The best books set in China’s diverse regions by local Chinese writers

Michael Meyer Author Of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
By Michael Meyer

Who am I?

I arrived in China in 1995 as one of the country’s first Peace Corps volunteers, and for over a decade lived in rural Sichuan, historic Beijing, and arcadian Jilin. These settings inform my trilogy of books about daily life in corners of the country overlooked by correspondents. I’ve won a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing, and I am currently a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan. I’m a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations‘ Public Intellectuals Program, a recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Fellowship, and a Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where I teach nonfiction writing. 


I wrote...

Book cover of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

What is my book about?

Journalist Michael Meyer has spent his adult life in China, first in a small village as a Peace Corps volunteer, the last decade in Beijing--where he has witnessed the extraordinary transformation the country has experienced in that time. For the past two years he has been completely immersed in the ancient city, living on one of its famed hutong in a century-old courtyard home he shares with several families, teaching English at a local elementary school--while all around him "progress" closes in as the neighborhood is methodically destroyed to make way for high-rise buildings, shopping malls, and other symbols of modern, urban life.

The city, he shows, has been demolished many times before; however, he writes, "the epitaph for Beijing will read: born 1280, died 2008... what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn't eradicate, the market economy can." 
The Last Days of Old Beijing tells the story of this historic city from the inside out through the eyes of those whose lives are in the balance: the Widow who takes care of Meyer; his students and fellow teachers, the first-ever description of what goes on in a Chinese public school; the local historian who rallies against the government. The tension of preservation vs. modernization--the question of what, in an ancient civilization, counts as heritage, and what happens when a billion people want to live the way Americans do--suffuse Meyer's story.

The books I picked & why

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Border Town

By Shen Congwen, Jeffrey C. Kinkley (translator),

Book cover of Border Town

Why this book?

This short novel is one of the most beautiful books you’ll read about any place, let alone a river village in western Hunan. Teenage Cuicui helps her elderly grandfather on his ferry as two brothers vie for her attention. War presses in on all sides. Notable for being banned for decades by opposing regimes in both China and Taiwan, Border Town is a restrained masterpiece. 

Border Town

By Shen Congwen, Jeffrey C. Kinkley (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Border Town as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1934, "Border Town" tells the story of Cuicui, a young country girl who is coming of age during a time of national turmoil. The granddaughter of a poor ferryman, Cuicui grows up in Chadong, a small town in China's exotic southwestern frontier, where she is sheltered from the warlord fighting that was prevalent in China in the 1920s. Like any teenager, Cuicui dreams of romance and finding true love. She's caught up in the spell of the local custom of nighttime serenades, but she is also haunted by her grandfather's aging and imminent death. Both Cuicui and…


The King of Trees

By Ah Cheng, Bonnie S. McDougall (translator),

Book cover of The King of Trees

Why this book?

Set in China’s southwestern mountainous rainforest borderland of Xishuangbanna, this novella is based on the author’s time as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution. Politics take a backseat to the intimate friendships forged during those years, alongside the heedless degradation of the country’s lushest lands. The famed director Chen Kaige—who had served two mountains away from the author—made a faithful film adaptation.

The King of Trees

By Ah Cheng, Bonnie S. McDougall (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The King of Trees as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When the three novellas in The King of Trees were published separately in China in the 1980s, "Ah Cheng fever" spread across the country. Never before had a fiction writer dealt with the Cultural Revolution in such Daoist-Confucian terms, discarding Mao-speak, and mixing both traditional and vernacular elements with an aesthetic that emphasized not the hardships and miseries of those years, but the joys of close, meaningful friendships. In The King of Chess, a student's obsession with finding worthy chess opponents symbolizes his pursuit of the dao; in The King of Children-made into an award-winning film by Chen Kaige, the…


The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

By Liao Yiwu,

Book cover of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

Why this book?

Sichuan can feel like a world apart, and no book better reveals it than this series of oral interviews with convicts, charlatans, officials, lonelyhearts, toilet cleaners, abbots, grave robbers and more. Their stories, filled with forbearance and forgiveness, can be read in any order, but be warned: once you start, it will be hard to put down.

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

By Liao Yiwu,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Corpse Walker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Corpse Walker introduces us to regular men and women at the bottom of Chinese society, most of whom have been battered by life but have managed to retain their dignity: a professional mourner, a human trafficker, a public toilet manager, a leper, a grave robber, and a Falung Gong practitioner, among others. By asking challenging questions with respect and empathy, Liao Yiwu managed to get his subjects to talk openly and sometimes hilariously about their lives, desires, and vulnerabilities, creating a book that is an instance par excellence of what was once upon a time called “The New Journalism.”…


Rickshaw Boy

By Lao She,

Book cover of Rickshaw Boy

Why this book?

If you read only one book set in Beijing, let it be this one. During the Japanese occupation, a rickshaw puller named Xiangzi ping-pongs between success and misfortune in his quest to one day own a vehicle of his own. The author, a Manchu who grew up in the capital’s dense net of hutong alleyways, knows his material and his city unlike any Beijing writer before or since, especially its fatalist sense of humor. The editor of its first American edition changed the ending so everyone lived happily-ever-after. Lao She knew better; three decades later, he was among the most prominent casualties of the Red Guards.

Rickshaw Boy

By Lao She,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rickshaw Boy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Lao She’s great novel.”
—The New York Times

 

A beautiful new translation of the classic Chinese novel from Lao She, one of the most acclaimed and popular Chinese writers of the twentieth century,  Rickshaw Boy chronicles the trials and misadventures of a poor Beijing rickshaw driver. Originally published in 1937, Rickshaw Boy—and the power and artistry of Lao She—can now be appreciated by a contemporary American audience.


Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury (translator),

Book cover of Love in a Fallen City

Why this book?

Shanghai. White plaster walls frozen green. Steamed buns stained by the ink of their newspaper wrapping. Hong Kong. Neon reds, oranges and pinks reflecting on lush green water. Tram lines winding like noodles. Blood on silk; manners over emotions. These six short stories are both an introduction to a master stylist and an evocation of two distinct cities at two distinct times in modern Chinese history. Many of the book’s subtle details can still be seen or felt today.

Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Love in a Fallen City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Masterful short works about passion, family, and human relationships by one of the greatest writers of 20th century China. 

A New York Review Books Original

 

“[A] giant of modern Chinese literature” –The New York Times

 

"With language as sharp as a knife edge, Eileen Chang cut open a huge divide in Chinese culture, between the classical patriarchy and our troubled modernity. She was one of the very few able truly to connect that divide, just as her heroines often disappeared inside it. She is the fallen angel of Chinese literature, and now, with these excellent new translations, English readers can…


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