Chinese Historical Novels

I would like to read something in English that is about a long long time ago and as historically accurate as possible. Maybe around the time of the first emperor or even before that. Any suggestions?

Failing that, how about the cultural revolution? I already have already read Life and Death in Shanghai and Wild Swans.

Try “Journey to the West” (Xi You Ji … or something like that).

Its the story of buddahism coming to China. Complete with tales of the cheeky Monkey King, the alovenly pig Zhu Ba jie, the Tang Priest (whose name escapes me right now), and other mythical characters.


Ah, so that’s what it is! They have that epic issued in children’s books. I was reading a bit of it in bopomofo before I got bored.

yeah, its quite repetitive, very long, but still a bit interesting… and now that I reread the original post not quite what Richard requested.


Yeah, it’s not exactly historically accurate to have a talking pig and sword-wielding monkey travel through the mountains fighting priests who use black magic.

There are plenty of great historical classics.

Romance of the 2 Kingdoms

hm…and a bunch of other that i do not know the English names of haha.

[quote=“aceman”]There are plenty of great historical classics.

Romance of the 2 Kingdoms

hm…and a bunch of other that I do not know the English names of haha.[/quote]

never heard of that one :laughing: (3)

how about
Sima Qian’s ShiJi Records of the Historian
Ban Gu’s History of Han
Spring(s) and Autumn(s)
Zuo Zhuan (chronicle of battles like An Ping, etc with a commentary that tries to read into the text too much)
You could also read texts of Mozi and Han Fei Zi (the lesser well-known idealogies of early china)
The Water Margin (tales of robbers, robin-hoods, and thugs and heroes and bad government officials)(this was written later though)
Zhuangzi is a fun read too. i particularly enjoy Burton Watson’s translations.
a fun short story is: the Plum something Valley? (forget the name) about finding utopia hidden away etc. the line about hearing dogs and roosters bark and crow from the next village as a metaphor of bucolic idealism.
the Yellow Emperor books (about health, medicine, sexual health secrets like bedding many women without coming)
ok, so most of these except maybe water margin aren’t novels, but novels weren’t written until much later anyhow. still most of these have compelling short stories and tales in them.

If you liked those Cultural Revolution books, you’ll probably liek ‘Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now’ by Jan Wong about the CBC author’s trip to China to join the revolution and increasing dissillusionment, through to her first-hand experience of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Journey to the West is a bit dull and repetitive. A much more interesting classic is ‘Strange Tales of Liao Zhai’. Incredibly imaginative (and sometimes erotic) stories fo fox fairies, sexy ghosts etc. Not an historical novel though.


A book from around the time of the first emperor.


I story about the a man from Zhou who wants to free his people from the tyranny of the Shang Emperor. The daughter of the Shang Emperor who does not want to settle for anything less than being Emperess herself. Her decition to marry the man planning to kill her father so she can become the Emperess as her Zhou husband becomes the new Emperor of China.

All the makings of a great book.

I am currently reading and enjoying Out of China, by Macabe Keliher. The book is the true story of an official of the Ching who came to Taiwan in 1696 to mine sulfur. The book intersperses Yu’s travel diary, which he wrote to be deliberately informative, with a narration of the turbulent history of Taiwan in the 17th century. The prose has a fascinating dreamlike quality which lots of slightly off-kilter English that only enhances its other-worldliness. I’m enjoying it so much I am only reading a few pages a day, hoarding it.


Although it is fiction, “Dream of the Red Chamber” by Cao Xueqin is not only probably the greatest novel in the history of Chinese literature, but also an excellent look at 18th century Qing Dynasty China. It is amazingly descriptive, describing everything from furniture, clothing, food, Chinese medicine, etc. down to the tiniest detail, discusses the corruption and hypocricsy of the upper strata of society and the Qing government, and is a harsh criticism (often very satirical) of Confucianism (especially Neo-Confucianism). So while it’s not historical, it does present a very, very accurate view of the times. The best English translation is by David Hawkes, and you can find it at Eslite Bookstore across from Taida.

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is supposed to be a historical novel, but in reality it isn’t. Most of the stories don’t conform to historical fact. It’s still a fun read though, and is probably more suitable to the time period you’re looking for.

The books Doug McKenzie recommended are all good, but they can be quite dry … so if you’re looking for a fun read, you might want to skip those and stick with the Ming-Qing Dynasty novels. For a good short story collection, you might want to try Fengmeng Long’s “Stories Old & New” (I believe Burton Watson did a translation of these), which is from the Ming Dynasty. “The Peony Pavilion” (Mudan ting) is also a good short novel.

One guy mentioned “Record of the Peach Blossom Spring” by Tao Yuanming … but that’s just a short prose piece, and wouldn’t last you more than an hour.