The best books about the Chinese Cultural Revolution

6 authors have picked their favorite books about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and why they recommend each book.

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Ten Years of Madness

By Feng Jicai,

Book cover of Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution

Oral history as a literary form is relatively new in China. When asked why he wrote the book, Mr. Feng replied that it was because of his guilt as a survivor and as a witness. The Cultural Revolution has devastated and scarred generation after generation in China, yet most people are silent about their personal experiences. Feng conducted numerous interviews with ordinary people who had lived through that period and wrote these intimate stories in the collection. Every voice is different and deeply personal; together, they portray one of the most disturbing and tumultuous times in Chinese history. 


Who am I?

Born and raised in China, I grew up on a remote state-run farm where my parents, as condemned intellectuals during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, lived for 20 years. It wasn't until mid-80s they were allowed to return. I have heard many stories and read many books about this tumultuous period in China. I didn’t know much about my parents’ personal experiences until I was in my 30s. Today’s China is very different but I believe that history extends its roots deep into the present. As a writer, what interests me the most is the impact of history on individuals and society. My latest book is a historical wartime novel set in China and Europe.


I wrote...

Beautiful as Yesterday

By Fan Wu,

Book cover of Beautiful as Yesterday

What is my book about?

Mary and Ingrid are sisters who were born and brought up in China but now reside in the United States. Mary is the older of the two; seemingly a devoted wife, mother, and churchgoer. Yet she is tormented by adultery, a grudge toward her parents, and her despair at work. Her estranged sister Ingrid has never settled for anything; she prefers her bohemian friends’ culture to her own and is haunted by her college boyfriend’s tragic death. When their widowed mother travels to the United States for the first time, they can’t avoid a family get-together. Amid all it stirs up, it becomes clear that the uneasy relationship between the sisters has roots deeper than either had ever acknowledged—and extends to their parents and their homeland.

Mao's Last Revolution

By Michael Schoenhals, Roderick Macfarquhar,

Book cover of Mao's Last Revolution

This instant classic was the first to draw deeply on a wide range of previously inaccessible sources about the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. Highly readable and authoritative, it provides extensive insight into Mao’s actions and those of his subordinates and victims and documents the destructive impact of these conflicts all across China from the initial salvos at Peking University in May 1966 to the immediate aftermath of Mao’s death, which led to the arrest of Mao’s most ardent radical followers, the “Gang of Four”.


Who am I?

I took my first course about Chinese politics in 1973, when the country was still in the tumultuous last years of the Mao era. In a teaching career that began in 1982, I have spent long periods of research and teaching in China and Hong Kong. China’s shifting course has been a constant source of fascination, encouragement, and at times dismay. It is hard to imagine that the impoverished and unstable country of the 1970s would rise to become such a major economic power, one that despite its impressive expansion still faces intractable barriers to its future advancement.


I wrote...

China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed

By Andrew G. Walder,

Book cover of China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed

What is my book about?

China’s Communist Party seized power in 1949 after a long period of guerrilla insurgency followed by full-scale war, but the Chinese revolution was just beginning. China Under Mao narrates the rise and fall of the Maoist revolutionary state from 1949 to 1976—an epoch of startling accomplishments and disastrous failures, steered by many forces but dominated above all by Mao Zedong.

Mao’s China was shaped by a Party apparatus that exercised firm (sometimes harsh) discipline over its members; and a socialist economy modeled after the Soviet Union. Although a large national bureaucracy oversaw his authoritarian system, Mao intervened strongly at every turn. The doctrines and practices that produced Mao’s greatest achievements—victory in the civil war, the creation of China’s first unified modern state, a historic transformation of urban and rural life—also generated his worst failures: the industrial depression and rural famine of the Great Leap Forward and the violent destruction and stagnation of the Cultural Revolution. This book explains how and why the achievements and disasters had a single cause, frustrating Mao’s aspirations and forcing his successors to choose a radically different path.

The World Turned Upside Down

By Yang Jisheng, Stacy Mosher (translator), Guo Jian (translator)

Book cover of The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

Perspectives on one of the most bewildering and turbulent periods in modern Chinese history – the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, in the decade from 1966, by one of contemporary China’s foremost historians. Yang, who has worked on the era of the great famines in China prior to this, is well served by two excellent translators. A book that brings the vastness of this revolution down to the stories of specific people and places, including those who were most involved in creating and directing this seminal event.


Who am I?

I have been working on China as a student, teacher, diplomat, business person, and academic since 1991. 
Currently, professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, my work involves trying to understand how the country’s deer and more recent history has created the remarkable country that we see today. I have written over 20 books on modern China, and lived there in total 5 and a half years. I have visited every single province and autonomous region, and have lectured on China in over 40 countries, across four continents.


I wrote...

China

By Kerry Brown,

Book cover of China

What is my book about?

China is poised to become the world’s largest economy in the next decade. But its great struggle to modernise has been one of tragedy, conflict, and challenge. From the first attempts to introduce Western ideas into the country two centuries ago, China’s long march to global primacy has been above all an epic fight to renew an ancient country and culture.

Sinologist Kerry Brown traces this quest for renewal through the major moments of China’s modern history. Taking the reader on a journey that includes war, revolution, famine, and finally regeneration, he describes concisely and authoritatively where China has come from, and where it is heading as it achieves great power status. This is a story that is no longer just about China, but concerns the rest of the world.

The Telling

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Telling

We live in a world where freedom of thought and expression is constantly threatened by those who would like to be unquestioned rulers. Le Guin’s Aka planet is one such, where those in power have attempted to erase history and ban books. But as in so many of Le Guin’s books, a utopian streak comes shining through here in the form of an underground movement keeping alive memory through the sacred act of telling. I loved the subversive current in the story, The Telling of which is itself an act of hope and inspiration.  


Who am I?

With a passion for animal rights transforming into one for ecological issues, when I was in high school, I’ve been involved in activism research for 40+ years. Recently this has translated into an intense search for radical alternatives to ‘development’ and all the structures of inequality and unsustainability underlying it, including capitalism, state-domination, and patriarchy. I’ve been documenting many ‘living utopias’ where communities are forging pathways of well-being without trashing the earth or creating abysmal inequalities. Many groups & networks I’ve helped start, including Kalpavriksh, Vikalp Sangam, and Global Tapestry of Alternatives, focus on these issues. So it's always fascinating also to see how fictional utopias relate to these!


I edited...

Pluriverse – A Post-Development Dictionary Ashish Kothari

By Ashish Kothari (editor), Ariel Salleh (editor), Arturo Escobar (editor), Federico DeMaria (editor), Alberto Acosta (editor)

Book cover of Pluriverse – A Post-Development Dictionary Ashish Kothari

What is my book about?

Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary contains over one hundred essays on transformative initiatives and alternatives to the currently dominant processes of globalized development, including its structural roots in modernity, capitalism, state domination, and masculinist values. It offers critical essays on mainstream solutions that ‘greenwash’ development and presents radically different worldviews and practices from around the world that point to an ecologically wise and socially just world.

Woman from Shanghai

By Xianhui Yang,

Book cover of Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp

When it comes to Mao’s labor camps in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, few books are as powerful and authentic as Yang’s collection of 13 stories. Set against one of the darkest tragedies in China’s modern history, these stories are based on his interviews with the survivors of a forced-labor camp in China’s northwestern desert. The incarcerated were mostly condemned intellectuals and government officials, and to them, starvation and death were daily threats. Despite the unimaginable suffering, there was love, compassion, and dignity, which gives you hope about humanity.


Who am I?

Born and raised in China, I grew up on a remote state-run farm where my parents, as condemned intellectuals during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, lived for 20 years. It wasn't until mid-80s they were allowed to return. I have heard many stories and read many books about this tumultuous period in China. I didn’t know much about my parents’ personal experiences until I was in my 30s. Today’s China is very different but I believe that history extends its roots deep into the present. As a writer, what interests me the most is the impact of history on individuals and society. My latest book is a historical wartime novel set in China and Europe.


I wrote...

Beautiful as Yesterday

By Fan Wu,

Book cover of Beautiful as Yesterday

What is my book about?

Mary and Ingrid are sisters who were born and brought up in China but now reside in the United States. Mary is the older of the two; seemingly a devoted wife, mother, and churchgoer. Yet she is tormented by adultery, a grudge toward her parents, and her despair at work. Her estranged sister Ingrid has never settled for anything; she prefers her bohemian friends’ culture to her own and is haunted by her college boyfriend’s tragic death. When their widowed mother travels to the United States for the first time, they can’t avoid a family get-together. Amid all it stirs up, it becomes clear that the uneasy relationship between the sisters has roots deeper than either had ever acknowledged—and extends to their parents and their homeland.

Wild Swans

By Jung Chang,

Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

The memory of this 'novel' – which crosses the line to biography for some – still gives me heartache. It offers the most fascinating insight into the demise of an Empire and the brutal, ruthless making of a communist nation, in which nothing is as superfluous and as expendable as human life. As such, it is reminiscent of my series and the making of Russia we know today. However, I left the last pages of Wild Swans unread, as the inhumane suffering so casually imposed on women was unbearable to witness. Still, I took so much away from it, above all the strength and resilience of human nature. It’s a monument to all women, all over the world, something I would like to reflect in my novels and in my heroines’ voices, too.

Who am I?

Even though I was born and grew up in the Kenyan Highlands (which taught me the value of storytelling in Technicolor!) and studied in Paris (where I won a short-story competition) before moving to London, the Germano-Russian ambivalence runs straight through my family: my father grew up in the GDR. He still remembers the people’s terror when the US tanks withdrew one morning, and the Soviets rolled in after renewed territorial negotiations. On the other hand, my cousin owns a high-brow publishing house that publishes nothing but latter-day Russian intellectuals. My fascination for the early Romanov women and their unique century of female reign started when I was thirteen – I'm theirs ever since!


I wrote...

The Tsarina's Daughter

By Ellen Alpsten,

Book cover of The Tsarina's Daughter

What is my book about?

Born into the House of Romanov to Peter the Great and Catherine I, beautiful Tsarevna Elizabeth is the world's loveliest Princess. Insulated by luxury and as a woman free from the burden of statecraft, Elizabeth seems born to pursue her passions. However, a dark prophecy predicts her fate as being inexorably twined with that of Russia. When her mother dies, Russia is torn, masks fall, and friends become foes. Elizabeth's idyllic world is upended. By her twenties she is penniless and powerless, living under constant threat. As times change like quicksand, an all-consuming passion emboldens Elizabeth: she must decide whether to take up her role as Russia's ruler and what she's willing to do for her country – and for love.

Life and Death in Shanghai

By Cheng Nien,

Book cover of Life and Death in Shanghai

A good novel or memoir transports you through time and space into another world. Cheng’s memoir has such a magic quality. A once ‘elite’ member, she was however seen as an enemy in the Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and was subjected to torture and years of solitary detention. The first-person narration, beautifully written, takes you to Shanghai in the late 60s and shows you a world ruled by insanity, injustice, and cruelty. But it’s not all darkness. Cheng’s strength and resilience, and the help and care people offered to each other in spite of great hardships are all inspiring. And you cannot help pondering the complexity of history in the name of “ideology.” The past is never just the past; it extends its roots deep into the present. 


Who am I?

Born and raised in China, I grew up on a remote state-run farm where my parents, as condemned intellectuals during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, lived for 20 years. It wasn't until mid-80s they were allowed to return. I have heard many stories and read many books about this tumultuous period in China. I didn’t know much about my parents’ personal experiences until I was in my 30s. Today’s China is very different but I believe that history extends its roots deep into the present. As a writer, what interests me the most is the impact of history on individuals and society. My latest book is a historical wartime novel set in China and Europe.


I wrote...

Beautiful as Yesterday

By Fan Wu,

Book cover of Beautiful as Yesterday

What is my book about?

Mary and Ingrid are sisters who were born and brought up in China but now reside in the United States. Mary is the older of the two; seemingly a devoted wife, mother, and churchgoer. Yet she is tormented by adultery, a grudge toward her parents, and her despair at work. Her estranged sister Ingrid has never settled for anything; she prefers her bohemian friends’ culture to her own and is haunted by her college boyfriend’s tragic death. When their widowed mother travels to the United States for the first time, they can’t avoid a family get-together. Amid all it stirs up, it becomes clear that the uneasy relationship between the sisters has roots deeper than either had ever acknowledged—and extends to their parents and their homeland.

The King of Trees

By Ah Cheng, Bonnie S. McDougall (translator),

Book cover of The King of Trees

Set in China’s southwestern mountainous rainforest borderland of Xishuangbanna, this novella is based on the author’s time as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution. Politics take a backseat to the intimate friendships forged during those years, alongside the heedless degradation of the country’s lushest lands. The famed director Chen Kaige—who had served two mountains away from the author—made a faithful film adaptation.


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.

Behind the Wall

By Colin Thubron,

Book cover of Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

I must have read dozens of books on China but Colin Thubron’s elegiac account comfortably takes the crown. Behind the Wall captures a unique moment in China’s history when foreigners were first allowed to travel around the country but the nation was yet to be influenced by the outside world. Having learnt to speak Mandarin in advance of travelling, the author probes deep into the rural areas and distant desert outposts of a closed communist empire still recovering from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.


Who am I?

I started solo travelling as soon as I left school, and since then I’ve spent many years doing so. I came of age while cycling, kayaking, hiking and skiing across distant lands. The bittersweetness of being alone on the road has become a source of constant fascination for me. The on-again-off-again loneliness creates a state of mind where you’re that much more willing to throw yourself in at the deep end, to meet strangers, and to look, listen and learn. At its very best, solo travel writing seamlessly encompasses two journeys: the physical journey in a foreign land, and the psychological journey within the author.


I wrote...

Through Sand & Snow: a man, a bicycle, and a 43,000-mile journey to adulthood via the ends of the Earth

By Charlie Walker,

Book cover of Through Sand & Snow: a man, a bicycle, and a 43,000-mile journey to adulthood via the ends of the Earth

What is my book about?

This was an intensely personal book for me. A coming-of-age tale played out against an ever-shifting backdrop of wild landscapes and intriguing cultures. Aged twenty-two, I left home in search of adventure. Fleeing the boredom that comes with comfort, I set off on a secondhand bicycle with the aim of pedalling to the furthest point in each of Europe, Asia, and Africa. I didn’t train or plan. I just started. 

The 43,000-mile solo journey was an escape from an unremarkable existence, a pursuit of hardship, and a chance to shed the complacency of Middle England. From the brutality of winter on the Tibetan plateau to the claustrophobia of the Southeast Asian jungle, the quest provided me with ample opportunity to test my mettle. Ultimately, though, the toughest challenge was entirely unforeseen.

Years of Red Dust

By Qiu Xiaolong,

Book cover of Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

There is a lot of wonderful fiction set in Shanghai, so I wanted to make sure to include one such work. Figuring out which wasn’t easy, as there are good short stories and novels by a range of important authors, from deceased writers like Mao Dun, Eileen Chang, and J.G. Ballard, whose partly autobiographical Empire of the Sun was based on his Shanghai childhood, to living ones like Wang Anyi. I chose this collection of vignettes by Qiu Xiaolong (who is best known for his Inspector Chen Shanghai-set police procedurals and grew up in Shanghai and now lives in the United States) because it pairs so well with Shanghai Homes. You can read it as a fictional cousin to Jie Li’s book, as this work by Qiu, in which his famous detective does not appear, is made up of tales set in a single alleyway neighborhood. Reading them together,…


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by history since I spent a year in Britain as a ten-year-old. I became hooked on novels set in ancient Greece and Rome and found it incredibly exotic to walk through old buildings and imagine the lives of the people who had walked through those same doors. In college, I began studying history in earnest and grew intrigued by China, especially Chinese cities during periods of upheaval and transformation. My first passion was Shanghai history, and I spent time there in the mid-1980s before the soaring Pudong skyscrapers that are now among its most iconic structures were built. I have since shifted my attention to Hong Kong, a city I had enjoyed visiting for decades but had not written about until after I completed my last book on Shanghai. My fascination with cities that are in China but enmeshed in global processes and are sites of protest has been a constant.


I wrote...

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom,

Book cover of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink

What is my book about?

Written between June and October of 2019, while Hong Kong was in the midst of the most dramatic social movement it had ever experienced, Vigil combines elements of history and reportage. A short book, it is written in a lively and engaging style and draws on the author’s deep familiarity with Chinese history and expertise in the comparative analysis of protests and authoritarianism. It is also shaped by the experiences the author has had during many visits to Hong Kong, some before and most after the 1997 Handover changed it from a British colony to part of the People’s Republic of China. While introducing many events from Hong Kong’s complicated past, it is above all a work to read to understand and place into perspective recent developments in a David vs. Goliath struggle, in which activists, facing impossible odds, pushed back against efforts to tighten controls on local political life.

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