The best books to understand Chinese women

Who am I?

I was born and raised in China; at twenty-four, I immigrated to the US and switched to English, my second language, to write historical fiction featuring Chinese women. I published The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, a historical novel series about Empress Wu, the first and only female ruler in China, in 2016. The Moon in the Palace won the RWA RITA Award, and the series has been translated into seven languages. I love writing novels with rich historical details, compelling descriptions of culture, and strong but flawed Chinese women who are not afraid to defy tradition to pursue their dreams.

I wrote...

The Last Rose of Shanghai

By Weina Dai Randel,

Book cover of The Last Rose of Shanghai

What is my book about?

The novel, set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during WWII, tells an impossible love story between a wealthy Chinese woman, Aiyi Shao, and a penniless German Jew who fled to Shanghai from Nazi Germany, Ernest Reismann. When Aiyi, a woman from a well-bred family in Shanghai, hired Ernest to play the piano in her nightclub, the two forge an unbreakable bond that transcends race, class, and war. The novel reveals a little-known segment of history, the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, and the resilience of both Chinese and Jewish people during WWII.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Why did I love 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.

By Dai Sijie,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

1971: Mao's cultural Revolution is at its peak. Two sons of doctors, sent to 're-education' camps, forced to carry buckets of excrement up and down mountain paths, have only their sense of humour to keep them going. Although the attractive daughter of the local tailor also helps to distract them from the task at hand.

The boys' true re-education starts, however, when they discover a hidden suitcase packed with the great Western novels of the nineteenth century. Their lives are transformed. And not only their lives: after listening to the stories of Balzac, the little seamstress will never be the…

Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Why did I love 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.

By Jung Chang,

Why should I read it?

8 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.

Book cover of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Why did I love 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!

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…

Empress Orchid

By Anchee Min,

Book cover of Empress Orchid

Why did I love 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. 

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…

Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury (translator),

Book cover of Love in a Fallen City

Why did I love 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! 

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Love in a Fallen City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Masterful short works about passion, family, and human relationships by one of the greatest writers of 20th century China. 

A New York Review Books Original


“[A] giant of modern Chinese literature” –The New York Times


"With language as sharp as a knife edge, Eileen Chang cut open a huge divide in Chinese culture, between the classical patriarchy and our troubled modernity. She was one of the very few able truly to connect that divide, just as her heroines often disappeared inside it. She is the fallen angel of Chinese literature, and now, with these excellent new translations, English readers can…

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