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. China is also flourishing in the realm of literature in translation. Chinese novels in translation are some of the most ground-breaking and exciting books around right now.
The Best Chinese Novels in Translation
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.
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 some of the very best Chinese novels in translation right now.
The Wedding Party by Liu Xinwu
Translated by Jeremy Tiang
Originally published in China in 1985, Liu Xinwu’s The Wedding Party is a delightful novel set at a moment in time that hung in the air for post-revolution China. Not yet a global powerhouse, but now open for trade and travel, 1980s China was an interesting place not often captured in film or fiction.
It is 1982 and Auntie Xue’s son is getting married. Set on across that single wedding day, from dawn to dusk, The Wedding Party paints a vivid and moving picture of ordinary life amongst the working class of Beijing in the early ’80s. This is an ensemble story that gives multiple perspectives, with Jiyue and his bride’s wedding acting as the fulcrum for these disparate narratives.
As the day passes, we learn more and more about the colourful characters who inhabit Auntie Xue’s neighbourhood. We learn the story of the caterer, the guests, and the two families. We have wedding crashers and plans gone awry.
The Wedding Party is an incredibly human and relatable story, full of detail and backstory that fleshes out every character, giving them all equal weight and attention. While the titular wedding party is central to the plot, this Chinese novel is really about ordinary people’s ordinary lives: their families, their pasts, their dreams, their loves and losses. It is human and grounded by never sombre.
One of the most sweet, charming, and warming Chinese novels in translation you’ll ever read.
Aftershock by Zhang Ling
Translated by Shelly Bryant
Written by celebrated Canada-based Chinese author Zhang Ling, Aftershock traces the life and experiences of a woman who survived the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan — an earthquake which took the lives of 242,000 people. Xiaodeng is now in her thirties; a successful author and mother living in Toronto with her husband. But her mental health is in tatters, and her doctor is helping her retrace the steps of her early life.
Aftershock is presented in a fragmented timeline, jumping back and forth between times and places, and between perspectives. We spend time with Xiaodeng’s mother before Xiaodeng and her brother were born. We witness the earthquake and how it shatters their family into pieces. And we see what has become of Xiaodeng’s life, marriage, and career since moving to Canada.
While Aftershock is a relatively short novel, it masterfully covers several different lives across entire decades, and we are able to pieces all of these fragments of time and space back together as we hope that Xiaodeng will find a way to heal herself. This is a heartbreaking and beautiful Chinese novel.
Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge
Translated by Jeremy Tiang
Strange Beasts of China is a wonderfully imaginative and surreal work of fiction by a writer who, at the time it was originally published in China, was only twenty-one years old. This is one of the most exciting Chinese novels in translation you can read right now.
While Yan Ge now has several other books available in English (White Horse and The Chili Bean Paste Clan), this is a book that showcases the strengths of her imagination, as well as her roots as an author. Strange Beasts of China is set in the city of Yong’an. Here, many races of humanoid ‘beasts’ live amongst the humans, in a similar fashion to Tolkien’s elves and dwarves.
These beasts all have aesthetic and behavioural characteristics which identify them as part of the Sacrificial Beasts, Flourishing Beasts, Sorrowful Beasts etc. And, in each chapter, our protagonist — a novelist and former student of zoology — spends time building a relationship with, and learning the truth about, a member of a group of beasts.
The book was originally a series of short stories, but there is a slowly-moving arc that pushes the greater narrative further. It’s our narrator’s relationship to herself, her own past, and her former professor that keeps us invested in her journey.
Though, perhaps not as much as Yan’s imagination itself does. The titular strange beasts of China are such wildly and creatively devised characters, with their origin stories, powers, and behaviour patterns being so wonderfully alluring.
For example, there is one group of all-female beasts who reside in a temple complex and remind us a little of the wood nymphs of Greek mythology. There is another group who latch onto humans who are low and depressed, before drawing out and feeding off their life energy.
This is a book that celebrates the power of imagination and characterisation. It is also an experiment, in a way, that puts humans in the centre and investigates how we think and act when given an imaginary situation/relationship to handle. Strange Beasts of China is a fun, sometimes bleak, endlessly fascinating work of fiction, and one of the best Chinese novels in translation that you can pick up and read right now.
Ninth Building by Zou Jingzhi
Translated by Jeremy Tiang
Ninth Building is a unique kind of Chinese literature, toeing the line between fiction and nonfiction. Zou Jingzhi is a lauded poet, playwright, and screenwriter in China. He also grew up through Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and it’s that personal narrative which you’ll find in Ninth Building.
While everything found in Ninth Building is true, each vignette is written in a prosaic style, thus reading like a novel. Ninth Building is split into two parts. Part One covers the author’s childhood in Beijing, a childhood spent confused and obsessed with the prevalent habit of tattling on one’s neighbours.
Zou learned as a child to be on the lookout for bourgeois intelligentsia; it was an obsession for everyone in Beijing at that time. In Part Two, Zou’s father has been captured and imprisoned, and so young Zou is cast out into the wastelands of northern China to work hard labour. The vignettes here offer us snippets of daily life in that world.
Many vignettes end with a moral; a final statement that sums up what young Zou learned in that particular encounter. We are watching the making of a poet, an artist, under harsh conditions, and how exactly those conditions forged the man who exists today.
As Chinese novels in translation go, Ninth Building is a truly unique piece of literature that gives us a series of glimpses into the mind and experiences of a young man before he grew into one of China’s most celebrated aritsts.
Watch my full review of Ninth Building
Cocoon by Zhang Yueran
Translated by Jeremy Tiang
Jeremy Tiang’s translator’s note at the front of this gorgeous piece of Chinese literary fiction works as a valuable foreword which contextualises these characters and the world they grew up in. Much like the author herself, the pair of protagonists in Cocoon were born and raised in a moment of economic boom.
As a result, Tiang explains, they feel alienated from the generations that came before. They are also products of the One Child Policy. What this means is that Cocoon is a Chinese novel that explores the largest generational gap that has ever existed.
But it’s also a novel about the pain of family bonds; the sheer misery of it. As early as page 2, Zhang remarks, “Blood ties are a form of violence, the way they yoke together people who feel nothing for each other.” Our protagonists are a pair of old childhood friends who reconnect by chance, and reminisce over their youth and the legacies of their parents and grandparents.
But this is also a kind of thriller. Mysteries and confusion hide amongst these memories. Cleverly constructed as a dual-narrative that flits back and forth like a conversation, this is a novel that explores generational trauma and anguish in a very raw and original way; one that is unique to the modern Chinese experience but also remains relatable.
Fu Ping by Wang Anyi
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
Fu Ping is set in Shanghai, at a moment in time that is neither modern nor ancient, as the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party has forever changed the landscape of China. Beyond World War II, this long moment is the most exciting, chilling, and fascinating era of global history in the 20th century.
The titular Fu Ping has been brought to Shanghai from the countryside to be wed to the adopted grandson of Nainai, a long-time nanny who also once hailed from the countryside but now works for a wealthy family in the heart of Shanghai’s Puxi District.
The nameless Grandson is very much a plot device, and the real focus of the plot is in the characters of Fu Ping and Nainai, as well as the street on which they live and work – which is, in many ways, a character in and of itself. Many of the book’s chapters each focuses on a character in the district, telling a story which sums up their lot in life and also works to slot them into the larger narrative of Fu Ping.
It’s fun to see every home and every life illuminated, and there’s a lot to be learned about work life, school life, and family life in 20th century Shanghai through the lens of Fu Ping – both the book and the character. The set-up of the novel, Fu Ping being brought to Shanghai to marry, is not the story’s true concern. Instead, we spend far more time getting to know Nainai, adoptive grandmother of Fu Ping’s betrothed.
Nainai herself is an intriguing woman, born in rural China but having lived for so long in Shanghai as to have developed political biases about what the ‘true Shanghai’ is. Fu Ping is a novel of ideas. It has a wonderful setting, intriguing characters, a world that captivates and inspires. It has cinched, snipped, pacey dialogue that keeps the story barrelling along.
Monkey King by Wu Cheng’en
Translated by Julia Lovell
Also commonly known as Journey to the West, Monkey King is perhaps the most beloved and iconic Chinese novel ever written. As Chinese novels in translation go, they don’t get more essential than Monkey King. A 16th Century classic of Chinese literature, Monkey King has been adapted countless times, most notably into Japan’s most successful manga/anime series: Dragon Ball.
Monkey King by Wu Cheng’en is a wild and rollicking adventure story that begins like a Greek myth with the hilarious and ridiculous antics of the powerful titular ruler Sun Wukong the Monkey King. Sun Wukong travels and studies and gets ever stronger until he has mastered death itself and ends up picking a fight with every angel in heaven. He is then sealed beneath a mountain for 500 years by Buddha himself.
The rest of the novel follows the fabled journey to the West, as a young monk is tasked by heaven to deliver some scriptures from China to India. Early on his travels, he stumbles across the sealed Monkey King, frees him, and takes him on as an apprentice in an attempt to reform the wild Sun Wukong.
Julia Lovell’s new translation of this book is a laugh a minute. It is a wise and witty story of insane events and ridiculous wonders. There is so much raw energy and hilarious banter poured into every line, making this new abridged translation of Monkey King a must-read, and one of the best Chinese novels in translation you can read right now.
The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke
Translated by Carlos Rojas
One of the newest Chinese novels in translation 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 Shadow Book of Ji Yun
Translated by Yi Izzy Yu and John Yu Branscum
While not a novel — and technically not even fiction — The Shadow Book of Ji Yun remains one of the most spectacular and riveting Chinese books in translation available to English language readers. As the book’s introduction explains, Ji Yun was an 18th Century Chinese philosopher and politician who wrote a frankly obscene number of short accounts concerning supernatural phenomena and spiritual experiences.
The Shadow Book of Ji Yun is a collection of dozens upon dozens of these incredible accounts. Some are first-person encounters with ghosts and spirits, while others are secondhand stories he has been told by friends, colleagues, and those he has met on the road.
Ji Yun has been compared to H.P. Lovecraft, and that is a very apt comparison. The main difference being that Ji Yun (a respected politician and philosopher) claimed his stories to be true. The tales in The Shadow Book of Ji Yun come from the mouths of traders, fellow politicians, family members, Buddhist monks, and more.
They range from the beautiful and inspiring to the eerie and frightening; from the feasible to the impossible. And every single one of them is incredible.
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.
Read More: 5 Books to Read Before you Visit China
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 translated 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.
It became one of the best-selling Chinese novels in translation after it was praised 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.
Ghost Music by An Yu
Ghost Music is a wild card on this list simply because, though its author was born and raised in Beijing and now lives in Hong Kong, she writes her novels in English and so there is no translator. An Yu’s debut novel, Braised Pork was a bold and adventurous novel, heavily tinged with surrealism in a way reminiscent of Haruki Murakami.
Her second novel, Ghost Music, retains that feverish surrealism but refines it, cuts away the fat, and leaves us with something beautifully and tightly-crafted. Ghost Music follows a motherless married woman in Beijing whose mother-in-law has moved in with her. At the same time, our protagonist begins receiving strange packages: boxes of mushrooms.
While her husband is absorbed in his job at a car company and her mother-in-law reveals secrets about her son’s childhood (such as the fact that he is, in fact, not an only child), our protagonist must somehow maintain her grip on reality.
Our protagonist is also a piano teacher and daughter of a once-renowned pianist. The fact that an internationally celebrated pianist went missing years ago also factors into this tale. There are several moving pieces here, and surrealism seeps into all of it. There are strange dreams and talking mushrooms and a village drowning in pollen-like orange dust.
But it’s all deceptively simply, and at its heart this is a novel about family, and and about self-love and self-acceptance.