A Literary Guide to China

As part of a Telegraph series of guides to literature from around the world, Oxford University professor of modern Chinese history and politics Rana Mitter gives an overview of some great books about China:

When people think of modernity in China, they think of Shanghai – and that was equally true 100 years ago. Even today, the Bund remains one of Asia’s most impressive waterfronts, its British colonial buildings pompous but strangely familiar to the disoriented Westerner (the Customs House still sports a mini-Big Ben known as “Big Ching”). Yet the city has always disconcerted more than it comforts. One of the most famous opening scenes in modern Chinese literature comes in Mao Dun’s Midnight, subtitled “A Romance of China in 1930”. A family patriarch from the countryside is so dazzled by the city’s sights and sounds that he has a stroke. The Leftist Mao Dun meant the story as a cautionary tale about capitalism, but there’s no mistaking the sense of enchantment with the city’s temptations in his writing, too.

[…] The modern behemoth of Shanghai is a universe away from the small-town reality of a more traditional China. Shaoxing, in coastal Zhejiang province, is prosperous and full of visitors trying the famous (and frankly vile) local wine. Yet a lightly disguised, accusatory portrait of the town a century ago came from one of its greatest sons, the author Lu Xun, a sardonic figure somewhere between Gogol and Saki. His story Kong Yiji sums up the devastation left by the collapse of the old Chinese world when the last emperor, Puyi, abdicated in 1912. [Source]

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