Books with a China theme (2019 list)
Another year, another one of my annual book lists. Writing a post about the books related to China I read during the year has become a tradition on this blog! I made these lists in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, so 2019 couldn’t be any less!
I have to confess that in 2019 my reading activity suffered a big dip. Most of my free time had to be dedicated to that tireless little monster also known as Baby A. and I also probably
spent wasted more time than I should on my phone. Hope I can make some more time to read in 2020!
According to Goodreads, where I register all my readings, in 2019 I read 6 books related to China. Well, one of them was a pop-up children’s book and I already talked about it in this post, so I’ll just list the other 5 “real” books in this list. As you will see, this was a quite “pearly” year for me.
– Death of a Red Heroine, by Qiu Xiaolong
A police thriller set in Shanghai in the 90s. A young woman who also happens to be a model worker and a public figure is found dead. Chief Inspector Chen Cao is in charge of the investigation and finds connections to prominent political figures that should be untouchable. I found this novel to be an easy read and kept me hooked on every chapter. I enjoyed the background of Shanghai in the 90s and loved all the hints at political corruption. The author, Qiu Xialong, has lived in the US since the end of the 80s and this book, his first novel, was written in English, his second language.
– East Wind: West Wind, by Pearl S. Buck
Last year I read 3 books by Pearl S. Buck and this was the first one. It also happens to be her first published book, the second being The Good Earth, which is her most well-known novel. East Wind: West Wind is about a young Chinese woman from a very traditional family (well, I guess all the families in China were very traditional at the beginning of the 20th century) who gets married to a young doctor that has lived abroad for some time. The marriage is arranged, of course, as there was no other option back then. All the book is in the form of letters written by this woman and deal mainly with the problems she finds in her marriage: her husband is very westernized and wants her to stop bounding her feet, to be his equal and to stop believing old superstitions. For her this is super strange and cannot understand it at first, but gradually she starts seeing how her husband’s ways are better than the old ways. I see how this story could be seen as questionable, but what can I say… it’s hard to defend traditions like bound feet or women being confined at home while men are the absolute masters.
– Letter from Peking, by Pearl S. Buck
This novel is about an American woman who is married to a man who is half Chinese and half American. They have a son and live in China, but because of the country’s worsening situation and increasing violence, the woman and the son move to America while the husband stays in China because he has an important position in a university, doesn’t want to leave his students and is convinced that everything is going to be fine and his wife and son will be able to return. The title refers to the letters that the wife receives from his husband. It’s a very sad story and I don’t want to give spoilers, but in some aspects the story seems to be reflecting the author’s real life.
There was a passage that I can’t help but quote here. Please bear in mind as you read it that the author herself lived in China since she was a child and for almost 40 years, that she spoke Chinese, and that this book was published in 1957. In this passage, the husband (Gerard) is arguing with a Russian man who owns a hotel in Shanghai (Mr. Pilowski) at the end of the 1940s:
Gerald argued with him. “We can scarcely go on as we are, Mr. Pilowski. The people are wretched after the war. Inflation is crushing. Nothing is being done.”
“Some day, you will know that nothing being done is better than wickedness being done,” Mr. Pilowski declared. He grew red and angry and Gerald smiled, refusing further argument, but still believing himself right. It is the arrogance of the Chinese, and I must never forget that Gerald is half Chinese, to believe they are different from all other peoples, more reasonable, more sane, than other peoples are. In some ways it is true.
– Three Chinese Lives, by Dai Sijie
It seems this novel has not been published in English so I just translated the title directly from the original French (I read the Spanish translation). Dai Sijie is famous for his Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and this book is a bit different, in the sense that the stories it deals with are much more dramatic, but also similar because of the underlying political criticism. Even though Dai Sijie left China in the 80s and writes in French, I found this novel to be very Chinese in the sense that, as dramatic and sad as the three stories are, they are told dispassionately and even allowing for humour. The three lives mentioned in the title are those of a young man with physical deformities, a girl who believes her dad killed her missing mother, and a man whose brother has gone crazy and is kept in chains. These three characters live on an island which is basically the dumpster where all the electronic waste ends up.
– Dragon Seed, by Pearl S. Buck
Do you see the subtitle on the book’s cover? A Novel of China Today? Well, that “today” actually means 1942, hehe. This story is about a family of peasants who live in a village not far from a city. The Japanese invasion is under way but they think it won’t affect them as, after all, they just live simple lives tending to their crops and don’t care who’s in government. Even when news of horrible atrocities start arriving to the village, they think it can’t be that bad as long as they show a peaceful attitude. Ah, how wrong they are…
And those were my China-related readings in 2019! I just noticed that none of them were from a Chinese author living in China at the moment of publication or even originally written in Chinese… but about China they are! What did you read last year? Any recommendations? Please leave them in the comments!