The Best Books Set in Shanghai

These are the books that perfectly capture Shanghai
These are the books that perfectly capture Shanghai | © maoyunping / Shutterstock
Will Harris

There are two ways to get to know a place intimately: you can see it for yourself, or you can read about it. If you’d like to visit Shanghai or are curious about its past, here are the 10 books that best capture the magic of this fascinating city.

Shanghai has undergone arguably the greatest change of any Chinese city over the last hundred years. In the 20th century, this former fishing village transformed itself into a hub of international trade and settlement. The Japanese attacked Shanghai during World War II and, following the rise of the People’s Republic of China, it became the country’s economic capital. Now it stands as a beacon of modernity. All this change and the stories birthed from it are captured in the following books, illuminating the many worlds of Shanghai.

‘Empire of the Sun’ – JG Ballard

Although known for most of his life as a writer of dystopian science fiction, Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai, living through World War II and the Japanese invasion of China. This inspired him to write his magnum opus, Empire of the Sun, a novel inspired by his own experiences on the streets of Shanghai during World War II. The book’s protagonist, a young British boy, is separated from his parents during the Japanese occupation and must survive on his own in a war-torn city. This semi-autobiographical novel is the perfect portal through which to begin to understand Shanghai’s history, learning from one of Britain’s most beloved 20th-century writers, but also from a man who saw the fall of pre-modern Shanghai with his own eyes.

‘Empire of the Sun’ by JG Ballard

‘When We Were Orphans’ – Kazuo Ishiguro

Born in Nagoya, Japan, but living in the UK since the age of five, Ishiguro has written predominantly about British and Japanese life. In When We Were Orphans, however, he turned his sights to Shanghai at the time around World War II. This novel recounts the life of an English private investigator who was born in Shanghai but taken to England after the disappearance of his parents. During the Sino-Japanese War, he returns to Shanghai as a private investigator seeking to uncover the fates of his parents. The frantic war-torn streets of Shanghai provide a fantastic backdrop for this energetic thriller.

‘When We Were Orphans’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

‘The Distant Land of My Father’ – Bo Caldwell

Another novel set in the tumultuous and exhilarating era of 1930s and 1940s Shanghai, Caldwell’s novel – which was also her first – tells a story reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, insofar as it concerns a young girl with a successful father whom she idolises. Young Anna, the novel’s narrator, looks up to her American businessman father, but must watch as his business dealings cause him to fall from grace. Exploring the Japanese invasion and the rise of Communist China from a child’s perspective makes for a gripping novel about pre-modern Shanghai.

‘The Distant Land of My Father’ by Bo Caldwell

‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’ – Wang Anyi

Wang Anyi, the first local Chinese writer to feature on this list, is considered a revered figure in the world of contemporary Chinese literature, having been vice-chair of the China Writers Association since 2006. Her novel The Song of Everlasting Sorrow has so far been translated into eight languages and is a fantastic modernisation of a 9th-century poem about the romance and death of an imperial consort. The story is that of a woman living through the transformation of Shanghai, from the poor alleyways of the old town to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and beyond. If you’d like to gain some perspective on the transformation of Shanghai, this is the perfect book to pick up.

‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’ by Wang Anyi

‘Years of Red Dust’ – Qiu Xiaolong

Qiu Xiaolong is a legendary writer in Shanghai, primarily famous for his Detective Chen series of thrillers set in the city, which are also very much worth picking up. This book, however, is a collection of short stories which leads on perfectly from Wang Anyi’s novel. These stories, like Anyi’s, trace the forgotten lives of people riding the wave of change from post-war China through the Cultural Revolution and up to the completely modernised Shanghai of 2005. It is fascinating to read about the changes brought about by the Cultural Revolution, what was lost and what was built, through the small voices of ordinary people in the longtang (lanes) of Shanghai.

‘Years of Red Dust’ by Qiu Xiaolong

‘Five Star Billionaire’ – Tash Aw

Born in Taiwan, raised in Kuala Lumpur and now based in London, Tash Aw has had an exciting life, and one that has inspired this very explosive page-turner of a novel. Five Star Billionaire documents the lives of a group of Malaysian immigrants in Shanghai, each attempting to build a new life there. The novel gives a fantastic insight into the world of modern-day Shanghai from the perspective of a foreigner who is not of Western origin. This is an important perspective that is often neglected; Shanghai is often thought of as a city made up of local Chinese and middle-class expats, but this book teaches us that this is not the case, and a whole other world exists here.

‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

‘Life and Death in Shanghai’ – Nien Cheng

The late Nien Cheng was a Beijing-born writer who moved to the UK before the Cultural Revolution to obtain her Masters degree. Upon returning to China, she worked in Shanghai until the untimely death of her husband (a fellow Chinese whom she met in London). After her husband’s death, Cheng was arrested and accused of being a British spy. She then spent six years in prison. Her time in prison, and the tragedies that followed, are all recounted in this fantastic biography which she wrote once safely housed in Washington DC. There is nothing better than a biography which allows access to the lives of people of different cultures – if you like this, Wild Swans, a similar biography by Jung Chang, is also very much worth reading.

‘Life and Death in Shanghai’ by Nien Cheng

‘The Painter From Shanghai’ – Jennifer Cody Epstein

Epstein is an accomplished and adept writer, taking the true story of the life of one of modern China’s most tragically fascinating women, and making it into a truly gripping tale. Epstein’s book tells the tale of Pan Yuliang, an orphan girl who is sold into sexual slavery, bought out and encouraged to paint by her ‘husband’. She went to art school, travelled through Europe, returned to China and fled once more as the Japanese began to attack and invade her homeland. All of this and much more is told in Epstein’s fantastic novelisation of Pan’s life. It is a moving and gripping epic of a life, and well worth reading.

‘The Painter From Shanghai’ by Jennifer Cody Epstein

‘Beyond the Neon Lights’ – Hanchao Hu

This unique book uses interviews, surveys and documentary data to piece together the lives and stories of those local peoples of Shanghai who were changed immeasurably by the Cultural Revolution and the modernisation of China after the Japanese invasion. It is an incredible insight into the real everyday lives and transformations – economically, socially, religiously and politically – of ordinary people, and may well be the most enlightening book on this list.

‘Beyond the Neon Lights’ by Hanchao Hu

‘Disappearing Shanghai’ – Howard W French and Qiu Xiaolong

This collection of photographs and poems serves as a fantastic companion to Hanchao Hu’s book. Here, French has explored the deepest, darkest nooks and crannies of Shanghai in order to expose the very soul of the city. Accompanying these photos are the poems of the already-mentioned Qiu Xiaolong, who writes from the heart about what Shanghai means to him. These photos and poems combine to create something very unique and important, giving honest and varied views of modern-day Shanghai.

‘Disappearing Shanghai’ by Howard W French and Qiu Xiaolong

This article is an updated version of a story created by Rachel Deason.
Heading to Shanghai? Discover our guide to the best hotels near the Former French Concession and book now on Culture Trip.

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

Our immersive trips, led by Local Insiders, are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and an invitation to travel the world with like-minded explorers. Our Travel Experts are on hand to help you make perfect memories. All our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

All our travel guides are curated by the Culture Trip team working in tandem with local experts. From unique experiences to essential tips on how to make the most of your future travels, we’ve got you covered.

Edit article