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Ten Great Books set in Beijing

20th February 2021

Beijing is the latest place for us to visit in our Great Books series. Ten Great Books set in Beijing. Beijing, China’s sprawling capital, has history stretching back 3 millennia. Yet it’s known as much for modern architecture as its ancient sites such as the grand Forbidden City complex, the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Nearby, the massive Tiananmen Square pedestrian plaza is the site of Mao Zedong’s mausoleum and the National Museum of China, displaying a vast collection of cultural relics

‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’ – Chinese proverb

Ten Great Books set in BeijingThe Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley

When Susan Conley, her husband, and their two young sons leave their house in Maine for a two-year stint in a high-rise apartment in Beijing, they are prepared to weather the inevitable onslaught of culture shock. But the challenges of living and mothering in an utterly foreign country become even more complicated when Susan learns she has cancer. After undergoing treatment in Boston, she returns to Beijing, again as a foreigner–but this time, it’s her own body in which she feels like a stranger.

Beautiful Country by J R Thornton

A coming-of-age story set in modern day China centering on the friendship between an American and a Chinese boy who meet while training with Beijing’s Junior National Tennis Team.

Chase Robertson arrives in Beijing as a fourteen-year-old boy still troubled by the recent death of his older brother. He discovers a country in transition; a society in which the dual systems of Communist Era state control and an emerging entrepreneurial culture exist in paradox.

A top ranked junior tennis player in the U.S., Chase joins the practices of the Beijing National Junior Tennis Team and is immersed in the brutal, cut-throat world of Chinese sport. It is a world in which gifted children are selected at the ages of six or seven for specialized sport schools where they devote their entire youth to the pursuit of athletic excellence and are paid as professionals by the state. Athletes find themselves compelled to do anything possible to succeed—right or wrong. Those who fail to reach the pinnacle are cast aside and are left facing a desperate future without hope.

In China, Chase gains access to a culture rarely open to Westerners, and soon finds himself caught up in secrets. When his closest friend and teammate turns to him for help, Chase is faced with the dilemma of what to do when friendship, rules, and morals are in conflict.

A big-hearted debut, Beautiful Country explores a friendship against the backdrop of a quickly changing country

Ten Great Books set in BeijingThe Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

Mei, the protagonist, is an investigator. A friend of her mother, known as ‘Uncle Chen’, asks her to track down a Han-dynasty jade that vanished from a museum during the terrible upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. Was the jade a victim of the brutal, philistine Red Guards, ruthlessly shattering the great legacies of the past? Or are more complex subterfuges involved? As Mei digs deeper, she begins to unravel a series of labyrinthine mysteries – some with resonances even within her own family. Detective fiction is a much-plundered genre, both by genre practitioners and those with more literary aims – and it’s the latter writers who are more likely to come a cropper when attempting to reinvent the standard tropes of the field. But Diane Wei Liang avoids all such pitfalls. This is a provocative, intriguing and accomplished piece of writing.

A Dance with the Dragon by Julia Boyd

With its wild, dissolute, extravagant group of fossil hunters and philosophers, diplomats, dropouts, writers and explorers, missionaries, artists and refugees, Peking s foreign community in the early 20th century was as exotic as the city itself. Always a magnet for larger than life individuals, Peking attracted characters as diverse as Reginald Johnston (tutor to the last emperor), Bertrand Russell, Pierre Loti, Rabrindranath Tagore, Sven Hedin, Peter Fleming, Wallis Simpson and Cecil Lewis. The last great capital to remain untouched by the modern world, Peking both entranced and horrified its foreign residents – the majority of whom lived cocooned inside the legation quarter, their own walled enclave, living an extraordinary high-octane party lifestyle, suffused with martinis, jazz piano and cigarettes, at the height of the Jazz Age. Ignoring the poverty outside their gates, they danced, played and squabbled among themselves, oblivious to the great political events unfolding around them and the storm clouds looming on the horizon that were to shape modern China. Others, more sensitive to Peking s cultural riches, discovered their paradise too late when it already stood on the brink of destruction. Although few in number, Peking’s expatriates were uniquely placed to chart the political upheavals – from Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the Communist victory of 1949 that shaped modern China. Through extensive use of unpublished diaries and letters, Julia Boyd reveals the foreigner’s perceptions and reactions – their take on everyday life and the unforgettable events that occurred around them. This is a dazzling portrait of an eclectic foreign community and of China itself – a magnificent confection, never before told.

Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

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 time as a microbiology study at the 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. The result is an outstanding work of fiction and an extraordinary insight into modern China.

Ten Great Books set in BeijingBrushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta

“This is the book I struggled not to write. I buried the pain along with my Chinese name and changed my fate.”

This is a fictional memoir by Chinese artist, Little Winter, who tries to re-establish the bond with her American daughter, telling the story of her emotional and rebellious past. While growing up in Communist China, Little Winter joins ‘The Stars’ art movement for freedom of speech in an era where self-expression and love was a dangerous act.

Little Winter and her haunting love story connects us to a time of hope for freedom, and to a man frustrated by being kept in small shoes.

Based on real life events.

Foreign Babes in Beijing by Rachel DeWoskin

Hoping to improve her Chinese and broaden her cultural horizons, Rachel DeWoskin went to work for an American PR firm in China. Before she knew it, she was not just exploring, but making Chinese culture, as the sexy and aggressive, fearless Jiexi, star of a wildly successful soap opera. A Chinese counterpart to “Sex and the City” revolving around Chinese-Western culture clashes, the show was called ‘Foreign Babes in Beijing’. Living the clashes in real life while playing out a parallel version onscreen, Rachel forms a group of friends with whom she witnesses the vast changes sweeping through China. In only a few years, billboards, stylish bars and discos, international restaurants, fashion shows, divorce, foreign visitors, and cross-cultural love affairs transform the face of China’s capital. “Foreign Babes in Beijing” is as astute and informative as it is witty, moving and entertaining.

Midnight in Peking by Paul French

On a frozen night in January 1937, in the dying days of colonial Peking, a body was found under the haunted watchtower. It was Pamela Werner, the teenage daughter of the city’s former British consul Edward Werner. Her heart had been removed.

A horrified world followed the hunt for Pamela’s killer, with a Chinese-British detective team pursuing suspects including a blood-soaked rickshaw puller, the Triads, and a lascivious grammar school headmaster. But the case was soon forgotten amid the carnage of the Japanese invasion… by all but Edward Werner. With a network of private investigators and informers, he followed the trail deep into Peking’s notorious Badlands and back to the gilded hotels of the colonial Quarter.

Some 75 years later, deep in the Scotland Yard archives, British historian Paul French accidentally came across the lost case file prepared by Edward Werner. Unveiling an undercover sex cult, heroin addicts and disappearing brothels, the truth behind the crime can now be told – and is more disturbing than anyone could imagine.

Not just the unputdownable story of a savage murder, Midnight in Peking is a sweepingly evocative account of the end of an era.

Ten Great Books set in BeijingThe Bathing Women by Tie Ning

Longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and a modern Chinese classic with over one million copies sold.

Sisters Tiao and Fan grew up in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution where they witnessed ritual humiliation and suffering. They also witnessed the death of their baby sister in a tragic accident. It was an accident they could have prevented: an accident that will stay with them forever.

In the China of the 1990s the sisters lead seemingly successful lives. Tiao is a successful children’s publisher but incapable of finding love. Fan has moved to America, desperate to shun her Chinese heritage. Then there is their childhood friend Fei: beautiful, hedonistic and outwardly ambitious.

As the women grapple with love, rivalry and past secrets will they find the freedom and redemption they crave?

The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer

A fascinating, intimate portrait of Beijing through the lens of its oldest neighborhood, facing destruction as the city, and China, relentlessly modernizes.

Soon we will be able to say about old Beijing that what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn’t eradicate, the market economy has. Nobody has been more aware of this than Michael Meyer. A long-time resident, Meyer has, for the past two years, lived as no other Westerner-in a shared courtyard home in Beijing’s oldest neighborhood, Dazhalan, on one of its famed hutong (lanes). There he volunteers to teach English at the local grade school and immerses himself in the community, recording with affection the life stories of the Widow, who shares his courtyard: coteacher Miss Zhu and student Little Liu: and the migrants Recycler Wang and Soldier Liu: among the many others who, despite great differences in age and profession, make up the fabric of this unique neighborhood.

Their bond is rapidly being torn, however, by forced evictions as century-old houses and ways of life are increasingly destroyed to make way for shopping malls, the capital’s first Wal-Mart, high-rise buildings, and widened streets for cars replacing bicycles. Beijing has gone through this cycle many times, as Meyer reveals, but never with the kind of dislocation and overturning of its storied culture now occurring as the city prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Weaving historical vignettes of Beijing and China over a thousand years through his narrative, Meyer captures the city’s deep past as he illuminates its present. With the kind of insight only someone on the inside can provide, The Last Days of Old Beijing brings this moment and the ebb and flow of daily lives on the other side of the planet into shining focus.

Enjoy your literary trip to Beijing – and let us know of any books we should add!

Tony for the TripFiction team

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