The best novels set in Taiwan

John Grant Ross Author Of Taiwan in 100 Books
By John Grant Ross

Who am I?

I’m a Kiwi who has spent most of the past three decades in Asia. My books include Formosan Odyssey, You Don't Know China, and Taiwan in 100 Books. I live in a small town in southern Taiwan with my Taiwanese wife. When not writing, reading, or lusting over maps, I can be found on the abandoned family farm slashing jungle undergrowth (and having a sly drink).

I wrote...

Taiwan in 100 Books

By John Grant Ross,

Book cover of Taiwan in 100 Books

What is my book about?

This is the distillation of hundreds of titles and decades of reading. Telling the story of Taiwan through the most acclaimed, interesting, and influential English-language books, we travel from the early seventeenth century to the present. The book was great fun to write, and especially satisfying to shine a light on forgotten gems. It’s an accessible introduction to the country and also a bibliophile's elixir packed with the backstories of the authors and the books themselves; there are tales of outrageous literary fraud, lost manuscripts, banned books, and publishing skulduggery.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Green Island

By Shawna Yang Ryan,

Book cover of Green Island

Why this book?

Both a family history and a political primer of Taiwan, spanning the years from 1947 to 2003, this is my go-to fiction recommendation. The title comes from the name of an island where many political prisoners were sent during the martial law era. Green Island opens with the birth of the female narrator as a revolt against oppressive Nationalist rule breaks out on the streets of Taipei. She is delivered by her father, a doctor who is arrested and sent to Green Island. A deserved popular and critical success, this is one of the few Taiwan works available as an audiobook.

Lord of Formosa

By Joyce Bergvelt,

Book cover of Lord of Formosa

Why this book?

Recounting Taiwan’s single most gripping historical episode, Ming loyalist warlord Koxinga and his fight with Dutch forces in southwestern Taiwan, Lord of Formosa sticks close to the known facts. Koxinga’s life intertwines perfectly with that of the Dutch presence on the island. He was born in 1624, the year that the Dutch East India Company established a settlement on Taiwan, and he died in 1662, the year the Dutch were expelled. Dutch-born author Bergvelt adds flesh and breath to a fascinating cast of real-life figures, making them accessible for modern readers.

A Pail of Oysters

By Vern Sneider,

Book cover of A Pail of Oysters

Why this book?

Published in 1953, this was the first English-language novel on the White Terror period and was long-banned in Taiwan. Sneider, better known for his comedic bestseller The Teahouse of the August Moon, came to Taiwan to do research for this moving novel. It tells the story of 19-year-old villager Li Liu, who travels to Taipei to recover his family’s kitchen god, which was stolen by Nationalist soldiers. Li Liu’s fate becomes entwined with that of Ralph Barton, an American journalist who finds himself drawn into the dangerous world of underground politics.

Heaven Lake

By John Dalton,

Book cover of Heaven Lake

Why this book?

Hard to beat for the quality of writing, this is a thoughtful coming-of-age story about faith, loneliness, and love, and also beautifully captures the early post-martial law years when Taiwan was newly rich and free for the very first time. It’s 1989 and recent college graduate Vincent arrives in small-town Taiwan to serve as a missionary. He’s approached with an offer to make some easy money; he just needs to go to Xinjiang in China’s far northwest and marry a woman and then bring his wife back to Taiwan. Vincent initially turns down the offer, but circumstances will see him change his mind.

Bu San Bu Si: A Taiwan Punk Tale

By J.W. Henley,

Book cover of Bu San Bu Si: A Taiwan Punk Tale

Why this book?

Readers looking for something different will enjoy this. There’s no history lesson here, no cultural tourism of night markets, martial arts, and temples, no Western protagonists finding their feet and getting a girl. Bu San Bu Si is a gritty journey into the underground music scene in Taipei. In electric prose, the novel follows the triumphs and more often the travails of Xiao Hei, the bass guitarist in a four-man band called Resistant Strain, “a bunch of nobodies in a scene full of more nobodies.” The talented young man’s work ethic doesn’t match his ambitions for street cred, fame, and fortune. When gangster connections offer a shortcut, things spin out of control.  

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