The best non-fiction China books of the last century

China's best non-fiction books as voted by a panel of 25 literary experts

Our best non-fiction books, and a few of the best works of fiction as well.

Start the countdown to Time Out Beijing's best Chinese non-fiction books of all time, as voted for by 24 Chinese literature experts, novelists, literary agents, publishers, editors, critics and journalists for their top book picks from the last 100 years, based on the following criteria:

- Available in English

- Published after 1900

- A book that illuminates some interesting aspect of Chinese society; historical or modern, observational or analytical, playful or scholarly; poignant and relevant to readers today.

Discover the full lists of judges and which books each expert voted for and why each book means so much to them in our judges' section.

Read more The top 20 fiction China books of all time.

The countdown to China's best non-fiction books, as voted by Time Out's panel of 25 literary. Read entries 20-16 below and click through the thumbnails underneath for the full countdown

20 Red Azalea

Anchee Min

Red Azalea is available from priced at 80RMB

19 China's War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

Rana Mitter
China's War with Japan is available from priced at 110RMB

18 The Good Women of China

The Good Women of China is available from priced at 90RMB

17 Mr China

Tim Clissold
Mr China is available from priced at 70RMB

16 China Road

Rob Gifford
China Road is available from priced at 100RMB
The countdown to China's best non-fiction books, as voted by Time Out's panel of 25 literary. Read entries 15-11 at a glance below and click through the thumbnails underneath for the full countdown

15 The Party

Richard McGregor

The Party is available on priced at 100RMB

14 The Importance of Living

Lin Yutang

The Importance of Living is available on priced at 80RMB

13 China Shakes the World: The Rise of a Hungry Nation

James Kynge

China Shakes the World is available from priced at 100RMB.

12 The Age of Openness: China Before Mao

Frank Dikotter

The Age of Openness is available from priced from 200RMB

11 China to Me

Emily Hahn

China to Me is available from priced at 90RMB

The countdown to China's best non-fiction books, as voted by Time Out's panel of 25 literary - entries 10-6

"Evan-Osnos"10 Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China

Evan Osnos, 2014

American journalist and The New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos spent almost ten years interviewing China’s movers and shakers, dustmen and street hawkers, recyclers and barbers – the real people behind the hyperbole and headlines of China’s remarkable economic transformation. 

This primary research and the personal testimonies it produced are the foundations for Osnos’ challenging and enlightening portrait of China that looks at the enormous impact on society as the country has moved from worship of the collective to worship of the individual.


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

Tess Johnson Author, Permanently Temporary: From Berlin to Shanghai in Half a Century

Age of Ambition is available from priced from 100RMB.

9 Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

Lynn Pan, 2008

Lynn Pan, one of Shanghai’s most dedicated biographers, has a gift for blending prose with aesthetics in a way that elevates both forms. Meticulously illustrated with photographs and drawings from the 1920s and ’30s, Shanghai Style reconstructs one of the city’s most exciting architectural eras when Western ideas – carried by artists, businessmen and raconteurs – flooded in following the collapse of the Qing dynasty. 

Shanghai-born, with roots in both the East and West, Pan uniquely understands the fusion of identity that this remarkable period represents. Her love of Modernism and dislike of the Soviet-inspired Social Realism that replaced it, only adds to the personality of this treasure.

Shanghai Style is available from priced at 148RMB

"Jonathan-Spence"8 The Gate of Heavenly Peace

Jonathan Spence, 1982

British-born historian Jonathan Spence retells the story of China’s revolution through the eyes of its most articulate observers: the insurrectionists, historians, philosophers and writers of the age. It weaves together the stories of three intellectuals – utopian theorist Kang Youwei, writer Lu Xun and feminist and writer Ding Ling. Thirty years after publication, it remains one of the definitive books on China’s passage from empire to republic.


This was the first book on Chinese history that I read, and it is still one of the best. Gate combines a history of the revolution with poignant portraits of some of China’s most important writers and thinkers.

Rana Mitter Professor, Institute for Chinese Studies, Oxford University

The Gate of Heavenly Peace is available from priced from 120RMB

Yu-hua7 China in Ten Words

Yu Hua, 2011

Yu Hua is the only author to straddle both our top ten fiction and non-fiction lists, a testament to his range and dynamism as an author. China in Ten Words is his first work of non-fiction to be translated into English. 

Banned in Mainland China, it takes ten phrases common in the Chinese vernacular (from ‘the people’ to ‘bamboozle’) and analyses them to explain the contradictions within society, taking on social equality gaps, piracy and revolution. The result is a brazen, witty account of life inside the ‘Chinese miracle’.

China in Ten Words is available from priced from 90RMB 

'In China, book reviews are not important' Time Out interview Yu Hua

Yu Hua also appears in our list of the top 40 Chinese fiction books. Read more

Jung-Chang-author6 Wild Swans

Jung Chang, 1991

Since its publication almost 25 years ago, Wild Swans has been reprinted in nearly 40 languages and sold more than 13 million copies, despite being banned in Mainland China. Through the story of three generations of women in her own family Jung Chang reveals the tragic history of China’s 20th century.

Chang’s grandmother’s feet were bound as a child, and she was given to a warlord general as a concubine; as the general lay dying, she fled with her infant daughter. That daughter grew up to become active in the Communist movement during the civil war against the Kuomintang before having her own daughter. Chang subsequently grew up as part of the political elite but was later exiled when she questioned Mao’s inviolability.

Quotes-blueA turning point book, which effectively started interest in China and its history. Many tried to emulate afterwards but this remains a classic.

Marysia Juszczakiewicz Founder, Peony Literary Agency

Wild Swans is available from priced from 70RMB.

The countdown of the best Chinese works of nonfiction, as voted by Time Out's expert literary panel - entries 5-2

"Yang Jisheng"5 Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962

Yang Jisheng, 2007

Chinese name 墓碑 中國六十年代大饑荒紀實

Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng, whose foster father died of hunger in 1959, estimates 36 million people lost their lives to China’s great famine – more than 450 times the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki and more than the number of people killed in the First World War.


His account of the shockingly grim realities of 1959-62, which were hushed up by authorities for decades after, was painstakingly researched using the interview transcripts of hundreds of survivors, some of whom lived by eating human flesh. In 2010, in an interview with the journalist Ian Johnson, Yang remarked that he views the famine ‘as part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time. The chief culprit was Mao.’ This is a story that must never be forgotten.


Important in so many ways and based on a lifetime of research. Surprisingly readable despite its forensic nature

Jo Lusby Managing Director, Penguin Random House North Asia

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 is available from priced from 70RMB


"Peter-Hessler"4 River Town

Peter Hessler, 2006

Chinese name  江城 

Today, Peter Hessler is a correspondent for The New Yorker, but back in 1996 he was an English teacher, working for the American Peace Corps in the then-remote town of Fuling, Sichuan province. Hessler, whose wife Leslie T Chang also appears on this list (see below), stayed for two years, turning his experience into one of the most entertaining and heart-warming accounts of teaching in China.

Charming and hopeful, this book practically started a new sub-genre of China travelogues and business books, of which there are now hundreds. Nevertheless, Hessler’s story endures more than most.

River Town is available in Chinese and English from priced at 130RMB. 

"Paul-French"3 Midnight in Peking

Paul French, 2012

Chinese name 午夜北平

Shanghai-based writer Paul French’s work of crime fiction has become one of the bestselling expatriate authored books in China. Subtitled ‘How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China’, the book digs up one of Beijing’s most gruesome mysteries – that of Pamela Werner, who was found on Russian Christmas in 1937 with her heart ripped out of her chest.

Through tireless research of contemporary and subsequent correspondence, police reports and newspaper clippings that took him as far afield as Kew in London, the author whittled down a list of suspects in an attempt to close the case.

Midnight in Peking captures the imaginations of modern émigré fascinated by the experiences of their forebears, with all the page turn-ability of a Ruth Rendell mystery. It’s no surprise then to hear rumours of it being turned into a TV drama.

Midnight in Peking is available in Chinese from priced at 24RMB, or in English at priced at 65RMB

"leslie-t-chang"2 Factory Girls: Voices From the Heart of Modern China

Leslie T Chang, 2008

Chinese name 打工女孩: 从乡村到城市的变动中国

Factory Girls was the first book to actually go into the dormitories and factory floors of China’s migrant workers. When American-Chinese journalist Leslie T Chang visited the Pearl River Delta factory city of Dongguan in 2004 for an article documenting the lives of Wu Chunming and Lu Qingmin, two migrant workers who were born to poor farming families, she decided to turn their story into something more.

The resulting book follows their lives over a period of three years and includes the author’s own family history of migration within China and to the West, adding a personal touch. At the time, Factory Girls lifted the lid on the so-called ‘factory of the world’, sparking numerous revelations and raising awareness about workers’ conditions. It went on to become one of The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2008 and also received the 2009 PEN USA Literary Award for Research Nonfiction and the Asian American Literary Award for Nonfiction.

Factory Girls is a masterclass in reportage and the power of applying patience, sensitivity and trust when researching a topic.


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. 

Kelly Falconer Founder, Asia Literary Agency

Factory Girls is available in Chinese and English from priced at 76RMB.

Discover the very best work of China non-fiction in Time Out's countdown of the best books since 1900, as voted by a panel of literary experts. Find out who made it to the number one entry in our list of China's best non-fiction books.


1 The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China

Julia Lovell, 2012

The Opium War, fought between Britain and China in the mid-1800s, is a key founding myth of the Chinese Communist Party, variously used over the subsequent decades to unite the people against a tyrannical West, fuel fervent nationalism and explain away China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’. Understanding its events is essential in grasping where China is in the world today.

Julia Lovell, a translator and lecturer of modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck, University of London, has devoted her career to unscrambling this complicated country to the English-speaking world. In 2011, she told Time Out that the idea for the book came from spotting a gap in the historical records. ‘The British primary texts are full of racial prejudice and self-justification, and Chinese accounts have long been very emotional, viewing the war as the start of a terrible century of humiliation by the West,’ she said. She wanted to present an account uniting both.

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. 
Peter Gordon Editor, Asia Review of Books

The-opium-warThe book concludes with reflections on how the Opium War helped shape and inform global geopolitics for decades following its conclusion. As Lovell sees it, ‘Westerners began to fear that China was plotting to take over the world, in revenge against what it suffered in the Opium War. But this is a xenophobic hallucination on the part of the West. If we understand the reality of the Opium War and start to question the fictions that later commentators created, we limit the power of these myths.’

Her fast-paced narrative of the build-up to the conflict – a sequence of grave bureaucratic blunders, misunderstandings and flawed characters that eventually resulted in China’s defeat and the handover of Hong Kong – is engrossing, and fluid as any novel. A masterpiece of non-fiction.

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China is available from priced at 188RMB. Read more

  • 4 out of 5 stars