Growing up Chinese-American, I had few options when it came to reading books about myself and my culture. Most of the works I could find that featured Chinese characters were by authors without Chinese heritage, which meant you got awful, cringe-worthy scenes detailing almond eyes, lotus-bud lips, qipao slits riding over dainty hips, and nainais speaking in stereotypically broken English.
But in the past decade, mainstream publishing has inched closer towards better representation, even if we’re still not quite there. Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings proved that an epic based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms could be just as popular as Game of Thrones; JY Yang’s Tensorate Series novellas have been racking up the awards nominations this year; and the anthology A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, a collection of reimagined Asian folklore and myths that has already garnered critical acclaim, comes out this year in June.
So here are five more recently published books about East Asian culture and history, by East Asian (diaspora) authors, that I wish I’d been able to find on shelves when I was younger. I’ve tried to pick books across genres and age groups (adult and YA) so that there’s something here that might appeal to everyone. Enjoy!
Jade City by Fonda Lee
This book was just nominated for a Nebula Award so Fonda doesn’t even need my hype, but I’m going to rant about how much I loved Jade City anyways. It’s a secondary world fantasy based on Hong Kong circa the mid-20th century where jade grants superhuman martial ability. Those without jade crave it; Western powers demand it. Green Bone warriors from the rival Mountain Clan and No Peak Clan embark on adventures of gangster warfare, treachery, family drama, and all the good stuff that made up the Hong Kong action films of my childhood. For many Chinese diaspora readers, Jade City is nostalgia. Reading Jade City felt just like stepping foot in the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. I resonated so hard with the scene when prodigal daughter Kaul Shae returns to Kekon via the Janloon International Airport after years spent in the West. There’s something in the air—as Shae puts it, “Kekon had a special smell, a certain indescribable, spicy, sweaty fragrance.” It smells like coming home.
The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee
I have a confession. I had a huge crush on Sun Wukong the Monkey King when I was little—yes, the monkey version from that goddamn cartoon that every Chinese household in the Dallas area had the entire DVD box set of. He was just so suave, so mischievous, so confident. (Don’t judge me; everyone was totally into the fox version of Robin Hood.) So imagine my sexual confusion at F.C. Yee’s take on the Sun Wukong myth in which the monkey king is a hot transfer student named Quentin sent to guide protagonist Genie Lo through high school, college admissions, and being an ultra-powerful celestial deity. This book is also delightful for taking on the balance between battling demons and performing under Asian parent pressures to get into an Ivy League school. It’s everything I needed when I was a teenager.
An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King
I study modern China, so I was really fascinated by Maggie Shen King’s dystopia about Chinese Communist social engineering in a world where there are far too few eligible women as a result of the One Child Policy. In short: since China’s cultural preference for male heirs have resulted in about forty million unmarriageable men, women often take on two or three husbands, and the matchmaking industry has ballooned into something wildly profitable and truly terrifying. I was really impressed by the author’s grasp of the reach of Party surveillance and censorship, as well as her deft imitation of Party double-speak and twisted Orwellian logic of Communist ideals, which applies now to Xi Jinping’s China better than ever before.
Want by Cindy Pon
Cindy Pon’s (Andre Norton award nominated!!) Want takes place in a corrupt, near-future Taiwan struggling under pressing pollution problems that force people to purchase expensive suits made by the wealthy Jin Corp, or die in the disease-ridden streets. Street kid Jason Zhou sets out on a mission to infiltrate Jin Corp and expose its murderous, underhanded dealings by posing as a rich American playboy romancing Jin’s daughter. But Jin Daiyu turns out to be more than Jason bargained for—she’s whip-smart, badass, and nothing like her father. Like An Excess Male, the fast-paced and thrilling Want takes on complicated issues—climate change, air pollution lack of accessible healthcare, and government corruption—that are all too pressing in China/Taiwan today.
Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh
This is the only book on this list that I haven’t already read, but it’s on my TBR, won the New Visions Award, and looks so cool that I couldn’t not include it! Axie Oh’s debut was marketed as “Pacific Rim meets Korean action dramas,” both of which I’m deeply obsessed with, so yes. Rebel Seoul takes place in a futuristic, war-torn Neo-Seoul meant to mirror the politics of Korea under Japanese colonialism in the 1930s. Ex-gang member and pilot Lee Jaewon is recruited into a weapons development division, but quickly starts to question his loyalty. Will he stand by the regime, or with the people’s incipient rebellion? PS: The author just signed a deal for a second book in this world, so it’s a good time to get started.
R. F. Kuang is a graduate of the 2016 Odyssey Writing Workshop. She studies Chinese history at Georgetown University. The Poppy War is her debut novel.