From painting and poetry to picture books and Pearl Buck, the biographer chooses the Chinese books that have gripped her
Hilary Spurling is the award-winning biographer of the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, George Orwell’s wife, Sonia Orwell, and painter Henri Matisse. The second volume in her life of the painter, Matisse the Master: The Conquest of Colour 1909-1954, won the 2005 Whitbread book of the year award.
1. Chinese Children at Play written and illustrated by Yui Shufang (Methuen, 1939)
This was the picture book that transfixed me as a child. I was entranced by these cool, neat, nifty children rolling marbles, whipping tops, kicking little feathered missiles called Chientse, and trying to beat one another with fighting crickets, where we only had conkers on strings. When I finally reached China, I was transfixed all over again. Not this time by the children (the one child policy means that you hardly ever see them or hear their voices), but by the whirlwind of creation and destruction smothering every small town or village you come to in a dense white cloud of cement dust or chemical pollution. Violent, physical, in-your-face and up-your-nose political and social change on this scale is as exhilarating as it is alarming.
2. The Chinese Children Next Door by Pearl Buck (Methuen, 1944)
My mother read me this story before I could read myself, and it became inextricably mixed in my mind with Yui’s pictures. It tells the story of six little girls who longed so hard for a baby brother that at last their wish came true. The family’s seventh child was a boy, the answer to his parents’ prayers, the pet and plaything of his big sisters. Re-reading this captivating book as an adult, I realised that it mirrored much harsher stories my mother told me about her own childhood when she, too, was the last of six unwanted daughters born to parents whose seventh child was the son they had dreamed of having all along. It was only after I started work on my own Chinese book, that I realised it was Buck who wrote the story I used to know by heart as a child.
3. Chinese Painting by James Cahill (Skira, 1960)
For 1000 years and more the Chinese painted the same few things with infinite subtlety and in inexhaustible variety: rocks, water, clouds, bamboo, plum blossom, trees, their leaves and – almost more important – the spaces between the leaves. This book was my passport to that magical world of mountains and rivers. Long afterwards, on a visit to Zhenjiang museum, I asked my Chinese companion to translate the delicate lines of calligraphy suspended in a V-shaped patch of sky between a soaring peak at the top of a tall scroll painting, and the single tiny figure of a fisherman almost invisible on his boat far below. I was intoxicated by the sense of boundless space and ambiguity projected by this disembodied, almost abstract landscape. My interpreter was a student, a pragmatic child of communist China who had clearly never looked at a painting before. “The man in the boat is dead drunk,” she read out flatly. “He’s been knocking it back hard for four days, and now he’s run out of liquor money.”
4. Madly Singing in the Mountains by Arthur Waley, edited by Ivan Morris (Allen & Unwin, 1970)
This excellent anthology gave me my first taste of Chinese poetry and its many flavours, as rich, complex and surprising as the same country’s painting or cooking. Waley’s musical translations incorporate the pure, high, heady sound of flutes and also somehow convey the suppressed belly laugh so often lurking between the lines or in the far corner of a Chinese poem or picture.
5. The Warrior Woman: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston (Picador, 1981, originally published US 1975)
This account of growing up as a Chinese American combines the harsh raucous energy of US street life, seen from in and outside a Chinese laundry, with the violence and hardship of life in a Chinese village plagued by wild and recklessly inventive ancestral phantoms. I would rank this fabulous book with the best of Nabokov, Bellow or Roth.
6. River Town by Peter Hessler (John Murray, 2002)
Another brilliant book by a young American confronting a China beginning for the first time to open its doors to the West in the 1990s. Hessler spent two years teaching English in a nondescript small town on the Yangtze, and used it as a base from which to explore the country’s enigmatic past, inscrutable present and unpredictable future. A spellbinding account of a moment that will never come again.
7. The Fighting Angel by Pearl Buck (John Day, 1936)
This was the first of Buck’s books that I read as an adult, and I would never have heard of it if it hadn’t been for Henri Matisse who urged his children to read it, insisting at the same time that he was nothing like the man in it. The book turned out to be Buck’s fictional biography of her missionary father, who sacrificed himself, his wife and his children in a hopeless attempt to convert the entire Chinese nation to a bleak Calvinist version of Christianity. The book is a classic study of obsession, perceptive, humorous and grim. It explained much about Matisse (whose biography I was writing at the time), and made me pick Buck as my next subject.
8. Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah (Michael Joseph, 1997)
Gripping account of childhood neglect and rejection redeemed on every page by the writer’s courage, intelligence and humanity. Her family history spans the whole of the last century, a time of public turmoil, revolution, war and institutional communist brutality that echoes her private disruption. Historically, culturally and emotionally speaking, this was an education for me.
9. The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran (Vintage, 2003)
Xinran compered China’s first ever radio phone-in programme for woman whose male-dominated culture had never permitted them to talk about themselves and their problems before. Of all the life stories currently pouring out of contemporary China, these are, for me, among the most astonishing and hard to forget.
10. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (Vintage, 2002)
Funny, lively and startling story of two doctors’ sons exiled to a course of punitive labour in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. What saves them is an illicit passion for 19th-century European literature, which provides an escape route to a weird alien world as exotic to them as China itself has always been to me.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/11/hilary-spurling-chinese-books