China's Best New Novels According to China's Goodreads
Stories about Chinese womanhood, cyberpunk urban worlds, and the truth of intergenerational memory.
Column by ChinaTalk editor Irene Zhang.
It’s been a tough few years for Chinese writers in the mainland. A toxic combination of hardline censorship, economic difficulties, and internet-fuelled atomization of creative industries has created barriers to producing genuinely exceptional work. Publishers abroad are happy to pick up new translations of Yan Geling or Mo Yan, but rarely take the risk on young Chinese writers of little international acclaim.
Douban, China’s popular cultural review app akin to a Letterboxd and Goodreads hybrid, released its annual booklist last month. Two original Chinese fiction made the app’s 2022 Books of the Year list: Zhang Tianyi 张天翼’s Like Snow, Like Mountains《如雪如山》 and Yang Benfen 杨本芬’s I Am Rich in Fragrance《我本芬芳》. Both books are written by Chinese women, about Chinese women, and unabashedly feminist in their persuasion. This might be expected given that the app is considered the online home turf for Chinese feminism, and counts more than sixty percent of users as female, but in fact, fiction by Chinese women writers has never entered Douban’s Books of the Year list since its inauguration in 2015.
Of course, there are reasons why gender issues dominated the cultural consciousness in 2022. Feng County and Tangshan shook the nation with brazen acts of gender-based violence. China’s birth rates and marriage rates reached record lows, and the population shrunk for the first time in 61 years — in part because women are rejecting invisible labor, career setbacks, and endemic discrimination. The job market, already dreadful for young people, is even worse for female graduates. Such a moment demands society-wide reflection — the kind made increasingly impossible by China’s hollowed media landscape. But fiction, in its plausible deniability, can still harbor the truth of experience as far as the imagination allows.
Chinese Womanhood in Seven Stories
A certain irony pervades discussions of Like Snow, Like Mountains. On Douban, users reviewing the book avoid typing the word “rape” for fear of triggering automatic censors, yet the author, Zhang Tianyi, can describe stripped-bare bodies, as well as the violence inflicted upon them, with unflinching candor. China Women’s News, the official paper of the All-China Women’s Federation, quotes a passage where the female protagonist (strongly implied to be lesbian) lusts after another woman’s body, praising the book for “imagining an Other” and “exposing women’s dissatisfaction with their current predicament and desire for breaking out of restraints.” Perhaps the greatest praise one can offer Zhang’s work is that the truths in her stories, creatively wrapped in enigmas, embarrass the powers that be.
Like Snow, Like Mountains is made up of seven short stories; each one contains one female character with a given name pronounced Lili. The author explains in the afterword:
“Li Li” is an all-too-common name in our country. There once was a ranking of the most popular names. In the Top 20, there were two names with 丽 “Li” in them: Zhang Li and Wang Li. I myself know three Zhang Lis. I suppose if you pick a building at random and yell “Li Li,” someone will surely stick their head out and answer. My dear reader, you almost definitely know a Zhang Li or Wang Li. You’ve also certainly met them: she brushed shoulders with you at the hospital while holding a baby and struggling with postpartum depression; you read about her horrific death at the hands of her fiancé in a Weibo Hot Search hashtag; she’s the little girl next door who grew up too fast; she’s the sweet, quiet student sitting across from you on the train during the Spring Festival travel rush.
Lili, then, is a stand-in for Chinese womanhood itself. Zhang, a post-80s author from Tianjin, quietly takes up an ambitious mantle in writing Like Snow, Like Mountains: the stories do not strive to be perfect and representative, but they are impressively recognizable. They tread courageously across taboos, from sexual assault and menstruation to queerness and the death penalty. The book’s feminist politics is discerning; not only is Chinese patriarchy’s internal structure laid bare, Zhang also points an incisive pen at incarceration, the urban-rural divide, class society, and even the racial dynamics of Chinese SOEs in Africa. “Anniversary,” the fourth story, is about a woman separated from her husband, who is on job rotation in Ethiopia.
At night they did what husbands and wives do — via the same position they used when they had sex for the first time at nineteen years old. They’ve tried new positions, but none have been as comfortable as that original familiarity — afterwards, they go to wash up in the bathroom one by one, and then come back into bed to lie flat. She says, when you are over there, do you think about this?
Would you feel frustrated?
Sometimes. I tell you, I have some coworkers who go to prostitutes… He flips over to face her. The night light shines on the same face as that of the boy who sat behind her in middle school, with the naiveté and credulity that’s hard to erase. He says, they’re too scared to go visit Black girls because they’re afraid of catching AIDS, but there’s this local Blackie who somehow manages to get them white prostitutes.
She smiles. Were you tempted?
I wasn’t. Really, I wasn’t.
The most well-crafted story of the collection is the first one, “I Just Want to Sit Down,” which charts a cinematic trip through the Spring Festival travel rush and the claustrophobic landscape of daily misogyny.
As she stands up, the “thinker” squeezes forward just a little bit. Sun Jiabao swiftly lands her bottom into the gap and smiles. Uncle, don’t push! They’ll think you’re bullying a little girl. Good men don’t fight women, what d’ya say? The playing cards in her hands slosh loudly as she shuffles them, as if they are cheeks being slapped. The “thinker” also smiles. Whoa there, what a sharp tongue on this girl. Careful or you won’t find a husband! Lili takes Sun Jiabao’s pink Hello Kitty water bottle and her own white thermos, then says to the two of them, Let me get water for you, it’s not easy for you to get out. This is her way of expressing thanks for saving her some seat space. The two reply thanks and hand her their bottles. As she is about to leave with the four water containers, a man with a gold necklace sitting across from her suddenly sticks out his hand and chucks a pig-liver-coloured bottle into her arms. He says nonchalantly, University students should be good helpers, study Lei Feng! She says, Oh, fine. The man turns to Sun Jiabao and says, Pretty lady, deal the cards!
Zhang Tianyi’s storytelling isn’t driven by stand-out quotes or visceral shock. Each chapter in Like Snow, Like Mountains is a collection of mundane vignettes which, when aligned in a row, reveal intimate, painful truths. “I Just Want to Sit Down” features a two-day train ride; “Snow-Capped Mountains” recounts a trip to buy socks at the mall; “Salf of Spring” unfolds across one yuezi — the rules-laden period of confinement traditionally observed by Chinese mothers after giving birth.
The book’s best moments are constructed from contemporary life’s vivid building blocks. For anyone who has spent time in post-2010s China, the material culture of Like Snow, Like Mountains is incredibly nostalgic. It is deeply exciting to see the country’s “cyberpunk” urban-consumerist landscape depicted not with horror, enchantment, or Orientalism, but with familiarity and astute observations. Take this passage from “Snow-Capped Mountains.” on visiting Chinese malls:
They didn’t need to check out the floor directory to know which floor sells what. It’s the same order at every mall: the second floor is for young women’s clothing, and it’s always the buzziest section — the mall relies on that floor to make money and attract customers. The stores gleam spotlessly inside out, as clean as frequently-wiped perfume bottles or wine glasses. The lintels display English print; the mannequins in storefront windows perk up their breasts and bottoms, striving to stand tip-toed in their shoes. The clothes hanging on the walls are as colorful as fireworks: prawn pink, avocado green, honeydew yellow, mushroom grey, fruit-jam red… They’re nice to look at but not touch. The cotton is thin; the polyester starts pilling after a few washes; the chiffon is flimsy; the nylon might as well be bandages. Bad quality starts to feel like a kind of thoughtfulness, as it prepares for the buyer a preemptive excuse for banal indulgence before careless disposal. All the stores are big: looking in feels like gazing down a bottomless lake.
Or this section, depicting a man who controls his girlfriend because of a perverse desire for class:
Once it was confirmed that Sun Juan is to be part of his life, his rules began ensnaring her like ivy vines. Pop music is tasteless; she must listen instead to Suede or Led Zeppelin — “Don’t feed junk food to the soul.” Smokey eye makeup, spiked chokers, over-the-knee boots: all are low-class. She must wear white collared shirts, waist-tight midi skirts, and flat shoes like Audrey Hepburn. When going out for meals, Northeast-style diners with laghman, deep-fried pork, and chicken-and-mushroom stews are too low-standard; better go to a Western restaurant or Japanese place.
Zhang’s characters inhabit the world of WeChat Pay and mindless Douyin scrolling. She treats her hypermodern subjects not just as recognizable bait, but also as social inquiries. Like Snow, Like Mountains is at its best when it leans into messy empathy for its paradoxical characters, major and minor alike. They mother sons who commit heinous crimes; they cheer on friends who take lovers outside stable marriages; they choose the memory of a boy who died a decade ago over the present with a lovable fiancé. Their actions are convincing, willful, and full of heart. I found myself admiring the way Zhang Tianyi’s characters indulge in their birthright, so often denied of Chinese women: to make life’s choices, however incomprehensible, for oneself alone.
The Past Comes Back Around
Halfway through I Am Rich in Fragrance, Yang Benfen’s third novel, it is easy to dismiss the book as a somewhat hackneyed tale of socialist women’s advancement featuring main-melody narratives.
A retired grandmother turned Douban favourite, Yang has previously been endorsed by the Global Times. But the novel’s ending, to my surprise, delivered a shock. Polemics against marriage rarely come from the perspective of older women; it is rarer still to see novels thoughtfully map Chinese women’s informal relationships with state power.
If Like Snow, Like Mountains is a foray into Chinese women’s contemporary predicament, I Am Rich in Fragrance documents their generational inheritance. An elderly woman narrates sixty years of an unhappy marriage across 41 short chapters, from being sent down to the countryside to present-day, “moderately prosperous” existence. The premise is simple: protagonist Huicai, a young woman lacking prospects and lured by the promise of education, agrees to marry the local village doctor Lü, who then haunts her life with neglect, loneliness, and disappointment. The time periods addressed in earlier chapters, from the early days of the People’s Republic to the Cultural Revolution and the end of planned economy, have always provided rich material for modern China’s literary luminaries. These celebrated Scar Writers and Misty Poets, however, didn’t concern themselves with laundry, breastfeeding, or sufficiently tender chicken stews.
The tempo of life in Yang’s Maoist China is recognizably female: from dawn to dusk, one darns curtains, preserves foods, wrings out duvet covers, buys eggs, raises goats, does administrative work for the local government, buys rice from the black market, and takes care of children. Not a single second is spared, yet the mind races with longing and capacious imagination. Yang knows rural China like the back of her hand, and her simple prose is dense with details that seem to appear randomly at first, but reveal a tightly wound storytelling logic.
Lü’s mom gave birth eleven times, but because she couldn’t keep them alive, all of them either died or were given away. She never got to rest after giving birth; hardly a full month after delivering, she’d be out picking river snails to exchange for rice. One bowl of river-snail meat only gets you one bowl of rice. Later, she catches chronic asthma. Every day, her breathing is as heavy as fireplace wheezing, and her head shakes like a rattle drum. Looking at this tiny old woman, Huicai feels an unspeakable heartache.
That she’s topped with a constantly swaying head doesn’t stop Lü’s mom from getting things done. She raises chickens, feeds ducks, washes clothes, cooks… Her hands are never idle. Everything the family keeps for guest visits are stored in the attic, like peanuts, dried pumpkins, dried eggplants, dried yams, and so on. From the moment Huicai walked into their doors, Lü’s mom has been climbing up and down the attic, agile like a monkey going up a tree. Every time she goes up, she comes down with yet another small jar and digs out all kinds of snacks for Huicai to try.
It is not only abusive husbands who hurt women in Yang’s memory world. Time and again, Huicai finds herself fending off a patriarchal bureaucracy, which denies her the right to study and work while syphoning off profits from the invisible labor of women. The state apparatus is benevolent at times — it gives Huicai an award for writing, and it ties her tubes for free — but it always expects a performance of gratitude in return. Huicai comes to feel that ideology itself is yet another obstacle standing between her and a happy family:
“Last time when I received your letter, I got my hopes up and thought you’d write some sweet nothings. But you just had to open with ‘Comrade Chen Huicai.’ Could you not have picked something more intimate?” Huicai joked.
“‘Comrade’ is the most intimate form of address.”
Huicai stared at Lü’s face. She said, “No wonder. So you’ve always treated me like a revolutionary comrade and set such high standards for me. Even when thieves stole our rabbit, you blamed me for not getting up and catching the intruder. Had we known back then that it would turn out like this, you shouldn’t have married a cowardly woman like me in the first place. You should have looked for a lady hero.”
To read about desire from the perspective of an older woman, even when the relationship is tragic, nevertheless confers radical hope. Yang’s depiction of an unhappy marriage, in all its boredom, mutual destruction, and unequal burdens, picks up momentum chapter after chapter, as if giving greater volume to the demand that women be recognized for their pursuit of happiness. There are fewer and fewer living writers like Yang Benfen who remember China’s destitute decades, but refuse to simplify their stories with happy endings in the present day. Their honesty is priceless and essential. In her work, it is as if she is speaking directly to her many adoring young readers today: in this country where historical memory is ruptured by enforced amnesia, decade after decade, she wants to remind a new cohort of young, politicized women that they have never been alone in their struggle.
More Good Chinese Novels!
That the world’s most populous society, with an illustrious literary tradition, has produced so relatively few great poets and novelists in the 21st century is a disgrace — and damning indictment. However, what continues to survive as Chinese literary fiction deserves far more readers.
Other new(-ish) Chinese (very broadly defined) novels of note:
《潮汐图》The Waves by Lin Zhao 林棹: A millennial writer from Shenzhen explores Cantonese history, language, and colonial memory.
《流俗地》Worldly Land by Li Zishu 黎紫书: Malaysian Chinese literature has long held a special place in the Sinophone writing world, and this 2020 work became a rare sensation in mainland China.
《燕食记》Food is Heaven by Ge Liang 葛亮: A Hong Kong story tracing modern Chinese history through culinary arts.
Here are the rest of Douban’s 2022 Books of the Year: