Books

The top Chinese books in 2007

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Good books

A few months ago, Danwei posted a list of the top Chinese fiction in 2007, as chosen by a Dangdai magazine panel and point-of-sale data.

But Dangdai doesn't have a lock on the book rankings. Below are a few lists cooked up by other Chinese publications using different methods (all title links are to Douban pages unless otherwise noted).

China Reading Journal (中华读书报), a supplement to Guangming Daily, publishes an annual "10/100" list of what it considers to be the top 100 books published in the previous year. The first ten are set apart as the "best books of the year"; the rest are ordered alphabetically. Here are those ten must-reads:

  1. A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. The internationally-best-selling memoir. Oz, an Israeli author, spurred reader interest in translations of his works when he visited China last year (his Chinese publishers were probably crushed when Lessing beat him out for the Nobel). (阿摩司·奥兹, 《爱与黑暗的故事》, 2007.8)
  2. Old Characters by Ye Zhaoyan. Essays on historical personages ranging from Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao to Su Qing and Eileen Chang. Ye also published The Myth of Houyi and Chang'e in 2007. That is part of a series of "old myths retold" that includes works by Su Tong and Li Rui. (叶兆言, 《陈旧人物》, 2007.4)
  3. Can't Help Missing You at Night: Scenes of Wenjiayao by Cao Naiqian. A collection of exquisitely told, intertwined vignettes whose characters speak in an impenetrable Shanxi vernacular. In an interview in late 2006, Nobel kingmaker Göran Malmqvist gave Cao his stamp of approval, spurring the publication of this and two volumes of short stories in 2007. Although he had previously been published overseas, Cao was generally ignored on the mainland: this novel languished for years, as the line-up of famous author blurbs on the back (including one from the late Wang Zengqi) attests. (曹乃谦, 《到黑夜想你没办法--温家窑风景》, 2007.4)
  4. Chronicle of Dingxi Orphanage by Yang Xianhui. Life in Gansu during the "three year famine" of 1958-61, following the disaster of the Great Leap Forward. Yang writes loosely-fictionalized stories based on extensive first-hand interviews; he previously won acclaim for two collections about the anti-rightist labor camps in Gansu: Chronicle of Jiabiangou and Farewell to Jiabiangou. The events in Chronicle of Dingxi Orphanage are narrated in detached, unornamented prose: tragedy starts right away and never lets up. Here's a passage from page 3:
    My mother met her end this way: In the spring of 1959, there was no food left in the Tiangong canteen, so we ate coarse corn gruel every day until summer, when only soup remained. You might wonder, why was there no grain to eat from the summer wheat harvest? It was taken off to the commune by the production brigades, who said that it had been requisitioned. If the requisition was not met, then grain search teams searched the houses of commune members for old grain. As a result, every bit of old grain that farmers had hidden in their homes was carried off, and to fill their stomachs, the commune members stripped the bark off of trees, dug up the roots of grasses, and ate syrian rue. Working in the fields one day, my mother could no longer stand the hunger and, seeing a greyish vine at the border of the field that had leaves arranged like chicken feathers, she plucked it and ate it. In the afternoon, she called for someone to take her home. She had a stomach ache. Realizing that it had been poisonous, she knew she had to empty her stomach. She chewed a piece of soap, swallowed it, took a drink of water, became nauseated, vomited, and then lay down on the kang. By midnight, mother was in a bad state. She asked for water, and called me and my two younger sisters to the kang, where she died clasping our hands. Mother had wanted to speak, but she could do no more than open her mouth: her tongue was too stiff to utter a word.
    Chronicle of Dingxi Orphanage was first serialized in the journal Shanghai Literature before its publication as a stand-alone volume. (杨显惠, 《定西孤儿院纪事》, 2007.4)
  1. Gaoxing by Jia Pingwa. The life of a trash collector in Xi'an. See Danwei's previous report. (贾平凹, 《高兴》, 2007.9)
  2. Thirty-Years of China Business by Wu Xiaobo (Chinese title: "Thirty-year surge: Chinese Enterprise, 1978-2008). The first volume of a history of Chinese entrepreneurship in the reform era, following events through 1992. Wu is a prolific chronicler of Chinese business; his 2001 collection of case studies of failed Chinese brands, Great Failures, is a perennial best-seller. Thirty Years attempts to fill a gap by providing a comprehensive, relatively systematic overview of the economic and entrepreneurial transformations that have taken place in China over the last three decades. The second volume was published in January. Danwei previously translated an essay by Wu on "Original Sin" and private enterprise reform. (吴晓波, 《激荡三十年:中国企业1978-2008(上)》, 2007.1)
  3. Stray Dog: Reading "The Analects" by Li Ling. If Yu Dan's explications of the Analects are "chicken soup for the Confucian soul," then Li Ling's annotations are a swift kick to the stomach. In the essays that conclude this volume, Li writes:
    Having been stung by the Cultural Revolution, I am easily suspicious. Whenever anything is the center of attention, I get suspicious. I'm suspicious of the "Confucius fever" nowadays, for example. My reading of Confucius here is done in order to dispel superstition.
    Li, a Peking University professor, basically presents a two-semester college course in the Analects: the book grew out of lecture notes he used for the 2004-2005 school year. The result is a close reading of the text, a systematic presentation of all 156 individuals mentioned, and an appreciation of the work's context, at the time it was compiled and as it was used in later Chinese scholarship. (李零, 《丧家狗:我读〈论语〉》, 2007.5)
  4. My Retrospection and Reflection by Qian Liqun. The "spiritual autobiography" of a noted intellectual and scholar of modern literature. (钱理群, 《我的精神自传》, 2007.12)
  5. A Single Spark Sets the Land Ablaze: Unpublished Manuscripts. Ten volumes. Also known as Xinghuo Liaoyuan.
    In August, 1956, in preparation for the 1957 celebration of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the army, the General Political Department launched a call for essays on the topic "30 Years of China's People's Liberation Army." Selections from the more than 10,000 articles were compiled into the Xinhuo Liaoyuan series, which became a red classic. But because of various reasons, a substantial number of the pieces were not published at the time. The present set of books collects those documents.
    (《星火燎原·未刊稿》 (Sina), 2007.8)
  6. Selections from "Dushu", 1996-2005 by the editors of Dushu magazine. A six-volume distillation of the "new left" decade of Dushu under the guidance of Wang Hui, who was abruptly dismissed from his position at the journal last year. The February 2008 issue of New Left Review takes an in-depth look at the series. (《读书》杂志编, “《读书》精选(1996-2005)”, 2007.5)

But that's just one newspaper's opinion. In late January, forty-two book-related media outlets convened in Beijing to decide on the year's top ten. The results:

  1. Stray Dog: Reading "The Analects" by Li Ling.
  2. Chronicle of Dingxi Orphanage by Yang Xianhui.
  3. China on the Cover by Li Hui. Time magazine cover stories on China between 1923 and 1946. This book was involved in a plagiarism scandal; Luo Chang, a PhD at the Communication University of China, admitted that he copied Li Hui's book for The Chinese Face of Time Magazine. Luo withdrew his book, and Li did not pursue the case. (李辉, 《封面中国——美国〈时代〉周刊讲述的中国故事(1923-1946)》)
  4. Thirty-Years of China Business by Wu Xiaobo.
  5. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. (艾伦·韦斯曼, 《没有我们的世界》)
  6. Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk. (奥尔罕·帕慕克, 《伊斯坦布尔:一座城市的记忆》)
  7. I Am Liu Yuejin by Liu Zhenyun.
  8. Walking on the Edge of Life by Yang Jiang. The author and translator follows 2005's Our Qian Yuan with a look back at her 96 years of life. (杨绛, 《走到人生边上:自问自答》)
  9. Gaoxing by Jia Pingwa.
  10. Those Ming Dynasty Things (II) by Dangnian Mingyue. Part of the Ming fever last year. (当年明月, 《明朝那些事儿(贰)》)

In Hong Kong, Yazhou Zhoukan divided its list of top books into fiction and non-fiction. Here are the selections that are available on the mainland (see the links following the article for the full lists):

Fiction

  • (1) Hawthorn Tree Forever by Ai Mi. The "purest love story in the world" set against the backdrop of the final days of the Cultural Revolution. Purports to be adapted from a diary kept by one of the principles after her lover died of leukemia. Carries the endorsement of twenty celebrities from the literary and entertainment world. (艾米, 《山楂树之恋》)
  • (2) Can't Help Missing You at Night: Scenes of Wenjiayao by Cao Naiqian.
  • (3) Chronicle of Dingxi Orphanage by Yang Xianhui.
  • (5) I Am Liu Yuejin by Liu Zhenyun. Liu Yuejin, a migrant worker from Henan who has found work as a cook (and petty thief) in the city, loses a bag containing all his worldly possessions. Another bag falls into his hands, one that turns out to be carrying a USB drive holding images used in a blackmail scheme. As Liu attempts to track down his money and documents, he in turn is tracked by the various people he has wronged - wittingly or unwittingly. Liu Zhenyun fills the book with quirky characters and his characteristic black humor (he wrote the original story behind Feng Xiaogang's Cell Phone). (刘震云, 《我叫刘跃进》)
  • (6) Gaoxing by Jia Pingwa.
  • (7) Wild Grass Roots by Xu Kun. Sisters are sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1990s, Xu was called the "female Wang Shuo"; now she's the "female Yu Hua." But her writing, overflowing with Shenyang-style northeast vernacular, can easily stand on its own. (徐坤, 《野草根》)

Non-fiction

  • (2) The Final 17 Years of the Ming Dynasty by Fan Shuzhi. The reign of Zhu Youjian, the Chongzhen Emperor. (樊树志, 《大明王朝的最后十七年》)
  • (7) Stray Dog: Reading "The Analects" by Li Ling.

At #4 on the list is a new book by mainland author Zhang Yihe, whose previous accounts of the anti-rightist campaigns were strongly criticized by the authorities at the start of 2007. Zhang's latest book, How many mountains, how many bends in the river?, takes its title from a line by the Ming Dynasty poet Huang E, in which she laments her long separation from her husband. The book is a collection of essays and other documents relating to Zhang's father, Zhang Bojun, and family friend Luo Longji, who were both targeted during the campaigns. It was published overseas last December; there is no mainland edition yet. (章诒和, 《云山几盘,江流几湾》)

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City Pictorial, January 15, 2008

City Pictorial took a different approach for its "best-of" lists: it partnered with Douban, a book-oriented social networking website, to generate ten top-ten lists of what people were actually reading in 2007.

Douban gives its users the ability to indicate which books they've read, are currently reading, or desire to read; the website also includes standard Web2.0 functionality like commenting and tagging. City Weekend and Douban distilled a "Desert Island Library" from all that data:

· Most talked about: Ranked according to the amount of discussion each book generated, 1 point for a root comment and 0.2 points for each response. Winner: Simple Years, Extravagant Times, by Annie Baobei. This is not unexpected: bookseller data previously placed this essay and short story collection at the top of the charts. But Annie Baobei's online following should not be discounted, either. Her 2006 novel, Padma, was the fifth most-discussed book. Guo Jingming's 2007 effort, Cry Me a Sad River, ranked second, and Han Han's The Glorious Day ranked eighth.

· Most widely-read: Ranked according to total number of "I've read this book" votes. Winner: The Little Prince, at 22,385. All of the books on the list were published before 2007. The rest: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami; A Fortress Beseiged, by Qian Zhongshu; The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown; Never Flowers in Never Summer, by Guo Jingming; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera; A Chance of Sunshine, by Jimmy Liao; The First Close Contact, by Cai Zhiheng; To Live, by Yu Hua; and Padma, by Annie Baby.

· Most beloved: Ranked according to a weighted average of each book's five-star ratings. Winner: 1984, by George Orwell (tr. Dong Leshan), at 4.45. Closely following at 4.44 is A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. Wang Xiaobo has two essay collections in the top ten.

· Most interpretations: Ranked according to total number of tags. Winner: Padma, by Annie Baobei, with 1,169. Her Simple Years, Extravagant Times is in third place with 1,104 tags. Others: The House on Mango Street, On the Road, Lolita, The Kite Runner, The Time Traveler's Wife, Cry Me a Sad River, My Name is Red, and The Long Tail.

· Most desired and Most illusory: The former are ranked according to the total number of "I want to read this book" votes each book has received; the latter, by that total divided by the number of "I've read this book." The most desired list is practically identical to most equivocal, while the most illusory list is populated exclusively by books that were published in 2007.

· Most controversial: Books whose star rankings show the greatest disparity. Predictably, this category includes many books whose authors are themselves controversial. Winner: Fang Zhouzi Unlocks the Mysteries of the World by the noted anti-fraud crusader. Following closely behind is Yu Dan's book on the Analects.

Rounding out the ten lists are rankings of movie, music, and travel-themed books. Elsewhere in the issue are short book-related essays by 34 celebrities, ranging from John Koon-chung Chan and Leung Man-to to Yu Shicun (who cheats by commenting on unpublished manuscripts) to Pu Shu and Zhang Chu.

(This issue hit stands on 15 January, so it's no longer on the streets. Interested readers should be able to find it on Taobao.)

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There are currently 2 Comments for The top Chinese books in 2007.

Comments on The top Chinese books in 2007

"Most Beloved:" 1984?! I knew the book was available on the mainland but had no idea people were actually reading it. Do you think they see it as, uh, relevant?

By "Huoxin Liaoyuan" (and later "Huoxin Liaoyuan"), you probably mean "Xinghuo Liaoyuan", right?

[Yes, you are right. Thanks for the correction. --JM]

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