Sunday, August 14, 2005

My favourite books about China

Recommended Books about China
To the Edge of the Sky - Anhua Gao
This family saga is set within the framework of the tumultuous events of 20th-century China. Anhua (little flower) is the daughter of two revolutionary martyrs who leave her and her three siblings orphaned. This is the story of her extraordinary life in this vast and contradictory country. She, like many thousands, suffers under the swinging opinions of the powers that be - finding herself one moment favoured by the authorities and her peers and then denounced and imprisoned. Probably the one book about the Revolution that touched me the most. Excellent explanations on the Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution, and the Mao Era.

Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter - Adeline Yen Mah
After Adeline's mother died, her affluent father remarried a French-Chinese teenager, Niang, and the family moved to Shanghai where they lived in a large house in the middle of the French Concession. During this time, the 1930s, when everything western in treaty ports such as Shanghai was deemed superior to anything Chinese, Niang was the ultimate status symbol and Adeline's father was besotted. But while Niang gave her own two children beautiful clothes and lovely presents, she treated her five stepchildren harshly and with disdain. Adeline in particular was considered inferior and insignificant and she was bullied and beaten by her siblings. When the family moved to Hong Kong in 1949, Adeline was banished to a boarding school from which she was rarely allowed home. Set against a background of changing political times and the collision of East and West, this text describes how the complexities of family relationships were to come to a head at her father's and Niang's deaths. It also tells of how Adeline survived the traumas of her childhood to make a successful career for herself. Excellent reading for those coming to Shanghai, maybe you can wait to start it until you have wandered around the city, Puxi, The Bund, the French Concession... so that you can recognize the spots.

Wild Swans - Jung Chang
Through the story of three generations of women -- grandmother, mother and daughter -- Wild Swans tells nothing less than the whole tumultuous history of China's tragic twentieth century, from sword-bearing warlords to Chairman Mao, from the Manchu Empire to the Cultural Revolution. At times terrifying, at times astonishing, always deeply moving, Wild Swans is a book in a million, a true story with all the passion and grandeur of a great novel. It is probably the first book anybody interested in that period will find at any bookstore.
Título en español: Cisnes Salvajes

The Good Women of China - Xinran
Xinran worked for eight years as a well-known presenter at a Chinese radio station. As a public figure, she received many letters. Most of them were from women. Moved by the stories she was hearing in the letters, she decided to go in search of more of the truths about Chinese women's lives. What she found was terrible suffering; women who had endured lengthy sexual abuse during the Cultural Revolution, women whose wretched poverty was made more miserable by the dictates of a male-centred society, women who had had their children taken from them or who had lost them in earthquakes and other natural disasters. And, amid all the suffering, she found their capacity to endure and somehow survive.

The Red Azalea - Anchee Min
Anchee Min, now a painter, film-maker, photographer and writer, left China for America in 1984. She had been a prize pupil and a model member of Mao Tse-tung's Red Guard. For her dutiful work for the Party, she was awarded a place at the arduous Red Fire Farm, where she experienced - at great personal risk - her sexual and emotional awakening with the female company leader. Selected from 20,000 candidates to be a star of propagandist films, she left behind the farm and her lover, for fame and an exotic affair with one of Madame Mao's leading emissaries. It is an erotic autobiography which combines China, communism, theatre and lesbianism... A very strange and enticing novel.

The True Story of Ah Q - Lu Xun
Lu Xun is the father of modern Chinese literature, so any translated work that you come across from him will be worth reading. The bad thing is that the translations can't show all the hidden gems in his writing. The need to read his text in their original language is one of the powerful reasons why I want to learn Chinese. In you have some time so go down to Shaoxing, a not-so-big town South of Shanghai, don't forget to visit Lu Xun's mansion there, it is the best example of the finest Chinese traditional architecture.

Mao - Jonathan Spence
This is a short but concise biography of Chairman Mao written by the famous historian and sinologist Jonathan Spence. It narrates in a novelistic style the life of the leader, from his origins in Hunan province, to his late years, going through all key facts of his period and not trying to judge from any biased point of view the steps taken. After having read so many autobiographic books about the Cultural Revolution, my perception of Chairman Mao changed to the worst, so I bought this book to get an historical approach.

Red Poppies: An Epic Saga of Old Tibet - Alai
Ambitious, sensuous, filled with intriguing characters, panoramic settings, and high drama, Red Poppies opens a window on Tibet, dispelling many of the popular myths of a pacifistic society peopled by devout worshipers. Red Poppies is the story of the wealthy Maiqi family: its powerful chieftain, his Han Chinese wife, his first son and heir, and his second, 'idiot' son, the novel's narrator and unlikely hero. The time is the 1930s, the setting a stone fortress overlooking all that the family rules on the arid plains of inner Tibet, with its scattered populace of peasant farmers, merchants, and comical local lamas. A feud breaks out with a neighboring chieftain; an emissary of the Chinese Nationalists comes to the Maiqis' aid with the tools of modern warfare. In exchange, fields of poppies, valuable in the Nationalist-backed heroin trade, are to be planted instead of grain in a deal that enriches the Maiqis' lavish lifestyle and earns them dangerous enmity. . This was the last book I read so far, and it was enlightening because unlike the others, it doesn't talk about the Comunist outburst, but about life in the furthest territory -Tibet- during the Nationalist China. It was a period of warlords, of disputed lands, of wealth and famine. It talks about the ethnical and rank differences between Han and Tibetan people, and of course the main event around which the story develops is the introduction of poppies to produce the opium that brought China to its lowest time.
Title in Spanish: Las Amapolas del Emperador

Shanghai Baby - Wei Hui
An autobiographic novel set in modern Shanghai, Wei Hui narrates her puzzling life and open sexuality in a China that fights to open up. I recommend you to read this book once you're settled in Shanghai and know your way around, it will make the reading more interesting since it is generous in names of streets, places and directions. I read it long ago and didn't know Shanghai then, so I didn't quite enjoy it. Indeed, it can't compete with the above mentioned books, but it will be a killer of a reading if you wait some months after your arrival.

Other recommended books:
First they killed my father - Loung Ung
This is the most impressive book I have ever read. In a raw style, a Cambodian survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields Loung Ung narrates, in first person, her early life (she was 4 when Pol Pot came to power) and her family evolution during those dark years we know very little about -the title of the book is already an spoiler, in Spanish they made a softer translation, Se lo Llevaron (They took him away). While writing these lines I am remembering the book and getting goose pimples. And I warn you, you will cry from the second page on. But this book is a MUST READ. And after reading it you will want to read and know more about the Khmer Rouge, about the Cambodian people, and you will want to watch, or re-watch, Roland Joffé's The Killing Fields, and you will program your next trip to Phnom Penh and the temples of Angkor Wat. And you won't ever forget that you read this book.

Siddhartha - Herman Hesse
A classic of twentieth-century fiction, Siddhartha is the story of the spiritual awakening of a man living in India at the time of the Buddha. Born into a wealthy Brahmin family, he leaves his home for the contemplative life, then, restless, discards that life for one of the flesh. He conceives a son, but bored and sickened by lust and greed, moves on again. Near despair, Siddhartha comes to a river where he hears a unique sound. This sound signals the true beginning of his life-the beginning of a new understanding of suffering, a growing sense of peace, and, finally, wisdom. I consider this a book for self-help, for those who think that notoriety, financial success and ownership is the ultimate goal.

I will be updating this list wit books that I read. Currently I have the following queue:
Romance of the Three Kingdoms - Guanzhong Luo
Red Dust - Ma Jian
Soul Mountain (in Spanish: Las Montañas del Alma) - Gao Xinlian (Nobel Prize)
The Art of War - Sun Tzu


marian said...

Has leido Cisnes Salvajes?. Me ha dejado el libro la hermana de Carlos, trata sobre 3 generaciones de mujeres chinas, llevo un par de días y ya enganchada. A la abuela todavía le vendaban los pies y tenía que convivir con ritos manchurios como multiple esposa de un medico en un 2º matrimonio, tras huir de su primer matrimonio en el que la 1ª mujer quería quedarse con su bebé. Marian

hoolioh said...

Sí lo he leído. Lo incluyo en los libros, aunque en inglés (Wild Swans). Veo que te está gustando... Es uno de los más famosos sobre la Revolución Cultural.