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Five best books

By Oliver August.

18 August 2007
The Wall Street Journal

Reliable guides to China and its history

1. The Bridegroom

By Ha Jin

Pantheon, 2000

Ha Jin is the master storyteller of modern China, and this is his best book. In the dozen stories collected in "The Bridegroom," he portrays his homeland in exceptionally dark colors. It is a place where anarchic privateering and lawlessness flourish below a surface of authoritarian control. Freebooters and corrupt officials inflict cruelties on the less fortunate, who then turn on one another rather than banding together. Still, Ha Jin's view of his countrymen is intensely affectionate. For three decades, they have faced immense social change, and yet even as their lives are repeatedly upended most people have responded with remarkable good grace. An exception is the man in one of the stories who wants to poison an entire town after being freed from false arrest. For the most part, though, Ha Jin traces the continuing toxic effects of the Cultural Revolution that began under Mao Zedong in the 1960s, when children informed on parents and even the most harmless comment could trigger persecution.

2. Please Don't Call Me Human

By Wang Shuo

Hyperion, 2000

Wang Shuo has claimed his own Chinese fiction genre: "hooligan literature," which revels in vulgarity and the rude contempt for authority shown by disaffected Chinese youth. In the novel "Please Don't Call Me Human" (translated by Howard Goldblatt), he describes an alternative Olympics in which nations compete for medals by humiliating themselves and their athletes. The protagonist is a bicycle-rickshaw driver and martial-arts aficionado who is recruited as a wrestling competitor and then put through an ordeal that culminates in his castration. But the plot is almost beside the point in this surreal tale. It was written long before Beijing won the right to stage the 2008 Games but would be an excellent counterweight to next summer's festivities.

3. Hermit of Peking

By Hugh Trevor-Roper

Knopf, 1977

If proof were needed that foreigners in China can behave as dubiously as any Chinese, then British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper supplies the evidence with "Hermit of Peking," his investigation into the "hidden life" of Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944). Backhouse, who lived in Beijing, helped shape Western understanding of the inner workings of the Chinese court when, in 1910, he published "China Under the Empress Dowager." But as Trevor-Roper discovered, Backhouse's depiction of the Empress Dowager Cixi -- China's de facto ruler at the turn of the last century -- was based on fabricated sources. It is delicious to watch Trevor-Roper's mounting incredulity over the fibs and and outright fantasy he uncovers, including Backhouse's claim in his unpublished memoirs that he had affairs with both the Empress Dowager herself and Oscar Wilde.

4. God's Chinese Son

By Jonathan Spence

Norton, 1996

Historian Jonathan Spence has spent decades explaining how the Middle Kingdom got to where we find it today. But none of his books captures the sheer madness of China's past quite like the story of Hong Xiuquan, a farmer's son born in a hard-up village near Canton in southern China in 1814. After encountering Western missionaries who gave him religious tracts, he became convinced that he was God's second son -- Jesus' younger brother -- and had been sent to China to save it from unjust rulers. He reinvented himself as the leader of the "God worshippers," and in fierce sermons he rallied armed followers to his cause. They included bandits like "Big Head Yang," a pirate queen from Macao fleeing government forces. Hong named his troops -- more than 100,000 -- the Taiping Heavenly Army and led them north, conquering territory with unexpected speed. In 1853, he controlled an area bigger than France. Taking the city of Nanjing, he set up a Christian capital, or "earthly paradise." In 1864, as Hong appeared close to toppling the Qing Dynasty, he mysteriously died from poisoning, and Beijing reasserted its authority. Never again would it underestimate the potentially major effects of a single rogue.

5. River Town

By Peter Hessler

HarperCollins, 2001

Peter Hessler was on occasion called a "foreign devil" on the streets of Fuling, the town along the Yangtse River where he taught English for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1990s. But in his fascinating and touching account of the experience he doesn't come across as very foreign, much less a Mephisto intent on leading his students astray. He sketches the gentle rhythms of life along the Yangtse -- under the shadow of the looming Three Gorges dam project -- with the sureness of someone who might have lived by the river all his life. In a telling moment, he asks his students what would happen if Robin Hood came to China today. "A few followed the Party line," claiming that in the economic paradise of the People's Republic, Robin Hood would have nothing to do. "But most of them kept Robin Hood busy stealing from corrupt cadres and greedy businessmen," Mr. Hessler writes. Even in the upper valleys of the Yangtse, it seems, Chinese now prefer wanted men to Party men.

(c) The Wall Street Journal

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