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A Novel Approach to Chinese History


If you're interested in China (or any place), I think we're in agreement as to the importance of understanding the historical context. The more you know what has happened, the more you understand what is happening today. Yet at times, the thought of reading history results in a gag reflux, I get it. I really do, some historians are terrible writers. And for those of you who roll your eyes at the mere mention of historical fiction, I'm with you.

However, there are novels that engage the reader in the story and open a door to a time in history in such a way that the line between fiction and fact is blurred. If you're a China buff, here are 10 books I recommend for learning about Chinese history through what I'm calling a novel approach. I've placed them chronologically in terms of Chinese history and instead of telling you much about the story, will share a bit about why you need to read it from a historical perspective. History, in this case, consists of both the well-known "big" events, and the lesser known daily events. Together, they are woven together to form the fabric of a society, culture, and people.

  1. Peony in Love (by Lisa See) takes place in 17th century China and the historical context is the Qing dynasty violently replacing the Ming. You'll also get a sense of women's roles in both of those dynasties and taste daily life as it is worked naturally into the plot. Added bonus: Chinese view of the afterlife and "hungry ghosts".
  2. Snowflower and the Secret Fan (by Lisa See) occurs during the mid-19th century and has a vivid description of the foot binding process (my feet hurt at the recollection). Want to understand current attitudes towards religion? The Taiping Rebellion is the place to start and is the backdrop of this novel. Added bonus: the Chinese view of insiders and outsiders.
  3. Empress Orchid (by Anchee Min) starts in 1852 with the marriage between Emperor Xianfeng and a gaggle of concubines. This novel and the next focus on Cixi and her life in the Forbidden City and royal court. Of added historical interest, the second opium war occurred during that time period and China's political situation weakens with the involvement of foreign powers. This novel ends with the burning of the Summer Palace, the death of Emperor Xianfeng in 1861, and the Xinyou Palace Coup.
  4. The Last Empress (by Anchee Min) opens with the Cixi establishing herself in the complicated position of ruling while her son grows old enough to become emperor. This time period has been characterized as "violent" and marked by humiliation at the hands of foreigners. With the love/hate relationship with the Japanese, the Boxer Rebellion, widespread mistrust of foreigners, and the demise of the Qing dynasty, this was not a bright spot in Chinese history.
  5. City of Tranquil Light (by Bo Caldwell) takes place in the North China Plain from 1909 until the mid-to late 30s. The story of missionary couple and their lives, this book opens a window to rural life as the Qing dynasty fell and the Republic of China came into brief existence.
  6. The Good Earth (by Pearl S. Buck) is, by far, the most famous book on this list as it dramatizes the life of Wang Lung and his family in a Chinese village before WWII. Life in rural China was not for the faint at heart.
  7. The Distant Land of My Father (by Bo Caldwell) starts in the opulent land of Shanghai in the 1930's for Anna and her family. As the war breaks out, her father couldn't bear to leave, causing Anna and her mother to have a distant relationship with a man who loves them, but loves China more. Watching Shanghai be attacked and the subsequent hard times that China went through into the 80's is as painful as what happened to the characters within the story.
  8. Dragon Seed (by Pearl S. Buck) is a novelization of the Invasion and Rape of Nanking/Nanjing. You need to read it, but it is not an "easy" read (nor should it be).
  9. Letter from Peking (by Pearl S. Buck) also explores a family separated by history. When the Communist Uprising made it difficult for white people to be in China, Gerald (half Chinese) sent his wife and son back to the U.S. where his ailing father (who lived as a Chinese) lived. Through smuggled letters, the reader is given a sense of life in China at that time. Elizabeth, her son, and father-in-law, gives the reader is a sense of how China was viewed by America at that time.
  10. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (by Dai Sijie) takes place during the Cultural Revolution as two city boys are sent to a remote mountain village for reeducation.

Obviously this isn't an exhaustive list. What books would you add and what aspects of Chinese history do they highlight?

If youre interested in China (or any place), I think were in agreement as to the importance of understanding the historical context. The more you know what has happened, the more you understand what is happening today. Yet at times, the thought of reading history results in a gag reflux, I get it. I really do, some historians are terrible writers. And for those of you who roll your eyes at the mere mention of historical fiction, Im with you.

However, there are novels that engage the reader in the story and open a door to a time in history in such a way that the line between fiction and fact is blurred. If youre a China buff, here are 10 books I recommend for learning about Chinese history through what Im calling a novel approach. Ive placed them chronologically in terms of Chinese history and instead of telling you much about the story, will share a bit about why you need to read it from a historical perspective. History, in this case, consists of both the well-known big events, and the lesser known daily events. Together, they are woven together to form the fabric of a society, culture, and people.

1. Peony in love (by Lisa See) takes place in 17th century China and the historical context is the Qing dynasty violently replacing the Ming. Youll also get a sense of womens roles in both of those dynasties and taste daily life as it is worked naturally into the plot. Added bonus: Chinese view of the afterlife and hungry ghosts.

2. Snowflower and the Secret Fan (by Lisa See) occurs during the mid-19th century and has a vivid description of the foot binding process (my feet hurt at the recollection). Want to understand current attitudes towards religion? The Taiping Rebellion is the place to start and is the backdrop of this novel. Added bonus: the Chinese view of insiders and outsiders.

3. Empress Orchid (by Anchee Min) starts in 1852 with the marriage between Emperor Xianfeng and a gaggle of concubines. This novel and the next focus on Cixi and her life in the Forbidden City and royal court. Of added historical interest, the second opium war occurred during that time period and Chinas political situation weakens with the involvement of foreign powers. This novel ends with the burning of the Summer Palace, the death of Emperor Xianfeng in 1861, and the Xinyou Palace Coup.

4. The Last Empress (by Anchee Min) opens with the Cixi establishing herself in the complicated position of ruling while her son grows old enough to become emperor. This time period has been characterized as violent and marked by humiliation at the hands of foreigners. With the love/hate relationship with the Japanese, the Boxer Rebellion, widespread mistrust of foreigners, and the demise of the Qing dynasty, this was not a bright spot in Chinese history.

5. City of Tranquil Light (by Bo Caldwell) takes place in the North China Plain from 1909 until the mid-to late 30s. The story of missionary couple and their lives, this book opens a window to rural life as the Qing dynasty fell and the Republic of China came into brief existence.

6. The Good Earth (by Pearl S. Buck) is, by far, the most famous book on this list as it dramatizes the life of Wang Lung and his family in a Chinese village before WWII. Life in rural China was not for the faint at heart.

7. The Distant Land of My Father (by Bo Caldwell) starts in the opulent land of Shanghai in the 1930s for Anna and her family. As the war breaks out, her father couldnt bear to leave, causing Anna and her mother to have a distant relationship with a man who loves them, but loves China more. Watching Shanghai be attacked and the subsequent hard times that China went through into the 80s is as painful as what happened to the characters within the story.

8. Dragon Seed (by Pearl S. Buck) is a novelization of the Invasion and Rape of Nanking/Nanjing. You need to read it, but it is not an easy read (nor should it be).

9. Letter from Peking (by Pearl S. Buck) also explores a family separated by history. When the Communist Uprising made it difficult for white people to be in China, Gerald (half Chinese) sent his wife and son back to the U.S. where his ailing father (who lived as a Chinese) lived. Through smuggled letters, the reader is given a sense of life in China at that time. Elizabeth, her son, and father-in-law, gives the reader is a sense of how China was viewed by America at that time.

10. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (by Dai Sijie) takes place during the Cultural Revolution as two city boys are sent to a remote mountain village for reeducation.

Obviously this isnt an exhaustive list. What books would you add and what aspects of Chinese history do they highlight?

 

Amy Young

Amy Young

Amy Young wants to help people find the sweet spot between burn out and rust out with ongoing personal and professional development. Founder of Global Trellis, co-founder of Velvet Ashes, she personally blogs at Messy Middle, and is the author of four books (Looming Transitions, Love, Amy, View Full Bio