Reading Sichuan: Get yourself an education
Didn't exactly learn the history of Sichuan (or even China) in school? Do like they did in the days before schools were big business and give yourself an education with this reading list.
Balzac and the Little Seamstress
The charming coming-of-age story of two urban teenagers who are sent to re-education in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. There they impress the villagers with their knowledge and sophistication—playing the violin, wearing a wristwatch, but most of all, retelling stories from novels and current popular films. The boys pay particular attention to the attractive daughter of the local tailor, and romance eventually arises. Written in French and published in 2000, the novel was released in English and other languages a year later, and in 2002 released as a film. While the novel leaves the precise location of the village vague, the film pinpoints it as author Dai's home province of Sichuan.
One of the most well-known among the many memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, Jung Chang's Wild Swans portrayal of three generations of women coming of age in China makes for an engaging read. A significant portion of the novel—the stories of the author and her mother—are based in Sichuan, and readers who live in Chengdu will be able to connect with Wild Swans' glimpses into the city's history, such as Tianfu Square in the 1960s and the installation of the Chairman Mao statue. The book is also an excellent launching point for further reading on the Cultural Revolution and recent Chinese history in general.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
One of the better-known volumes in the ever-growing library of foreigners writing memoirs of their stays in China, Hessler's memoirs of teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, a town on the outskirts of Chongqing (then part of Sichuan) where no foreigner had set foot for 50 years, or so the story goes, offers an entertaining peek into the life of a foreigner adapting to life in China. Many of his tales of struggling with the language, attempts to teach students within an education system so different from his own, and general loafing about with locals will still resonate with foreign residents in China today. On the other hand, that Hessler happens to be in the demographic of the majority of foreigners who write on China—that is to say, white, North American and European males—virtually guarantees that the stories he tells and perspectives he brings to the literary table tow that party's line.
The Vanished Heavenly Country
Before there was any of us, there was Luther Knight. An American invited by the Qing government to teach at what is now Sichuan University in 1911, Knight's skillfully shot portraits and street scenes of Chengdu and surrounding areas are some of the oldest known photographs of the region. During his few years in China he captured the only known photographs of certain historical events and places and structures that have long since disappeared. Knight died in Chengdu in his early 30s and was buried in Sichuan; and his photos were apparently never shown to the public until the 21st century. Published in 2009 for the domestic market, this should be fairly easy to obtain in Chengdu, and although the text is all in Chinese, its main draw is the photos.
Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China
Dunlop's 2008 memoir is a must read for anyone interested in Sichuan's justly famous cuisine. The author of the first authoritative Sichuan-cuisine cookbook in English, Dunlop in this book takes the reader on a fascinating journey through China's culinary history and culture. Full of evocative descriptions of food and insightful observations on modern Chinese mores, Dunlop's writing is particularly strong in the first half of the book, when she describes her first encounters with Chengdu and its food. Highly recommended.
Leave Me Alone, Chengdu
Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村)
Harvey Thomlinson, translator
Leave Me Alone, Chengdu is now-five-time novelist Murong Xuecun's debut effort, one that earned him Asia's most prestigious literary award and launched his career as a full-time writer. He published the novel online, sending shockwaves through the domestic publishing industry. The novel follows three men of the first generation to come of age in China's new economy—loafers passing through their working years in Chengdu. It was published in an English edition earlier this year and is also available in French, German, Vietnamese, and, next year, Italian.
Finally, Sichuan has provided the backdrop for a handful of commercial films in recent years; the most notable being Ning Hao's slapstick comedy Crazy Stone (2006), set in Chongqing and recorded partly in local dialect, and Jia Zhangke's pseudo-documentary 24 City (2008), set in Chengdu.