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11 Books to Read Before Visiting Beijing

Picture of Anastasiia Ilina
Updated: 30 May 2017
Here’s a pre-trip list to get acquainted with Beijing, with books featuring tales of history, romance, murder and the future from the Northern Capital.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Midnight in Peking (2011) by Paul French

A murder mystery that was left on the shelf for years to be discovered by British writer Paul French, who brought justice to the murderers of young Pamela Warner. The story of a young foreign girl brutally killed and mutilated in the heart of Beijing left the city’s community stunned and confused and continues to attract readers today. Alongside telling the tragic story of Pamela, French leads the reader through the dark alleys of the Beijing badlands and introduces the community that Peking once used to be.

Courtesy of Harper Perennial
Courtesy of Harper Perennial

Rickshaw Boy or Camel Xiangzi (1929) by Lao She, translated by Howard Goldblatt

Rickshaw by Lao She is not only a perfect introduction to Beijing, but also a solid starting point for anybody about to discover Chinese modern literature. The story is centred on a simple rickshaw boy living for the dream of one day breaking out of the vicious circle of the laborious job he is doing everyday. On his rickshaw, he circles Beijing, described in such detail that you could map out old Beijing from reading the pages of the book. The city is not just the setting of the story, it becomes a character.

Courtesy of Doubleday Canada
Courtesy of Doubleday Canada

Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found in the New Forbidden City by Jan Wong (2007)

A reminiscing account of Beijing back in the early ’70s from a one of the first Westerners permitted to study at Beijing University. Jan Wong is in search of a woman she reported to the authorities years ago, haunted by the guilt and seeking forgiveness for what she had done. The book braids storylines together to depict Beijing’s journey over the decades.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Nineteen Seventy-Six: Student Revolutionary Remembers the Year Mao Died (2016) by Ragnar Baldurssson

The 1967 may not mean much to the common reader, but will be familiar and well recognised by everybody young and old in China. The year of Mao Zedong’s death shook the country with grief, and a young student from Iceland, the author himself, was there to witness it. Living at the Peking University dorms and riding his bike all around Beijing, he tells the story of what is was like to be a foreigner in Beijing, what was told and what was left behind the wall of Party secrecy.

Courtesy of Berkley
Courtesy of Berkley

Mao’s Last Dancer (2009) by Li Cunxin

An autobiographical work of the now successful Creative Director of Queensland Ballet tells the story of one of China’s most famous defectors. His life takes him from a poor rural village, where he was selected to study ballet in Beijing and later go to the States on tour, first inclining him to leave China.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

The Great Wall in 50 Objects (2016) by William Lindesay

A thorough look at the Great Wall of China that goes beyond its steps and stones. The author William Lindesay lived in Beijing for 30 years and has written five books about the Great Wall. He is without doubt a dedicated expert, and his book will provide the perfect path to discovering one of China’s best recognised landmarks.

Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Beijing Coma: A Novel (2008) by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

A bold novel about a student activist shot down during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Some of his organs are donated to Master Yao, a member of the restricted Falun Gong sect. The comatose student then awakes to find he was asleep for ten years and finds himself in a new China, and remember the times that passed.

Courtesy of Walker & Company
Courtesy of Walker & Company

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008) by Michael Meyer

A long-term hutong resident, Michael Meyer shares the stories of his neighbours who are then subject to forced evictions from their historic homes, making room for new buildings and wider streets as Beijing steps into the present, moving at a mind-blowing rate and leaving the old inhabitants behind.

Courtesy of John Day
Courtesy of John Day

Moment in Peking (1939) by Lin Yutang

Set against the backdrop of the turbulent year of before and after the Revolution years in China, the historical novel describes the life of contemporaries surviving amidst the chaos. Beyond the turmoil of history, the story is above all about people, their loves and quarrels and adjustments they all need to make moving forward into the future.

Courtesy of Nan A. Talese
Courtesy of Nan A. Talese

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (2008) by Xiaolu Guo

A story told in episodes and fragments, it portrays the fast pace of Beijing life and the trial and error that making a career here is. Fenfang is a young girl who makes her move from the countryside to start a new life in the big city, only to discover that her dreams may not be as real as she thought. The reader, along with Fenfang, becomes engulfed in the overall confusion and uncertainty that more often than not defines life in Beijing.

Courtesy of Uncanny Magazine
Courtesy of Uncanny Magazine

Folding Beijing (2012) by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu

Folding Beijing is a fine example of the rising science-fiction scene in China, set in Beijing. The city divided into three classes, each of which get a different number of hours in space before they are turned down and folded. Crossing between classes is restricted and dangerous, but Lao Dao, a worker from the lowest class, agrees to make the journey to the first class and deliver a love letter, hoping to make money to pay for his adopted daughter’s schooling.