Blogindlæg

China for bookworms

Summer reading tips inspired by the Land of the Dragon

colour painting depicting a woman reading at a table, while two children and a servant are talking
af
Julien Ménabréaz (Photoconsortium)

Summer is here and you may be looking for a good read to enjoy while travelling or relaxing by the pool. Why not try one of the many books written by European authors who were inspired by China? Or a staple of Chinese literature? Here are a few suggestions!

scan of page from a book with a mix of text in Chinese and English

Translation versus inspiration

Quite a few European authors have dedicated themselves to translating Chinese stories. Among the very first were employees of cross-continental trade companies, such as the British East Indian Company. One of the early examples of literary translations of Chinese literature was Haoqiu Zhuan, translated into English in 1761 as Hau Kiu Choaan, the Pleasing History.

black and white image of a page / document with Chinese text

For the translators, working on these texts was often a useful exercise to learn Chinese. Yet their writings served as an important point of contact between the East and the West as well, offering Europeans a unique opportunity to discover new literature and new ideas.

Chinoiserie

During the Age of Enlightenment, China was seen by European philosophers as an exemplary country, run by a capable government consisting of skilled officials rather than inexperienced aristocrats. In France, Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote a play called L'Orphelin de la Chine ('The Orphan of China', 1753), inspired by a Chinese play from the 13th century. Voltaire adapted the original to fit European theatrical conventions.

black and white front page of a book, Le Chou-King
colour illustration of a man wearing a theatrical costume including a head-dress, shield, sword and bow

This story is one you might have enjoyed reading in your childhood or (re)discovered through a film adaptation: Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Nightingale.

black and white illustration showing an emperor in a lavishly decorated room, speaking to a number of other people
black and white illustration of an emperor in a lavishly decorated room talking to a number of other people

The tale clearly conveys 'Chinoiserie', for instance in its description of the emperor’s palace: a lavish residence made of fine porcelain.

book cover with colour illustration of two people below a tree in which a nightingale sits

Perhaps you’re more into poetry? Many Westerners visiting China found inspiration in its rich culture and history. One of them was French linguist and archaeologist Victor Segalen (1878-1919), who wrote several poems influenced by Chinese poetry. He published his China-inspired musings under the title Stèles.

black and white page of book, with title Steles and Chinese characters and illustration

Segalen's novel René Leÿs is also worth exploring. Here, the author recounts the adventures of a Western traveler in Beijing, who gets mesmerised by the enthralling China-stories of the titular character: a young Belgian who's tutoring him in Chinese.

Another well-known French poet, Paul Claudel (1868-1955), lived in China for 14 years and was a privileged witness to the end of imperial China. He composed several poems inspired by what he saw and experienced, from Chinese gardens to theatre, calligraphy and nature. The evocative writings are collected in the book Connaissance de l'Est (1900).

page from a book with title JARDINS, text and illustrated initial I

Crime & chronicles

Maybe you prefer a compelling detective novel? Then the Judge Dee Mysteries might just be something you'd enjoy. China has a long tradition of criminal investigation stories. In 1948, the Dutch orientalist, diplomat and writer Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) published the first novel featuring Judge Dee: a fictional character based on a real detective!

black and white illustration with Chinese characters and large bearded man wearing long robes

Di Renjie, who lived in the 7th century during the Tang dynasty (618-907) was a statesman and magistrate who became the main character in a number of gong'an crime stories. Taking these as a point of departure, Robert van Gulik created an interesting fusion between Western and Eastern detective novels. Among others, he added ghostly elements while retaining the blueprint of traditional Chinese detectives by crafting each story out of three crime cases.

close-up colour photograph of an opera mask, with red, black and white features

If historical novels are your genre of choice, why not try a genuine classic: Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. Originating from the 14th century, the novel combines elements of history with myths and legends to evoke a China at the end of the Han dynasty. Covering a period from 169 to 280AD, the majestic semi-fictional chronicle features over a thousand characters in a total of 120 chapters.

color illustration of five people all wearing robes, one is on horseback, one holds a flag, two hold painted shields

A personalised account of more recent history is presented in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: a semi-autobiographical novel written by Dai Sijie. The book reflects upon the Chinese Cultural Revolution through the two teenagers that figure as its main characters. It was awarded several literary prizes and was made into a feature movie in 2003.

Once you've got a hint of the rich array of literature inspired by China, you might go looking for more... and there's plenty to explore! Next to books you might want to venture into China-flavoured plays or comics. We bet you might even be surprised at discovering Chinese links in your personal library. Who knows: you might just end up spending your summer re-reading your all-time favourites with fresh eyes.


This blog is part of ‘PAGODE: Europeana China’, a CEF-project co-funded by the European Union that focuses on Chinese cultural heritage preserved in Europe.

China Literature