The best books on China’s one-child policy and Tiananmen Square protests

Who am I?

I grew up in China during the years of the one-child policy. In 1989 I joined millions of people in the pro-democracy protests. Our hope and joy were crushed by the Tiananmen Square Massacre. A year later, I left China and came to the States. I wanted to write a story about the students’ fight but create a more meaningful arc. It took me twenty years of soul searching to find my story. At the heart of my novel Living Treasures is a metaphor for the Tiananmen Square Massacre. My heroine continues the fight by doing grassroots work and helping rural women, who are victimized by the one-child policy.

I wrote...

Living Treasures

By Yang Huang,

Book cover of Living Treasures

What is my book about?

Eighteen-year-old Gu Bao is a first-year law student facing major crises during the tumultuous Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. One of her friends is killed in the June Fourth Massacre. Bao finds herself pregnant and faces the end of her academic career. Her grieving parents arrange for a secret abortion and ship her off to her grandparents’ house in the countryside. There, Bao befriends a village woman named Orchid who, in defiance of the one-child policy, is hiding in the woods until she can give birth to her second baby. After Orchid is captured, Bao devises a daring plan to protect her unborn child.

Living Treasures heightens Bao’s journey from a timid student to a defiant adversary against the canvas of China’s struggle toward modernity.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment

Why did I love this book?

Mei Fong has spent years documenting and traveling across China to meet the people who live with the consequences of the draconian one-child policy. I was riveted by this slim but expansive book, its searing clarity, deep compassion, and unflinching interrogation only avail to an outsider unhampered by the censorship in China. Mei Fong explores in depth how the one-child policy has changed every facet of social life from cradle to grave: courtship, marriage, women’s work, only children, adoption/baby trafficking, surrogate, IVF, aging, retirement, hospice/death, and much more. Weaving in with the author’s own quest to become a mother, Mei Fong weighs the cost of parenthood and asks the hard question: Why do we have children?

By Mei Fong,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Tang Shuxiu and her husband are on an 800-mile train journey from Beijing to Shifang, where they believe their only child has perished in a recent earthquake. Three days after the event, Tang is too dehydrated to cry.

Liu Ting becomes a national hero when he brings his mother to college, a celebration of filial piety in a nation that now legally compels adult children to visit their elderly parents.

Tian Qingeng and his parents are deeply in debt. They have bought an apartment they hope will improve his eligibility in a nation that has 30 million bachelors, or 'bare…


By Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt (translator),

Book cover of Frog

Why did I love this book?

As a writer who works under China’s censorship, Mo Yan spins literary gold in his novel Frog by blending high farce with social commentary. Narrator Tadpole’s aunt Gugu, a feisty woman with extraordinary gifts, evolves from a legendary midwife to a demonic one-child policy enforcer, then becomes an incorrigible go-between for surrogate and intentional parents. Readers see how China and rural Gaomi townships have changed, almost beyond description, from Maoist times to the current hyper-capitalistic phase. Much of the story is funny, brutal, yet firmly grounded, as people endure, and many perish during a half-century of social and political turmoil.

By Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


From the Nobel-prize winning author of Red Sorghum and one China's most revered writers, a novel exploring the One-Child Policy

Before the Cultural Revolution, Gugu, narrator Tadpole's feisty aunt, is a respected midwife in her rural community. She combines modern medical knowledge with a healer's touch to save the lives of village women and their babies. Gugu is beautiful, charismatic, and of an unimpeachable political background.

After a disastrous love affair with a defector leaves Gugu reeling, she throws herself zealously into enforcing China's draconian new family…

Book cover of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

Why did I love this book?

The 27 interviews in The Corpse Walker are selected from the 60 interviews in Liao Yiwu’s book, originally titled Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society in Chinese. Liao gives voices to social outcasts: a human trafficker, corpse walkers, a leper, a peasant emperor, an abbot, a mortician, a Tiananmen father, artists and shamans, crooks, even cannibals. Ironically, every one of them speaks more honestly than Chinese official media, which causes the book to be banned in mainland China. These are the stories of unsung heroes and epic tragedies, but to me, most importantly, the work that people performed, the families they raised, many lost to famines, political purges, and massacres, and the persecutors they forgave, the conscience they wrestled with, their past, present, and future—these are the remarkable stories of ordinary Chinese people from 1949 to present in their raw, unvarnished form.

By Liao Yiwu,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Corpse Walker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Corpse Walker introduces us to regular men and women at the bottom of Chinese society, most of whom have been battered by life but have managed to retain their dignity: a professional mourner, a human trafficker, a public toilet manager, a leper, a grave robber, and a Falung Gong practitioner, among others. By asking challenging questions with respect and empathy, Liao Yiwu managed to get his subjects to talk openly and sometimes hilariously about their lives, desires, and vulnerabilities, creating a book that is an instance par excellence of what was once upon a time called “The New Journalism.”…

Beijing Coma

By Ma Jian, Flora Drew (translator),

Book cover of Beijing Coma

Why did I love this book?

Ma Jian, a preeminent dissident writer, returned to Beijing in 1989 and supported the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square. In his novel Beijing Coma, protagonist Dai Wei, a molecular biology Ph.D. student, was struck by a soldier’s bullet and fell into a deep coma. Dai Wei has lain in bed for over a decade, like a vegetable, but with acute hearing and sense of smell, as he relieves his past—his childhood and student life, and the heady days of the democracy movement—while all around him China continues to change. Beijing Coma examines the confusion and contradictions of the Tiananmen Square protests and evokes the horrors of an oppressive regime in minute, gruesome detail. I admired the story’s stark beauty and Ma Jian’s unflinching gaze.

By Ma Jian, Flora Drew (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Dai Wei has been unconscious for almost a decade. A medical student and a pro-democracy protestor in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, he was struck by a soldier's bullet and fell into a deep coma. As soon as the hospital authorities discovered that he had been an activist, his mother was forced to take him home. She allowed pharmacists access to his body and sold his urine and his left kidney to fund special treatment from Master Yao, a member of the outlawed Falun Gong sect. But during a government crackdown, the Master was arrested, and Dai Wai's mother—who had…

Book cover of Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989

Why did I love this book?

Philip J. Cunningham joined his Chinese friends from May 3 to June 4 in 1989, as a supporter, journalist, and witness in the Tiananmen Square protests. Tiananmen Moon chronicles the protests, hunger strike, students’ leadership, their internal friction, and Cunningham’s meeting with Chai Ling before the massacre. From an American bystander’s perspective, Cunningham voices his concerns about the peer pressure among students, and a few self-claimed radical leaders using the same rhetoric and tactic as the regime to seize power and escalate conflicts. To this day, the Tiananmen Square protests are obliterated by the propaganda machine in mainland China. Tiananmen Moon is a remarkable testament capturing the plaintive and lyrical beauty of a dream that continues to haunt China today.

By Philip J. Cunningham,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this book is now available.

This compelling book provides a vivid firsthand account of the student demonstrations and massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Uniquely placed as a Western observer drawn into active participation through Chinese friends in the uprising, Philip J Cunningham offers a remarkable day-by-day account of Beijing students desperately trying to secure the most coveted political real estate in China in the face of ever more daunting government countermoves. Tiananmen Moon takes the reader into the thick of the 1989 protests while also following the parallel response of an unprepared but resourceful…

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