When talking about Chinese literature, old classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West may spring to mind. We don’t necessarily think of modern writers when it comes to Chinese fiction, but that’s starting to change. In the past few years, several talented Chinese authors have been receiving international recognition, and more writers than ever are being translated into English. We thought it was about time we took a look at some of most exciting Chinese authors writing today.
First off is Cixin Liu, the author who inspired this list. Sci-fi isn’t a genre you would usually associate with Chinese writers, but Liu announced himself to the world when he won the Hugo Award in 2015 for The Three Body Problem. The Hugo Award is sci-fi’s most prestigious prize, with past winners including Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
The novel forms the first part of The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, which also includes The Dark Forest and Death’s End. The trilogy definitely falls under the hard sci-fi genre, so it may not be to everybody’s taste. The narrative sees nanotech engineer Wang Miao infiltrate a highly mysterious virtual world as he investigates a series of connected suicides.
A Chinese language movie adaptation of The Three Body Problem is scheduled for later in 2017, and I wouldn’t bet against Hollywood making their own version in the next couple of years. Hopefully it won’t be a total whitewash!
Try Cixin Liu if you like Phillip K. Dick, William Gibson or Isaac Asimov.
Our next author covers slightly more familiar territory for Chinese writers. Sa Shan’s most famous work is The Girl Who Played Go. The storytakes place against a backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. A talented young woman is undefeated at the Chinese board game of Go. She comes up against an opponent who, unbeknownst to her, is a Japanese soldier. Through each encounter their relationship grows in this tragic tale of war.
Sa Shan was born and raised in Beijing but moved to France at the age of 18. Although she has spent her entire career in Europe, her books still revolve around China. Her later novel, Empress, is a historical tale of the life of Empress Wu Zetian.
Try Sa Shan if you like Khaled Hosselini, Ian McEwan or Milan Kundera.
When Han Han released 1988: I Want To Talk With The World, critics were falling over themselves to label him China’s Jack Kerouac. The young writer was already one of China’s most famous bloggers, and the consequent success of his debut novel only served to cement his status as the voice of a generation.
1988 is far from your standard Chinese work of fiction, and it’s easy to see where the On The Road comparisons have come from. The novel centers on Lu Ziye, who meets pregnant prostitute Shan Shan at a seedy Chinese motel. The two embark on the most unlikely of road trips.
To draw too many comparisons to Kerouac’s beatnik style may actually be to Han Han’s detriment. After all, Truman Capote once said of On The Road, “That’s not writing, it’s typing”. What is undeniable is that both writers captured some of what their respective generations were trying to articulate.
Try Han Han if you like Douglas Coupland, Bret Easton Ellis, or, yep, Jack Kerouac.
Not all of China’s current crop of great authors are writing about the Sino-Japanese War, emulating Jack Kerouac or winning the Hugo Award. Children’s author Hongying Yang has become one of the country’s most popular writers with her Diary of the Smiling Cat and Mo’s Mischief series.
Mo’s Mischief centers around the titular Mo Shen Ma, a trouble-making primary school student with a heart of gold. The Diary of the Smiling Cat series is a bit more ‘out there’, containing elements of fantasy with titles such as The Child Coming From Another Planet.
Yang’s books have been a huge success in her native China. By 2013 alone, she’d sold over 50 million copies. It’s no wonder the media refer to her as “China’s J.K. Rowling”.
Try Hongying Yang if you like J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, or Jeff Kinney.
Last, but far from least, is Mo Yan. Being the first Chinese author to win the Nobel Prize, Yan has sealed his place as one of the greatest writers in Chinese literature today. No list about modern Chinese writers could be complete without him.
Yan has a rich body of work, but perhaps his most famous offerings are is debut novel Red Sorghum and 2006’s Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out.
Red Sorghum takes place across three generations of a family in rural Shandong, documenting their resistance to the Sino-Japanese War. The Second Sino-Japanese War is at the very heart of modern Chinese literature and there is a large body of work that deals with the subject. Red Sorghum is at times brutal and tragic, but Yan’s style is never melodramatic.
Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out is a lot less conventional, following the many lives and deaths of a Chinese landowner who dies many times, only to repeatedly find himself reincarnated in the form of different animals.
Yan’s novels usually intertwine modern Chinese history with elements of magic realism and, at times, outright absurd comedy. In a country with such a complicated and sensitive recent history as China, it’s amazing that such a literary approach has worked and thrived. On the other hand, perhaps it needed a writer’s touch as ridiculous as Yan’s to make sense of it all.
Try Mo Yan if you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, or Gunter Grass.
Got some more recommendations for modern Chinese authors? Leave them in the comments section below!