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!


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.


Portrait of a Beijinger: Beneath the Makeup (video)

A Peking Opera singer takes off his mask – by Tom Fearon


Ed: Portrait of a Beijinger is an original video series for the Anthill by Tom Fearon and Abel Blanco. Each month, Tom and Abel will profile an ordinary Beijinger with an extraordinary story. We’re proud to present this first episode in the series, along with Tom’s description of meeting its protagonist Liu Xinran. The video is viewable on Youku for streamers in China, and on Vimeo as embedded below

The Anthill has just relaunched with a new design, and we have some great content lined up. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or sign up for our weekly email digest to never miss a post



Dung sweeping festival

Forced labour on the Inner Mongolian grasslands – by Alec Ash (rerun)


The blades of a hundred wind turbines chugged languidly, stirring the dry morning air over an expanse of cracked grasslands pock-marked with horse droppings. A klick away, inside our ger, we reluctantly pushed off our blankets to meet the morning and rubbed the sleep from our eyes. It was a grudging start to the day, but missing breakfast would be worse.

We were in the Huitengxile grasslands, Inner Mongolia – an Englishman, a French woman and a Russian, like the start of a bad joke. It was 2010, it was Qingmingjie – tomb sweeping festival – and we had the long weekend off from our language school in Beijing. None of us had been to Inner Mongolia. It sounded exotic. Horses and horizons, that kind of thing.

Our host, who had rented us the ger, gave us each a plate of flat noodles with chopped veg and a mischievous smile. I may have imagined the mischievous smile.

“Would you like to participate in a traditional Mongolian activity today?” he asked, stoking the dung-fueled samovar.