Tragic Isolation in Chinese Literature

Recently, Greg at The New Dork Review of Books wrote a post about setting as a character in fiction.  The gist of his great post was that the physical locale of a novel can actually drive readers to pick up a book more than the genre/plot/characters/etc.  For Greg, it’s Florence, Israel, and New York City.  For me, it’s China.  Living here as long as I have, I just thirst for representations which might help me to better understand this fascinating, frustrating nation.

Recently, I’ve been reading a collection of short stories by Li Yiyun called Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. It’s a wonderful collection full of striking prose and fascinating characters.  It’s also an incredibly sobering read.  The stories force the reader to confront the impenetrable loneliness with which Li’s characters are burdened:  a single, middle aged man taking care of his mother as her mind slowly deteriorates; an elderly widower grasping for some final measure of relevance by befriending young women with husbands in prison;  a young man convinced that his virile father has been sleeping with his wife.

These are not stories which exude optimism and hope.

Reading them, I started thinking back on other Chinese literature I’ve read – Ha Jin, Ma Jian, Gao Xingjian, Mo Yan.  I realized that these themes of loneliness and isolation are themes which runs deep through much of contemporary Chinese literature.  In Ma Jians brilliant Beijing Coma, the narrator is literally isolated from the world, physically comatose, as he watches a society in flux swirl around him.  Ha Jin’s The Crazed has a student become increasingly isolated as he listens to the semi-coherent and sometimes profound rantings of his stroke-ridden professor.  Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain has a young man on a self-imposed exile into the wilds of Western China, searching for some sort of meaning and coherence in his, and his nation’s, existence.

Tragedy breeds loneliness and China has had more than its fair share of both.  For most people from the West, it’s almost impossible to even begin to comprehend the sustained tragedy which is Chinese history.  It’s not surprising, then, that Chinese literature is rife with pain and isolation.  Literature is an focused examination of humanity and, in China’s case, this examination, more often than not, leads to very dark places.  It’s for this reason that Chinese literature is so compelling – it humanizes a despair which is incomprehensible in its enormity.

Living in China today, at least in the big cities with the McDonald’s and skyscrapers and luxury hotels, it’s easy to forget that an almost unimaginable tragedy lies not far in the past and, for many, still continues.  Chinese literature cuts through the glitz of contemporary China to remind people that this economic miracle (which has undeniably improved the lives of millions) has not erased a tumultuous and painful past.  For me, this is one of the deep and defining conflicts of modern China and one that is, often, best explored within the realm of fiction.



  1. These stories sound beautiful and so very sad. I plan on doing a Chinese reading challenge in the upcoming months so I’m happy this post gives me an idea of what I’ll be getting into.

  2. Sounds like a book worth tracking down & at least it answered my curiosity concerning “that book” in your sidebar. the isolation theme is also very prevalent in Japanese Literature & often It’s harking back to a past ideal that’s out of sync with the present day & its ideologies.
    ps. have Soul Mountain sat next to me in my TBR.

  3. There has also been some really amazing cinema that has come out of China. “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Farewell My Concubine” are both great movies. I don’t think I have read enough Chinese literature, so I may have to take you up on this.

  4. Tried ‘soul mountain’ a little and it was so suffocating that my mind resisted reading more… Some recent writers capitalize on tragic histories and I would rather find some optimistic colors. In general it is agreed that Chinese literature is thick in tragedy that often reflect the struggle between a individual soul and the unyielding, tough world.

  5. @Alley – As sad as it is, there’s so much beauty in a lot of Chinese literature as well. If you’re going to do a Chinese reading challenge, make sure you read Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma. I think that’s probably the best book I’ve read that really captures modern China. Ha Jin’s works are all superb as well.
    @Parrish – Soul Mountain is a great book. Difficult, at times, but well worth the effort. I do see quite a few similarities between Chinese and Japanese literature but I think that tragedy runs a bit deeper through Chinese literature.
    @socrmom78 – There have been some great Chinese movies. Both that you mentioned were great. I’d also recommend one called “The World” It’s about workers at a Beijing theme park – very dark, but excellent.
    @gin – Suffocating is a good word for Soul Mountain. It took me about three starts to finally gather the momentum to make it all the way through. But, I’m glad that I did. Thanks for coming by!

  6. It’s interesting how the literature of a given country can have an overall “mood.” I see this in Japanese literature,of which I’ve read a little. A sort of stillness, and a sad beauty. I haven’t read much Chinese literature, but the little I have read seems to fit the mood you describe. I’d like to read Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, especially since I’m feeling a short-story addiction right now.

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