Keeping with our Asian theme of the morning, just in time for the Olympics the Guardian suggests the top 10 books on Beijing….
1. Beijing Coma by Ma Jian
Published this year, Ma Jian describes the events that led up to the 1989 massacre in Beijing. He has found the perfect metaphor. Dai Wei, a student activist, lies paralysed years after being wounded during the army action of June 4. Those around him believe Dai Wei to be unconscious, but he can see and hear and, most importantly, remember. He is locked in – just as China is locked in – unable to speak or communicate freely, but silently remembering, unable to forget. The novel is rich in contemporary detail – doctors who gouge families for cash for treatment; bulldozers that threaten demolition of homes. Like much of the book, the intricate description of factional rivalries among students is rooted in fact. Ma Jian lives in London.
2. Please Don’t Call Me Human by Wang Shuo
As a teenager, Wang Shuo ran wild in Beijing, and he writes in the slang of the capital. In Please Don’t Call Me Human he’s at his most scathingly satirical. In a thinly veiled reference to the Olympics, his Beijing taxi driver anti-hero competes in an international competition to find the nation most able to humiliate itself, with gory and gloriously symbolic results. Wang Shuo lives in Los Angeles.
3. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
In this short story collection, Yiyun Li writes beautifully about the lives of ordinary people to tell the greater story of contemporary China. In Extra, the first story of the collection, she follows a middle-aged woman who has just been laid off from the bankrupt Beijing Red Star garment factory. The unemployed woman navigates the grim realities of modern China, first in a marriage of convenience, then as a cleaner for rich kids. Each ends tragically, but the woman catches a glimpse of love. Yiyun Li lives in the US.
4. The Uninvited by Yan Geling
This is a comic novel that gently lays bare all manner of social issues. Dan is an unemployed factory worker who discovers by accident that if he pretends to be a journalist he can attend press conferences. That means eating like a king at banquets laid on for the press, and receiving “red packets” of cash which amount to payment for writing adulatory stories. In fact he can make a comfortable living from his assumed identity. Things get more complicated as he is approached to write the stories of several people with grievances. He tries to help, with disastrous consequences. Yan Geling lives in the US.
5. The Crazed by Ha Jin
Here is another metaphor for the censorship of free expression in China, and again it is set during the student demonstrations of 1989. At a provincial university, Prof Yang suffers a stroke. His subsequent outbursts draw parallels between the cultural revolution and pre-Olympic China. This unsettles his student Jian Wan, who eventually leaves to go to Beijing to take part in the demonstrations. Ha Jin lives in the US. His novel Waiting won the National Book Award.
6. The Last Empress by Anchee Min
This is fictionalised history. Anchee Min has taken one of the most notorious women in Chinese history, the empress Dowager Cixi, and has turned her into a surprisingly accessible heroine. Drawn in by the first person narrative, the reader is taken into the heart of imperial life and witnesses first hand the life and death struggles between those who would open to the west and those who would turn China in on itself. It is a struggle that continues today in Zhongnanhai, the Communist party compound which occupies part of the old imperial palace. Anchee Min lives in California.
7. Serve the People by Yan Lianke
Yan Lianke lives in Beijing, and has said that this means he sometimes tones down what he writes. Nevertheless, Serve the People is an unashamed satire on the Communist party’s instruction to “serve the people”. A lowly cook working in the provinces takes the instruction too literally when his boss, a local party leader, leaves for Beijing, and the cook finds himself seduced by the official’s wife.
8. I Love Dollars by Zhu Wen
Zhu Wen is another writer who chooses to live in Beijing. I Love Dollars is a collection of short stories that are often absurd and have a strong undercurrent of nihilism. Zhu, tongue firmly in cheek, debates the relative values of sex, political idealism and money.
9. The Dragon’s Tail by Adam Williams
Williams’ latest historical novel, The Dragon’s Tail, follows British spy Harry Airton through the Japanese invasion, the cultural revolution, and up to the Beijing massacre of 1989. Williams’ passion for China’s modern history is rooted in his own family’s experiences as expatriates in China during the same period, and in his own experience as a long-time Beijing resident. The result is engaging, enthusiastic storytelling.
10. Beijing Doll by Chun Sue
This is all teenage angst and boredom. Chun Sue is the name both of the author and the protagonist, and this is thinly veiled autobiography. Chun is pessimistic, rebellious and more interested in sex than in school. The book can feel as tedious as the narrator’s life, but it is an interesting insight into a generation whose lives are as far from the Communist Youth League as from the moon. Don’t be taken in. Beijing Doll tells only part of the story. Back in the late 80s, middle-aged people rolled their eyes about young people’s shallow materialism. In 1989, millions of young people took to the streets nationwide calling for political change.