Year of the Ox: Read a Chinese Tale to Celebrate

By Carole Reedy

What better way to start the new year than by discovering writers from across the Pacific? Novels by Chinese writers seem to get short shrift in the review sections of our modern media, and I confess to ignoring the grand culture of the Chinese in my own reading. As a result, I did some research and sought advice from a friend who is knowledgeable about all things Chinese, has lived and taught in the countryside of China, and is an avid reader of both Chinese fiction and nonfiction.

Here are several selections you might enjoy, based on your responses to the previous recommendations in this monthly column.

Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu (2020)
Two months ago, Taiwanese-American writer Charles Yu walked away with the National Book Award for Fiction 2020 for his second novel, Interior Chinatown. Yu also has experience in screenplay writing (HBO’s Westworld series and other notable features), evident in the structure of this prize-winning novel that tells the story of aspiring actor Willis Wu.
Within seconds of the announcement of the National Book Award winner, avid readers were scrambling to enter their names in their library waitlist, yours truly included. I was most impressed to read that Yu is a fan of Philip Roth and claims to have read more of Roth’s novels those of any other contemporary writer, definitely a plus in my book! Wu’s first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010) received kudos and awards, as have many of his short stories.

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck (1931)

Probably the best-known and universally respected novel from China is The Good Earth, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932. Buck, the daughter of missionaries, lived many decades in Zhenjiang before returning to the US in 1934. In 1938 she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Good Earth is now considered a classic.

Set in China at the beginning of the 20th century, this is the story of a farmer and wife caught in the web of history before the Revolution. Through their story Buck gives us a peek into the history and culture of the era, as well as into the emotions and desires of its people. One reader assures us that “the book has a contemporary feel despite being written nearly 80 years ago.”

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, by Liao Yiwu (English edition 2009)

A public toiletries manager, a leper, a grave robber, and a professional mourner, among others, are the subjects of the 27 interviewees of China’s forgotten population. Each vignette ranges from 15 to 20 pages. The research took the author 11 years, and attention from the Chinese censors followed, of course. The book has received rave reviews, with the San Francisco Chronicle claiming “Reading The Corpse Walker is like walking with Liao. Even though our feet are not blistered and our bodies are not starved, in the end we are shaken and moved.”

Red Sorghum: A Novel of China, by Mo Yan (English edition 1993)

Mo Yan, which literally means “don’t speak,” is the pen name of Guan Moye, a man who has won almost every Chinese literary prize as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature (2012).

Perhaps the best way to describe this book’s tone is in the writer’s dedication. “With this book I respectfully invoke the heroic, aggrieved souls wandering in the boundless bright red sorghum fields of my hometown. As your filial son, I am prepared to carve out my heart, marinate it in soy sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in a field of sorghum. Partake of it in good health!”

The book’s structure is a series of flashbacks spanning three generations (it seems many Chinese family sagas take place over three generations), taking the reader through the turbulent times between 1923 and 1976 both inside and outside China.

Amy Tan, brilliant and popular Chinese-American writer, praised Mo Yan: “Having read Red Sorghum, I believe Mo Yan deserves a place in world literature. His imagery is astounding, sensual and visceral. His story is electrifying and epic. I was amazed from the first page. It is unlike anything I’ve read coming out of China in past or recent times. I am convinced this book will successfully leap over the international boundaries that many translated works face. … This is an important work for an important writer.”

The 1987 Chinese film, Red Sorghum, based on the book, received much recognition, including the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988.

The Novels of Amy Tan

The observation from Amy Tan above brings to mind her several novels about Chinese-Americans, especially the relationships between mothers and daughters. Tan was born in the US, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. The conflict among the young new Americans and their Chinese heritage is a constant underlying element in her stories.

The first of Tan’s successful novels was The Joy Luck Club (1989), followed by several others, all receiving the kudos they deserve. The Bone Setter’s Daughter (2003) was even made into an opera that had its debut in 2008 at the San Francisco Opera.

An interesting note about Tan – she was a member of a charity garage band called “Rock Bottom Remainders” (remainders being an author’s unsold books that are then “remaindered,” or made available at reduced prices). She served the group as the lead rhythm “dominatrix” backup singer and second tambourine. The rest of the group was made up of renowned authors, including, among others, Dave Barry, Stephen King, Mitch Albom, Barbara Kingsolver, and Scott Turow, along with some actual professional musicians. Their yearly gigs raised over a million dollars for literary programs. The group disbanded in 2012 following the death of their founder, Kathy Kamen Goldmark.

Although Tan’s fans love all her books, The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) and Saving Fish from Drowning (2005) are among my favorites. When asked her favorite books, the following were on Tan’s list: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, and the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

Death of A Red Heroine, by Qiu Xiaolong (English edition, 2000)
Everyone loves a mystery! Here’s another inspector to add to your collections from Sicily, the Dordogne region of France, London, Scandinavia, or Scotland.

Death of a Red Heroine is the first in a series starring Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police. The true value of favorite mystery novels lies in the opportunity to steal a glimpse of life into each country. Here it’s the People’s Republic of China. Each book in the series tackles a different political and economic situation, making the novels intellectually stimulating as well as enjoyable.

Qiu’s just-published latest offering, called Hold Your Breath, will be of special interest at this time as it takes place in the midst of the pandemic in Wuhan.

Iron & Silk, by Mark Salzman (1986)
Renaissance man (writer, artist, cellist) Mark Salzman famously has pursued several careers in his 60 years. In addition to an impressive resume that includes graduating from Yale University summa cum laude, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, and being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, he is described by friends as “a cool and kind person.”

Aside from academics and writing, he makes time to play the cello. In 1996, he performed as guest cellist with YoYo Ma, pianist Emmanuel Ax, and others at Alice Tully Hall for the 20th anniversary performance of Live from Lincoln Center. If fact, one of his novels, The Soloist (1995) is about this passion.

His connection to China? He always had a passion for China, even as a boy when he chose to walk barefoot to school, to the amazement of the other boys. In the early 1980s, Salzman taught English at Hunan Medical School, where he also studied martial arts. Iron & Silk bore on its cover the descriptive subtitle “A young American encounters swordsman, bureaucrats and other citizens of contemporary China”; it garnered several literary awards and was made into a film for which Salzman not only wrote the screenplay and but starred as himself.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, by Jung Chang (2019)
The Soong sisters have to be the most famous sisters in China, ever. This triple biography is their story, which traverses China and the US. The three daughters were born between 1888 and 1898 of a Methodist preacher turned Shanghai entrepreneur, Charlie Soong, and their mother Ni Kwei-tseng, whose own mother, Lady Xu, was a descendant of the Ming Dynasty. They were the first Chinese girls to attend university in the US.

When the three returned to China in 1909 they found themselves in the middle of a revolution in which they became wholeheartedly involved, although they ended up on different sides. To sum up their adventure: Chingling marries Sun Yat Sen, Mayling ends up with Chiang Kai Shek, and Ei-ling becomes an advisor to Chiang, making herself one of the richest women in China. They became the most powerful women in China, never to be forgotten.

The Washington Times sees the greatest value in the book as a stepping-stone for Westerners to understand this era: “The complicated history of China during this period is little-known to most Westerners, so this readable book helps fill a gap. By hooking it onto personalities, Jung Chang has been able to chart a comprehensible way through these decades and an immense mass of information that could otherwise be difficult to digest.”

On top of that, The New York Times calls it a “riveting read.” My Chinese-expert friend also is enthusiastic about this particular book.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang (1991)

This three-generation family history, which culminates in Jung Chang’s own autobiography, received rave reviews and is listed as one of Amazon’s most read books.

Simply put, it is the story of Mao’s impact on China from a woman’s point of view. Chang shares with us the extraordinary lives of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist, her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite, and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution; Chang herself was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a “barefoot doctor,” a steelworker, and an electrician. At an early age she took a shine to reading and writing. Once again, a story of three generations!

This book sold over 10 million copies worldwide, but is banned in the People’s Republic of China. Along with her husband, Irish historian Jon Halliday, Chang has also written an 880-plus page biography on Mao Zedong, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). Chang now lives in London, although she has said “I feel perhaps my heart is still in China.”

For me, and perhaps for you, there is a hesitation to read novels from regions we know relatively little about, perhaps for fear of not relating to or understanding the characters and their motives. The books above are among the best in their category and I believe can help open our hearts and minds to the unknown.

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