The best Chinese fiction books of the last century

The best novels from China as voted by a panel of 25 literary experts

Start the countdown to Time Out Beijing's best Chinese fiction books of all time, as voted for by 24 Chinese literature experts, novelists, literary agents, publishers, editors, critics and journalists for their top book picks from the last 100 years, based on the following criteria:

- Available in English

- Published after 1900

- Written by a Mainland or Greater China-born author.

Read the full lists of what each expert voted for and why each book means so much to them in our judges' section.

The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China (阿Q正传)

The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China (阿Q正传)

By Lu Xun

Born Zhou Shuren in Shaoxing in 1881, Lu Xun was the first Chinese author to abandon the classical language of the elite used for centuries, in favour of a vernacular style that could be understood by the majority. He personified the spirit of the age; he earned the sobriquet 'the father of modern literature', which can still be found today on the walls of a museum built in his honour in Hongkou district.

As well as being a novelist, Lu was an editor, translator, literary critic and poet. Following the collapse of the imperial system in 1911, his work converged to document the impact on Chinese society. His stories assembled a powerful portrait of the superstition, poverty and complacency that he witnessed and had an instrumental role in his decision to become head of the League of Left-Wing Writers in Shanghai in the 1930s.

The True Story of Ah Q was his first story written in vernacular Chinese and is considered his greatest work, although at the time it was released under the pen name Ba Ren ('crude person'). The plot centres on the titular Ah-Q, your quintessential foolhardy everyman. It charts his hapless encounters as he strives to improve his lot in life, only to discover his own shortcomings. The novel is satire at its most biting and personifies all that Lu saw wrong with the country at the time.

Upon the publication of Julia Lovell’s 2011 translation into English, Time magazine declared Ah Q 'the most significant Penguin Classic ever published'. The book is an essential read for anyone who wishes to understand the roots of modern Chinese literature, and why China was ripe for revolution in Lu’s time.

The True Story of Ah Q is available from Amazon priced at 70.49RMB.

To Live (活着)

To Live (活着)

By Yu Hua

To Live – another book on our list that was famously adapted into a film by Zhang Yimou – follows the story of Xu Fugui, the once lazy and rich son of a country landlord, as he fights to survive from before the founding of the People's Republic until the dying days of the Cultural Revolution. With the pathos of a Greek tragedy, it delivers a vivid rendering of Chinese life pre- and post-Cultural Revolution and upon publication announced Yu Hua as a master of his craft.

Yu’s unromantic worldview is partly a result of his upbringing during the Cultural Revolution. But in this novel, resilience and pragmatism rise to meet despair. It’s a veiled criticism of the Maoist era and a testament to the power of human endurance. 

To Live is available from Amazon priced at 103RMB.

Love in a Fallen City (傾城之戀)

Love in a Fallen City (傾城之戀)

By Eileen Chang

This year marks 20 years since the death of Eileen Chang, arguably China’s most influential female writer. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang moved to Hong Kong to study before returning here just before Japanese troops invaded in 1937.

The two cities of Chang’s youth form the backdrop to Love in a Fallen City. Set in the 1940s, the plot follows Bai Liusu, an introverted divorcee who has recently broken free of an unhappy marriage but is largely shunned by her judgemental family for doing so. When a charming Malaysian businessman passes through town, Bai starts to feel there might be a way out.

The book echoes Chang’s own tragic personal life – she married twice, divorcing her first husband, a Japanese collaborator and philanderer, in 1947 – and the author’s observations perfectly capture the tensions and excesses of colonial Hong Kong and pre-1949 Shanghai.

Love in a Fallen City is available from Amazon priced at 62.80RMB.

Red Sorghum (红高粱家族)

Red Sorghum (红高粱家族)

By Mo Yan

When Mo Yan collected his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, the Swedish Academy cited Red Sorghum as one of his most important works. Thanks to Zhang Yimou’s 1988 film adaptation, it is also the author’s most commercially successful.

Set in a small village in 1930s Shandong province during the bloody Second Sino-Japanese War, the book chronicles three generations of family history in a turbulent era of battling warlords and lost fortunes. Through a series of vivid, often violent flashbacks, a nameless narrator introduces us to a hard-boiled wartime peasant existence.

Red Sorghum is a dark book – death pervades every scene, from the corpse-eating wild dogs that stalk the brigade, to the bloodied estuaries that supply the village water – but it is lifted by Mo’s poetic style and lightness of touch. A brilliant introduction to one of China’s most famous writers and his signature style, 'hallucinatory realism'.

Red Sorghum is available from Amazon priced at 95.90RMB.

Fortress Besieged (围城)

Fortress Besieged (围城)

By Qian Zhongshu

'Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside wanted to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.' This wry line, borrowed from a French proverb, is the opening sentence and basis of Qian Zhongshu’s 1947 novel. The book’s original name, Wei Cheng, has since become a popular byword for a stifling marriage in China.

The novel opens with the main character, Fang Hongjian, returning to China with a fake degree as the sole result of his 'studies' overseas. After a stint in Shanghai, he takes a teaching position in rural China. Things then take a turn for the worse when he loses his job and falls into a disastrous marriage. Caught between two eras, Fortress Besieged is the story of a man who ultimately gets crushed by the metaphorical fortress walls, 'not with a bang, but with a whimper'.

Fortress Besieged is available from Amazon priced at 49.40RMB. 

The Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸)

The Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸)

By Chi Zijian

This is an evocative masterpiece by a young, award-winning writer who gives us an atmospheric, allegorical folk-tale of the Evenki (formerly known as Tungus), a nomadic tribe based in northeastern China that have not kept pace with the world. Their lives (like those of the reindeer they tend) are irretrievably disrupted by the forces of modernity. 

The narrator is the 90-year-old, unnamed widow of one of the clan’s great chieftains. Her ethereal presence, memory and strength of will allow her to speak for the tribe, breathing life into their collective memories. This is a beautiful story: otherworldly, and with a pace that is slow but certain, as though the tale unfolds to the beat of an ancient, sonorous drum.

The Last Quarter of the Moon is available from Amazon priced at 70.45RMB.

Cat Country (貓城記)

Cat Country (貓城記)

By Lao She

When Lao She, one of Beijing’s greatest satirists, took his life in 1966, the world he left behind was a close echo of that which he depicted in Cat Country, perhaps his most prophetic novel. The dystopian fantasy world of the cat people – who live on Mars, speak Felinese and practise Everybody Shareskyism – was a thinly veiled, scorpion-tailed metaphor of the world around him as Communism found traction in 1920s and ’30s China. 

The book is considered by many to be China’s first important work of science-fiction, and a 1970 English translation by William A Lyell was rereleased by Penguin Classics in 2013.

Cat Country is available from Amazon priced from 100RMB.

The Good Earth

The Good Earth

By Pearl S Buck

Pearl S Buck grew up in China in the early 1900s as the daughter of American missionaries. When she was 39 she published The Good Earth, a fictional cradle-to-grave biography of a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung. From humble beginnings, farmer Wang reverses his fortunes by marrying a slave girl from a prosperous household that eventually falls into disrepair, allowing Wang to take over the crumbling estate. 

However, fortune does not bring the family the peace and stability they desire. An amazingly well-observed account of Chinese rural life at a time when the political order began to break down, The Good Earth went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932, making Buck the first American woman to do so.

The Good Earth is available from Amazon priced from 49RMB.

Dream of Ding Village (丁庄梦)

Dream of Ding Village (丁庄梦)

By Yan Lianke

In 1994, Yan Lianke, the heavy-duty author best known for daring satire Serve the People!, received an anonymous letter alerting him to an HIV epidemic in his home province of Henan. The letter referred to the mid-1990s blood-selling scandal that saw peasants trading blood for cash. 

The practice caused HIV infection to spread rampantly, with thousands affected. Yan spent three years undercover, visiting affected villages; the result was Dream of Ding Village, a fictional account of a community decimated. Translated into English in 2011 by Cindy Carter, the novel merges surrealism and reality to shocking effect.

Dream of Ding Village is available from Amazon priced from 50RMB.

The Noodle Maker (拉面者)

The Noodle Maker (拉面者)

By Ma Jian

Ma Jian has the distinction of being one of China’s best-known banned authors. Officially exiled, he now lives in London with his wife and translator Flora Drew (who produced the masterful English version of this novel) and their children. After witnessing the student protests of 1989, Ma remained in Beijing and wrote The Noodle Maker, a dark political satire that captures the feeling of society in the aftermath of events in Tiananmen Square.

The Noodle Maker is available from Amazon priced from 89RMB.

Northern Girls (北妹)

Northern Girls (北妹)

By Sheng Keyi

Sixteen-year-old Qian Xiaohong has abnormally large breasts. While her best friend Li Sijiang is ridiculed for her 'oranges', Xiaohong’s 'pomelos' are 'much too large for polite society'. Interest in her ample bosom gets the girls both into and out of danger through their tumultuous journey from small town Hunan to the neon lights of boomtown Shenzhen. Rising star Sheng Keyi’s first book to be translated into English, her work is synonymous with the struggles of women on the margins.

Northern Girls is available from Amazon priced at 168RMB.

The Book of Sins

The Book of Sins

By Chen Xiwo

A controversial and provocative collection of novellas by banned author Chen Xiwo, translated by Nicky Harman, one of our panel of judges. The first of Chen’s books to be published in English, The Book of Sins was banned in China for the inclusion of the story, 'I Love my Mum', about a disabled man who shares his mother's bed and is arrested for murder. An investigation of the darker side of the human psyche, the seven novellas explore sexual and political deviance and corruption, S&M, voyeurism, and incest.

The Book of Sins is available from Amazon priced at 56RMB.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

By Dai Sijie

An international bestseller, later turned into a film directed by the author, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress follows two teenage boys sent to the Tibetan countryside for 'reducation'. One of the boys, Luo, 'with a genius for story telling', falls in love with the local tailor's daughter and when his friends find a stash of hidden – and banned – literature he determines to reducate her too.

Balazac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is available from Amazon priced at 77RMB.

A Dictionary of Maqiao (马桥词典)

A Dictionary of Maqiao (马桥词典)

By Han Shaogong

A series of vignettes disguised as entries of a dictionary reveal the life of a young man relocated to the small rural Hunan village of Maqiao in the 1960s. Playing with language and an innovative format, Han Shaogong describes the toil of mundane village life, the petty squabbles, family grudges, poverty, infidelities, fantasies, lunatics, bullies and superstitions.

A Dictionary of Maqiao is available from Amazon priced at 70RMB.

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun

By JG Ballard

Perhaps Ballard’s most famous work – thanks to Steven Spielberg, who made it into a film starring a 13-year-old Christian Bale – Empire of the Sun was inspired by the sci-fi writer’s upbringing in 1930s Shanghai. His seemingly typical expat childhood was interrupted when Japan invaded Shanghai during World World II.

After the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Japanese forces began interning Allied citizens and the Ballard family was sent to Longhua internment camp, in southern Xuhui district, where they spent more than two years. The novel follows a fictionalised Jim though his ducking, diving and striving for life in the same internment camps.

Empire of the Sun is available from Amazon priced at 103RMB.

Decoded (解密)

Decoded (解密)

By Mai Jia 

China's premier spy fiction writer, Mai Jia served in a top-secret intelligence unit in the People’s Liberation Army for 17 years, where he worked as a telecommunications and propagandist specialist. His thriller Decoded follows the trials of a mathematician who performs highly secretive work in cryptography for elite code-breaking division Intelligence Unit 701. A tale of sabotage, espionage, and genius.

Decoded is available from Amazon priced from 70RMB.

When Red Is Black (石库门骊歌)

When Red Is Black (石库门骊歌)

By Qiu Xiaolong

Qiu Xiaolong’s series of six Inspector Chen crime thriller novels, which are set in 1990s Shanghai, are about the city as much as the poetry-quoting detective. The third in the series, When Red is Black provides an insightful and witty look into the rapid modernisation of the city through the eyes of Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. 

The Chinese title of this novel is Shikumen Songs, and while Chen battles police corruption on his investigation of a reclusive murdered novelist, we see Shanghai's traditional shikumen houses slated for demolition to make way for an unnamed Xintiandi-style lifestyle development and long-loved neighbourhood noodle joints going the way of the wrecking ball. 

When Red is Black is available from Amazon priced at 62RMB.

The Man With the Compound Eyes (複眼人)

The Man With the Compound Eyes (複眼人)

By Wu Ming-Yi

A 15-year old boy from an untouched Pacific island crash lands on the coast of Taiwan, swept there in the vortex of a careering mountainous island made of the world's trash. His path crosses with a widowed academic contemplating suicide. Considering the world's increasing environmental concerns, how connected we are with others and the lives of Taiwan's indigenous communities, The Man with the Compound Eyes bears touches of David Mitchell's epic reality-bending stories in its richly elaborate dystopian fantasy and is the first of Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi's four books to be translated in to English.
The Man with the Compound Eyes is available from Amazon priced from 100RMB.

The Vagrants

The Vagrants

By Yiyun Li

The Vagrants is notable as one of the few works on our fiction list from a Chinese author to have been originally written in English and not a translated work. 'I studied science in China and didn’t have a great liberal arts education,' the Beijing-born Yiyun Li told Time Out in 2010, before adding: 'Learning English freed me to write. It’s the only language I can write in.'

Still, her stories are rooted in her Beijing upbringing and the involuntary year she spent in the Chinese army to undergo 'reeducation' at the age of 19. In The Vagrants, Li's debut full-length novel, the townspeople of Muddy River gather to witness the execution of former Red Guard youth leader, Gu Shan, whose rise has drawn to a sharp halt by the end of the Cultural Revolution.

The Vagrants is available from Amazon priced from 80RMB.

Becoming Madame Mao

Becoming Madame Mao

By Anchee Min

In 1976, author Anchee Min was plucked from a labour camp and cast in a propaganda film produced by Jiang Qing – more commonly known as Madame Mao. Although the death of Mao and arrest of Jiang shortly after this meant the project was never complete, the experience gave Min first-hand experience and documentation of one of China's most famous women, from which she drew this engaging fictional account of the life of the only female member of the Gang of Four.

Becoming Madame Mao is available from Amazon priced from 80RMB.

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  • 4 out of 5 stars

User comments

  • 4 out of 5 stars


Mon 15 Apr
Lao She could easily have 5 or 6 on this list, but not Cat Country, lol.