The best books to see the hidden side of Chinese culture

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Dehai Huang

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

Why 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.


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Bronze and Sunflower

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So

Book cover of Bronze and Sunflower

Why 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.


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Spilled Water

By Sally Grindley

Book cover of Spilled Water

Why 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.


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The Good Earth

By Pearl S. Buck

Book cover of The Good Earth

Why 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. 


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The Girl from Everywhere

By Heidi Heilig

Book cover of The Girl from Everywhere

Why 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.


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