The best foreigner memoirs of China

The Books I Picked & Why

The Chinese Confessions of Charles Welsh Mason

By Charles Welsh Mason

Book cover of The Chinese Confessions of Charles Welsh Mason

Why this book?

Charles Welsh Mason, self-described “unconscious martyr of the Antichrist,” for reasons the author himself is only able to ascribe to a “morbid hallucination,” gives up his post, servants, and comfortable life as a young English customs officer in a treaty port in 1890s China for a bizarre plot to lead a band of Chinese rebels to overthrow the Manchu Government and declare himself “King of China.” The scheme unravels when he’s caught with a hoard of illegal arms. Almost unbearable suspense unfolds, masterfully narrated, as the authorities struggle to connect the dots. Even after his arrest Mason is wined and dined by his British superiors in Shanghai, incomprehension preventing their full appreciation of his mad plot. Finally imprisoned, Mason is shipped back to England to live out his remaining decades as a solitary eccentric. I do not recall any book set in China’s past or present, whether fiction or nonfiction, which builds up dramatic tension as this memoir does.


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Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

By Susan Jane Gilman

Book cover of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

Why this book?

Susan Jane Gilman and travel companion Claire are among the first wave of solo foreigners allowed into China in the 1980s, two spoiled young Americans fresh out of college on their very first trip abroad. Shunted around from one disorienting location to another by shady locals who may or may not be trying to take advantage of them, trapped in hotels with indifferent staff, unpalatable food, and nothing to do, they last a respectable six weeks before being spat out of the country. But not before Gilman must contend with a psychotic and delusional Claire, who stops eating, wades naked into a river in a suicide attempt, and has to be accompanied on the flight home by a registered nurse. The book’s title aside, there’s not much that’s sexually gripping here; the suspense in this thriller-cum-memoir is all psychological. What also impressed me about this memoir is Gilman’s unflinching and unsentimental approach to the strange country in those years, as I myself experienced on my first visit to China in 1990.


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Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Prison in Modern China

By Robert H. Davies

Book cover of Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Prison in Modern China

Why this book?

Xinjiang Province was a very different place mere decades ago when it was China’s Wild West and all kinds of foreign characters were drawn to the region like a magnet. Englishman Robert Davies ran bars and tourism ventures and married an Uyghur woman, a love affair passionately recounted in his memoir, before being arrested for hashish smuggling on trumped-up charges (a drug native to the Uyghurs, who openly sold it in Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing as late as the 1990s) and sent to a Shanghai prison for eight years. Davies and those busted with him were the first such group of foreigners to be made an example of (and survive with mind intact). His account is highly readable, chock full of vivid detail, and an excellent general introduction to Chinese culture and society of the 1980s—from within the belly of the beast. I was most impressed by Davies’ fearless embrace of the culture in his taboo love affair with a Uyghur and his illegal hashish running: you can’t get deeper into the local scene than that.


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Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Book cover of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

Why this book?

Absorbed by Chinese culture while a grad student in Hong Kong, Susan Blumberg-Kason is charmed into marriage with Cai, a PhD student of Taoist music from the Hubei Province backwater. Marital discord arises when the openhearted Midwesterner realizes her function as a wife is to produce a son, turn it over to his (not her) parents for upbringing, and get out of the way so the husband can carry on with his philandering and porn watching. But even as he molts his intellectual shell and his narcissistic monster emerges, Cai can also be sympathetically understood as a product of his culture. Intercultural conflict is what makes this fairy tale so readable and engrossing, with its timeless theme of the loving sweetheart enthralled and entrapped in her dark prince's perverted castle. What moved me most was Blumberg-Kason’s honesty in laying everything bare, at the risk of baring her own flaws.


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Unwelcome

By Quincy Carroll

Book cover of Unwelcome

Why this book?

In this memoir disguised as a novel (or novel disguised as a memoir), the shy and socially awkward Cole, of mixed Chinese and white American parentage, struggles to hold down a job as an imported beer salesman in China’s Changsha while pursuing his only romantic hope, a female scam artist who bilked him out of thousands of dollars. In a parallel narrative, friends and family in the Bay Area shed more light on the hapless anti-hero during his stints back home. One wonders how the author and protagonist could ever be the same person and how Carroll was able to gain the distance and objectivity to pen the narrative at all, much less with such skill. We sense that the fictional bulwark is resorted to as a defense against the author’s merciless deconstruction of himself, right down to the sexually fraught, agonizingly ambiguous ending. This is not a feel-good redemption tale but a disturbing airing of personal laundry of epic proportions, and that’s the kind of original writing I admire and respect.


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