Ten of the Best Chinese Books in Translation


This year’s China in Context festival focuses on the theme of translation; from translating language, to culture and ideas. We’ve asked Nicky Harman, the UK-based prize-winning literary translator, to recommend some of the best translation works of Chinese literature to our audience. Here is the list Nicky created.

Nicky Harman:

In the twenty years since I started translating, I’ve seen some riveting books, in stunning translations, coming out of China. I think it’s fair to say that they haven’t always had the publicity they deserve. But here is my chance to remedy that situation and to share some of my enthusiasm for Chinese literature with you. Where on earth to start? Given the quantity of books that are available, my choice has to be a personal one and I make no apology for that. All I can hope to do with this small selection is to give you an idea of what’s out there in the book shops, and to inspire you to delve into others too. So here goes (in no particular order):

The Chilli Bean Paste Clanby YAN Ge, translated by Nicky Harman (Balestier Press)

Set in a fictional town in West China, this is the story of the Duan-Xue family, owners of the lucrative chilli bean paste factory, and their formidable matriarch. As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, her middle-aged children get together to make preparations. Family secrets are revealed, long-time sibling rivalries re-ignite with renewed vigour. Shengqiang can barely juggle between his mistress and his wife, but the biggest surprises come from Gran herself……

The Last Quarter of the Moon, by CHI Zijian, translated by Bruce Humes (Vintage)

A 90-year-old woman looks back on a tumultuous past governed by ritual, the laws of nature and the will of “the Spirits”. She is a member of the Evenki people; an animistic, reindeer-herding, hunter tribe who live in the mountain forests of north-east China. Chi Zijian’s beautifully realised novel offers a lyrical and moving portrait of a way of life hard to imagine today. The narrator comes from a long lineage of clan chieftains and, through her recollections, we follow the decline of the Evenki.

Little Aunt Crane, by YAN Geling, translated by Esther Tyldesley (Vintage)

Tatsuro, a Japanese orphan, is bought by a Chinese peasant and his wife, for whom she bears two children, while all the time the couple conceal her existence from the authorities. Set in Manchuria, in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War Two, this is a novel about a strange ménage à trois, the shifting relationships between them, and ultimately about love, bravery and survival.

A Hero Born, by JIN Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood (MacLehose Press)

A novel in the wuxia, or fighting hero, tradition, perennially popular amongst millions of Chinese, young and old. Set in China in 1200, A Hero Born tells of an empire close to collapse. Under attack from the Jurchen Jin dynasty, the future of the entire Chinese population rests in the hands of a few lone martial arts exponents. The first in a twelve-volume series to be translated, A Hero Born has a fictional plot, with a real historical background.

Young Babylon, by LU Nei, translated by Poppy Tolland (AmazonCrossing)

Working-class Lu Xiaolu reluctantly takes a job at the town’s saccharin factory. He adjusts to the bureaucratic routine, making the best of the situation by bonding with co-workers and flirting with girls, but finally comes to see the system that governs his life as indifferent to any individual’s happiness. Nothing daunted, he decides to fight for the life he wants.

Our Story: A Memoir of Love and Life in China, by RAO Pingru, translated by Nicky Harman (Square Peg)

Begun by the author when he was eighty-seven years old and mourning the loss of his wife Meitang, Our Story is a graphic memoir telling the story of a marriage, illustrated with vibrant, original paintings. It follows the couple through decades in which China undergoes extraordinary growth, political turmoil, and cultural change, as they experience the best and the worst of times—from raising a brood of much-loved children, to being separated for more than twenty years when Pingru is sent away to do Reform through Education.

Ruined City, by JIA Pingwa, translated by Howard Goldblatt (University of Oklahoma Press)

Sexual and legal imbroglios among the intelligentsia of Xi’an—an incisive portrait of politics and culture in a rapidly changing China. Considered so sensitive, with its graphic depictions of sex and corruption, that it was instantly banned on publication in the 1990s, and has only recently been unbanned. If you can’t find this very fine novel, try Happy Dreams by Jia for a tale of migrant workers in the big city that succeeds in being both moving and funny (Amazon Crossing, 2017).

Lust, Caution and Other Stories, by Eileen CHANG (ZHANG Ailing), translated by Julia Lovell, Karen S Kingsbury, Janet Ng, Janice Wickeri, Simon Patten and Eva Hung (Penguin Modern Classics)

Short stories by a great twentieth century writer. In the title story, beautiful young Jiazhi spends her days playing mahjong and drinking tea with high society ladies. But 1940s Shanghai is occupied by invading Japanese forces and things are not what they seem. Jiazhi’s life is a front. A patriotic student radical, her mission is to seduce a powerful employee of the occupying government and lead him to the assassin’s bullet. Yet as she waits for him to arrive at their liaison, Jiazhi begins to wonder if she is cut out to be a femme fatale and coldly take Mr Yi to his death. Or is she beginning to fall in love with him?

The Four Books, by YAN Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas (Vintage)

In a sprawling labour camp, the Author, Musician, Scholar, Theologian and Technician are undergoing Re-education, a process supervised by the Child, who delights in draconian rules and confiscating treasured books. But when the Great Famine strikes, the intellectuals are abandoned by the regime and left on their own to survive. The Four Books tells the story of one of China’s most devastating and controversial periods.

Bronze and Sunflower, by CAO Wenxuan, translated by Helen Wang (Walker Books)

When Sunflower, a young city girl, moves to the countryside, she grows to love the reed marsh lands – the endlessly flowing river and the sky that stretches on and on in its vastness. However, the days are long, and the little girl is lonely. Then she meets Bronze, who, unable to speak, is ostracized by the other village boys. Soon the pair are inseparable. But life in Damaidi is hard, and Bronze’s family can barely afford to feed themselves. Will Sunflower be able to stay in this place where she has finally found happiness? A lovely read for young people and those still young at heart alike. Won the Hans Christian Anderson Award 2016.

Find these books and more during our China in Context book fair weekend and hear more from Nicky when she accompanies Yan Geling, and when she shares the stage with fellow translator, Michelle Deeter on 15 March.