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Chinese literature

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Last week, I wrote an article about a reading plan for taking my Chinese to the next level. In order to have a clearer starting point and allow others to understand better what I’m doing and how things are going, this article details all books I’ve read in Chinese so far. I will keep it updated as I read more books.

The following list consists of all books I’ve read in Chinese so far. I have only included…

  • …books written for native speakers
  • …books not written for children
  • …books I’ve read from cover to cover

That means that I haven’t included dozens of textbooks for foreigners, untold numbers of newspaper articles, papers, theses and so on, neither have I included books for children or other learning materials which aren’t aimed towards adults. I might have forgotten a book or two, but this list should be almost complete (with approximate dates). In case I have written something about my experience reading the book, I have provided a link.

Naturally, there’s a huge difference in time spent per book. 《實用現代漢語語法》is 500+ pages of grammar and probably took ten times longer to read than《茫點》, which is a fairly short and easy-to-read novel. Even though my own Chinese ability also influences speed, I would argue that the main reason I didn’t read more earlier is simply because…. I didn’t read. Obviously, reading《潰雪》(that’s Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson) in 2011 took some serious time and I could have read at least five easier novels in that time, but this isn’t important.

Regardless of how I measure reading in Chinese, the measurement is going to be crude and I’m fine with that. Book length and complexity probably balances out in the end anyway.

Books I’ve read in Chinese so far (2013-12-14):

  • 2010-07:《孔子的部落格》 陳峰、夢亦非
  • 2010-09:銀河公民》 羅伯特·海萊因
  • 2011-02:《鍊金術士》 保羅·科而賀
  • 2011-04:《世界大戰》 H.G.威爾斯
  • 2011-11:《潰雪》 尼爾·史蒂芬森
  • 2012-03:《華語文教學規範與理論基礎》 葉德明
  • 2012-06:《空想科學》 柳田理科雄
  • 2012-08:《漢語語法:修訂版》 李納、湯姆遜
  • 2012-11::犀照》 倪匡
  • 2013-01:《天觀雙俠》 鄭丰
  • 2013-01:《華語語音學》 葉德明
  • 2013-02:《實用現代漢語語法》 劉月華、潘文娛、故辭
  • 2013-02:《跟狗狗一起學物理》 查德·歐澤
  • 2013-02:茫點》 倪匡
  • 2013-03:《三體》 劉慈欣
  • 2013-03: 《漢語音韻》 耿志堅
  • 2013-04:《世界之眼(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-05:《世界之眼(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-05:《謝謝你離開我》 張小嫻
  • 2013-06:《大狩獵(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-07:《大狩獵(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-08:《在世界盡頭遇見台灣》 羅聿
  • 2013-09:《活著》 余華
  • 2013-09:《漢字書法之美》 蔣勳
  • 2013-09:《黑天鵝語錄》 納西姆·尼可拉斯·塔雷伯
  • 2013-10:《老子的部落格》 曹鴻濤
  • 2013-10:《真龍轉生(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-11:《真龍轉生(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-11:《飢餓遊戲》 蘇珊·柯林斯
  • 2013-11:《空想科學読本(2)》 柳田理科雄
  • 2013-11:《棋王》 阿城
  • 2013-12:《星火燎原》 蘇珊·柯林斯
  • 2013-12:《科幻世界的哲學凝視》 陳瑞麟
  • 2013-12:《空想科學読本(3)》 柳田理科雄
  • 2014-01:《闇影濺起(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2014-02:《闇影濺起(中)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2014-03:《李家同》 幕永不落下
  • 2014-04:《語音學教程》 林燾、王理嘉
  • 2014-05:《闇影濺起(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2014-05:《那些年,我們一起追的女孩》九把刀
  • 2014-06:《華語表達的態與藝:華語正音與表達》 葉德明
  • 2014-08:《病毒》 蔡駿
  • 2015-03:《白鹿原》 陳忠實

Books I’m currently reading:

  • 《蟻生》 王晉康
  • 《天光之火(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹

2013-03-21 update

As you can see, I’m well on my towards reading 25 books this year. I have already read six books so far, which is almost equal to the number of books I read in 2011 and 2012 combined. If we extrapolate this number, I will end up with 25-30 books before the end of 2013.

If I keep that going, I will reach 100 books in about three years. Of course, steadily improving reading speed should increase the number of books, but there will inevitably be periods when I read less, which cancels out any speed improvements. I will update this article whenever I finish reading a book, although I might not write reviews of all the books I read.

2013-09-19 update

Apparently, I didn’t read as much as I planned to during summer, so I’m somewhat behind schedule. Considering that I read one extra book early, only started falling behind in June. Providing that I read one more book this month, I will be three books behind schedule (or four since the goal is actually 25 this year, not 24 or two books per month). That’s quite a lot considering that I still read fairly slowly. Still, I have some interesting books available and I’m sure I can find the time. I haven’t given up yet, 25 books is still within reach!

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Title: 水滸傳
Translated title: Water Margin
Language: Chinese
Original: 施耐庵
Year: 2000

Water Margin is the second of the four great Chinese classical novels that I read in Windmill’s adaptation for children, the previous one being the Journey to the West. It tells the story of 108 outlaws and their various adventures during the  Song dynasty, but because of the extreme number of characters involved and the hurried plot, this book feels too much like the abridged version it really is.

My reading ability has improved a lot since I read the Journey to the West, which supposedly should be at the same level, but I still feel that this is almost too hard. This is strange, because sometimes I find this kind of reading harder than Chinese in textbooks I know for a fact should be more difficult. I think the main problem is that the story is a lot longer in the original form and the author who made the adaptation hasn’t done a very good job. For instance, the pages are virtually littered with names of people and places (a random check showed that three sentences contained over twenty names, which is far from uncommon). This makes it very hard to follow and remember who’s who.

Furthermore, the confusing style also doesn’t encourage me to read on, so i took almost a month to finish Water Margin meaning that I can hardly recall anything that happened at the beginning. I think I might read the other books in this adaptation series later, but only when I’m sure that I can handle this amount of names in Chinese more comfortably. I might even re-read this book, but let’s just say that I wasn’t very impressed the first time. If you’re looking for suitable books to improve your Chinese reading ability at the same time as picking up some knowledge about literature and culture (this was my goal), look elsewhere.

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Title: 我的心中每天開出一朵花
English title: A Garden in My Heart
Author: 幾米
Year: 2000

I bought 我的心中每天開出一朵花 roughly one year ago, just after I arrived in Taiwan, because I wanted to have some texts to read that was completely unrelated to my text books and that wasn’t written for foreigners. Jimmy (幾米) is quite famous in Taiwan, first for his drawings, but now also for his poetry. At the time I bought the book, though, my Chinese was only good enough to roughly understand the meaning of the texts, but I had no means to really understand and appreciate the poetry. This has changed.

Jimmy combines a unique way of painting and writing with an intimate understanding of the world. His pictures are simple, sometimes cute, and always effective in conveying a certain feeling. His writing style is minimalistic (I understand almost everything he writes, so he really doesn’t use fancy language), but yet profound. With these two tools, he tells stories in the form of poems, stories about life, able to communicate keen insights with just a handful of characters. It’s difficult to explain why I like this book so much, because I would need to reproduce pictures and poems (with a translation to English). However, doing a quick search on Google, you can at least see what his pictures look like.

I often complain about books being wordy and authors not knowing when they’re overdoing something, but in this case, there is nothing to criticise. Jimmy is a writer who can use simple means to convey deep insights into human nature, something I envy and admire. In short, this book is brilliant and I will definitely read more (and re-read this one, for that matter). If you’re studying Chinese, try to pick up 我的心中每天開出一朵花 (or any other book by Jimmy) whenever you feel like it, because it will give something to everyone, from the extreme beginner to the native speaker.

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Title: 西遊記
Translated title: The Journey to the West
Language: Chinese
Original: 吳承恩
Year: 2000

My first encounter with Journey to the West was in 2007, when I read it in a translation to first English and then again in Swedish for our course in East Asian culture and history. I enjoyed both the story and the translation immensely, so it felt only natural to choose Journey to the West as the first in a series of ten books presenting Chinese literary classics to young readers (I hesitate to specify age here, because I’m not sure).

Much of what I loved with the translation of the full version is lost here (such as the marvellous fighting scenes), but the main story and the characters are the same. My previous familiarity with the text also made it the ideal choice (I started reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, also in the same series, but I decided to stop because it’s too difficult). On the other hand, these 250 odd pages is an abbreviated form of the original story (which is much, much longer) and therefore gives a better sense of completion.

One big problem is that Journey to the West is rife with deus ex machina solutions to problems. Most of the time it’s the bodhisattva Guanyin who save the day. As is often the case with this kind of plot device, not only does it ruin particular story, but it also makes the reader think that there is never a serious problem, because whatever happens, the bodhisattva will come and save them.

What about the Chinese, then? Most of the time I have no problem understanding the general meaning in this book, but there are lots and lots of words I don’t know, so returning to this text again later for further studying (not just reading for quantity and pleasure) seems like a good idea. My estimate is that this book contains roughly 40 000 characters, which is one third more than the previous longest book I read in Chinese. I think the level is more difficult, but that I was greatly helped by the fact that I was already familiar with the story and its characters. All told, this is good reading and I will definitely return to it later in my pursuit of greater Chinese proficiency!

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Title: Färden till Västern
English title: Journey to the West
Original title: 西游记
Author: 吳承恩 (Wu Cheng’en)
Translation: Göran Malmqvist
Year: 1590s

The Journey to the West is one of the four great Chinese classics. In our course focusing on East Asian culture and history, we had to choose one of these and after reading about the different works, I felt that The Journey to the West would suit me best. Not having read the others, I cannot say that I was correct, but I can say that I enjoyed this book immensely.

The story revolves around the Monkey King and his attempt to overthrow Heaven. However, he is thwarted in his attempt and his only way out is to serve as the guide and companion to the Buddhist monk Xuanzang on his journey to the west to retrieve the sacred Buddhist scriptures.

There are many things which appeal to me in The Journey to the West and I will cover the most important ones in this review. First and foremost, I find Chinese legends about might and magic entertaining. It is a world previously unknown to me and providing a door into this world, makes this book wonderful. Second, I enjoy the straightforward narration, without tedious details which is so cumbersome in much old literature. The story is focused, well designed and fast paced.

Third, the translation deserves a paragraph on its own. Göran Malmqvist is absolutely brilliant; I cannot describe in words how much I enjoy his prose. Comparing it to an English translation I have also tried, the Swedish translation is infinitely more enjoyable. His mastery of the Swedish language is entertaining in its own right and it can clearly be seen both in the translation of the short poetry-like parts of the book, but also in the prose.

It is difficult to assess what I think of the work itself, since it is impossible to separate it from my impression of the translation. However, the overall impression is one of lasting admiration and I will definitely try to get hold of the sequels and read them as well. Sadly, they have gone out of print, but I can probably borrow them from a friend.

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