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.

National Day

This week saw National Day in China. On the 1st October 1949,  the PRC (People’s Republic of China) was established by Mao Zedong – an event which is now celebrated as a national holiday.

National Day in 2009, 60 year anniversary

National Day in 2009, 60 year anniversary

For those who do not know how modern China was established, this blog post will describe briefly how National Day came about.

The final Chinese dynasty, Qing, ended in 1911. Its replacement was what is now known as the Warlord Era.  KMT (Kuomintang) leader, Sun Yat-sen wished to see the end of this rule and replaced instead with a democracy, and he attempted to seek assistance from the international community. His appeal was rejected, and Sun Yat-sen moved to the Soviet Union for aid. The Soviet Union granted this aid to the KMT – and to the newly established (and what would soon become) Chinese Communist Party. Both parties wished to end the Warlord Era and gain control of China.

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 from cancer and his military leader, Chiang Kai-shek succeeded.

The fighting between the two parties – and their supporters – began in 1927. The KMT appeared to be stronger and secured most of the east coast of China, including the warlord’s capital in Beijing in 1928, and the KMT became recognised as leaders of China. Meanwhile, the CCP moved underground and into the countryside where they mobilised peasants and slowly began revolting – only to meet suppression from the KMT military.

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

In 1934, the CCP, led by Mao, began a retreat of 12,500km which would be known as The Long March to Shaanxi. Throughout the march they recruited support from the peasants and the poor, leading the CCP to gain mass support of the Chinese people. This event also firmly placed Mao as leader of the CCP.

The civil war was disrupted in 1937 with the second Sino-Japanese War and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The CCP, against Japanese imperialism, immediately began to fight the Japanese army. The KMT however, continued to target the CCP. This lead to compromises with the Japanese, much to the anger of the Chinese people. After the Xi’an Incident, the CCP and KMT united to fight against the Japanese. The CCP relied on guerrilla warfare, which allowed them to gain more support with the Chinese living in Japanese occupied areas.

Chiang Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-shek

After Japanese surrender to the United States, both the CCP and the KMT, who had sustained heavy losses in the second Sino-Japanese War, began peace talks with Mao Zedong meeting Chiang Kai-shek. Despite this, fighting between the two continued. The CCP now controlled almost a quarter of Chinese territory and their forces had increased dramatically. With Soviet support, and its promise of land reform – allowing peasants to free away from landlords – CCP support grew, as did its military.

The CCP was able to gain control of more territories in China, and seized several cities which gave them the military equipment they needed to advance. The civil war ended with the remaining KMT forces, along with Chiang Kai-shek fleeing to Taiwan, and Mao Zedong, on the 1st of October 1949 proclaiming victory and establishing the People’s Republic of China. Although some resistance remained, the CCP were able to control the whole of China by 1950.

If you wish to learn more about modern Chinese history, but don’t fancy reading large history text books on the subject, Rana Mitter’s  Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (2008) is a great, pocket-sized book which covers everything you need to know.


Many Chinese authors have written about this time in history (both fiction and non). I reviewed Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips, which covers from the Boxer rebellion right through until modern-day China. Other writers include: Qu Bo,  Qu Qiubai,  Su Tong, Chi Zijian and Geling Yan.

Mid-Autumn Festival

Last week was the Mid-Autumn festival (中秋节) in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong (and indeed the rest of East Asia, which is called Tsukimi in Japan and Chuseok in Korea). A public holiday for the country (and me!) and the chance to indulge in mooncake, a traditional cake made of pastry and various pastes (such as red bean. I’ve also eaten a chocolate mooncake) and often containing around 1,000 calories!



Whilst this festival is associated with the harvest season, in China at least, there is a story behind it. Here in this post I will tell you that story as it was told to me by Chinese friends.

Many thousands of years ago, there lived a young married couple who were deeply in love. The husband was great at providing food for his wife by hunting. He was so good that when ten suns appeared in the sky, causing destruction to the world, the people turned to him and asked for his help in shooting them down. He shot down 9 suns and left one in the sky to look after the earth and provide warmth.

A watching immortal fairy was impressed by his actions and went down to earth from the stars to present him with a gift. This gift was the elixir of immortal life. Not wanting to separate from his wife, he gave it to her to keep. Likewise, his wife did not want the elixir as she did not want to leave her husband.

A man was watching near by and saw the elixir. He waited patiently until the husband left to go hunting one mid-autumn afternoon. Once he’d left he approached the wife and demanded the elixir. He was imposing and threatening. Scared, the wife swallowed the elixir so the evil thief would not get it. After drinking the potion the wife became an immortal fairy, like the one who gave the gift. She flew into the sky, but she was heartbroken at having to leave her husband. To watch over him every night, she lived in the moon.


Upon returning to his home, the husband found out what had happened. He was devastated that his wife had left him, but soon realised she was watching over him from the moon. Reassured, he offered the moon her favourite cakes to say thank you.

The story captured the hearts of his fellow villagers, and soon spread all over China. On the anniversary of his wife becoming a fairy, they too offered cake and celebrated the moon.

My Chinese friends love telling stories like these (and there are a few for various holidays!). They did not remember the names of the characters, but were able to retell the essence of the story. I hope I’ve been able to pass it on to all of you!