World Book Day 2019: 6 China authors share their essential reads

We chat to Ian Johnson, Leta Hong Fincher and more about what's on their literary list

From women's rights to religious freedom, authors Alec Ash, Claire Chao, Lina Getachew Ayenew, Leta Hong Fincher, Ian Johnson and Lijia Zhang have covered a staggeringly wide spectrum of narratives, all while helping foster a more open and inclusive dialogue about China – so who better, then, to ask for China literary recommendations?

Ahead of World Book Day (April 23), we spoke to these six leading authors about what they're currently reading, plus their top picks for those wanting to get to know China a little better.
Alec Ash

Alec Ash

Currently reading
'Having just moved to Yunnan after eight years in Beijing, I’m reading Harvest Season, a novel by local author Chris Taylor. Chris lived in Kunming and Dali for many years, and his novel explores some key expat themes readers will enjoy. Set in the fictional lakeside town of Shuangshan – clearly a stand-in for Dali – the plot revolves around how the foreigners interact with and change local life. The novel is flawed – chiefly the unlikeability of the narrator, lording it over other residents – but it’s an entertaining read and has plenty that long-timers in China will recognise, plus a snapshot of Dali as it began to commercialise.'

China must-read
'One essential writer who is consistently neglected in the China canon is Sang Ye, an oral historian who travelled all around the country in the '80s and '90s, talking to ordinary folk and then telling their story with the understanding that only a native Chinese author can bring. China Candid is the best starting point – it's a grassroots portrait of China in the style of Studs Terkel. And if that piques your curiosity, then the earlier Chinese Lives is just as good, and inspired newer additions to the field of oral history, such as Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker.' 

Alec Ash is a writer and editor based in Yunnan, China. The author of Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China and co-editor of While We're Here, Ash is currently the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel.

Claire Chao

Claire Chao

Currently reading
'Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution by Helen Zia. Helen Zia’s journalistic background serves well to provide Last Boat Out of Shanghai with historical context and clarity, but this is far from a dry, factual text. After interviewing hundreds of individuals, Zia selected four main protagonists (one of whom was her own mother) to show the tumult and tragedy of 1930s Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese war and the run-up to Mao’s 1949 victory. It's told in a dramatic yet intimate style and I can’t wait to find out how it all turns out!'

China must-read
'My Country and My People by Lin Yutang. Chinese-born, Western-educated Lin devoted much of his writing to explaining Chinese culture and character to Western audiences. Written in 1935, My Country and My People is an early example of his Nobel Prize-nominated work. That it was written more than 80 years ago doesn’t detract from its charm: indeed, some passages are even more fascinating in retrospect. 

Claire Chao is a Chinese-American writer best-known for co-authoring family memoir Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels with her mother, Isabel Sun Chao. Winner of Outstanding Memoir from the Independent Author Network in 2018, a television adaptation of Remembering Shanghai is reportedly in the works. 

Lina Getachew Ayenew

Lina Getachew Ayenew

Currently reading
'I'm just starting Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World by Zak Dychtwald. I previously heard him speak and I’m sure that it will be an amazing read.'

China must-read
'I must say that I disagree with the premise of a "must-read." There are many narratives about China and committing to one book is impossible – my recommendation of a particular book is often not a total acceptance of the book itself. There are books that I find interesting but that include analyses or conclusions that I disagree with. With that in mind, I have found Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon fascinating. Written by Yong Zhao, it is a book about China’s education system. As an admirer of what the country has achieved in terms of education in just a few short decades, I was eager to learn more about its journey. The book includes a lot of criticisms but also interesting historical lessons.'

Lina Getachew Ayenew is a social entrepreneur and author based in Beijing. The author of The Complete Beginner’s Guide to China-Africa Relations, Ayenew also wrote the first Amharic-Mandarin language guide and currently runs online education enterprise Education for Ethiopia.

Leta Hong Fincher

Leta Hong Fincher

Currently reading
'I just finished reading Ma Jian's satirical and moving novel China Dream, which I highly recommend.' 

China must-read
'I don’t think I can choose just one or two books that everyone should read, but the book that most influenced my own work on women in China was a volume of brilliant essays by the Chinese feminist anarchist He-Yin Zhen in The Birth of Chinese Feminism, edited by Lydia H Liu, Rebecca Karl and Dorothy Ko.'

Leta Hong Fincher is an academic and author based in New York City. The first American to receive a PhD from Tsinghua University's Department of Sociology, Hong Fincher is the author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China and Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

Currently reading
'I just finished Milkman by Anna Burns, which I thought was an amazing look inside the mind of a young woman in a repressive, all-seeing state (no, not that country; it's about Northern Ireland). The New York Times reviewer found it dull and clumsy, but I thought it was a great read, especially if you get a running start of about 50 pages (which is a good idea for any book). It also won the 2018 Man Booker Prize.'

China must-read
'The one book I'd recommend is Shen Fu's Six Records of a Floating Life, which is a love story from 1809. Because it's so short, allow me to add its twentieth-century pendant: Yang Jiang's Six Chapters of my Life 'Downunder', which is patterned on Shen Fu's memoir and is also a kind of love story. It's about Yang's life in a Maoist reeducation camp and her marriage to Qian Zhongshu. Yang and Qian were two of China's most celebrated twentieth-century writers and zhishifenzi [intellectuals], and when Yang passed away in 2016 at age 104, it was a national event.'

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author based in Beijing. Currently writing for The New York Times among others, Johnson has been nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize, winning in 2001 for his coverage of China in The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after MaoWild Grass and A Mosque in Munich.' 

Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhang

Currently reading
Recently I read A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev and City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran by Ramita Navai. Published in 1885, Turgenev’s collection of short stories was his first major work. Many of the sketches were based on his experiences while hunting at his mother’s estate and witnessing the struggle and hardship of peasants. I love Turgenev’s beautiful description of nature, his brilliant characterisation, his sharp critique of Russian society and his imaginative power. 

City of Lies is a collection of stories, labelled as literary non-fiction. Instead of a journalistic profile, each piece reads like a stand-alone short story. All the featured characters, from a revolutionary to a drug dealer, live in one street – that’s the thread that connects them. The author, a British-Iranian journalist who lived in Tehran, gets into the head of all the people who appear in the book – it very much falls halfway between fiction and non-fiction.' 

China must-read
'The Selected Stories of Lu Xuntranslated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang.'

Lijia Zhang is a writer, columnist and public speaker based in Beijing. Originally from Nanjing, Zhang studied journalism in England before returning to China and writing for the South China Morning PostThe New York Times and more. She is the author of 'Socialism is Great!' A Worker's Memoir of The New China and Lotus.

Read more

  • 4 out of 5 stars
submit