We all know that China is the nation on everyone’s lips this century. Whether you’re into politics, trade, economics, cinema, travel, history, fashion, whatever your passion, China is a colossal talking point. But China is also flourishing in the realm of literature in translation. Chinese novels are some of the most ground-breaking and exciting books around right now.
The politics of literature in China is fascinating. For example, Chinese science fiction novels are pushing boundaries and standing head-and-shoulders above all other sci-fi right now, and yet there’s a law in China that forbids time travel in any Chinese fiction. Time travel movies don’t even make it to Chinese cinemas. Beyond that, several of the authors on this list of Chinese novels are actually in exile, living in the UK or US.
Read More: 5 Books to Read Before you Visit China
Politics aside, Chinese novels in translation are having something of a golden age right now, with some incredible wuxia novels (martial arts fantasy books), Chinese sci-fi, and earth-shattering Chinese literary fiction for readers to lose themselves in and be forever changed by. Here are ten of the very best Chinese novels in translation right now.
The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke
Translated by Carlos Rojas
One of the newest Chinese novels to feature on this list is also one of Yan Lianke’s best. If you’ve never read Yan Lianke before, he’s considered by many (myself included) to be China’s best living novelist. Originally from Henan in central China and now living in Beijing, Yan has been often cited as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Yan’s novels are heavily political and satirical in theme, meaning that many of them are officially banned in his home country. This makes those of us reading these Chinese novels in translation very lucky indeed!
The Day the Sun Died is, like his other books, a political stab at the rhetoric of the Chinese government. In it, residents of a small village begin to rise from their beds after dark and return to their daily duties, all of them in a state of sleepwalking. Young Li Niannian watches on in horror as his family and neighbours all work mindlessly through the night before everything descents into chaos.
This fantastic Chinese novel cynically pulls apart the philosophy and of the ‘Chinese Dream’ and takes it to both a logical and an absurd extreme. Despite how new it is, The Day the Sun Died is still one of the best Chinese novels on the shelves today.
Read More: Our full review of The Day the Sun Died
The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
I’ve talked at length about the power of Yiyun Li’s command over language. Her two most recent books, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life and Where Reasons End are some of the most affecting and truly life-changing books I’ve ever touched.
What’s unique about Li isn’t just her sheer command over language but also the fact that she actually writes exclusively in English, her second language. Li is a writer in exile, living permanently in the US. As she explains in Dear Friend, she has abandoned the Chinese language completely and so all of her fiction and non-fiction is written in English. Despite this, Li is still a Chinese writer and so, of course, her most famous work is on this list of Chinese novels.
The Vagrants is based on a true story from 1970s China. In this tragic Chinese novel, a 28-year-old woman who has just survived ten years of a prison sentence has now been sentenced to death for her loss of faith in Chinese Communism. Following her death, we see the ripples it causes within her local community.
Legends of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong
Translated by Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang
Wuxia novels are a very special, very unique kind of book. If you don’t know what wuxia novels are, they’re kind of China’s answer to high fantasy novels. In fact, this series of wuxia novels, Legends of the Condor Heroes, was called by many the Chinese Lord of the Rings.
Wuxia literally means martial heroes, and wuxia novels are epic stories of martial arts heroes heading out on grand adventures across the endless landscape of China and fighting with near mystical martial arts strength. These Chinese novels inspired films like House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Legends of the Condor Heroes isn’t yet finished. As of right now, two volumes are out in English, with a third to be released imminently. The first and third volumes of this enormous epic series of Chinese novels are translated by Anna Holmwood, with the second translayed by Gigi Chang. Both translators expertly capture the campy, thrilling, adventurous scope and atmosphere of this pinnacle series of wuxia novels.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Translated by Ken Liu
If there’s one specific genre of Chinese novels in translation that is exploding right now, it’s Chinese science fiction. Sci-fi authors in China approach the concept of speculative fiction in a near revolutionary way. If you’d rather a short story collection to prove this point, rather than a novel, check out Broken Stars, edited by the mighty translator and novelist Ken Liu.
In this space of Chinese sci-fi, the author most revered is unquestionably Cixin Liu, whose books are also translated by Ken Liu. Cixin Liu wrote the short story Wandering Earth which was recently adapted into a sweeping epic of a Netflix movie.
The Three Body Problem is the first in a trilogy of Chinese novels, followed by The Dark Forest and Death’s End. The Three Body Problem, which became one of the best-selling Chinese novels in translation after it was praise by Barrack Obama, is an alternative history novel that begins in 1967 before jumping to the present day and a strange but wonderfully realised virtual world.
Read More: Our review of The Three Body Problem
Red Sorghum by Mo Yan
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
Mo Yan is a fascinating writer with an incredible career. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 2012, his pen name (now also his legal name) Mo Yan literally means ‘Don’t Speak’, which was inspired by a repeated warning from his parents about the dangers of speaking out.
Red Sorghum is not only Mo Yan’s most famous novel but also one of the most successful Chinese novels in translation. Similar to Jung Chang’s historical biography Wild Swans, this Chinese novel spans three generations and begins during the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, the most famous incident of which was the Rape of Nanjing.
Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
Translated by Mabel Lee
While many of the Chinese novels on this list are political, satirical, and often tragic, Soul Mountain is different. It isn’t a transformative sci-fi novel or another of the adventurous wuxia novels. Rather, Soul Mountain is one of the most ambitious and life-affirming stories ever bound.
Gao Xingjian was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, at first, but this was soon to revealed to be a false alarm. The relief and the thirst for life that a pseudo second chance offered him, Gao travelled across the vast landscape of China and, in the end, Soul Mountain was born. It’s an epic journey of a novel that’s as much about the landscape of people in China as it is about the nation’s geography and majesty.
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua
Translated by Andrew Jones
Yu Hua, like Yan Lianke, is one of the most prominent and daring Chinese authors writing today. Based in Beijing and crafting stories through a satirical, critical lens, writing for Yu Hua is a dangerous and defiant act. In his book China in Ten Words, Yu discusses how lax slander and libel laws in China mean his words can be co-opted and manipulated with terrifying ease.
Yu’s Chinese novel Chronicle of a Blood Merchant tells a heart-wrenching tale of a man simply trying to survive during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a period of Chinese history where a famine led to the deaths of countless millions.
Our protagonist relies on selling his own blood to the local blood chief in order to find the money to support his family. This becomes increasingly dangerous and is further complicated by the shame that comes from learning that one of his children is not actually his. This is a moving and desperate novel that captures a life and a moment in time where simply living a life was at its most difficult.
Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue
Translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
In this list of Chinese novels, we’ve featured nine authors and only two of them are women. This is not fair, and I’m aware of that. Being aware of it doesn’t excuse anything but, unfortunately, the Chinese novels of male authors are still far more in abundance than those of women, at least for now.
Before we discuss Can Xue’s book, one way to level this gender playing field is to read a book I’ve already mentioned: the sci-fi short story collection Broken Stars. Many of the writers in this collection are women, and theirs are the best stories in the collection.
As for Can Xue, her novel Love in the New Millennium is a treasured and celebrated Chinese novel the world over. The author herself is considered by many to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Yan Lianke as the pinnacle of Chinese authors today. This novel, her newest, is an experimental and often comical piece of surrealism featuring fractured narratives that, despite how strange and abstract it often seems to be, proves to be a wholly addicting and thrilling Chinese novel.
The Four Books by Yan Lianke
Translated by Carlos Rojas
Yan Lianke is the only author to feature on this list twice, and that’s simply because, as previously mentioned, he is the best Chinese author writing today. Reading more Yan Lianke is vital on the road to enlightenment (or something like that).
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Yan Lianke is the remarkable ability of his boundless imagination to constantly create new and clever ways to critique and satirise the ethics, methods, and philosophy of the Chinese government.
In The Four Books, perhaps Yan’s most celebrated and daring Chinese novel, academics, experts, and intellectuals are sent to “re-education camps” overseen by the Child. The satire is very much on the nose here – how many times have we referred to fascist leaders and their followers as children? – but the content is very much grounded in real and recent Chinese history. The Four Books is a blistering and intense read, and one of the most vital must-read Chinese books you’ll ever find.
China Dream by Ma Jian
Translated by Flora Drew
The first and most important thing to know about Ma Jian, one of the most prolific Chinese writers around, is that he, like Yiyun Li, is a writer in exile. While she settled in New York, Ma Jian has been living in London for decades, where he loudly and frequently uses rights that were not afforded to him in China to protest the human rights violations of the Chinese government.
The first book of Ma Jian’s that I ever read, Red Dust, is a travelogue that documents Ma’s own journey from Beijing into the rugged landscape of China as a young bohemian artist in the ‘80s. While this book is a fascinating time capsule, it certainly reads like something written by a restless bohemian artist.
China Dream, published at the end of 2018, is a far more ambitious, scathing, and impassioned book. Rather than a travelogue, this is a Chinese novel that is full of piss and vinegar. A venomous attack on the ‘Chinese Dream’ that blends reality with fantasy to create a nightmarish dystopia that, at its core, doesn’t seem all that surreal.
Will predominantly writes about the books of Books and Bao, examining the literature of a place and how the authors have used the art of storytelling to reflect the world and the culture around them.