From classical works to contemporary tales, the following list showcases ten remarkable novels set in China that provide a glimpse into the heart and soul of China. China, with its rich history, diverse culture, and stunning landscapes, has served as the backdrop for countless novels that transport readers into a world both ancient and modern. Whether you’re looking to delve into the past or explore the complexities of present-day China, these novels set in China offer a literary passport to the Middle Kingdom.
Novels Set in China
Dream of the Red Chamber – Cao Xueqin
“Dream of the Red Chamber,” also known as “The Story of the Stone,” is a literary masterpiece in Chinese literature among novels set in China. Written by Cao Xueqin during the Qing Dynasty, it is considered one of the greatest novels in world literature. The novel weaves a rich tapestry of love, tragedy, and social commentary, offering a glimpse into the complex tapestry of Chinese society in the 18th century.
Set in the aristocratic Jia family, the story revolves around the lives of its members, particularly the tragic love story of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu. With its exquisite prose, intricate character development, and profound exploration of human nature, “Dream of the Red Chamber” is a timeless work that continues to captivate readers across the globe.
The novel explores themes of love, fate, illusion, and reality, making it a mirror to the human experience. Its enduring popularity lies in its ability to resonate with readers from different cultures and backgrounds. As we embark on this literary journey, we are invited to ponder the eternal questions of existence and the universal emotions that bind us all. “Dream of the Red Chamber” is not just a novel; it is a reflection of the human soul and a testament to the enduring power of storytelling among novels set in China.
The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin
Soon on Netflix among novels set in China. 1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beat her father to death during China’s Cultural Revolution. This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind.
Four decades later, Beijing police ask nanotech engineer Wang Miao to infiltrate a secretive cabal of scientists after a spate of inexplicable suicides. Wang’s investigation will lead him to a mysterious online game and immerse him in a virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredictable interaction of its three suns.
This is the Three-Body Problem and it is the key to everything: the key to the scientists’ deaths, the key to a conspiracy that spans light-years and the key to the extinction-level threat humanity now faces. An interesting one among novels set in China.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – Dai Sijie
1971: Mao’s cultural Revolution is at its peak. Two sons of doctors, sent to ‘re-education’ camps, forced to carry buckets of excrement up and down mountain paths, have only their sense of humour to keep them going. Although the attractive daughter of the local tailor also helps to distract them from the task at hand.
The boys’ true re-education starts, however, when they discover a hidden suitcase packed with the great Western novels of the nineteenth century. Their lives are transformed. And not only their lives: after listening to the stories of Balzac, the little seamstress will never be the same again. An autobiographical one among novels set in China.
The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck
When O-lan, a servant girl, marries the peasant Wang Lung, she toils tirelessly through four pregnancies for their family’s survival. Reward at first is meagre, but there is sustenance in the land – until the famine comes.
Half-starved, the family joins thousands of peasants to beg on the city streets. It seems that all is lost, until O-lan’s desperate will to survive returns them home with undreamt of wealth. But they have betrayed the earth from which true wealth springs, and the family’s money breeds only mistrust, deception – and heartbreak for the woman who had saved them.
The Good Earthis a riveting family saga and story of female sacrifice – a classic of twentieth-century literature among novels set in China.
Red Sorghum – Mo Yan
Spanning three generations, this book -among novels set in China- of family and myth is told through a series of flashbacks that depict events of staggering horror set against a landscape of gemlike beauty as the Chinese battle both the Japanese invaders and each other in the turbulent 1930s.
As the novel opens, a group of villagers, led by Commander Yu, the narrator’s grandfather, prepare to attack the advancing Japanese. Yu sends his 14-year-old son back home to get food for his men; but as Yu’s wife returns through the sorghum fields with the food, the Japanese start firing and she is killed.
Her death becomes the thread that links the past to the present and the narrator moves back and forth recording the war’s progress, the fighting between the Chinese warlords and his family’s history.
In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club.
Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts. A good read among novels set in China.
Empress – Shan Sa
Such is the voice of Shan Sa’s unforgettable heroine in her latest literary masterpiece, Empress, among novels set in China. Empress Wu, one of China’s most controversial figures, was its first and only female emperor, who emerged in the seventh century during the great Tang Dynasty and ushered in a golden age.
Throughout history, her name has been defamed and her story distorted by those taking vengeance on a woman who dared to become emperor. But now, for the first time in thirteen centuries, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight, as we come to know her) flings open the gates of the Forbidden City and tells her own astonishing tale—revealing a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.
Writing with epic assurance, poetry, and vivid historic detail, Shan Sa plumbs the psychological and philosophical depths of what it means to be a striving mortal in a tumultuous, power-hungry world. Empress, among novels set in China, is a great literary feat and a revelation for the ages.
Cherries on a Pomegranate Tree – Li Er
In one-child China, when a mother runs from home because of her illegal pregnancy, it’s Kong Fanhua’s problem.
She’s the only female village chief in Xiushui County, and her day-to-day tasks range from the mundane to the near-impossible: tracking down this runaway who left her twins behind, keeping rumours of a vengeful ghost at bay while trying to convince some rich American to invest in the local paper plant. Not to mention looking after her own farm and family. After all, the crops aren’t going to plant themselves.
While the incompetent men in local government fail to get much done, Fanhua picks up the slack. But when higher-ups start investigating her hometown’s birth quotas, just as she’s up for re-election, the squeeze is on. Can she keep all the plates spinning? Or will she resort to villainous tactics to preserve the peace? And why won’t her lazy husband shut up about camels? An interesting one among novels set in China.
Beijing Coma – Ma Jian
For the Ma Jian fans among novels set in China. Dai Wei lies in his bedroom, a prisoner in his body, after he was shot in the head at the Tiananmen Square protest ten years earlier and left in a coma. As his mother tends to him, and his friends bring news of their lives in an almost unrecognisable China, Dai Wei escapes into his memories, weaving together the events that took him from his harsh childhood in the last years of the Cultural Revolution to his student days at Beijing University.
As the minute-by-minute chronicling of the lead-up to his shooting becomes ever more intense, the reader is caught in a gripping, emotional journey where the boundaries between life and death are increasingly blurred. A must-read among novels set in China.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China – Jung Chang
The story of three generations in twentieth-century China that blends the intimacy of memoir and the panoramic sweep of eyewitness history—a bestselling classic in thirty languages with more than ten million copies sold around the world, a memoir among novels set in China, because it is a must-read.
An engrossing record of Mao’s impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love, Jung Chang describes the extraordinary lives and experiences of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist; and her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution.
Chang was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a “barefoot doctor,” a steelworker, and an electrician. As the story of each generation unfolds, Chang captures in gripping, moving—and ultimately uplifting—detail the cycles of violent drama visited on her own family and millions of others caught in the whirlwind of history among novels set in China.
Whether you’re drawn to classical Chinese novels or contemporary tales that grapple with the country’s modern complexities, these ten novels set in China offer a diverse and captivating selection that will transport you to the heart of the Middle Kingdom. Exploring the worlds within these novels set in China will not only deepen your understanding of the country but also provide a literary adventure worth embarking upon.
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Are there any novels set in China you’d like to add to this list? Would you please share in the comments section below?