Good Minds Suggest—Mai Jia's Favorite Modern Chinese Novels

March, 2014
Mai Jia He's called the "Dan Brown of China," but mega-best-selling author Mai Jia (the pen name of Jiang Benhu) may be closer to John le Carré, who worked for the British Intelligence services MI5 and MI6 before writing his cerebral espionage thrillers. Mai spent 17 years with the People's Liberation Army, specialized in cryptology and telecommunications at the military academy, and although reportedly not a spy himself, worked closely with top-secret units. After retiring from military life, the Hangzhou-based writer turned to fiction, and with a series of hits that also spawned film and TV series adaptations, he rocketed to fame and is now China's highest-paid author. Available for the first time in English, his 2002 literary thriller debut, Decoded (Jiemi, 解密), tells the story of a code-breaking genius who fights madness as he works to unlock the secrets of a code written by his former mentor. Mai shares his favorite works of Chinese literature, each of which can be found translated into English.

Red Sorghum by Mo Yan
"This is a remarkable book that came completely out of the blue; it totally destroyed the hegemonic discourse concerning 'Stories of the Revolution' that had built up within Chinese literature after 1949: It is fueled by violence and hormones. Here the epic history of a nation is pared down to the romantic and sexual relationships of 'my granny' and 'my grandpa.' Not only that, Red Sorghum gives full rein to a wild, complex imagination and visceral emotions, and in the process creates a totally new kind of language. Thanks to Mo Yan, thanks to this particular novel, contemporary Chinese literature has gone in a completely fresh direction with a renewed sense of purpose."


Red Poppies by Alai
"Red Poppies is a fascinating book, one of the best novels to have been published in China in recent years, where the suspense is brought to a devastating resolution. Only a novel could do justice to such an epic theme: the rise and fall of the last of the traditional Tibetan chieftains. This is a story about the connections between a language and its people, where apparent acceptance of change hides a bone-deep resistance. Alai has shown the ever-deepening links that lie between the two. Red Poppies opens the door to a mysterious, hidden world, and the key to this door is held by the narrator—held fast in the hands of the idiot son of the Kham chieftain and his Chinese wife, a boy who during the course of the novel turns out to have amazing capacities. Such a character would be very difficult for any novel to bring off, but Red Poppies meets that challenge triumphantly."


The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi
"In this book the quite unimportant story of a woman living in a big city comes to represent the very quintessence of life in the urban alleys and byways of China. Wang Anyi uses a precise modernist style to capture the phenomenon of Shanghai: that city of foreign concessions within the borders of China, which has now been transformed beyond recognition; where her main protagonist, Wang Qiyao, experiences great losses and failures during her life as she claws her way over a myriad of obstacles. Thus, this novel serves to shine a narrow beam of light upon another kind of truth about life in China."


The King of Trees: Three Novellas by Ah Cheng
"Ah Cheng first shot to fame in the Chinese literary firmament in the 1980s, but his novels are just as new and fresh today as they have ever been. His fiction focuses on the minutiae of daily life, on playing chess, on work and studying, and his books have served to clear the way for a new genre of literature concerned with the everyday; however, he does not shy away from dealing with the traumas of the recent past. Compared with other writers of the same era, Ah Cheng's critical insights are so much more subtle and incisive. It is impossible to classify his 'Three Kings,' for these novels represent Ah Cheng's unique creative vision. He is that rare creature among contemporary novelists in China: an intellectual with a profound understanding of the culture and way of life of Chinese people today."


Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke
"If viewed from a strictly literary viewpoint, there are many things to criticize about Dream of Ding Village, but there are two things about this book that are worthy of admiration. First, it shows that a novelist can act as a social conscience, and secondly, that novelists should keep their eyes open to the realities of the world around them. The Ding Village in the book has its basis in fact in China today, even though it is itself a figment of Yan Lianke's imagination. Getting AIDS as a result of selling blood is merely the beginning of this novel, since Yan Lianke ceaselessly expands the boundaries of his nightmare vision of China."



Vote for your own favorites on Listopia: Chinese Literature



Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by B E E E (new)

B E E E I am so, SO sorry that you have been compared to Dan Brown. It is like saying you write like Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I don't even know you or your work, but that is just vile [I tried, but couldn't get past 5 pages of Brown before knowing it was utter, complete, unmitigated, etc. trash]. Yet, a comparison to LeCarré is golden. So there's that. Been trying to think if I've actually read any Chinese literature and all I can come up with is Judge Dee and the Barry Hughart trilogy that starts with Bridge of Birds (which might be in the works as a movie which, done right, would be awesome). And, of course, Chinese lit, this ain't. I look forward to reading you and your suggested authors in the future. Uh, wait. Although that was bad sentence structure, I rather like the idea of you suggesting to me authors in the future. Hum, having too much fun playing with silly ideas :)


message 2: by Rosalind (new)

Rosalind Minett I concur with the comment above about Dan BRown. It's an insult from those who haven't thought past the plot. I look forward to reading your work, but even the description suggests your writing is much deeper.


message 3: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn I would like to add Qiu Xiaolong to the list of good crime writers


message 4: by Hermon (new)

Hermon Mihranian I look forward to read it. It looks to be a good crime


message 5: by Elisabeth (new)

Elisabeth Guss I agree about Qiu Xiaolong. Love his detective and wish they'd film these books so full of information about China today.


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