The countdown of the best Chinese works of fiction, as voted by Time Out's expert literary panel - entries 5-2
5 Fortress Besieged
Qian Zhongshu, 1947
Chinese name 围城
‘Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are
outside wanted to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.’ This wry
line, borrowed from a French proverb, is the opening sentence and basis of Qian
Zhongshu’s 1947 novel. The book’s original name, Wei Cheng, has since
become a popular byword for a stifling marriage in China.
The novel opens with the main character, Fang Hongjian,
returning to China
with a fake degree as the sole result of his ‘studies’ overseas. After a stint
in Shanghai, he takes a teaching position in
Things then take a turn for the worse when he loses his job and falls into a
disastrous marriage. Caught between two eras, Fortress Besieged is the
story of a man who ultimately gets crushed by the metaphorical fortress walls,
‘not with a bang, but with a whimper’.
Liberally seasoned with witty asides, [Fortress Besieged]’s ironic take on middle class effeteness remains popular to this day.
Harvey Thomlinson Founder, Make-Do Publishing Studio
Fortress Besieged is available from Amazon.cn priced at 49.40RMB.
4 Red Sorghum
Mo Yan, 1986
Chinese name 红高粱家族
When Mo Yan collected his Nobel Prize for Literature in
2012, the Swedish
Academy cited Red
Sorghum as one of his most important works. Thanks to Zhang Yimou’s 1988
film adaptation, it is also the author’s most commercially successful.
Set in a small village in 1930s Shandong province during
the bloody Second Sino-Japanese War, the book chronicles three generations of
family history in a turbulent era of battling warlords and lost fortunes.
Through a series of vivid, often violent flashbacks, a nameless narrator
introduces us to a hard-boiled wartime peasant existence.
Red Sorghum is a dark book – death pervades every
scene, from the corpse-eating wild dogs that stalk the brigade, to the bloodied
estuaries that supply the village water – but it is lifted by Mo’s poetic style
and lightness of touch. A brilliant introduction to one of China’s most
famous writers and his signature style, ‘hallucinatory realism’.
Red Sorghum is available from Amazon.cn priced at 95.90RMB
Read more Red Sorghum is also one of our list of Mainland China's 100 best films.
3 Love in a Fallen City
Eileen Chang, 1944
Chinese name 傾城之戀
This year marks 20 years since the death of Eileen Chang,
most influential female writer. Born in Shanghai
in 1920, Chang moved to Hong Kong to study
before returning here just before Japanese troops invaded in 1937.
The two cities of Chang’s youth form the backdrop to Love
in a Fallen City. Set in the 1940s, the plot follows Bai Liusu, an introverted
divorcee who has recently broken free
of an unhappy marriage but is largely shunned by her judgemental family for
doing so. When a charming Malaysian businessman passes through town, Bai starts
to feel there might be a way out.
The book echoes Chang’s own tragic personal life – she
married twice, divorcing her first husband, a Japanese collaborator and
philanderer, in 1947 – and the author’s observations perfectly capture the
tensions and excesses of colonial Hong Kong and pre-1949 Shanghai.
The motifs of Eileen Chang’s stories – the cigarettes and cheong-sams – may have been dulled by their appearance in endless TV historical soap operas, but the style of her prose and the way she depicts relationships remain sharp and precise
Dave Haysom Literary translator and co-editor, Pathlight
Love in a Fallen City is available from Amazon.cn priced at 62.80RMB
2 To Live
Yu Hua, 1993
Chinese name 活着
To Live – another book on our list that was famously
adapted into a film by Zhang Yimou – follows the story of Xu Fugui, the once lazy and rich son of a country landlord, as he fights to survive from before the founding of the People's Republic until the dying days of the Cultural Revolution. With the pathos of a Greek tragedy, it
delivers a vivid rendering of Chinese life pre- and post-Cultural Revolution
and upon publication announced Yu Hua as a master of his craft.
Yu’s unromantic worldview is partly a result of his
upbringing during the Cultural Revolution. But in this novel, resilience and
pragmatism rise to meet despair. It’s a veiled criticism of the Maoist era and
a testament to the power of human endurance.
To Live is available from Amazon.cn priced at 103RMB
'In China, book reviews are not important' Time Out interview Yu Hua
Yu Hua also appears in our list of the top 40 Chinese non-fiction books. Read more