My love affair with historical fiction and nonfiction books started once I returned from China in 2012 (I discuss my trip to China and how it ignited a passion for travel in my first post, here). Intrigued by the palpable, rich historic aura of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing, I dove into any books on Chinese culture and history that I could get my hands on. Now, as a mediocre Chinese history fan, I have a list of my favorite Chinese nonfiction and historical fiction books. They are in no particular order- I love them all.
China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and speaker Sheryl WuDunn
This is still one of my favorite nonfiction books. It’s an insider look into the changing societal and political structures of China when it was clawing its way to its status as a global superpower in the 1980s and 90s. Kristof and WuDunn, both New York Times Beijing correspondents at the time, detail the evolution of China and how their investigative reporting ultimately threatened their well being and prompted their return home. Many of their experiences with Chinese officials and politicians are shocking and frightening.
Now, Nicholas Kristof is still a reporter for the New York Times, with his own weekly column, and Sheryl WuDunn is a speaker. The couple collaborated for another book of investigative journalism, Half the Sky, in 2010. Kristof and WuDunn look at how a lack of women’s rights and education leads to oppression and poverty on a global scale. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, but the sweeping issue got much-deserved attention when Half the Sky was published.
City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China by Jasper Becker
Becker’s book is also a tome of investigative reporting, with a narrowed focus on the Chinese capital of Beijing. Becker examines how the city and national government steamrolled priceless historic monuments and buildings to accelerate China’s steep ascent to economic prosperity. He literally has to go on a scavenger hunt through slums to find sites of tremendous historical value that the government has ignored.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
This multigenerational family memoir of China in the 20th century is banned in China! So, obviously you need to read it. Chang recounts her family history, starting with her grandmother, who had bound feet and was sold to a police chief in the 1920s. Chang’s mother has more agency and receives an education. However, her Communist ideals and the sexism in the political party leaves her nearly as helpless as Chang’s concubine grandmother. Both of the author’s parents were prominent officials in the Communist Party. This allows Jung Chang to offer an insightful look into the disorder and oppression of China from a family of high-ranking Communist officials. It’s dense, and hard to get through at parts, but ultimately spellbinding and heartbreaking. A must read.
Empress Dowager Cixi is also written by Jung Chang, who is a powerhouse in the world of Chinese nonfiction. This is a revelatory new perspective on the concubine who virtually ruled China from behind her son and nephew for decades. Chang re-examines antiquated Chinese assumptions that Empress Dowager Cixi harmed her country more than helped. She even finds new information that proves modern China is indebted to this concubine’s diplomatic and infrastructural genius. This is a cultural and political triumph of a read, especially compared to the other nonfiction books on this list. I wrote about this biography here.
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang
To speak honestly, I do not seek out nonfiction on the dangerously-heavy dependence on mass production worldwide. I do my part by seeking clothes made in countries with a reputation for upholding workers’ rights. Other than that, I am not very involved in the issue. I had to read Factory Girls in a college class. It’s a depressingly honest perspective on the lives of three Chinese young women who work in a smartphone factory in Dongguan. Located in southern China, Dongguan is a hub for mass production, and thus a hub for migrant workers as well.
Most workers who live there make just enough money to survive. They sleep like stacked sardines at the factory in bunk beds, often with tiers of 3 beds or more. It’s horrific. The plethora of migrant workers there encourage factory officials to flagrantly violate China’s already-basic workers’ rights laws. Further, bosses spread gossip about workers who quit their factory. One employer can permanently damage a worker’s reputation, which will follow the workers in Dongguan for the rest of their lives. Not a pleasant book to read but important.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
A classic and Pulitzer Prize Winner, this masterpiece is too good for any list (I’m including it anyway). Buck wrote this in 1931, and it was the bestselling novel in the United States in 1931 and 1932. Following The Good Earth‘s Success, Buck made it into a trilogy. This epic, staggeringly long family saga paved the way for the popularity of Chinese intergenerational historical novels today. The novel starts before World War I. Buck addresses a unique crossroads in China’s history: foreign influences bully the nation, and peasants overthrow the ancient system of Chinese imperialism. The diplomatic and political future of China hangs in the balance.
Wang Lung is the main character, a farmer who ever-so-slowly ascends from his farmer status as he gradually buys land. While accumulating money and building a business, he grows a family and stays true to the classic Chinese value of filial piety (putting family before oneself). He and his children clash over values and business goals, and the book ends tragically, in multiple ways.
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Tan is most known for The Joy Luck Club, which I unfortunately have not read, but I loved this book! It’s no literary heavyweight- in fact, it leans more towards historical chick-lit- but Valley is a delicious and fun read. Tan follows the mother and daughter relationships of a family through two generations, and juxtaposes it against the novel’s courtesan setting. It’s confusing, but lusciously written as Tan describes the lifestyle and practices of a courtesan in the early 20th century.
Lisa See‘s Novels
See’s historical fiction is more academic- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love blew me away. Both draw on historical records to accurately portray ceremonies and other aspects of Chinese culture in 19th and 17th century China, respectively. However, she also writes “historical chick-lit” that I love. China Dolls focuses on 3 young women of varying Chinese heritage that meet by chance in San Francisco during World War II. It’s a light historical mystery that explores coming of age, xenophobia during wartime, and the Chinese immigrant community of San Francisco. My personal favorite books of hers are Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, which continue telling the story of a character from China Dolls.