The best novels written by foreigners in China

The Books I Picked & Why

Miss Jill: A Novel

By Emily Hahn

Book cover of Miss Jill: A Novel

Why this book?

Emily Hahn, prolific author and New Yorker correspondent whose sojourns in Shanghai (1935-39), Chungking (1939-40), and Hong Kong (1941-43) coincided with the Japanese invasions of these cities, fictionalizes the life of Canadian Lorraine Murray, turned high-class prostitute in Shanghai after living as a foreign geisha in Japan. Hahn was fascinated by sex workers and hung out with them (Hahn and Murray were roommates), but the novel later morphs into the autobiographical as the beautiful Hahn ingratiates herself with Japanese military officials until she’s forced into a Hong Kong internment camp for several years. Hahn is more reporter than novelist, but her flair for detail and eyewitness authenticity brings Shanghai to life in a way the historical novelist cannot. Especially hilarious is Jill’s hotel scene with the British john who thought he was getting a freebie.

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Empire of Glass

By Kaitlin Solimine

Book cover of Empire of Glass

Why this book?

The experience of being a teenage exchange student living with a Beijing family whose mother is dying of cancer and whose father makes an aborted sexual pass on her marked Solimine deeply enough to inspire this novel. The author wisely shifts the focus away from herself and adopts the role of frame narrator as she reconstructs the family’s history and events leading up to her arrival, where she inserts herself into the story. The narrative unfolds in flashbacks, impressionistic vignettes, and haunting poetic imagery to capture fleeting moments which build in intensity. It’s the kind of novel readers may not find easygoing on first acquaintance – the cracked-glass cover design nicely conveys the initial impression – but promises to improve on rereading.

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Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

By Quincy Carroll

Book cover of Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Why this book?

Carroll’s debut novel has earned considerable praise for its quiet, elegant prose and the affecting realism of its characters: a young introverted American wholly at home in the small backwater college in Hunan Province where he teaches English and builds an aeolian harp, the awkward female student who tries to befriend him, and the choleric old misanthrope of an American with a crippled leg, who joins the school and inadvertently proceeds to disrupt their lives. What makes the novel work is its dramatic irony – the chemical reactions that ensue when three peculiar and hapless personalities combine and threaten to blow up into almost Greek-tragedy proportions, and only the reader understands why. A handful of memorable subplots and minor characters flesh out the tale.

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Harvest Season

By Chris Taylor

Book cover of Harvest Season

Why this book?

An idyllic mountain town in Yunnan Province of the sort which drew Chinese artists and Western pot-smoking hippies several decades back (probably Dali or Lijiang before their tourist invasions) is the setting of an epic culture clash between older-generational locals and the motley crowd of foreigners and their teepees and incomprehensible ways. The characters and the narrative breathe with too much realism to be based on anything but real people and events, and we assume the first-person narrator to be the author himself thinly disguised. But whatever events inspired the story, Taylor succeeds in limning each scene and dialogue with archetypal significance, so that the novel transcends mere reportage dressed up as fiction for the sake of anonymity. It also makes a good companion piece to Carroll’s Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

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Party Members

By Arthur Meursault

Book cover of Party Members

Why this book?

Here we have the most politically incorrect of novels, an unflinchingly vicious take on China by a Westerner, though Party Members (pun on the second word) does have an acknowledged precursor in fellow Englishman Ralph Townsend’s Ways That Are Dark, an equally unsentimental account of China published in 1933. We follow the faceless bureaucrat protagonist, Yang Wei, as he inventively combines his passions for sex and KFC (China’s comfort food of choice) at one and the same time, and eggs on the state-sanctioned thugs who set his mother’s house on fire to clear it for developers – with her inside. To be fair, China is evolving out of the nasty pre-2008 Olympics era Meursault is documenting and this is after all satire. But the novel is not only very funny, it’s required reading precisely due to its pariah status.

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