春节快乐 (chunjie kuai le)! Happy Chinese New Year! Yesterday was the Chinese New Year. 2021 is the Year of the Ox, and so today I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite Chinese books, both classic and modern. I’ve probably done a post similar to this a few years ago, but I also know I’ve read a lot more Chinese books since then. I originally wanted to do a book tag, but I couldn’t find one I really wanted to do, so I made up my own post instead. I decided to go with my top 12 favorites, as there are 12 years or animals in the Chinese zodiac. Also, they are in no order. So let’s go!
Title: The Library of Legends by Janie Chang
This book is a recent release, set around the time of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. It follows a group of students who travel away from the city of Nanking carrying with them a library of books filled with mythology. It’s partially historical, partially fantasy, and I loved it!
Although Janie Chang now lives in Canada, she was born in Taiwan and grew up hearing stories of China. It’s a beautiful book, showing the mythology as well as history of China. I highly recommend it!
Title: Chinese Landscape Painting Techniques for Watercolor by Lian Quan Zhen.
If you want to learn about Chinese landscape paintings, read this book! It’s definitely quite different from the other books on this list, but it examines both traditional and more modern watercolor Chinese painting. Saying that, I have rarely used watercolor, but even I found the techniques bordering on philosophy as well as the art itself to be wonderful!
In fact, Lian Quan Zhen has a whole series of books on watercolors, but this is the only one I’ve read by him.
Title: The Book of Lord Shang: Apologetics of State Power in Early China by Shang Yang
Release: 2017 (originally 3rd century BCE.)
This is a new translation of a political book compiled from the writings of Shang Yang. The best way I can describe this book is it does for politics what The Art of War does for fighting a war. This new translation blends the original writings with our more modern understanding of the Qin dynasty in history. It analyzes the political thought in early Chinese history which still today influences politics. Besides, I’d prefer reading about ancient politics a lot more than stupid modern politics. It consuls me that politics have always been silly.
Title: A Hero Born (The Legends of the Condor Heroes #1) by Jin Yong
Release: 1957 (translated to English 2018)
Jin Yong was one of the most prolific wuxia writers in China, a style of writing which combines fighting with chivalry, usually set in long ago history of China. This book is his only one which has been translated into English, and I absolutely loved it! It’s a fun adventure, following a rebel whose parents were killed, who returns to China to fulfill his destiny and save his country. It’s a very typical heroe’s journey, but the setting and mythology really makes this book unique. Maybe someday I will be able to read Jin Yong’s books in their original Chinese!
Sadly Jin Yong passed away in 2018, so no more new books by him…
Title: The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
This is probably one of the hardest books I’ve read, but it’s definitely worth it. It is a nonfiction which describes the atrocities committed by the Japanese against the Chinese when taking over the city of Nanking in 1937. It’s a truly brutal book to read, and Chang does not shy away from graphic details. But it’s also important to understand how completely ordinary people can commit such horrific acts, and that there is evil within all of us. It’s also incredibly sad that Iris Chang took her own life in 2004.
Title: Li Po and Tu Fu Poems
Release: 1973 (original poems were written during Tang Dynasty)
This list would not be complete without some Chinese poetry. Some of the most famous classic Chinese poetry came from the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th centuries). And two of those most famous poets were Li Po and Tu Fu (both 8th century). I only wish I could read their poems in the original Chinese (maybe someday). Their poetry mostly consists of themes of the connection between humanity and nature, and an understanding of the philosophical world.
Saying that, I do feel that some of the beautiful language is lost in translation, but this particular translation I read did a pretty good job translating the beautiful language.
Title: Records of the Grand Historian of China by Sima Qian (also spelling Suma Chien)
Release: 94 BCE.
This book (I read it in two volumes) is perhaps one of the most important historical Chinese writings we have of early Chinese history. Written during the early Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) by historian Sima Qian, it takes on the partially impossible task of documenting history from the beginning of time (a half-fiction, mythical version of it, at least) to his current day. Since few records survive from before the Han Dynasty, it’s an extremely important writing. Honestly it is at times repetitive, discussing military pursuits and political shifting of powers, but it is also fascinating. Just keep in mind if you do read it, take everything with a grain of salt because the dramatic is often preferred over the factual (even if it’s still pretty acurate), even if many of the details (like Qian’s description of the Terracotta warrior’s tomb of Qin Shi Huang) have been later corroborated.
Title: The Book of Chuang Tzu by Zhuang Zi
Release: 350 BCE
This book is a collection of stories by Chuang, a Chinese philosopher living during 4th century China during the Warring States period. This book has been compared to the Tao Te Ching (we’ll talk about that in a minute), but while that one is much more serious and deep, this one presents its messages in fun and light ways. It is a combination of adventure stories and philosophical messages. It also borders at times on the absurd, but I really enjoyed reading it. This book is also one of the foundation texts of Taoism. Also, there is a brief rendition of Chuang Tsu’s life in The Records of a Grand Historian.
Title: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Release: 600 BCE
Perhaps one of the best known philosophy books in history, this book is a collection of thoughts of Lao Tzu, who is considered to be the founder of Taoism. Also known as The Classic of the Way and Its Virtue, it documents how one can achieve goodness, but following “the Way” or the “Tao.” There are so many different translations of this book, and I’m not going to claim which one is best because this is the only one I’ve read, but I do want to reread this classic again.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, this one is the main philosophy book which really got me interested in philosophy in general.
Title: The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Release: 500 BCE
No list about Chinese books would be complete without this book. Considered one of the greatest books in history, this book is a guide to warfare, written by Sun Tzu, who was a general and military strategist of the Eastern Zhou period. I’ve read this book a couple times, and I can’t say which translation is the best, because most of them are pretty similar. Saying that, this is the copy I first read of it.
It’s also a really short book to read, and without any introduction and afterward, it’s probably less than a hundred pages. And it’s definitely a fun read!
Title: The Monkey King’s Amazing Adventures or A Journey to the West in Search of Enlightenment by Wu Cheng’en
Techinically, we don’t know for sure if Wu Cheng’en wrote this book, but usually it’s attributed to him. Written during the Ming Dynasty, it tells the story of a monkey who wants power and ends up getting punished by the gods and forced to guide a monk from India into China. This monk is supposed to be Xuanzang, responsible for bringing Buddhism into China. It is fictional, obviously with so many fantasy elements, but well worth reading. It was honestly this book that made me fall in love with Chinese adventure books. Speaking of which, I should really buy myself of a copy of this book and reread it.
Title: Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Hsueh-Chin (also spelling Cao Xueqin)
Published during the Qing dynasty, this book shows a fictional story of a Romeo and Juliet. However, honestly, it’s mostly about a family and the inner and outer conflict surrounding them. Apparently, this book is also partially auto-biographical, as it is based around Cao’s family during his life. I recently just bought a copy of this book, and I’m anxious to reread it considering how much more I know about Chinese history that I did when I read this book years ago.
So there are my twelve favorite Chinese books! I’ll probably add new ones as I read more classics and modern books set in China, but for now that’s my list.
Have you read any of these books? Are you interested in reading books about China? Do you celebrate Chinese New Year? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,