China's best books: The judges' lists

See which China books each of our expert judges voted for and why

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
When Time Out decided to search for the best Chinese books since 1900, we called in the experts: 25 literature lovers and sinologists, including publishers, authors, translators, literary agents and academics, who were kind enough to share their top ten best Chinese fiction books and top ten works of non-fiction published since 1900.

We condensed their picks down into two lists - 20 of the best China fiction books and 20 of the best China non-fiction books since 1900 - but if you want to delve a little deeper the full lists of each of our expert judges, including Penguin Asia's Jo Lusby, translator Shelly Bryant, Midnight in Peking author Paul French and author and academic Jeffrey Wasserstrom, make for fascinating reading.

As well as many great books that didn't make it on to our best of list, we've included our judges' reasons for choosing each book, an invaluable insight into what makes them such good reads.

For ease of reading, the lists are divided by category and alphabetically.

Click through all the thumbnails below for the full set of lists.

Happy reading!
Delve into the shortlists of each of our judges for Time Out's best Chinese fiction books of the last century, to find great books that didn't make our top 20 lists and why the judges love each novel.


Note that we've included translator only names when our judges specified a translation.

SusanBarkerSusan Barker

Susan Barker is the author of three novels: Sayonara Bar and The Orientalist and The Ghost, both published by Doubleday and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her third novel The Incarnations is a 'tale of a modern Beijing taxi driver being pursued by his soulmate across a thousand years of Chinese history'.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
In this remarkable collection of stories, Yiyun Li writes about the lives and sorrows of ordinary people in modern China. Though Li shows how her characters’ destinies have been distorted by Communist Party rule and China’s rapid social and economic change, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is not an overtly political book, but first and foremost a dazzling work of literature. The prose is simple but luminous, and her characters morally and emotionally complex.

To Live by Yu Hua
Moving at a fast pace from the 1940s to late ‘70s, To Live follows Fugui, the son of a wealthy landowner, as he gambles away the family fortune, becomes a peasant, fights for the Nationalists in the civil war, before returning to his family and catastrophic policies of Chairman Mao. To Live is a deeply moving novel, and Yu Hua’s writing maintains its emotional grip on the reader until the final page.

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
Gao Xingjian’s semi-autobiographical novel about a drifter travelling around Sichuan in the early ‘80s is a strange and haunting book. Interweaving fragments of Daoist and Buddhist philosophy, folklore and supernatural tales with the traveller’s journey, Soul Mountain seems half set in 1980's China, and half in some spiritual netherworld. 

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck
Set in Anhui province in the early 1900s, The Good Earth is the story of the peasant Wang Lung and his rise from poverty to become a wealthy landowner. Pearl S Buck, who grew up in rural China as the daughter of American missionaries, writes convincingly about village life, and the hierarchies and rules governing their world.

The Train to Lo Wu by Jess Row
Jess Row’s collection of stories set in and around Hong Kong, resonates with themes of cultural dislocation, estrangement and loss. Like Yiyun Li, Row’s prose is subtle and understated, and his characterisation of both Hong Kong nationals and American expats, is complex. Row never engineers simple resolutions to the conflicts in his characters’ lives, and the ending of every story is ambiguous but impactful as a result.



Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House in London. He is the author of over ten books in China, the most recent of which are The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China and What's Wrong with Diplomacy, as well as being editor in chief of the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography.


Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu

The archetypal pre-revolution novel by one of China's greatest twentieth century writers and scholars, a book beloved both by people inside and outside China, because of its wit, its use of irony, and its poignancy. Qian himself, educated in France and the UK, was multi-lingual and someone who was to live until 1998.


His work is a wonderful antidote to the idea that Chinese literature in the modern era was unable to embrace the challenges of modernity. And it stands as a moving final moment of intellectual hope before the political coercion and impoverishment of language after 1949.


Northern Girls, Life Goes On by Sheng Keyi

A novel by one of modern China's finest female writers of perhaps the real architects of the country, but also those who have until this work been denied a proper voice. Sheng writes intimately of two migrant labourers, both women, as they struggle, hope, succeed and sometimes fail in the rough world of China's coastal cities. Brutally realistic in its accounts of abortion, prostitution and abuse, it also has a wonderful central character whose ability to survive and finally prosper is a testament to the spirit of modern Chinese migrants.


Auto Da Fe by Elias Caneti

One of the greatest works of the imagination of the twentieth century, and a book that places the Orientalist Peter Klein in the centre of a whirlwind of violent change as the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany in which his devotion to abstract study of Chinese literature figures as his defence against a world descending into chaos. This is the greatest portrayal of the Sinologist as a sort of modern monk removed from the world ever written.




Shelly Bryant

Shelly Bryant is the author of six volumes of poetry and a pair of travel guides for the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai. She divides her year between Shanghai and Singapore, working as a teacher, writer, researcher, and translator. Her translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012. Read more at www.shellybryant.com


Death Fugue by Sheng Keyi

Released in September 2014 by Giramondo Press in Australia, this book is not available in China. Also, I had not planned to include any works I had translated. But, all that considered, I am still placing this in the number one spot on my list because it is such a good read. It is a dystopian novel addressing the history of China since 1989.


The Real Story of Ah Q and other tales of China by Lu Xun

Translated by Julia Lovell

Lu Xun is the must-read writer for anyone wanting to understand modern China. There’s no getting around that. The good news is that Lu Xun’s writing is delightful to read.


Playing for Thrills by Wang Shuo

Interesting for its insights into the lives of young people during the Cultural Revolution, a generation that was left largely on their own to almost raise themselves as their parents were sent down. It is something of a confusing narrative, but that is probably an apt depiction of the times. Almost any Wang Shuo title would be a suitable alternative as a introduction to the ‘hooligan literature’ for which he is known.


Cat Country by Lao She

A favourite of mine because it is an early instance of Chinese science fiction, written in a way that partakes of the golden age of science fiction internationally.


To Live by Yu Hua

The movie based on the book might be more familiar to many non-Chinese readers/viewers. It is a story that sweeps across the difficult early days of New China, depicting the resilient spirit and pragmatism that many see as a defining feature of the Chinese people.


Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang

Chang’s writing is truly beautiful. Sometimes criticised for focusing on personal rather than political stories, I think this is part of what makes her work so successful.


Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min

Not entirely successful in presenting a sympathetic view of the oft-vilified Jiang Qing, the novel at least offers something of an alternative view of what might have gone on in the mind of the only female member of The Gang of Four. Not exactly an easy read, but engaging.


Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

Though I’ve heard some criticise the book for its inaccuracies, I think that is the product of the unreliable (child) narrator. Perhaps it misrepresents in the details, but it is for that reason that it seems more ‘accurate’ in capturing a child’s experience of war. Its truth is not that of memoir or history, but of fiction.


Rainbow by Mao Dun

A fictionalised account of the May Fourth Movement by one of the prominent voices from that era.


The Civil Servant’s Notebook by Wang Xiaofang

With all the interest in corruption among China’s upper echelon today, this is a book that deserves mention. The huge number of characters and the confusing ways they are connected to one another is indicative of the complex web of politicking in China – not just by civil servants, but also in many offices and private institutions.




Kelly Falconer

Kelly Falconer was an editor of fiction and non-fiction books, freelance and in-house in London for over ten years working for publishers including Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Virgin Books and Granta magazine. She has contributed to the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times and The Spectator, and read for a prominent literary scout for four years. In 2012 she was the editor of the Asia Literary Review, and she launched the Asia Literary Agency in March 2013.


The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian

This is an evocative masterpiece by a young, award-winning writer who gives us an atmospheric, allegorical folk-tale of the Evenki, a nomadic tribe that have not kept pace with the world. Their lives (like those of their reindeer) are irretrievably disrupted by the forces of modernity. The narrator is the 90-year-old, unnamed widow of one of the clan’s great chieftains. Her ethereal presence and memory, and strength of will, allows her to speak for the tribe, breathing life into their collective memories. This is a beautiful story:  otherworldly, and with a pace that is slow but certain, as though the story unfolds to the beat of an ancient, sonorous drum.


The Incarnations by Susan Barker

Susan Barker’s third novel after her previous two were long-listed for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize, now annually awarded to published writers under 30. The Incarnations tells the story of a modern-day taxi driver in Beijing, who becomes stalked by an anonymous letter writer, who gradually reveals to him his past lives. So what we have is a series of succinct tales that bleed into one another, that reverberate against one another. The past in this novel overlays the present, and vice versa – the whole novel is a palimpsest of history, echoing across time. I loved it.


Our Man in China by Ming Liu

Ming writes about the world she knows (the uber wealthy entrepreneurial set in China) and the people who inhabit it, or want to. This is part Made in Chelsea part Great Gatsby, with a healthy wash of Graham Green sensibility to stop it from becoming farcical or pastiche.


Instead, this is an extraordinarily thoughtful and well observed novel, about what's happening in China now - with its younger generation partying with Gatsby-esque decadence - and those young Chinese born abroad who want a piece of the action, but who soon realise the world of China now is more shockingly alien to them than they had ever imagined. It's all about identity - did these children ever feel they fit in to the culture they were born to?


Do they feel themselves to be 'Chinese enough' to fit into the country of their ethnic origin, and to the new world order? Here we have two groups separated by a common language - the fluent, confidently off-hand and slang-ridden Mandarin of those who'd never left (except to go to Harvard); and the studied, hesitant, American-accented Mandarin of those who were born and brought up abroad. This is a very interesting and revealing novel, of its time and, as a result, timeless.


Hanging Devils by He Jiahong

The John Grisham of China, whose bestselling series of crime-fiction novels have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, but only recently into English and published by Penguin, China. He is Professor of Criminal Law at Beijing People’s University and gained his JD from Northwestern University in Chicago, where he was inspired by the likes of Grisham and Trurow.


Hanging Devils overlays the Western crime-fiction template with plots set in China, and with Chinese characters, one of them Hong Jun, the likable US-educated lawyer-turned-detective who fronts the series. The novels are set in China about 20 years ago, just when the country was beginning to transition to the place we’re getting to know today. These books are fun to read, interesting, lively, light. Perfect for the beach, a holiday, a plane ride. The fact that you learn about China as you read along is an enjoyable fringe benefit.


The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

The first book I read on China, when I was a child growing up in the USA. I distinctly remember reaching up to take it off the library shelf, and how the story transported me to a time and place so different to the one I knew, but one that fascinated me immensely.


It helped to pique my curiosity about the wider world, and revealed to me our commonality. How many people real this novel today? Not enough. It should be introduced to new audiences, included on curricula and book-club reading lists and reissued with a decent introduction.




Paul French

Paul French is the author of the New York Times best seller Midnight in Peking, a true crime story of the grisly murder of a young English woman in Beijing in 1937. He is currently working on a new book, which takes us into the dancehalls, casinos and cabarets of wartime Shanghai.


Rickshaw Boy by Lao She

More than any other this novel shows the precariousness of life in pre-Second World War China. It is perhaps Lao She’s most bleak novel, reflecting elements of the sort of fatalism that is more commonly associated with the Russian literary tradition which inspired him. Lao She’s descriptions of Beijing – ‘filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable’ – its ruthlessness and social divisions are unparalleled in Chinese literature, and still ring true 80 years later.


Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang

Really a novella, but a powerful piece of writing all the same. The story is now perhaps less known than Lust, Caution, but is Chang’s masterpiece.


Often misunderstood as a romance story, it is actually a much darker tale of a woman trapped within the limitations of her society who struggles to escape by any means. The book is written in a highly brittle style (reflecting Chang’s own mental state at the time) and, despite a seemingly happy ending, is actually almost noir-like in its darkness.


Midnight by Mao Dun

By far the best novel concerning inter-war Shanghai, [this book] caustically satirises the city’s bourgeoisie of the 1920s and ‘30s. Mao’s novel is sharply realistic in its portrayal of the Shanghai finance capitalists of the time that spent all day playing the stock market with the profits from horrific factory conditions in the city’s silk filatures. The plot gets a little complicated, but this is a masterful portrayal of a city on the brink of collapse.


Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu

Written in the late 1940s but set a decade earlier, it is acerbic and funny as well as minutely describing the modernity, and often the foolishness, of the dilettantish Shanghai middle classes on the eve of war.


An Insular Possession by Timothy Mo

Hong Kong-born Mo wrote this novel of the opium trade and early interactions between foreigners and Chinese in English. However, it is still a master class in rendering a strong sense of China and Chinese-ness in English. A long book, but one that rolls and rolls without interruption and continuously absorbs.




Peter Goff

Originally from Ireland, Peter Goff has been in China since 2001. Previously he worked as a Beijing-based journalist for the South China Morning Post and The Telegraph, among others. He is the general manager of the Bookworm group and director of the annual Bookworm Literary Festival.


The Real Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun

Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Waiting by Ha Jin




Peter Gordon

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He was inaugural chair of the Man Asian Literary prize from 2006-9. Read more at www.asianreviewofbooks.com




One Man’s Bible by Gao Xingjiang and The Republic of Wine by Mo Yan

I chose these because they are both fine books. I am also very interested in literary influences. In Gao, one sees some Solzhenitsyn and in this Mo Yan - one of his early ones - there are strong hints of Garcia Marquez on the one hand and Swift and Gogol on the other.


To Live by Yu Hua

This was one of the first ‘modern’ novels from post-Cultural Revolution China by the generation following Mo Yan. Yu Hua has gone on to great things; this is where he started. The bleak view of the world and relativity straightforward, unnuanced style reminded me of other writers ‘early’ in a nation's exploration of the novel, such as Turkey's Yashar Kemal.


A Dictionary of Maqiao by Han Shaogong

Again, an example of one of the first novels to emerge after China's opening and an example of the avant-garde in Chinese literature. Although this novel is also quite early in the post-opening chronology, one can already see the author pushing the envelope in format and structure. The translation into English was a creative cooperation between the author and Julia Lovell.


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

A very Western-style Chinese novel by a novelist living in France - written in French and hence showing different influences. Fresh, accessible and the first novel of an accomplished writer, it is an example of how the Chinese diaspora has enriched world literature. The book is (or has been) on the international IGCSE syllabus, probably making it one of the most-widely read Chinese novels.


The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian

Again, an example from the more formative period of modern Chinese literature. Hints of Kundera here.


The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian

A novel by a non-Han writer, evidence that Chinese literature is broadening and developing outward.




Susie Gordon

Susie Gordon is a British author based in Shanghai. Her journalism, travel writing, essays and fiction have appeared in local and international publications. She also works as programme director for the Shanghai branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. She is currently working on a novel set in Shanghai in 1935.


Northern Girls by Sheng Keyi

What Leslie Chang did for the topic of female migrant workers in Factory Girls, literary firebrand Sheng does in fiction with this fast-paced novel translated by Shelly Bryant.


The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

Shanghailander Buck won the Pulitzer prize for this novel about Chinese village life in 1932.


Mr Ma & Son by Lao She

An often disturbing tale of Sinophobia within the 20th century Chinese diaspora, this novel tells the story of a father and son who move to London from their native China.


Years of Red Dust by Qiu Xiaolong

Qiu is better known for his crime fiction, but this novel (or collection of interwoven stories) set in a Shanghai lane is something a little different; a compelling study of longtang life.


Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang

This tale of love, scandal and espionage in Shanghai has kept readers (and viewers) gripped for decades.




Nicky Harman

Nicky Harman translates an eclectic selection of contemporary Chinese authors, writes occasional blogs, mentors new translators, teaches summers schools, and reviews translated books for Tribune magazine. She is active on Paper-Republic.org and with the Writing Chinese project 2014-2016 at Leeds University, UK. She tweets, along with Helen Wang, at China Fiction Book Club, @cfbcuk


Last Quarter of the Moon, by Chi Zijian

Translated by Bruce Humes

A novel about the unravelling of a traditional way of life among the Evenkis in China’s North-East. Chi Zijian really brings the characters alive. This book is beautiful, lyrical and left me with a lump in my throat at the end. Lovely, meticulous translation too.


The Book Of Sins by Chen Xiwo

Translated by Nicky Harman

Chen is one of the few Chinese authors I have read who describes human emotions in unflinching detail. These stories encompass a lot of sins - from a child’s casual cruelty to incest and murder by a paraplegic, taking in narcissistic obsession and an old couple’s petty theft on the way.  But Chen’s sympathy, and touches of humour, makes these ghastly tales a surprisingly good, as well as a disturbing, read.


Decoded, by Mai Jia

Translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne

Don’t believe the reviews. Anyone who’s looking for a spy novel will be sorely disappointed. Instead, the novel delves into the obsessive minds of gifted mathematicians, chess-players and cryptologists. This story is extraordinary, and touching.


A Dictionary of Maqiao, by Han Shaogong

Translated by Julia Lovell

The ‘dictionary’ is the language spoken in a remote Chinese village as recorded by an urban youth sent to work there in the 1970s. I love this book every time I dip back into it. It’s intelligent and reflective, and funny too.


Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke

Translated by Cindy Carter

Aids decimates Ding Village. There’s something of Orwell’s Animal Farm in the laconic way Yan describes how disaster brings out the awful worst in almost all of its inhabitants. But the doomed love affair between Uncle and Lingling is truly affecting.




Dave Haysom

Dave Haysom has been living and working in Beijing since 2007. He has contributed to Asymptote journal and Words Without Borders, translating stories by contemporary writers such as Ge Fei and Shi Tiesheng. He is also joint managing editor of Pathlight magazine.


Wild Grass by Lu Xun

Translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang

Lu Xun’s status as the father of modern Chinese literature is so well established it’s easy to take for granted. While it might be harder to track down than his short story anthologies, his unsettling collection of prose-poems really demonstrates what made him a remarkable writer.


Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang

Translated by Karen S Kingsbury

The motifs of Eileen Chang’s stories – the cigarettes and cheong-sams – may have been dulled by their appearance in endless TV historical soap operas, but the style of her prose and the way she depicts relationships remain sharp and precise.


Red Sorghum by Mo Yan

Translated by Howard Goldblatt

There’s been something of a Mo Yan backlash since he won the Nobel prize, but there’s no denying his ability to tell a powerful story. Red Sorghum still stands out from the many multigenerational family sagas that have followed it.


The Man With the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-yi

Translated by Darryl Sterk

Many writers have struggled with the challenge of producing an environmental novel that manages to convey the seriousness of the topic while still remaining an effective work of fiction, rather than a treatise.


This outstanding story by the Taiwanese writer Wu Ming-yi is one of the few that succeeds.




Duncan-Hewitt

Duncan Hewitt

Duncan Hewitt is a former BBC China correspondent who now writes for Newsweek from Shanghai. He first lived in China in 1986, while studying Chinese at Edinburgh University. His published translations include stories by Mo Yan, and He Jiahong's novel Hanging Devils.His book on Chinese society, Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China, was published by Vintage in 2008.


Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience edited by Geremie Barme and John Minford

The book that opened my eyes to contemporary Chinese culture as a student in the 1980s. A stunning compendium of critical writing, literature, poetry and film scripts, it captures the great search for new ideas throughout the Chinese world in that period. Geremie Barme’s In the Red – On contemporary Chinese culture is another indispensible work – but this was an inspiration.


Mr Ma and Son (The Two Mas) by Lao She

One of my favourite books by one of the most brilliant, compassionate and cosmopolitan writers China has ever produced. Now available as a Penguin Modern Classic, in my old university teacher Bill Dolby’s beautifully vivid translation, Lao She’s witty satire on both 1920s’ Britain and traditional Chinese values is an essential introduction to his writing.


Red Sorghum by Mo Yan

Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize may have been controversial, but the stunning adrenaline rush of Red Sorghum is undeniable – a story which brings the anti-Japanese war brilliantly, bloodily to life, and, in Howard Goldblatt’s fine translation, demonstrates the caustic wit, rollicking story-telling and vivid characters which are Mo Yan’s real strength.


Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

Wang Anyi’s touching, tragic epic captures the essence of 20th century Shanghai and its history like no other novel, through the tale of one woman’s experiences from the 1930s to the 1980s. Bizarrely overlooked by major publishers in the US and UK, it’s a reminder of the gifts which in the 1980s made Wang Anyi one of China’s most daring and vital writers.


When Red is Black by Qiu Xiaolong

He may have lived in the US for over 20 years, but Qiu Xiaolong still skewers contemporary Shanghai – and Chinese – society better than almost anyone else. His Years of Red Dust is an important political novel, but When Red is Black brings everything from the ironies of modern China to the legacy of the Cultural Revolution brilliantly to life, all in the form of a whodunit in an old Shanghai lane!

Delve into the shortlists of each of our judges for Time Out's best Chinese fiction books of the last century to find great books that didn't make our top 20 lists and why the judges love each novel.


Note that we've included translator names and specific editions only when they were specified by our judges. 

"Tess-Johnston"

Tess Johnston

First arriving in Shanghai in 1981, Tess Johnston is uniquely qualified to research and write on the Western presence in old China. She and her co-author, Shanghai photographer Deke Erh (Er Dongqiang), have published 25 books, including fifteen volumes on Western architecture and the expatriate experience in old China.


Shanghai '37 by Vicki Baum

One of the most popular ‘Shanghai’ novels, it was first written in German, then translated; movies were based on it and it spawned later spin-offs Baum's native Germany.


Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones  

An improbable but highly entertaining story of a Shanghai girl and her attempt to escape from her gangland past with an itinerant black American jazz pianist.


Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Whether you consider it historical fiction or fictionalised history - there is debate - this mystery story of the murder of a diplomat's daughter in pre-war Peking is a smashing good read with a stunning denouement.


[Editor's note This list considers Midnight in Peking a work of non-fiction. Read the full list of China's best non-fiction works.]




"Marysia-Juszczakiewicz-credit-Roger-Lee-Productions"Marysia Juszczakiewicz 

Marysia Juszczakiewicz is the founder and owner of Peony Literary Agency with extensive experience of publishing in both the UK and Asia. Peony was the first agent to represent the recent Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan and sold the English language rights for his novel Sandalwood Death. Read more at www.peonyliteraryagency.com

Image: Roger Lee Productions


A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

Simply a beautifully written collection of stories. Each story encapsulates the characters, their lives, their time and place, so perfectly.


My Life as Emperor by Su Tong

Su Tong is a true story teller, and My Life as Emperor is Su Tong at his best. Short crisp prose, delving into the darker side of human psyche, something he does so deftly.


To Live By Yu Hua

A classic Chinese novel. A well crafted story set during the Cultural Revolution. Sad but compelling. A story that resonates.


Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke

A cleverly written story narrated from the point of a little boy whose father sells tainted blood. Pulls at the heart strings and touches on issues pertinent to China today.


The Uninvited by Yan Geling

A refreshing novel and ahead of its time. A darkly humorous work exploring corruption in China but written in such an appealing way that it stands out.




Danuta Kean

Danuta Kean is a literary journalist and publishing expert. She is books editor of Mslexia, the magazine for women writers, and teaches creative writing students about the business side of publishing for, among others, the Guardian Masterclass series. Her journalism has appeared widely, including the Financial Times, Daily Mail and The Independent. She is currently working on a crime novel.


The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun

An essential read for anyone who wishes to understand why China was ripe for revolution. It is also a book that reminds us that, wherever we are, if the people stop engaging with society on an intellectual basis, that society is fundamentally undermined. That said the stories are also great reads, by turns funny, insightful, tragic and very moving.


Red Dust by Ma Jian

I think this is an essential book for anyone who wishes to understand the scope and impact of the economic reforms in China. As with all the best 'road' books, it follows the spiritual as well as physical journey of its protagonist and raises questions that all capitalist societies need to take to heart. 





Jo-Lusby

Jo Lusby

Jo Lusby is Managing Director of Penguin Random House (North Asia). Since 2005, Jo has run local publishing and import sales in English, Chinese and Korean for a wide range of authors. She has worked with literary names such as Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, Man Asian Prize winner Bi Feiyu, and Edgar Award winner Paul French, as well as major media brands including Jamie Oliver, Peppa Pig, and Peter Rabbit.


The Real Story of Ah-Q and other Tales of China by Lu Xun

The master of Chinese storytelling, an unflinching insight into the soul of China, told through memorable and evocative stories from the pre-revolutionary era


Mo Yan's early writings 

Meaning I couldn't quite choose between Red Sorghum, Republic of Wine, or the Garlic Ballads

The earlier books are the shortest, and in some ways the neatest stories - still set in Gaomi, very familiar Mo Yan territory, with their mixture of surreal events and great storytelling. If I had to pick one, then maybe Republic of Wine.


The Man with Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-yi

A beautiful, unusual, novel that transports you to a weird and wonderful world of the novelists' making. A real surprise, combining real world concerns (environmental harm in the oceans) with magic realism and memorable characters. It deserved much bigger pick-up when it was published last year.


Decoded by Mai Jia

Marketed as a literary thriller in the west, just a brilliant story of code breakers, Chinese espionage, told across a intriguing family saga of the 20th century. There is nothing else quite like it available in English.


Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong

Still the biggest single novel of all time in Chinese, and an evocative and wonderful read in English of a distant time and place (the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the 1960s and 70s).




"Rana-Mitter"Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter is director of the China Centre at Oxford University. His most recent book is China's War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (US title: Forgotten Ally).



Midnight by Mao Dun

A classic novel of Shanghai at its cosmopolitan greatest in the 1930s, with shades of Andre Malraux and Erich Remarque, but from an authentically Chinese voice.  The novel is a compelling tale of the rise and fall of a Shanghai merchant family. Best read on The Bund (perhaps over a cocktail on a rooftop) while looking at the neon lights.


Miss Sophie’s Diary by Ding Ling

A classic tale from China’s first important feminist writer. It’s notable how Miss Sophie – who bears some resemblance to Ding Ling herself – reflects so much all that’s relevant to Chinese youth today: aspiration, hope, self-loathing and a love-hate relationship with foreignness and cosmopolitanism.


The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

One of the most important tales from the Asian-American world as it began to develop its own literary identity. With its contrast between the warrior woman Mulan of Chinese legend, the poverty of early twentieth-century China, and the conflicted life of the Chinese community in America, this book was one of the first to link the narratives of China and its daughters (and sons) in the wider world.


Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu

A novel with a huge absence at its centre as it was written in 1946, but set a decade earlier, in Shanghai. The tale of a feckless Shanghai scholar who fails to gain western qualifications, it’s a picaresque journey through his life as a teacher (not much good) and husband (even worse).  However, the year when the story is set, 1937, would be understood by all readers as the start of the titanic war against Japan, and the frothy nature of the action has to be read in that light.


Call to Arms by Lu Xun

Still the most famous work of modern fiction in China, and still one of the most gripping.  Lu Xun’s short stories sold a mere 40 copies on first publication, but now have the status of undoubted classics.  ‘Diary of a Madman’ remains one of the most powerful indictments of traditional Confucian culture. Now that Confucius is back in a big way in China, the story has an extra poignancy. Julia Lovell’s fine 2008 translation for Penguin presents a Lu Xun for the 21st Century.




"Old-Shanghai-Gangsters-in-Paradise-by-Lynn-Pan"

Lynn Pan

Shanghai-born author Lynn Pan is one of China’s most dedicated biographers and the author of Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise  and Shanghai Style a look at 1920-1930s Shanghai, one of the city’s most exciting architectural periods, when modernist design ideas flooded in after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. 


Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu

Translations published 1979, 2003

My edition is published by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, Beijing. Satire of the first order: funny, erudite and true at the same time.


Love in a Fallen City and Other Stories by Eileen Chang 

Translated by Karen S. Kingsbury and Eileen Chang (Penguin Books, 2007)

Eileen Chang is my favourite writer - enough said!




Jemimah Steinfeld

Journalist Jemimah Steinfeld lived and worked in China for publications including Shanghai Talk, CNN, Huffington Post and Time Out before completing an MA in Chinese Studies from SOAS, University of London. She currently runs the literature programme at London's Asia House and has published her debut book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China.


Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

Described by the Financial Times as ‘the Tiananmen novel’, Beijing Coma is Ma Jian's chef-d'œuvre. Going where very few dare to go, Ma vividly recreates the tragedy as it unfolded. The lead-up to the fateful day smells like teen spirit. As for the aftermath, it illuminates many of the issues that plague China today.


Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke

This 2012 book presents the blood-selling scandal of modern China (which sparked an Aids epidemic) from the perspective of three generations of males directly involved in it. With blood almost staining the page, it's not for the faint-hearted. That said, Yan takes an incredibly moribund topic and adds a human touch.


The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Another sombre entry on the fiction list, which is certainly the trend for Chinese literature in English, Yiyun Li’s harrowing novel centres around the execution of a young woman, Gu Shan, who is a former Red Guard turned counterrevolutionary. Gu and the other characters in the book become symbolic of certain negative facets of post-Mao China - they’re corrupt, cruel and destined to self-destruct.


A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Guo Xiaolu

Written as the inner musings of a 20-something Chinese girl spending a year abroad in London, Guo's debut English novel is a fun and light-hearted (yes actually light-hearted) look at the difficulties of communicating across cultures and genders. While the prose moves from Chinglish to English in accordance with the narrator's abilities, one thing remains constant – it’s always laugh-out-loud.


The Republic of Wine by.Mo Yan

Mo Yan undoubtedly had a lot of fun when writing The Republic of Wine, in which he explores China’s relationship with food, drink, sex and politics in the post-Mao context. Employing his signature mix of realism and surrealism to aplomb, Mo’s novel centres around a cannibalism scandal in a fictional province called Liquorland. The narrative is jumpy as Yan combines a large mix of influences and styles, but what’s a weakness for some readers is a strength for others.




Harvey Thomlinson

Harvey Thomlinson is the founder of Hong Kong and UK-based press Make-Do Publishing, which in the last five years has published fiction by Asian writers.  Harvey’s translation of Murong Xuecun’s Dancing Through Red Dust will be published in September 2015.


The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun

Translated by Julia Lovell

An obvious choice but it is impossible to leave out Lu Xun’s landmark stories which were emblematic of a turn to vernacular Chinese after the 1919 May 4 Movement in China.  Julia Lovell’s translation for Penguin Classics is prosodically and intellectually satisfying.


Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu

A wry tale about returned a hapless overseas student returning to China with a fake degree from the fictional ‘Carleton University’. Liberally seasoned with witty asides, the novel’s ironic take on middle class effeteness remains popular to this day.


Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang

Translated by Julia Lovell

In the politicised twentieth century Chinese literary canon, Eileen Chang’s focus on the complex private lives of individuals stands out. Lust, Caution, again translated by Julia Lovell, is probably the best gateway to her work for the uninitiated - but new works are still being translated.


English by Wang Gang

Translated by Martin Merz and Jane Pan

There may be longer novels about the Cultural Revolution but few are as well crafted as screenwriter Wang Gang’s poignant masterpiece about a boy growing up in Xinjiang province. The English language works perfectly as a metaphor for all that is unobtainable in this historical black hole and the narrator’s voice is lovingly translated by Martin Merz and Jane Pan.


The Book of Sins by Chen Xiwo

Translated by Nicky Harman

Chen Xiwo sued the Chinese authorities after they banned this disturbing fictional journey to the dark side of sexuality. Seven novellas explore issues like S&M, voyeurism and incest as metaphors for social decay and Nicky Harman’s translation is beautifully crafted.




Jeffrey-WasserstromJeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at University of California, Irvine and the author of four books, including Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Fast Changing Lives in a Fast Changing Land.  He has been a featured speaker at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, edits the Journal of Asian Studies, and co-edits the Asia Section of the Los Angeles Review of Books.



The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun

This is a tough novella for those not familiar with Chinese culture and history to appreciate fully, but for those who are steeped or at least know a bit about both, it remains extraordinary.  It is, among other things, a kind of Chinese precursor to Animal Farm, in satirising the ways that revolutions can sometimes changes the identities of oppressors without changing patterns of oppression. It also did for Chinese something that Orwell's works did for English - enriched the language via a key character, in this case Ah Q himself as opposed to Big Brother in 1984.


Chronicles of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua

This is one of two works by Yu Hua that I find deeply humane and compelling portraits of everyman experiences during traumatic times - the other is listed number 4 in this same list.  If Lu Xun makes me think of Orwell, while being a very different writer in many ways, Yu Hua makes me think of Twain, in his ability to both mock social conventions and also shining while conjuring up experiences of boyhood


(Both were skillful at writing non-fiction as well as fiction, and Yu Hua would make it onto my non-fiction list as well, were it not that his wonderful China in Ten Words is unavailable in Mainland bookstores.)


Call to Arms by Lu Xun

The wide ranging short story collection that made Lu Xun's reputation.  It includes classic tales such as ‘Diary of a Madman’, as well as a ‘Preface’ that includes his powerful metaphor of sleepers in an iron house who deserve to be awakened whether or not this will do anything more than make them aware of their precarious fate.


To Live by Yu Hua

Perhaps his best known work internationally, thanks to the moving film based on it, this novella packs an enormous amount of historical detail into a small number of pages, without losing sight of the fact that fiction needs to be driven by story and character as opposed to information.  My favourite work of Chinese fiction to assign in history classes - and I know I'm far from alone in this.


Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

There are many novels and story collections that came to mind for this final slot, including several by female Chinese writers I admire, from Zhang Ailing and Ding Ling to Wang Anyi.  When looking over the criteria, though, and realising the author need only have been born in Greater China, I couldn't resist bringing in this work by the Shanghai-born Ballard.  


There's no need to have the titles listed read together, but his evocation of a strange and violent moment in history, as seen through a boy's eyes, goes well with parts of the two books by Yu Hua I've listed above. It's a wonderfully creative and haunting foray into storytelling, with characters and scenes, including ones set in Shanghai's privileged foreign enclaves just before everything there fell apart, that stay with you for a very long time.




Bingxia Yu

Bingxia Yu is a journalist and literary translator based in Shanghai. She is currently working on the Chinese translation of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.


Wang in Love and Bondage by Wang Xiaobo

SUNY Press, 2007

The novelist Wang Xiaobo’s untimely death in 1997 resulted in him being under-recognised in the West. The only English translation of his work is this strangely compiled 2007 anthology, taking a few chapters from each book of his Age Trilogy. The book was poorly translated and packaged, but there is no doubt a glimpse of Wang Xiaobo is better than nothing.


Ripple Across Stagnant Water by Li Jieren

Merwin Asia, University of Hawaii Press, 2012

The Republic-era Sichuan writer Li Jieren is again, in my opinion, a literary genius under-recognised on the world stage. His narrative devices might have been borrowed from Balzac and Flaubert, but his depiction of Chengdu people of all social classes during a particularly complex age is breathtaking and surpasses all his peers.


I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China by Zhu Wen

Columbia University Press, 2006

Zhu Wen and his peers are followers of the Dirty Realism movement of the US. He writes downbeat, melancholic short stories about the aimlessness and aloofness of young male facing a vast and unknown China in transition. I’m most impressed by Zhu Wen’s versatile geographic trajectory ranging from late nights in Nanjing to days of boat rides down the Yangtze River to the sharp hills of Chongqing.


Messenger’s Letters by Sun Ganlu

Better Link Press, 2010

Postman-turned-writer Sun Ganlu presents a unique perspective of contemporary China, a way of life reaching above, or, despite the unlikeliness, dematerialising all practical matters.  Although he was tagged as an avant-gardist in the 1990s, Sun Ganlu is an eclectic writer whose prose embodies a meditative smoothness rarely seen in Chinese contemporary literature. 


To Live, Yu Hua

Anchor, 2003

Much like all writers of his generation, Yu Hua’s ideological schizophrenia is representative of an epistemological gap between Western and Chinese literary tradition. He usually doubles down on both the ‘new’ age and ‘old’ age, and holds the unspecified moral values of an absolutely innocent world, which is why the book To Live is so interesting, since it was meant straightforwardly as a criticism to the Maoist era, yet on an unintentional level, it almost psychoanalytically pointed out the oddity in our (including Yu Hua’s) value system.

See the full set of shortlists from each of our literary judges for Time Out's best Chinese non-fiction books of the last century, for books that didn't make the list, reasons why the judges chose each work and more.

This list is divided alphabetically, read the lists from judges whose surnames start J-Z here

Note that we've included the year of publication only when it was specified by our judges.

SusanBarkerSusan Barker

Susan Barker is the author of three novels: Sayonara Bar and The Orientalist and The Ghost, both published by Doubleday and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her third novel The Incarnations is a 'tale of a modern Beijing taxi driver being pursued by his soulmate across a thousand years of Chinese history'.

Will The Boat Sink the Water? by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao
Will The Boat Sink the Water? is a devastating and deeply moving account of villagers in Anhui fighting against excessive and illegal taxes levied by local Party officials. Justice seldom prevails and this book is a frustrating but riveting read.

No Hatred, No Enemies by Liu Xiaobo
In this collection of essays, poetry, and miscellaneous documents, Liu Xiaobo delivers a powerful critique of the Communist Party and its grip on politics, culture and society in China. Liu’s idealism, morality, and staunch belief in human rights is evident on every page.

China In Ten Words by Yu Hua
Part memoir, part social commentary, in China in Ten Words Yu Hua writes about his experiences growing up during the Cultural Revolution and the moral disintegration he perceives in Chinese society today. Yu Hua’s brutal honesty and caustic, gallows humour makes China in Ten Words a compelling read.

Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng
Nien Cheng’s memoir of Cultural Revolution persecution and seven years of imprisonment in solitary confinement is shot through with quiet dignity and determination to survive. Though depressing in parts, Life and Death in Shanghai is testament to the resilience and strength of the human spirit.

Burying the Bones by Hilary Spurling
In this masterful biography of Nobel Prize winning novelist Pearl S Buck, Spurling recounts Buck’s childhood in early 1900s rural China, and the experiences that shaped Buck’s deep knowledge and understanding of Chinese peasantry and the writing of The Good Earth



"Kerry-Brown"

Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House in London. He is the author of over ten books in China, the most recent of which are The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China and What's Wrong with Diplomacy, as well as being editor in Chief of the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography.


Catastrophe and Contention in the Chinese Countryside by Ralph Thaxton

Part of a trilogy of works on the impact of the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and the famines that resulted, this work of scrupulously careful scholarship is imaginative, respectful of the terrible history it exposes, but also offers deep insights into how a rural population managed the trauma of this era, though repression and consigning it to `whispered histories'.  A far finer treatment than some of the more populist work on the famines that have also appeared in English.


Taipei People, by Pai Hsien-yung

A gentle evocative series of short stories about the lives, dramas, hopes and fears of different people in Taipei, from a bar worker to an official, all of them caught musing on the society in which they have found themselves living in different ways where the memory of the Civil War, exile and the attempts to rebuild life are all strong.


Hu Feng's Prison Years by Mei Zhi

Translated by Gregor Benton

A deeply moving account by the great writer Hu Feng's wife of his years from the anti-rightist campaign of the 1950s in jail. As much a testament to the profound love between them, and an account of the terrible injustice that Hu Feng suffered, this is a beautifully lucid account of the human costs of the great Maoist experiment and what it was like to experience this on the wrong side of the political divide.


Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics by Yasheng Huang

Wittily written account of the contradictions of the modern Chinese economy based on extensive research by a US based scholar originally from China, this is accessible, controversial, and highly stimulating. Huang's chapter on the economy of Shanghai simply entitled `That is Wrong with Shanghai' is worth reading in its own right.


A Cadre Life in Six Chapters by Yang Jiang

The wife of [Fortress Besieged author] Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, who is still alive, wrote this searing account of the Cultural Revolution, recognised by no less a figure than the great Simon Leys as a work where every single word is laden with meaning. Her story of the spiritual devastation of the Cultural Revolution period to intellectuals is particularly powerful because of her gifts, like her husband, to deploy coruscating wit and irony in a world where the costs of open opposition to power and authority were so high.


Great Leap Forward by Rem Koolhaas et al

A textual and visual tour de force by a team led by one of the world's leading architects, this work from the early 2000s links the pre and post 1978 settlement in China to a vision of the future driven by idealism and Utopian goals. The first Great Leap Forward ended in the tragedy of poverty and famine. The second, starting with Deng Xiaoping reforms, is still enveloping China and the world, and its final outcome is currently unknown. The chapters in this book on the breathtaking development of Zhuhai, the almost comic development explosion of Shenzhen (where almost half the buildings originally put up in the 1980s collapsed) have a dizzying quality that captures that of the country they are about in its era of intense reconstruction.


The Great Wall by Julia Lovell

One of the most intelligently written and accessible accounts of how China's history, deep into the dynastic pasts the country has been formed by, still has resonance today. Lovell focuses in particular on the Great Wall, an historic edifice that now has symbolic importance far beyond the rebuilt entity that straddles along the northern edges of China, splitting up into multiple directions. A wonderful piece of scholarship proving Sinologists don't have to write heavy prose.




"Shelly-Bryant"Shelly Bryant

Shelly Bryant is the author of six volumes of poetry and a pair of travel guides for the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai. She divides her year between Shanghai and Singapore, working as a teacher, writer, researcher, and translator. Her translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012. Read more at www.shellybryant.com


The Little Red Book by Mao Zedong

Should not be overlooked by anyone who wants to understand the trajectory of China’s development in the past century.


On Chinese Gardens by Chen Congzhou

My own interests in Chinese gardens has led me to Professor Chen, who was a leader in garden restoration works in the decades following the Cultural Revolution. These essays were written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the cautious approach in speaking of the preservation of traditional culture is evidence of the delicate situation that existed at the time. His work within the gardening culture milieu is exemplary. 


Has Man A Future? Dialogues with the Last Confucian by Guy Alitto and Liang Shuming

A companion piece to The Last Confucian (which may not be as easily available in China). This volume is a transcript of a dialogue between Alitto and the man he researched but never met throughout the 1960s and 1970s. When China opened up, Alitto was finally able to meet the subject of his research, and their interaction is recorded here. 


China Underground by Zachary Mexico

A humorous and engaging look at the 'underground' life in contemporary China, especially the underground music scene. The tone of the book is clearly influenced by popular creative non-fiction writers such as David Sedaris and Dave Eggers.


The Politics of Cultural Capital by Julia Lovell

A look at China’s obsession with winning a Nobel Prize for Literature, written before Mo Yan won the award. If this is not easily available in China, I would also recommend Lovell’s The Opium War and The Great Wall


China Wakes by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn

Wide-ranging and enlightening. A well-written and engaging read focused on daily life in China with its transitions throughout the Reform and Opening period.


The Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter 

[Title outside of the US: China's War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival]

An examination of China’s role in WWII. A relatively balanced view of the internal politics in China, while focusing on how the nation was basically abandoned by its supposed allies when left to face Japanese invasion.


China to Me by Emily Hahn

A most entertaining writer with a colourful history, Hahn was in the most interesting places in a period that interests many English-language readers. 


Daughter of the River by Hong Ying

An autobiography from a writer who has made a name for herself in the West after leaving China in the early 1990s. The narrative ends when she arrives in Beijing in 1989 to join the students there.




Kelly Falconer

Kelly Falconer was an editor of fiction and non-fiction books, freelance and in-house in London for over ten years working for publishers including Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Virgin Books and Granta magazine. She has contributed to the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times and The Spectator, and read for a prominent literary scout for four years. In 2012 she was the editor of the Asia Literary Review, and launched the Asia Literary Agency in March 2013.


China Shakes the World: The Rise of a Hungry Nation by James Kynge

This prescient account has since been updated and reissued, and should still be read by anyone wanting to understand the Chinese quest for power and influence, and the rapidity of their rise. The question asked on the original flap copy is: 'Can the West accommodate a country that is in its character and convictions very different from the world created under Pax Americana since the end of World War Two?' My response to this is: 'Can the West afford not to accommodate China?'.


China's War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival by Rana Mitter

This leads on from my first suggestion, as Professor Mitter here explains how the legacy of the Second World War 'continues profoundly to shape China's view of itself and its neighbours today'. This is a vivid and in-depth account of a segment of history that had been overlooked but which we should all know about.


Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China by Leslie Chang

A modern classic and I reckon I won't be the only person to recommend this book. A good complement to China Shakes the World, this was the Behind the Beautiful Forevers of its day (researched from 2004/5 it was published in 2007). It remains pertinent, and it is interesting to me that readers are still discovering this book, asking me if I've read it, as if it had only been published yesterday. This just shows how much catching up there is to do…


Opium Wars: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China by Julia Lovell

A well-known and highly regarded historian/observer of modern China. You can't understand China without understanding the Opium Wars, and here Julia Lovell -- translator, journalist and academic -- creates the backdrop and detail of this unfortunate, humiliating conflict with the West and its far-reaching repercussions. As Lovell notes in her conclusion: ‘For 170 years the Opium War and its afterlives have cast a shadow over Sino-Western relations, both sides tampering with the historical record for their own purposes.’


Meltdown in Tibet: China’s Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia by Michael Buckley

This book turns the spotlight on the darkest, most dangerous side of China’s emergence as a global superpower. It is a well researched, behind-the-scenes look at an environmental disaster affecting not only Tibet but all the countries and peoples downstream; thus, the rest of the world. 


China has been on a relentless and secretive programme of dam-building that will see it control water, and access to water, across South-East Asia by 2030, if not before. What is perhaps even more disturbing is that the West has colluded by turning a blind eye and by supplying equipment, expertise and materials needed to build these dams.




"Paul-French"

Paul French

Paul French is the author of the New York Times best seller Midnight in Peking, a true crime story of the grisly murder of a young English woman in Beijing in 1937. He is currently working on a new book, which takes us into the dancehalls, casinos and cabarets of wartime Shanghai.


The Age of Openness: China Before Mao by Frank Dikotter

2008

A slim, but absolutely essential, volume to understanding China before 1949. Dikotter shows that, contrary to much of the popular historical narrative now, after May 4 1919, and up until the Second World War, China was characterised by unprecedented openness, a spirited exchange of ideas and a strong curiosity about the outside world.


My Country and My People by Lin Yutang

1935

There is probably no book by a Chinese writer that has influenced foreign opinion on China more than Lin Yutang’s mid-thirties appreciation of his own country and its people. Lin was amazingly urbane and sophisticated and its shines through in his writing, even though he was writing in English. Largely forgotten now but for many years a bestseller that informed Chinese readers about themselves as much as foreigners about a far away place. Yet to be bettered.


Four Hundred Million Customers by Carl Crow

1937

Crow arrived in Shanghai in 1911 as the Qing Dynasty fell and left in 1937 as the Japanese invaded. Crow, an American, largely broke the mould of China books in the 1930s by painting a sympathetic portrait of the Chinese while still offering a warts-and-all overview of the perils of doing business in the country that more than one frustrated expat could learn from today.


China to Me by Emily Hahn

1944

China memoirs from the 1930s dwarf even the tsunami of books appearing in the 21st century. Yet, Hahn (frustrating as she can often be!) produced the best, perhaps because no other foreigner so knowingly blurred the lines. Bohemian socialite, super connected and the New Yorker’s correspondent, by turn she was the lover of the poet and publisher Sinmay Zau and entered the cultural world of Chinese Shanghai to a greater extent than just about any other foreigner.


Journey to a War by WH Auden & Christopher Isherwood

1938

They were classic sojourners, brief visitors, but they were both gifted writers and came at a time (1937) when China was slipping into war and a struggle for national survival. By turns hilarious, bitchy and searingly insightful they captured a moment brilliantly. Isherwood provided the text, but Auden’s sonnets (that form the last part of the book) are among his best, and give the lie to those that would, still now, deny the Rape of Nanjing – 'And maps can really point to places/ Where life is evil now:/ Nanking; Dachau.'



"peter-goff"Peter Goff

Originally from Ireland, Peter Goff has been in China since 2001. Previously he worked as a Beijing-based journalist for the South China Morning Post and The Telegraph, among others. He is the general manager of the Bookworm group and director of the annual Bookworm Literary Festival.


 

Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra Vogel

The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

River Town by Peter Hessler





Peter Gordon

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He was inaugural chair of the Man Asian Literary prize from 2006-9. Read more at www.asianreviewofbooks.com


News from Tartary by Peter Fleming

A book from the classic age of travel-writing. It shows a China that exists now only in tiny pockets. And for all its faults, it also helps explain - in the on-the-ground description of the turmoil and Anglo-Russian rivalry in Kashgar - China's nervousness about these far-flung regions.


The Opium War by Julia Lovell

If there is one historical episode Westerners need to understand to have some comprehension of Chinese views on current affairs, it is the Opium War. Lovell's book is an excellent treatment.


Mr China by Tim Clissold and River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler

Two books that pretty much started the current sub-genres of China travelogues and business books -- with the latter often incorporating features of the former;they are still two of the best.


GenghisKhan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

China is not just China. Genghis Khan was a Mongol but also a Chinese Emperor;he (and his successors) are largely responsible for the physical shape of China today. Understanding this history is crucial to understanding the relationship between Beijing and its non-Han regions. This book is a reminder than sometimes it helps to step outside the box when looking at issues.


The Good Women of China by Xinran

Lists of 'China books' often lack Chinese voices. While flawed in some ways, The Good Women of China shows a China in the earlier stages of transition from the perspective of the people actually undergoing it. In presentation, it (like other books) also shows some familiarity with Russian literature.




Susie Gordon

Susie Gordon is a British author based in Shanghai. Her journalism, travel writing, essays and fiction have appeared in local and international publications. She also works as programme director for the Shanghai branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. She is currently working on a novel set in Shanghai in 1935.


China in the 21st Century by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

This is a great run-down of Chinese history, politics, economics and culture in bite-sized segments. An excellent primer for all things China.


Factory Girls by Leslie Chang

Great reportage with a very human element. Chang tells the story of a group of female migrant workers, pulling the whole of modern China into sharp focus in the process.


Shanghai Style by Lynn Pan

The story of 20th century Shanghai told through its aesthetics


Life & Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng (Zheng Nian)

A harrowing and gripping account of the cultural revolution, from a Shanghainese woman who lived through it.


China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

Novelist Yu turns his pen to non-fiction for thisrun-down of modern Chinese identity using ten buzzwords.




Nicky Harman

Nicky Harman translates an eclectic selection of contemporary Chinese authors, writes occasional blogs, mentors new translators, teaches summers schools, and reviews translated books for Tribune magazine. She is active on Paper-Republic.org and with the Writing Chinese project 2014-2016 at Leeds University, UK. She tweets, along with Helen Wang, at China Fiction Book Club, @cfbcuk


The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim

This is a wonderful, readable book. What is so fascinating is the great range of participants thatshe has interviewed, from protesters to high-levels officials. I felt a bitguilty about enjoying it so much, because actually its conclusions areprofoundly depressing.


River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze byPeter Hessler

Hessler taught young people in then-remote Fuling Town, Sichuan, in 1996-98; this is one of the most entertaining and heart-warming books I’ve read about the joys and frustrations of teaching. Delightful, and hopeful.


China Along the Yellow River: Reflections onRural Society by Cao Jinqing

Translated by Nicky Harman

A sort of Cobbett’s Rides of rural China, based on Cao’s 1995-6 research in Henan. Painstakingly detailed, as you would expect a work of sociology to be, it is also humane, and sometimes even humorous. Professor Cao was a pioneer of social science researchand this book is still hugely influential.


The Soul of Gao Yaojie, by Dr Gao Yaojie

Translated by Ngai-lai Cheng

Gao was a doctor throughout the second half of the twentieth century, as well as a passionate campaigner for AIDS sufferers in China. This, her autobiography, is somewhatrambling but well worth ploughing through for the insights into medical practice and social welfare over the last 60 years. Truly China ‘in sickness and in health’.


Tombstone:The Great Chinese Famine,1958-1962 ­ by Yang Jisheng

Translated by Stacy Mosher and Jian Guo

Another juggernaut of a book, filled with detail, most of it meticulously referenced. I was struck by how much of the story is taken from contemporary government archives. Officials knew what was happening, and still millions died. I am in awe of the translators, who had to edit an even larger original as well as translate it.


Factory Girls by Lesley Chang

I once accidentally stumbled into the workers’ dorms in a hotel on Mount Emei, Sichuan. I had to make a quick exit, because both I and they were embarrassed. But this book takes us right into the migrant workers’ rooms and workplaces as Chang wins their confidence and tells the story of their lives. Fascinating.




Dave Haysom

Dave Haysom has been living and working in Beijing since 2007. He has contributed to Asymptote journal and Words Without Borders, translating stories by contemporary writers such as Ge Fei and Shi Tiesheng. He is also joint managing editor of Pathlight magazine.


Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip P Pan

2009

Philip Pan’s book deftly combines the big, headline-hitting China topics with the personal narratives of the people – from human rights lawyers to property tycoons – caught up in them. The result is one of the most nuanced and perceptiveviews of contemporary China you’re likely to find.


The Party by Richard McGregor

2010

It’s easy to imagine the CCP as a single, monolithic entity, but The Party reveals the more complicated truth. The pervasive presence of the party throughout Chinese society means that the scope of this book is much wider than you might be expecting.


An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics by Perry Link

2013

If you’ve spent any time studying Chinese, reading this book will be an endless succession of ‘aha!’ moments as so many aspects of the language you’vesemi-consciously registered suddenly make perfect sense.


Wealth and Power Orville Schell and John Delury

2013

When talking about the history of modern China, there are certain figures – like Liang Qichao, or Chen Duxiu – who pop up so many times that the familiarity of the names starts to convince you that you know who they were and what they stood for. This book will actually tell you.




Duncan-Hewitt

Duncan Hewitt

Duncan Hewitt is a former BBC China correspondent who now writes for Newsweek from Shanghai. He first lived in China in 1986, while studying Chinese at Edinburgh University. His published translations include stories by Mo Yan, and He Jiahong's novel Hanging Devils.  His book on Chinese society, Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China, was published by Vintage in 2008.


The Gate of Heavenly Peace by Jonathan D Spence
Still the best introduction to 20th century Chinese history, in particular the cultural and ideological ferment from the 1890s to the 1940s, told through the eyes of intellectuals including Lu Xun, Ding Ling, and many others. Spence has written many other great books, from The Question of Hu, to God’s Chinese Son and To Change China, - and I love other historical memoirs like The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui -but this is indispensible. 

The Opium Wars: Drugs Dreams and the Making of China by Julia Lovell
An important re-investigation of how foreign intervention shaped modern China, with reverberations that still echo today in terms of China’s perception of the outside world, and the world’s view of China. (Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China is another important contribution to this debate, while Frank Dikotter’s books brilliantly describe what happened next.) 

Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise by Lynn Pan
No other writer can compete with Lynn Pan when it comes to bringing Shanghai’s past to life.  This, her greatest work, movingly tells the story of the city – and of early 20th century Chinese history – through the lives of gangster Du Yuesheng, writer Eileen Chang and puppet government leader Wang Jingwei.

Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai
A remarkable book which again brings history vividly to life, through the story of the introduction of classical music to modern China. Again much of the focus is on Shanghai, with touching oral histories of those who suffered in the Cultural Revolution for their love of this ‘foreign’ music. (Sadly I have no space for other great, moving and harrowing Cultural Revolution memoirs including Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, and Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words.)

This Generation by Han Han
Now in his early 30s, Han Han may no longer be the voice of Chinese youth, but his caustic analysis of social and political issues, cynical wit and genuine concern for others influenced a generation of young people in this country. The first great Internet writer, this collection highlights both his bravery in confronting knee-jerk nationalism – and a command of irony arguably not seen in Chinese writing since Lu Xun.
See the full set of shortlists from each of our literary experts for Time Out's best Chinese non-fiction books of the last century, for reasons why the judges love each work, books that didn't make the list and more.

This list is divided alphabetically, read the lists from judges whose surnames start A-I here.

Note that we've included the year of publication only when it was specified by our judges.

"Tess-Johnston"

Tess Johnston

First arriving in Shanghai in 1981, Tess Johnston is uniquely qualified to research and write on the Western presence in old China. She and her co-author, Shanghai photographer Deke Erh (Er Dongqiang), have published 25 books, including fifteen volumes on Western architecture and the expatriate experience in old China.


Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

A brilliant synthesis of everything you need to know about the progress/regress of current China.


One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines on Doing Business in China by James McGregor

A dynamite guide book for doing business in China, with succinct lesson-summaries in each diverse chapter.


Port of Last Resort: The Diaspora Communities of Shanghai by Marcia R Ristaino

A very readable (and scholarly) overview of situation of the White Russian and Jewish refugees who wound up in Shanghai.


Poorly Made in China: An Insider's Account of the Tactics Behind China's Production Game by Paul Midler

You don't have to be interested in doing business in and/or with China to enjoy this witty and disturbingly informative glimpse into the manufacturing process that takes you from the factory to Walmart.


The Years That Were Fat by George Kates

A wealthy, effete Bostonian falls in love with Peking and shares his delight in collecting antiques for his hutong residence. His insights and descriptions of life in the old city just before the Japanese invasion are both evocative and absorbing.




"Marysia-Juszczakiewicz-credit-Roger-Lee-Productions"Marysia Juszczakiewicz 

Marysia Juszczakiewicz is the founder and owner of Peony Literary Agency with extensive experience of publishing in both the UK and Asia. Peony was the first agent to represent the recent Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan and sold the English language rights for his novel Sandalwood Death. Read more at www.peonyliteraryagency.com

Image: Roger Lee Productions


Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikötter

An extremely well researched book and turning point book on a subject little looked at accurately. How when one looks at the statistics, or at least the statistics available, the actions of one man caused such suffering.


Wild Swans by Jung Chang

A turning point book, which effectively started interest in China and its history. Many tried to emulate aferwards but this remains a classic.


Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

A very enjoyable insight into China today, and what makes people tick. I think the strength of the book and the writing, is how Osnos gets to the heart of those he interviews.


The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

A poignant collection of stories from Yiwu who now lives in exile about those jobs that are little known about in China. Absolutely fascinating.


The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui

An page-turning portrait of Mao by his doctor. It's almost a morbidly compelling read, and one of the first openly critical overviews of Mao and at the time of publication was quite an insight




Danuta Kean

Danuta Kean is a literary journalist and publishing expert. She is books editor of Mslexia, the magazine for women writers, and teaches creative writing students about the business side of publishing for, among others, the Guardian Masterclass series. Her journalism has appeared widely, including the Financial Times, Daily Mail and The Independent. She is currently working on a crime novel.


Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Not a particularly original choice, I know, but it had such an impact on me when I read it all those years ago. The ambition of Chang, taking the lives of three women as a lens through which to view China in the 20th Century, is breath-taking, as are the descriptions of a society many of us in the West have failed to try to understand. 


China in Ten Words by Yu Hua 

A little gem of a book. Yu Hua uses ten common Chinese words or phrases to frame anecdotes from his own life that reveal the heart of China and its people. Darkly comic, it also highlights the challenges faced by a people with a Maoist past but living in the capitalist present. 




Jo-Lusby

Jo Lusby

Jo Lusby is Managing Director of Penguin Random House (North Asia). Since 2005, Jo has run local publishing and import sales in English, Chinese and Korean for a wide range of authors. She has worked with literary names such as Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, Man Asian Prize winner Bi Feiyu, and Edgar Award winner Paul French, as well as major media brands including Jamie Oliver, Peppa Pig, and Peter Rabbit.


The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

A book so distressing I have never re-read it, but it is a robust work of research, harrowing, and sensitively handled.


Midnight in Peking by Paul French

A fantastic story underpinned by real events, shedding light on a historic unsolved murder and a time and place largely forgotten to the contemporary reader (that of the pre-war international community in Beijing/ Peking).


Tombstone by Yang Jisheng

Important is so many ways, mustn't be forgotten to history, and based on a lifetime of research. Surprisingly readable despite its forensic nature.


The Party by Richard McGregor

A fascinating insight into the workings of the Party, made more relevant by recent events and Xi Jinping's ongoing crackdown.


China Shakes the World by James Kynge

Tells the story of China's growth through memorable anecdotes that you can quote endlessly at dinner parties. A little dated, and yet provides great context for China's ongoing global expansion.




"Rana-Mitter"Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter is director of the China Centre at Oxford University. His most recent book is China's War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (US title: Forgotten Ally).



Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai by Robert Bickers

Penguin, 2003

An extraordinary book that takes the account of a 'nobody' - a British policeman who shipped out to Shanghai in 1919 - and recreates a lost world. Shanghai in the 1920s was a great world city but that was forgotten for many years, even in China itself. Through the story of the violent yet compelling figure of Maurice Tinkler, Bickers reminds us of how the story of Britain’s empire and China were interwoven.


China Road: One Man’s Journey into the Heart of Modern China by Rob Gifford

Bloomsbury, 2008

There are many excellent books by journalists on their China experiences, but this one shows the importance of moving out of the main cities to the hidden highway and side roads of the China few urbanites see.  


Its central argument is that roads and transportation more broadly are at the heart of the new China, bringing its rural population ever more swiftly into the heart of the cities.  Nearly a decade on, any observer of China can see how right this judgement was, and the argument is made stronger by the crisp and highly personal prose.


The Gate of Heavenly Peace by Jonathan Spence

Penguin, 1981

This was the first book on Chinese history that I read, and it is still one of the best.  Taking us through the lives of three generations of intellectuals, particularly those associated with the May Fourth Movement of the 1910s, Gate combines a history of the revolution with poignant portraits of some of China’s most important writers and thinkers. 


Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China by Duncan Hewitt

Chatto & Windus, 2007

Hewitt is an experienced BBC and Newsweek reporter who lives permanently in China, and his experience shows. This book captures the moment when China’s cities became the crucible of a changing lifestyle, and the author captures the way in which the emergence of a consumerist lifestyle has not only led to a more savvy and individualistic China, but also one that can express nostalgia for a lost era when social solidarity was more than a mere rhetorical phrase.


Mr China by Tim Clissold

Constable, 2010

Clissold’s account of trading in China in the early 2000s has become a classic of business literature – but is probably the only business classic that can make you laugh out loud with its account of hastily-changed contracts and high-level business meetings helped along by copious amounts of Maotai and cartons of vile cigarettes.  He has now written an excellent sequel - Chinese Lessons - but his first encounter with China is well worth revisiting.  




"Old-Shanghai-Gangsters-in-Paradise-by-Lynn-Pan"

Lynn Pan

Shanghai-born author Lynn Pan is one of China’s most dedicated biographers and the author of Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise  and Shanghai Style a look at 1920-1930s Shanghai, one of the city’s most exciting architectural periods, when modernist design ideas flooded in after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.


A Pragmatist and His Free Spirit by Susan Chan Egan and Chih-p’ing Chou
The Chinese University Press of Hong Kong Press, 2003. 
The ‘pragmatist’ is Hu Shi, the pre-eminent intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century and the leading light of the May Fourth Movement, and the book is a cache of his letters, discovered by Chih-p’ing Chou in 1997 in Beijing and translated by the authors. Reading this collection was like being bestowed a gift.

Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century by Hanchao Lu
University of California Press, 1999. 
Shanghai’s lane houses, peddlers, ricksaw pullers, shanty town dwellers and ‘little people’ given a scholarly treatment: wonderful! 

On Chinese Gardens by Chen Congzhou 
Better Link Press, Shanghai, 2008
A collection of translated essays by the late Chen Chongzhou, who was Professor of Architecture at Tongji University, a leading Chinese garden historian and a practising landscape architect deeply involved in the restoration of historic gardens. 

The Double Screen: Medium and Representation in Chinese Painting by Wu Hung
Reaktion Books, 1996
Wu Hung writes more intelligently about Chinese art than anyone I know.



Jemimah Steinfeld

Journalist Jemimah Steinfeld lived and worked in China for publications including Shanghai Talk, CNN, Huffington Post and Time Out before completing an MA in Chinese Studies from SOAS, University of London. She currently runs the literature programme at London's Asia House and has published her debut book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China.


Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang

The throwaway comment that China is the factory of the world is brought home in Factory Girls by Leslie T Chang. It's a fascinating insight into life on the assembly line. All of the stories are touching and some are much more relatable than one would assume.  


China Road by Rob Gifford

The rich variety, contrasts and contradictions of China can be the non-fiction writer's nightmare, but in the case of travel lit, it's a selling-point. Rob Gifford, who worked for the better part of a decade as China correspondent for NPR, embarked on a journey from east to west of China, which is the perfect route for highlighting the country’s many differences. The prose flows off the page and Gifford packs in plenty of information without labouring or lecturing. 


Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Less book on China and more book in China, Midnight in Peking is an ultimate page turner (no surprise then that it's being turned into a TV drama). Paul French takes on the task of both writer and investigator as he looks at an unsolved murder of a British girl in Beijing in 1937. The backdrop of the Sino-Japanese war only adds to the suspense. 


Red Azalea by Anchee Min

The craziness of the Cultural Revolution springs off the page in Anchee Min’s memoir Red Azalea, in which she recounts her time as a sent down youth and as an actor in the propaganda film of the same name. Written after Min had moved to the US and part of the scar literature of the period, when people came to grips with the horrors that they saw and/or committed, Red Azalea will stay with you long after you put it down. 


The Good Women of China by Xinran

Even though the binds on women's feet have been removed, Chinese women still face extreme pressure and discrimination. This is explored in Xinran's masterpiece The Good Women of China. While working as a presenter on a radio show dedicated to Chinese women, Xinran received many letters from women. Moved by their stories, she tracked down the women and catalogued their stories. 




"HarveyThomlinson1pic"Harvey Thomlinson

Harvey Thomlinson is the founder of Hong Kong and UK-based press Make-Do Publishing, which in the last five years has published fiction by Asian writers.  Harvey’s translation of Murong Xuecun’s Dancing Through Red Dust will be published in September 2015.


Two Kinds of Time by Graham Peck

Vivid, humorous and compassionate, this eye witness account takes readers to a war ravaged China on the eve of revolution. Graham Peck roamed China in the 1930s as a journalist and then returned in the 1940s to serve with the US Office of War Information. His description of corrupt wartime Kuomintang Chongqing is particularly compelling.


The Dead Suffered Too by Nan Yue and Shi Yang

A tersely gripping account of the excavation of the Ming tombs at the height of the Maoist era. The twists and turns of the excavation mirror the vagaries of the political campaigns and illuminate the cultural revolution’s schizophrenia about history.


Tombstone by Yang Jisheng

This book about China’ Great Famine of 1959-62 was written through nearly twenty years of painstaking research during which Yang interviewed hundreds of people. Yang’s Tombstone was sculpted in part as a memorial to his foster father who died of hunger in 1959.


The Opium War by Julia Lovell

Julia Lovell’s fluently written history illuminates an historical moment shaped by misunderstandings and introduces a large cast of characters. While acknowledging a shameful moment in British history, this narrative is attenuated by the complexities of human agency.


A Leaf in the Bitter Wind by Ting-Xing Ye

Of the mini tidal wave of ‘ survivor’ memoirs of twentieth century China, of which Wild Swans crested highest, Ting Xing Ye’s story scores for its relative lack of emoting. Born into a family of Shanghai factory-owners, the author is persecuted for her background.




Jeffrey-WasserstromJeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at University of California, Irvine and the author of four books, including Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Fast Changing Lives in a Fast Changing Land.  He has been a featured speaker at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, edits the Journal of Asian Studies, and co-edits the Asia Section of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


The Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan Spence 

This is one of the first books I read about China that made a deep impression on me, and I continue to find it fascinating on multiple re-readings, due to its stylistic elegance and the use it makes of fiction and folklore to evoke a time and place. I was assigned it in the first course on Chinese history I took and often now assign it to my own students.


The Talented Women of the Zhang Family by Susan Mann

Another work of creative historical recreation that places female experience at the centre of the story and uses literary works, in this case poetry, to very good effect.  A pleasure to read and filled with insights.


Shanghai Style by Lynn Pan

With Lynn Pan, as with both of the previous authors, I could actually have chosen a different favorite work, in this case her autobiographical Tracing It Home, just as easily. Shanghai Style is just wonderfully appealing in aesthetic terms, due to the way the varied and perfectly chosen illustrations complement the graceful prose. It also does a great job of capturing the cosmopolitanism of diffuse forms of creativity during a special period in Shanghai's history.


Private Life Under Socialism by Yan Yunxiang

An exemplary ethnography, based on the unique experiences of an anthropologist who spend time in a setting as a sent-down youth, then returned to it as a scholar to do fieldwork. It shows with great skill and in great detail how Chinese family structures and other parts of social life were turned inside out first by collectivisation and Maoism and then by market forces and other features of the Reform era.


History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth by Paul A Cohen

This is one of those rare books that impresses and completely satisfies specialists, yet is also accessible and engaging to general readers.  


While focusing on the events of 1900, it has much to offer those concerned with later periods, due to its interest in how the Boxers have been mythologised, and introduces a host of fascinating specific themes, from surprising parallels between the mental worlds of missionaries and anti-Christian insurgents when it came to expectations of receiving help from on high in times of crisis, to the importance, with any historical moment, of remembering what a crucial difference it makes that participants do not know how the story - their story - will end.




Bingxia Yu

Bingxia Yu is a journalist and literary translator based in Shanghai. She is currently working on the Chinese translation of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.


Notes on a Mosquito by Xi Chuan

New Directions, 2012

One of the problems of China’s contemporary fiction is that it comes from a literary lineage very different from the globally familiar one, but in poetry, the disjunction is noticeably smaller. The poet Xi Chuan is more inclined to embrace Western linguistic logic than the Chinese poetic tradition. His poems are grand in emotion and almost painfully thorough in intellectual self-inquisition. 


The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity by Wang Hui

Verso, 2011

Wang Hui, China’s leading Neo-leftist political theoretician is an interesting case of Chinese eclecticism. He values a reasoned absorption of China’s various cultural revolutions into establishing a reasonable ideological go-forward, even though arguably we have yet to start the digestion process, let alone absorb. 


Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler

Canongate, 2011

As a Chinese person, I’m not one who reads or cares very much about foreigners’ impressions on this country, though Peter Hessler’s efforts to go deep into China’s 'heartland' does yield impressive non-fiction writing. I find Hessler’s personal experience of the Chinese everyday life subtle and intriguing. 


Concentric Circles by Yang Lian

Bloodaxe, 2005

The poet Yang Lian spent most of his time abroad for the past few decades. The son of a diplomat is as much of a Chinese literary aristocrat as it can get, and his usually long poems, complex (though I don’t personally buy into the common 'misty' label stuck on him) in both form and language, are filled with lyrical grandiose of somewhat typical aristocrat emotions. 


The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature by Julia Lovell

University of Hawaii Press, 2006

I came across this book once and found the title itself just amazingly hilarious. Julia Lovell is one of the most hard-working Chinese to English translators and she does indeed provide an interesting academic look into various aspects of China.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
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