Books I Like

Love this site? Then you might just love some of my favorite books, which I’ve listed with my own comments. (Note: Titles are linked directly to Amazon, where your purchase helps support Speaking of China. Thanks for your support!)

Choose a subject:

Activism and Change in China
Chinese Culture and History
The Cultural Revolution
Doing Business in China
Love and Family in China
Modern China

Activism and Change in China

Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants by Chen G. & Wu C.

A shocking, page-turning expose on why China’s peasants still can’t get ahead.

Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China by Ian Johnson

Three encouraging, and compelling, tales of Chinese who dare to work for change. A pleasure to read.

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Chinese Culture and History

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Classic — the rise and fall of a family in China’s pre-Communist countryside.

A Dream of Red Mansions by Cao Xueqin

One of China’s four great classic novels — and a memorable commentary on Chinese culture itself.

Three Kingdoms: Chinese Classics by Luo Guanzhong

A must-read classic tale of war and struggle that has shaped the lives and language of China’s people.

Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai’an (Luo Guanzhong)

China’s spellbinding “robin hood” tales from the Song Dynasty. Song Jiang is still one of my favorite characters of all time!

The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel by Nicole Mones

The best explanation of Chinese food I’ve ever encountered, seasoned with plenty of love (stories). A sumptuous tale of Maggie, a recently widowed American food writer who gets a chopstick-eye view of China with the help of Sam, a half-Chinese, half-American chef in Beijing, while confronting the destructive past her husband left behind from his China love affairs.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en

The must-read, classic story of how Buddhism came to China, and about China’s beloved Monkey King.

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The Cultural Revolution

Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

Learn about the impact of Chairman Mao’s rule through three generations of Chinese women.

Red Azalea by Anchee Min

The Cultural Revolution book to read if you’re burned out by the usual Cultural Revolution stories. The narrative is touching, personal and delves into forbidden loves and desires that most books never speak of. Once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down.

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran

The Cultural Revolution hit China hard, but it was often the women who suffered the most, in silence. Xinran, one of China’s leading journalists, provided an outlet to women through her nightly women’s radio show. Now she shares stories — once unpublishable in China — of what happened to women from different backgrounds during and after the Cultural Revolution. A real page-turner.

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Doing Business in China

Mr. China: A Memoir by Tim Clissold

For Clissold, everything that can go wrong in doing business in China does — and you will learn and laugh along with him! A fun read.

One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in Chinaby James McGregor

Compelling tales from the business world in China, from Rupert Murdoch’s cross-cultural media marriage, to Hu Shuli’s courageous business journalism. This book may be about business, but reading it is all about fun.

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Love and Family in China

East Wind: West Wind by Pearl S. Buck

A foreigner in the family? The narrator, a young Chinese woman, tells the story of her brother and his love affair — and eventual marriage — to an American woman in pre-Communist China, when traditional Chinese culture was already being challenged by Western ideas and customs.

Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China by Rachel DeWoskin

A woman who dared to love Chinese men on screen (and off), as well as Chinese culture. DeWoskin writes about it all with passion and humor.

Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones

The story of Alice Mannegan, an American translator in China with a thirst for Chinese men, who discovers love — both lost and found — while on an expedition for Peking Man in the Mongolian desert.

The Natural Laws of Good Luck: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage by Ellen Graf

In her mid-forties and divorced, the last thing Ellen ever expected was to travel to China and marry a Chinese man she knew for less than a week. But the unspoken connection between then brings this unlikely pair together, and sustains them through the trials and tribulations of their new cross-cultural relationship. While set mainly in the US, this book reveals much about Chinese culture and family life.

Repeat After Me: A Novel by Rachel DeWoskin

A tale of cross-cultural love between an American girl and a Chinese dissident (and, later China) — and how, when things fall apart, you can find the strength to move forward from unlikely people and places.

Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu

This reads like a Valentine to Shen Fu’s true love, Yun, who tragically passes away before her time, all because of family misunderstandings. A moving, real story from the Qing Dynasty, written by a poor scholar.

Waiting: A Novel by Ha Jin

Is it better to have a peaceful, stable — but loveless — marriage, or marry your passionate soulmate? In Waiting, Ha Jin ponders such a choice through characters living during and after the Cultural Revolution — at a time when impropriety in love could mean the loss of everything you had. A touching story that will help you understand some Chinese perspectives about love, romance and marriage.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: Stories by Yiyun Li

Chinese fiction like you’ve never read before. The gay unmarried son, a bisexual Peking Opera singer, a couple with a daughter they hide, and more.

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Modern China

China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power by Rob Gifford

It’s your college’s modern China 101 class, written with humor, insight, and hope for this fascinating country.

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Arresting story of a journey (on many levels) through post-Mao China, when the country awakens. The only Chinese novel to win a Nobel Prize.

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler

Chinese culture, history and politics, beautifully told through this lovingly crafted portrait of a town on the Yangtze River. A personal favorite.

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China by Peter Hessler

The title refers to the story behind one important man in the discovery of oracle bones. But Hessler also takes the reader on a journey through what it means to be Chinese in modern China. Another favorite of mine.

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret

The Cultural Revolution. Opening up and Reform. Tian’anmen and after. All told through the eyes of Pomfret and his extraordinary Chinese classmates. Great read.

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22 Responses

  1. Zach
    Zach October 12, 2009 at 10:23 pm | | Reply

    I noticed that most of these books are by foreign authors, and I thought you might be interested to hear about some modern fiction by Chinese authors that is very much worth looking into. All of the authors and works mentioned are available in English translation.

    A good introduction to contemporary Chinese writing is an anthology of short stories called “Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused.” It is a pretty good survey of post-Cultural Revolution fiction from the 1980s and 1990s. Also, an early 20th century writer, Lu Xun, is an absolute must-read, especially his short story, “Diary of a Madman.”

    Some notable authors that you might want to check out are Yu Hua, who wrote “To Live.” There’s also Wang Shuo, Mo Yan, Ha Jin and countless others whose names I can’t recall at the moment. Reading their works can be difficult sometimes because of translation issues and not being familiar with their historical context, but I think that reading the literature enhances one’s understanding greatly. Everything I learned about Chinese history in college I learned in literature and film classes.

  2. RichFromTampa
    RichFromTampa January 10, 2010 at 8:38 am | | Reply

    Jocelyn, please give a “peek” at some of the books of Ha Jin. His early novel, WAITING, is a classic for understanding the Patience often found in Chinese Love. RichFromTampa

  3. Elise
    Elise February 8, 2010 at 6:15 pm | | Reply

    Hi Jocelyn,
    one absolute favorite of mine that I read while living in Taiwan and before going to ‘real’ China: 四世同堂, Four Generations under One Roof by Lao She (老舍.) Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a solid translation in English (was never able to find one), I read it in French but you can find the drama that is quite close to the novel (it’s easy to find on dvd in China, ask your offical calligrapher, or even online, do a search in Chinese and enjoy.)
    This novel made me fall in love over again with the Chinese and their resilience. It’s a must! And next time you go to Beijing, you can visit his former house!

  4. Elise
    Elise February 8, 2010 at 6:53 pm | | Reply

    Addendum:
    Try this to watch 四世同堂 online, with fast streaming speed and good quality definition. Enjoy!!!
    http://movie.video.sina.com.cn/teleplay/newsstt/detail.html
    Not all video websites work outside China, this one does. And it has tons of other dramas too.

  5. Magnus
    Magnus March 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm | | Reply

    Great list… there’s some there I haven’t read. If you want to add Mo YAN to that list of great authors and his books, Red SORGHUM. I haven’t seen the movie… but the book I bet is much much better. and then Garlic Ballads… more modern China about Garlic sellers… AMAZING stuff. (Life and death are wearing me out, I got tired of after a billion pages…) Great list though.

  6. Amanda Fine
    Amanda Fine April 5, 2010 at 1:11 pm | | Reply

    Thank you so much for providing a list of books about China and the people who live there. I have truly enjoyed reading many of the books on your list. I will be moving to China to teach at an American International School in Shanghai so I have been trying to find out as much information as possible before I go. Would you recommend any movies or documentaries that you feel adequately represent China?

  7. Sylvia
    Sylvia April 27, 2010 at 11:03 pm | | Reply

    Hey Jocelyn,
    Have you ever read the Inspector Chen books? They are detective novels written by a Chinese author who now lives in the states- they provide a great window into the China of the 80s and 90s and the politics within the party, http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&sort=relevancerank&search-alias=books&field-author=Qiu%20Xiaolong

  8. OuZhou
    OuZhou November 25, 2010 at 6:34 am | | Reply

    A European recommends the following read:
    Mark Leonard: What does China think?
    insights into Chinese politics (but not boring)

  9. Laowai in Shanghai
    Laowai in Shanghai March 30, 2011 at 6:54 am | | Reply

    I think an absolute must read is A Concise Chinese English Dictionary For Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. I was turned off by the title for some time, but when I finally did ready it, I found it to be among the best.

    I also notice you have not made a mention of the author Lisa See. Her books are well worth a read. I would begin with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and then Peony in Love, On Gold Mountain, and then she has some detective stories with a western woman and Chinese man that are enjoyable as well.

    In addition to Ha Jin’s waiting, A Free Life is well worth reading as is A Good Fall. It is in these two books that the site of his writing shifts to the US. The House by the Weeping Cherry was also featured in the New Yorker (an might be on line for free)

    Also, Yiyun Li’s has a few short stories that are featured in the New Yorker. Titles I am aware of are: “Golden Boy, Emerald Girl” and “A Man Like That”.

    You also did not mention Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby which is also quite good.

    Zhang Ai Ling (Love in a Fallen City among others) and Sun Congwen (Bordertown) are good modern Chinese authors to read.

    I think Su Tong is a contemporary author who should also be read.

    I also recommend everything by Xin Ran.

    Shan Sa, author of The Girl Who Played Go, also wrote a book called Empress. The English in that book felt Chinese in the sense that it captured the beauty of words. It was a great read with beautiful language.

  10. Laowai in Shanghai
    Laowai in Shanghai March 30, 2011 at 6:55 am | | Reply

    Peter May also wrote some detective stories that were enjoyable.
    Laowai in Shanghai recently posted..Memories

  11. Jerry
    Jerry May 16, 2011 at 6:19 am | | Reply

    Thank you so much for the list of this books. I like the story of Love and Family in China about East Wind: West Wind. A short but romantic and meaningful story.. Great list!

  12. donna sheridan
    donna sheridan May 16, 2011 at 8:13 am | | Reply

    Thanks for speaking of some other books, and glad you establish the list useful!I have extremely enjoyed reading many of the books on your list. A brief but a legendary and meaningful story.. Great list!

  13. Elise
    Elise May 17, 2011 at 7:33 am | | Reply

    Hi Jocelyn, I keep refering to this page whenever I need some new book. Thanks to ebooks, it’s now easy to find most tittles for a very good price and they are accessible in mere seconds (great for a new mom with a baby that likes to sleep in my arms, I can read a lot in this convenient manner!!!) (also convenient if you’re in China and can’t get a paper copy because it is banned…)
    I’d like to second Laowai in Shanghai’s recommendation of anything by Xin Ran, I loved Miss Chopsticks and Good Women of China.
    Have a good summer with your Chinese family (try to watch Four Generations Under One Roof with them if you haven’t done so already!)
    :)
    Elise recently posted..I’m Still There!

  14. Dan
    Dan July 2, 2012 at 12:36 am | | Reply

    Moment in Peking – Lin Yu Tang

  15. Karen
    Karen September 19, 2012 at 6:40 am | | Reply

    Hi everyone,

    I have been looking for a book I read quite a while ago and cannot possibly remember the title. You all seem versed in this subject so I thought I would give it a go and ask. I really hope you can help me!

    The book tells the story of an American student who moves to Beijing before the Cultural Revolution to teach English at University. He recalls his time there with beautiful descriptions. He marries a Chinese girl from China’s high society (I think she was the daughter of a judge?) and moves into their huge family home. Then the revolution happens and many things change, specially the family’s influence within the walls of Beijing. I remember the most beautiful descriptions of the house and gardens which surrounded it as well as of the cultural and family events events he lived through while he was there.

    Does anyone know the title of this book?

    Many thanks for your help!
    Karen.

  16. Heidi
    Heidi November 7, 2013 at 8:26 pm | | Reply

    Hi did you get to read, ‘China Underground,’ or ‘Factory Girls,’ both interesting and fun to read. Also in case I missed it in your blog did you ever read ‘battle hymn of the tiger mother,’ talking about types of parenting.
    Heidi recently posted..Commute

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