Chinese literature: what to read and how to read it – by Brigitte Duzan

Brigitte Duzan is the dynamic webmaster of and, and has just finished organizing a Chinese film festival. She’s based in Paris, and the two websites (in French) are easy to navigate, packed with information, and written for the non-China-specialist. We invited her to tell us more about… 


When it comes to Chinese literature, the question is not only what to read, but also how to read. Reading involves both selection and appreciation, and for a foreign reader of Chinese literature, selection and appreciation can be daunting, made all the more difficult by the cultural gap, which starts with the language. was originally conceived with the specific aim of helping to bridge that gap. It started as a blog, and was based on a few key ideas, including the conviction that online publication is the most efficient, most flexible way of gradually building up what is meant to be, in a fluctuating future, a kind of literary encyclopedia – in other words, a guide to reading.

It is a selective guide, reflecting my personal readings, research, and aesthetic tastes. And it starts from two main assumptions.

Assumption no.1:    that my readers are not Chinese, and that you won’t read a Chinese book in the same way you read a book pertaining to your own culture. And that if you try to read in the same way, you may find that you lose the gist of the story, or the narrative of the non-fiction.

And yet, Chinese literature has a universal appeal, based on shared longings, sufferings, fears, simple joys, bitter frustrations, and a similar human fate. Almost everyone can sympathize with a grieving mother, a dying soldier, an elated lover, an ageing artist, or the man on the street, who might turn out to be your neighbour.

詩經 – The Book of Songs

In fact, the most ancient Chinese poems – the mostly anonymous poems of the 11th to 8th century BC in the Books of Songs (also known as the Classic of Poetry) – are, in many cases, short pieces recording the voices of the common people, who, like common people everywhere, sing of their joys and sorrows, with little hope of Heaven’s support, or the king’s benevolence.

It how those feelings are expressed that is different, that makes them unique, and individual. And the way they are expressed situates them within a culture, which in turn gives them a certain resonance. In this sense, the best Chinese literature has the same special quality as the ancient Chinese shanshui [mountain and water] paintings, landscape paintings which the literati perceived as an inner experience – something that resonates with your own feelings, deep in your heart.

Assumption no.2:     that my readers have at least some interest in China, the country and the people. And that the nature of their particular interest will direct their eventual choice from the vast array of available titles.

For this reason, it is helpful for readers to have an idea of the content and style of a book, the personality of an individual author, and the context of that author’s writing. Not only will this information help the reader choose what to read, it will also enhance the reading and make it more meaningful and enjoyable.

How to choose what to read?

First of all, choose the period that interests you: classical literature, or modern and contemporary literature. Both are a reflection of their time, but written in a totally different language – although, in translation, the difference in language may not be so apparent, given the tendency to “smooth” a text for a more enjoyable contemporary reading experience).

At first glance, focuses on modern and contemporary literature, partly because this gives the most vivid image of present-day China, but also because it is a rich period of experimentation. The experiments start with radical changes in the written language, shifting from the classical styles to the birth of the vernacular (baihua) at the end of 1910. This was a new form of expression, so much closer to spoken language, and accessible to a much broader readership than the literati of yesteryear. And the experimentation took place in the form of the short story.

鲁迅:《呐喊》 – Lu Xun’s Call to Arms

The master of short stories in the new vernacular was Lu Xun (1881-1936), who used the short story for expressing sharp social criticism. The short story form was ideal for this, as time went by and the failure of the 1911 Revolution became clearer by the day, for the increasing disillusion, grief, and qualms about the future.

But the short story was not a new form in China! Quite the opposite – the short story was the origin of fiction in China. The first stories written as fiction, found in ancient texts dating back before Christ, were labelled xiaoshuo, literally “small talk” – gossip and chatter – and, as such, they were frowned upon and despised by the literati. And in a similar way, when the first novels appeared in China in the 13th century, based on old tales and folklore, they too were frowned upon and despised by the literati.

So, when Lu Xun paved the way for the short story to become the foremost mode of expression of Chinese intellectuals of the 20th century, it was revolutionary – a revolution in literature in a time of revolution.

Skipping over history to the next major development in the short story, we come to the late 1970s. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) came to an end, and after a decade in which literature was pared down to political essentials, the opening up of literature in the 70s and 80s was a period of phenomenal creativity.

The short story – with the novella growing in its wake for narrative purposes – was again the focus of another round of fruitful experimentation. Literary movements followed one after the other throughout the 1980s, until its apex, at the end of the decade, in an avant-garde movement that was crushed not so much by the fateful events of 1989, but by a new trend, which led to the development of commercial literature in the following decade.

Writers were urged, by editors, to write novels, and they did, giving rise to an unending flow of family sagas, more or less modeled on Ba Jin’s Family (of the 1930s) or Lao She’s Four Generations Under One Roof (1949). The new sagas chronicled the fate of families in different parts of China, and usually spanned half a century from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the mid-20th century. They constitute a vivid illustration of changing ways of life in various parts of the land, and can be seen as part of a historical process far from the main events of the period as learned in history books.

The 1990s also saw the rise of novels praised by Western critics and readers for their social and political criticism, sometimes expressed in a jocular style which made them all the more attractive. These novels were some of the first Chinese literature for decades to be translated and published outside of China, and their authors became world-famous. They include the 2012 Nobel Prize winner, Mo Yan, but others equally deserving of attention, although they might not have so many of their works available in translation.

The trend continued well into the 2010s, but times are changing again. By the mid-2010s, the novel was running out of steam, and the trend is turning again toward the short story and the novella, written by young writers not so much of the riotous post 80s generation , but by those born in the 1970s, now achieving maturity and, at last, recognition. Each writer has his/her own style, but the majority of them build up a personal universe based on their individual recollections of the past, and inner feelings about the present often hidden under the sheerest veneer of cold humour.

They publish in a vast array of literary magazines all over the country. It is almost a quest is to track them down, and each discovery, often haphazard, through hearsay or tip from a critic, is a reward. The quest is made all the more difficult now that many of the best short story and novella writers have turned, in the last year or two, to a new form – the xiao xiaoshuo (the short short-story).

The xiao xiaoshuo has become the most refined, demanding style – a cross of poetry, short story and essay. It is a new way of writing, but with its own references in the past, and especially in one of the best Chinese writers of short stories ever. Pu Songling (1640-1715), active at the end of the Ming dynasty, was a man of letters who wrote in the most superb classical Chinese. His collection of short stories, Tales of the Liaozhai (Liaozhai being the name of his studio) is considered a model to this day.

This is a perfect example of the way styles and genres have evolved in China: what seems revolutionary often reflects an ancient tradition, in one way or another. For this reason, even if your main interest lies in contemporary literature, you may find that classical literature provides a useful framework – not only for the sheer pleasure of its refined poetry and fiction, but also because it offers a wealth of references and quotations.

Ancient legends, Tang dynasty poetry, and Ming and Qing dynasty novels inform Chinese literature of today in a number of ways. These are the poems and stories that Chinese children learn at school and in their private reading, the sounds, images and stories that stay with them throughout their lives and become part of their inner world.

Zhang Lu’s film Tang Poetry

For example, the film director Zhang Lü titled his first full-length feature film Tang Shi (‘Tang Poetry’) – a subtle exercise on the solace found in poetry remembered from the past in the dreariest moments in the life of a young boy. When asked about the title and subject, Zhang Lü replied instantly, as if expecting the question: because Tang poems are parts of our life, even in the most difficult moment, there is always a poem, learnt by heart, that emerges from the past, something of the nature of dreams, that borders on the subconscious.

Some stories are old legends, creation myths, or anecdotes from serious books (eg the Han Feizi), some dating all the way back to the Warring States period, when the ancient states were vying for land and power. The old stories and expressions have morphed into the everyday four-character phrases that slip seamlessly into writing today.

In this respect, the four classical novels of China are especially interesting as sources of stories that are part of the subconscious of the Chinese people. They are The Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, and All Men are Brothers); The Romance of the Three Kingdoms; The Journey to the West (also known as Monkey), and The Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as The Story of the Stone). They are fascinating stories in their own right, and they are also part of a common popular cultural subconscious that pervades writing and life.

Take, for instance, The Water Margin, a masterpiece of vernacular Chinese of the 14th century, of uncertain authorship. It is the story of a band of outlaws, wanted for crimes committed allegedly for rightful purposes, who, to avoid arrest and punishment, seek refuge in the swampy land known as the Liangshan Marshes. There they create a kind of unruly society, with its own codes of honour, fighting against a foul government. The story is based on supposedly historical events recorded during the Song dynasty (10th-12th centuries), and evolved from folk tales told by storytellers thereafter. The outlaws are known as the Liangshan heroes, and some of the stories are so famous that they are quoted for their symbolic value in literature and films, even today.

This novel is part of a rich set of collective images dating back, again, to the Warring States period: images of noble swordsmen fighting for justice and the redress of grievances (these knight-like men are known as xia), who reappear in the ever popular wuxia literature (where wu means fighting) with its swordfighting and martial arts. The setting for The Water Margin is evocative too: mention the Liangshan Marshes, or the term jianghu (rivers and lakes), and scenes of rightful rebellion and life at the margins immediately spring to mind – a subtle montage of images, ideals and personal memories.

Going back to, I try, when introducing a new author or a new work on the website, to give some information about the author, and to the background of the stories. My site is for readers, so I keep these introductions short, providing just enough, I hope, to welcome you to an author, to a story and to a culture that is so rich in literary pleasures.

For newcomers to Chinese literature, I have provided a list below – all available in English translation. But, I should point out that when it comes to English translations, Chinese short stories are under-represented. There are more translations available in French for the period of the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the awareness, then, of several publishers and translators. More recently, novels have taken precedence, with some novellas reclassified as short novels. Publishers still live with the assumption that short stories don’t sell. Book publications must therefore be supplemented by literary magazines, such as Renditions (Hong Kong), Chinese Literature and Culture (New York/Guangzhou), Chinese Arts and Letters (CAL, Nanjing), which complement translations with useful articles about the writers and their works. Chutzpah/Tiannan, launched by Ou Ning, was an invaluable source for discovering young emerging writers while it lasted; published issues, including translations, remain precious. Other publications of Chinese short stories in translation include Pathlight, Read Paper Republic, and, of course,

A final word … Chinese cinemas, from its very inception, has had close ties with literature, and this was one of the reasons why I launched a twin website to Chinese-shortstories, and called it Chinesemovies.

Recommended Reading

(1) The Old Classics

  • The Book of Songs, The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, translated from the Chinese by Arthur Waley, and edited with additional translations by Joseph R. Allen and foreword by Stephen Owen, (Grove Press, 1996).
  • How to Read a Chinese Poem: A Bilingual Anthology, by Edward Chang (BookSurge Publishing, 2007).
  • Outlaws of the Marsh, translated by Sidney Shapiro (Foreign Languages Press, Library of Chinese Classics, bilingual ed., 1999), 5 vols.
  • Three Kingdoms: a Historical Novel, att. to Luo Guanzhong, unabridged edition translated by Moss Roberts (University of California Press, 2004), 2 vols.
  • Journey to the West, att. to Wu Cheng’en, revised edition (initially published 1983), fully translated and edited by Anthony C. Yu (University of Chicago Press, 2012), 3 vols.
  • The Story of the Stone, or Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford (Penguin Classics, 1974 onwards), 5 vols.
  • Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling (first published in 1766), 104 stories translated by John Minford (Penguin Classics 2006).

(2) Modern Classics

  • Lu Xun, The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun (1918-1935), translated by Julia Lovell (Penguin Classics, 2009) – collection of short stories, including ‘Diary of a Madman’, ‘Kong Yiji’ and other stories of Call to Arms (Nahan), and stories from Old Tales Retold.
  • Ba Jin, Family (1931), novel translated by Olga Lang, with a long preface written by the translator (Doubleday & Co, 1972; reprinted 1979).
  • Mao Dun, The Shop of the Lin Family & Spring Silkworms (Bilingual Series in Modern Chinese Literature) (1932), translated by Sidney Shapiro (Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2001; reprinted 2003).
  • Shen Congwen, Border Town (1934), translated by Jeffrey C. Kinkley (Harper Perennial, 2009).
  • Lao She, Rickshaw Boy (1936), translated by Howard Goldblatt (Harper Perennial 2010).
  • Zhang Ailing/Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City (1943), translated by Karen S. Kingsbury (New York Review Books Classics, 2006).

(3) Contemporary Classics


  • Wang Meng, The Bolshevik Salute (1979), a “modernist Chinese novel”, translated by Wendy Larson (University of Washington Press, 1989).
  • Mo Yan, Red Sorghum (1986), translated by Howard Goldblatt (Penguin Books, 1993).
  •  Jia Pingwa, Ruined City (1993), translated by Howard Goldblatt (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016).
  • Yu Hua, To Live (1993), translated by Michael Berry (Anchor, 2003).
  • Wang Anyi, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan (Columbia University Press, 2010).
  • Bi Feiyu, The Moon Opera (2000), translated by Howard Goldblatt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).
  • Yan Lianke, Dream of Ding Village (2005), translated by Cindy Carter (Grove Press, 2011).

Short stories and novellas

  • Wang Anyi, Love on a Barren Mountain (1987), novella translated by Eva Hung (Renditions Paperbacks, 1991) (1st part of a “love trilogy”).
  • Han Shaogong, Homecoming? and other stories [including PaPaPa (1985) and WomanWomanWoman (1986)], four short stories translated by Martha Cheung (Renditions Paperbacks, 1992).
  • Ge Fei, Flock of Brown Birds (1989), translated by Poppy Toland, with a preface by Ge Fei (Penguin Specials, 2016).
  • Ah Cheng, Three Novellas: King of Trees, King of Chess, King of Children (1984, 1985), translated by Bonnie S. MacDougall (New Directions 1990/2010).
  • Liu Xinwu, Black Walls and other stories, ed. by Don J. Cohn (Renditions Paperbacks, 1990).
  • The Time Is Not Yet Ripe, Contemporary China’s Best Writers and Their Stories, ed. by Ying Bian (Foreign Language Press, Beijing 1991). (Ten short stories of the 1980’s with introductions by Gladys Yang, Li Jun and others).
  • Su Tong, Madwoman on the Bridge, 14 short stories translated by Josh Sternberg (Black Swan, 2008).

[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic collaboration, Feb 2017]

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