The countdown of the best Chinese works of fiction, as voted by Time Out's expert literary panel - entries 5-2
5 Fortress Besieged
Qian Zhongshu, 1947
Chinese name 围城
‘Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside wanted to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.’ This wry line, borrowed from a French proverb, is the opening sentence and basis of Qian Zhongshu’s 1947 novel. The book’s original name, Wei Cheng, has since become a popular byword for a stifling marriage in China.
The novel opens with the main character, Fang Hongjian, returning to China with a fake degree as the sole result of his ‘studies’ overseas. After a stint in Shanghai, he takes a teaching position in rural China. Things then take a turn for the worse when he loses his job and falls into a disastrous marriage. Caught between two eras, Fortress Besieged is the story of a man who ultimately gets crushed by the metaphorical fortress walls, ‘not with a bang, but with a whimper’.
Liberally seasoned with witty asides, [Fortress Besieged]’s ironic take on middle class effeteness remains popular to this day.
Harvey Thomlinson Founder, Make-Do Publishing Studio
Fortress Besieged is available from Amazon.cn priced at 49.40RMB.
4 Red Sorghum
Mo Yan, 1986
Chinese name 红高粱家族
When Mo Yan collected his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, the Swedish Academy cited Red Sorghum as one of his most important works. Thanks to Zhang Yimou’s 1988 film adaptation, it is also the author’s most commercially successful.
Set in a small village in 1930s Shandong province during the bloody Second Sino-Japanese War, the book chronicles three generations of family history in a turbulent era of battling warlords and lost fortunes. Through a series of vivid, often violent flashbacks, a nameless narrator introduces us to a hard-boiled wartime peasant existence.
Red Sorghum is a dark book – death pervades every scene, from the corpse-eating wild dogs that stalk the brigade, to the bloodied estuaries that supply the village water – but it is lifted by Mo’s poetic style and lightness of touch. A brilliant introduction to one of China’s most famous writers and his signature style, ‘hallucinatory realism’.
Red Sorghum is available from Amazon.cn priced at 95.90RMB
3 Love in a Fallen City
Eileen Chang, 1944
Chinese name 傾城之戀
This year marks 20 years since the death of Eileen Chang, arguably China’s most influential female writer. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang moved to Hong Kong to study before returning here just before Japanese troops invaded in 1937.
The two cities of Chang’s youth form the backdrop to Love in a Fallen City. Set in the 1940s, the plot follows Bai Liusu, an introverted divorcee who has recently broken free of an unhappy marriage but is largely shunned by her judgemental family for doing so. When a charming Malaysian businessman passes through town, Bai starts to feel there might be a way out.
The book echoes Chang’s own tragic personal life – she married twice, divorcing her first husband, a Japanese collaborator and philanderer, in 1947 – and the author’s observations perfectly capture the tensions and excesses of colonial Hong Kong and pre-1949 Shanghai.
The motifs of Eileen Chang’s stories – the cigarettes and cheong-sams – may have been dulled by their appearance in endless TV historical soap operas, but the style of her prose and the way she depicts relationships remain sharp and precise
Dave Haysom Literary translator and co-editor, Pathlight
Love in a Fallen City is available from Amazon.cn priced at 62.80RMB
2 To Live
Yu Hua, 1993
Chinese name 活着
To Live – another book on our list that was famously adapted into a film by Zhang Yimou – follows the fight for survival of Xu Fugui, the once lazy and rich son of a country landlord, from before the founding of the People's Republic until the dying days of the Cultural Revolution. With the pathos of a Greek tragedy, it delivers a vivid rendering of Chinese life pre- and post-Cultural Revolution and upon publication announced Yu Hua as a master of his craft.
Yu’s unromantic worldview is partly a result of his upbringing during the Cultural Revolution. But in this novel, resilience and pragmatism rise to meet despair. It’s a veiled criticism of the Maoist era and a testament to the power of human endurance.
To Live is available from Amazon.cn priced at 103RMB
Yu Hua also appears in our list of the top 40 Chinese non-fiction books. Read more