From the Four Great Classical Novels of the Ming and Qing dynasties to Nobel prize and science-fiction award-winning writers, China has a long tradition of epic storytelling.
Chinese New Year falls on 1 February in 2022, just three days into the UK’s National Storytelling Week.
To honour both, why not add one of these great Chinese novels to your to-read pile?
1. Red Sorghum by Mo Yan
Mo Yan was the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. The panel praised a body of work that “with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.
Red Sorghum is the novel for which he is most well-known. It was adapted into a film that won the Golden Bear for best feature at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival.
The book tells the story of three generations caught up in the traumatic years of the Chinese civil war and battles with the Japanese during the 1930s. As Commander Yu leads a group in defence of their village, a death at the hands of the Japanese is the catalyst for reminiscences that trace a family’s history through a turbulent time in China’s long history.
Combining reality and fable, this visceral and surprising epic is a classic of modern Chinese literature and a perfect entry into the work of a 20th-century Nobel laureate.
2. To Live by Hua Yu
Hua Yu’s breakthrough 1993 novel To Live follows Xu Fugui, the spoiled son of an affluent family who squanders a fortune in gambling dens. As he does so, the face of the country he thought he knew changes around him.
Forced into honest farm work as a penance for his former ways, Fugui is forced into the army where he witnesses first-hand the horrors of the war and of the Cultural Revolution.
The story of Fugui’s transformation is told in an exaggerated realist style that saw it banned upon its first release. It has since become a much-loved classic and one of China’s most influential novels.
3. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Winner of the Hugo and Galaxy Awards for Best Novel, The Three-Body Problem is a modern science-fiction classic, and the first novel in an epic, intergalactic trilogy. It was hailed as “immense” by Barack Obama.
Beginning in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, the heinous actions of the Red Guards have consequences in the decades that follow. Those actions will resonate many years into the future, and many light-years away, where an earth-like world exists within an unstable, three sun system – orbital mechanics’ “three-body problem”.
Cixin Lui’s Three-Body Problem is followed by The Dark Forest and Death’s End.
4. Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang
Eileen Chang was born into an aristocratic family in Shanghai in 1920. Following her parents’ divorce, she ran away from her tyrannical father to study at Hong Kong University, returning to Shanghai and publishing her first books in the 1940s.
Love in a Fallen City is both a standalone novella and the name of the short-story collection in which it features in English translation, as published by Penguin Modern Classics.
The novella takes place in Hong Kong and Shanghai and follows the beautiful divorcee Bai Liusu as she follows bachelor Fan Liuyuan, first to Hong Kong and later back to Shanghai. The pair’s growing love will find its antithesis in the destruction at the hands of the Japanese of the city they love.
5. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
Chinese literature contains four masterpieces: Journey to the West (also known in English translation as Monkey), Outlaws of the Marsh, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Dream of the Red Chamber.
Cao Xueqin wrote the latter between the 1740s and his death in the mid-1760s and is also known as Story of the Stone.
It concerns the rise and fall of a family during the Qing Dynasty, while also acting as a memorial to the important women in the author’s life and an exploration of religion and philosophy.
Through 120 chapters (the authorship of the final 40 of which is disputed), Cao Xueqin details the lives of two branches of a wealthy clan as romantic rivalries and changing friendships play out against a backdrop of the declining fortunes of both families.
The Penguin Classics edition, which is not for the fainthearted, is titled The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel and unfolds over five volumes and more than 2,000 pages.