Decoded A Novel

Mai Jia; Translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




320 Pages


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In his gripping debut novel, Mai Jia reveals the mysterious world of Unit 701, a top-secret Chinese intelligence agency whose sole purpose is counterespionage and code breaking.
Rong Jinzhen, an autistic math genius with a past shrouded in myth, is forced to abandon his academic pursuits when he is recruited into Unit 701. As China’s greatest cryptographer, Rong discovers that the mastermind behind the maddeningly difficult Purple Code is his former teacher and best friend, who is now working for China’s enemy—but this is only the first of many betrayals.

Brilliantly combining the mystery and tension of a spy thriller with the psychological nuance of an intimate character study and the magical qualities of a Chinese fable, Decoded discovers in cryptography the key to the human heart. Both a riveting mystery and a metaphysical examination of the mind of an inspired genius, it is the first novel to be published in English by one of China’s greatest and most popular contemporary writers.


Praise for Decoded

“[A]n entirely original work—a mix of spy thriller, historical saga and mathematical puzzle that somehow coheres into a powerful whole.” —The Financial Times
Decoded, the debut work of Mai Jia, breaks the mould . . . It stands out among Chinese novels for its pace, liveliness and the sheer novelty of the tale it tells. It grips from the first page. [Mai Jia] offers a beguiling and magical mystery tour of China. It is an absolute joy to read.” —The Economist

“There is a determination to unsettle the reader; an uneasiness abotu settling on one focused point of view, almost as if the narrative style is attempting to replicate the complexities of code breaking that lie at the heart of the novel . . . [Decoded] possesses an aesthetic of its own, a world in which the characters feel constantly teetering on the edge of obsession.” —Tash Aw, The Telegraph

“[Decoded]’s consuming interest—and it truly is a page turner—comes from its…gripping plot, otherworldly aura and flamboyant detail.”—Perry Link, The New York Times Book Review

Decoded is a subtle and complex exploration of cryptography, politics, dreams and their significance . . . In the end, it’s the complexity of the characters that is Decoded’s enduring pleasure.” —The London Review of Books

“Subtle and psychologically focused . . . the central story is a gripping one . . . it leaves you eager to read more of his work.” —Alexander Larman, The Observer

“A mixture of Kafka and Agatha Christie . . . An utterly fascinating read.” —Edward Wilson, The Independent

“The book’s subtle ambiguity is extended to its own conclusion, the decoding of which the reader is compelled to take part in.” —The Wall Street Journal

“An engaging and highly unusual read.” —The Sunday Independent

Decoded is a subtle and complex exploration of cryptography, politics, dreams and their significance . . . There is much of interest in this book, from the strange, superstitious beginning to the gradual decline of the Rong family as the twentieth century progresses . . . But, in the end, it is the complexity of the characters that is Decoded’s enduring pleasure.” —The Times Literary Supplement

“Between the thrills of pulp fiction and those novels which come to be considered classics, there are boundaries and lines which, for many writers, are difficult to cross, and may take a lifetime (if ever) to realize. Mai Jia’s achievement is that he has overcome that barrier with steady and assured strides. The footprints he has left behind form an ingenious, secretive literary treasure map.” —Wong Kar-wai, director of The Grandmaster

“When I say that [Decoded] is excellent, I am referring both to its remarkable literary qualities and to the fact that it demands to be read in a single sitting.” —Alai, Mao Dun Literature Prize–winning author of Red Poppies

“The illogical nature of destiny, the brilliance and fragility of genius, and circumstances that bind people together irrevocably as they drift through the darkness of the night all form part of Mai Jia’s strange and mysterious novel.”—Beijing Evening News

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

The man who left Tongzhen on the little black ferry in 1873 with a view to studying abroad was the youngest member of the seventh generation of that famous family of salt merchants: the Rongs of Jiangnan. When he left, he was called Rong Zilai, but by the time he returned he was called John Lillie. Going by what people said later on, he was the first person in the Rong family to break from their mercantile heritage and become an academic, not to mention a great patriot. Of course, this development was inextricably linked with the many years that he spent abroad. However,
Read the full excerpt


  • Mai Jia; Translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne

  • Mai Jia, who spent many years in the Chinese intelligence services, is one of China’s bestselling and most famous writers. He is the author of four novels, three of which have been turned into television series and films. Mai has won almost every major book prize in China, including its highest literary honor, the Mao Dun Literature Prize. 

  • Mai Jia