Soul Mountain

I have never read a book quite like Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. Gao was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, yet within China at least, is unheard of.

Soul Mountain contains everything a Nobel Prize winning book should have. It’s packed full of vivid description, has political undertones, it comments on society, on history and on Chinese culture. It’s narrative is unconventional. You follow ‘you’ (who is male), ‘I’ (the author) and their interactions with ‘he’ and ‘she’ as they travel through rural China.

Soul Mountain
Soul Mountain shows China at a crossroads. It highlights how Chinese values are being forgotten due to economic development and politics. The most captivating chapters, for me, were the ones in which ‘I’ visits national parks; wildlife conservation areas which are the last stronghold for pandas. Another great chapter was the touring of Shaoxing. I lived in Shaoxing and had the same experiences, yet I was still able to learn new things about the city.

Gao Xingjian captures a beautiful, but tragic, China. Despite this however, I did not *enjoy* Soul Mountain. But you do not need to enjoy the novel in order to appreciate it. Soul Mountain is definitely a novel to read, particularly if you want an insight into a rapidly changing China.

Zhang Tianyi: Mid-Autumn Festival

Zhang Tianyi’s Mid-Autumn Festival is a short story which presents critical and satirical observations of events to contribute towards the discussion of Chinese society in early 20th Century China.

Author Zhang Tianyi

Author Zhang Tianyi

The story centres around a family meal during the traditional mid-autumn festival, where protagonist Kui Daye interrogates characters and society who are of a lower social class to himself – including his relative, Third Uncle. The rants and ravings of Kui Daye turn this celebratory meal into a cruel, yet humorous, event.

The characters are caricatures: extremely exaggerated, along with the plot, narrative and descriptions with funny results. All of this highlights the social injustices which littered Chinese society at the time. Only the character of the Third Uncle is represented with gentility.

Kui Daye is a cruel landlord who constantly rants about the lower classes and his tenants through intentionally funny dialogue. Due to their entertaining nature, the audience neither agrees or disagrees with the character’s views, instead appreciate Zhang’s mocking of Chinese society.  As Kui mocks the lower classes, Zhang mocks Kui through the narrative, like the physical description of Kui’s appearance being compared to an upright, dwarfish jar.

Whilst the character of Third Uncle is portrayed with grace, patiently withstanding Kui’s cruel remarks for being a peasant, he is also portrayed as a coward – unable to stand up for himself or fellow peasants who come to pay their landlord respects during the festival. Zhang makes it clear that the character is clearly restricted by the then rigid structures of Chinese society – to honour family and those above him.

Through Mid-Autumn Festival, Zhang mocks society through juxtapositions of society’s social structures and their behaviour. For example, the expletives which litter Kui’s dialogue which contrast with his high social status. All of the narrative techniques combined create a politically driven short story which reflects the political leanings of the author and the need for social change, a change which occurred not long after in China. This short story is a must read for those interested in the political and social conflict of 1920s and ’30s China.

Mid-Autumn Festival by Zhang Tianyi can be found in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, published by Columbia University Press.

columbia anthology

Journey to the West

Journey to the West (also known as Monkey) by Wu Ch’eng-En is one of my favourite novels. Many will be familiar with the 1970s Japanese television programme Monkey. The TV show has a cult appeal, and the novel shows exactly why this is.

journey to the west

The original classical Chinese novel is incredibly long, made up of many stories and chapters. The English translation by Arthur Waley is a condensed version. He translated around 30 of the key stories into English to make the novel, as well as renaming the  central characters: Su Wukong became Monkey; Xuanzang, Tripitika; Zhu Bajie, Pigsy; and Sha Wujing, Sandy. Whilst this may be seen as ‘ruining’ the original novel, Waley has made Journey to the West accessible to English readers and was able to keep the original fun, witty and allegorical feel of the novel.

Journey to the West tells the story of Monkey, from the moment he was born from an egg, to when he caused Lao Tzu mischief up in heaven, to being rescued by Prince Tripitaka and the subsequent adventures when he, Pigsy, Sandy and Tripitaka embarked on a journey to collect Buddhist scriptures. On the journey the group helped those they met, fought demons and most importantly, learnt valuable lessons about religion, society and life.

Still from the 1970s TV show, Monkey Magic

Still from the 1970s TV show, Monkey

Many of the adventures will be familiar to those who watched the TV show. The novel was  witty and fun, and readers of all ages would enjoy it. It’s fast paced and an easy read. Yet, it is also deeply philosophical and gives insight into Buddhism and Taoism. There is a development of characters, the building of relationships and achieving enlightenment as the novel progresses.

Journey to the West, was ahead of its time, and Waley has ensured that it is still a great bit of classical literature. The writing is great, and the author has managed to tell a story with comedy, adventure, fantasy and philosophy and make it completely timeless. It contains messages of anti-violence and teaches the importance of solving situations with discussion, logic and intellect – ideas which are still encouraged and taught today.

For those who haven’t read any classical Chinese literature, I highly recommend Journey to the West as a starting point.

Shanghai Baby

 shanghai baby

Shanghai Baby, the controversial novel by Chinese author Zhou Weihui, depicts the glamorous life of Coco (named after Coco Chanel, and based upon the author) – a character who loves shopping, smoking, drinking, and exploring her sexuality. The novel is packed with all the ‘taboos’, such as sex and marital affairs, which offers an insight into contemporary Chinese society for women (as well as acting as a tour guide of all the ”cool” places to eat and shop in Shanghai).

The writing style reflects the character of Coco – it’s basic, has a ‘teenager’ feel, and it’s not very mature. The themes also reflect this: sex, sexuality and becoming aware of one’s self – all of which fit in with young adult and teen fiction. Aside from the obvious, in this case sex which is everywhere in the novel, the book also shows the rapid commercialisation and modernisation of China and its consequences.

Many may argue whether it does reflect the ‘real’ modern China. Living in a very affluent and traditional Chinese city myself, I can see the similarities between Coco’s life and the life of many young Chinese women today. Life to them has three important areas: 1) making money, 2) spending money, 3) having a boyfriend. Note I said boyfriend and not husband; there is certainly an element of ‘try before you buy’ when it comes to modern Chinese women and relationships.

Author Zhou Weihui

Author Zhou Weihui

Obviously, I cannot speak for all Chinese women. The many Chinese women from various parts of China who I have met however, all describe the life of women in Shanghai as being the same as that described in Shanghai Baby. Many openly criticise this, and Shanghai, exclaiming that they hate the city because it’s too ‘Western’ and not ‘Chinese’. These women criticised the women of Shanghai whilst playing on their new iPhones, discussing sex, and describing dreams of moving to the US, Canada, UK and other western countries – embracing ‘modernisation’. Whether they realise it or not, a lot of these women are Coco.

Shanghai Baby‘s sequel, Marrying Buddha, is a lot more mature in terms of writing and themes. There’s still a lot of sex and commercialisation, but the novel feels a lot more ‘adult’ and empowering. Coco is no longer passive and one-dimensional (how I feel she was in Shanghai Baby). Instead, she is much more well-rounded.

marrying buddha

There is also more of an embrace of traditional Chinese culture in the novel too, with Coco spending vast amounts of time in Buddhist temples conversing with monks – informing the reader, and possibly modern China, that modernisation doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning traditions and one’s spiritual self.

Many will say Shanghai Baby empowers women because Coco explores her sexuality. But, she is rarely in control and is passive, being influenced by those around her. Marrying Buddha is  empowering. Coco takes control of her life (although sometimes is still influenced by men), and by the end of the novel she is a strong, powerful woman.

Marrying Buddha, like Shanghai Baby also breaks ‘taboos’, for example, it embraces the Japanese. A lot of modern Chinese people – again, not all – still have contempt for the Japanese due to the history of the two nations (the rape of Nanjing plays a huge part in this feeling, as does continuous territorial disputes over islands). Coco however falls in love with a Japanese man, one who is able to detox and renew her spirit. To the modern Chinese, this may be seen as a betrayal but it does reflect an attitude which needs to be addressed. Coco doesn’t dictate her life and feelings by Chinese history, an idea which contemporary Chinese society is coming to grips with. Indeed, there’s a growing number of Chinese who are embracing the Japanese, but equally there are those who still openly hate the Japanese.

Whilst these are not my favourite Chinese novels, they are definitely novels worth reading for a depiction of modern China.

Oe Kenzaburo and Mo Yan: A Comparison

“The Nobel Prize in Literature 1994 was awarded to Kenzaburo Oe “who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today”.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2012 was awarded to Mo Yan “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”.”

Mo Yan and Oe Kenzaburo

Mo Yan and Oe Kenzaburo

Oe Kenzaburo has to be one of my favourite authors. I have yet to read a piece of his work I have not liked. Over the last few years, I have also discovered Mo Yan, who like Oe, creates addictive, high-quality literature. Both authors have won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Oe in 1994, Yan in 2012) and in many ways both authors write with the same techniques, on the same themes, with the same purpose. Comparisons between the two can be made, and this is exactly what I have done.


Relationships form a major part of both authors’ works. As Oe developed as a writer, he shifted his focus from writing about politics and society to that of relationships and his family; the birth of his disabled son Hikari, being a major influence in his work. It is said that he wanted to give Hikari a voice that otherwise he would not be allowed to have. Similarly, Mo Yan also addresses relationships: between family, friends and society.

Teaching Us to Outgrow Our Madness examines family relationships and personal identity. The story follows a young disabled child, Eeyore, and his father who is only addressed as ‘the Fat man’. It is made apparent that the father – son relationship is more than a ‘normal’ family relationship, instead of being loving; ‘the Fat man’ is rather obsessive and needy. The father relies on his son to live. The relationship is interdependent and intense. The ‘Fat man’ – has an emotional greed which is shown through his physically through his appearance as well as through the narrative, allowing the reader to truly understand this obsessive gluttony.

This interdependent greed is also seen in Mo Yan’s work. Big Breasts and Wide Hips, an epic novel following the struggles of Shangguan Lu throughout her life, living through the Japanese occupation, Chinese civil war, the Mao years and present-day China. Shangguan Lu has seven children during this time, only one of which is a son. Initially, it is Shangguan with the obsessive relationship with her son – only feeding him and not his twin sister her breast milk and caring for him in a way which she never cared for her daughters. It soon becomes clear however, that Shangguan Lu is not interdependent upon Jintong: Lu is a strong, powerful woman and she would have still been strong and powerful regardless of giving birth to a son. Jintong is instead incredibly interdependent upon his mother. He becomes obsessed with her breast milk, and as a result will eat or drink nothing else (when his mother refuses he turns to other women, and soon becomes addicted to breasts in general, even dreaming about them). This greed continues throughout his childhood and into his adult life. He is at the mercy of women who are able to breastfeed, and his mother. Jingtong is a completely weak character who does not function outside of drinking breast milk.

The Grotesque

The grotesque plays a large role in Oe’s work. If anything, I believe it is what defines him as an author. You will find examples of grotesque imagery from his earlier works, like Prize Stock, to his recently translated The Changeling. Oe uses the grotesque to provide a graphic social commentary, whether political – as in the case of Prize Stock – or the heart of Japanese society.  In Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, shocking, grotesque imagery is the main literary device used to convey the narrative, the only chapter where it is less apparent; the abandoned children create their own utopia in which everyone is equal. The contrast between war-time Japanese society, brutal and cruel, with what Japanese society should be like during war – peaceful, caring where everyone looks after one another – is made ever more apparent by this chapter.

Likewise, in Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine, paints a graphic and often grotesque image of feasting. Often amusing, but very nauseating, the imagery creates a different perspective of Chinese society which we are not often exposed to. The gluttony of China contrasts with its harrowed past full of war, famine and social unrest. The grotesque cannibalism – the eating of baby boys – combined with the satirical narrative, presents an image of China in which the basics are forgotten: the family, particularly those who are vulnerable in Chinese society. Children are sacrificed to fulfill the adults’ greed and lust for the ‘good things’ in life which come with new found prosperity.


Both authors experiment with narration in their novels, resulting in a personal approach as the story unwinds. Oe Kenzaburo’s The Changeling, for example, is told from the point of view of Kogito as he comes to terms with his best friend’s death. This approach allows Oe to delve deeply into the psyche of the character, seeing his innermost thoughts. Like in other works, Kogito represents Oe himself and within The Changeling, Oe discusses his own life and role in contemporary Japanese society and debates whether or not he has a role to play.

In Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Mo Yan also explores the first person narration to give a unique description of the goings on in Chinese society. You encounter the world through Jintong’s (and occasionally Shangguan Lu’s) eyes. It’s from this perspective you learn about the harshness of Chinese life, about death, destruction and, importantly – at least from Jintong’s point of view – sex. You are able to see the harshness of Chinese life from their view, experience it through their eyes, allowing Mo Yan’s social commentary to be ever stronger.

Interestingly, both novels are not told from the point of view of a typical ‘hero’. Both characters are weak and passive, reacting only when they are told to react. Kogito in The Changeling is often depressed and reflective – his mind caught up in the past and the possible future – rather than the now. Jintong in comparison, whilst living solely in the present, is such a weak character through his obsessive persona, he needs the women around him, the women who feed his obsession, to live. It’s these women who drive the novel forwards, if it was up to Jintong, Big Breasts and Wide Hips would just be a novel about a boy’s obsession with breasts.


Both authors use their work as an opportunity to reflect on contemporary society, warts and all. Both are judgmental about the society in which they live in. In Oe’s work this is more apparent in his earlier novels before he turned to focus on the family. Nevertheless, all of Oe’s characters are striving for individual freedom outside of a limiting, claustrophobic Japanese society. The characters often achieve that freedom, sometimes literally, as in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, or psychologically, as in The Changeling. Oe shows that there is a way of escaping the clutches of Japanese society and return to what society should be about: family, supporting one another, and individual freedom psychologically.

Mo Yan’s work, like Oe, is often a blunt attack on society. Likewise, Mo Yan presents the importance of protecting the vulnerable, the family unit, as in The Republic of Wine. Big Breasts and Wide Hips, takes this one step further by presenting a China which its men, who perceive themselves as being dominant, needing to feed off women (sometimes literally) in order to survive. The novel highlights the weakness of men in Chinese society, and the power of women. It’s the women who keep going when war breaks out, when famines drive families to desperation. Yet it’s these women who are not appreciated, instead mistreated, by the very men in which they feed.

A short blog is not enough to truly understand the works of Mo Yan and Oe Kenzaburo. To experience their work and understand why they are such great and powerful authors, you need to engulf yourself with their work and become a part of their world. I hope I have been able to explain why both authors are similar, what makes them stand out amongst other literary works, and why both truly deserve the Nobel Prize for literature.