The best books on modern China's myths, religions, politics, and culture

Who am I?

I chose the dramatic backdrop of the Tiananmen massacre because after my first trip to China in the 1980’s I became a host family for mainland students studying at UCLA where I was Medical Director of Student Health. During those weeks in 1989 many students communicated with friends and family back in China using our fax machine. From their perspective, the conflict was a generational struggle between the very old leaders, many of whom marched with Mao and who were desperate to hang onto power (and therefore for my plot would want to get their hands on an elixir to double their lifespan), and the younger generation anxious for reforms.


I wrote...

Rabbit in the Moon

By Deborah Shlian, Joel Shlian,

Book cover of Rabbit in the Moon

What is my book about?

San Francisco, 1989: Forty years after Mao and his People's Liberation Army set out to change China forever, Dr. Lili Quan prepares for a journey that will change her life forever. American-born Lili reluctantly sets out for China to honor her mother's dying wish that she “return” home.

For Lili, a passionate idealist, this will be an extraordinary trip—from meeting and falling in love with Chi-Wen Zhou, a victim of the Cultural Revolution and zealous Taoist, to finding Dr. Ni-Fu Cheng, the grandfather Lili believed had died years ago. But Ni-Fu has made the most remarkable discovery of all: the secret to long life. As greedy and unscrupulous men vie for control of this discovery, Lili, Ni-Fu’s only living relative, could become a pawn in a deadly and dangerous international game. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

By Jung Chang,

Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Why this book?

What I love about this book is that while it is nonfiction, this generational story reads like a novel. The author’s grandmother was forced to be a warlord’s concubine; her mother, a young idealistic Communist, marched with Mao; and the author became a member of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. This book is a fantastic way for readers to learn about Chinese history.


Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

By Peter Hessler,

Book cover of Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

Why this book?

This is the second book by Peter Hessler that I have read (River Town was the first). Having visited China several times since the 1980s, when the country was first open to visitors from the West to my more recent trips, I have seen so much change. What I like about this book is how Hessler, a reporter who has lived and taught English in China, tries to describe and explain these changes.


The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

By Simon Winchester,

Book cover of The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

Why this book?

I am delighted to recommend this book. Not only is it a fascinating true story, but it is also a page-turner. The story starts in 1937 when Joseph Needham, an English biochemist, falls in love with a Chinese student. He travels to China with her, where he begins a lifelong quest to document the scientific contributions of ancient China.


Waiting

By Ha Jin,

Book cover of Waiting

Why this book?

This book takes place in China during and after the years of the Cultural Revolution. What makes this novel one I really enjoyed is how the author used a dramatic story to explore the cultural conflicts in a 5000-year-old country (China) struggling to become more modern. The main character is an army doctor who waits as he is torn between a marriage with someone who believes in blind adherence to ancient customs and a new, more modern love.


Life and Death in Shanghai

By Cheng Nien,

Book cover of Life and Death in Shanghai

Why this book?

I read this book when it was originally published in 1988, and I can still recall how I was blown away by the amazing first-hand account of a brave woman who became a target of China's cultural revolution. Nien Cheng, a fluent English speaker who worked for Shell in Shanghai under Mao, was placed under house arrest by Red Guards in 1966 before she was sent to prison. Despite torture, she refused to confess to being a British spy or to be “re-educated”. When she was released, 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 love triangle?

5,888 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 love triangle.

China Explore 400 books about China
The Chinese Cultural Revolution Explore 30 books about the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Love Triangle Explore 42 books about love triangle

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Romantic Outlaws, Educated, and Tracks if you like this list.