The best books about Beijing

4 authors have picked their favorite books about Beijing and why they recommend each book.

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The Last Days of Old Beijing

By Michael Meyer,

Book cover of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Books on Chinese cities by foreigners have long lamented the redevelopment juggernaut’s steamrolling of old buildings and neighborhoods (Juliet Bredon’s Peking for one). Meyer’s exhaustively researched study of the Beijing neighborhood in which he lived in the early 2000s takes this a step further to a grassroots political call for action, before “replicas replace architectural heritage across China.” By illuminating his neighbors’ lives and their histories and reaching back into the city’s past, Meyer attempts to immortalize the disappearing Dashilar neighborhood literally in the form of a book, which if nothing else will be of future documentary value. Driving the old-vs.-new dichotomy too hard, however, obscures the more interesting question of how Chinese cities today are creatively blending the old and the new, as again they have long done in the past. As a longtime Beijing resident, I am stuck with the present and nonetheless find that history doesn’t stop…


Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

What is my book about?

It’s 1949 at Revolutionary University. Chinese students spend all their waking hours in political meetings—when they’re not hauling feces from the latrines to the manure fields. Jump to 2015. Chinese endure endless meetings at the hands of bosses and are required to keep their cellphones on around the clock and pick up at once—or be fined. They live in a technological utopia while enslaved by the same structures of psychological control of over half a century earlier. Underlying the myth of a “New China” are the contemporary Middle Kingdom's numerous continuities with its past. This wide-ranging collection, which includes essays on old and modern Beijing, reaffirms the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Rickshaw Boy

By Lao She,

Book cover of Rickshaw Boy

If you read only one book set in Beijing, let it be this one. During the Japanese occupation, a rickshaw puller named Xiangzi ping-pongs between success and misfortune in his quest to one day own a vehicle of his own. The author, a Manchu who grew up in the capital’s dense net of hutong alleyways, knows his material and his city unlike any Beijing writer before or since, especially its fatalist sense of humor. The editor of its first American edition changed the ending so everyone lived happily-ever-after. Lao She knew better; three decades later, he was among the most prominent casualties of the Red Guards.


Who am I?

I arrived in China in 1995 as one of the country’s first Peace Corps volunteers, and for over a decade lived in rural Sichuan, historic Beijing, and arcadian Jilin. These settings inform my trilogy of books about daily life in corners of the country overlooked by correspondents. I’ve won a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing, and I am currently a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan. I’m a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations‘ Public Intellectuals Program, a recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Fellowship, and a Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where I teach nonfiction writing. 


I wrote...

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

By Michael Meyer,

Book cover of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

What is my book about?

Journalist Michael Meyer has spent his adult life in China, first in a small village as a Peace Corps volunteer, the last decade in Beijing--where he has witnessed the extraordinary transformation the country has experienced in that time. For the past two years he has been completely immersed in the ancient city, living on one of its famed hutong in a century-old courtyard home he shares with several families, teaching English at a local elementary school--while all around him "progress" closes in as the neighborhood is methodically destroyed to make way for high-rise buildings, shopping malls, and other symbols of modern, urban life.

The city, he shows, has been demolished many times before; however, he writes, "the epitaph for Beijing will read: born 1280, died 2008... what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn't eradicate, the market economy can." 
The Last Days of Old Beijing tells the story of this historic city from the inside out through the eyes of those whose lives are in the balance: the Widow who takes care of Meyer; his students and fellow teachers, the first-ever description of what goes on in a Chinese public school; the local historian who rallies against the government. The tension of preservation vs. modernization--the question of what, in an ancient civilization, counts as heritage, and what happens when a billion people want to live the way Americans do--suffuse Meyer's story.

Beijing Doll

By Chun Sue,

Book cover of Beijing Doll

Chun Sue is like the literary little sister to Mian Mian and Wei Hui, copying her elder sisters and trying to follow in their footsteps – but stumbling because their heels were still too big for her to wear. In fact, despite its derivative nature, Beijing Doll did quite well, landing Chun on the cover of Time Magazine in 2004 and turning her into a pseudo-celebrity for her punky, tough-girl persona (a stark contrast to Wei’s slinky, sexy image). Western adult readers may roll their eyes at the melodramatic musings of middle-school heartbreak, but read within the context of its confining culture, Beijing Doll is no less an important addition to the annals of Chinese literature.


Who am I?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for what would become a two-year backpacking sojourn across all 33 Chinese provinces, the first foreigner on record to do so. It was during this journey that I discovered the following five female writers, whose catty, carnal memoirs accompanied me like jealous mistresses vying for attention.


I wrote...

China: Portrait of a People

By Tom Carter,

Book cover of China: Portrait of a People

What is my book about?

From the jungles of Yunnan to the frozen wastes of Heilongjiang, across the deserts of Xinjiang, and beneath Hong Kong's neon blur. Tramping through China by train, bus, boat, motorcycle, or hitching on the back of anything that moved. On a budget so scant that he drew sympathetic stares from peasants. Backpacker Tom Carter somehow succeeded in circumnavigating 35,000 miles across all 33 Chinese provinces during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so. What Carter’s photographs reveal is that China is not just one place, one people, but 33 distinct regions populated by 56 different ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs, and lifestyles.

China: Portrait of a People, was published as a means to visually introduce China to the world by providing a glimpse into the daily lives of the ordinary people who don’t make headlines yet who are the heart and soul of this country.

Peking

By Juliet Bredon,

Book cover of Peking: A Historical and Intimate Description of Its Chief Places of Interest

Even though it was ahead of its time, Juliet Bredon’s Peking, published in 1931, is less well known than Arlington and Lewisohn’s comparable guide to the city, In Search of Old Peking released in 1935, both books written by longtime expats fully informed of their adopted country; Bredon was niece to the famous China Customs official Sir Robert Hart. Both books are chock full of historical detail and passionate about their subject matter and still serve well today as guides to Beijing’s temples and palaces. Bredon’s is the more eloquently written and captivating, and for me, the more personable companion in guiding the armchair traveler through Peking’s labyrinthine lanes. Along with her expert advice on buying antiques, I can relate to her spontaneous descriptions of street life as if I were sitting next to her in her rickshaw: “Who can forget the delicious surprise of his first journey…


Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

What is my book about?

It’s 1949 at Revolutionary University. Chinese students spend all their waking hours in political meetings—when they’re not hauling feces from the latrines to the manure fields. Jump to 2015. Chinese endure endless meetings at the hands of bosses and are required to keep their cellphones on around the clock and pick up at once—or be fined. They live in a technological utopia while enslaved by the same structures of psychological control of over half a century earlier. Underlying the myth of a “New China” are the contemporary Middle Kingdom's numerous continuities with its past. This wide-ranging collection, which includes essays on old and modern Beijing, reaffirms the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

City of Lingering Splendour

By John Blofeld,

Book cover of City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking's Exotic Pleasures

English expat John Blofeld spent two decades in China (1932–51) before living out the last three of his life in Thailand. A renowned scholar of Buddhism and Taoism, Blofeld (like fellow expat Sinologists Edmund Backhouse and E.T.C. Werner) effectively disappeared into the woodwork, consorting almost exclusively with locals and mastering both vernacular and classical Chinese. In his City of Lingering Splendour, he looks back on his sojourn in the capital in the bustling 1930s-40s. But in contrast to standard accounts of Beijing’s palaces and temples (such as by Bredon and Arlington & Lewisohn above), Blofeld evocatively spotlights the often overlooked secular sites, the bathhouses and restaurants, opium dens, and bordellos, along with his connoisseurship of Chinese tea, thus conferring important archival value on his portrait of the city. This is also the side of Beijing I can relate to – the dark side, the underbelly of the great city –…

Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

What is my book about?

It’s 1949 at Revolutionary University. Chinese students spend all their waking hours in political meetings—when they’re not hauling feces from the latrines to the manure fields. Jump to 2015. Chinese endure endless meetings at the hands of bosses and are required to keep their cellphones on around the clock and pick up at once—or be fined. They live in a technological utopia while enslaved by the same structures of psychological control of over half a century earlier. Underlying the myth of a “New China” are the contemporary Middle Kingdom's numerous continuities with its past. This wide-ranging collection, which includes essays on old and modern Beijing, reaffirms the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Encounters with Ancient Beijing

By Virginia Anami,

Book cover of Encounters with Ancient Beijing: Its Legacy in Trees, Stone and Water

American turned-Japanese-citizen and wife of a Japanese ambassador, Virginia Stibbs Anami thoroughly researched and expertly photographed hundreds of ancient spots in and around Beijing between 1983-2003 and assembled a perfectly conceived jigsaw puzzle of a book. Finagling her way into places normally forbidden to foreigners and to Chinese as well, Anami writes with a beautiful economy, whether of a temple with an ancient tree over 1,000 years old, an equally old stone stele with a fascinating story behind its inscriptions, or the remains of a long-forgotten waterway or channel, even revisiting the same spots over the decades to see if they'd changed (often for the worse). It all adds up to an impression of great depth, and with the accompanying crystalline photos, a book that’s more than the sum of its parts. What captured my attention most of all is the care about her subject matter and her attention to…


Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom

What is my book about?

It’s 1949 at Revolutionary University. Chinese students spend all their waking hours in political meetings—when they’re not hauling feces from the latrines to the manure fields. Jump to 2015. Chinese endure endless meetings at the hands of bosses and are required to keep their cellphones on around the clock and pick up at once—or be fined. They live in a technological utopia while enslaved by the same structures of psychological control of over half a century earlier. Underlying the myth of a “New China” are the contemporary Middle Kingdom's numerous continuities with its past. This wide-ranging collection, which includes essays on old and modern Beijing, reaffirms the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tao of Sketching

By Qu Lei Lei,

Book cover of Tao of Sketching: The Complete Guide to Chinese Sketching Techniques

I was reviewing Qu Leilei’s Everyone’s life is an Epic at the Ashmolean when a chance encounter changed my life. While writing Qu's profile, I learned about the first contemporary art movement in China - the Stars in Beijing in 1979 - and spent three years interviewing him for the background to Brushstrokes in Time

Leilei’s art is imbued with deep humanity but he is also a fine teacher- hence my recommending The Tao of Sketching. Daoism influenced traditional Chinese art and is a focus for meditation. The empty space is important. If you want to get into that cultural mindset, try Leilei’s books.


Who am I?

I studied modern Chinese history so, when Qu Leilei told me the story of the Stars Art Movement, I couldn’t understand why I hadn't heard their courageous story. I spent three years interviewing Qu Leilei, researching and visiting China with him before writing the Stars story as a historical novel. I am a freelance writer, author, and speaker.


I wrote...

Brushstrokes in Time

By Sylvia Vetta,

Book cover of Brushstrokes in Time

What is my book about?

Brushstrokes in Time is the fictional memoir of Chinese artist Little Winter, who tries to re-establish the bond with her American daughter, telling the story of her emotional and rebellious past. While growing up in Communist China, Little Winter discovers talent and rebellion, joining ‘The Stars’ art movement for freedom of speech in an era where self-expression and love were a dangerous act.

China expert Guardian journalist, John Gittings read it determined to find fault but says that he failed. He endorses it, as do Harvard and Oxford academics. Dr. Maria Jaschok lived in China between 1980-1996 and says, "Moving but never mawkish, informed yet entirely accessible, this book should have popular appeal."

Longevity Park

By Zhou Daxin,

Book cover of Longevity Park

This expertly translated Chinese novel tells the compelling story of a family in Beijing with an aging patriarch. Narrated largely from the perspective of the rural nurse hired to care for him, Longevity Park reveals the many difficulties facing Chinese individuals as they age as well as the difficulties facing Chinese families with an aging loved one. These challenges resonate with those of individuals and families globally, including pervasive stigmas against the elderly, particularly those who are not as agile mentally or physically as they once were; and the particular hurdles facing family members with their own mental health and other concerns. Zhou’s novel also eloquently describes the many hurdles facing healthcare providers.

Who am I?

Karen Thornber is Harry Tuchman Levin Professor in Literature and Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. Her work brings humanistic insights to global challenges.  Thornber is the author of the award-winning scholarly books Empire of Texts in Motion and Ecoambiguity as well as most recently Global Healing: Literature, Advocacy, Care. Current projects include books on gender justice in Asia, mental health, inequality/injustice, sustainability/climate change, and indigeneity.


I wrote...

Global Healing: Literature, Advocacy, Care

By Karen Laura Thornber,

Book cover of Global Healing: Literature, Advocacy, Care

What is my book about?

Global Healing reveals just how much of the suffering experienced by individuals with adverse health conditions comes not from the health conditions themselves but instead from how people are treated by society, medical and health professionals, and even friends and family members. Far from being integrated into communities of care where they are treated respectfully and in ways that promote healing and enable wellbeing, individuals with adverse health conditions are all too frequently stigmatized, dehumanized, and silenced. This is particularly true of people who are already subjected to structural violence because of their age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexuality, or other factors. Global Healing is especially relevant as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Party Members

By Arthur Meursault,

Book cover of Party Members

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.


Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute of documentary value, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

What is my book about?

It is the Shanghai of courtesans and concubines, danger and decadence, updated to 2020. American expat author Isham Cook has disappeared. His last known history is chronicled by an exotic woman who seems right out of 1930s Shanghai herself, Marguerite, a mustachioed Afghan-American who weaves Persian rugs and deals in psychedelics.

As she tells it, Isham's story all began with Luna, a beguiling but troubled Chinese woman who happens to have a mustache herself. Also vying for Isham's affection is the charismatic Kitty, who conspires to entrap him in a cyber web of obsession and betrayal. Fans of Cook's fiction will recognize in this psychological thriller set in modern China his signature world of startling plot turns in an unsettling yet compelling landscape of ideas.

Once Upon A Time in the East

By Xiaolu Guo,

Book cover of Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up

The great Chinese British powerhouse writes about her childhood in a poor coastal village in post-Mao’s China where she’s made to live with her grandparents and life is rough and hard, especially for a girl. It’s a very atmospheric tale, that paints a vivid picture of this incredible society. It’s also a Cinderella story, about a suffering child that, thanks to incredible stubbornness and stamina, rises up to become one of the twelve (out of a million or so) applicants that are accepted into the Chinese Film School in Beijing each year. She later moves to England and her descriptions of the west are super fresh and priceless.

Who am I?

Hallgrimur Helgason is an Icelandic artist and writer born in Reykjavik in 1959. He started out as a painter but then also took up writing. Since 1990 he has published eleven novels, the most well-known being 101 Reykjavik, which was turned into a popular film, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, and The Woman at 1000°. Helgason has also published 4 books of poetry and is an active political columnist. His books have been translated into 14 languages and three of them have been nominated for the Nordic Prize of Literature. Helgason won the Icelandic Literature Prize three times. In 2020 he was awarded the French medal Officier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres.


I wrote...

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning

By Hallgrímur Helgason,

Book cover of The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning

What is my book about?

A comic thriller of mistaken identities. A master of violence is forced to hide in the most peaceful country on the planet, that also happens to be its most egalitarian society — a good challenge to his ideas about women.

Toxic is a professional hitman for the Croatian Mafia in New York. One day he is forced to flee the States, but at JFK he spots the FBI waiting for him at the gate. He turns and hides in the men's room, contemplating his moves, when out from one of the stalls comes another bald guy. Being a pro, Toxic kills the bald man, takes on his clothes, ID, passport, and air ticket. So the Croatian hitman arrives in Reykjavik, disguised as a TV preacher. 

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