Xinran suggests 5 books on China, over at 5 Books:
Tell me about your first book, Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin.
This book is believed by many to be the greatest Chinese novel ever written. For me it is like a bible for everything to do with Chinese culture. Cao belonged to the Han Chinese clan and the book is a huge family novel written in the 18th century. The family’s fortunes were tied up with the Kangxi dynasty and the book is all about the relationship between the family members and all the different classes.
It really is a wonderful book which has been translated by Penguin since 1970 and reprinted again and again. But many Westerners don’t know about this book, which is a shame because it is such a powerful book which I really love.
Why is it so important to you?
Well, it is such a good guide to our culture. In the book more than 100 people, buildings, poems, paintings and dreams are described in great detail. So you really find out the lifestyles of the people living there. I have read this book again and again ever since my childhood.
For example, there is a part which sums up how important food is in Chinese society. Xueqin writes about an aubergine recipe, which is a famous dish in the book, where the mother describes to her daughter and grandchildren how you need to wash the aubergines in snow, soak them with spring dew, pickle them with flowers from summer to season them and the thorns from autumn. And these are known as four season aubergines. That is so beautiful. And why I think this book is so important is because it has helped Chinese culture to survive despite all the political upheavals and civil wars which have taken place since it was written.