Books with a China theme (2020 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, 2018 and 2019, so 2020 couldn’t be any less!
2020 was the perfect time for reading, right? Considering that it was not possible to go out much in many countries. Well, here in Suzhou we only stayed at home for a couple of months, but I managed to read twice as much as I did in 2019! Yaaay! I hope in 2021 I can read even more! (But because I want to, not because we have to stay home… pretty please?).
According to Goodreads, where I register all my readings, in 2020 I read 32 books. Among them, 6 were Roald Dahl’s books (I bought a set as I loved his stories as a child and wanted to reread them, this time in English), 6 were graphic novels (My favorite thing is monsters, Saga #9 and several Paper Girls), and 9 were books related to China. Let’s see which ones they were!
– The Mother, by Pearl S. Buck
In 2019 I read several of Pearl S. Buck’s novels, and I also started 2020 with her. The Mother is about a rural woman whose name we never know, as she is just “the mother”. She has two children, a mother in law, and a husband who is an entitled and childish man who abandons them. A single mother in a village at the beginning of the 20th century in China? You can bet her life is not going to be easy…
– Devourer, by Liu Cixin
A short story by the acclaimed author of The Three Body Problem. A vicious alien race wanders the universe looking for planets to strip them of all of their resources and to find food. When they reach the Earth, the offer they propose us humans is to let us live until we are 60 years old, and then serve as tasty food for them. The end made me chuckle. Very fitting.
– The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, by Wang Anyi
I was very close to stop reading this one as at the beginning there are some extremely long and tedious descriptions of the Shanghai alleys, the birds in Shanghai and I don’t remember what else. I found them unbearable but for some reason I kept reading. I’m glad I did because, after those boring descriptions , the rest of the book is quite good. It’s the story of a Shanghainese woman since she is a young lady in the 1940s and through her life. Interestingly, there’s no mention of the political events of the time, just of the little daily things that happen to her.
– The Man Who Ended History, by Ken Liu
A couple of scientists invent something with which it’s possible to go back to the a specific moment in the past and see it in person. But when a specific moment of the past is revisited once, it disappears forever. The scientists (one Chinese and one Japanese) use their invention to bring attention to the atrocities commited by Unit 731 during WWII. This happened in the north of China and I had never heard about it, which I find very strange, considering it is as horrible as the massacre in Nanjing…
– China: The Big Lie? The Truth of Trillions in a Culture of Cash, by Mario Cavolo
I picked this book for free at a hotel years ago and I had not read it until now. Written by a long-time foreign resident in Shanghai, it feels a bit aged now, but it presents an interesting thought: Chinese people’s wealth is much greater than the official numbers, as many people do business off the books and keep their money in cash. I don’t know how much this has changed now that everybody uses WeChat Pay and AliPay for their monetary transactions, but the older generation might still be doing as he describes. He gives examples like the lady making breakfast crepes on the street or the taxi driver who own several apartments and send their children to study abroad. I think the part of owning several apartments is not so easy now, as property prices have skyrocketed in recent years. But anyway, a good vision on the saving culture that was predominant here (I think young people don’t save much anymore).
– China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua
A non-fiction work by one of my favourite Chinese authors. Yu Hua chooses 10 words that he thinks are important, used in a special way or representative of today’s society and gives his reflections about them. The words are: people, leader, reading, writing, Lu Xun, disparity, revolution, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle. China explained and criticized by a Chinese that actually lives in China.
– Beijing Bastard, by Val Wang
A memoir written by a Chinese-American young woman who moves to Beijing at the end of the 90s. She’s not fluent in Mandarin but, because of her face and surname, people expect her to (that’s something I’ve heard from other ABCs or American Born Chinese). At first she lived with her relatives in a small hutong house and culture shock ensues. She also manages to meet a lot of underground-famous people and have several love interests. I enjoyed this book as someone who lived in Beijing as I could recognize many places and behaviours, even though I only arrived there in 2006. She also says something that is 100% spot on: Chinese people are not precisely know for their planning. She works as a freelancer translator and she gets requests to translate things “right now”, which still happens to this day…
– Ball Lightning, by Liu Cixin
A teenager sees his own parents disappear before his eyes when a ball lightning strucks them during a storm and then spends all his life researching this natural phenomenon. I actually had no idea ball lightning existed… it seems to be something out of a science fiction novel! Like, ehrm, this one… Liu Cixin’s style is a bit arid, so if you’re in for character development and things like that, skip this. His characters always seem to be made out of wood, haha.
– Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en
A monster of 100 chapters and almost 2500 pages that occupied my last quarter of the year. One of China’s most famous and influential novels, published in the 16th century. It’s about a monk who is sent to fetch the Buddhist scriptures in India and to do so embarks on a journey that takes 14 years (this part is based on a true story; a Chinese monk that went to India in the 7th century) . He’s accompanied by three disciples with magic powers (Sun Wukong or Monkey, Zhu Bajie or Pig and Sha Wuneng or Friar Sand) that help and protect him in his trip. The monk is a holy man but also a bit stupid, so he keeps on falling for the tricks of the thousands of monsters and evil spirits that want to catch and eat him to obtain eternal life. Monkey is in fact the main protagonist, so this novel is also known as The Monkey King. It’s had thousands of tv and movie adaptations and everybody in China knows the story, even if they haven’t read the book (a little bit like what happens with Spanish people and Don Quixote… which, by the way, I’ve never read! Ooops!). I read it in English and I bow and kowtow to the translator who managed to disentagle what must be a very difficult text in Chinese (old + full of Buddhist and Taoist references). In some parts I was laughing out aloud because they were too funny.
– Bonus: 丑陋的中国人 (The Ugly Chinese), by Bo Yang
I read half of this book in Chinese. It’s a collection of short essays that was recommended by a teacher when I was studying in Beijing. I found that all of them revolve around the same subject (the flaws that affect Chinese people and which impede their advancement) so I couldn’t finish it because I got bored. Also, it’s quite aged now, as most of the essays were written during the 80s. It’s interesting, nonetheless, because it mentions several problems the author sees in Chinese people that I think still exist today: how they don’t acknowledge their mistakes or how they don’t even consider that their actions can bother others. This is talking in general, of course, of Chinese people as a society. Interestingly, it also refers to Taiwanese people, as the author escaped from the mainland to Taiwan during the Communist takeover and lived there for the rest of his life. When he writes “Chinese people”, he refers to both mainlanders and Taiwanese (which to him, at the time he was writing, were the same).
And those were the China-related books I read in 2020! Have you read any of them? Any recommendations for my to-read list? Please leave them in the comments below!