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!


To Live, Yu Hua, translated by Michael Berry – We’re easing into the list with a classic, which spans half a century of Chinese history through one riches-to-rags story. If you haven’t read it yet, or like the rest of us say you have but are just pretending, time to pick this one up

Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China, various – Swiftly onto newer material. This collection of short stories, each focusing on a different Chinese city, is the perfect introduction to some of the best young writers (and translators) in China

I Love Dollars and Other Stories, Zhu Wen, translated by Julia Lovell – Zhu Wen (who also has a story in that last anthology) is probably my favourite Chinese author, and the title story of this collection is pretty perfect in capturing disaffected urban malaise

Dream of Ding Village, Yan Lianke, translated by Cindy Carter – Set in the backwaters of rural Henan, this novel is an unveiled parallel of the blood selling AIDS scandal that shocked China in the early 2000s, and a compelling read in its own right

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Wang Anyi, translated by Michael Berry –  Wang Anyi is one of China’s best women writers, and doesn’t get enough credit. This tale from the longtong alleys and faded glamour of post war Shanghai is just lovely

The Garlic Ballads, Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt – The most (in my opinion the only) readable of Mo Yan’s novels, this is a countryside fable of corrupt officials and all around venality that should put to bed any lingering notions that Mo Yan is a government stooge

Playing for Thrills, Wang Shuo, translated by Howard Goldblatt – Nothing if not provocative, Wang Shuo has been dubbed the father of “hooligan literature”. Wild Beasts has inexplicably not been translated yet, so try this Beijing murder story

Wang in Love and Bondage, Wang Xiaobo, translated by Hongling Zhang – Perhaps better known as an essayist, Wang Xiaobo has a dedicated following. This book collects three of his novellas, including his best known work "The Golden Age"

The Book of Sins, Chen Xiwo, translated by Nicky Harman – Recently published from Fortysix (previously Make Do Publishing, who put out some great Chinese lit) this collection of linked novellas from the dark side of China is something a little different

Running Through Beijing, Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen – You might not have heard of Xu Zechen, but if you’re a Beijinger you’ll love his material, from sandstorms to pirated DVDs. A good read, from by a veteran of the translation circuit

Death Fugue, Sheng Keyi, translated by Shelly Bryant – OK I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s an intruiging topic (an allegory of Tiananmen in a parallel land) from a local writer and I’m sure it’s worth buying

A Perfect Crime, A Yi, translated by Anna Holmwood – I’m cheating even more now, as this book isn’t out until June. But A Yi is one of my favourite Chinese authors and I can’t wait to read this crime novel


Thanks to Mengfei Chen for giving her thoughts on the list. Look up Pathlight magazine for more Chinese fiction, and one of its editors Dave Haysom has some translations up on his blog. Also check out this series the Guardian published, and search for Chinese stories on Asymptote. Finally we're looking forward to new publications from the Beijing Bookworm

Other "listicles" on the Anthill include:

20 China books to read (and 5 to avoid)

China Blogs Hall of Fame

Bad China Articles