The best realist novels that take place in China

The Books I Picked & Why

City of Broken Promises

By Austin Coates

Book cover of City of Broken Promises

Why this book?

This book has stayed in my memory even though I read it many years ago. Subtle in the telling, this novel is one that drills into your soul. Set in 18th century Macau (then a Portuguese enclave), it is a story of forbidden interracial love, prejudices, and intrigue surrounding a British trader surnamed Mierop and a Chinese orphan named Marta da Silva, based on true events. The author got his inspiration for the novel when he saw a portrait of a Chinese lady, Marta Mierop, in a Macau museum. In the story as well as in real life, Marta rose from her humble and wretched childhood to become a legend and one of the most influential women in Macau.

I love this novel for the impeccable setting, the moving plot, and the larger-than-life protagonist.

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Pavilion of Women

By Pearl S. Buck

Book cover of Pavilion of Women

Why this book?

Pearl Buck is an author whom I admire for her genuine love and respect of the Chinese culture and people. This sentiment shines through her novels. Pavilion of Women is unique in that it highlights a pronounced social change in China in the early 20th century, when Western values began to nudge younger Chinese to unyoke themselves of old traditions and customs. The fastidious, all-wise, and freedom-seeking protagonist attempts to dictate other people’s lives to keep her household in order, but fails miserably. She finally learns from a renegade missionary that her rigid attitudes and lack of empathy are in fact the real shackles that hobble her.

I love this novel because character development is superbly handled.

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Wolf Totem

By Jiang Rong, Howard Goldblatt

Book cover of Wolf Totem

Why this book?

This is a novel about the crucial role that wolves have played in maintaining the ecological balance on the Inner Mongolian steppes. This theme is woven into a suspenseful story of nomads’ brutal fights with cunning wolf packs that constantly prey on their herds. But wolves also keep the population of the “grass grazers” like gazelles and beavers down, thus protecting the grasslands. Readers come to appreciate the importance of balance in nature and understand why nomads hate wolves but also learn to co-exist with them.

I love this novel as it introduces me to a place and lifestyle that are deep in Nature’s embrace, while helping me learn the universal challenges in environmental protection.

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The Last Quarter of the Moon

By Chi Zijian, Bruce Humes

Book cover of The Last Quarter of the Moon

Why this book?

This is a very unique novel about the life of a nomadic tribe of hunters and reindeer herders called Evenki who reside in the northern part of Inner Mongolia. The story is told through an old woman at the end of the 20th century looking back at the joyful and tragic events of five generations of her clan. Wild nature is at its most beautiful and most cruel. Then the Japanese invasion, the Chinese lumber trade, and modernization gradually force the tribe to give up their carefree lifestyle. Sadness drips from the story, told in a wistful and quiet tone.

I love the novel for the rich imagery of nature and the human interaction humming underneath.

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The Rice Sprout Song

By Eileen Chang

Book cover of The Rice Sprout Song

Why this book?

This is a heart-wrenching novel about hunger and starvation in the early 1950s in a Southern China village. The book title implies the joy of harvest, which has a rhetorical effect as it runs counter to the book theme. Its metaphor for hunger is watery gruel that the rural poor eat for every meal as they slowly starve. The story is about the impending great famine after the Communist Party introduces the land reform policies and how villagers suffer in silence atrocious government abuse. 

This novel is a must-read if you want to understand what starvation feels like.

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