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China’s Fish Soup for the Soul

China’s Fish Soup for the Soul

Jonathan Sullivan15 Apr 2014Leave a comment

Written by Julie Yu-Wen Chen.

The image above shows recent best-selling books in a book store in China. Although the ranking of best-selling books in this store might not be the same as in others, it is still interesting to see what is appealing to Chinese people’s reading tastes these days. The practice of religion is still monitored and regulated in China, yet the top ten titles show that Chinese people are no less eager than their counterparts in other countries to search for the comfort of the soul through reading.

The list of the top ten best-selling books is a bit misleading because two of the books on the shelves are the same (for reasons unknown). According to staff, this store’s current bestseller is The Way It Should Be: Vanke and Me, 2000-2013 (大道当然:我与万科, 2000-2013). The author, Wang Shi (王石), is the founder of China Vanke (万科), the largest real estate enterprise in China and the largest residential real estate developer in the world. In 2011, Wang Shi was named by Fortune Magazine as one of the 15 business leaders who have altered China.

Instead of sharing how to excel in business, Wang Shi recounts his philosophy in entrepreneurship by sharing his mountaineering experiences and his participation in various social and public affairs. He is said to be “an avid climber who became the oldest person to successfully scale the highest peaks in each of the seven continents as well as the North and South Pole” (Zhou, 2012).

Simply by reading the title of Wang Shi’s book, one can see the confidence in this entrepreneur; he believes the way he lives and works is the way it should be followed by others in society. I assume Chinese readers like his book because he presents himself as a role model whom many would yearn to be. He is rich, successful, living a colorful life, travelling around the world, and still willing to learn. In fact, he was pursuing an education at Harvard and Cambridge in his middle-age years. Also, he has a strong connection to Chinese society, appreciates human values and social responsibility, and has respect for nature above wealth. It is an understatement to say that what makes his book sell is the dream-like life that many readers aspire to have. Repeatedly in this book, one can see that Wang Shi seeks to deliver the spirit of humanism in his entrepreneurship. This is an important message for China’s many current and up-and-coming nouveau riche.

Although I understand the good intention of Wang Shi’s book and recognize the importance of his message, I personally did not really enjoy reading it. This might just be a matter of personal taste, for I did not find these messages new to me.

It is interesting to see that some other best-selling books also delve into the issues of how we should look at life and live in peace in this world. On the upper right shelf in the image is Hsing Yun’s Life Is About Letting Go (人生就是放下). Based in Taiwan, Hsing Yun is a Buddhist monk who runs one of the largest international Buddhist organizations in the world. In a way, Hsing Yun shares similar ideals with Wang Shi in that both believe in humanism and engagement with society.

Genius on the Left and Lunatics on the Right (天才在左疯字在右), by Gao Ming (高铭), is not a new book. It was published in 2010, but it has been popular ever since. This book is said to be the first one in China that contains an author’s interviews with many Chinese patients with psychological problems. In each of the book’s 48 chapters, the author holds conversations with patients. Gao Ming is not an expert of mental problems by profession; rather, he was simply curious about the world as perceived by patients with mental problems. He spent four years visiting patients to complete this book. I found some of these conversations to be boring—possibly due to my lack of the imagination that would help me understand the interviewees’ perspectives—yet others were quite thought provoking. I came to realize that those patients’ perceptions of the world are not necessarily nonsense. The patients just have different views.

For instance, in one chapter, Gao Ming and a professor of quantum physics interview a patient who believes he can understand the views of a “four-dimensional creature” that exists in the world (or in the patient’s world). From the perspective of that four-dimensional creature, human beings are worm-like insects. Each worm lives in a period of time on earth. Time does not flee; what do flee are the worm-like human beings. Such conversations are often weird, philosophical, and thought provoking. Like many other non-Chinese books of this genre, Genius on the Left and Lunatics on the Right gives readers a new appreciation of our world and life and attempts to have them think outside the comfortable, familiar box.

From the best-seller list in his book store, a particular staff member in his 20s directed me to the book he likes the most: Everything Is the Best Arrangement (一切都是最好的安排). This book is a bit similar to the so-called micronovel (微小说) popular in China in recent years. Contents in micronovels are originally posted on the authors’ Weibo, or microblog, and later transformed into and published as hard copies.

The pen name of the author of Everything Is the Best Arrangement is Hui Guniang (辉姑娘). “Hui Gu-nian” is a play on words: It originally should mean “gray lady” (灰姑娘), which is the Chinese version of the name Cinderella. But the author has slightly changed the writing of “Hui Guniang to make the “gray lady” a “glory lady.”

What Hui Guniang writes on her Weibo is not strictly novels but more akin to inspirational essays and stories. Just like the meaning of her pen name, the author uses her essays to encourage readers to endure the trials of life. Failings and scars in life do not defeat human beings. Instead, we can become stronger and rise like the phoenix out of the ashes. As the author describes, these stories and essays are not simply chicken soup for the soul but “fish soup containing fish bones” for the soul. Most of these stories are related to friendship and love, and each has an element of heartbreak. These mental fish bones can wound our soul; however, the soup is warm and does have a healing effect if one appreciates life’s lessons.

Nowadays, a lot of academic writings and journalistic reports reveal various social problems arising from China’s rapid economic growth (e.g., crime, environmental degradation, corruption). Society might be ailing in some ways, but soul searching and the ability to reflect and improve are embedded in human nature as well. A snapshot of recent best-selling books suggests an undercurrent in searching for a renewed soul and spirit for the Chinese people, individually and collectively.


Gao Ming (2010) Genius on the Left and Lunatics on the Right. 23rd Edition. Beijng: Wuhan University Press.

Hsing Yun (2014) Life Is About Letting Go. Gangu: Gansu People’s Art Press.

Hui Gu-nian (2014) Everything Is the Best Arrangement. Beijing: China CITIC Press.

Wang Shi (2014) The Way It Should Be: Vanke and Me, 2000-2013. 3rd Edition. Beijing: China CITIC Press.

Zhou Zhanghong (2012) 15 Business People Who’ve Changed China,  CNN. Accessible here.

Julie Yu-Wen Chen is a Lecturer at the Department of Government at University College Cork (UCC).

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