Shanghai Books

It’s always a treat to spend time in Shanghai soaking up the history that emanates from the streets and buildings of this city. As is always the case, I find myself wanting to read every book I can get my hand on about Shanghai.

In case you’re interested in learning more about Shanghai, here are some books you can start with (with their Amazon descriptions):



The Distant Land of My Father: A Novel About Shanghai, by Bo Caldwell

Anna, the narrator of this riveting first novel, lives in a storybook world: exotic pre- World War II Shanghai, with handsome young parents, wealth, and comfort. Her father, the son of missionaries, leads a charmed and secretive life, though his greatest joy is sharing his beloved city with his only daughter. Yet when Anna and her mother flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai to return to California, he stays behind, believing his connections and a little bit of luck will keep him safe. Through Anna’s memories and her father’s journals we learn of his fall from charismatic millionaire to tortured prisoner, in a story of betrayal and reconciliation that spans two continents. The Distant Land of My Father, a breathtaking and richly lyrical debut, unfolds to reveal an enduring family love through tragic circumstances.

Note: this is one of my all time favorite books.

Shanghai Girls: A Novel, by Lisa See

In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai girls.

Life and Death in Shanghai, by Cheng Nian

Cheng’s widely acclaimed book recounts in compelling specifics her persecution and imprisonment at the hands of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976). Inquisitors accused her of being a “spy” and “imperialist,” but during the harrowing years of solitary confinement she never gave in, never confessed a lie. We read this, not so much for historical analysis, but, like the literature of the Gulag in Russia, for an example of a humane spirit telling terrible truths honestly, without bitterness or cynicism.

Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard

Jim is separated from his parents in a world at war. To survive, he must find a strength greater than all the events that surround him. Shanghai, 1941 — a city aflame from the fateful torch of Pearl Harbor. In streets full of chaos and corpses, a young British boy searches in vain for his parents. Imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp, he is witness to the fierce white flash of Nagasaki, as the bomb bellows the end of the war…and the dawn of a blighted world.Ballard’s enduring novel of war and deprivation, internment camps and death marches, and starvation and survival is an honest coming-of-age tale set in a world thrown utterly out of joint.

(This book was also made into a movie of the same name by Steven Spielberg)

What good books about Shanghai (then or now) would you add to this list? Leave your suggestions in a comment below.

Also….to read about our morning at the Mo En Christian Church in Shanghai, please see Amy’s post “I Knew You Were Crying!” she exclaimed. It pretty much says it all.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “Shanghai Books

  1. One of my personal favorites is Stella Dong’s “Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City” (

    It brings to life the characters and larger macro trends that lead to the creation of the great city of Shanghai that we have called home since 2007. From a modern developent sense, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that it all began with Opium..

  2. so glad to know you enjoy bo caldwell! she did a book reading/signing at a local bookstore, and i was stunned to hear her say she’d never been to china. i love how she respects the country and culture in all that she writes. robert and i will be in shanghai from sept-dec of next year, so please plan on another trip. i’d love to see it through your eyes. any other shanghai books to recommend?