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The best books on Understanding China

recommended by Xinran

The Good Women of China by Xinran

The Good Women of China
by Xinran


What books should we read to understand China—its culture, its history? British-Chinese journalist, author and activist Xinran picks five to get started with, including the book believed by many to be the greatest Chinese novel ever written. (You can also read this interview in Chinese by clicking here.)

The Good Women of China by Xinran

The Good Women of China
by Xinran

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Tell me about your first book, Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin.

This book is believed by many to be the greatest Chinese novel ever written. For me it is like a bible for everything to do with Chinese culture. Cao belonged to the Han Chinese clan and the book is a huge family novel written in the 18th century. The family’s fortunes were tied up with the Kangxi dynasty and the book is all about the relationship between the family members and all the different classes.

It really is a wonderful book which has been translated by Penguin since 1970 and reprinted again and again. But many Westerners don’t know about this book, which is a shame because it is such a powerful book which I really love.

Why is it so important to you?

Well, it is such a good guide to our culture. In the book more than 100 people, buildings, poems, paintings and dreams are described in great detail. So you really find out the lifestyles of the people living there. I have read this book again and again ever since my childhood.

For example, there is a part which sums up how important food is in Chinese society. Xueqin writes about an aubergine recipe, which is a famous dish in the book, where the mother describes to her daughter and grandchildren how you need to wash the aubergines in snow, soak them with spring dew, pickle them with flowers from summer to season them and the thorns from autumn. And these are known as four-season aubergines. That is so beautiful. And why I think this book is so important is because it has helped Chinese culture to survive despite all the political upheavals and civil wars which have taken place since it was written.

Books like this remind Chinese people what the true Chinese culture is all about and how to preserve it, which is why I call it the ‘Bible of Chinese Culture’. Actually, many people try to copy this way of life even now.

Your second book is The Spirit of the Chinese People by Hung-ming Ku.

Yes. He was the first professor to teach foreigners in English so he wrote this book to give his students a better understanding of what the Chinese people are like. It was published in 1915 and it talks about the soul of Chinese culture. He explains why Chinese people respect old people and food. So, for example, for Chinese people part of the social order is that you never challenge your elders. This book is all about the roots of today’s culture. He wants Westerners to understand why we are so different from them. A large part of that is because we are brought up by the seasons and nature. We don’t have such strong religious roots. We adopted Buddhism as our Chinese philosophy relatively late on into our culture.

In this tiny book Hung-ming Ku wants people to understand that we are much more rooted in the power of nature like stone, plants, water, fire and gold. If you look at all the old Chinese paintings they are not about heaven and royalty like many of those in the West. We are much more focused on nature, the seasons, animals, birds and water. You will see those things in many of the ink and silk old paintings. I must have given 50 or 60 copies of this book away to all my Western friends who want to understand more about Chinese people. I explain to them that understanding the Chinese is just like how you would try to understand a tree. It is not just the leaves and the branches – you have to understand the roots as well. We are like plants: you need to understand our environment to understand our culture.

How does Lin Yutang’s My Country and My People continue your theme of better understanding China’s culture?

He wrote it during the 1930s, although he is looking at what happened in China after the Opium Wars of the 19th century. A lot of people were trying to understand what was going on in China so Yutang wrote the book to explain. For many people it became the standard text to read on the subject if you wanted to understand the key characteristics of Chinese people and China’s history. He wanted to explain why Chinese people are lost without the Imperial Emperor who is like our god. He suggested that without a god we had nothing to fight for except a new god; that is why when the last Emperor fell in the early 20th century there was such turmoil as Chinese people fought to find the new Emperor or god.

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This was something I read in the 1980s at university and I was very surprised to see this portrayal of Chinese people to the Western world, because Yutang wrote it in English for foreigners. You have to understand that China has a long history without religion and even though Western people might say they are not religious your country is so deeply embedded in religious history it permeates your culture and your way of life. You have Christmas and Easter, you can walk down a street in London and see St Paul’s Cathedral and hear church bells. When you pray for something it is to do with the afterlife and your spiritual wellbeing. Your daily life is watered and weathered by religion. For Chinese people it is all about the here and now. If they adopt a religion and pray it will be for money or good luck or good health or good exam results.

My second book was all about the roots of the Chinese. With this one Lin Yutang is explaining Chinese people’s daily life which is like the branches and leaves on the tree.

Book number four is a collection of short stories, Explosions and Other Stories by the controversial modern writer Mo Yan, a pen name for Guan Moye.

Yes. There is a story in there which I particularly like, ‘A Letter to My Father’. In it he writes about what life was really like in the countryside from 1960 to 1980. I really admire his writing because he hardly uses adjectives and adverbs but he uses verbs perfectly. He paints amazing pictures through his descriptions. Reading his stories is like watching a film. His book for me is like a dictionary to understanding the huge differences between life in the city and the countryside. Sometimes it feels like there are 500 years of difference. The problem is that the young people move to the city and learn so much and then when they go home it is very difficult to communicate with the older generation, who are often peasants who have never been educated or travelled to the next village. That is what Moye’s parents are like. They will say things to their children like, ‘My children, when you go in an aeroplane don´t open the windows’ even though they have never seen an aeroplane!

Or in one story he wrote that one time he visited his home village and his neighbour’s daughter-in-law was having a baby but, because it was a girl and girls are so unwanted in China, the family paid more attention to the birth of the family donkey than the baby girl. The donkey got the midwife, not the woman giving birth. I have travelled all over China to research my books which focus on how women are treated and I can tell you that is the truth. He never talks in a political way but you can tell a lot about what is going on in China through his descriptions.

For example, in one description of a girlfriend in his dream she is wearing very cheap slippers and walking along a stone country path and in the winter the ground freezes her feet. And from that description you can tell how hard life is there. People have no money for proper shoes. His books really helped me with my own work which is how to represent other people’s lives through my own eyes not just my thinking. It is good to have other people who have seen what I saw and felt out in the countryside. These are people who are not often written about.

Your final book is To Live by Yu Hua.

Yes. I normally only read non-fiction books but, as you can see, this novel is exceptional like A Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. It is all about family life in a Chinese village before and after the 1949 revolution. These are ordinary people and the book looks at how they survive this very difficult period in Chinese history. This was the time of endless political war between 1940s to 1980s.

But this was a very common situation in real life at the time. You read about this family’s whole life against the political backdrop of what is going on. Many families were very rich and went to the casino every day and lost all their property, but that actually saved them when the communists came to power because by then they were poor and were looked after by the communists.

The world was turned upside down. And, although it all sounds very dramatic with disabled children and fortunes lost and found, this is actually just what China was like. When I read that book I can identify with it and see my own childhood and my neighbours during the Cultural Revolution. I was hated by other children because my parents both speak foreign languages and I had chocolate every day when most Chinese families couldn’t read and had not enough food for their kids….

This book made me realise what good writing is all about. It makes people think and helps people to see that our past should not only be written by history-makers. A real history should be recorded by people’s lives from both sides – winners and losers.

June 25, 2010

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Xinran is a Chinese writer, broadcaster and founder of The Mother’s Bridge of Love, an organisation reaching out to adopted Chinese children all over the world. She chooses five books on Chinese history and culture and says the birth of a donkey is more likely to be celebrated in rural China than that of a baby girl.

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Xinran is a Chinese writer, broadcaster and founder of The Mother’s Bridge of Love, an organisation reaching out to adopted Chinese children all over the world. She chooses five books on Chinese history and culture and says the birth of a donkey is more likely to be celebrated in rural China than that of a baby girl.