The best books set in China’s diverse regions by local Chinese writers

Michael Meyer Author Of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
By Michael Meyer

The Books I Picked & Why

Border Town

By Shen Congwen, Jeffrey C. Kinkley

Border Town

Why this book?

This short novel is one of the most beautiful books you’ll read about any place, let alone a river village in western Hunan. Teenage Cuicui helps her elderly grandfather on his ferry as two brothers vie for her attention. War presses in on all sides. Notable for being banned for decades by opposing regimes in both China and Taiwan, Border Town is a restrained masterpiece. 


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The King of Trees

By Ah Cheng, Bonnie S. McDougall

The King of Trees

Why this book?

Set in China’s southwestern mountainous rainforest borderland of Xishuangbanna, this novella is based on the author’s time as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution. Politics take a backseat to the intimate friendships forged during those years, alongside the heedless degradation of the country’s lushest lands. The famed director Chen Kaige—who had served two mountains away from the author—made a faithful film adaptation.


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The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

By Liao Yiwu

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

Why this book?

Sichuan can feel like a world apart, and no book better reveals it than this series of oral interviews with convicts, charlatans, officials, lonelyhearts, toilet cleaners, abbots, grave robbers and more. Their stories, filled with forbearance and forgiveness, can be read in any order, but be warned: once you start, it will be hard to put down.


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Rickshaw Boy

By Lao She

Rickshaw Boy

Why this book?

If you read only one book set in Beijing, let it be this one. During the Japanese occupation, a rickshaw puller named Xiangzi ping-pongs between success and misfortune in his quest to one day own a vehicle of his own. The author, a Manchu who grew up in the capital’s dense net of hutong alleyways, knows his material and his city unlike any Beijing writer before or since, especially its fatalist sense of humor. The editor of its first American edition changed the ending so everyone lived happily-ever-after. Lao She knew better; three decades later, he was among the most prominent casualties of the Red Guards.


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Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury

Love in a Fallen City

Why this book?

Shanghai. White plaster walls frozen green. Steamed buns stained by the ink of their newspaper wrapping. Hong Kong. Neon reds, oranges and pinks reflecting on lush green water. Tram lines winding like noodles. Blood on silk; manners over emotions. These six short stories are both an introduction to a master stylist and an evocation of two distinct cities at two distinct times in modern Chinese history. Many of the book’s subtle details can still be seen or felt today.


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