My favorite books on the concubines of imperial China

Why am I passionate about this?

A tiny mention of the legendary ‘fragrant concubine’ in a travelogue had me search out more information… and more and more until I’d researched and written the stories of four imperial concubines in the Qing era (18th century China). Some rose to power, while others fell to madness. Their extraordinary lives within the high red walls of the Forbidden City fascinated me. Along the way I found a banished empress and a real woman who had endless myths grow up around her, as well as secondary characters like the Italian Jesuit turned court painter. An irresistible era and way of life to explore, in all its shades of light and darkness.


I wrote...

The Fragrant Concubine

By Melissa Addey,

Book cover of The Fragrant Concubine

What is my book about?

Kidnapped. Blackmailed. Now, she must choose the future of the empire. 18th century Kashgar. Hidligh has only ever wanted safety and a full belly. On the street and living hand-to-mouth, she is rapidly running out of options. So when she’s abducted by a Muslim noblewoman, she has little choice but to agree to a deal: pose as a concubine to the Emperor of China and act as a spy.

Reaching the Forbidden City and working hard to win over her eunuchs and the other concubines, she succeeds in gaining the monarch’s affection. But as her shadowy “benefactor” loses patience, Hidligh finds herself entangled in a deadly web of vengeance and assassination. Inspired by the mythology that grew up around a real woman.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas

Melissa Addey Why did I love this book?

An extraordinary tale of a chokingly claustrophobic household in historical China, in which four women (wives and concubines) jealously vie for attention and privilege. As the stakes grow higher, so do the dangers inherent in their choices. Made into the film Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou, for me, this is the gold standard on this theme.

By Su Tong, Michael S. Duke (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Raise the Red Lantern as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The brutal realities of the dark places Su Tong depicts in this collection of novellas set in 1930s provincial China -- worlds of prostitution, poverty, and drug addiction -- belie his prose of stunning and simplebeauty. The title novella, "Raise the Red Lantern," which became a critically acclaimed film, tells the story of Lotus, a young woman whose father's suicide forces her to become the concubine of a wealthy merchant. Crushed by loneliness, despair, and cruel treatment, Lotus finds her descent into insanity both a weapon and a refuge.

"Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes" is an account of a family's struggles during…


Book cover of Empress Orchid

Melissa Addey Why did I love this book?

A nobody-concubine rises to become Empress of China, making her way through the rituals and backstabbing of the imperial court. This is the closest to my own books and I loved the detail and the insights into the latter part of the Qing era, as well as the feeling of time running out for the imperial way of life. 

By Anchee Min,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Empress Orchid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor's wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor's son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse…


Book cover of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Melissa Addey Why did I love this book?

Again, made into a beautiful film. This book shows what a sudden change in fortune can do to both the individual and a friendship, as a girl is told that if she has her feet bound, she might rise above her currently humble status. But although she is torn away from her friend, they find a way to communicate that is hidden in plain sight. 

By Lisa See,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lily is the daughter of a humble farmer, and to her family she is just another expensive mouth to feed. Then the local matchmaker delivers startling news: if Lily's feet are bound properly, they will be flawless. In nineteenth-century China, where a woman's eligibility is judged by the shape and size of her feet, this is extraordinary good luck. Lily now has the power to make a good marriage and change the fortunes of her family. To prepare for her new life, she must undergo the agonies of footbinding, learn nu shu, the famed secret women's writing, and make a…


Book cover of The Good Earth

Melissa Addey Why did I love this book?

I could have chosen any of Pearl S Buck’s books, as they are all beautifully written. But this one was the first one I read and what I remember most vividly is the tiny details of daily life, in a rags-to-riches story of a peasant man in China. One of the journey’s most emotional changes comes when he gets a concubine, and I liked reading about a concubine in a fairly ordinary household (rather than the usual imperial/upper-class settings) and the ripples it makes in family life. 

By Pearl S. Buck,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Good Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Chinese peasant overcomes the forces of nature and the frailties of human nature to become a wealthy landowner.


Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Melissa Addey Why did I love this book?

Hugely famous, this book showcases China’s history through a personal lens, via three generations of the same family and the vast cultural changes they experience, from a grandmother’s life as a concubine to a mother turned revolutionary and finally the daughter’s own story as an international author. Not a light read, but compelling.

By Jung Chang,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Wild Swans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few books have had such an impact as Wild Swans: a popular bestseller which has sold more than 13 million copies and a critically acclaimed history of China; a tragic tale of nightmarish cruelty and an uplifting story of bravery and survival.

Through the story of three generations of women in her own family - the grandmother given to the warlord as a concubine, the Communist mother and the daughter herself - Jung Chang reveals the epic history of China's twentieth century.

Breathtaking in its scope, unforgettable in its descriptions, this is a masterpiece which is extraordinary in every way.


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The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

Book cover of The Road from Belhaven

Margot Livesey Author Of The Road from Belhaven

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Reader Secret orphan Professor Scottish Novelist

Margot's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The Road from Belhaven is set in 1880s Scotland. Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small girl that she can see the future. But she soon realises that she must keep her gift a secret. While she can sometimes glimpse the future, she can never change it.

Nor can Lizzie change the feelings that come when a young man named Louis, visiting Belhaven for the harvest, begins to court her. Why have the adults around her never told her that the touch of a hand can change everything? When she follows Louis to Glasgow, she begins to learn the limits of his devotion and the complexities of her own affections.

The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a novel about a young woman whose gift of second sight complicates her coming of age in late-nineteenth-century Scotland

Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small child that she can see into the future. But her gift is selective—she doesn’t, for instance, see that she has an older sister who will come to join the family. As her “pictures” foretell various incidents and accidents, she begins to realize a painful truth: she may glimpse the future, but…


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