The best foreigner memoirs of China

Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.

I wrote...

Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews

What is my book about?

Have foreigners shaped China’s history to a greater extent than has previously been acknowledged, reaching back possibly millennia? Was Confucius’ most famous book, The Analects, inspired by entheogenic medicines imported from abroad, possession of which in the 1930s brought one before the firing squad in the name of Confucius? In these book review essays by Isham Cook, foreign devils, old China Hands, eccentric expatriates, and a few Chinese tell an offbeat history of China’s last two centuries, with a backward glance at ancient China as told by Western mummies.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Chinese Confessions of Charles Welsh Mason

Why did I love 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.

By Charles Welsh Mason,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Chinese Confessions of Charles Welsh Mason as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this old China tale like no other, Englishman Charles Mason tells of his doomed attempt to overthrow the Qing dynasty.

Lawrence of Arabia famously wrote that, "All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men," for they may act upon their dreams. Such a man was young Charles Mason, who, in the late 1880s, secured a job with China's British-run Imperial Maritime Customs Service at a river port. Here the glamor…

Book cover of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

Why did I love 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.

By Susan Jane Gilman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1986, Susie and her friend Chloe, fresh-faced graduates from Brown University, were inspired by a placemat entitled "Pancakes of Many Nations" to depart on an epic trip around the world, starting with Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China, then only recently opened to the rest of the world. As the two ventured into what turned out to be a strange and alien land, they encountered places far different from anything they had ever experienced, from the horrors of an open-ditch toilet in the back of a weird hybrid tenement hotel, to a magical boat ride through a…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Robert H. Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Prisoner 13498 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Robert Davies first went to China in 1988 as an overland backpacker and, after a hair-raising two months touring Pakistan, found himself in Kashgar, the fabled Silk Road city. Here his life was irrevocably changed when he fell head over heels in love with Sharapet, an Uighur lady who was already married with a ten-year-old daughter. Love made them blind to the bureaucracy they had to face, strong for the thousands of miles they had to travel to obtain permission to marry, and resolute against the rage of Sharapet's revenge-seeking ex-husband. But Robert became involved in the trafficking of hashish.…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Susan Blumberg-Kason,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A stunning memoir of an intercultural marriage gone wrong

When Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started graduate school in Hong Kong, she quickly fell for Cai, the Chinese man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan thought she'd stumbled into an exotic fairy tale, until she realized Cai―and his culture―where not what she thought.

In her riveting memoir, Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect traditional "Chinese" wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. With keen insight and heart-wrenching candor, she confronts the hopes and hazards of intercultural marriage, including dismissing her own…


By Quincy Carroll,

Book cover of Unwelcome

Why did I love 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.

By Quincy Carroll,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An anti-coming-of-age story that examines themes of escapism and toxic masculinity.

In the years following his graduation from college, Cole Chen has been back and forth between the U.S. and China, struggling to navigate his transition into adulthood. Estranged from his parents, he returns to Hunan province to work for his friends, while also attempting to write a memoir based on his experiences. During the course of this year abroad, he meets a young woman (under initially dubious circumstances), whom he dates briefly, before returning to live with his brother in California, where he is forced to confront a dark…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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