China Fiction

by foreigners.

Earnshaw Books gets sent a lot of manuscripts for review, probably two a week on average, and most of them are rejected because of quality issues or relevance, some because we simply cannot handle the load. A significant proportion of the manuscripts received are fictional works written by foreigners set in China, either historical or modern. This is a minor genre niche that we have played quite actively over the past few years, and there is a long history of it, including Somerset Maugham’s On A Chinese Screen from the 1920s, various books by Pearl S. Buck and Christopher New’s Mandarin in the 1970s, a book which in a way changed my life, by offering a story based on the sweep of China’s history through an outsider’s eyes. 

We started a few years ago with a book called The Green Phoenix written by Alice Poon, who is Canadian of Hong Kong ancestry, and we recently published Jonathan Kos-Read’s The Eunuch, the Chinese edition of which is scheduled for publication in China in April. Other fantastic “foreigner China” novels we have published include Laurie Dennis’ Lacquered Talisman, which is a fictional account of the life of the founder of the Ming Dynasty, and Wayne Ng’s Finding The Way, a fictionalized account of the life of Lao Tzu, the wise man at the heart of Taoism. What is interesting about each of these books, I think, is that they take an outsiders view on Chinese history, and build out a story using Chinese characters and history in a way that Chinese writers would not do. There may be historical mistakes or cultural misunderstandings included as a result, but the freshness of looking at Chinese history through the lens of a foreign mentality is appealing to me. The reaction of Chinese readers to this approach, however, has so far been less than enthusiastic.

My experience is that Japanese people are fascinated by what foreigners think of them, and they are eager to absorb books, both fiction and non-fiction, about Japan written by foreigners. But this is largely in contrast to the China experience where, in general — and hyperbolizing to some extent, for life has no meaning without hyperbole — there is a sense that foreigners fundamentally misunderstand Chinese history and almost have no right to address these topics, or rather are wasting their time on it because they cannot possibly grasp the essence of it. This is obviously cultural arrogance. Anybody can surely write about anything, even if it does happen to be crap (Fu Manchu springs to mind). But to date, the only title of this genre that we have been able to sell into the China market has been the Eunuch, and the only reason for that is that the author Jonathan has a huge fanbase because of his prominence as an actor in the China film world. This is unfortunate, and we will continue to offer out books to Chinese publishers in the hope that they will take them on, even if the motivation is nothing more than “This is a weird artifact.”

There are all sorts of ways that taking an outside view on a culture can be valuable. We are all too close to our own culture to be able to take a balanced view of it. What we gain from detail and depth we lose from the shortage of objectivity. Jonathan Spence’s take on China in his many books has a value for the ages, even for Chinese readers, and The Art of War is a book worth reading by strategists, both military and business, anywhere around the world, today and forever (the key takeaway from that book being that the best way to win a war is with no violence at all).

Beyond Chinese historical novels, there are two other genres that foreign writers seem to like. One is the world of foreigners in old China, usually Shanghai but sometimes old Beijing, and a prime example of the Beijing sub-niche is Dragons in Shallow Waters by Clare Kane, which is a story illuminating the relationships between foreigners and Chinese people with the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 as the backdrop. There are many others and they’re all largely about the way in which foreigners skated over the surface of China or to one extent or another lived their lives in a bubble, sometimes burst. Another novel we published which is sort of in this genre is Dragons and Boxers by Kyle Fiske, which injects a Kung Fu aspect into the Boxer rebellion, as opposed to Claire’s more romantic and historically accurate take.

The old Shanghai novel, almost always starts with the ship arriving at the Bund, up the Huangpu river, and the foreigner getting off an being overwhelmed by the intensity of the surging Chinese masses. I would not advise anybody doing that any more, but Amy Sommers got away with it in her excellent thriller, Rumors From Shanghai by using it to introduce a unique element into the story. Curious as to what that element is? Read the book! But it’s true, there is an enormous richness to the world of old Shanghai that can support lots more stories. A great way to go would be a detective lead character working for the Shanghai municipal police, dealing with murders and other mayhem in book after book after book…

The other genre is stories set in modern China, and these novels usually start off with our hero waking up with a hangover after a night on the town in a present-day Chinese city… Sigh. They are mostly written by younger English teachers, obviously reflective of their lives, and every one I’ve ever read so far is really boring. That is not to say that there is not a great work of art waiting to be written from that perspective, deeply reflective of the human condition and the state of modern China in a style that blows the reader away. But if it’s already been done, it hasn’t crossed my computer screen. Actually, come to think of it, that’s not true. Check out a title called Party Members. But we didn’t publish it in the end, the authors chose another outfit.

Despite these relatively negative thoughts, don’t get me wrong — I am a big fan of fiction about China and anybody – of any nationality! — who wants to send a manuscript through, please do. The great foreigner China novel is still other there, waiting to be written.

And P.S. I don’t write novels, but I do write songs, and one of my efforts to do a China story in song form is Leaving Home Today – available on Spotify and all other streaming music platforms with taste.

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