In the spirit of our Civil Rights list for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we present 10 of the best novels, movies and poetry collections from China for Chinese New Year.
As with all subjective lists, we must begin with disclaimers. One, China is enormous and has been creating art for more than 5,000 years; so, yes, it’s excruciating to whittle a list like this down to 10 items. We’re going to miss some favorites, some excruciating how-can-you-not-mention-them favorites, so please consider this an introduction as opposed to an exhaustive overview.
Two, Chinese New Year is by no means limited to China. Macau, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and more celebrate Lunar New Years and/or Spring Festivals this time of year. Each deserve their list, but it’s foolhardy enough to try to tackle 5,000 years of Chinese history in a single post—as we mentioned in the first disclaimer—so those will have to wait until a later day.
With these caveats out of the way, it’s time to celebrate the Year of the Monkey! Wear red, bribe the Kitchen God, and enjoy the art of the Middle Kingdom!
1. The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun
It’s futile to point to a single writer and try to frame him or her as China’s best writer; but, whomever you think it may be, Lu Xun is in the discussion. He is to Beijing as Gabriel Garcia Marquez is to Colombia or Naguib Mahfouz is to Egypt. He’s their laureate. He was among a group of authors who created modern Chinese literature—embracing its cultural history while criticizing some of its outdated traditions.
His short stories, including “Diary of a Madman,” “The Divorce” and “The Real Story of Ah-Q,” juggle humor, sadness and keen observation. If you want, his complete short stories are also available as an ebook.
2. Dream of a Red Chamber (also known as The Story of The Stone) by Cao Xueqin
From one of China’s greatest modern writers to one of its greatest classic authors. Dream was written in the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty, and it follows the dynasty’s demise through the fortunes of one family and doomed romance of first cousins, Precious Jade and Blue-Black Jade.
This sprawling monsterpiece is more than 1,000 pages in some translations, so you may opt for an abridged version. But if you catch a good translation, it pairs fascinating myth and history with memorable characters. Cao brings readers into an open world where even a third concubine’s servant is granted her own agency.
You rolled your eyes, didn’t you? Everybody knows Crouching Tiger, you thought, even my uncle who doesn’t know his Ang Lee from his Christopher Lee.
Yeah, Crouching Tiger is one of those non-American films everyone knows, but it’s also one of the greatest examples of the wuxia (translation: martial hero) genre ever, which reaches all the way back beyond Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms. If you enjoyed Crouching Tiger, you may also enjoy other wuxia films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and, yes, even Kung Fu Panda.
But Chinese film is so much more than Kung Fu. It can be tragedy, history and love; or, in the case of Farewell, My Concubine, all three.
The film follows two Beijing opera actors, Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou, from childhood to death. If their story doesn’t break your heart, it’s because you never had one.
Concubine is similar to Dream of the Red Chamber in that it uses a personal relationship as a macrocosm to tell the story of the nation; in Concubine‘s case, the troubled (understatement) decades of the Cultural Revolution.
5. China’s Bravest Girl: The Legend of Hua Mu Lan by Wang Xing Chu
6. Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. He enjoyed some popularity in China but ran afoul of the government. He eventually moved to France and criticized his homeland’s government. It responded by banning all of his work.
Before leaving for Europe, Xingjian was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease that killed his father, and told he was going to die. He didn’t die. He didn’t even have cancer. The doctor misdiagnosed him. With a new lease on life, Xingjian spent 10 months traveling along the Yangtze River. He, then, used that experience to write Soul Mountain.
Soul Mountain is an autobiography-novel-travel writing or in Xingjian’s own words: “You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!”
I should not have come this far without discussing Chinese poetry. For much of its history, Chinese prose was subordinate to Chinese poetry; and the poetry was particularly sublime during the Tang Dynasty.
And you don’t need a doctorate in poetry or Chinese history to understand what has made this poetry worth preserving. The poems of Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei and more can be appreciated immediately but reward re-reading too.
It’s difficult to find western analogues for these classics, which provided the basis for Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and Taoism. They aren’t quite religious texts, and it’s limiting to compare them only philosophical or political texts. In short, these books try to provide the guidelines for how to lead a good life.
While not all of their writings may apply unequivocally to this time and place, there’s still plenty of worthwhile advice to be gleaned from them.
9. According to What? by Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei isn’t just one of the most important living Chinese artists, he’s one of the most important living artists anywhere. According to What? features more than 40 pieces from over the last 20 years—everything from photos of the Olympic stadium in Beijing to assemblies of thousands of porcelain river crabs (a metaphor for the Chinese government’s censorship) to a selfie Ai took as he was being arrested by Chinese police.
You can also check out Ai’s documentary, Never Sorry.
10. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This last inclusion is different than the others, because Yang was born in California. But Yang’s work is still Chinese art (as well as American art,) and that doesn’t change just because he’s from the diaspora as opposed to the mainland.
Pretty much all of Yang’s graphic novels are amazing, but American Born Chinese is special. It uses myth, wit and racial stereotypes to tell the stories of monkey king Hanuman and of a second-generation Chinese immigrant trying to fit into America. And you’ll never guess how those parallel stories end up intersecting.