With a continuous culture that has flourished for nearly 4,000 years, China — officially known as the People’s Republic of China — is one of the world’s most storied and fascinating countries. For much of its history, the country was extraordinarily insular, and to a degree, remains so today. Yet, in recent years, China’s growing military, position as the world’s most populous nation, and increasingly relevant economy have ushered China onto a global stage as a rising player in world affairs. Despite its seemingly exponential prevalence, China remains something of a mystery for many. It is a communist nation, and maintains close ties with North Korea. The Chinese have once again found themselves under the rule of an apparently autocratic regime as President Xi Jinping has positioned himself as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, and will remain in office indefinitely. And, of course, there’s the infamous Great Firewall, which allows the Chinese Government to keep a stranglehold on the information received by the Chinese people.
Despite all of this — and the decades of brutal repression under Mao Zedong — China has maintained a flourishing and robust literary community, particularly in terms of contemporary literature. Moreover, the United States has a unique — and sometimes troubling — relationship with Chinese immigrants, one that has proven to be powerful inspiration for a host of Chinese-American authors. The novels below — all written by Chinese or Chinese-American authors — should provide a better understanding of both the experience and the impact of Chinese-American immigrants, as well as the culture of China itself.
A Novel (Penguin Orange Collection)
The Joy Luck Club is a classic exploration of the Chinese-American immigrant experience, as well as of the love and tension between mothers and daughters. The story centers around four Chinese women, all immigrants to San Francisco, and their weekly meetings for dim sum and mahjong. Amy Tan, whose parents were Chinese immigrants, gives a fascinating examination of the inner lives of these women.
A Novel of China
Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, and Red Sorghum is one of her finest novels. It is a tale of love and resistance in China during the late 1930’s. Spanning three generations, Red Sorghum is told through a series of flashbacks, and chronicles the travails of a rural family against the backdrop of the brutal fighting with the Japanese during that period.
Brothers is a sprawling black comedy set against forty years of Chinese history. The story centers around two step brothers — one is sex-obsessed and wild, the other bookish and gentle. The novel charts a tempestuous period of Chinese history, from the Cultural Revolution to the present, through the prism of the brothers’ relationship.
Mambo in Chinatown examines the experiences of a first generation Chinese-American woman in New York’s Chinatown. Born to a Beijing ballerina and a noodle-maker, Charlie’s life has long been limited to a tiny apartment, shared with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister. When she becomes the receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, her natural dancing ability soon emerges, forcing her to balance a life in between worlds.
Mai Jia Translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne
This bestselling Chinese thriller centers on a top-secret Chinese intelligence agency working in counterespionage and code breaking. It follows Rong Jinzhen, an autistic mathematician, who is recruited into the agency. Filled with betrayals, mystery, and double crosses, Decoded melds the classic spy thriller with a fascinating character study, and elements of a classic Chinese fable.
Gene Luen Yang
This modern fable intertwines the stories of three seemingly disparate characters — Jin wang, a young Chinese-American student at a news school; the Monkey King, a character in one of China’s greatest fables; and Chin-kee, a walking stereotype whose yearly visits make his cousin Danny miserable. This skillfully crafted graphic novel was a 2006 finalist for the National Book Award.
Set in China in the late 1970’s, The Vagrants weaves together the stories of a number of characters, some disparate and others interconnected, against the backdrop of a China held under the sway of Communism and the regime of Mao Zedong. It is a sweeping tale of struggle, oppression, and survival during a defining period in modern Chinese history.
This award-winning Chinese novel is a difficult but fascinating novel. It is an exploration of violence and despair, lifted by the authenticity of the author, a former policeman. The novel follows a young high school student in a rural Chinese province who inexplicably and brutally murders his only friend. What follows is a bracing examination of a remorseless and nihilistic killer that is equal parts mesmerizing and terrifying.
Peter Ho Davies
This fascinating novel charts American history through the lives of four Chinese immigrants — a valet to a railroad baron, Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star, a hate-crime victim whose death mobilizes the Asian American community, and a biracial writer visiting China for an adoption. Spanning a century’s worth of history, The Fortunes is a stunning examination of the experiences and impact of Chinese immigrants.
With Waiting, Chinese-American author Ha Jin explores the tensions that arose between the New China of the Cultural Revolution and the ancient traditions of Chinese society through the prism of a doctor torn between his love for two women. The novel is a powerful examination of the conflict between the individual and society, all told through Ha Jin’s poetic and powerful prose.