Chinese popular culture was all but blotted out by the Cultural Revolution. Now that it is back on its feet, and people are taking more notice of what happens in China, once mystical and unintelligible Chinese popular culture is being deciphered and becoming more accessible to the rest of the world.
There's enough entertaining reading on China to fill a library, so the following is really just a few pointers to get you started. The classics and poetry are described in the Arts in China.
Readable modern novelists easily purchased in translation at home include Ha Jin, whose stories tend to be remarkably inconclusive and so all the more true to life, derived from his experiences living in the northeast. Ocean of Words, Waiting, and the collection of short stories The Bridegroom lift the lids on many things not obvious to the casual visitor. Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian, China's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (although the Chinese populace is kept in ignorance of this), is the tale of a man who embarks on a journey through the wilds of Sichuan and Yunnan in search of his own elusive ling shan (soul mountain). The Republic of Wine, Mo Yan's graphic satire about a doomed detective investigating a case of gourmand-officials eating human baby tenderloin, is at once entertaining and disturbing. His Garlic Ballads is an unsettling epic of family conflict, doomed love, and government corruption in a small town dependent on the garlic market. If you want something a little more lighthearted, but still related to China, Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby is an irreverent look at love and lust between a Chinese woman and a foreign man in China's financial capital. For a novel that gives a flavor of old Hong Kong, try Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong, a romantic story about a love affair between a British wanderer and a local prostitute during the British period.
First-class travel books include Peter Fleming's News from Tartary, originally published in 1936, and still one of the best travel books ever written about China. Fleming's perceptive account of a hazardous expedition along the southern Silk Route, from Beijing to northern India, is a masterpiece of dry wit. More recent travel biographies to look out for include Peter Hessler's amusing but insightful Oracle Bones: A Journey between China and the West and Simon Winchester's The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time. For a unique Chinese perspective on travel though the Middle Kingdom, Ma Jian's Red Dust: A Path Through China is a fascinating read.
For good general background reading, there are a few authors and publishers who turn out so much excellent work that you should start by having a look at what they've done recently. Jonathan Spence writes the most readable histories of China, not just the weighty The Search for Modern China, but gripping and very personal histories such as The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, on the clever self-marketing of the first Jesuit to be allowed to reside in Beijing; God's Chinese Son, on the leader of the Taiping Rebellion who thought he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ; and The Question of Hu, on the misfortunes of an early Chinese visitor to Europe.
Dover Publications (http://store.doverpublications.com) reprints handy guides to Chinese history and culture, as well as oddities such as Robert Van Gulik's versions of 18th-century Chinese detective stories featuring a Tang dynasty detective-judge, such as The Haunted Monastery and the Chinese Maze Murders. Dover's two-volume reprint of the 1903 edition of The Travels of Marco Polo is the only edition to own -- more than half is footnotes from famous explorers and geographers trying to make sense of Polo's route, corroborating his observations, or puzzling why he goes so astray, and providing fascinating trivia about China far more interesting than the original account. For a different take on the age of maritime discovery, Gavin Menzies' 1421 is a heavy read, but offers convincing proof that much of the world was discovered by the Chinese admiral Zheng He.
For more recent China watching, anything by the Italian diplomat Tiziano Terzani is a good place to start, but Behind the Forbidden Door is particularly compelling. While many books do their best to present the country in a favorable light, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn present a very realistic picture in China Wakes. Perhaps the most recent author to address the subject realistically is Gordon C. Chang in The Coming Collapse of China.
These next two recommendations barely mention China, but explain the problems that the country faces more clearly than any other recent writer. The Breakdown of Nations, by Leopold Kohr, examines why the largest nations always face the largest problems. Small Is Beautiful, by E. F. Schumacher, focuses on the problems a nation faces when it tries to move from an agrarian to an industrial economy; this book is out of print, but you can probably find a copy online. Truly enlightening books to have with you as you travel around the world's most populous nation.
Filmmaking began in China during Shanghai's golden years, and with the help of American expertise the city remained at the heart of the Chinese movie industry until the Japanese invasion. Shanghai was exotic and enticing, and this attracted a number of big Hollywood names, including Charlie Chaplin, to the Pearl of the Orient. Early themes were often anti-imperialist, and the first Chinese screen heroine, Ruan Lingyu, shot to fame with The Goddess in 1934. Once the Japanese arrived, production came to a standstill and many moviemakers fled to Hong Kong.
Under Mao, filmmaking was restricted to propagandist tales celebrating the virtues of communism, and it wasn't until the early 1980s that the Chinese movie industry finally managed to reestablish itself. The Fifth Generation (so-called for the number of generations since 1949) of Chinese film-makers began to explore new directions, but the indirect criticism of the communist system apparent in many of their movies, including Chen Kaige's beautifully shot Yellow Earth (1984), incensed the authorities. Zhang Yimou, who worked the camera on Yellow Earth, tried his hand at directing and turned out to be pretty good at it. His 1986 work, Red Sorghum, won critical acclaim and he has gone on to score a number of other instant classics, including Judou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), both of which star screen queen Gong Li. Like many other Fifth Generation directors, Zhang has recently turned his attentions to international audiences, releasing the martial arts epic Hero (2002), which stars martial artist Jet Li. Filling the gap left by Fifth Generation directors, the Sixth Generation rose to the challenge of provoking the authorities once more with urban stories like Beijing Bicycle (2001). Many of the Sixth Generation's movies have been banned in China.
Hong Kong had always been more relaxed and liberal than the mainland, and as China was enduring the rigors of the Cultural Revolution, moviemaking continued in the British territory unabated. Hong Kong is the world's third biggest movie producer, and the territory's most famous movie exports are its kung fu flicks. Early stories focused on the life of martial arts legend Wong Fei-Hung, but kung fu movies were taken to a whole new level by a certain Bruce Lee. Affectionately known as Li Xiaolong (Little Dragon Lee), Lee was the first actor to take Chinese movies to the West, and though the dialogue and plots were simple, the action was spectacular and captivated audiences worldwide. His most famous movie, Enter the Dragon, was released shortly after his death in 1973. Lee paved the way for the likes of Jackie Chan, who blended comedy with kung fu, and eventually found his way to Hollywood. Spearheaded by Jackie Chan, comedy kung fu has become a genre unto itself, and recent titles following the theme include Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004). The cinematic shooting style of Chinese martial arts movies now features in many Hollywood productions, and the success of movies like the Matrix trilogy (1993-2003) was greatly assisted by the fight scene choreography of Yuen Woo-Ping.
As Chinese culture becomes ever more accessible to the outside world, a host of movies aimed at Western audiences, retell classic legends. Most famous of these is Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and more recent offerings include the swashbuckling The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) and Three Kingdoms (2008).
Traditional Music -- Unlike in the West, opera in China has long been popular at all levels of society, and this is the medium by which most people were exposed to music, especially since the advent of television. There are countless forms of opera, but Beijing opera and the deft mask-changing Sichuan variety are the most famous. Most opera stories are based on the Chinese classics, and feature the same high-pitched singing tones and stilted melodies, which means this isn't for everyone, but you should try to see at least one performance, if only for the acrobatics and incredible make-up.
Aside from opera, various forms of traditional music can be heard in parks throughout the country; Beijing's Temple of Heaven gardens, Xi'an's City wall park, and Hangzhou's lakeside parks are all good places to try. Traditional music can be broadly divided by region and focus on the most prevalent instruments: The north is renowned for its drummers; southern forms often feature strings and flutes (dizi). Other popular instruments you'll come across include the erhu (silk string violin), guqin (zither), and pipa (lute).
Rock & Pop -- As the grip of the Mao regime loosened and foreign influence once again snuck its way into the country, a new form of music, inspired by Western and Taiwanese rock, began to be composed in China. Beijing was at the center of this movement, and its undisputed champion was Cui Jian. While his love lyrics seemed outwardly innocent enough, there was hidden meaning, and his dull view of communism soon incurred the displeasure of the authorities (which is the least one could expect from a musician known as the Godfather of Chinese Rock). To this day Beijing is the best place to see live rock in China, and new bands like Glorious Pharmacy are springing up all the time, while old favorites such as Cold Blooded Animals continue to play gigs in the city.
At the other end of the spectrum, the catchy and romantic melodies of Canto-pop, and now Mando-pop, are family friendly forms that leave teenagers screaming in hordes. Most of the big names still come from Hong Kong and Taiwan and include Aaron Kwok, Faye Wong, Andy Lau, Jolin, Kenny Kwan, and the band S.H.E. Their music is so ubiquitous you will doubtless know a few songs by default after only a few weeks in China.
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