The best books to see the hidden side of Chinese culture

Who am I?

Being half-Chinese and half-Peranakan, I grew up in a mixed cultural environment but went to secondary school with a strong Chinese culture. I became aware of my inferior knowledge, not just of the language, but also Chinese culture and history. Hence I immersed myself in the Chinese environment. But there is so much in this long and illustrious history of one of the oldest civilisations that my initial motive to learn was soon replaced by a genuine interest. Now I am always on the lookout for anything related to China, its history, and the Chinese culture.

I wrote...

Secrets of the Great Fire Tree

By Justine Laismith, Lenny Wen (illustrator),

Book cover of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree

What is my book about?

In rural China during the New Year celebrations, Kai receives devastating news. A poor harvest spells disaster unless his mother accepts a job in the city caring for a wealthy family.

Abandoned in his mountainous village, Kai is desperate to bring his mother home. He gives in to superstition and unlocks the secrets of the Great Fire Tree. The Great Fire Tree will grant Kai’s wish—for a terrible price. With the help of his new friend Xinying and his trusted piglet, Kai will make a sacrifice to make his family whole. Justine Laismith weaves together Chinese mystique and rural charm in an enchanting tale of an antidote that kills and an amulet that curses.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Illustrated Myths & Legends of China: The Ages of Chaos and Heroes

Why did I love this book?

This book stands out because it delves deeper into popular characters that appear repeatedly in similar books. I have also enjoyed coming across new names and places not previously found. But far from being obscure names, I have encountered these in Chinese fantasy dramas.

Best of all, it includes pictures of relevant artwork and museum artifacts. I get to see these without having to travel to the four corners of the world. Giving us a sense of where we are in place and time, these displays show that throughout the long Chinese history, these legends and myths are integral to the lives of Chinese people.

By Dehai Huang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Illustrated Myths & Legends of China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Illustrated Myths & Legends of China is a profusely illustrated collection of 32 carefully chosen tales of Chinese myth and legend.

With more than 100 illustrations drawn over two thousand years of all aspects of Chinese art—including painting, pottery and porcelain, jade, bronzes and tomb decoration—Illustrated Myths & Legends of China is a vividly written collection of tales of the universe's emergence from chaos, the creation of the world in which the first Chinese people appeared and a depiction of how the many strands of myth and legend have influenced Chinese culture.

An impressive array of heroic figures and rich…

Bronze and Sunflower

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So (illustrator),

Book cover of Bronze and Sunflower

Why did I love this book?

I always like reading anything about day-to-day living in China. In this book, I loved the descriptions of what life is like in rural China, eg making their own reed shoes and building their own roofs. On the surface, this book is about the idyllic life in the countryside. However, it is set during the cultural revolution but so subtly described in the back-drop that it is perfect for the target audience. We often read about the people banished to the countryside, and this book tells me what happens to them when they arrive.

I also enjoyed it as it is a translated text, so there is a sense that this is authentic.

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A classic, heartwarming tale set to the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution, with the timeless feels of Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea.

A beautifully written, timeless tale by bestselling Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award. When Sunflower, a young city girl, moves to the countryside, she grows to love the reed marsh lands - the endlessly flowing river, the friendly buffalo with their strong backs and shiny round heads, the sky that stretches on and on in its vastness. However, the days are long, and the little girl is lonely. Then she…

Spilled Water

By Sally Grindley,

Book cover of Spilled Water

Why did I love this book?

Winner of the 2004 Smarties Award for fiction 9 – 11, it is a well-deserved award as it describes a difficult topic at an appropriate level for its readers. 

I read Spilled Water as it has a similar theme to my own book. It gives insight into the unseen ugliness of economic success in China. In addition, this story informs our target audience of the existence of child labour and misogynism in this part of the world, where poverty forces family to treat their daughters like ‘spilled water’ and employers regard them as property.

By Sally Grindley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spilled Water as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When her husband dies, Lu Si-yan's mother is encouraged to sell her young daughter into domestic service. Lu Si-yan is just eleven when sold by her uncle. Nearly two years will pass before she can get back home to her mother and brother. In this powerful and compelling novel Sally Grindley portrays the life of a young girl in China, a young girl whose life is said to be like 'spilled water'. With a brilliant first-person narrative and a powerful description of time and place, this novel is gripping, heart-wrenching and utterly mesmerising.

The Good Earth

By Pearl S. Buck,

Book cover of The Good Earth

Why did I love this book?

This classic won the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature. I read this book because I wanted to know what rural China was like at the turn of the 20th century, and how it differed from my book, which is set one hundred years later.

I am always hungry for China history and this book is the perfect excuse to learn about the Qing dynasty and Opium Wars. It gave me insight into the values during the late Qing dynasty, where second wives and bound-feet were considered prestigious. The story of how opium destroys people and families was told in a subtle way for the target audience but has the ability to generate much discussion about the introduction of opium to China and the resultant opium wars. 

By Pearl S. Buck,

Why should I read it?

3 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 The Girl from Everywhere

Why did I love this book?

I liked this book because it took me on journeys to different parts of the world, time-travelling in some of them. The protagonist is of Chinese descent with roots in Hawaii, not a place I would associate with finding Chinese people. I especially liked it when the past and present Chinese diaspora merged. It gives a flavour of what it was like to be one of the people buried alive with the first Emperor during the Qin dynasty. To this date, I still find it incredulous that real-life people were part of that grand burial, so famous for its terracotta army.

By Heidi Heilig,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Girl from Everywhere as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Girl from Everywhere, the first of two books, blends fantasy, history, and a modern sensibility. Its sparkling wit, breathless adventure, multicultural cast, and enchanting romance will dazzle readers of Sabaa Tahir and Leigh Bardugo. 

As the daughter of a time traveler, Nix has spent sixteen years sweeping across the globe and through the centuries aboard her father’s ship. Modern-day New York City, nineteenth-century Hawaii, other lands seen only in myth and legend—Nix has been to them all.

But when her father gambles with her very existence, it all may be about to end. Rae Carson meets Outlander in this…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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