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3.25  ·  Rating Details ·  1,300 Ratings  ·  219 Reviews
Rong Jinzhwen, perhaps one of the great code-breakers in the world is a semi-autistic mathematical genius recruited to the cryptography department of China's secret services, Unit 701, and assigned to break the elusive 'Code Purple'. He rises to be China's greatest and most celebrated code-breaker, until he makes a mistake and descends into madness. The author, pseudonym o ...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published March 18th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2009)
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Apr 20, 2017 BlackOxford rated it it was amazing
Shelves: chinese
Educating Genius

Mai Jia is a Chinese Borges. Using documents presented as factual he constructs a fiction that is the truth of a culture. For Borges, it was European culture and its influence in South America that was a primary topic. In Mai's case the culture is that of China: driven, obsessive, clever, and secretive. The relationship between Europe and China is more complex than what Borges had to deal with, and Mai has come up with a brilliant metaphor in cryptography to investigate that comp
Apr 05, 2014 Dan rated it did not like it
I am an avid reader of translated Chinese fiction and a long-time resident of China. Mai Jia is well thought of here, and many of my friends are devotees of his work. After reading this novel and discussing it with my friends who have read it in Chinese, it became clear to me that many of the problems that I have with the work are due to the translation - not so much the effort of translating the words, but in translating the nuances of meaning. The Chinese language and English are vastly differ ...more
switterbug (Betsey)
Apr 03, 2014 switterbug (Betsey) rated it it was amazing
DECODED, although about the life of a cryptographer, is not about the nuts and bolts of cryptography. You don’t need to be interested in the application of it; rather, it is more about one man in particular, whose life brought him to this secretive, isolating practice. Rong Jinzhen is a brainiac in mathematics and also likely a man with Asperger’s syndrome. Jia’s novel is a portrait of this unusual individual—an introverted, focused, and solitary genius. The narrative is subtle, unsentimental, y ...more
Lars Jerlach
Apr 11, 2017 Lars Jerlach rated it liked it
I find Decoded by Mai Jia a somewhat tricky novel, not because it is closely related to a more conventional spy novel that completely ignores the fundamentals of all other spy novels, in that it doesn't contain violence, money, sex, drugs etc, but because the author often seems to be trapped in the same isolated cryptic universe as his protagonist Rong Jinzhen.

For some reason, perhaps the rather convoluted mathematical language, I found it demanding to penetrate beyond a few layers of the facad
Mar 25, 2014 Susan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Before you begin this book – the author’s 2005 debut and his first book to be translated in the West – you will have to put aside every preconception you have about spy novels. Although it is about a mathematical genius who is involved in breaking codes, it takes an awfully long time to reach that part of the story. Indeed, the first part of the book is involved mainly with the family history of the main character and most novels do not usually go into such detail. Mai Jia is a pseudonym for Jia ...more
Mar 27, 2014 Sharon added it
Shelves: 2014, dnf, world-books
I found it hard to keep going with this one. I am in the minority here, but felt totally removed from the characters. They felt flat and the writing didn't flow well in my opinion. Maybe something was lost in the translation process. I didn't care for the book or characters. I also found it rather repetitive and indulgent giving far too much opinionated explanation in some areas. One such event took several pages describing a chess game.

After reading 30% of Decoded, I reluctantly decided to not
Apr 16, 2014 Betty rated it it was ok
Shelves: china
This book is badly marketed to the US market; it is not, as the book jacket says, "combining the mystery and tension of a spy thriller with the psychological nuance of an intimate character study". Not a mystery, not tense as a spy thriller. Yes, a psychological study. A best seller in China, it was a bit opaque for this Western reader.
Mar 28, 2014 Richard rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in formal experimentation and the attempt to rehabilitate realism
Recommended to Richard by: Dwight Garner review in the NYT
I liked this book very much. A NYT review last Tuesday brought it to my attention as THE great Chinese epic (I think Dwight Garner wrote the review but cannot find it on-line to quote it).

It is the story of a mathematical genius, Rong Jinzhen ("Zendi") who becomes a cryptologist for Chinese Section 701 who becomes legendary for breaking "PURPLE,' a complex code developed by X Nation, and who very nearly breaks "BLACK," another code either highly complex or downright simple. The story is really h
Linda Robinson
May 15, 2014 Linda Robinson rated it really liked it
There is so much going on in this book, I'm sure it would take more than one reading to uncover all the gems. We learn of the duality and pain in being a genius, especially in a realm that will make use of its citizens for the nation's advantage. The tiny nuggets of Chinese superstition and wisdom are fascinating. Mai Jia makes chess seem interesting on both a strategic and philosophical plane. Once I stopped trying to sort out which was A and B City, which country was X, it was much more enjoya ...more
Apr 10, 2014 Vanessa rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I wasn't keen on the two versions of the story running through the book - it was hard to keep track and I had a feeling all the way through that I was waiting for the story to begin. You never got to know the main character in depth - which meant that it was difficult to relate to the whole work. Otherwise an interesting view of the China's secret services of the time - but certainly not "a spy thriller with psychological nuances" nor a riveting read.
interesting book looking more at the person's life than a book really on cryptography but shows more an intelligent man's descent into madness while he searches for the answers. maybe some of the book also lost in translation too.
Thomas Hübner
Dec 30, 2015 Thomas Hübner rated it really liked it

Mathematicians and cryptographers seem to have a strange fascination for most people. Although their work is highly relevant (think of the Enigma codebreakers, or the computer pioneers) their abstract world is far removed from the ordinary life we all lead, and the geniuses in that field often combine extraordinary intellectual abilities in their specific field with an obsessiveness that borders insanity; borderline disorders, autism, paranoia and schizophreni
Jun 29, 2014 Joseph rated it it was amazing
This book may well get into your head, it got into mine. At core, it is a book about madness. More specifically, a book about exceptional intelligence, perhaps genius and what might sometimes be the steep, magnetic cliff that hovers too close to genius. For the main character, Jinzhen, life was duality. On the one hand, there was reality, specifically the realness of things, living in the physical world. On the other hand, inextricably linked were dreams, the dreams were a parallel virtual world ...more
Greg Z
Apr 27, 2015 Greg Z rated it it was ok
Shelves: reviewed
I've read English translations of books the world over, so I know when talking about/reviewing a translation, we're partially reviewing the translator's work. Especially when there are huge differences in language, such as Chinese/English. I very much liked the first 2/3rds of this book, as the story of the lead character's childhood, education, etc., was fascinating. But the last 100 pages or so confused me. Just when I thought the author was about to explain why it was so important that a spec ...more
Al Bità
Jan 21, 2015 Al Bità rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Found this in the remaindered section of the local bookshop, and from the blurb at the back I thought I would give it a try. The fact that this translation was published in 2014 and that it was already on the remaindered pile did not inspire confidence, but the high praise and subject matter written up in the blurb made me think that it might be worth reading, if only to find out what all the fuss was about.

I’m sorry to say that, for me, this work simply did not gel on any level… neither as a “s
Aug 09, 2015 Buchdoktor rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china
Die alte Frau Rong aus Tongzhen war ihrer Zeit weit voraus. Um mehr über ihre beängstigenden Träume zu erfahren, schickt sie ihren Enkel Rong Zilai 1873 zum Studium ins Ausland. Der junge Herr Rong aus der Dynastie chinesischer Salzhändler studiert dort, was ihn interessiert, und nennt sich nach seiner Rückkehr nach China John Lilley. Sein Nachkomme Rong Xialai (Lilley Junior) wird Adoptivvater des Herrn Rong (Rong Jinzhen, später Rong Zhendi), um den sich das Buch dreht, sowie Begründer einer n ...more
Paul Bartusiak
Apr 07, 2014 Paul Bartusiak rated it really liked it
Shelves: spy
Is a better version of LeCarre's A Perfect Spy good enough?

Decoded is Chinese novelist Mai Jia's international best seller in the spy genre. According to an article by the Wall Street Journal , the novel debuted back in 2002, a full 12 years ago! Apparently English-language publishers weren't initially interested; perseverance pays.

The book is touted as a spy thriller. Although it certainly deals in the clandestine world, it's not really a "thriller." The WSJ journal article (by Anna Russell)
Apr 06, 2014 Barbara rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult-fiction
“Decoded” is a brilliant and ambitious novel that begins as a fable and ends as an espionage thriller. Mai Jai’s style is lyrical with a judicious amount of analogies to beautifully communicate the overwhelming world of mathematics and cryptography.

It’s a story of the life of Rong Jinzhen, a mathematical genius on par with Stephen Hawkings. Jai uses the first person narrative in telling the story. It’s from an un-named reporter’s point of view, in a manner that is engineered to be a true accoun
Pedro L. Fragoso
Dec 05, 2014 Pedro L. Fragoso rated it liked it
Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is very much about the history of cryptography; "Alan Turing - The Enigma" is the unbelievable true biography of a cryptographer for the ages; this book is a reflection on the fundamental frailty of life and the random vagaries of existence, under a very Chinese (I can only presume!) approach to reasoning, and using a fictional cryptographer's life as pretext. It is an ambitious literary opus and a fascinating reading, even if ultimately I felt it somewhat lacking ...more
Jun 18, 2014 Sub_zero rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reto-2015
El don narra la biografía ficticia de Rong Jinzhen, un joven genio de las matemáticas con nulas habilidades sociales y un trágico pasado familiar, un prodigio muy codiciado por los académicos de su tiempo que entrará a formar parte del servicio de inteligencia militar chino por su capacidad de descifrar códigos aparentemente inquebrantables. A simple vista pudiera parecer una historia interesante, pero lo cierto es que El don carece completamente de cualquier aliciente narrativo más allá de su v ...more
Po Po
Jul 28, 2014 Po Po rated it liked it
This is a 300 + page ode to the genius of Rong Jinzhen (nickname- zhendi).

The story itself is pretty interesting--although a good editor could've whittled this thing down to maybe 1/2 or 1/3 of its current length, to keep a nice momentum going, instead of needlessly dragging on and on.

There's a 50 to 75 page section of special horror in the last third of the book which is comparable to slogging through quicksand while you helplessly watch your loved ones sink right before your eyes as you make a
Feb 05, 2015 Karen rated it it was ok
I enjoyed the first half of this novel, but then the story sort of fell apart. The subject and characters were interesting; the structure tedious. Once the fate of the main character is revealed, there didn't seem to be any point to the rest of the book. At best, it was not a page-turner. I'm a bit puzzled why anyone would call it a "thriller," as there's very little action or tension. That said, it does convey a strong sense of the place and period, especially the paranoia and secrecy of Chines ...more
Oct 12, 2015 AdiTurbo rated it liked it
This book is the perfect proof of the significant differences between Western and Eastern thinking. It's structure, style and methods of telling a story deeply differ from what we're used to in Western novels. This may be why it was so strange and slow for me to read. In no way is this novel a thriller, as it is marketed. It is more a philosophical and psychological look at the price genius, of being an outsider, of being different. Even though it has its merits, I found myself emotionally detac ...more
Mikko Saari
A curious book. Quite unlike the western standards, which feels fresh. The description had me expecting more of a traditional spy thriller, but instead I was served some kind of psychological study to a mind of a codebreaker.

That is all fine and interesting, but the author did take his time approaching the subject. Was all that prefacing and background necessary? I suppose the author thinks it was, as he went through all that, but I was left with a feeling it would be possible to condense this
Mai Jia has been described as "the most popular writer in the world you've never heard of". He is one of the best-selling writers in China today, with total sales over five million copies, and has won every major literary award in China (according to this book's blurb).

The book tells the story of Rong Jinzhen, an orphaned, probably autistic, mathematical genius, who is taken in a by family (possibly distantly related to himself) of academics. He has a happy, if somewhat accelerated, childhood b
Jun 17, 2016 Andrew rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
What a curious book ! I can't remember where I heard about it but it made for an interesting read although I have to confess by the end I was a bit at a loss as to what had happened.
The first part of the book had a conventional arc as we were introduced to a Chinese dynasty of mathematical geniuses. In late 19th century a member of the Rong family is sent abroad to learn in the US from a master how to learn to interpret dreams, the young man returns to set up a Mathematics university and the rea
It seems plain to me that I just don't get mysteries as written by Chinese authors. Previously, I had read A Pair of Jade Frogs by Ye Xin and I struggled with it as well. The problem for me is pacing and expectations--I realize this is absolutely my problem and no reflection on the authors at all (thus, I have not given a star rating to this novel--it wouldn't be fair). Decoded takes forever to get to the main kernel of the story--namely the problem highlighted in the first paragraph of the syno ...more
Jun 25, 2014 TheBride rated it really liked it
Shelves: china
It’s not that easy to get one’s hands on contemporary Chinese literature in translation because there are not that many translations. So I leapt on this one when I saw it.

I absolutely loved this book, which is strange because it follows the life of a mathematical genius in a kind of dystopic Chinese city. Mai Jia, the author, writes from within the state-sanctioned apparatus, but he still presents a not-very-favourable picture of life under the political regimes of the recent past in China.

The b
May 14, 2014 Phyllis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, first-reads
I am thrilled to have met this author Mai Jia, a/k/a Jiang Benhu, and having met him I can't wait to get my hands on English-language translations of more of his books. But for Goodreads, I might never have gotten to read "Decoded," and though I would not have known it that would have been sad.

I'm pretty much an omnivore of books and so, over the decades, I've tried to read novels written by authors from all around the world. US westerner that I am, eastern and slavic and asian names and places
May 14, 2014 Monica rated it really liked it
Shelves: asian
Rong Jinzhen is a man whose life revolves around chess, cryptography, mathematics, artificial intelligence and the interpretation of dreams - subjects about which I know very little, and in which I have never been particularly interested. Yet somehow, this man and this book are strangely compelling. It is not a conventional spy novel, not a thriller, but it is an engrossing story of a unique character, his life, his family background, and the role his special abilities consign him to in the serv ...more
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Mai Jia is arguably the most successful writer in China today. His books are constant bestsellers, with total sales over three million copies. He became the highest paid author in China last year with his new book, Wind Talk. He has achieved unprecedented success with film adaptation: all of his novels are made - or are being made - into major films or TV series, the screenplays of which are often ...more
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“In science, time is the real obstacle. Given unlimited time, everyone can learn all the secrets of the universe.” 3 likes
“An interesting but wrong theory is always better than a boring but perfect proof.” 1 likes
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