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-by Ernie Diaz
Lord, words are cheap these days, thank you Internet, a few thousand and 20 RMB barely enough to get you a decent cup of coffee. So the fiction writer’s dream of being mobbed by fans, and having his work turned into a heartbreaking blockbuster starring Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant, is all the sweeter today.
It’s mindboggling when those mobs of fans are Chinese. Although David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has been out for eight years, it has only recently been published in Chinese, received with the kind of frenzy previously only lavished on John Denver when he was on tour here. Mitchell barely escaped a Shanghai book-signing recently, forced out of his escort car to sign copies.
Writer Xu Xi suggests that Cloud Atlas’ theme of apocalypse is “a satisfying revenge for life in ‘these here times’ of the muddled Middle Kingdom.” Makes sense, given the impact Avatar had on China. Others suggest that themes of contemporary British lives and values resonate strongly with young Chinese readers. Well and good, but those themes sing from a vast canto of English literature, themes that echo off the canyons of both cultures. Before occupying those sofas for six at Starbucks with her 20 RMB cup of coffee, and building on her Harry Potter foundation with Cloud Atlas, the young Chinese anglophile is well advised to ground herself in the following British classics:
Frankenstein, Mary Shelly
Synopsis – Coddled nerd pours all his energy and wealth into creating a modern Prometheus who will bring eternal credit to his family name.
Who Should Read? Mandatory for tiger moms, proof that all their arcane science, however successful in equipping their children outwardly for life, will inevitably turn them into hateful dopplegangers, dedicated to making their parents’ lives miserable.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Synopsis – Educated, nubile daughter thoroughly grossed out by the business of being married off to the highest bidder. Misses out on sure thing, then on her dreamboat, and finally settles for acerbic outsider.
Who Should Read? China’s myriad sheng nu, so-called “left over” women who are too successful for traditional domestic Chinese arrangements, too old for Prince Charmings. With enough witty banter, left-over ladies, you too can overcome that snarky rich jerk’s P&P, and surrender to your mutual love.
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
Synopsis – Rural worker tries to study his way to success, gives in to reproductive impulses, brings shame and ignominy on everything and everyone he’s involved with.
Who Should Read? The 700 million Chinese without access to city opportunities. First you give up your dreams. Then you go make money. Then you get the women.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Synopsis – Mild-mannered, successful doctor drinks potion that frees him from morality, comes to from nightlife that tends to leave dried blood and hair on his walking stick. Pays off families of his victims to maintain lifestyle.
Who Should Read ? Any Chinese woman married to a “businessman”.
Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe
Synopsis – Moll works her way from convict to housekeeper to con-artist to failed gold-bricker to kept woman to widow to wife of rich man.
Who Should Read? Basically a playbook for all those Chinese women who would rather be sad in a BMW than happy on the back of a bicycle.
Vanity Fair, William Thackeray
Synopsis – British petit bourgeoisie cheat themselves and others to maintain smoke and mirrors illusion of rich, happy lives: backbiting, scheming, fraud, and prostitution.
Who should read? The millions of Chinese middle-class buy cialis online strivers who believe one-upmanship is the natural progression from socialist doldrums. All Vanity Fair characters, from satirical Becky Sharp to devil-may-care Rawdon Crawley, are represented in China Central Television period dramas, so Thackeray’s observation that people are “abominably foolish and selfish” should ring home as a universal truth.
Brave New Word, Aldous Huxley
Synopsis – State mandated reproductive technology makes for a manageable population, and just the right balance of leaders and proles. Children hypno-learn their lot in life, adults spend rather than mend, and everyone drinks Soma for instant good times. Big Success!
Who should read? Anyone in the PRC who believes there’s the tiniest chance western youth worship, cheery commercialism, and self-involvement might seduce a few unwary Chinese, less grounded in their five thousand years of culture.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Synopsis – Little boy David saddled with abusive stepfather who sends him to workhouse after mom dies. Ups and downs of his life mirrored in panoply of vivid characters who all get their karmic justice. Adult David finally gains peace by marrying homespun girl and making love a discipline.
Who Should Read? Anyone who believes their lives’ ups and downs are somehow larger and of more import than others, because they’re happening to us. So pretty much everyone.
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
Synopsis – Englishman fortune-tossed to fantastic lands and peoples, only to find that petty myopia is a universal common denominator. Oh yeah, and every form of rule is a hypocritical abomination.
Who Should Read? Anyone who has used a different culture to project their fears and insecurities on. So pretty much everyone.