Down and Out in Wuhan

Sex, lies and English teachers – by Travis Lee


I was a foreign teacher in Wuhan, on the Yangtze river, for seven years. It takes a special kind of person to stay in Wuhan for seven years. But I differ from the other teachers in two key ways. For starters, I left. They don't, won't, and most of all can't. They've spent years working themselves into a nook of drinking, fucking, smoking, bullshitting, rambling and drinking. Trading all that away for the destitute lives they left behind is not an option.

Second, I admitted who I was and why I was there. They don't. Listening to some of these guys talk makes you wonder why they ever left home in the first place. I've worked with former CEOs, engineers, bodyguards, even one guy who told me he used to be a hitman. Men who were living gods back home, men who drove BMWs, slept with only the most beautiful women, owned three-story homes and just one day had an epiphany and swapped all of that for a few hundred bucks a month and a cramped apartment.

The truth is, most foreign teachers in China are total basket cases at best.


Contemporary Chinese literature top dozen

An editor's pick for your spring reading list


A couple of years back we compiled a list of 20 China books to read (and 5 to avoid), which I've just updated for 2015 with some new titles. Absent from that rollcall was contemporary Chinese literature (except for this collection of short stories), as I had a vague notion about making a separate list for it. I just did.

Here are a dozen books curated as an open sesame, all by living authors, published in the last few decades and available in English. It's selective and subjective, of course – just a few books I think are a good introduction to new Chinese fiction in translation – and there are plenty of fantastic titles I've missed.

I deliberately left out Chinese writers overseas – Gao Xingjian, Ha Jin, Ma Jian, Guo Xiaolu, Amy Tan, Yiyun Li – to focus on novelists and short story writers living in the mainland. Part of the point is to show that there's more to mainland authors than Mo Yan and Cultural Revolution scar literature. I prefer an urban to a rural focus, as it's so much more relevant to the China around me, and this list likely shows that bias. I've also favoured less well known and younger authors where I can.

Happy reading, and share what I missed in the comments!


20 China books to read (and 5 to avoid)


Update April 2015 - I've made some changes to this list since it was first published in 2013, to reflect new publications and in the spirit of getting it just right. Osnos, French, Goldblatt and Troost are the new additions. I should also disclose I know some of the authors.


This is a (revised) answer I posted on Quora to the question "What are some good books that can give me a window into modern China?" I'm selective, and have split it into five lists of five: books on contemporary China, books on modern China (i.e. late and post Qing history), books from Chinese voices, China books from the canon ... and a bonus list of China books to avoid.

I hope this is useful as an open sesame for new China watchers, or to encourage old hands to plug those holes in their bookshelf. The lists are designed as all you need to pack your bag or Kindle with to understand that aspect or perspective of China, without being overwhelming. Do go ahead and say what I missed in the comments.


Saving Princess Pingyang

New fiction by Sze-Leng Tan


The sky at almost dusk is bright and promising, as it was half a lifetime ago on the day I saved her. The plump clouds floating above the Shanghai skyline are innocent, so no one would expect a stirring in their tranquillity. Yes, the sky is still the same as it was that day.


“Keep going … push harder! Go on! Yes, that’s right.”

The blood.

“Congratulations. Finally, it’s here ... it’s …”

Silence fell as I heaved my chest and head, releasing the deepest breath I had ever drawn, along with the weight I had been carrying. I exhaled.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” Its destiny, and mine, depended on the answer.

Another silence followed my question, the longest, quietest silence. I waited – it had already been nine months, after all.

Guang came in and broke the tension. Hastily, my husband asked, “With or without the chiguding?” The beak-like tip on an arrowhead tuber, the chiguding resembles a baby boy’s genitals.

“It’s …” said Gerna in a trembling voice, “… a nü’er.” 


An End of Days Story

Science fiction by Fei Dao – translated by Alec Ash


When mother was little, she told father she wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man on Earth. This wounded father deeply. Driven by grief and indignation, working with a bleak resolve, he became a resident space station maintenance worker. From tens of thousands of feet up in space he kept a solitary watch over the planet, distancing himself from humanity, from Earth, and from mother.

Later, when father was the last man on Earth, mother did marry him.

In that dark, stifling space station with only the stars for company, he used all the energy his job left him to nurture his resentment for mother, finally vowing that he would never love again. But when he came back down to Earth she was the only woman left.

They had no other choice.


Shortly before, humanity had no idea that it would soon die out. Blindly optimistic, we were completely unprepared when disaster struck.