The best novels set in Hunan Province in China

John Grant Ross Author Of You Don't Know China: Twenty-two Enduring Myths Debunked
By John Grant Ross

The Books I Picked & Why

Border Town

By Shen Congwen, Jeffrey C. Kinkley

Book cover of Border Town

Why this book?

This 1934 work tells the moving story of a young country girl called Cuicui and her ferryman grandfather. As the girl comes of age, she catches the eye of two brothers. It’s a simple plot but beautifully told, with sympathetic depictions of the common folk and rich nostalgic evocations of rural life. The “border” in the title refers to the West Hunan setting near the provincial border with Sichuan. The area is also a cultural border between the Han and various minorities. Shen Congwen grew up there and was himself of mixed heritage. Chosen to receive the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, he died before the announcement, and the prize – following the rule against awarding posthumously – went to another writer. 

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Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

By Quincy Carroll

Book cover of Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Why this book?

It’s probably the best novel about foreigners in China, notable for Carroll’s precise, evocative, and flowing prose. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside follows the strained relationship between two American English teachers during an academic year in Ningyuan, a small city in southern Hunan. There’s likable Daniel, a few years out of university, and then there’s the new arrival upsetting things, the misanthropic older Thomas Gulliard. Tensions between the two main characters build gradually to a series of showdowns. Although the novel is a thought-provoking, beautifully written rumination on the expatriate experience, Hunan Province is not especially central to the story. The local color, however, is very good, with author Carroll drawing on his own time spent living in Ningyuan and Changsha.

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A Dictionary of Maqiao

By Han Shaogong, Julia Lovell

Book cover of A Dictionary of Maqiao

Why this book?

This strange novel consists of vignettes presented as encyclopedia-style entries written by the narrator. He’s an “educated youth” relocated to the fictional rural Hunan village of Maqiao as part of the Cultural Revolution “learn from the peasants” movement, reminiscent of Han Shaogong’s own experience of being sent to the countryside. First published in 1996 and in English in 2003 (expertly translated by Julia Lovell), the novel is better than the premise suggests, and it often features in “best of” Chinese literature lists.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

By Lisa See

Book cover of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Why this book?

In this poignant story of lifelong female friendship, Lily and Snow Flower must navigate the stifling social restrictions and upheavals of nineteenth-century China. They’re aided by what is arguably the star of the novel: Nüshu. This is a secret phonetic script, used exclusively by women, and limited to a small area of southwestern Hunan Province.  Messages written on paper or fans, or embroidered on cloth, could be passed back and forth, allowing for secret communication. And this is how Lily and Snow Flower maintain their friendship through the years.

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The Sand Pebbles

By Richard McKenna

Book cover of The Sand Pebbles

Why this book?

This acclaimed 1962 novel about a Yangtze River gunboat, the fictional USS San Pablo, and its crew, was adapted into a major 1966 film. The author drew upon his own experiences aboard a gunboat stationed in Changsha and Hankow. The protagonist is an independent-minded machinist, Jake Holman. At the heart of the novel is the clash of waning Western imperialism and emerging Chinese nationalism in the mid-1920s.

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