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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Mei Fong

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

Why 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?


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Frog

By Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt

Book cover of Frog

Why 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.


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

By Liao Yiwu

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

Why 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.


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Beijing Coma

By Ma Jian, Flora Drew

Book cover of Beijing Coma

Why 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.


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Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989

By Philip J. Cunningham

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

Why 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.


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