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.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

To Live

By Yu Hua, Michael Berry (translator),

Book cover of To Live

Why did I love 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? 

By Yu Hua, Michael Berry (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To Live as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally banned in China but later named one of that nation’s most influential books, a searing novel that portrays one man’s transformation from the spoiled son of a landlord to a kindhearted peasant. 

“A work of astounding emotional power.” —Dai Sijie, author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

From the author of Brothers and China in Ten Words: this celebrated contemporary classic of Chinese literature was also adapted for film by Zhang Yimou. After squandering his family’s fortune in gambling dens and brothels, the young, deeply penitent Fugui settles down to do the honest work of a farmer. Forced…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Xianhui Yang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Woman from Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Woman from Shanghai, Xianhui Yang, one of China’s most celebrated and controversial writers, gives us a work of fact-based fiction that reveals firsthand—and for the first time in English—what life was like in one of Mao’s most notorious labor camps.

Between 1957 and 1960, nearly three thousand Chinese citizens were labeled “Rightists” by the Communist Part and banished to Jianiangou in China’s northwestern desert region of Gansu to undergo “reeducation” through hard labor. These exiles men and women were subjected to horrific conditions, and by 1961 the camp was closed because of the stench of death: of the rougly…

Wolf Totem

By Jiang Rong, Howard Goldblatt (translator),

Book cover of Wolf Totem

Why did I love 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. 

By Jiang Rong, Howard Goldblatt (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Wolf Totem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beijing intellectual Chen Zhen volunteers to live in a remote settlement on the border of Inner and Outer Mongolia, where he discovers life of apparent idyllic simplicity amongst the nomads and the wild wolves who roam the plains. But when members of the People's Republic swarm in from the cities to bring modernity and productivity to the grasslands, the peace of Chen's solitary existence is shattered, and the delicate balance between humans and wolves is disrupted. Only time will tell whether the grasslands' environment and culture will ever recover...

Wolf Totem has been a sensation ever since it shot to…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Feng Jicai,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ten Years of Madness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ten Years of Madness is a groundbreaking book that draws some parallels to Studs Terkel's "Working" in that it portrays a wide cross section of the Chinese people, but with a harrowing twist: how they survived the disastrous Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Families were destroyed; an entire generation of artists and intellectuals was lost. These oral histories, expertly conducted and arranged by noted writer and cultural critic Feng Jicai, are essential in preserving the memory of those who survived and those who did not survive China's most calamitous period in its modern history.

Book cover of Life and Death in Shanghai

Why did I love 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. 

By Cheng Nien,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Life and Death in Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A first-hand account of China's cultural revolution.

Nien Cheng, an anglophile and fluent English-speaker who worked for Shell in Shanghai under Mao, was put under house arrest by Red Guards in 1966 and subsequently jailed. All attempts to make her confess to the charges of being a British spy failed; all efforts to indoctrinate her were met by a steadfast and fearless refusal to accept the terms offered by her interrogators. When she was released from prison she was told that her daughter had committed suicide. In fact Meiping had been beaten to death by Maoist revolutionaries.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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

9,000+ 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 514 books about China
The Chinese Cultural Revolution Explore 32 books about the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Shanghai Explore 49 books about Shanghai

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Voices of Protest, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Wild Swans if you like this list.