The Water Margin by Luo Guanzhong and Shi Nai’an (tr J H Jackson) is China’s 14th-century Robin Hood fable, the story of 108 heroes from the Chinese underclass who start a revolution. The most fascinating part of the novel is the way Luo challenges the idea of the hero.
If you want to understand the beauty of the Chinese language, Three Hundred Tang Poems (tr Geoffrey Waters, Michael Farman and David Lunde) will provide an introduction. Poems from the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) set the aesthetic standard, and Western modernist poetry was also inspired by these poems.
Lu Xun opened a new chapter for modern fiction in China. He was the first Chinese novelist to use colloquial spoken Chinese to write a novel. The Real Story of Ah-Q (1921-2; tr Julia Lovell) is a short fiction classic in China and was a catalyst for the New Culture Movement.
Strictly speaking, Qian Zhongshu wasn’t a professional novelist, but as a literary scholar and social historian he made an astonishing contribution to the fiction world in China. Fortress Besieged (1947; tr Jonathan Spence) is perhaps the best book on Chinese intellectuals in modern Chinese history: critical, spiteful and merciless.
Mo Yan was the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize. His Sandalwood Death (2001; tr Howard Goldblatt) is a love story set during the final years of imperial China, and the best book to reflect the wild, bold, eclectic gifts of the novelist.