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Chinese Language Center

Chinese Literature Modern Chinese Fiction Since the 1980s: Revisiting the 1930s

A surprising number of novels written since 1980 deal with the Chinese society of the 1920s and 1930s. This is surprising because these writers were born long after that period. .Part of the reason may be because the 1920s and 1930s is politically a much safer ground since the cruelty and inequities of that time can be blamed on the previous regime.

  Title Mini Review
Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas
Written by Su Tong (1963-)
Translated by Michael S. Duke
Penguin USA, 1996
267 pages
A collection of three stories, all set in 1930s China. The first story was originally titled "Wives and Concubines" but has been renamed to match the better-known movie name. "Red Lantern" follows the story of Lotus, a college girl who must abandon school and becomes the fourth concubine of a rich man. Soon jealousy among the women cause her downfall.
Written by Su Tong (1963-)
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
Penguin USA, 1996
270 pages
The first full-length novel by the author of "Raise the Red Lantern" continues his vision of the bleak world of 1930s China. After his village get flooded, a young man called Five Dragons escapes to the city, where he agrees to work at a rice emporium just for food. Initially overworked and humiliated by the owner, he eventually ends up marrying both of the owner's daughter and sets the family on a self-destructive course. Rice is used in unusual ways throughout the novel.
Red Sorghum
Written by Mo Yan (1956-)
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
Penguin USA, 1994
Mo Yan is China's most popular contemporary novelist. This is his first work to be translated into English. It was also the basis for the 1988 movie of the same name, which was directed by Zhang Yimou. The story is set in the 1930s as the Chinese were battling each other as well as the Japanese invaders. The narrator tells the story of his father and his grandfather, a former bandit and guerilla commander who had raped the narrator's grandmother just three days after her marriage to a rich wine maker.
The Three-Inch Golden Lotus
Written by Feng Jicai (1942-)
Translated by David Wakefield
University of Hawaii Press, 1994
248 pages
The title of this novel, written in 1985, refers to the ideal size of female feet. The pursuit of the "Golden Lotus" involved constant and painful foot-binding starting at childhood. Fragrant Lotus is young girl from a poor household whose feet have been bound from age six.  With her perfectly proportioned feet, she is married to a wealthy family and eventually becomes its matriarch, staunchly defending the practice against the anti food-binding forces that arose in the early 1900s.
Green River Daydreams
Written by Liu Heng (1954-)
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
Grove, 2002
336 pages
Liu Heng's second novel to be translated into English moves the setting back to 1920s China. The story is told through the eyes of a seventeen year-old boy called Ears, a house servant in the household of the Cao family. The Cao's second son has returned from France after four years of study. He gets involved with anti-imperial forces but ignores his bride from an arranged marriage, who then has an affair with a business associate.
K: The Art of Love
Written by Hong Ying
Translated by Henry Zhao and Nicky Harman
Marion Boyars, 2002
252 pages
Unlike the other books banned in the PRC, this one was not banned by government censors but was banned due to a libel lawsuit filed by the daughter of Ling Shuhua, the model for Lin, the novel's main protagonist. In the 1930s, Julian Bell, nephew of Virginia Wolf, is teaching at a Chinese university and has a passionate affair with Lin Cheng, a writer and wife of the university dean. The book has been called China's Lady Chatterley's Lover for its explicit sexual content.
Modern Chinese Fiction