Historical Fiction Set in China


What would you put on this list? I immediately thought of GGK’s Under Heaven, even though it’s fantasy rather than historical. Nevertheless. Beautiful novel, as one expects from Kay.

Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father’s last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.

Green Dragon White Tiger, a novel I’ve read several times, thought not recently.

Inspired by the life of the seventh-century Empress Wu, the only woman to rule China from the Dragon Throne, this novel chronicles the life of Black Jade and her rise from concubine to Empress of China

It’s a beautifully written novel, but fairly grim in places, no doubt because the historical events were fairly grim at times.

Pearl Buck also wrote a novel about an Empress of China: Tzu Hsi. I’ve never read this one.

Already set apart on account of her beauty, she’s determined to be the emperor’s favorite, and devotes all of her talent and cunning to the task. When the emperor dies, she finds herself in a role of supreme power, one she’ll command for nearly fifty years. Much has been written about Tzu Hsi, but no other novel recreates her life—the extraordinary personality, together with the world of court intrigue and the period of national turmoil with which she dealt—as well as Imperial Woman.

I’ve admired other books of Pearl Buck’s, but I haven’t ever tried this one. I do enjoy historicals, though I prefer a light hand with horrific events and an ending that is no worse than ambiguous.

Oh, look at this! Here’s a novel that’s a fictionalization of Pearl Buck’s life! Wow, that is totally unexpected and super cool.

Pearl is head-strong, independent and fiercely intelligent, and will grow up to be Pearl S Buck, the Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning writer and humanitarian activist, but for now all Willow knows is that she has never met anyone like her in all her life. From the start the two are thick as thieves, but when the Boxer Rebellion rocks the nation, Pearl’s family is forced to leave China to flee religious persecution. As the twentieth century unfolds in all its turmoil, through right-wing military coups and Mao’s Red Revolution, through bad marriages and broken dreams, the two girls cling to their lifelong friendship across the sea.

Okay, moving on, thinking of books about Empress Wu, particularly novels that do not spare the grim details, naturally makes me think of She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan.

Maybe someday I’ll try it. I’m sure it’s very good.

Meanwhile, what 20 historicals does this Book Riot post suggest? Let’s take a look … oh, I see some historical fantasies here. Good. I like both straight historicals and historical fantasy.

Ah, more novels featuring Empress Wu and Empress Tzu Hsi: Empress by Shan Sai and Empress Orchid by Anchee Min, respectively. I note that Min is the person who wrote the historical about Pearl S Buck, mentioned above.

I’m going to end with a novel that sounds particularly inviting: Jade Dragon Mountain

On the mountainous border of China and Tibet in 1708, a detective must learn what a killer already knows: that empires rise and fall on the strength of the stories they tell.

Li Du was an imperial librarian. Now he is an exile. Arriving in Dayan, the last Chinese town before the Tibetan border, he is surprised to find it teeming with travelers, soldiers, and merchants. All have come for a spectacle unprecedented in this remote province: an eclipse of the sun commanded by the Emperor himself. When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in the home of the local magistrate, blame is hastily placed on Tibetan bandits. But Li Du suspects this was no random killing. Everyone has secrets: the ambitious magistrate, the powerful consort, the bitter servant, the irreproachable secretary, the East India Company merchant, the nervous missionary, and the traveling storyteller who can’t keep his own story straight.

Beyond the sloping roofs and festival banners, Li Du can see the mountain pass that will take him out of China forever. He must choose whether to leave, and embrace his exile, or to stay, and investigate a murder that the town of Dayan seems all too willing to forget.

Here’s a review from Amazon:

I love a good ending, and this book has one of the best I’ve encountered — leisured, graceful, kind, and with just the right balance between threads resolved and threads unresolved. Not a cliffhanger in the slightest, but just a comfortable vagueness, with a hint of the possibilities that lie ahead.

And it brings to its close a book I thoroughly fell in love with. It’s a wonderful novel — the setting and the characters are fully realized and engrossing, with plenty of vivid auxiliary stories, revealed just enough to be interesting. It is also a very fine mystery — it’s genuinely puzzling, one has full access to every bit of information the protagonist does, and the author plays fair, so that when the protagonist realizes at the last minute whodunnit and why, you’re right there with him.

Most of all, it is just beautifully written, and beautifully told. The presence of Hamza, the gifted professional storyteller, through the novel is a constant reminder that storytelling is an art to itself, and it is not surprising that this author is so aware of that. Even her after-material, which includes an essay on plant collecting in the Chinese mountains, is a joy to read — another story beautifully told.

And you know what, I’m sold. This is a review that showcases how to write a review. The moment the reviewer characterizes the ending of this novel as “leisured, graceful, and kind” I’m right there. The rest of the review reinforces my immediate interest and poof! I’ve now got the book on my Kindle. One of the things I particularly like in murder mysteries is setting. This book sounds like it’s a decent mystery, with probably appealing characters and a good ending, and probably a great setting. I’m looking forward to trying it.

That may be the first time I’ve been hooked by a novel featured in a Book Riot post. Click through if you want to see the rest of the novels here. Several do look intriguing, though none of the others caught me as the murder mystery did, probably because most concern difficult events and their descriptions include terms like “searing” rather than “kind.”

GGK is not among the authors featured here, but of course his novels aren’t historicals — they just FEEL like historicals. If you like historicals and Chinese settings, then if you haven’t read Under Heaven, by all means give that one a try.

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4 thoughts on “Historical Fiction Set in China”

  1. I’m so glad you were intrigued by Jade Dragon Mountain! It and its sequels were the last books I got as gifts from my dad before he passed in 2020, and we read them together. I hope you like it.

  2. I cannot recommend “She Who Became the Sun.” Certainly I would not rate it “excellent.”

  3. I just started Jade Dragon Mountain. I can tell, it’s going to be a book I will love. Thanks for this recommendation!! I would put Shogun up there, but it’s a book I read in my teens, and few of the books I read in my teens seem to have held up in terms of great writing.

  4. I read the first and third books in the series. They are good mysteries, not fantastic. The most interesting part of the third book, to me, was that a lot of it centered around the examination process, which I had never really heard of before Sherwood Smith’s Phoenix Feather series. I enjoyed reading about that.

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