The best books about China’s Cultural Revolution

Who am I?

Born and raised in China, I grew up on a remote state-run farm where my parents, as condemned intellectuals during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, lived for 20 years. It wasn't until mid-80s they were allowed to return. I have heard many stories and read many books about this tumultuous period in China. I didn’t know much about my parents’ personal experiences until I was in my 30s. Today’s China is very different but I believe that history extends its roots deep into the present. As a writer, what interests me the most is the impact of history on individuals and society. My latest book is a historical wartime novel set in China and Europe.

I wrote...

Beautiful as Yesterday

By Fan Wu,

Book cover of Beautiful as Yesterday

What is my book about?

Mary and Ingrid are sisters who were born and brought up in China but now reside in the United States. Mary is the older of the two; seemingly a devoted wife, mother, and churchgoer. Yet she is tormented by adultery, a grudge toward her parents, and her despair at work. Her estranged sister Ingrid has never settled for anything; she prefers her bohemian friends’ culture to her own and is haunted by her college boyfriend’s tragic death. When their widowed mother travels to the United States for the first time, they can’t avoid a family get-together. Amid all it stirs up, it becomes clear that the uneasy relationship between the sisters has roots deeper than either had ever acknowledged—and extends to their parents and their homeland.

The books I picked & why

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To Live

By Yu Hua, Michael Berry (translator),

Book cover of To Live

Why this book?

I first read the book when I was at college in China, and over the years, I’ve read it several times. In China, Yu Hua is one of the few leading writers known as both a literary master and a popular writer with huge commercial success. His charm is well demonstrated in To Live, which has become a classic in modern Chinese literature. It’s a story of a common Chinese man named Fugui living through one after another social and political changes. The story is dramatic, sad, humorous, and sarcastic at times yet never sentimental and judgmental, and it draws you in with a simple but compelling question: after you lose everything dear to you, can you still go on to live? 

Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp

By Xianhui Yang,

Book cover of Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp

Why this book?

When it comes to Mao’s labor camps in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, few books are as powerful and authentic as Yang’s collection of 13 stories. Set against one of the darkest tragedies in China’s modern history, these stories are based on his interviews with the survivors of a forced-labor camp in China’s northwestern desert. The incarcerated were mostly condemned intellectuals and government officials, and to them, starvation and death were daily threats. Despite the unimaginable suffering, there was love, compassion, and dignity, which gives you hope about humanity.

Wolf Totem

By Jiang Rong, Howard Goldblatt (translator),

Book cover of Wolf Totem

Why this book?

Rong’s Wolf Totem is not a typical Cultural Revolution book, and its focus is on relationships between humans and the wildlife of the grasslands. The protagonist is an urban youth, who’s a Han (the majority ethnic group in China), sent to inner Mongolia for “reeducation.” While trying to raise a wolf cub captured from the wild, he encounters a cultural clash between the Han Chinese and the locals, learns about the wolf and other wildlife, and reflects on history, nature, and humanity. 

Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution

By Feng Jicai,

Book cover of Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution

Why this book?

Oral history as a literary form is relatively new in China. When asked why he wrote the book, Mr. Feng replied that it was because of his guilt as a survivor and as a witness. The Cultural Revolution has devastated and scarred generation after generation in China, yet most people are silent about their personal experiences. Feng conducted numerous interviews with ordinary people who had lived through that period and wrote these intimate stories in the collection. Every voice is different and deeply personal; together, they portray one of the most disturbing and tumultuous times in Chinese history. 

Life and Death in Shanghai

By Cheng Nien,

Book cover of Life and Death in Shanghai

Why this book?

A good novel or memoir transports you through time and space into another world. Cheng’s memoir has such a magic quality. A once ‘elite’ member, she was however seen as an enemy in the Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and was subjected to torture and years of solitary detention. The first-person narration, beautifully written, takes you to Shanghai in the late 60s and shows you a world ruled by insanity, injustice, and cruelty. But it’s not all darkness. Cheng’s strength and resilience, and the help and care people offered to each other in spite of great hardships are all inspiring. And you cannot help pondering the complexity of history in the name of “ideology.” The past is never just the past; it extends its roots deep into the present. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Shanghai?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Shanghai.

China Explore 377 books about China
The Chinese Cultural Revolution Explore 29 books about the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Shanghai Explore 40 books about Shanghai

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Red Azalea, The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai if you like this list.