20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), An Yu, Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 226 pages; 2020.

An Yu’s novel Braised Pork is a little bit of an enigma.

I came to it with a couple of preconceptions — both of which proved to be wrong:

  • I mistakenly thought the novel would be ideal for Women in Translation month (which runs throughout August), but it wasn’t until I began reading that I realised the author, who is Chinese and was raised in Beijing, writes her fiction in English.
  • I thought it was a crime novel because in the opening pages a woman finds her husband dead in the bath.

But it is neither of these things.

Instead, this is a novel about a widowed woman coming to terms with a new future that has opened out in front of her.

Its careful blending of mythic elements — I hesitate to describe it as magic realism, but it’s certainly got some of those qualities — with real-life trauma, gives it an unusual, almost esoteric, edge.

Dead in the bath

The story is set in modern-day Beijing and is told from the point of view of Jia Jia, a young woman married to a wealthy older man.

One morning in November she finds her husband, Chen Hang, crouching facedown in the bath, his “rump sticking out of the water”, his body stiff from rigor mortis. Next to him is a piece of folded paper bearing a crudely drawn figure — a fish’s body with a man’s head — something Chen Hang had recently dreamt about while on a solo trip to Tibet.

This sets Jia Jia on a quest to discover the meaning behind the “fish man”, a quest that becomes a journey of self-discovery, one that traverses grief, loneliness, family and freedom.

Perplexing story

The “fish man”, which is a recurring motif throughout the novel, lends a perplexing element to the story. This puzzlement is further increased by a scene in which Jia Jia’s bedroom floor transforms into a watery abyss.

Looking down at the floor, she discovered that it did not exist any more, and what replaced it was the surface of a deep sea, as if she was sitting on the edge of a ship watching the reflection of the starless sky in the water. The darkness rippled like silk.

In another scene, a painting becomes a portal into a parallel world. It’s all very strange. Later, on a quick trip to Tibet, Jia Jia meets others searching for the same mythical “fish man” figure and is astounded to find a sculpture carved into a tree trunk that resembles what her husband had drawn.

Meanwhile, as Jia Jia readjusts to life without the man who provided her with everything, including a luxurious Beijing apartment, she comes to understand her marriage was loveless, and that she had been prevented from pursuing her career as an artist.

Her loneliness and cool detachment — which is mirrored only by the dispassionate prose style — is soothed by Leo, a local bar owner with whom she begins a fairly relaxed romance, and family members who encourage her to sell up and move in with them.

Portrait of a city

For all its strangeness and aching melancholia and inability to pigeonhole as a particular type of literary novel, Braised Pork is a wonderful portrait of metropolitan Beijing, with its pollution, expensive property and rampant consumerism.

The emergence of new social classes and the conflict between generations as a result of changes to long-held Chinese traditions gives the story added depth.

In one scene, for instance, a character bemoans the need to buy his children things — a soft mattress, shoe cabinets for trainers bought in New York, a tennis racket, ballet shoes  — that were unimaginable when he was young. In another, Leo is frustrated by his parents’ refusal to link their bank accounts to their phone apps “for fear of their money being stolen” and their inability to understand that opening their windows to let in what they believed to be “fresh air” was detrimental to their health — he had brought them an air purifier for this reason.

On the whole, I enjoyed Braised Pork even though I didn’t quite understand what it was all about. I loved the cool, hypnotic prose style, the main character’s journey of self-discovery and the portrait of modern-day China.

I’ve not read any Haruki Murakami (apart from his non-fiction book about running, reviewed here), but many of the reviews I have seen online draw comparisons to his work. If you are a fan, then An Yu’s novel might be worth hunting out.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from my local secondhand book warehouse in April for $15.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ha Jin, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Vintage International

‘The Boat Rocker’ by Ha Jin

Fiction – paperback; Vintage International; 222 pages; 2016.

The Boat Rocker by American-based Chinese writer Ha Jin is a novel about truth, propaganda, censorship, politics and corruption.

It is framed around fraught and complicated relations between China and the West. It posits the idea that literary stardom can be purchased in China if you are willing to become a pawn of the Chinese Government. It also posits the idea that only American journalism can save the world from corruption by exposing lies and reporting the truth.

If that all sounds naive, or too simple a premise, there is a caveat: the story is set in 2005 before Twitter was created and Facebook was in its infancy. The only thing that went viral back then were websites and their comment sections.

A principled journalist

The story focuses on a Chinese expatriate, Feng Danlin, who is a reporter at a small Manhattan-based news agency that publishes a Chinese-language website read by people all over the world. Danlin is a fiercely principled journalist who believes his job is to expose lies wherever he may find them regardless of the consequences.

When he discovers that his ex-wife, Yan Haili — who also lives in Manhattan (now with a new husband) — is set to become China’s biggest literary star, he is suspicious. He has read her writing before and has a low opinion of it. He does some investigative work and discovers the film rights haven’t been sold for millions of dollars as claimed. Nor is the book being translated into 30 different languages, because it still hasn’t been translated into English.

When Danlin writes a series of articles about Haili’s deception, suggesting she’s in cahoots with the Chinese Government, he comes across as jealous and vengeful. But his criticism hits the spot, and Haili tries to silence him by “legal bullying”.

A microcosm of bigger issues

As a premise for an entire novel, the issue of whether a writer is all that she claims to be seems rather petty — and a little bit ludicrous. It also comes across as misogynistic and the tone of the novel, certainly the first half, does leave a bitter taste in the mouth, especially when Haili is often referred to as a “bitch”. (As an aside, I’ve often found that Chinese books written by men do have misogynistic and sexist overtones — Ma Jian’s work, which I love, is a case in point.)

But the author is making a bigger point: that “minor” deceptions (or, should I say, fake news?) such as Haili’s so-called literary success are indicative of major deceptions going on between governments and their people all the time, we just aren’t attuned to them — unless they are exposed by the Fourth Estate.

Jin also makes a bigger point about the consequences, for in China, to be seen to be acting against your government is life-changing — and not in a good way. But in places like the USA, being critical of your rulers is all part and parcel of democracy.

Not so modern journalism

I actually wanted to read The Boat Rocker because it was billed as exploring the “moral dimensions of modern journalism”, a subject I’m interested in because of my past career in the media, and because I also thought — mistakenly, as it turns out — that it might be classified as a “newspaper novel”, of which I have a soft spot (see here and here).

But the journalism aspects of the book are fairly thin; it’s really about propaganda and the way governments (both in China and the USA) use it to influence their citizens.

And what it does have to say about journalism feels terribly outdated now, especially when we’re all lost in our own online echo chambers thanks to the social media algorithms that feed us what we want to hear. And dare I even mention US President Donald Trump and the way he manipulated everything and told barefaced lies and had absolutely no shame about anything?

I did like this comment though:

You claimed that without a country an individual would be nothing, but how many people have been reduced to nothing by their countries? Patriotism is a pejorative word in my dictionary: it connotes spiritual paucity, intellectual blindness and laziness, and moral cowardice. Isn’t it terrible to let only a country form the underpinning of one’s being?

The Boat Rocker is an interesting novel, but, on the whole, I felt ambivalent about it.

I certainly liked the latter half better than the first, because when Danlin eases up on his criticism of his ex-wife the narrative opens up to look at bigger issues, including what it is like to be a Chinese expatriate. The conversations he has with various diplomats and intellectuals are particularly insightful into the mindset of Communist China and its citizens…

A Yi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, crime/thriller, Fiction, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting

‘A Perfect Crime’ by A Yi


Fiction – hardcover; Oneworld Publications; 224 pages; 2015. Translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood.

I do love a dark crime novel — and A Yi’s A Perfect Crime is probably one of the darkest I’ve read in a long time.

Set in China, it follows the exploits of a disaffected 19-year-old student who decides he’s so bored he needs to do something to make his life more exciting. Where others might go on a holiday or take up a new hobby, this nameless young man decides to murder a fellow student by luring her into the apartment he shares with his aunt. Here, he brutally stabs her to death and then shoves her body into a washing machine. He then goes on the run, criss-crossing the country, in what turns out to be a cat-and-mouse game with the police.

Will he get caught?

A Perfect Crime isn’t your traditional who dunnit, because we know up front who committed the crime. We also know how he did it, and, because it’s told entirely from his point of view, we also know why he did it, even if we may not understand his reasoning or logic. What we don’t know is whether he will get caught, and if he does get caught, will he get away with it or begin to show remorse?

This makes the book quite an original take on a genre that can often be predictable or trot out the same old tropes. And despite the fact the reader knows the who, why and how of the narrator’s horrid and brutal crime, the author manages to achieve a high level of tension throughout. I raced through this in just a handful of sittings and felt slightly wrung out by the end of it.

It’s an incredibly bleak story, one that often brought to mind Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and MJ Hyland’s This is How, two books that are fascinating portraits of murderers who commit extraordinary violent murders almost on a whim. I was also reminded of the very best Japanese crime fiction — for instance, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief and Shuichi Yoshida’ Villain — which explore the dark recesses of Japanese society.

A dark glimpse at Chinese culture

Interestingly, I heard the author speak about this book (via a translator) at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival earlier in the week. He said the book was based on a true crime and that he wanted to explore the dark underbelly of Chinese culture, but he did not want to glorify the crime, hence he did not give the narrator a name.

Having now read the book, I can see that his experience in law enforcement (he was a policeman for five years) and as a journalist/editor, has come to the fore. Not only does the content of the book feel authentic, in particular, the crime and the judicial process that follows, it reads like a dream — the prose is action-driven, clean, bare-boned and there’s not a word out of place.

But while A Perfect Crime is set in China and gives us a glimpse of a society undergoing super-quick change, this is essentially a universal story of what can happen to young men, who are disaffected, bored and uninspired by the life they see before them — no matter where they live.

For another take on this book, please see Stu’s review.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Corsair, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Yan Lianke

‘Dream of Ding Village’ by Yan Lianke


Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 352 pages; 2011. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter.

I read Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village while lying by a pool on the Greek island of Rhodes and I have to say this did not make for a good holiday read — it was far too grim and oppressive to truly enjoy while soaking up the sunshine.

Nevertheless, it’s an important story — and one that needs to be told if we are to learn anything about the value of our health, prevention of disease and the importance of proper regulated medical care.

It is set in a village in rural China devastated by the AIDS virus, which has been spread by the unfettered and wholly unregulated business of blood banks. These banks, which are run by blood merchants, pay poor peasants meagre sums for any blood they donate. Sadly, they reuse needles and other equipment, and thereby contaminate donors so that, before too long, an entire village is suffering from “the fever”.

This book, which is narrated by the ghost of a dead boy, reminded me of Ma Jian’s rather brilliant Beijing Coma, especially in its depiction of a crude and corrupt health care system in which access is dependent not on need but on the ability to pay. It also reveals much about the modern Chinese value system in which everything — including blood — has been commodified in order to make profit.

This is quite an eye-opening, confronting and gruelling read, and definitely not one for the faint-hearted. It was longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize and shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Fiction, Geling Yan, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Flowers of War’ by Geling Yan


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2012. Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.

Geling Yan’s The Flowers of War is set during the Nanking Massacre — sometimes known as the Rape of Nanking — in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed when Japanese forces captured the Chinese city in December 1937.

An American church offers shelter

In this fictionalised account, a group of 16 terrified schoolgirls find safety in the attic of an American church. St Mary Magdalene is protected by a high wall and regarded as neutral territory in the Second Sino-Japanese War. It is run by Father Engelmann, an American who has lived in China for 30 years, with the help of Deacon Fabio Adornato, another Westerner who was born to Italian-American parents and raised in Yangzhou.

But a day after the girls have been taken in, a group of women clamber over the wall demanding equal protection. They are prostitutes from the nearby Qin Huai River brothels and they do not want to be taken by the Japanese soldiers as “comfort women”. Father Engelmann tries to turn them away, claiming he does not have enough food, water or shelter, but he eventually agrees they can stay in the cellar — for two days.

To make matters worse, two wounded Chinese soldiers secretly enter the compound. They have survived a shocking massacre and have nowhere else to go. Again, Father Engelmann tries to turn them away but relents and they are housed in the cellar with the prostitutes.

Tension between those seeking refuge

The story basically shows how these four divergent group of people — the religious men, the prostitutes, the schoolgirls from privileged backgrounds and the soldiers — must live together under extraordinary circumstances, where prejudice and tension abounds, food and water is in short supply, and fear of Japanese evasion is ever present.

I had expected The Flowers of War to be dark and very moving, but apart from the odd moment of horror, the story generally falls flat. Part of the problem is the lack of a central character with which to identify, so an emotional connection cannot be made. And Engelmann, Fabio and the schoolgirl Shujuan feel too distant — and cold-hearted — to really care about.

The prose, which occasionally shimmers, largely seems all tell and not much show. It’s not exactly pedestrian, but it does feel as if you’re reading the bones of a story which is in need of a bit more meat.

Prejudiced attitudes

And, if I am honest, I found it difficult to believe that a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Shujuan, could be so prejudiced against the prostitutes. She is fascinated by their antics and often spies on them through a hole in the floor, but she is also so vehemently opposed to them, I couldn’t help but wonder where that kind of hateful attitude had sprung from? Were privately educated schoolgirls in 1930s China taught that prostitutes were the lowest form of life? Or was it something she learned from her rich parents?

It didn’t seem to add up to me — and nor did the epilogue, which felt tacked on and clumsy. Here, nine years after the massacre, Shujuan is just coming to realise how these women may have saved her life and is trying to track them down, because “if she didn’t remember them, who would?”

It’s a great shame that The Flowers of War was so dull, because this is an important — and dramatic — story needing to be told. Perhaps the film adaptation, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale, is better. It wouldn’t be hard.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Qui Xiaolong, Sceptre, Setting

‘The Mao Case’ by Qui Xiaolong


Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 304 pages; 2009.

The Mao Case by Qui Xiaolong is the sixth and latest book in the Inspector Chen series, which is set in modern day China. But the author, who writes in English, actually lives in the US.

I’ve not read the previous five novels, but I did not find this a hindrance to what proved to be an enjoyable if somewhat unconventional detective story.

Chief Inspector Chen Cao is not your average run-of-the-mill police officer. He is young, idealistic and takes pride in his work. He loves literature and poetry and does a nice sideline in translation. But his personal life is complicated: his girlfriend, Ling, lives hundreds of miles away in Beijing and their relationship is a tumultuous one. In fact, in the opening chapter of The Mao Case Chen is informed by telephone that Ling has dumped him and married a man more appropriate to her social standing (she’s known as a HCC — a high cadre’s child — because her father is a top-ranking Party official).

But this is merely a sub-plot. The main story involves Chen going undercover to investigate a rather delicate matter involving Chairman Mao. He must take a softly softly approach, not least because “any slander against Mao, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, will affect the legitimacy of the Party”.

The Party believe that Mao may have given some unspecified material to Shang Yunguan, a 1950s movie star he is said to have had an affair with. The Party want the material back, even though they don’t know what it is and whether it even exists. It’s not something that can be discussed openly, because that would confirm the rumours about Mao’s illicit private life, something which must be avoided at all costs.

A party official, Minister Huang, enlists Chen to undertake this highly secret investigation after Internal Security fail to turn anything up.

“She [Shang] could have taken — or been given — something from him. There were many opportunities.”
“Something from Mao?” Chen was instantly alert, though hardly able to smother the sarcasm is his voice. “What could that possibly be?”
“We don’t know.”

The minister believes the material may have been passed to Shang’s daughter, Qian — who died in an accident at the end of the Cultural Revolution — which was then inherited by her granddaughter Jiao. The Party is suspicious of Jiao, because she quit her job a year ago and moved into a luxurious apartment. Since then she has frequently been seen at parties — attended by Westerners — that are being hosted by a mysterious elderly art teacher and 1930s expert called Mr Xie, “who bears a deep grudge against Mao”.

As part of the investigation, which swings between Shanghai and Beijing, Chen reinvents himself as a businessman and writer researching Shanghai’s 1930s glory days in order to infiltrate Mr Xie’s glamorous parties. Along the way he meets strange businessmen, Triads, beautiful women, Chairman Mao himself and all sorts of writerly types.

The plot is occasionally confusing — and preposterous. But Xiaolong’s descriptions of China — where the cities of Beijing and Shanghai are being seemingly transformed overnight and where the gap between rich and poor is ever widening — more than makes up for these minor flaws. As do the descriptions of food, particularly Chen’s visit to the Fangshan Restaurant, which specialises in imperial cuisine. Here, he dines on genuine Beijing duck and experiences…

the celebrated five ways of eating a duck: crisp duck skin slices wrapped in pancake, duck meat slices fried with green garlic, duck feet immersed in wine, duck gizzard stir-fried with green vegetables, and duck soup.

Mind you, the constant references to Chinese poetry, literature and sayings, which give the narrative a peculiar charm, begin to feel tiresome and heavy-handed by the half-way point. We know the book is set in China; we don’t need to be constantly reminded of it in such an obivous way.

That said, the narrative is well paced and builds plenty of momentum, culminating in a suitably heart-hammering and dramatic, if somewhat ambiguous, ending. It’s safe to say this was my first Inspector Chen novel and it’s unlikely to be my last.

The other novels in the series are: Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006) and Red Mandarin Dress (2007). The seventh novel, Don’t Cry Tai Lake, is due for publication in September 2012.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Ma Jian, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 336 pages; 2010. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

I’m not a huge fan of travelogues, but I decided to read Red Dust based on the strength of Ma Jian’s superb novel Beijing Coma and Max Cairnduff’s excellent review.

I read it on my Kindle while in China last month, and found much of Jian’s descriptions, particularly of places I had been such as the ancient city of Xi’an and the Ghost City of Fengdu, very authentic.

The book chronicles Jian’s travels throughout China during the 1980s, a time in which travel for the average Chinese citizen was banned without the necessary paperwork.

He claims to go travelling because: “I want to see my country, every river, every mountain. I want to see different people, different lives. […] I just want to know it, see it with my own eyes.” But that is the sanitised version.

Before he hit the road, Jian was an official photographer for the propaganda department of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. He spent most of his free time as an artist. His house, a “crumbling old shack”, in Beijing was used by fellow creatives — writers, painters, poets and dissidents — as a secret meeting point.

He was labelled as a “questionable youth” by his bosses, who believed his “spare time activities” indicated he had been poisoned by “bourgeois Spiritual Pollution”. He escaped the clutches of Party Officials waging their Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution by forging his own travel documents and heading for the desert. (Just as well, because within a matter of years more than a million people were arrested and nearly 200,000 executed as part of the Campaign.)

It was 1983 and he was 30 years old. He had hoped to find spiritual enlightenment along the way, but as most travellers are wont to discover, Jian ended up learning a great deal about his country — good, bad and ugly — and the people who lived in it.

He was on the move for three years before he decided to return to Beijing.

Initially he revels in the freedom that travel provided:

Men are like swallows, when autumn arrives they long to fly away. Life moves with the same rhythm as the sky and the earth. It changes as sun changes into moon and day into night. If they told me to return to Beijing now, I would charge straight into those ramparts.  I would rather crack my skull and die than go back to moulder in that dank city.

But later, after some close encounters and a constant struggle to earn enough cash to get by, he realises that freedom is not the be all and end all. “Walking through the wilds freed me from worries and fears, but this is not real freedom,” he wrote. “You need money to be free.”

While I found Red Dust an easy read and enjoyed discovering more about China through Jian’s eyes, I did have some problems with the book.

The first — which can be dismissed as my own fault, rather than the author’s — was Jian’s narrative voice. I simply did not like it, because it often came across as arrogant and sexist (not dissimilar, in fact, to his fictional Dai Wei in Beijing Coma).

The second is simply the repetition of Jian arriving in a new place (usually broke and worried that the authorities will discover his papers are illegal), befriending someone, finding out about the local culture and then leaving. Once or twice is interesting, but when the bulk of the narrative is just relating a succession of these encounters, as different as each may be, it does become wearing. (Max Cairnduff’s review also finds this a major failing.)

Of course, that’s not enough to dismiss the book completely. There’s a lot in Red Dust which provides food for thought, particularly as it is set just as China’s economy was beginning to open up thanks to Deng Xiaoping‘s reforms. Jian thought that this would help his people, until he meets many rural folk who tell him otherwise. One chap says:

“A free economy won’t make bicycles or sewing machines grow from the earth. […] All the young men have left to find work in the cities. They come back at Spring Festival with new watches and big bags of clothes.”

I’d love to know how opinions and attitudes have changed in the 25 years since Jian went on his travels, but sadly Jian will never be able to retrace his steps to find out. He’s no longer welcome in his homeland and has been resident in London since 1999. His books are banned in China.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Fiction, literary fiction, Ma Jian, Vintage

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 666 pages; 2009. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

It’s been a very long time since I read a novel that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma is by no means a perfect book — it’s far too lengthy for a start and the lead character is arrogant and annoying by turns — but it is a powerful, compelling read, a story that bears witness to a shocking event that the Chinese authorities would rather you did not know about: the Tianamen Square massacre of 1989.

Although the book is fictional, it is based on first-hand experience and, from what I can gather having now read this wikipedia entry, is historically accurate. Only the names have been changed.

Beijing Coma remains banned in China, along with everything else that Ma Jian has written. (He now lives in London with his translator wife, Flora Drew.)

At more than 600-pages long, it requires a major commitment from the reader, but it is worth the effort. It is a deeply moving account of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work. But in Ma Jian’s hands this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective.

As Dai Wei lays in a bed in his mother’s apartment waiting to die — he was felled by a bullet during the military crackdown — he takes in everything happening around him. Much of the time he reminisces about his past, and through this we learn of his childhood growing up in 1980s Communist China, where his father was labelled a “rightist” and sentenced to 20 years in a prison farm, and his mother was a fine, upstanding citizen who toed the Party line.

Later, he escapes the claustrophobia of the family home to attend university, where he spends more time chasing girls than studying. He eventually gets swept up in the idealism of the pro-democracy movement and finds himself head of security during the protests which begin in April 1989.

He recalls the student movement’s slow disintegration, as boisterous enthusiasm and idealism makes way for in-fighting, internal power struggles and corruption all because it lacked a truly united front.

But Dai Wei’s memories of the past are constantly interrupted by events happening around him in his mother’s cramped and shabby apartment. Because he was injured during a massacre that the Government denies ever happened, he is not allowed medical treatment. It is up to his mother, as sole carer, to do what she can to help him: she gets drugs and IV equipment on the black market, and occasionally has documents forged to allow him to be treated in hospital. It is a perilous, on-the-edge and inhumane existence for both parties.

His mother is anxious for her son to die to relieve her of this terrible burden — and she makes no bones about telling him this, not knowing that despite Dai Wei’s vegetative state he can hear everything she says.

At times the narrative feels like a dark comedy (there’s one instance when Dai Wei’s urine is seen as a miracle cure and people come from far and wide to buy it from his mother’s apartment), but for the most part it is a damning indictment of China’s human rights record.

It is also a fascinating insight into the massive economic and physical changes that Beijing underwent between 1989 and the 2008 Olympic Games, as old buildings were torn down to make way for modern ones, and local residents took advantage of new investment.

But for Dai Wei’s mother this change is not welcome. As she juggles her son’s medical needs with her own struggle to survive, she is ordered by the Government to leave her apartment so that it can be demolished to make way for new buildings as part of the Beijing Olympic bid. Her refusal to move, to succumb to the Government’s demands, not only shows how much her attitude to the Government has changed (she was once a model Communist citizen), it provides a glimpse of a country thundering ahead so fast that only the fittest, strongest and most adaptable can survive.

These dual narratives are interleaved in a seamless fashion, so that only the tense — past for Dei Wei’s memories, present for events happening around his sick bed — orientates the reader.

A word of caution, however: the level of detail in this novel may be off-putting to some, because Ma Jian records the minutiae of student life and every tiny step of the protest movement. I admit that I did, at times, wonder if it was worth me ploughing ahead. I’m pleased that I persisted, because the sheer weight of the information presented builds momentum. By the time you reach the horrifying climax — the tanks rolling in and the soldiers mowing down innocent bystanders — it’s like being hit over the head by a tonne of bricks, as the full force of all that detail rains down on you. It is, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic endings to a novel I’ve ever read.

Beijing Coma held my attention for an entire month. It is a brave and audacious book, brimming with idealism, chaos and horror. If you like your fiction rooted in fact, with a choppy, fast-paced narrative, and a conclusion that leaves you reeling, then do add this one to the list.

Author, Book review, China, Doubleday Canada, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Ting-Xing Ye

‘My Name is Number 4’ by Ting-Xing Ye


Non-fiction – Kindle Edition; Doubleday Canada; 240 pages; 2010.

Ting-Xing Ye is a Chinese-Canadian author, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. My Name is Number 4, first published in 1997, is her heart-rending account of what it was like living in that country during that time.

In China, number 4 is regarded as an unlucky number (similar to the way we in the West regard 13), and for Ting-Xing Ye it could not be more true. Born in Shanghai in 1952, she was the fourth child (out of 5) and by the time she was in her early teens both her parents had died. She and her siblings — two elder brothers, and an older and younger sister — were then raised by her Great Aunt.

Unfortunately, because her father was a factory owner, all the children were branded as “capitalists” when the Red Guards took over. This meant much humiliation at school, where she was subject to verbal and physical abuse.

But what terrified me most was a new government policy, supposedly designed to relieve the pressure of overpopulation in the cities. One child from each family must move to the countryside and remain there for the rest of his or her life.

Ting-Xing does the honourable thing and volunteers to move to the country, even though her elder sister was technically the sibling who should have gone. Ting-Xing was given two choices: a rubber plantation on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, or to a prison farm, far north of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province. After her brother did some investigating and discovered that the rubber plantation was plagued by a “devastating outbreak of hepatitis”, she chose the prison farm.

For the next six years, Ting-Xing lived and worked on the farm, which “had been set up in the early 1950s to put away political prisoners” but now housed other criminals, all male, whom had been charged with living “dissolute lifestyles”. This presented Ting-Xing and her female companions with another threat — sexual predation — while trying to cope with a new life of hard work, humiliation and separation from friends and family.

Ting-Xing’s account never wallows in self-pity, but she makes it clear that her deprivations were harsh and that she was, at times, subject to what we today know better as “sleep-deprivation torture used by many countries in espionage and war”.

She makes few friends and spends what little free time she has teaching herself English, which pays off in the end, when, aged 22, she passed the entrance exam to Beijing University.

Sadly, the Kindle edition of this book seems to be missing the section I was most interested in: Xing-Ting’s life post-prison. I wanted to learn of her life as a translator, her feudal-style marriage and later of her defection to Canada, where she married a Canadian and lives to this day. It was only upon reading the fine print, on the second-to-last page, that I realised this is an abridged edition designed for young adult readers — which may partly explain the over-emphasis on menstruation throughout the book (teenage girls love that sort of thing) and the patronising glossary at the back explaining about the PLA, Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four.

Despite this, My Name is Number 4 is a good read in the sense that you really get a feel for what it must have been like to live a life of fear, deprivation and exile all in the name of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Xing-Ting Ye has an important story to tell, and she tells it well. It’s just a pity that this edition wasn’t the one I expected, but that’s more the fault of the marketing than the author. I reckon teenage girls would love it.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Dai Sijie, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’ by Dai Sijie


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 172 pages; 2006. Translated from the Chinese by Ina Rilke.

Set in China in the early 1970s, this delightful story is about two teenage boys sent to the country to be ‘re-educated’ by poor peasants as part of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Both the narrator, the son of two doctors, and his friend Luo, the son of a famous dentist, are classified as ‘young intellectuals’ even though they have not graduated from high school. Both are banished to a mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky, where they are assigned quarters in a barn-like house on stilts in a small village.

Despite the horrific conditions in which they live and work, they manage to find solace in their shared sense of humour and their love of the local tailor’s attractive daughter, the Little Seamstress of the novel’s title.

When they accidentally stumble upon a locked suitcase containing a selection of 19th century Western literature, banned by the authorities, they resort to all kinds of schemes and trickery to get their hands on these rare, highly desirable novels by Balzac, Dickens and Dumas (amongst others).

But sadly the boys’ love of books and literature has dramatic repercussions, particularly for the Little Seamstress, that are beyond their wildest imagininings…

I quite enjoyed Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. There is a certain fable-like quality to the writing which washes over the reader like a calm, meditative blanket. It is easy to get lost in a world that is quite unfamiliar to one’s own.

It helps that the narrative voice is strong. But because the story moves along at such a brisk pace there were — for this reader at least — some annoying gaps that I felt needed to be fleshed out. I also did not like the middle section, some 10 pages, headlined The Old Miller’s Story, Luo’s Story, and The Little Seamstress’s Story, which interrupted the main narrative in an unnecessary, jarring way. (I still fail to see the point of these three short chapters.)

On the whole, however, this is a quick gorgeous read that will appeal to anyone who loves books,  believes in the recuperative power of story-telling and is interested in recent Chinese history.