The countdown of the best Chinese works of nonfiction, as voted by Time Out's expert literary panel - entries 5-2
5 Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962
Yang Jisheng, 2007
Chinese name 墓碑 中國六十年代大饑荒紀實
Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng, whose foster father died of hunger in 1959, estimates 36 million people lost their lives to China’s great famine – more than 450 times the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki and more than the number of people killed in the First World War.
His account of the shockingly grim realities of 1959-62, which were hushed up by authorities for decades after, was painstakingly researched using the interview transcripts of hundreds of survivors, some of whom lived by eating human flesh. In 2010, in an interview with the journalist Ian Johnson, Yang remarked that he views the famine ‘as part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time. The chief culprit was Mao.’ This is a story that must never be forgotten.
Important in so many ways and based on a lifetime of research. Surprisingly readable despite its forensic nature
Jo Lusby Managing Director, Penguin Random House North Asia
Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 is available from Amazon.co.uk priced from 70RMB
4 River Town
Peter Hessler, 2006
Chinese name 江城
Today, Peter Hessler is a correspondent for The New Yorker, but back in 1996 he was an English teacher, working for the American Peace Corps in the then-remote town of Fuling, Sichuan province. Hessler, whose wife Leslie T Chang also appears on this list (see below), stayed for two years, turning his experience into one of the most entertaining and heart-warming accounts of teaching in China.
Charming and hopeful, this book practically started a new sub-genre of China travelogues and business books, of which there are now hundreds. Nevertheless, Hessler’s story endures more than most.
River Town is available in Chinese and English from Amazon.cn priced at 130RMB.
3 Midnight in Peking
Paul French, 2012
Chinese name 午夜北平
Shanghai-based writer Paul French’s work of crime fiction has become one of the bestselling expatriate authored books in China. Subtitled ‘How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China’, the book digs up one of Beijing’s most gruesome mysteries – that of Pamela Werner, who was found on Russian Christmas in 1937 with her heart ripped out of her chest.
Through tireless research of contemporary and subsequent correspondence, police reports and newspaper clippings that took him as far afield as Kew in London, the author whittled down a list of suspects in an attempt to close the case.
Midnight in Peking captures the imaginations of modern émigré fascinated by the experiences of their forebears, with all the page turn-ability of a Ruth Rendell mystery. It’s no surprise then to hear rumours of it being turned into a TV drama.
Midnight in Peking is available in Chinese from Amazon.cn priced at 24RMB, or in English at Amazon.co.uk priced at 65RMB
2 Factory Girls: Voices From the Heart of Modern China
Leslie T Chang, 2008
Chinese name 打工女孩: 从乡村到城市的变动中国
Factory Girls was the first book to actually go into the dormitories and factory floors of China’s migrant workers. When American-Chinese journalist Leslie T Chang visited the Pearl River Delta factory city of Dongguan in 2004 for an article documenting the lives of Wu Chunming and Lu Qingmin, two migrant workers who were born to poor farming families, she decided to turn their story into something more.
The resulting book follows their lives over a period of three years and includes the author’s own family history of migration within China and to the West, adding a personal touch. At the time, Factory Girls lifted the lid on the so-called ‘factory of the world’, sparking numerous revelations and raising awareness about workers’ conditions. It went on to become one of The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2008 and also received the 2009 PEN USA Literary Award for Research Nonfiction and the Asian American Literary Award for Nonfiction.
Factory Girls is a masterclass in reportage and the power of applying patience, sensitivity and trust when researching a topic.
It remains pertinent, and it is interesting to me that readers are still discovering this book, asking me if I've read it, as if it had only been published yesterday. This just shows how much catching up there is to do.
Kelly Falconer Founder, Asia Literary Agency
Factory Girls is available in Chinese and English from Amazon.cn priced at 76RMB.