29 books directly related to Beijing 📚

All 29 Beijing books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

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

Why this book?

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 but carries on even in the sleekest brewpubs which will one day in the future be lost to the past.

Rickshaw Boy

By Lao She,

Book cover of Rickshaw Boy

Why this book?

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.

Beijing Doll

By Chun Sue,

Book cover of Beijing Doll

Why this book?

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.

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

By Juliet Bredon,

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

Why this book?

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 through Chinese streets, unable to make the rickshaw runner understand anything but gestures, frantic gestures to stop anywhere, everywhere, since all is unspeakably pleasurable and new.” 

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

By John Blofeld,

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

Why this book?

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 – and even now lined with artisanal cafes, I’m still drawn to the old lanes.

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

By Virginia Anami,

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

Why this book?

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 detail showing through on every page.

Tao of Sketching: The Complete Guide to Chinese Sketching Techniques

By Qu Lei Lei,

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

Why this book?

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.

Longevity Park

By Zhou Daxin,

Book cover of Longevity Park

Why this book?

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.

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.

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

By Xiaolu Guo,

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

Why this book?

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.

Thief of Souls: An Inspector Lu Fei Mystery

By Brian Klingborg,

Book cover of Thief of Souls: An Inspector Lu Fei Mystery

Why this book?

This book really came as a surprise; the kind of surprise where you can’t turn the pages fast enough. For one thing, the setting is completely unique. It’s China, but not Beijing or another location that Western audiences would easily recognize. No, the first Inspector Lu Fei mystery takes us to Raven Valley, outside Harbin, China in a cold and unlovely part of the country.

Lu Fei is the deputy chief of the Public Security Bureau there, where a young woman’s murder upends the cycle of boredom and drinking. Both security and Communist Party officials from Beijing descend on Raven Valley and Lu is soon caught between his old boss in Harbin, who hates his guts, and the upwardly mobile Beijing officials who will take credit for his work if he solves the murder and stick a knife in his ribs if he doesn’t.

Having studied China during my 30-year career as an intelligence officer, I was awed by the way author Klingborg absolutely nailed China’s labyrinthine political system. No one believes in the system’s own propaganda but it’s a steamroller that crushes dissent and imagination.

China’s modernization is also critical to the plot. A family can have designer clothes but not indoor plumbing. Not only is Thief of Souls a riveting whodunit, but in my view, it’s an insider’s view of today’s paradoxical China, written in a lush, gripping style. 

The Banquet Bug

By Geling Yan,

Book cover of The Banquet Bug

Why this book?

Released in my native Britain as The Uninvited, Yan’s novel offers an unexpected angle on Chinese food by presenting the banquet as the place in China where alliances are forged, deals are done, and palms are greased. Her hero is a member of the Beijing underclass who somehow finds himself gate-crashing big society feasts. Pretending to be a journalist ready to be “entertained”, he discovers food he never dreamed of, but also comes to develop a sense of social responsibility. He starts to inhabit the part he is playing, and becomes not an uninvited guest, but a crusader on the behalf of the downtrodden. Or does he…?

June Fourth

By Jeremy Brown,

Book cover of June Fourth

Why this book?

This newly published book is the definitive account of the Tiananmen protest movement of 1989 and its suppression, which has turned out to be the pivotal political event in the post-Mao era. Weaving a range of personal stories and new documentation into a highly readable analysis, it lays bare its unpredictable course and tragic but avoidable outcome. There is nothing else in print that manages to describe the drama while providing a shrewd and cool-headed critical scrutiny of a range of competing scholarly interpretations and official misrepresentations.

Typhoon: A Novel

By Charles Cumming,

Book cover of Typhoon: A Novel

Why this book?

When Charles Cumming published Typhoon in 2009, China's Xinjiang province was a festering wound for the Chinese Communist Party, with the local Uyghur population sporadically resisting subjugation by their Han overlords. Now it is a full-blown police-state with mass Uyghur detention camps that amount to genocide, according to many human rights groups. Cumming shrewdly chose Xinjiang tensions as the spark for a rogue CIA scheme to destabilize the Beijing regime. Knowing what is currently happening in Xinjiang, it is hard for me now to re-read the novel with the same sense of nostalgia for the authentically rendered places in the cities I know (or knew) well: Urumqi, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong. These gems have all been deprecated by the Party, but they are partially preserved in Cumming's meticulous prose.

Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

By Kishore Mahbubani,

Book cover of Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

Why this book?

By nature, the American press has a very U.S.-centric view. This author, who served many years as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, presents a clear-eyed view of the perspectives of both the U.S. and China, analyzing the motives, history, and values of each. From an impartial standpoint, he gives candid advice on the importance of deeper understanding and concludes that either both countries win or no one wins. Published in March 2020.

Four Sisters of Hofei: A History

By Ann Ping Chin,

Book cover of Four Sisters of Hofei: A History

Why this book?

Fiction and biography are a good way of walking in someone else’s shoes. Although this biography isn’t a gripping read, I’d recommend it for anyone interested in depth about Chinese culture and society and how it changed over one hundred years. It follows the lives of well-educated sisters from a prosperous background not just in Beijing and Shanghai but in a diversity of provinces too.

China after Mao: Seek Truth From Facts

By Liu Heung Shing,

Book cover of China after Mao: Seek Truth From Facts

Why this book?

After the gradual normalisation of relations between China and the US and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, a small number of western journalists were allowed to open bureaus in Beijing. Access was limited and travel difficult but one talented Chinese American photojournalist really pushed the boundaries in showing the rest of the world what the long inaccessible country was like. His tenacity and eye for the telling detail were an inspiration for me to take up the challenge to devote my career to covering the historic era of change in due course. Such was Liu’s ability to cover more than his hosts were quite ready to show ethnic Chinese foreign journalists found it near impossible to gain accreditation for many years afterwards.

The Origins of the Boxer Uprising

By Joseph W. Esherick,

Book cover of The Origins of the Boxer Uprising

Why this book?

If the White Lotus marks the beginning of China’s rebellious nineteenth century, the Boxer Uprising (1900-1) emphatically brought it to its end. This account of the Boxers, written by scholar Joseph Esherick, although the oldest of the books recommended here, almost certainly served as their intellectual forerunner. Esherick’s iconoclastic approach upended traditional descriptions of the event and indeed transformed the way that scholars of China viewed rebellions as a whole. Moving away from the well-worn western perspective of the very missionaries and diplomats who were the targets of the anti-foreign, anti-Christian, and anti-modern movement, Esherick offers a richly textured description of the Boxer’s fantastical religious impulses and harsh social context. In this way, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising rich and vivid telling of the Boxer’s “Society of Harmony and Justice” is as exciting today as the day it was published.

The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

Why this book?

Decidedly contemporary China’s most provocative foreign writer, Isham Cook has spent the past decade in Beijing penning books about taboo subject matter that heretofore few expat authors have been willing to publicly reveal about their lives here. Specifically, prurience and libertine excess. I liken him as a reincarnated Edmund Backhouse with a hint of Henry Miller and a dash of de Sade. In his putative memoir The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai, Cook reimagines himself as an Asian woman in order to psychoanalyze his past relationships with Chinese girlfriends whom he tormented with polyamory. If nothing else, read this for its sheer audacity.

Shanghai Baby

By Wei Hui,

Book cover of Shanghai Baby

Why this book?

Like her or not, the reigning queen of the naughty girl subgenre of Chinese literature decidedly is Wei Hui, whose debut, Shanghai Baby, was a cultural phenomenon that resulted in public book burnings, an international media frenzy, dozens of imitators, and one so-bad-it’s-good movie adaptation starring Bai Ling. Not that Wei Hui is a particularly well-regarded writer – Shanghai Baby is basically a knockoff of shallow Western-style chick-lit, about a designer-brand-obsessed young woman who has an affair with a married foreigner – but in 1999 it was groundbreaking for kicking the publishing doors down for the post-1970s generation of Chinese writers.

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

By Nie Jun,

Book cover of My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

Why this book?

This utterly charming collection of short stories by acclaimed cartoonist Nie Jun offers an insider’s glimpse into the alleys (hutong) of a Beijing neighborhood. Originally written for a Chinese audience, the book portrays a community that is quintessentially “old Beijing” and will be sweetly recognizable to anyone fortunate enough to have lived there in decades past: we see not only famous landmarks peeping out from behind the curved tile roofs of the classic courtyard-house (siheyuan) architecture, but also the green pillar mailboxes, low wooden courtyard chairs, bicycle repair stands, outdoor water spigots and washbasins, colorfully dressed old ladies dancing in the public square, and other authentic details that a book written for an international audience might not think to include.

The stories revolve around a young girl with an almost mystical connection to her quirky grandfather and are full of the kind of “everyday wonder” that every childhood should contain. 

Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories

By May-Lee Chai,

Book cover of Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories

Why this book?

This story collection is mind-blowing in the best way. As its name suggests, a lot of the stories in this book deal with immigrants, including Chinese people who've immigrated to the United States, but also rural people who've migrated to cities. Chai's characters are struggling to balance traditional Confucian values with postmodern urban existence, and a lot of these stories feature tensions between different generations in a single-family. The best story is probably the award-winning "Fish Boy," in which a boy moves from the Chinese countryside to the big city and ends up working at a seafood restaurant whose offerings sound pretty unappetizing. Chai is brilliant at picking up on the subtle nuances of damaged families, and every one of these stories hits home.

A Death in Peking: Who Really Killed Pamela Werner?

By Graeme Sheppard,

Book cover of A Death in Peking: Who Really Killed Pamela Werner?

Why this book?

Graeme Sheppard’s account of the 1937 murder of Englishwoman Pamela Werner, A Death in Peking, has been overshadowed by Paul French’s more widely known Midnight in Peking, unfortunately so. Whereas French builds his case on dubious claims and sensationalizes his narrative with gothic embellishments centered around the haunted “Fox Tower” where Werner’s body was supposedly found (a location contradicted by contemporary newspaper accounts), Sheppard sticks to the facts and arrives at a strikingly different and more convincing conclusion regarding the identity of the murderer. And if French’s page-turner is modelled more on the mystery novel genre than true-crime reportage, Sheppard’s starker account is nonetheless equally engrossing in its pursuit of the truth. In the process of his methodical sifting of the evidence, he brings to light an old Beijing grounded in reality. I myself have conducted guided tours of the old Legation neighborhoods and their sheer geography compels the truth.

The Story of the Stone, Volume I: The Golden Days, Chapters 1-26

By Cao Xueqin,

Book cover of The Story of the Stone, Volume I: The Golden Days, Chapters 1-26

Why this book?

This is the best translation into English of the first 26 chapters of the most influential classic of Chinese literature. (It also has the English name Dream of Red Mansions.) Generations have swooned over the 18th century love triangle that is at the heart of this epic tale of the Jia family in decline. If you can’t get enough of this elaborate novel of manners, you can listen to the podcast currently chewing on it, Rereading the Stone. I consider this opening volume to be a useful introduction to family life in traditional China (though its lens is focused on high society), including the importance of dreams, rituals, family relationships, gossip, and poetry.

Forbidden City (City Spies 3)

By James Ponti,

Book cover of Forbidden City (City Spies 3)

Why this book?

Let me begin by saying that if you haven’t yet read the first two books in the City Spies series, please get on it. Packed with adventure, fantastic characters, and brilliant plots twists, the entire series is a complete treat. As with the two previous installments, the book follows a diverse group of international kids who’ve been brought together to keep the world safe from the nefarious Umbra, a secret organization bent on world domination. The plot of this adventure revolves around team member, Paris, when he’s sent undercover to an international chess tournament to keep tabs on the son of a North Korean nuclear physicist. Like a well-played game of chess, the story relies on clever tactics, keen insights into your opponent, and good old-fashioned strategy.

Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

By Timothy Brook,

Book cover of Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Why this book?

Brook uses artifacts portrayed in six paintings by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer to show how, several centuries before the World Wide Web, the local and the global were intimately connected. He surprises his readers by showing that people and goods and ideas moved around the 17th-century world in ways that – rather like us – their ancestors would have considered impossible. Perhaps because Brook is a Canadian historian of China who is familiar with Europe, he provides a truly global history and almost every page contains a “gee whiz” fact. I also love the idea that “Every picture tells a story.”

The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers

By Richard McGregor,

Book cover of The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers

Why this book?

The Chinese Communist Party is a mystery and this book is the best journalistic guide to try to understand it. This book inspired my reporting in China. It made me understand that the party is at the heart of every important decision made by Beijing though its decision-making is rarely visible. Written by a former Financial Times reporter, the book documents the big role the party plays in everything from picking the CEOs of China’s biggest firms to revamping the military.

Manchu Decadence: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Abridged and Unexpurgated

By Edmund Trelawny Backhouse,

Book cover of Manchu Decadence: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Abridged and Unexpurgated

Why this book?

Decades before Carl Crow helped transform Old Shanghai into a playground for the Waspy rich, a young Brit named Edmund Backhouse was reveling in the brothels of Beijing. Backhouse first arrived in China in 1899, where he served as a linguist and, he claimed, as a consultant for the Manchu court (where he also claims to have bedded Empress Dowager Cixi). By night, however, Backhouse was prowling the filthy backstreets for lascivious same-sex encounters with the Chinese, which he chronicled in a secret diary that remained unpublished until 2011. Egregious and borderline pornographic, no China expat (not even Isham Cook, cited below) has ever come close to matching Backhouse’s salaciousness. Should be read in concert with Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, who hypothesizes that Backhouse was nothing more than a charlatan with a vivid imagination.

On Liberty

By John Stuart Mill,

Book cover of On Liberty

Why this book?

While the cover only lists John Stuart as the author, he acknowledged in his autobiography that the book was “directly and literally our joint production” with his wife Harriet. And certainly, the book has a different tone than ‘his’ other works; less academic, and more lively. Anyway, what they wanted to show was that the “only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.” This is so relevant today when autocrats from Beijing, through Moscow, to Budapest are muzzling voices with different degrees of severity. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. And the evidence shows that dictators and despots are fallible. Democracy works. Dictatorship does not. This book is a classic statement of an idea that we need to remember.