For those of you tired of streaming TV shows and movies, here are a few books you could check out. These are personal favorites that range in historical period and subject matter. They were the ones I read that I felt gave me a better understanding of Chinese history, culture, and the female experience. More recommendations to come.
1 Wild Swans by Jung Chan
If there’s any book at the top of my list it’s this memoir. It may be long but it doesn’t feel like it because Jung Chang weaves the three generations of her grandmother, mother, and herself so seamlessly that it’s really hard to put down the book. Wild Swans is a really great story that covers 20th century Chinese history and especially about the female experience in China too. With over 10 million copies sold worldwide and having been translated in over 30 languages, there’s a reason why so many people read this book (and so you should too).
2 Chinese Cinderella/ Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah
Published shortly after Wild Swans, Chinese Cinderella is the abridged/revised version of Adeline Yen Mah’s memoir growing up in China. She recounts her childhood and adult life as the unloved daughter in a well-to-do Chinese family, suffering at the hands of her stepmother and being considered a bad luck child. It’s a moving book that’s really worth the read.
3 Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong
A Chinese classic, it’s kind of hard for me to figure out the best way to recommend reading this novel, especially since it spans four volumes, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms is such a classic that in some way or another, you have to check it out. I read the books but there are shorter stories that you can read on its own. Truthfully, the easiest way is to watch the many movies, TV shows, and cartoons spawned from this epic tale, but there is a book so I thought it was worth mentioning.
4 To Live by Hua Yu
Initially banned in China but later hailed as one of the country’s most influential books, it is a modern literary classic that has also been made into an amazing movie by Zhang Yimou starring Gong Li. The novel takes place during the Chinese revolution and follows a young man’s transformation from spoiled son of a landlord to a kindhearted peasant. A really moving story.
5 Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Eternal First Lady by Laura Tyson Li
This biography is one of my personal favorites. Raised in one of China’s most powerful families and educated at Wellesley College, Madame Chiang Kai Shek was a tour de force historical figure in the 20th century. Although controversial at times, that only adds to the reasons why you should read about her. She wasn’t just a first lady but also a chief advisor, interpreter, and representative for her husband. Going toe to toe with Western leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill, she’s an interesting figure that really shows an international side to Chinese history, how China interacted with other nations during the world wars and its own civil wars.
6 Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
One of the most infamous atrocities to occur during WWII, this is a moment in history few Chinese forget. The Japanese army had swept into Nanjing during the war and within a few weeks 300,000 Chinese men, women, and children had been systemically murder, beaten, raped and tortured. Iris Chang’s grandparents barely escaped during this time and she writes from three different perspectives in her book: the Japanese soldier’s, the Chinese, and a group of Westerners that were there. It’s an episode in history that may be intimidating to read, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s important to acknowledge the pain and suffering that happened, so that it truly may never be repeated again.
7 Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality by Leta Hong-Fincher
“Leftover Women” or shengnu has remained a relevant issue always, and seems to be in an interesting position currently as the male-female population balance in China grows increasingly skewed. When women lose, everyone loses, and the ones in China face shocking levels of structural discrimination that ultimately negatively impact’s the country’s economic, social, and political development.