The best books to understand Chinese women

The Books I Picked & Why

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

By Dai Sijie

Book cover of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Why this book?

Set in a distant, rural world far away from the city where two young men were sent for re-education during the Cultural Revolution, this tender, seductive novel weaves the passion of reading with the yearning for romance. It’s a humorous look at life in exile but also a touching story about a young woman’s discovery of her power and sexual awakening. I’ve read this book years ago and still remember it.

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Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

By Jung Chang

Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Why this book?

A modern classic, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of China in the early 20th century, as seen through three generations of the author’s family: the author, her mother, and her grandmother. The narrative recounts Chinese people’s hallowing survival under Japanese occupation in Haerbin in northern China, the ideologies of the People’s Liberation Army, and the absurdity of the Cultural Revolution. I was stunned to see a world, full of life and culture, shattered and then rebuilt again, and the resilient women, left alone, hungry, charted their paths in a world upside down.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

By Lisa See

Book cover of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Why this book?

The beauty of the novel is like a fan, folded, layered, and fragile in its quiet storytelling of the transience of life and poignancy of how women were quickly forgotten and tucked away. Set in a remote, secluded town in nineteenth-century China, where foot binding was a tradition few could escape, the novel tells the affection between two women and their secret love. Nu Shu, the women’s script highlighted in the story, was especially fascinating to me–I have come across it during my research and learned that it was once a popular communication method for educated women in ancient China. I wish there were more novels about the secret language!

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Empress Orchid

By Anchee Min

Book cover of Empress Orchid

Why this book?

Empress Wu, the protagonist of my historical duology The Empress of Bright Moon, was often mistaken for the Empress Cixi in this novel, which often prompted me to explain that Empress Wu lived in the seventh century and she was the only female who ruled China in her name. But Empress Cixi, perhaps, was the only equivalent to her, as Cixi wielded great power and ruled the country from behind a thick, embroidered curtain in the late nineteenth century. Well-researched, the novel chronicled the rise of a cunning concubine, a woman of the reigning ethnic group over the Han people, and offered a rare insight into the journey of the indomitable woman and China at the end of the nineteenth century. 

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Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury

Book cover of Love in a Fallen City

Why this book?

Many of Eileen Chang’s novellas are revered as classic these days, including Love in a Fallen City. Prolific in the 1940s, the tumultuous time in China when writers faced prison terms for their work, the talented and ambitious Eileen Chang avoided politics and wrote about women’s desires, their failed romances, and their troubles with their families. This collection features an array of ordinary characters, a college student in Hong Kong, a divorced woman in Shanghai living in a cramped apartment, a married woman engaging in an illicit relationship with a relative, and others, all flawed, realistic but full of passion. After reading the book, I thought I could identify them on the streets in Shanghai! 

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