, live, receive education and raise a family, the plight of migrant workers living on the periphery of urban centers has become a contentious point as the country’s changing economic and social conditions put pressure on the long-established system. Sheng Keyi puts a spin onto the usual story of the migrant worker by crafting a protagonist with a singular trait: large breasts. Northern Girls thus explores the tough conditions faced by vulnerable migrant workers moving into cities, such as unstable jobs, temporary residence status as well as discrimination and sexual exploitation.

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