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The best books on Life in China

recommended by Marianne Bastid-Bruguière

The renowned sinologist and holder of the Legion D'Honneur reflects on Chinese attitudes towards life. Discusses the five books she feels gives the reader the best all-round appreciation of Chinese society

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Marianne Bastid-Bruguière

Marianne Bastid-Bruguière studied and taught at Beijing University in 1964-65. She joined the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris in 1969, where she is now Director of Research, with her own studies focusing on modern China. She has been a visiting Professor of Chinese Studies at Harvard, and in London, Tokyo, Kyoto and Beijing. She was on the executive committee of China Quarterly magazine for 25 years. She received the Légion d’Honneur in April 2010.

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Your first book?

I’ve always been interested in Chinese attitudes towards life: towards what happens, the misfortunes of life, and how they handle life in their society. And I think that, although you get a lot of hard facts through the historical record, of course, in order to get the mood and to understand deeper you need to look into literature. The first novel I really like is The Water Margin. It’s one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, but it’s very different because it’s a story of bandits – in a way it’s like a Chinese equivalent of Robin Hood.
The novel came out of stories told among the people before the 14th century, and all these folk tales were taken together and put into written form by someone called Shi Naian, although it’s not even sure if this man existed. The story is based upon some historical facts: there was a bandit called Song Jiang who rebelled against the Song dynasty in the early 12th century. The novel takes the story of this bandit and his companions, and puts them into a kind of epic tale of rebellion against tyranny, which has been thrilling and inspiring Chinese readers for centuries. The novel is beautiful, because the personal stories of each of the bandits are taken together and also pursued individually, and as you have 108 characters it’s an extraordinary feat. It’s very vivid, and it shows the reactions of ordinary Chinese people: how they have a sense of justice, generosity, and humanity. And it also shows the extraordinary violence of Chinese society, and the way people make their lives with that: how they are able to subdue this violence, and turn it into human relations.

Are the bandits heroes?

Yes, they are the good guys! They are all painted as heroes of justice and people who want to be righteous, but in the end the chief bandit surrenders to the Emperor. Of course this has been disturbing to the Communist interpreters of this novel, but it is also very telling because it shows that Chinese people still have this feeling of justice, that they want to stick together.
What I think is interesting is that we often have an idea of China as a beautiful, great thing which is harmonious, and so grand that nobody dares to attack it. Here you see it in another light, and at the same time you understand how the people, despite their rebellions, like to be in an orderly society – and that tension is very strong in this novel. It shows that people are not slaves, they’re not blind to what is going on in their society and they’re able to act against it. It also gives ideas about what people like in life: how they like to drink wine and enjoy life and how they find ways to have a decent life even if they don’t have money or much means to do it. It’s extremely full of life, and it shows many aspects of Chinese social life in a very realistic way.

Let’s go on to Six Records of a Floating Life.

This is quite different – it’s a very short book. Shen Fu was a clerk who was born into a family of literati in 1763. What is interesting is that he tells a story of love, and of love between husband and wife, which is quite unusual in Chinese literature. He wrote a story of his life after his wife of 23 years had died, and it wasn’t published at the time but was discovered later and published in 1877.
It had enormous success because it was a very candid description of happiness despite misfortunes, and of the enjoyment of all the aesthetic sides of life. He loved painting, travelling, looking at landscape, and he loved looking at the moon with his wife. His wife was, in fact, his cousin, whom he had known since he was 13, and she is a very straightforward and very educated young lady. It’s about the way that intellectual people in China, and also ordinary people – because the young couple often meet peasants when they are looking at the moon – can enjoy everything that is beautiful in life, and the sincerity of the book is something extraordinary. Shen Fu says: ‘I don’t care about conventions.’ But also he’s a very dutiful son and is very faithful to the family.
It’s a picture both of the strength of the family and the domination that social ties exert on individuals, and the way that individuals were able to live for themselves, and enjoy simple things, and give a sense to their lives. The description of this love between him and his wife and the way they went on, despite sometimes being very poor and having no money, is a very true picture, and it goes deep inside the individuals and their humanity.

How would married life have differed from life in the West at the time?

It was written in about 1806 and that’s about the same time as Pride and Prejudice. Although it’s far away, and although Shen Fu didn’t know anything about foreign culture (though he buys something from some foreigners in the book, probably merchants), the mood, and the emphasis on sincerity and true love without conventions, or despite conventions, very much reminds me of the British novel at the time. It’s strange because it’s so far away, but in the sensibility and the disdain for riches and how what is important is to have a genuine life it’s very close. Also this idea that you have people who are more delicate than others, and they feel life and they feel beauty, because the sense of beauty is very strong in this book and it communicates to readers the aesthetic sense of the Chinese. I think that it’s really very close to the Chinese people’s most inner sensibility and sense of aesthetics, and of the beauty of life, nature and true relations with other individuals.

Your next book?

It’s a short novel of the early 20th century, by a not very well-known writer called Fu Lin, and it’s called Stones in the Sea. It’s one of the first novels where the writer says ‘I’. Of course, Shen Fu is also an ‘I’ narrator – it’s an autobiography – but that is quite unusual in Chinese literature, and among late 19th, early 20th-century novels this is the first where the writer writes about himself. This is a novel against the despotism of the family. It’s about two young people who get to know each other aged between eight and 12, and they’re in love, but then their families have to leave Peking at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, in 1898-1901. There is a description of the terrible flight of all these families from Peking to the South when the foreigners invaded, and they lose sight of each other during the travel. It’s the story of their qualms and their sadness, and the way their parents interfere, and the boy is married off to another girl, and then he realises the girl he loved is still alive, and he arrives close to her just when he is dying.
What is interesting in the novel, although it’s very sentimental, is the idea of individual freedom, and also the way the young people rebel against this domination of the family and the way they find other means to live. What is also interesting is that the parents are aware that their decisions are wrong, and they become conscious of that and there’s a shift in their mentality. In Shen Fu’s book he submits and tries to find independent ways, but he never rebels against the family; whereas in this novel they rebel – although they are overwhelmed by the weight of the family – and it’s about the birth of freedom. The characters realise how primitive the society still is, that it should be changed and cannot go on like this. It’s not political, it’s more in the way that people are living. And also in the style – it’s written in a language which is less conventional than most Chinese novels. Here it’s more driven by the feelings of the people and what the Chinese call the ‘feelings of passion’. So this book shows a change in the mentality.

Tell me about Rickshaw.

It’s by Lao She, a famous writer who committed suicide in 1966 because he had been persecuted by the Red Guards. He was a Manchu, who lived in Peking almost all his life but who taught Chinese at SOAS in England in the late 1920s. This novel, published in 1905, is about Hsiang-Tzu, a man who pulls a rickshaw in Peking, at the bottom of society, almost an outcast, and who becomes a victim of his own toiling. It’s a very simple story about all the problems of this very simple man who has nothing, and does the most hard work possible, has a lot of bad fortune, and finally dies on a snowy night all by himself.
What is nice in the novel is the description of Peking – of ordinary life and street life there, when it was just a village, a huge village, which it remained until the 1970s. Hsiang-Tzu says that his only true friend is Peking itself, and he has a very particular relationship with it. It’s a picture of the simple things in the city, and the way people live together and talk together, and sometimes help each other or try to find a way, and it’s very telling and touching. It’s full of humour too. It’s constantly humorous and I think it suggests a lot about the way that ordinary Chinese can react to life, especially in modern times when conditions are much more difficult than in the old days. Hsiang-Tzu keeps a distance, and in a way understands that he will never be able to struggle against society, but still he does because it gives a meaning to his life. But he’s not blind, and he accepts his misfortunes and finds his own way of being happy, too, and of having contentment from time to time, even if life is hard to him and he dies alone. It’s about the way people come to grips with misfortune, and manage to give humanity to their lives, which I think is very telling and touching.

Your last book is The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.

It’s a bit like the first one: the writer Liao Yiwu is not much appreciated by the present government – he was put in jail in 1989 because he’d written a poem called ‘The Massacre’, about the 4 June incident in Peking. He spent ten years in jail, where he was put with the ordinary criminals, so he mixed with all kinds of people and interviewed them and recorded their life stories, and it’s an extraordinary testimony about how people live at the bottom of society. Through the story of their lives you have a record of recent Chinese history (some are 60, 70 years old), and so you have an awful lot about the human component of society: a kind of mirror of the life that has been lived by individuals. For instance, he interviewed a schoolteacher, a public toilet manager – the man who does the dirtiest work – and also a professional mourner: a profession that has recently been revived under the Communist regime.

How do these people react to the Communist regime?

They accept – they try to find a way. They know they cannot do much about what is above, and that even if they do speak out it does not have an effect. But they try to manage, and to understand how it works in order to keep some kind of independence and meaning in their lives, much as the rickshaw man and the people in The Water Margin do, although the people interviewed here are not heroes or rebels, and they are in jail. But they try to justify themselves.
There is a man, for instance, who is a human trafficker, who started marrying his daughters in a province where there are not enough wives. He discovered that people there would pay a lot of money to get wives, so he started finding other young women in Szechzuan, his own province, and lured them, saying they would get wonderful salaries in big factories and so on, and in fact they were married off. He was arrested and jailed, but he says: ‘After all, I did something right, because if the men there can’t find women they get furious and become potentially criminal. And the girls in Szechzuan don’t want to stay there, they want a better life, and they do have a better life where I put them.’ So he gives his crimes a justification, and is quite philosophical about the fact that he’s been jailed for 20 years or so.
The book gives a light on the way that society is working. Liao Yiwu is a very good writer, and he perceives something which is very deep in Chinese society. It’s not just a question of rebellion against the Communist government – of course he’s against Communist rule. It’s more a sense of universal values, and the dignity of the human. That’s a kind of blood that flows all along in Chinese history and literature, which is expressed by various writers, but especially by these writers who can really go to the truth, to the inner, the deep things.

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Marianne Bastid-Bruguière

Marianne Bastid-Bruguière studied and taught at Beijing University in 1964-65. She joined the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris in 1969, where she is now Director of Research, with her own studies focusing on modern China. She has been a visiting Professor of Chinese Studies at Harvard, and in London, Tokyo, Kyoto and Beijing. She was on the executive committee of China Quarterly magazine for 25 years. She received the Légion d’Honneur in April 2010.