The best books to understand the heart and soul of China

Who am I?

I studied modern Chinese history so, when Qu Leilei told me the story of the Stars Art Movement, I couldn’t understand why I hadn't heard their courageous story. I spent three years interviewing Qu Leilei, researching and visiting China with him before writing the Stars story as a historical novel. I am a freelance writer, author, and speaker.


I wrote...

Brushstrokes in Time

By Sylvia Vetta,

Book cover of Brushstrokes in Time

What is my book about?

Brushstrokes in Time is the fictional memoir of Chinese artist Little Winter, who tries to re-establish the bond with her American daughter, telling the story of her emotional and rebellious past. While growing up in Communist China, Little Winter discovers talent and rebellion, joining ‘The Stars’ art movement for freedom of speech in an era where self-expression and love were a dangerous act.

China expert Guardian journalist, John Gittings read it determined to find fault but says that he failed. He endorses it, as do Harvard and Oxford academics. Dr. Maria Jaschok lived in China between 1980-1996 and says, "Moving but never mawkish, informed yet entirely accessible, this book should have popular appeal."

The books I picked & why

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Tao of Sketching: The Complete Guide to Chinese Sketching Techniques

By Qu Lei Lei,

Book cover of Tao of Sketching: The Complete Guide to Chinese Sketching Techniques

Why this book?

I was reviewing Qu Leilei’s Everyone’s life is an Epic at the Ashmolean when a chance encounter changed my life. While writing Qu's profile, I learned about the first contemporary art movement in China - the Stars in Beijing in 1979 - and spent three years interviewing him for the background to Brushstrokes in Time

Leilei’s art is imbued with deep humanity but he is also a fine teacher- hence my recommending The Tao of Sketching. Daoism influenced traditional Chinese art and is a focus for meditation. The empty space is important. If you want to get into that cultural mindset, try Leilei’s books.


A Life in Chinese Art Essays in Honour of Michael Sullivan

By Shelagh Vainker,

Book cover of A Life in Chinese Art Essays in Honour of Michael Sullivan

Why this book?

Michael Sullivan was a leading expert on twentieth-century Chinese art and he and his partner Choan donated his world-class collection to the Ashmolean - the world’s first public museum. The cover portrait is by Qu Leilei. This tribute book includes ten essays by friends, colleagues, art experts, and artists including Qu Leilei and Weimin He. Linking visual arts, calligraphy, and poetry is very Chinese. Strangely, Michael Sullivan’s first visit to China was in 1939 driving an ambulance for the Red Cross.


China's Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism

By Rana Mitter,

Book cover of China's Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism

Why this book?

I am disturbed by what is happening in Hong Kong and Xinjiang but it’s important to take a long and balanced view if we want to influence China. Chinese dynasties harbour long memories including the humiliation of the Opium Wars and the sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace by colonial powers and the atrocities committed by Japan in WW2 in China. If we start by empathising with this shared but forgotten history of China in WW2, maybe we can help swing the pendulum to one that respects the diversity that is needed in both East and West.


Monkey King: Journey to the West

By Wu Cheng’en, Julia Lovell (translator),

Book cover of Monkey King: Journey to the West

Why this book?

In addition to the novel's comedy and adventure, it has been enjoyed for its biting satire of society and Chinese bureaucracy and for its allegorical presentation of human striving and perseverance. Just as the stories of ancient Greece have left their mark on Western culture, so too do their traditional myths and legends deeply resonate in China. Monkey and Pigsy delight but they are accompanying Tang Sanzang who is based on the Buddhist monk Xuanzang ( 602-664CE) who travelled to India in the seventh century. I’m biased because I also use him in my Oxford /India novel Sculpting the Elephant but there is something of the modern superhero stories about Journey to the West. 


Four Sisters of Hofei: A History

By Ann Ping Chin,

Book cover of Four Sisters of Hofei: A History

Why this book?

Fiction and biography are a good way of walking in someone else’s shoes. Although this biography isn’t a gripping read, I’d recommend it for anyone interested in depth about Chinese culture and society and how it changed over one hundred years. It follows the lives of well-educated sisters from a prosperous background not just in Beijing and Shanghai but in a diversity of provinces too.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, Beijing, and pilgrimages?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, Beijing, and pilgrimages.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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