Popular Russian literary classics in China

Russian literature has deeply influenced generations of Chinese readers and played an important role in Sino-Russian cultural exchanges.

Even now, Chinese students’ textbooks still include many Russian literary works such as the poem “If Life Deceives You” and the famous tale “The Flower with Seven Colors.”

Here we have compiled a list of five classic works of Russian literature that are well known to the Chinese people and explain why they are so popular with readers in China.

“War and Peace”

Leo Tolstoy is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential Russian authors in China. His masterpieces such as “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” have greatly influenced on Chinese literature and culture.

The novel “War and Peace” chronicles the French invasion of Russia and its aftermath during the Napoleonic era. Although the book is primarily written in Russian, significant portions of the dialogue appear in French.

Chinese translator Sheng Junfeng, known by his pen name Cao Ying, translated “The Complete Works of Leo Tolstoy.” After Tolstoy’s works were published in Chinese, his ideas of social justice, non-violence and spiritualism also deeply influenced many Chinese intellectuals.

File photos of Leo Tolstoy and Sheng Junfeng, known by the pen name Cao Ying, who translated the Russian author’s works into Chinese. /CGTN

File photos of Leo Tolstoy and Sheng Junfeng, known by the pen name Cao Ying, who translated the Russian author’s works into Chinese. /CGTN

“How the Steel Was Tempered”

“How the Steel Was Tempered,” also known as “The Making of a Hero,” was written by Nikolai Ostrovsky. The book is not only popular among older generations in China, but it is also a textbook in Chinese schools.

Literary critics believe that the inspirational power of the book lies in the notion that communist ideas could liberate humanity, despite the fall of the Soviet Union. According to media reports, the novel has sold 36.4 million copies and is the best-selling book in the Russian language.

Xia Boyu, the first double-leg amputee to climb Mount Everest via the southern route, shares passages that inspired him from the book “How the Steel Was Tempered” on April 23, 2022, at a reading event in Beijing. /CFP

Xia Boyu, the first double-leg amputee to climb Mount Everest via the southern route, shares passages that inspired him from the book “How the Steel Was Tempered” on April 23, 2022, at a reading event in Beijing. /CFP

“Crime and Punishment”

“Crime and Punishment” is a novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. The story follows the mental anguish of Rodion Raskolnikov, a former student in Saint Petersburg who plans to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker, an old woman who stores money and valuable objects in her apartment. After the deed is done, however, Rodion finds himself wracked with confusion, paranoia, and disgust.

One critic wrote: “If Tolstoy presented the broadness of humanity through his work, then Dostoevsky discussed the deepness of humanity and its moral dilemmas.”

“And Quiet Flows the Don”

“And Quiet Flows the Don” is a novel by Russian Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov. It is considered one of the most important works of Russian and world literature of the 20th century.

The book depicts the lives and struggles of the Don Cossacks during World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. Many older readers in China enjoy reading war literature that resonates with them.

A file photo of Russian writer Mikhail Sholokhov /CFP

A file photo of Russian writer Mikhail Sholokhov /CFP

“The Captain’s Daughter”

Set during Pugachev’s Rebellion of the 1770s, Alexander Pushkin’s historical novel “The Captain’s Daughter” tells the story of 17-year-old Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov, who leaves home to join the Russian Imperial Army and falls in love with a captain’s daughter named Masha.

Centered around the obvious theme of love, Pushkin, an incorrigible romantic, poses the question of why different people make different moral choices in the same circumstances.

A play “The Captain’s Daughter” based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin is staged at the Central Academic Theatre of the Russian Army in Moscow, Russia on April 2, 2024. /CFP

A play “The Captain’s Daughter” based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin is staged at the Central Academic Theatre of the Russian Army in Moscow, Russia on April 2, 2024. /CFP

Classics are the essence of human civilizations that stand the test of time. In addition to Russian literary works that have influenced Chinese readers, many Chinese classics and modern literary works have been exported to Russia.

As this year marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Russia, the two countries are expected to continue to conduct a series of cultural exchanges.