Joanne Leedom-Ackerman's Essential Literature from China

Writer, Editor and Vice President Emeritus of PEN International recommends key literature from China.

by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman's Essential Literature from China

The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate, Edited by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman with Yu Zhang, Jie Lie, and Tienchi Martin-Liao

The first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2010, Liu Xiaobo died in custody while serving an 11-year prison sentence for his activism and writing. He was called by the Chinese Communist government 'an enemy of the state,' but those who knew him called him an original thinker and writer, the Nelson Mandela of China. After his death, colleagues and friends around the world began writing. The 75+ essays in this book deliver a moving portrait of the man both intellectually and personally and a testimony to the tragedy of China which locks up and spies on some of its most talented citizens.  


No Enemies No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems by Liu Xiaobo

Forwarded by Vaclav Havel, to whom many have compared Liu Xiaobo, this collection of Liu's writing delivers his creative work in his poetry and his intellectual analysis in his essays. Liu Xiaobo was inspired by Havel and the dissidents in Czechoslovakia who delivered Charter 77 which outlined a democratic  vision for their country and set out a path for its freedom.  Liu Xiaobo and others drafted Charter 08 as a democratic vision and path for China. Liu loved his country but saw its flaws and its potential locked away by authoritarian rule. His essays range from the Tienenmen Mothers to land reform to student protests to the Olympics, to the Communist Party. His poetry ranges over these topics as well as includes  love poems to his beloved wife Liu Xia.  No Enemies No Hatred, titled after his final statement, allows the reader to witness a thinker, an artist and a leader still alive in his words.


Empty Chairs by Liu Xia

This collection of poery by the wife of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo was written before and during her period of house arrest which coincided with his final time behind bars. Both Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo were poets and often addressed their poems to each other. Their love affair and marriage strengthened them but also left them vulnerable to the loss of the other. Liu Xia's poetry reflects this loss and anger and grief.


The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Upn by Liao Yiwu

A close friend of Liu Xiaobo, Liao Yiwu was also imprisoned in China for his writing, but he managed to get the manuscript for this book out of China and published in Taiwan and also in the West. An intrepid storyteller, poet and oral historian, Liao Yiwu narrates and records the voices of average, often silenced Chinese citizens—the physically handicapped, the street performer, the leper, the village teacher, the mortician, the former Red Guard, the Falun Gong practitioner, the grave robber, the Tiananmen father, the safecracker, the migrant worker, etc. The Corpse Walker was heralded in the West as an important contribution to world literature and Liao Yiwu as one of the most original contemporary Chinese writers. Liao Yiwu was not allowed to leave China, but he escaped in 2011 and now lives in Germany.


The Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin

This 18th century novel is a classic of Chinese literature, considered one of China's greatest masterpieces and compared to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and to the novels of Jane Austen. It is the story of the noble Jia household in Beijing and the young son Bao-yu, a teeage boy who enjoys the company of his sisters and female cousins and other young women. Spoiled by his matriarcal grandmother, he is afraid of his father and prefers writing poetry to studying the classics as his father does. He falls in love with his beautiful, frail cousin Dai-yu, an orphan, who also writes poetry and has a sharp wit, but the fate of these two is manipulated by the plans and plots of others who obstruct their union.  Set within a domestic sphere, this multi-generational novel shows everyday life of both the aristocrats and commoners in Qing China. Expressing skepticsm about the Confucian values of Chinese society, the narrative follows  the rise and fall of characters who compete for favor and status in their political and provincial worlds. A multi-volumned narrative, The Dream of the Red Chamber can be appreciated one volume at a time; the whole runs over 2300 pages.


Red Sorghum by Mo Yan

Winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, Mo Yan is known for his many novels, particularly for Red Sorghum, his first novel. The story spans three generations of the Shandong family who own a distillery making sorghum wine. They fight the Japanese invaders in the 1930's and also battle in civil disputes between warring Chinese gangs and political powers. The novel  touches on the Cultural Revolution and the 1972 resumption of relations between China and Japan. The lyrically described sorghum fields offer the evocative setting and enduring backdrop for this tale.


Waiting by Ha Jin

Ha Jin's novel Waiting won the National Book Award and the PEN Faulkner Award in 1999 and narrates the story of a doctor in China who is commited to two women, one a nurse who lives in the city and is influenced by the New China of the Cultural Revoltuion and the other his wife who belongs to the traditions of her family's village. Unable to divorce his wife for 18 years, Lin Kong waits, but when he and Manna Wu, the nurse,  finally marry, complications arise. In his story Ha Jin explores the tension between the individual and society and the restricted political world of China in which the characters live. A poet, Ha Jin's prose renders the beauty and sorrow of place. Ha Jin grew up in China and was on scholarship at a US university  when Tiananmen Square occurred. He continued his studies and is now an American citizen.


A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

This collection of short stories are set mostly in China and depict the daily life and often heartbreaking relationships between finely etched characters--a mother and daughter, father and son, husband and wife. In barren landscapes described in elequoent prose, the characters in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers live with limited expectations  in part because the state obliterates faith, yet the people endure. Yiyun Li left China to study in the United States as a young woman and has lived in the US ever since. She has won numerous awards for her fiction.  A Thousand Years of Good Prayers  is her first book.