I have recently read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, which is set in an alternate version of eighth century China, during the Tang Dynasty. Although I enjoyed the book, the historical period it was based on was completely unfamiliar to me, and this made me think about how little I actually know about China and its history.
Most of the novels I have read set in China are by Lisa See. The most memorable of these was probably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, from which I learned a lot about Chinese customs such as foot-binding, ‘laotong’ relationships and the secret women’s language known as Nü Shu. I also enjoyed Shanghai Girls, about two sisters who grow up in Shanghai before being sold into arranged marriages and forced to leave China behind for Los Angeles. In the sequel, Dreams of Joy, the daughter of one of the sisters returns to China and lives through the horrors of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. Lisa See also wrote China Dolls, which is not actually set in China, but follows the stories of three girls – two Chinese and one Japanese – who work as dancers at a San Francisco nightclub in the 1930s. I haven’t read the rest of her books yet, but have The Island of Sea Women on my NetGalley shelf.
There are two books by Jamie Ford that I’ve read which feature Chinese-American characters living in Seattle in the 1930s and 40s. These are Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Songs of Willow Frost. I enjoyed both and gained some interesting insights into life in Seattle’s Chinese communities.
Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, which I really enjoyed reading a few years ago, is set partly in China and partly in India before and during the First Opium War. You will need to start with the first book, Sea of Poppies, but the second two – River of Smoke and Flood of Fire – are where the action switches largely to China (mainly Canton and Hong Kong).
I loved The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham which is set in 1920s Hong Kong during a cholera epidemic, but that book was contemporary (published in 1925) rather than historical. There’s also the wonderful Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which is non-fiction – an autobiographical book telling the story of Chang and her mother and grandmother – but every bit as readable, dramatic and emotional as fiction. Otherwise I’m struggling to think of anything else I’ve read about China. One of my current reads, The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, has some Chinese folklore in it but is set in 1930s Malaya – and I do remember, years ago, enjoying a book called Cloud Mountain by Aimee Liu but all the details of the plot have faded from my mind apart from the fact that it was about an American woman who marries a Chinese man in the early 20th century.
I’m sure some of you will have read much more about China than I have, so I would love to hear your recommendations. I would be particularly interested in books set in earlier periods – such as the Tang Dynasty I mentioned at the start of this post – but any suggestions are welcome!