China in Literature: 5 Books on Chinese Lives - Arts & Culture

Stories of revolution, love, survival and the power of the arts: these books will nourish the soul.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an intergenerational story about an extended family in China. The first generation is those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the second is their children who grow up protesting in Tiananmen Square.

The third is the present generation: Marie, who has to piece together the story of her broken family in present-day Vancouver by seeking answers to the difficult questions involving her father, and Ai-Ming, the daughter of Marie’s father’s good friend.

A story of how family, art, and love survive throughout political campaigns that starved the body and the soul, Madeleine Thien’s novel won the 2016 Booker Prize. It is a paean to how creativity is a restorative tool in times of hardship, and how minor decisions made can have lasting consequences that reverberate throughout the years.

Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang, translated by Karen Kingsbury

Set 1930s Shanghai, Shen Shijun is a young engineer, who has fallen in love with Gu Manzhen, against the wishes of his family who wish to marry him off to his wealthy cousin. Circumstances keep the two apart: the actions of a voracious brother-in-law, an awful sister, and family secrets conspire to make Shijun and Manzhen go their separate paths.

Losing each other, their lives go on in parallel train tracks: never meeting and kept apart with schemes and tragic miscommunications. Expectations thwart the love they keep for each other.

Despite the attempts of everyone around them, these star-crossed lovers hold out hope that someday they will meet again. This enduring tale of love against a long line of heartbreaks is a classic from Eileen Chang, considered an essential writer of twentieth-century China.

Beautiful Country: A Memoir of an Undocumented Childhood by Qian Julie Wang

Seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994. She knows no word of English, but she knows that the Chinese word for America is “Mei Guo,” which means “beautiful country.” However, the America she sees is far from the imagined idea: her parents in China were professors, in the United States they work in illegal sweatshops.

The toil of the day encroaches on their new life and relationship with each other. The whole family is illegal, and buckling under fear and precarity. Small joys are mustered to survive.

Due to her limited prowess in English, Qian’s small joy is the library, where she learns to master the language and makes her only American friends in the Berenstain Bears. She tastes her first bite of greasy New York pizza, finds treasures in the trash lining the streets of Brooklyn, and sees the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Maybe the New York in movies exists after all.

Tragedy strikes when Qian’s mother collapses, and a hidden illness is suddenly revealed. Suddenly, survival is once more of utmost importance for the family: Qian now has to pretend she was born in New York and has always lived there.

A story of the impossibility of the American dream, Beautiful Country is for everyone who is struggling to hold out and fight back, a treatise of the importance of never giving up and always seeking the light.

Lotus by Lijia Zhang

Inspired by the author’s grandmother, who revealed that she had been sold to a brothel during her youth, the eponymous Lotus is a young woman who has to straddle tradition and the desires of modern life, while living in Shenzen, China’s “City of Sins.”

A streetwalker, Lotus stands out from her fellow workers due to her reserved and defiant personality. She catches the eye of demanding clients who want to make her their property.

Knowing that choosing a wealthy, powerful and dangerous man will grant her security, Lotus is nonetheless thrown off when an offer comes from Bingbing, a sweet and humble photojournalist that can offer her nothing but love. Now she must make a choice. 

Lotus grants outsiders a thorough look into China’s seedy underground, revealing the strength found in those who live day to day in danger. Compassionate, gracious, and filled with unforgettable characters, Lotus is a compelling examination of what it means to be a woman in a world that works against their very survival.

Little Gods by Meng Jin

Su Lan gives birth on June 4, alone in a Beijing hospital. This sets the moment of her unraveling, bringing to light everything she has tried to erase from her past. Seventeen years later, she dies unexpectedly, and it is up to her daughter, Liya, to bring her ashes back to China, a country filled with dead and living ghosts.

Silent and contradictory like her mother, Liya is joined by Zhu Wen, the last woman who knew her mother before she left the country, and Yongzong, the absent father Liya never knew. From them a portrait of Su Lan emerges: ambitious, ambivalent, and complicated, a woman who will continue to impact the life of Liya in unexpected ways. 

Little Gods is an expansive exploration of the aftermaths of migration, unfulfilled dreams, and the impact of the past on the present and the self.

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

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