If you’re interested in China (or any place), I think we’re in agreement as to the importance of understanding the historical context. The more you know what has happened, the more you understand what is happening today. Yet at times, the of thought of reading history results in a gag reflux, I get it. I really do, some historians are terrible writers. And for those of you who roll your eyes at the mere mention of historical fiction, I’m with you.

a novel approach

However, there are novels that engage the reader in the story and open a door to a time in history in such a way the line between fiction and fact is blurred. If you’re a China buff, here are 10 books I recommend for learning about Chinese history through what I’m calling a novel approach. I’ve placed them chronologically in terms of Chinese history and instead of telling you much about the story, will share a bit about why you need to read it from a historical perspective. History, in this case, consists of both the well-known “big” events, and the lesser known daily events. Together, they are woven together to form the fabric of a society, culture, and people.

1. Peony in love (by Lisa See) takes place in 17th Century China and the historical context is the Qing dynasty violently replacing the Ming. You’ll also get a sense of women’s roles in both of those dynasties and taste daily life as it is worked naturally into the plot. Added bonus: Chinese view of the afterlife and “hungry ghosts”.

2. Snowflower and the Secret Fan (by Lisa See) occurs during the mid-19th century and has a vivid description of the foot binding process (my feet hurt at the recollection). Want to understand current attitudes towards religion? The Taiping Rebellion is the place to start and is the backdrop of this novel. Added bonus: the Chinese view of insiders and outsiders.

3. Empress Orchid (by Anchee Min) starts in 1852 with the marriage between Emperor  Xianfeng and a gaggle of concubines. This novel and the next focus on Cixi and her life in the Forbidden City and royal court. Of added historical interest, the second opium war occurred during that time period and China’s political situation weakens with the involvement of foreign powers. This novel ends with the burning of the Summer Palace, the death of Emperor Xianfeng in 1861, and the Xinyou Palace Coup.

4. The Last Empress (by Anchee Min) opens with the Cixi establishing herself in the complicated position of ruling while her son grew old enough to become emperor.  This time period has been characterized as “violent” and marked by humiliation at the hands of foreigners. With the love/hate relationship with the Japanese, the Boxer Rebellion, widespread mistrust of foreigners, and the demise of the Qing dynasty, this was not a bright spot in Chinese history.

5. City of Tranquil Light (by Bo Caldwell) takes place in the North China Plain from 1909 until the mid-to late 30s. The story of missionary couple and their lives, this book opens a window to rural life as the Qing dynasty fell and the Republic of China came into brief existence.

6. The Good Earth (by Pearl S. Buck) is, by far, the most famous book on this list as it dramatizes family life of Wang Lung and his family in a Chinese village before WWII.  Life in rural China was not for the faint at heart.

7. The Distant Land of My Father (by Bo Caldwell) starts in the opulent land of Shanghai in the 1930’s for Anna and her family. As the war breaks out, her father couldn’t bear to leave, causing Anna and her mother to have a distant relationship with a man who loves them, but loves China more. Watching Shanghai be attacked and the subsequent hard times that China went through into the 80’s is as painful as what happened to the characters within the story.

8. Dragon Seed (by Pearl S. Buck)is a novelization of the Invasion and Rape of Nanking/Nanjing. You need to read it, but it is not an “easy” read (nor should it be).

9. Letter from Peking (by Pearl S. Buck) also explores a family separated by history.  When the Communist Uprising made it difficult for white people to be in China, Gerald (half Chinese) sent his wife and son back to the U.S. where his ailing father (who lived as a Chinese) lived. Through smuggled letters, the reader is given a sense of life in China at that time. Elizabeth, her son, and father-in-law, gives the reader is a sense of how China was viewed by America at that time.

10. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (by Dai Sijie) takes place during the Cultural Revolution as two city boys are sent to a remote mountain village for reeducation.

Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list. What books would you add and what aspects of Chinese history do they highlight? Recommendations for other countries? And if you’re interested in making a list of ten books for another country’s history, I’ll share it here on The Messy Middle. Have a great week, folks! Amy

This post is cross-posted at China Source



Leave A Comment

  1. Janet September 9, 2013 at 6:48 am - Reply

    “Wild Swans” is the story of three generations of women in 20th century China. One of the few books I actually read twice.

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      Amy September 9, 2013 at 5:42 pm - Reply

      And, a little self promotion, it takes place in Chengdu. My Chinese hometown!

  2. Amy September 9, 2013 at 6:50 am - Reply

    What a great resource. I loved The Good Earth and look forward to putting some of these on my To Read list.

  3. Kim Todd September 9, 2013 at 6:55 am - Reply

    Love this. Thanks! I just started reading “Pavilion of Women: A Novel of Life in the Women’s Quarters” by Pearl S. Buck. I’m riveted already.

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      Amy September 9, 2013 at 5:41 pm - Reply

      She is SUCH A GOOD WRITER.

  4. Karen September 9, 2013 at 7:02 am - Reply

    oooo Amy, I love Pearl Buck! I’ve read most of them but it’s been years. Thanks for the heads up on the other books.

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      Amy September 9, 2013 at 5:41 pm - Reply

      Now I want to go back and read her books too :)

  5. Joy Felix September 9, 2013 at 7:07 am - Reply

    While not a novel, I have found several of Xinran’s books to be insightful. She is a very good storyteller, Message From A Chinese Mother and China Witness are two of my favorites.

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      Amy September 9, 2013 at 5:39 pm - Reply

      Hi Joy, I agree that Xinran is a good writer! As I was saying to Morielle, the only book I’d warn folk about if they are in a “I’m torked at China phase” is the one about women in China … that book will not foster love for China :)

      • Joy Felix September 9, 2013 at 8:52 pm - Reply

        Amy, you are absolutely right – which is actually why I didn’t mention “The Good Women of China” Otherwise, her books are awesome and I would highly recommend them. I think the “Good Women” is insightful, but it is a rough read that isn’t great when you are already irritated with China :) I noticed she had a novel out “Miss Chopsticks” have you read it by chance?

  6. Amy September 9, 2013 at 7:10 am - Reply

    Those are some of my favorite authors! Way to go, Amy! ^_^ I’ve become a huge Lisa See fan, and not only for her historical fiction. Her mystery trilogy set in the ~1990s is a good follow-up as examples of the potential results from some of the earlier happenings set during the era of Mao.

  7. Heather September 9, 2013 at 7:24 am - Reply

    Okay, not Chinese history and not old history, yet two titles worth reading: “The Clay Marble” is set in Cambodia in the 1980’s and follows a young girl and her family. The second is, “The Breadwinner”, and is also 1980’s-ish in Afghanistan and follows an 11 year old girl who is trying to help support her family. Taught them both in middle school and we had a sort of young women and war theme going on!

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      Amy September 9, 2013 at 5:36 pm - Reply

      Heather, any book suggestions welcome! I’m going to pass these titles on to my sister, thanks former (and forever) teacher! Amy

  8. Mike September 9, 2013 at 8:00 am - Reply

    For western China: A book that will give a historical setting is “The Great Game” by Peter Hopkirk. And for a more recent viewpoint, “Wild West China” by Christian Tyler.

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      Amy September 9, 2013 at 5:35 pm - Reply

      I’m going to look those up! Thanks Mike!! Amy

  9. Hayden Sewall September 9, 2013 at 8:11 am - Reply

    I’m going to read all of these! (someday…), um, …what about a list of historical movies? I would add “Electric Shadows” as being a tad melodramatic, but a huge romp through the last fifty years of history.

    Thanks again for the list, Amy, I love everything you write.

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      Amy September 9, 2013 at 5:38 pm - Reply

      Movies!!! Good idea! Want to make a list on Vietnam? Or SEA? :)

  10. Morielle September 9, 2013 at 11:13 am - Reply

    Wow, thanks for this list, Amy! I am in EXACTLY the dilemma you have put your finger on. I need to know more, but I don’t have the energy for history books. These will be perfect.

    That being said, I have one added recommendation. “China Witness” by Xinran. It’s non-fiction, created from interviewing countless men and women who lived through the cultural revolution and are now China’s elderly generation. But the stories are far from dry! They’re full of adventure, gutsiness, and touching sagas of love. And the people who had these kind of experiences are still all around in China!

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      Amy September 9, 2013 at 5:35 pm - Reply

      Xinran is good! The only book I’d kind of warn folks about is her one on Chinese Women — if you’re having a bad China day (or season), this book will not help you get out of it :)

  11. Martha September 9, 2013 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the list, Amy! Another I’d suggest is Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan. This book follows a landlord who is killed in 1948, and he is able to watch the vast changes his country undergoes in the following decades as he reincarnates as various farm animals. It shows history from a personal perspective, and it’s filled with black humor–a combination that’s entertaining and fast paced.

  12. Catherine September 9, 2013 at 9:58 pm - Reply

    Great list! The Secret Piano by Zhu Xiao-Mei is another good one– it’s an autobiographical account of a pianist who lived through several labor camp experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Her story is heart-wrenching, but it gives a good window into what life was like for the “educated elite” and their families back then. (This is also probably not the best book for someone going through a tough China phase. =)

  13. Liesl September 18, 2013 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    Lisa See if my new favorite author….I just can’t stop reading her books….Now I got a Kindle and I’m excited to just keep reading!

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      Amy September 20, 2013 at 6:49 pm - Reply

      Why does it not surprise me you love your kindle :)? Wink!!!

  14. […] For a great list of NOVELS set within Chinese history, check out this list by my friend Amy, over at The Messy Middle. […]

  15. sandy October 22, 2013 at 1:24 am - Reply

    Pearl Buck. How did she slip by? I’m reading ‘Kinfolk’ right now. I love both her writing and her insights into Chinese culture (and how outsiders operate within that culture). I heartily agree with Bo Calwell and Lisa See on your list.

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