There’s no denying that 2021 wasn’t a great year for travel. With border restrictions continuing in many places due to the pandemic, China was among those countries that remained closed to overseas visitors.
Yet it seems the extra time at home over the past 18 months has allowed some of the day’s most talented writers on China to produce a truly exceptional array of fiction and non-fiction.
With that in mind, and in order to help avid sinophiles everywhere navigate the best books on China in 2021, we’ve put together a list of our favorites from the year across a range of genres:
House of Kwa by Mimi Kwa
Mimi Kwa’s family memoir achieves that rarest of feats in writing of any kind: striking every note of the emotional spectrum between front cover and back. A TV host, actor, life coach and journalist as well as a brilliant author, Kwa explores the rich history of her family in House of Kwa from southern China to Western Australia via Hong Kong.
Her tumultuous family tale guides the reader through the equally turbulent narrative of 20th century China, illuminated by the colorful and complicated characters that make up the Kwa clan. Chief among these is Mimi’s father, Francis, whose complex relationship with his daughter is House of Kwa’s locomotive force.
AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future by Kai-fu Lee and Chen Qiufan
What happens when you combine the talents of an AI visionary and former president of Google China with the acerbic mind of a celebrated Chinese sci-fi novelist?
The answer is what the authors themselves term ‘scientific fiction,’ a collection of 10 short stories set 20 years in the future from San Francisco to Mumbai, each its own self-contained parable about the potential and pitfalls of artificial intelligence.
AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future is educational, entertaining and cautionary. Lee and Chen’s message is clear; ultimately the choice is ours as to whether AI technology empowers us or destroys us.
Monkey King: Journey to the West edited, translated and introduction by Julia Lovell
In the past it would have been blasphemy to question whether Arthur Waley’s Monkey was the best English translation of the Chinese classic Journey to the West, but with the arrival of Julia Lovell’s new version it is now a legitimate question to ask.
This is because the esteemed historian and author has done more than just translate the beloved Chinese original by trimming, remolding and distilling the best bits into a book a quarter of the length.
Monkey King: Journey to the West is more concise in its narrative, clearer in the arc of its characters and unburdened by the sometimes cumbersome detail of its medieval source. It is a 21st century retelling, a fitting update to a folk tale that continues to evolve throughout time.
Inspector Chen and the Private Kitchen Murder by Qiu Xiaolong
Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen novels are more than just detective fiction. Throughout the series, the crimes Chen aims to solve are intimately related to China’s historic context, bringing readers into the often opaque, obscure world of Chinese bureaucracy and politics.
In the 12th and latest instalment, Inspector Chen, sidelined from the frontline of the Shanghai Police Department via an expedient promotion to a bureaucratic post, has to find an alternate way to investigate the crimes gripping the city’s high society, especially when one murder strikes a little too close to home.
Best Historical Non-Fiction
Destination Peking by Paul French
In his earlier novels City of Devils and Midnight in Peking, French brought to life in radiant detail for an English-speaking audience the sometimes glamorous, sometimes venal world of expatriate communities in Republican-era Shanghai and Beijing.
Destination Peking offers more of the same, but this time in the form of 18 biographical essays following notable foreign visitors to Beijing during the inter-war period. From American socialite Wallis Simpson to journalist Edgar Snow, the cast of characters is diverse, but the multi-sensorial experience French creates of a lost city and era is constant throughout.
At the Chinese Table: A Memoir with Recipes by Carolyn Phillips
There are plenty of Chinese cookbooks out there today, and just as many first-hand accounts of foreigners travelling in the East. What there is not, however, is as thoughtful a combination of the two as Carolyn Phillips’ latest book At the Chinese Table, which elegantly integrates the story of her own personal odyssey to Taiwan in the 1970s and 80s with 22 mouthwatering recipes.
Complete with charming illustrations drawn by Phillips herself, At the Chinese Table is a story of love, family, history and acceptance, bound together by the universal language of food.
Best Historical Fiction
The Last Rose of Shanghai by Weina Dai Randel
Set during the Second World War, The Last Rose of Shanghai is a dynamic love story juxtaposed with the despair of the Japanese occupation of the city. The book’s protagonists make for an unlikely pair: a Jewish refugee driven from Nazi Germany and a rich young Chinese heiress, proprietor of a once fashionable Shanghai club.
As the war intensifies, so do the conditions in the city, but the forces pulling their world apart also contrive to push them closer together. The struggle of the novel’s characters is palpable, their romance utterly believable, but Randel’s real achievement is to shine a light on an oft-overlooked arena of the war, and the Jewish experience in Shanghai.
Best YA Romance
Our Violent Ends by Chole Gong
Chloe Gong’s imaginative retelling of Romeo and Juliet in These Violent Delights was so brilliantly executed as to become a New York Times bestseller, and the follow-up – Our Violent Ends – is a worthy sequel that rounds off the duology in style.
Juliette and Roma continue in their roles as enemies-cum-lovers while the blood feud between their gangs continues to tear through 1920s Shanghai. But with revolution and civil war bearing down on the star-crossed pair, a monstrous presence looms once again over the city and the relationship between their communities will be forced into new configurations as they hurtle toward the book’s explosive climax.
Best Science Fiction
Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge (translated by Jeremy Tiang)
First published in China in 2006 and translated into English by Jeremy Tiang for the first time this year, Strange Beasts of China, is a novel with an intriguing structure. Written as a bestiary – a catalogue of the strange beasts that occupy the fictional city of Yong’an – each chapter is a standalone case study of the creatures sharing urban space with their human counterparts.
Yan Ge imbues her unnamed female narrator, an amateur cryptozoologist and newspaper columnist, with a wry curiosity that adds a sense of noir mystery to the urban landscape of Yong’an, generating an irresistible atmosphere for this strangest of inquiries to play out. Quirky, endearing and at times puzzling, Strange Beasts is a contemporary addition to a literary culture with a penchant for challenging narrative forms.
Best Academic Non-Fiction
Confucius’ Courtyard: Architecture, Philosophy and the Good Life in China by Xing Ruan
Professor of Architecture at Shanghai Jiao Tong University Xing Ruan’s treatise has one central idea. If you want to understand Chinese architecture – nay, if you want to understand Chinese history, culture and philosophy – you have to start with the courtyard.
According to Xing Ruan, this architectural feature recurs throughout China’s past and present in the temple, the imperial palace, the marketplace and the home. In it is reflected Confucian moral ideology and Chinese cosmology – a central space which connects heaven and earth. Confucius’ Courtyard is a thorough, revelatory exposition of Chinese thought, elegantly accompanied by the author’s own architectural sketches throughout.
Beautiful Country: A Memoir of an Undocumented Childhood by Qian Julie Wang
There had to be space on this list for Beautiful Country, even though it is nominally a book about America rather than China. While it is set in meiguo – the beautiful country from which the book takes its name – Qian Julie Wang’s moving childhood memoir is very much centered in the Chinese experience, in this case her family’s painful journey as undocumented migrants striving to make a new life for themselves in New York.
Told from the perspective of the author as a seven-year-old girl, the age she was when her family left Beijing for America in 1994, Beautiful Country is masterfully written and conceived, drawing attention to the inhumanity of a system in a way more poignant today than ever before.
Join the WildChina Book Club
Join us in our monthly China-themed book club, culminating in a live Zoom chat between WildChina’s founder and author of Travels Through Dali with a Leg of Ham, Mei Zhang, and the author of the book we’ve read that month.