Whether you’re traveling to China or just dreaming of it, a good book provides an insight into the country that few other experiences can. We searched bookshelves, lists of bestsellers, and countless reviews to find the 30 best novels about China.
All the Flowers in Shanghai: A Novel
All the Flowers in Shanghai is a sweeping historical fiction novel reminiscent of favorites like Memoirs of a Geisha and Empress. Jepson’s novel takes place in a China on the edge of revolution. It follows a young woman who is driven to seek revenge and regain her independence after a series of events throws her into a life that is not of her choosing.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
The international bestseller Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the tale of two city boys who are exiled to an isolated village for the purpose of “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution. When the boys find a friend in the daughter of a local tailor, they’re thrilled to discover that the girl’s family has a hidden stash of Western classic literature. Despite the constant danger, the boys risk reading the literature ito find an escape from their reality.
Bridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China That Never Was
Bridge of Birds may be science fiction in genre, but this beautiful and simply told story manages to capture authentic Chinese culture in ways that few books can. The beloved novel opens in a village where all of the children have fallen ill with a mysterious illness. The book’s heroes, Number Ten Ox and Li Kao, set off on a daring adventure to find the Great Root of Power, the only thing that can cure the children.
The Civil Servant’s Notebook
Wang Xiaofang has become quite famous for his novels depicting the dog-eat-dog world of Chinese government and politics. He is the former personal secretary of Shenyang Deputy Mayor Ma Xiangdong, who was sentenced to death for gambling with public money. Wang Xiaofang knows a thing or two about Chinese politics. In The Civil Servant’s Notebook, Western readers are offered a glimpse into the warped psyches of China’s highest political offices.
The Courtesan is not the simple love story its title may imply. Rather, it’s the sweeping saga of Jinhua, a young Chinese woman who in 1881 loses her family and is sold to a brothel-keeper at age seven. “Rescued” by a government emissary and made his concubine, Jinhua finds herself accompanying the man to the “foreign devil nation” of Austria-Hungary, to the elegant city of Vienna. There, Jinhua’s discovers the unlimited possibilities such a city offers and the true love that greets her there —neither of which aren’t available to a woman like Jinhua in a China on the edge of rebellion and revolution.
Ha Jin’s The Crazed is at once both an intimate look into communist Chinese society and a psychological treatise on the human mind. The novel was named as one of the “Best Books of the Year” by the Washington Post, San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, among others. It tells the story of Jian Wan, a student who is assigned to care for his professor (and would-be future father-in-law) after the latter survives a terrible stroke.
Death of a Red Heroine
Mystery lovers are sure to devour Death of a Red Heroine, the debut novel of Anthony Award winner Qiu Xiaolong. This great novel about China launches the saga of Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police, as she works to overcome the various political challenges standing in the way of investigating the death of a young “national model worker” who is found dead in a canal.
Diary of a Madman and Other Stories
Not to be confused with Nikolai Gogol’s classic, this Diary of a Madman and Other Stories is written by Lu Xun, a well-known name in modern Chinese literature and the former head of the League of Left-Wing Writers in 1930s Shanghai. All of Lu Xun’s most famous short stories are included in this classic volume, including: “Storm in a Teacup,” “Village Opera,” “A Happy Family,” and “Forging the Swords,” to name a few.
In her bestselling novel Empress, Shan Sa brings to life Empress Wu, one of China’s most controversial figures. Although history has painted Empress Wu as ruthless and brutal, this beautiful novel carefully tells the empress’s tale using vivid historical detail, biographical accuracy, and even poetry. The result is a stunning masterpiece that adds layers to an incredible woman who deserves more than what the history books have to offer.
Anchee Min’s bestselling novel Empress Orchid takes place in the last days of the Forbidden City’s era of imperial glory. With captivating writing and great historical detail, the novel tells the story of Tzu Hsi, or “Orchid”, the one-time concubine who becomes China’s last empress. Though she is seemingly the one and only person who can solidify the country, Orchid retains her power through endless intrigue, seduction, and even murder.
Eye of Jade: A Mei Wang Mystery
Diane Wei Liang
Mei Wang is Beijing’s first successful female P.I., and a modern independent woman. Of course, she hasn’t forgotten what the Chinese government did to her father, either. In Eye of Jade, Mei Wang is tasked with tracking down a Han dynasty jade that may have been stolen from the Luoyang Museum during the Cultural Revolution. Unexpectedly, the hunt for the jade forces Mei Wang to face the dark history of not only her country, but also her family.
The Fat Years
Koonchung Chan’s The Fat Years leaves no question as to the importance of remembering the past in order to the protect the future. In this complex and chilling commentary about the modern totalitarian state, an entire month goes missing from Chinese records. The only people who seem to care are a small group of friends who kidnap a high-ranking official i to get to the bottom of the scandal and learn the truth.
Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan is one of China’s most controversial novelists. In Frog, Yan illustrates the devastation and desperation that surrounded families during the harshest days of the country’s one-child policy. Tadpole, a revered playwright, decides to write about his aunt Gugu, the once young and beautiful daughter of a strict Communist daughter. Heartbroken by the political defection of her lover, Gugu, a skilled midwife, chooses to prove her loyalty to the Communist government by strictly enforcing the one-child policy in her village. Upon its release in 2015, Frog was named a Notable Book by the Washington Post and one of the New York Times’ Top Books of the Year.
The Good Earth
Pearl S. Buck
Pearl S. Buck’s bestselling classic The Good Earth is the epic story of Wang Lung and his wife, O-lan. As peasants and former slaves, the couple’s lives are not easy. Still, they work hard to raise their sons and save their money until they are able to afford a piece of property in the House of Wang. With success, however, comes a series of misfortunes. The Good Earth won myriad awards upon its initial release, including the William Dean Howells Award and the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.
I Love Dollars: And Other Stories of China
China may not technically subscribe to Capitalism, but people love it, as evidenced by the fact that Zhu We’s I Love Dollars became an instant hit upon its publication in the country. Each story in this entertaining compendium deals with Chinese Capitalism in one way or another, including the title story, in which a son attempts to procure a prostitute for his father, only to haggle the old man’s way out of a good time.
The Keys of the Kingdom
Originally published in 1984, A.J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom has retained over the decades its reputation as a modern-day classic. The novel follows the trials and tribulations of a Scottish priest who is sent to China only to struggle with his mission in the face of revolution, disease, and famine.
The Noodle Maker
Written by Ma Jian, a Chinese dissident known for his satirical novels about post-Tiananmen China, The Noodle Maker begins with a dinner between two long-time friends. Over the course of the evening, one of the men, a writer, describes the stories that he wishes he had the courage to compose. The stories are at once both hilarious and heartbreaking. They range from the tale of a grieving woman who decides to commit suicide via tiger to that of a young man who opens his own crematorium so he can harass the dead bodies of Communist Party officials while blasting Western music, among others.
Pearl of China: A Novel
As proven by her enduring bestseller Empress Orchid, Anchee Min is a master at bringing to life some of history’s most captivating characters. In Pearl of China it’s Pearl S. Buck, the daughter of zealous American missionaries who would grow up to become the Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author featured on this list. Taking place in the late 1800s, Pearl of China follows the epic friendship between Pearl and Willow, a poor Chinese girl. The two remain friends even as China is rocked by the Boxer Rebellion, various military coups, religious persecution, and Mao’s Red Revolution.
Pearl S. Buck
Peony is yet another literary classic written by famed author Pearl S. Buck, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novel takes place in Kaifeng during the 1850s, a time when the region’s long-time Jewish population is finding it harder and harder to retain its cultural independence in the pressure of assimilation. Peony, a young Chinese girl, is sent to work for a rich Jewish family, only to fall in love with David, the family’s son. The couple faces a series of obstacles, not least of which are the cultural traditions that forbid the marriage.
Please Don’t Call Me Human
Wang Shuo may be one of China’s most popular novelists, but Please Don’t Call Me Human has been banned in China. Perhaps that’s because this outlandish, sometimes vulgar, yet surprisingly insightful novel takes place during an imagined Olympic Games. But unlike the Olympics we know and love, Wang Shuo’s version has nations competing on the basis of citizens capacity for humiliation — and China is determined to win.
Red Sorghum: A Novel of China
Mo Yan’s epic novel, Red Sorghum, spans three generations of daily life in China. Beginning in the 1930s, the novel uses flashbacks to depict the incredible fight average Chinese families have had to endure through invasion, war, famine, and revolution. Red Sorghum is considered a classic in China, and even inspired an Oscar-nominated film directed by Zhang Yimou.
The Republic of Wine
Mo Yan is one of China’s most critically acclaimed writers, and a few pages into The Republic of Wine it’s easy to see why. This allegorical bestseller takes place in Liquorland, in the imaginary province called the Republic of Wine. Special investigator Ding Gou’er is sent to Liquorland when rumors that “strange and excessive gourmandise” is being practiced within city limits. The novel is at once both hilarious and heartbreaking, and proves that even the toughest government has trouble stifling true creativity. Author Mo Yan was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Rock Paper Tiger
Rock Paper Tiger is one of author Lisa Brackmann’s thrilling Ellie McEnroe novels. In this installment, Iraq War veteran Ellie is living in Beijing and enjoying a casual relationship with her sort-of boyfriend, Lao Zhang. Ellie meets an Uighur (a member of a Chinese Muslim minority) at Lao Zhang’s home shortly before the latter’s disappearance. She is thrust into a series of events that turns her life upside down and has her questioning who she can trust in this world she barely understands.
Running Through Beijing
Xu Zechen’s Running Through Beijing is an example of a new sub-genre in Chinese literature. Rather than a story that revolves around politics, the novel describes the trials and tribulations of everyday life among the lower class city dwellers. In Zechen’s story, the main city dweller is Dunhuahg, a young man recently released from prison. With no money and no permanent home, Dunhuahg is thrilled to meet a young woman who sells pirated DVDs and inadvertently forces him to make some tough decisions. Compared by critics to the film Run Lola Run, Running Through Beijing offers unique insight into the gritty underworld of petty crime in China.
Lisa See is well-known for her captivating novels about China, and Shanghai Girls is no exception. This book begins in 1937, when Shanghai was widely considered to be “the Paris of Asia.” It follows two sisters, Pearl and May, who are sold as wives when their father gambles away his wealth. The two young women end up in California, where they find themselves struggling to maintain their culture and identities in a completely new world.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the massively popular book about women in 19th century China. The novel follows Snow Flower, a young girl who lives in seclusion like so many women of her time. Snow Flower is assigned a laotong, a pen pal-type friend with whom she can share her innermost thoughts. The novel spans the years-long friendship between the two girls, while offering insight into a China experiencing famine, revolution, and many trying experiences for women.
Threads of Silk
Threads of Silk, the debut novel of author (and China resident) Amanda Roberts, beautifully tells the story of Yaqian, the daughter of embroiderers from the Hunan Province. Though generations of Yaqian’s family have lived and died next to the Xiangjiang River, the girl is sent to the Forbidden City to serve China’s last Empress. There, she enters a world of romance, intrigue, and treachery. She bears witness to some of China’s most turbulent years and the fall of the Qing Dynasty.
The Three Body Problem
Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem was a massive success when it was first released in China, even going so far as to win the prestigious Hugo Award. Now it’s available in English. The science fiction novel takes places against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution in China. While the novel offers plenty of insight into the country’s actual history, it’s safe to say it offers just as much imagination. After all, the entire book revolves around an alien civilization as it plans to invade Earth. Fans of The Three Body Problem will be happy to know that the book is followed by two sequels, The Dark Forest and Death’s End.
Guy Gavriel Kay
Those interested in the Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China are sure to love Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. It is perhaps slightly more fantasy than historical fiction (it’s been compared to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Under Heaven tells the story of Shen Tai, the son of a decorated general who is unexpectedly gifted 250 Sardian horses — a gift that puts his life in overwhelming danger and sets off a page-turner of an adventure.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Grace Lin’s New York Times bestseller is technically a middle grade novel, but those who appreciate good literature and Chinese culture won’t to mind that fact. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon tells the story of Minli, a young girl living in a tumbledown hut in the Valley of the Fruitless Mountain. Inspired by her father’s folktales about the Old Man on the Moon, Minli sets off on an adventure to find the Old Man….and herself.
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