Tuesday, October 1, 2013

National Day: Books About Modern China

On this day in 1949, Chairman Mao declared the founding of the People's Republic of China, so this is Chinese National Day!


Subway Girl by PJ Converse. Simon is failing English--something that's a problem at home, at school, and when he gets up the nerve to talk to the girl he sees on the subway. Amy is Chinese-American and doesn't speak Chinese, but Amy and Simon have a connection-- if their secrets won't get in the way. A love story about two lost kids in contemporary Hong Kong.

Beijing Doll by Chun Su, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Written when she was in her late teens, this autobiographical novel tells of what happens when Chun Su fails her high school exams and instead wanders the streets living a life full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Not a great piece of literature, but an interesting look at the disaffected middle-class youth of urban China.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang. Chang follows several young migrant workers from rural China to factory life in Dongguan. Here they make friends, live on their own, try to better themselves, and are always looking for the next best job. Written for adults, teens will be fascinated by this story of where their stuff comes from and how teens live on the other side of the world.


Chenxi and the Foreigner by Sally Rippin. After high school, before college, Anna moves to Shanghai to live with her expat father. In 1988, foreigners and Chinese live very different, very separate lives, but Anna's romance with a Chinese student brings the two worlds together. However, Anna's foreigner status also draws official attention to Chenxi, his art, and his politics--a devastating thing in the lead up to 1989.

Candy by Mian Mian, translated from the Chinese by Andrea Lingenfelter. Hong drops out of school and drifts between her hometown of Shanghai and the Special Economic Zones in the south, dealing with the gritty Wild West underbelly of China's economic boom in late 80s/early 90s. It's a harsh look, with some poignant writing about how hard China's massive changes are on people.

The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl by Ma Yan, edited by Pierre Haski, translated from the French by Lisa Appignanesi, originally translated from the Mandarin by He Yanping. Ma Yan is 13 and just wants to go to school, but her family lives in backbreaking poverty and she's often pulled out so her brothers can attend-- her family can't afford tuition for all their children. Most striking is when this book takes place-- the late 1990s. China's economic boom is a thing to behold-- but it hasn't hit the entirety of the country.


A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts: A Collection of Deliciously Frightening Tales by Ying Chang Compenstine. This book isn't just Imperial China. A collection of short and gruesome ghost stories that tend to feature revenge from beyond the grave, this book spans most of Chinese history. Each story comes with a historic note and recipe. The stories are not for the faint-hearted, but everyone should try the recipes-- Compenstine has written several cookbooks.

A Girl Named Faithful Plum: The True Story of a Dancer from China and How She Achieved Her Dream by Richard Bernstein. Lei Zhongmei grew up in a poor, northern village and studied at the Beijing Dance Academy. Her village sacrificed everything just to get her to the auditions. Once there, students and teachers treat her with cruel prejudice for being a bumpkin with no connections. To prove to herself and her doubting family that it was worth it, she has to find a way to succeed. This book focuses mainly on dance, but does offer a rare glimpse into post-Mao, pre-Tiananmen Chinese life and society. I also love the scenes in train stations as she makes her way home on school breaks.

Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China During the Cultural Revolution by Moying Yi. Yi’s autobiography of her Beijing childhood starts with China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and quickly moves through the Great Famine to the Cultural Revolution. The narrative focuses more on Li’s personal story and, with the exception of the death of Zhou Enlai, the history and politics are only brought into play when explanation is needed.

What are your must-reads about the People's Republic of China?

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