The best books about the Chinese people

Many authors have picked their favorite books about Chinese people and why they recommend each book.

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The Last Quarter of the Moon

By Chi Zijian, Bruce Humes (translator),

Book cover of The Last Quarter of the Moon

This is a very unique novel about the life of a nomadic tribe of hunters and reindeer herders called Evenki who reside in the northern part of Inner Mongolia. The story is told through an old woman at the end of the 20th century looking back at the joyful and tragic events of five generations of her clan. Wild nature is at its most beautiful and most cruel. Then the Japanese invasion, the Chinese lumber trade, and modernization gradually force the tribe to give up their carefree lifestyle. Sadness drips from the story, told in a wistful and quiet tone.

I love the novel for the rich imagery of nature and the human interaction humming underneath.

Who am I?

I was born and raised in Hong Kong, a city known for its East-Meets-West culture, and my education was fully bilingual (English and Chinese). Chinese History has always fascinated me, a passion that began with reading Jin Yong’s martial arts novels with Chinese historical backdrops. In my senior school years I fell in love with French Literature, and later in adult life became a fan of Emile Zola’s and Leo Tolstoy’s realist novels. As a novelist of historical fiction set in China, my writing is influenced by Jin Yong, Zola and Tolstoy. Both my published novels are biographical in nature with a distinct taste of realism.

I wrote...

Tales of Ming Courtesans

By Alice Poon,

Book cover of Tales of Ming Courtesans

What is my book about?

This is a riveting tale of female friendship, honor, and sacrifice for love, set in 17th Century China. Inspired by literary works and folklore, Tales of Ming Courtesans traces the destinies of three of the era’s most renowned courtesans from the seamy world of human trafficking and slavery to the cultured scene of the famously decadent pleasure district of Nanjing. They form a sworn sisterhood and remain loyal to each other through the cataclysmic events of the time, despite trials of injustice, mistreatment, and betrayal.

In 1664, Jingjing is reading her mother Rushi’s memoir and discovers her tragic story as well as those of her sworn sisters, Yuanyuan and Xiangjun. In piecing the stories together, Jingjing unravels the secret of her own true identity.

Help! I'm a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery

By Alan King,

Book cover of Help! I'm a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery

Regrettably, while emptying my mother’s house I discarded this book, a comedy I read and reread over the decades. The writing is funny as all get go, undiminished by age, possessing a universal quality. Which is the key to comedy: the ability to make a lot of people laugh over time, distance, cultural backgrounds, etc. Alan King was the master of comedy in this book.

Who am I?

I grew up in the lap of Borscht Belt comedy in an entertainment family, the dour child with a precocious predilection for reading archaic literature. My parents gave me a subscription to Punch Magazine and subjected me to countless comedy movies during my formative years strapped to a chair à la Clockwork Orange. Which explains how I ended up an international banker. Until late in life with the publication of my first novel, a satire. After eight successive novels, I realized that I should have listened to the family’s adage, “Don’t Quit Your Day Job.”

I wrote...

Five-Star Fleecing

By Maura Stone,

Book cover of Five-Star Fleecing

What is my book about?

This award-winning darling of literary critics is a raucous tale of a luxury midtown Manhattan hotel. Seen through the eyes of Linda Lane, an unconventional heroine, Five-Star Fleecing strips the veil on the otherwise secret world of high-end hospitality. Escape with laughter into this madcap adventure filled with crazed colleagues, paparazzi, and celebrities. A definite must-read for anyone willing to ROFLMAO.

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.

Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury (translator),

Book cover of Love in a Fallen City

Though these collected stories were popular in Chang’s native China when first published in the 1940s, decades passed before they were translated into English. The title story brings war-torn Hong Kong to life, but even against the most dramatic political backdrop, Chang’s focus is firmly on women and relationships. Though the time and place may seem remote, readers will find universal emotions in these carefully constructed tales. 

Who am I?

Growing up near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I was aware that the city had historical significance but also that it wasn’t particularly famous, at least to people from outside the region. I’ve always been drawn to these sorts of overlooked stories from history, which are, not coincidentally, often women’s stories. Women made up the majority of workers in Oak Ridge during World War II, and for decades afterward, their stories were generally viewed as less important than male-dominated narratives of the war. But I’ve always believed that women’s stories are no less interesting than men’s. These books look at history’s worst conflict from unique perspectives that foreground the female experience. 

I wrote...

The Atomic City Girls

By Janet Beard,

Book cover of The Atomic City Girls

What is my book about?

In 1944, eighteen-year-old June boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge has sprung up in a matter of months, and June joins hundreds of other young girls there operating mysterious machines to help win the war. While June wants to know more and begins an affair with Sam, a young physicist who understands the end goal only too well, her beautiful roommate Cici simply wants to find a wealthy husband. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family. But a breach in security intertwines his fate with June’s, and the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth into devastating focus.

The Art of Chinese Poetry

By James J. Y. Liu,

Book cover of The Art of Chinese Poetry

How does the Chinese language, with all its linguistic idiosyncrasies, including its structure, implications, and associations of words, auditory effects, and grammatical aspects, serve as a medium of poetic expression? What are some of the traditional Chinese views on poetry? How should one understand Chinese poetry as a way to explore worlds and language per se, its imagery and symbolism, its allusions, quotations and derivations, and its natural tendency towards antithesis? Published nearly six decades ago, this book has not been superseded and, in fact, has become an indispensable classic for the English-speaking reader.

Who am I?

I am a Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Riverside. I was brought up in the family of a Chinese poetry scholar. Arriving in the States for my graduate studies at Harvard in 1982, I have engaged myself in academia here ever since. Acutely aware of, and deeply fascinated by, the cultural similarities and differences of China and the West, I have continued my learning experience, in my thirty years of college teaching, often from direct exchanges with my students. The books on my list of recommendations include both required texts chosen for my courses, and those I want to share with what Virginia Woolf called the Common Reader.

I wrote...

Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

By Yang Ye (translator),

Book cover of Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

What is my book about?

More than two decades after its publication, this anthology of seventy pieces from fourteen representative writers remains a rare, if not entirely unprecedented, selection of belles-lettres non-fictional essays from the Chinese tradition which provide invaluable glimpses of the colorful daily life of the Chinese society during the Late Ming period, especially that of the literati or men of letters. Generically meant to amuse and entertain its readers, as well as the authors themselves, the vignette (hsiao-p’in) focuses on sensual pleasures and triviality, and more than often displays individual personality and wit in a playful manner. It could help the reader to better appreciate and understand the psyche and spirit of an important epoch of new developments in literature and fine arts in Chinese history.       

Telling the Truth

By Yang Songlin, Baohui Xie (translator),

Book cover of Telling the Truth: China's Great Leap Forward, Household Registration and the Famine Death Tally

The accepted wisdom about the Chinese Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961 both in and outside of China is that the Great Leap Forward famine death toll was 30 million. This book challenges this wisdom. The book’s argument is based on the research of Professor Sun Jingxian who is a mathematician, who, after having examined the domestic migration pattern during the period, comes to the conclusion that the famine death toll was about 4 million.

Who am I?

I currently teach Chinese studies at the Department of Asian Studies of the University of Adelaide. My publications include several books, and over a hundred book chapters/articles. My book Mandarin Chinese: An Introduction is a standard reference for learners of modern Chinese in English-speaking countries. Two of my books Gao Village: A Portrait of Modern Life in Rural China and Gao Village Revisited: Life of the Rural People in Contemporary China are case studies of Gao Village where I came from. Other books include the Battle of China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution and Remembering Socialist China 1949 – 1976 which are reassessments of the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution. 

I wrote...

Constructing China: Clashing Views of the People's Republic

By Mobo C.F. Gao,

Book cover of Constructing China: Clashing Views of the People's Republic

What is my book about?

For years now, China's economic and political rise has provoked fear--even paranoia--around the world. But how do we get our information about China, and how are our understandings of it actually produced?

Constructing China presents a detailed examination of the means through which our knowledge of China is created. Rejecting the supposed objectivity of empirical statistics and challenging the assumption of a dichotomy between Western liberal democracy and Chinese authoritarianism, Mobo Gao dissects the political agenda and conceptual framework of commentators on China and urges those on the right and the left alike to be carefully critical of their own views on the nation's politics, economics, and history.

The Social Life of Opium in China

By Zheng Yangwen,

Book cover of The Social Life of Opium in China

We know a lot about how the Chinese state sought to ban, limit, and exclude opium from its borders, but this book uniquely delves into the multifaceted way that the demand for the drug emerged in the first place and then spread down the social scale to become a mass commodity. I especially loved the detailed way in which the author showed how consumers produced a variety of meanings surrounding opium and incorporated it into both elite and popular culture. Writing against so many myths, Yangwen shows us that for much of its history, opium was celebrated not demonized.

Who am I?

I grew up in Los Angeles, the mecca of global consumer culture. I became a historian to escape from what I saw as this shallow, surface culture but through my work, I have returned to the mall. My work uses history to show how consumer desires are not natural. Instead, I ask why people consume particular things in particular places, and I show how they attribute meaning to the things they buy. I am not a specialist on China but while researching and writing on tea's global political economy and consumer culture I became fascinated by how China contributed to the making of global tastes, desires, and material culture. These books illuminate the history and cultural life of tea, opium, porcelain, and other things within and beyond China.

I wrote...

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

By Erika Rappaport,

Book cover of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

What is my book about?

Tea has been one of the most popular commodities in the world. Over centuries, profits from its growth and sales funded wars and fueled colonization, and its cultivation brought about massive changes—in land use, labor systems, market practices, and social hierarchies—the effects of which are with us even today. A Thirst for Empire takes a vast and in-depth historical look at how men and women—through the tea industry in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa—transformed global tastes and habits and in the process created our modern consumer society.

An expansive and original global history of imperial tea, A Thirst for Empire demonstrates the ways that this fluid and powerful enterprise helped shape the contemporary world.

Nian, the Chinese New Year Dragon

By Virginia Loh-Hagan, Timothy Banks (illustrator),

Book cover of Nian, the Chinese New Year Dragon

This book is a modern retelling of the ancient Nian-monster legend, which explains the traditions of the Chinese New Year. One of the best features of this story is the brave and strong heroine, Mei – here’s to girl power! Each spring, the Nian dragon terrorizes the local village, but this year, Mei receives a magical staff in her dream to defeat him. As she figures out how to use it, she teaches the villagers ways to protect themselves, including wearing red clothes, setting off firecrackers, and making food offerings. This isn’t just an action-packed story, but it teaches children (6-8 years) to be brave and not give up, no matter how scared they are.

Who am I?

I’m the author of children’s books about Asian history and culture. My two kids are the main reason I started writing books. When they were little, I had to delve into my Chinese roots for a family reunion. That’s when I stumbled on the most amazing stories about the emperors, warriors, artists, and inventors that make up the long and colorful culture and history of China. I decided to bring these stories to life so that my kids could learn more about their heritage. No dates, no dry details – just interesting stories that they could enjoy and learn in the process. Luckily, they liked them so much that they encouraged me to share my stories with the world.

I wrote...

Chinese New Year Wishes: Chinese Spring and Lantern Festival Celebration

By Jillian Lin, Shi Meng (illustrator),

Book cover of Chinese New Year Wishes: Chinese Spring and Lantern Festival Celebration

What is my book about?

Chinese New Year Wishes is about a boy called Hong whose favorite time of year is the Chinese New Year festival. Children aged 2 to 6 will enjoy following him and his family as they prepare for the festivities and celebrate the most important festival in Chinese culture. They will also read the story behind the Chinese New Year traditions, which involves scaring away a monster known as Nian. If they want to know more, additional interesting facts and questions for discussion are included in the back of the book.

Written in both English and Chinese (simplified), Chinese New Year Wishes is great as an early reader or to be read aloud, and suits children who want to learn more about Chinese culture.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

By Dai Sijie,

Book cover of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

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.

Who am I?

I was born and raised in China; at twenty-four, I immigrated to the US and switched to English, my second language, to write historical fiction featuring Chinese women. I published The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, a historical novel series about Empress Wu, the first and only female ruler in China, in 2016. The Moon in the Palace won the RWA RITA Award, and the series has been translated into seven languages. I love writing novels with rich historical details, compelling descriptions of culture, and strong but flawed Chinese women who are not afraid to defy tradition to pursue their dreams.

I wrote...

The Last Rose of Shanghai

By Weina Dai Randel,

Book cover of The Last Rose of Shanghai

What is my book about?

The novel, set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during WWII, tells an impossible love story between a wealthy Chinese woman, Aiyi Shao, and a penniless German Jew who fled to Shanghai from Nazi Germany, Ernest Reismann. When Aiyi, a woman from a well-bred family in Shanghai, hired Ernest to play the piano in her nightclub, the two forge an unbreakable bond that transcends race, class, and war. The novel reveals a little-known segment of history, the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, and the resilience of both Chinese and Jewish people during WWII.

China and the Search for Happiness

By Wolfgang Bauer, Michael Shaw,

Book cover of China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese Cultural History

What the Manuels did for the West, Bauer did for China. Sometimes we think of the Chinese as eminently practical people, but they had their dreams of perfect worlds as well. And these dreams were not necessarily kept to the world of sleep but found expression in the lives of individuals and communities. The Manuels confronted the fact that dreams fade with a touch of cynicism, Bauer with a touch of melancholy.  

Who am I?

When I was a teenager, I thought we could create a perfect world—or if not quite perfect, at least much, much better than the one we are currently destroying. Actually, I still think it’s possible, just a lot harder and a lot more dangerous than I originally thought. I’ve been interested in all the efforts to imagine and create utopias, which sometimes produce hells instead of heavens, ever since. I have evolved (I think it’s progress) from being a high school Maoist to something more mature while watching China’s attempts to improve the lives of its citizens with respect and sympathy.

I wrote...

Abolishing Boundaries: Global Utopias in the Formation of Modern Chinese Political Thought, 1880-1940

By Peter Zarrow,

Book cover of Abolishing Boundaries: Global Utopias in the Formation of Modern Chinese Political Thought, 1880-1940

What is my book about?

I wanted to do two things with this book. First, to show how utopian ideas were circulating globally by the late nineteenth century. And second, to show how they played out in China in widely different ideas about politics: not just the obvious anarchism and socialism, but in new ways of thinking about Confucianism and liberalism as well. Focusing on four thinkers, only one of whom wrote a full-fledged utopia, I argue that a “utopian impulse” was key to their political theories. 

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