30 books directly related to the Chinese Cultural Revolution 📚

All 30 Chinese Cultural Revolution books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

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

By Feng Jicai,

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

Why this book?

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. 

Mao's Last Revolution

By Michael Schoenhals, Roderick Macfarquhar,

Book cover of Mao's Last Revolution

Why this book?

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”.

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

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

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

Why this book?

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.

The Telling

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Telling

Why this book?

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.  

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

By Xianhui Yang,

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

Why this book?

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.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

By Jung Chang,

Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Why this book?

I was so transfixed by Jung Chang’s saga of her family in the 1990s that when I finished it, I immediately went back to the beginning and read it all over again. We in the West seemed to know so little about China then, and here was this very human and readable account of a totally different world, itself going through a period of seismic changes—and how three generations of women coped with it all.  There’s a strong impression of the importance of family, and through these heart-rending personal sagas, we do also begin to get to know China. It’s a tale of survival, and despite many horrors, an uplifting one, thanks to the courage of these Daughters of China.

Life and Death in Shanghai

By Cheng Nien,

Book cover of Life and Death in Shanghai

Why this book?

I read this book when it was originally published in 1988, and I can still recall how I was blown away by the amazing first-hand account of a brave woman who became a target of China's cultural revolution. Nien Cheng, a fluent English speaker who worked for Shell in Shanghai under Mao, was placed under house arrest by Red Guards in 1966 before she was sent to prison. Despite torture, she refused to confess to being a British spy or to be “re-educated”. When she was released, she was told that her daughter had committed suicide. In fact, Meiping had been beaten to death by Maoist revolutionaries.

The King of Trees

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

Book cover of The King of Trees

Why this book?

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.

Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

By Colin Thubron,

Book cover of Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

Why this book?

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.

Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

By Qiu Xiaolong,

Book cover of Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

Why this book?

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, as they both deal largely with the 1950s and 1960s, you can imagine the real-life figures in Li’s book and made-up ones in Qiu’s (who were likely based on people the author knew or heard stories about) crossing paths with one another.

A Dictionary of Maqiao

By Han Shaogong, Julia Lovell (translator),

Book cover of A Dictionary of Maqiao

Why this book?

This strange novel consists of vignettes presented as encyclopedia-style entries written by the narrator. He’s an “educated youth” relocated to the fictional rural Hunan village of Maqiao as part of the Cultural Revolution “learn from the peasants” movement, reminiscent of Han Shaogong’s own experience of being sent to the countryside. First published in 1996 and in English in 2003 (expertly translated by Julia Lovell), the novel is better than the premise suggests, and it often features in “best of” Chinese literature lists.

Spider Eaters: A Memoir

By Spider Eaters,

Book cover of Spider Eaters: A Memoir

Why this book?

Rae Yang offers a moving and sometimes harrowing account of how a privileged child of Chinese Communist Party elites became during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s a member of the Red Guards, and, in the aftermath of the revolution, a pig tender on a farm in the remote northern wilderness. Ultimately, she emigrated to the United States and became a professor of East Asian studies. In this beautifully written memoir, Yang recovers her youthful idealism and offers an unsparing assessment of the consequences for China, her family, and herself of the desire for revolutionary heroism. 

Red Azalea

By Anchee Min,

Book cover of Red Azalea

Why this book?

The godmother – the empress dowager, if you will – of all naughty Chinese authoresses is the inimitable Anchee Min. Her debut memoir, Red Azalea, was published half-a-decade before Shanghai Baby, and takes place half-a-century prior, at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. The first half of her story is set in a countryside labor camp, where teenaged Min and another young woman carry out a secret affair, with regrettable consequences. The second half of Min’s memoir finds her returning to her native Shanghai, now as the star of a movie production about Madam Mao, while carrying out yet another forbidden relationship, with one of Mao’s advisers. Min published seven subsequent books, all to critical acclaim, but Red Azalea is her at her most fearless.

Bronze and Sunflower

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So (illustrator),

Book cover of Bronze and Sunflower

Why this book?

I always like reading anything about day-to-day living in China. In this book, I loved the descriptions of what life is like in rural China, eg making their own reed shoes and building their own roofs. On the surface, this book is about the idyllic life in the countryside. However, it is set during the cultural revolution but so subtly described in the back-drop that it is perfect for the target audience. We often read about the people banished to the countryside, and this book tells me what happens to them when they arrive.

I also enjoyed it as it is a translated text, so there is a sense that this is authentic.

To Live

By Yu Hua, Michael Berry (translator),

Book cover of To Live

Why this book?

I first read the book when I was at college in China, and over the years, I’ve read it several times. In China, Yu Hua is one of the few leading writers known as both a literary master and a popular writer with huge commercial success. His charm is well demonstrated in To Live, which has become a classic in modern Chinese literature. It’s a story of a common Chinese man named Fugui living through one after another social and political changes. The story is dramatic, sad, humorous, and sarcastic at times yet never sentimental and judgmental, and it draws you in with a simple but compelling question: after you lose everything dear to you, can you still go on to live? 

The Miracles of Chairman Mao

By George Urban,

Book cover of The Miracles of Chairman Mao

Why this book?

This is a collection of primary sources from Mao Zedong’s China, and a very curious type of source at that — newspaper stories about people who experienced miracles after reading Mao’s works. Unlike Jesus, who performed his miracles in person, Mao did not even need to be in the vicinity to make wondrous things happen to his followers. The mere act of reciting his words and believing them was enough to cure cancer, save you from drowning or even emerge victorious in in international ping-pong championships. The full extent of the madness that gripped China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution is little understood in the West, so reading Urban’s collection is like opening a portal into another, bizarre world. Urban’s book takes us to the outer limits of propaganda.

The Killing Wind: A Chinese County's Descent Into Madness During the Cultural Revolution

By Tan Hecheng, Stacy Mosher (translator), Guo Jian (translator)

Book cover of The Killing Wind: A Chinese County's Descent Into Madness During the Cultural Revolution

Why this book?

A searing account by a retired Chinese journalist of the impact of social unrest and factional clashes in a rural area of central Hunan province in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. Tan’s haunting account starts with his memories of passing through this area around the time the events he goes on to recount as a young journalist decades before. With research and investigation, he finds that the quiet but unsettling place he remembers witnessing was in fact consumed by murder and bloodshed. Some of these events he documents. A book that describes but does not judge, making its impact even more powerful.

Wolf Totem

By Jiang Rong, Howard Goldblatt (translator),

Book cover of Wolf Totem

Why this book?

Rong’s Wolf Totem is not a typical Cultural Revolution book, and its focus is on relationships between humans and the wildlife of the grasslands. The protagonist is an urban youth, who’s a Han (the majority ethnic group in China), sent to inner Mongolia for “reeducation.” While trying to raise a wolf cub captured from the wild, he encounters a cultural clash between the Han Chinese and the locals, learns about the wolf and other wildlife, and reflects on history, nature, and humanity. 

Hong Kong's Watershed: The 1967 Riots

By Gary Ka-Wai Cheung,

Book cover of Hong Kong's Watershed: The 1967 Riots

Why this book?

The 1967 riots in Hong Kong were inspired by the Cultural Revolution in mainland China. It was a turbulent and violent period both on the mainland and in Hong Kong. British colonial rule was threatened but it survived, and it turned the people of Hong Kong away from the CCP. The story of this fascinating period is told by veteran journalist, Gary Cheung from Hong Kong.

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 Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations

By Zhu Xiao-Mei, Ellen Hinsey (translator),

Book cover of The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations

Why this book?

Zhu Xiao-Mei was born to middle-class parents in post-war China. Taught to play the piano by her mother at age 10, she developed into a prodigy.

But in 1966, when Xiao-Mei was seventeen, the Cultural Revolution began, and life as she knew it changed forever. One by one, her family members were scattered, sentenced to prison or labor camps. By 1969, the art schools had closed, and Xiao-Mei spent the next five years at a work camp. Life in the camp was nearly unbearable, thanks to horrific living conditions and intensive brainwashing. Yet through it all, Xiao-Mei clung to her passion for music.

Heartbreaking and heartwarming, The Secret Piano is the true story of one woman’s survival in the face of unbelievable odds—and in pursuit of a powerful dream.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

By Dai Sijie,

Book cover of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Why 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.

Iron & Silk

By Mark Salzman,

Book cover of Iron & Silk

Why this book?

This classic about a young American teacher’s adventures in post Cultural Revolution China set the standard for “travel memoir”. Salzman’s journey is captivating and unique because it is, at its core, a love story with the country, the culture, the people, and martial arts—the sort of adoration that could only manifest in youth. He gives himself entirely to the experience and, thus, takes the reader along with him. A wonderful book that lingers in the memory for decades.

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now (Anchor Books)

By Jan Wong,

Book cover of Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now (Anchor Books)

Why this book?

Growing up in Canada, left-winged Wong dropped out of university and flew to China in 1972 to participate in the Cultural Revolution. But she was soon disillusioned by the reality of a police state and the hypocrisy dominating everyone's life, from which even she, as a foreign nationality, couldn't escape. However, Wong remained in China and eventually worked as a journalist for Canada’s The Globe and Mail. When the Tiananmen Protests happened in 1989, she tracked down and interviewed dissidents and eyewitnesses. This memoir covers her active years in China from the 1970s to the 1990s, during which China was undergoing a sweeping change from Mao’s era to Deng’s era. It is a prelude to China's marching toward its economic prowess.

Mao's Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China

By Covell F. Meyskens,

Book cover of Mao's Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China

Why this book?

Mao's Third Front is one of the first books on life and the economy in the PRC of the Cultural Revolution that marries archival research to memoirs and oral history. Largely unknown outside of China, the Third Front was a strategic relocation program of vital industries and whole cities to the country’s hinterland during the 2nd Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution. It essentially amounted to the largest government investment program in the Mao period. Meyskens’s book manifestly shows how closely the global Cold War and local developments interacted with each other.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

By Madeleine Thien,

Book cover of Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Why this book?

This multigenerational saga leaps across decades and continents, from the life of a Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in Vancouver in the 1990s, to the horrors of WWII and the Cultural Revolution in China, when Western classical music was banned. The role of music in the book is complex: it can be both passion and livelihood, private beauty, or blunt political instrument. When love for music can threaten someone's physical survival, a “pretty” piece of piano music is anything but: the notes “drip down to the parlour, seeping like rainwater over the persimmons on the table, the winter coats of her family, and the placid softness of Chairman Mao’s face in the grey portrait frame on the wall.” 

Waiting: A Novel

By Ha Jin,

Book cover of Waiting: A Novel

Why this book?

In Waiting, Ha Jin portrays the life of Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor torn by his love for two women: one who belongs to the New China of the Cultural Revolution, the other to the ancient traditions of his family's village. The author explores the conflict between the individual and society, between the timelessness of love and the constantly-shifting politics of the moment in China.

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.

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town

By Barbara Demick,

Book cover of Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town

Why this book?

Demick is a master at showcasing the true drama of ordinary people living ordinary lives. In this saga of Tibetan royalty, resistance, and renaissance, she knits these personal stories into a sweeping epic covering the last 60 years of Tibetan history. The characters may at first glance seem innocuous: a long-lost daughter; a shopkeeper; a monk. But together, their stories paint a frightening and vivid picture of the everyday repression and fear under the largest and most sophisticated authoritarian regime on the planet. Throughout, Demick’s narrative displays a profound sense of place, plopping the reader onto the frigid Tibetan plateau, making us feel present to the resistance movement on the rooftop of the world. 


By Ha Jin,

Book cover of Waiting

Why this book?

This book takes place in China during and after the years of the Cultural Revolution. What makes this novel one I really enjoyed is how the author used a dramatic story to explore the cultural conflicts in a 5000-year-old country (China) struggling to become more modern. The main character is an army doctor who waits as he is torn between a marriage with someone who believes in blind adherence to ancient customs and a new, more modern love.