Five sci-fi/fantasy books inspired by Chinese history

May is Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month! So for this month I’m going to share reading recommendations from across Asia and the Pacific Islands.

I love this part of the world and I’m excited to be sharing books from here. I think books are a great way to gain insight into peoples’ lives and their culture. You may not be able to travel or live everywhere you’re interested in, but you can definitely read books from anywhere in the world.


China has a long history, specifically a long written history. The oldest written records are about 3,500 years old!

This is by no means unique, there are other countries with thousands of years of history (i.e., Egypt and Mesopotamia).

But with such a long, recorded history, there is plenty of inspiration for authors to pull from.

These new books inspired by Chinese history are similar to the resurgence of Greek myth retellings, which allow for a fresh take by telling the story from the women’s point of view or highlighting characters previously seen as peripheral. I’m currently loving the fresh perspectives of stories inspired by Chinese history.

I love how women and nonbinary authors are finally being offered publishing deals to tell these diverse stories that draw inspiration from China, but are centering women, nonbinary, gender non-conforming individuals, and various types of relationships.

I find it fascinating to see how modern day issues, like gender, can be explored through a historical setting. For instance, in She Who Becomes the Sun the main character takes on her brother’s name and poses as a boy to seek refuge at a monastery. I think it shows that these ideas are nothing new, that the concepts are rarely black and white, and they’ve always played a role in our lives.

Personally, I love seeing diverse authors finding their voice and being recognized for their creativity. I love that different cultures and histories are becoming more widely recognized, accepted, and seen as valuable.

I find that being able to read from a variety of perspectives opens us up to more interesting stories. I sometimes struggle to read classics by old white men because their women characters often lack depth and I get tired of only reading about men.

I think classics have value in that they reflect the era they came from. But it makes me wonder how many fascinating stories we no longer have because they were not deemed valuable at the time or the storyteller had no means to write/publish the stories.

At least now more diverse voices are being offered a platform, and for everyone else there’s always the opportunity to self-publish online.

Photo by Kayla Kozlowski on Unsplash

Five sci-fi/fantasy books inspired by Chinese history

Here’s a list of five books with authors inspired by Chinese history or cultural stories.

  1. Strange Beasts of China/异兽志 (2006)
  2. The Poppy War (2018)
  3. The Empress of Salt and Fortune (2020)
  4. Iron Widow (2021)
  5. She Who Became the Sun (2021)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published.

Strange Beasts of China/异兽志 (2006)

by Yan Ge (颜歌), translated from the Mandarin Chinese by Jeremy Tiang

  • Year Published: 2006
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, contemporary, fantasy, literary, dark, mysterious, reflective, medium-paced
  • Translated version published in 2021 through Tilted Axis press

From one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Chinese literature, an uncanny and playful novel that blurs the line between human and beast …

In the fictional Chinese city of Yong’an, an amateur cryptozoologist is commissioned to uncover the stories of its fabled beasts. These creatures live alongside humans in near-inconspicuousness—save their greenish skin, serrated earlobes, and strange birthmarks.

Aided by her elusive former professor and his enigmatic assistant, our narrator sets off to document each beast, and is slowly drawn deeper into a mystery that threatens her very sense of self.

Part detective story, part metaphysical enquiry, Strange Beasts of China engages existential questions of identity, humanity, love and morality with whimsy and stylistic verve.

Links:

The Poppy War (2018)

by R.F. Kuang

  • Year Published: 2018
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, historical, adventurous, dark, tense, medium-paced
  • R.F. Kuang’s first novel

An epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Links:

The Empress of Salt and Fortune (2020)

by Nghi Vo

  • Year Published: 2020
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, lgbtqia+, emotional, mysterious, reflective, medium-paced
  • First book published in the Singing Hills Cycle – but the books can be read in any order

A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

Links:

Iron Widow (2021)

by Xiran Jay Zhao (they/them)

  • Year Published: 2021
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, lgbtqia+, science fiction, young adult, adventurous, dark, tense, fast-paced
  • New York Times Bet Seller and Hugo-award-disqualified (due to political censorship) author

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But it doesn’t go quite as she expects.

Links:

She Who Became the Sun (2021)

by Shelley Parker-Chan (they/them)

  • Year Published: 2021
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, historical, lgbtqia+, adventurous, dark, tense, medium-paced
  • Won both the Best Novel and Best Newcomer awards at the British Fantasy Awards

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…

In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.

When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.

Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

Watch. Just watch.

Excerpt from The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Photo by dirk von loen-wagner on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo.

It took another two days’ walk through the birch barrens before they came to the narrow beach of Lake Scarlet at dusk. The lake itself was almost perfectly circular, formed from the death of a falling star, and farther down the beach Chih saw the low green-tiled roof of the former empress’s compound. To their surprise, there was a lantern lit on the porch built over the water.

“Don’t tell me it’s looters already?”

As they watched, however, an old woman came walking out of the house with a smart step, and when she reached the railing, she stared out over the water and at the indigo sky above, where the stars were stepping forward. Chih was just wondering what to do when the old woman caught sight of them.

“Come over! You can see the lake better from here!”

Almost Brilliant kept her own counsel, so Chih picked their way along the rocky shore of the beach, coming up the shallow steps to the porch just as the last salmon light was leaving the sky. The old woman gestured for them to come closer.

“Come, you’re just in time.”

She indicated that Chih was meant to help themself from the small dish of sesame crackers on the railing, but she herself looked distracted, gazing over the black water and holding one cracker in her hand. After a few moments, she turned down the lantern wick until it emitted only a sullen glow.

“Grandmother, I’m here to—”

“Shush, girl, it’s happening.”

Above was the rapidly darkening sky. All around them was the darkness of the birch barrens, and spread out before them was Lake Scarlet, like a mirror reflecting nothing but night. At first, Chih thought it was their imagination, nothing more than a mirage that came after staring at something too hard, but then they realized that it was real. There was a faint glow coming from the water itself, something like the very last gleam of a dying hearth fire.

“What—”

“Shh. Watch. Just watch.”

Chih held their breath as the soft red glow brightened, sweeping across the lake like the sparks of New Year fireworks. It was brilliant, too hard to look at so very closely, and it flooded the water, enough so they could make out individual trees on the beach, the black silhouette of the night birds on the water, and the seamed face of the woman standing next to them, creased in pleasure.

“I was hoping it would go tonight. It’s still a little cold yet, but it has come even earlier in some years.”

Chih stood side by side with the woman, staring out over the pyrotechnic display before them. Just a short while after the red lights came up to their full brightness, they started to dim again. Chih counted in their head. When they had reached one hundred, there was only a faint reddish glow to the water.

The old woman sighed happily as she turned the lamp back up.

“Every time, it is like the first, and I have not seen it in sixty years. Come inside; it’s still too cold for my brittle bones.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Summary

A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

Copyright © 2020 by Nghi Vo.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.