Whether revealing small-town superstitions or exposing Beijing’s underworld, these works of literary fiction offer insights to modern China. The diversity and dynamics of a country on its way to being the economic power of the world are reflected here in the literature of its best writers.

Travel to the idyllic mountains and streams of West Hunan; a picturesque water town and the silkworm-raising country of Zhejiang; the high plateau of western Sichuan where Tibetan culture intermingles with that of Han Chinese; the primitive vitality of the sorghum fields of Gaomi county in Shandong; a Henan village struggling with poverty; and the pastoral world of the northeast province of Heilongjiang. But China is not just mountains and rice paddies; its cities are growing at a truly amazing pace and China includes stories of a country and people in conflict set in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taipei as well.

China: A Traveler’s Literary Companion proves there is no better way to learn about a land and its people than through its literature.

Kirk A. Denton is a fluent Mandarin speaker and is professor of Chinese literature and culture at Ohio State University and the editor of the journal Modern Literature and Culture. He is the associate editor of the Chinese section of The Columbia Companion to Modern East Literature and co-editor of China: Adapting the Past, Confronting the Future. He has lived in China and currently resides in Columbus, Ohio.

Currently no reviews available.

  • Zhejiang
    • Lu Xun Hometown
    • Mao Dun Spring Silkworms
  • Shanghai
    • Zhang Ailing Sealed Off
    • Wang Anyi The Longtang
  • Henan
    • Yan Lianke Black Bristle, White Bristles
  • West Hunan
    • Shen Congwen Meijin, Baozi, and the White Kid
  • Shandong
    • Mo Yan Old Gun
  • Beijing
    • Wang Shuo Hot and Cold, Measure for Measure
  • Taipei
    • Chu T’ien-hsin Man of La Mancha
  • Hong Kong
    • Xi Xi The Floating City
  • Western Sichuan
    • Alai The Fish
  • Heilongjiang
    • Xiao Hong On the Oxcart
  • Alai (1959– ) is of mixed ethnic heritage—Tibetan and Hui Muslim—and in fact, ethnic identity is a recurrent theme in his fiction. He grew up in the culturally mixed area of Aba, in northwestern Sichuan, a region whose unique culture has been shaped by Tibet to its west and the Han Chinese to the east. His best-known novel, Red Poppies won the Mao Dun prize for literature in 2000.
  • Chu T’ien-hsin (1958– ) and her sister, Chu T’ien-wen, are among the best-known women writers in contemporary Taiwan. Both began their careers in the 1970s writing fiction that expresses sentimental and nostalgic longings for the lost homeland (the mainland, from which their father, himself a well-known writer, had fled in the late 1940s). Her most recent fiction is much more stylistically experimental and is centered on difficult issues of personal and cultural memory.
  • Lu Xun (1881–1936), sometimes called the father of modern Chinese literature, wrote short fiction, prose poems, and essays. His fiction and early essays are generally seen as part of the larger May Fourth New Culture movement (1915–25), which attacked the Confucian tradition as stultifying to individual and national development.
  • Mao Dun (1896–1981) spent his early career in the 1920s as an editor, introducing Western literary ideas, particularly naturalism, to Chinese readers. In the late 1920s, perhaps in reaction to the failure of the communist revolutionary movement with which he had become involved, he turned to fiction, writing first short stories and later novels, most famously Midnight (1933), a depiction of capitalists in 1930s Shanghai. Although written in 1932, his story “Spring Silkworms” resonates with rural China today, which is struggling with the forces of globalization.
  • Mo Yan (1955– ) leapt onto the literary scene in China with the publication of his novel Red Sorghum (1986), subsequently made into a film by Zhang Yimou. Since then, he has published numerous novels and short stories. Much of Mo Yan’s fiction is said to exemplify the “searching for roots” literary movement, expressing a desire for a lost world that possessed a vitality and machismo lacking in the present.
  • Shen Congwen (1902–88), often called a “nativist” writer, wrote copiously, but not exclusively, about his native place, the remote mountainous region in the western part of Hunan. Shen’s lyrical, though not uncritical, portraits of rural China were at odds with the more politicized representations promoted after the communist revolution. Shen wrote most of his “nativist” fiction in Beijing, where he felt somewhat disenchanted with his fellow intellectuals and modern urban life. In reaction, he infused his native place with a primitive vitality that he felt was lacking in the modern metropolis.
  • Wang Anyi (1954– ) appeared on the literary scene in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Her writing ranges from intimate stories about men and women to “nativist” fiction set in the countryside. In recent years, her fiction has focused on Shanghai. Her most famous novel, Song of Everlasting Sorrow, depicts a middle-class family with the city of Shanghai itself playing a central role in the story.
  • Wang Shuo (1958– ) was the bad boy of the Chinese literary world in the 1980s and 1990s. His fiction was enormously popular, especially among young readers, because it chronicles the lives of disaffected youths during the radical transformation Chinese society experienced in the shift from a socialist to a market economy. Many of his numerous novels have been adapted to the screen, and he has also been a prolific writer of television and film scripts. Among his best-known novels are Playing for Thrills and Please Don’t Call Me Human.
  • Xi Xi (1938– ) was born on the mainland but has spent most of her life in Hong Kong, which has often been the focus of her many works of fiction. She began her career as a writer in the 1970s but became well known only in the 1980s. Her novel My City (1979) is representative of her fiction about Hong Kong. She captures wonderfully the city’s distinct cultural hybridity and its traumatic struggle to define its identity in transition from British colony to its “return” to the motherland.
  • Xiao Hong (1911–42) was born into a wealthy landlord family in the northeast province of Heilongjiang. Her father was abusive and family life oppressive, so she left home at a young age, traveling first to nearby Harbin, then to Shanghai, where Lu Xun took her under his wing. Much of her fiction—especially Tales of Hulan River and Field of Life and Death—depicts the suffering of women in the rural northeast.
  • Yan Lianke (1958– ) has been writing since the 1980s, but it was not until 2000 that he started gaining a national reputation. His novels have been extremely controversial, subject to censorship and sometimes banned. Serve the People is a sex-filled satire of the Cultural Revolution Mao cult; Pleasure is an experimental novel about utopia and dystopia; and Dreams of Ding Village is a haunting work about an AIDS-ravaged village in Yan’s native Henan.
  • Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang) (1920–95) was born in Shanghai and wrote mostly about the city of her birth. In 1949 Zhang fled the mainland for Hong Kong and then the United States, where she spent the rest of her life as a virtual recluse, though she continued to write—and rewrite earlier works. Zhang’s best pieces are the stories written in the 1940s and included in the collection Legends (1944). A writer who defies easy classification, Zhang wrote in a style uniquely her own that has modernist elements side-by-side with elements of contemporary urban entertainment fiction.

China: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Kirk A. Denton, ISBN # 9781883513238

Excerpts to come.

Posted on 24 February 2010

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