5 great books about China to read this autumn

Five experts offer their picks on books about, and from, China

I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust
By Yu Xiang, translated by Fiona Tze-Lorrain


Picked by Alice Xin Liu, an editor at Pathlight magazine.
'It's not every day that a Chinese poet and her translator make the poetry sing. Usually only one does this, while the other gets it completely wrong. Fiona Sze-Lorrain, the translator of this collection by Yu Xiang, is a noted poet herself, and her rendition of Yu Xiang’s poems, published in 2014 by Zephyr Press, is a feat. In one poem, "Street", we read, "Just talk about the street, at vendor stalls / we drink beer, peel edamame beans / Just peel open the summer tagging behind us / like a juicy fruit, it ripens overnight / and rots. In summer / just peel open the past tagging behind us." "Peel open” is a wonderful description of season, of time, but also of edamame. Just as poetry brings us into another world, translation can be an act of successful recomposition and reconstitution.'

I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust is available from amazon.com, priced 6.60USD (45.70RMB).

The Hall of Uselessness

By Simon Leys

"hall of uselessness"

Picked by John Garnaut, author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo.
‘The faster China changes, and the harder it is to keep up, the further back I seem to reach in search of answers. There are few books that hold up better than this collection of essays, first published by the Belgian-Australian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans under the pseudonym Simon Leys, now republished as The Hall of Uselessness. Leys illuminates China’s reverential and brutal relationship with its past. He offers answers to some of the great riddles of Chinese statecraft, such as why Chinese rulers care so much for words. Confucius re-emerges as an iconoclastic hero. Calligraphy and Chinese painting are raised to the sublime. The secrets of Chinese immortality, he convincingly argues, are embedded exclusively in the written word. However, anyone who has ever been dubbed a “China Expert” cannot fail to be a little traumatised by his clinical dissection of the species.’

The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays is available from amazon.com, priced 15.45USD (107RMB).

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
By Jung Chang


Picked by Marysia Juszczakiewicz, founder of Peony Literary Agency.
‘I always follow what Jung Chang writes – I think she is an icon in the West when it comes to Chinese literature and knowledge of China. Wild Swans was such a groundbreaking book, and it was one of the first times that Chinese history was introduced to a wider readership abroad. Jung's 2013 book, Empress Dowager Cixi, does not disappoint. Jung always presents an unusual and interesting point of view. Cixi is usually shown to be tyrannical and vicious, but Jung portrays her as refreshingly groundbreaking and forward-thinking. Jung has also used some newly available Chinese historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eye-witness accounts. Above all, a thought-provoking read.’

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China is available from dangdang.com, priced 247.50RMB.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo
By John Garnaut


Picked by Lisa Brackmann, author of Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat.
‘The Bo Xilai case has got to be one of the most bizarre, over-the-top political scandals in recent history. But there’s a lot more to it than the salacious details of murdered British fixers, love triangles involving a corrupt, fashion-obsessed police chief, and French villas. In The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, John Garnaut provides much-needed context about political rivalries that are, in part, family affairs with roots in the fratricidal conflicts of the Cultural Revolution. I only hope that he does an updated version covering the respective trials of Bo and Gu and the implications for China’s leadership. Besides, I want to learn more about those gifts of rare African bush meat and Segways...’

The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo is available from amazon.com, priced 4.20USD for Kindle (29RMB).

By Mo Yan


Picked by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, former Time Out Beijing Books editor
‘Mo Yan’s fantastical, frenetic Pow! – the first of his novels to be published in English since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012 – follows Luo Xiaotong, a wildly unreliable narrator, who has grown up in a community of butchers. When we meet Xiaotong he is a man, not yet 20, consumed with a lust for flesh. It manifests itself in desire for both meat – whether pig, camel, cow or dog – and women. Mo writes with a cruel tongue. Few emerge unscathed and there is no hint of sentimentality for the Chinese countryside where the writer himself grew up. Contrasting with this bawdy subject matter is precise, poetic language, rendered here beautifully by Mo’s long-time translator, Howard Goldblatt. Mo can depict a character in the smell of their hands or the quivering of their nostril hair. Pow! was first published a decade ago in Chinese, yet its resonance remains. Above all, it brilliantly captures China in all its gruesome glory.’

Pow! is available from amazon.cn, priced 110RMB.

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