The best books about naughty Chinese girls

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. It was during this journey that I discovered the following five female writers, whose catty, carnal memoirs accompanied me like jealous mistresses vying for attention.


I wrote...

China: Portrait of a People

By Tom Carter,

Book cover of China: Portrait of a People

What is my book about?

From the jungles of Yunnan to the frozen wastes of Heilongjiang, across the deserts of Xinjiang, and beneath Hong Kong's neon blur. Tramping through China by train, bus, boat, motorcycle, or hitching on the back of anything that moved. On a budget so scant that he drew sympathetic stares from peasants. Backpacker Tom Carter somehow succeeded in circumnavigating 35,000 miles across all 33 Chinese provinces during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so. What Carter’s photographs reveal is that China is not just one place, one people, but 33 distinct regions populated by 56 different ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs, and lifestyles.

China: Portrait of a People, was published as a means to visually introduce China to the world by providing a glimpse into the daily lives of the ordinary people who don’t make headlines yet who are the heart and soul of this country.

The books I picked & why

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Shanghai Baby

By Wei Hui,

Book cover of Shanghai Baby

Why this book?

Like her or not, the reigning queen of the naughty girl subgenre of Chinese literature decidedly is Wei Hui, whose debut, Shanghai Baby, was a cultural phenomenon that resulted in public book burnings, an international media frenzy, dozens of imitators, and one so-bad-it’s-good movie adaptation starring Bai Ling. Not that Wei Hui is a particularly well-regarded writer – Shanghai Baby is basically a knockoff of shallow Western-style chick-lit, about a designer-brand-obsessed young woman who has an affair with a married foreigner – but in 1999 it was groundbreaking for kicking the publishing doors down for the post-1970s generation of Chinese writers.


Candy

By Mian Mian, Andrea Lingenfelter (translator),

Book cover of Candy

Why this book?

Wei Hui’s literary and literal nemesis is Mian Mian – the two authoresses reportedly used to get in hair-pulling catfights at Shanghai nightclubs back in their glory years – yet whilst Wei Hui made millions, Mian Mian received critical acclaim for her engaging storytelling and poetic prose. Candy is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s sex-and-drugs-addled upbringing in 90s-era Shenzhen. Officially banned in China as “spiritual pollution”, it is a touching read, offering a rare glimpse into the lives of disenfranchised youth growing up on the cusp of a brave new China. It is among my favorites of this genre, so much so that I invited Mian Mian to write the afterword to my own book.


Beijing Doll

By Chun Sue,

Book cover of Beijing Doll

Why this book?

Chun Sue is like the literary little sister to Mian Mian and Wei Hui, copying her elder sisters and trying to follow in their footsteps – but stumbling because their heels were still too big for her to wear. In fact, despite its derivative nature, Beijing Doll did quite well, landing Chun on the cover of Time Magazine in 2004 and turning her into a pseudo-celebrity for her punky, tough-girl persona (a stark contrast to Wei’s slinky, sexy image). Western adult readers may roll their eyes at the melodramatic musings of middle-school heartbreak, but read within the context of its confining culture, Beijing Doll is no less an important addition to the annals of Chinese literature.


Crows

By Jiu Dan, Allan Chong (translator),

Book cover of Crows

Why this book?

I can’t honestly say that this is a very good book. Jiu Dan is no Eileen Chang; she is not even Wei Hui. Yet her 2001 semi-autobiographical tale of a young Chinese woman traveling to Singapore as a “student,” but instead spending her nights selling herself to wealthy local men, is so shameless that it ought to be read at least once. In Crows, the authoress does not try to portray herself as naive nor on a soul-searching road to personal redemption, nor anything but cold-blooded. For that reason alone, Jiu Dan sets herself far apart from the others on this list.


Red Azalea

By Anchee Min,

Book cover of Red Azalea

Why this book?

The godmother – the empress dowager, if you will – of all naughty Chinese authoresses is the inimitable Anchee Min. Her debut memoir, Red Azalea, was published half-a-decade before Shanghai Baby, and takes place half-a-century prior, at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. The first half of her story is set in a countryside labor camp, where teenaged Min and another young woman carry out a secret affair, with regrettable consequences. The second half of Min’s memoir finds her returning to her native Shanghai, now as the star of a movie production about Madam Mao, while carrying out yet another forbidden relationship, with one of Mao’s advisers. Min published seven subsequent books, all to critical acclaim, but Red Azalea is her at her most fearless.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, Shanghai, and Beijing?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, Shanghai, and Beijing.

China Explore 400 books about China
Shanghai Explore 44 books about Shanghai
Beijing Explore 29 books about Beijing

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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