The best books about expats in China

Who am I?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for what would become a two-year backpacking sojourn across all 33 Chinese provinces, the first foreigner on record to do so. Since then, I have published three books about China, with two specifically focusing on the expatriate experience. This quirky yet timeless subgenre is my guilty pleasure; the following are but five of five hundred I’d love to recommend.


I wrote...

An American Bum in China: Featuring the bumblingly brilliant escapades of expatriate Matthew Evans

By Tom Carter, John Dobson (illustrator),

Book cover of An American Bum in China: Featuring the bumblingly brilliant escapades of expatriate Matthew Evans

What is my book about?

Down on his luck and disabled, cancer survivor Matthew Evans had nothing to lose by fleeing the farmsteads of Muscatine, Iowa, at age 21 to pursue his Chinese Dream. With all the makings of a classic unAmerican folk tale, his curiosity became an epic five-year adventure that would find him homeless, stateless, posing as a professor, imprisoned, deported, and caught right in the middle of the 2014 Hong Kong protests, the only known foreigner present from beginning to end. Though it has all the form of great fiction – indeed, many a reviewer have referenced that old Mark Twain quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction” – An American Bum in China is indeed a true story...and all the crazier for it.

The books I picked & why

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Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom

By Carl Crow,

Book cover of Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom

Why this book?

Arguably Chinese history’s most romanticized foreign resident, Carl Crow is a sort of Gatsby-esque expatriate hailing from glamorous 1920s Shanghai. The dapper ad agency magnate (who was behind those now-iconic “haipai” Chinese calendar girls), penned 16 books about China, most notably Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom. Rivaling The Great Gatsby in decadent cocktail parties, privileged bachelors on the prowl, and shameless colonialist classicism, Flowery focuses strictly on the ritzy lives of Shanghai’s Occidental aristocracy, with only a passing mention of the people whose world they inhabit. To contemporary readers, it may come across as offensively unwoke, but as a historical account of that era’s high society expatriates, it is fascinating.

Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom

By Carl Crow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1940, this is Carl Crow's entertaining autobiography, the story of his more than 25 years of adventures and success in Shanghai during the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century. This book is a tale of East meets West set in the wild and heady days of inter-war China. It is an account of how two cultures clashed, bickering over business deals and social norms as they tried to find a way to live with each other.


Manchu Decadence: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Abridged and Unexpurgated

By Edmund Trelawny Backhouse,

Book cover of Manchu Decadence: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Abridged and Unexpurgated

Why this book?

Decades before Carl Crow helped transform Old Shanghai into a playground for the Waspy rich, a young Brit named Edmund Backhouse was reveling in the brothels of Beijing. Backhouse first arrived in China in 1899, where he served as a linguist and, he claimed, as a consultant for the Manchu court (where he also claims to have bedded Empress Dowager Cixi). By night, however, Backhouse was prowling the filthy backstreets for lascivious same-sex encounters with the Chinese, which he chronicled in a secret diary that remained unpublished until 2011. Egregious and borderline pornographic, no China expat (not even Isham Cook, cited below) has ever come close to matching Backhouse’s salaciousness. Should be read in concert with Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, who hypothesizes that Backhouse was nothing more than a charlatan with a vivid imagination.

Manchu Decadence: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Abridged and Unexpurgated

By Edmund Trelawny Backhouse,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1898 a young Englishman walked into a homosexual brothel in Peking and began a journey that he claims took him all the way to the bedchamber of imperial China's last great ruler, the Empress Dowager Tz'u Hsi. The man was Sir Edmund Backhouse, and his controversial memoirs, DEcadence Mandchoue, were published for the first time by Earnshaw Books in 2011. This edition, renamed Manchu Decadence, is abridged and unexpurgated, meaning that it focuses on the most extraordinary and valuable elements of Backhouse's narrative. Backhouse was a talented sinologist, and his book provides a unique and shocking glimpse into the…


The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet

By Graham Earnshaw,

Book cover of The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet

Why this book?

Graham Earnshaw, who has resided in the Middle Kingdom for the past 40+ years (longer than any other living expat here today), has also been casually strolling from Shanghai due west toward Tibet over the past two decades. Fluent in Mandarin, his spontaneous conversations with local peasants he has encountered along the way make The Great Walk a delightfully pleasant and profoundly insightful read. Published in 2010 by a small Hong Kong indie press and tragically overlooked by most Sinophiles, I can’t recommend this enough to anyone seeking an upbeat, unpretentious narrative of a foreigner drifting among the Chinese.

The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet

By Graham Earnshaw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great Walk of China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What kind of people would you meet if you decided to walk across the world's most populous country? The Great Walk of China is a journey into China's heartland, away from its surging coastal cities. Through surprisingly frank conversations with the people he meets along the way, the Chinese-speaking author paints a portrait of a nation struggling to come to terms with its newfound identity and its place in the world.


And The City Swallowed Them

By Mara Hvistendahl,

Book cover of And The City Swallowed Them

Why this book?

There are several true-crime books about foreigners who have been killed whilst residing in China, notably Paul French’s Midnight in Peking (which should be read together with its dismissive detractor, A Death in Peking by Graeme Sheppard). Despite its brevity (only 60 pages), Mara Hvistendahl’s And The City Swallowed Them holds its own in the true-crime genre as a well-researched work of investigative journalism covering the stabbing of a Western female model working in Shanghai in 2008. Hvistendahl’s shocking expose focuses in equal parts on the seedier aspects of modern expat life, China’s marginalized peasant working class, and the country’s opaque justice system.

And The City Swallowed Them

By Mara Hvistendahl,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked And The City Swallowed Them as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At age 22, Diana O’Brien left a small island community on Canada’s Pacific Coast and moved to China to work as a model. Twelve days later, she was stabbed in a Shanghai stairwell. The actions of both police investigators and O'Brien's Chinese modeling agent soon aroused suspicion as her family sought answers from China's opaque legal system. Ultimately, their quest would put them face to face with her accused killer.

At once a page-turning murder mystery and a work of deep investigation, And The City Swallowed Them is a true crime nonfiction story based on dozens of interviews with investigators,…


The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

Why this book?

Decidedly contemporary China’s most provocative foreign writer, Isham Cook has spent the past decade in Beijing penning books about taboo subject matter that heretofore few expat authors have been willing to publicly reveal about their lives here. Specifically, prurience and libertine excess. I liken him as a reincarnated Edmund Backhouse with a hint of Henry Miller and a dash of de Sade. In his putative memoir The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai, Cook reimagines himself as an Asian woman in order to psychoanalyze his past relationships with Chinese girlfriends whom he tormented with polyamory. If nothing else, read this for its sheer audacity.

The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

By Isham Cook,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An erotic thriller of "ambitious, Faulknerian structure" (Kirkus Reviews)exposing what's really going on with relationships in China today.

It is the Shanghai of courtesans and concubines, danger and decadence, updated to 2020. American expat author Isham Cook has disappeared. His last known history is chronicled by an exotic woman who seems right out of 1930s Shanghai herself, Marguerite, a mustachioed Afghan-American who weaves Persian rugs and deals in psychedelics. As she tells it, Isham's story all began with Luna, a beguiling but troubled Chinese woman who happens to have a mustache herself. Also vying for Isham's affection is the charismatic…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, Shanghai, and expats?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, Shanghai, and expats.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like A Village with My Name, Midnight, and Love in a Fallen City if you like this list.