The best books on the South China Sea

Many authors have picked their favorite books about the South China Sea and why they recommend each book.

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A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates

By Fanny Loviot, Alex Struik (illustrator), Amelia B. Edwards (translator)

Book cover of A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates: In the Chinese Seas

In 1852 a young French woman set out on a round-the-world tour, stopping in Brazil and California before sailing to the young British colony of Hong Kong. Her return vessel to San Francisco was damaged in a typhoon, then hijacked by pirates. She chronicles in effervescent detail her treatment by the pirates, both callous and kind, offering a rare glimpse of Chinese pirate life. The original French edition was a big hit and soon translated into other languages. In the spirit of other 19th century travelogues, this book transports the reader in exquisite detail to many colorful and exotic far-off places, but the highlight is her engaging account of the terrors and discoveries of her captivity on the South China Sea. For the serious researcher, it offers a wealth of rare details of shipboard and captive life.

Who am I?

For half my life I’ve lived on an island near Hong Kong, walking distance from former pirate havens. I made my career as a cartoonist and published numerous satirical books about Hong Kong and China. Recently, I've spent years deeply researching the pirates of the South China coast, which culminated in writing an utterly serious book about the most powerful pirate of all, a woman about whom the misinformation vastly outnumbers the facts. I made it my mission to discover the truth about her. The books on this list hooked me on Chinese pirates in the first place and are essential starting points for anyone prepared to have their imaginations hijacked by Chinese “froth floating on the sea”.


I wrote...

The Flower Boat Girl

By Larry Feign,

Book cover of The Flower Boat Girl

What is my book about?

This is a historical novel based on the life of Zheng Yi Sao, the legendary 19th-century Chinese prostitute who became the most powerful pirate in history. Sold as a child to a floating brothel, kidnapped by pirates, and forced to marry their leader, she must survive a world of violence, treachery, and greed, until she faces a choice between two things she never dreamed might be hers: power or love. Exhaustively researched, her story has never been fully told until now.

A Clash of Steel

By C.B. Lee,

Book cover of A Clash of Steel: A Treasure Island Remix

I’m a huge fan of queer re-tellings (as you can probably sense from this list) as well as lush, detailed historical fiction, and C.B. Lee delivers both in this vivid, adrenaline-spiking adventure. My favorite thing about this story is how Lee takes the bones of Treasure Island and reanimates them, bringing a new perspective to a classic by shifting the focus from traditional Western pirate narratives. Riding the waves with Xiang as she discovers her own identity and family history is an absolute delight, and seeing her relationship with Anh grow is a beautiful thrill. 


Who am I?

Two things I absolutely loved growing up: fantasy novels and history. Swashbuckling pirate stories are like a fantastic combination of both, and the way that the age of sail touched all corners of the world creates an opportunity for so many different kinds of stories to be told through this lens. As a queer writer, my passion is writing the kind of stories I loved as a child. As a trans adult, I find joy in making the next generations feel comfortable in their own skin. Living in Vancouver, B.C. I write novels and animated television, and I also co-host a podcast about advertising called Ad Creeps


I wrote...

Run in the Blood

By A.E. Ross,

Book cover of Run in the Blood

What is my book about?

Raised on the high seas as an avaricious corsair, Aela Crane has turned her back on her roots, but she can't seem to stem the ancient magic that courses through her. Del is a soft-spoken soldier who seems to know more about Aela's inherited powers than she does. Brynne's the crofter's daughter who's reluctantly learning to become a princess, if she could just get a certain swashbuckling someone off her mind.

As the three of them become more entwined in their own political predicaments, and each other's lives, they may discover that the legacies their parents have left them aren't as solid as they seemed. In fact, they may just slip through their fingers, leaving all three fumbling to forge their own future, before the kingdom comes crashing down around them.

Asia's Cauldron

By Robert D. Kaplan,

Book cover of Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific

If you want to know more about the politics of Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, this is the book for you. International relations expert and topnotch global thinker (according to Foreign Policy magazine) Robert D. Kaplan does an excellent job at contrasting Southeast countries against one another and explaining why some have prospered while others failed. A very intriguing read that is recommended for everyone interested in Asia, period.


Who am I?

Hawkes (MD, BScN, MGA) is a novelist, YouTuber, and former analyst for the NATO Association of Canada. His writings have appeared in Heater, The Raven Chronicles, ArabLit, and many other magazines and publications. His recent espionage novel, The Haze, is set in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.


I wrote...

The Haze

By Burnaby Hawkes,

Book cover of The Haze

What is my book about?

Set against the backdrop of a CIA operation in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, The Haze follows CIA agent Hector Kane as he finds his career and marriage at stake when he receives a phone call from a Saudi prince who claims that Hector’s wife is a Chinese spy.

Land Below the Wind

By Agnes Keith,

Book cover of Land Below the Wind

This book gives readers a clear picture of what it was like for an American woman, married to a British colonial, to live in North Borneo just before the Japanese Army invaded in 1942. It was truly an innocent place so far from the cares of the world. I read it in 1968, just before my first sojourn in Sabah, Malaysia. Much had changed by then, but it helped me understand the experiences of some of the older people I met. Today, Sabah remains a land “below the wind” (located south of the annual tropical cyclone belt.) But, as I mention in my book, it is no longer below the “political storms” as China battles the US and five other nations over the rights to the South China Sea.

Who am I?

My first travel memoir, Finding Myself in Borneo, has won three awards. I hold a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Communication from Florida State University. I worked internationally for 45 years, becoming an expert in the field of communication for social change. I directed and produced a number of award-winning documentary films/videos, popular multimedia initiatives, and have written numerous articles and books in my field. I worked and lived in Asia, Africa, and Russia for a total of 18 years and traveled to over 80 countries on short-term assignments. In 2015, I settled in New Mexico, using my varied experiences, memories, and imagination in creative writing.


I wrote...

Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah

By Neill McKee,

Book cover of Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah

What is my book about?

Finding Myself in Borneo is an honest and buoyant chronicle of a young Canadian man's adventures during 1968-1970, while teaching secondary school as a CUSO volunteer in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo). Travel with Neill McKee on his unique journey through vibrant Asian cultures as he learns the craft of teaching, the Malay language, and local customs, and gains many friends in his small community. He climbs the highest peak in Southeast Asia, has a love affair, and makes his first of many documentary films.

He and his American Peace Corps buddy also discover that North Borneo is, indeed, J. R. R. Tolkien's famed Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings! The enterprising duo establishes the North Borneo Frodo Society, an organization Tolkien joins. During McKee's second Sabah sojourn, 1973-74, and other return trips, he tells readers what happened to the land and people who touched his life, and he theirs.

The World Odyssey of a Balinese Prince

By Idanna Pucci,

Book cover of The World Odyssey of a Balinese Prince

Pucci’s book breaks all the clichés about Bali by writers over the last five decades. It offers an eye-opening world view - not only of the island of Bali - through the true stories of Dr. Djelantik. His mission, as a physician, take him to the most remote regions of the planet. He faces all sorts of dangers, even the arrest by Saddam Hussein’s secret police. In each situation, he responds with humanity and a sublime sense of humor. His extraordinary life is grounded in a constant search for truth. Imbued with wonder and magic, these stories awaken a feeling of “lightness of being” in this uncertain age. An incomparable vision of life that offers timeless guidance.

Who am I?

The excitement of new visions! Ever since growing up surrounded by Arabian deserts and then Iran’s mountains, I’ve been fascinated with diverse cultures. My path led me to Cairo and Berkeley for university and then onto Greece, Indonesia, and Italy. Today’s dominant world histories remain rooted in Anglo-American narratives. Only by challenging enshrined status quos, can we capture the truth, often long hidden. Now, an interest for critical storytelling may capture a fuller picture. History needs to be told not only from the point-of-view of the victors, but also the vanquished. Counter histories create bridges of dialogue, where there were none. This is what inspires me.


I wrote...

Searching for Hassan: A Journey to the Heart of Iran

By Terence Ward,

Book cover of Searching for Hassan: A Journey to the Heart of Iran

What is my book about?

Growing up in Tehran in the 1960s, my brothers and I were watched over by Hassan, our cook, housekeeper, and cultural guide. After an absence of thirty years and much turmoil in Iran, we all returned on a quixotic odyssey in search of our lost friend. However, as we set out on this improbable quest we had no address or phone number. Our only hope of finding Hassan rested in a small black and white photograph taken by our mother decades before.  
Reaching beyond politics, this true adventure plunges the reader deep into the rich Persian culture, past and present, showing the hidden human face of today’s demonized Iran. The New Yorker called our journey "a miraculous, harrowing pilgrimage."  Noted Iranian-American author, Reza Aslan, recently described it: “A beautiful, heartwarming tale about a friendship that transcends cultural divides. This is precisely the story we need right now!”

Bookshelves related to the South China Sea