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.