We all know that China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. So of course it makes sense for their mythology to be as complex and immense as it is! These magical stories — Chinese myths and legends — are absolutely fascinating. Not only that, but they are a building block of society. Thus, reading about myths can tell you a lot about a country’s culture — especially in China, since later religions like Buddhism and Daoism have adapted older folk tales and incorporated them into their own set of beliefs. So if you’re interested in learning more about Chinese mythology, books are certainly a great place to start!
I’m not gonna lie, the Chinese pantheon is huge. Just for starters, their deity count is around 200 gods and goddesses. That’s amazing, but it also makes it a bit harder to choose where to begin exploring Chinese mythology books. Fret not: that’s why I’m here today. I’ve compiled this list with several fiction and nonfiction books about Chinese mythology you can read! From YA fantasy and retellings, to a more detailed compilation of deities, there’s a book for everyone on this list.
So without further ado, let’s dive into eight Chinese mythology books you’ll love reading.
Fiction Chinese Mythology Books
Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan
Let’s begin with one of my favorite fantasy books of 2022! Unlike other books on this list, Daughter of the Moon Goddess is inspired by a specific Chinese myth: that of the moon goddess Chang’e! It actually works as an imagined sequel to the legend, because this book follows her daughter, even though she doesn’t exist in the original myth. Her name is Xingyin, and her existence is hidden from the Celestial Emperor. When Xingyin displays her new powers though, the royals come looking for her at the Moon Palace. She flees in the night, only to end up at the Celestial Kingdom — where she becomes BFFs with the prince Liwei. Years later, Xingyin will not forget her mother. So she embarks on a quest to save her from her exile on the moon.
An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan
On the topic of the moon goddess, this YA fantasy reimagines her own love story! An Arrow to the Moon follows star-crossed lovers Hunter Yee and Luna Chan. The two meet when Hunter joins Luna’s high school during their senior year. They’re immediately taken to the other, despite their own murky pasts and the weight of their respective families’ secrets. That’s actually one of the things that brings them closer together. Despite the feud between their families, Hunter and Luna soon find themselves falling for each other. What could possibly go wrong?
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
You’re probably already familiar with Kuang’s The Poppy War — but did you know it’s heavily inspired by both Chinese history and mythology? For example, the Chinese mythological novel Investiture of the Gods forms the backbone of the trilogy’s mythology! This book follows a war orphan named Rin, who against all odds is accepted into the country’s top military academy. At Sinegard they teach her all kinds of strategy and fighting, but she’s also the only enrolled student who learns shamanism with the mysterious teacher Jiang. What starts as a fun magical academy novel suddenly swerves left when The Third Poppy War begins and Rin is forced to make some pretty tough decisions in order to save her country.
Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan
Next, we’re moving on to a YA fantasy that is inspired by Chinese mythology in general rather than a specific myth. It also draws heavily from Chinese xianxia and wuxia stories. Jade Fire Gold follows two very different people named Altan and Ahn. Altan remembers his past too well: his family’s murder and the subsequent hijack of his throne. Ahn on the other side, remembers nothing. In true Rey-like fashion, she lives in the middle of the desert until her powers manifest and she becomes one of the most powerful people in the world. The two meet and become reluctant allies. But the price for Ahn’s past and Altan’s throne might be too high for them to pay.
Monkey King: Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en
We’ve talked about all kinds of modern Chinese mythology books. But let’s go back to the classics shall we? Monkey King is actually one of the four pillars of Chinese mythology — and probably the most popular one too thanks to adaptations like the K-drama A Korean Odyssey. The story follows the shapeshifter Sun Wukong. This mischievous character is on a journey to immortality. But when he raids Heaven’s Orchard and drinks the gods’ elixir, Buddha pins him beneath a mountain for 500 years. Only when that time is over, Sun Wukong is given a chance to redeem himself. His new mission? To protect a monk named Tripitaka on his 14 year journey.
Nonfiction Chinese Mythology Books
Illustrated Myths & Legends of China: The Ages of Chaos and Heroes by Dehai Huang, Xiang Jing, and Zhang Dinghao
Moving on to the nonfiction part of this list, let’s kick things off with this handy guide that was actually written in Chinese and then translated into English. What makes this book great is that it’s accompanied by tons of art and illustrations from the stories it talks about. Speaking of which, there are over 30 legends and myths covered in this book, including that of the serpent goddess Nüwa, the creation myth, and the great man-god Yu. For such a slim volume, this is an impressive array of myths that still manage to be detailed and highly informative.
The Chinese Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Legends by Tao Tao Liu (January 10, 2023)
Okay so, this book isn’t out yet. But it’s still a comprehensive and not overly complicated look at Chinese mythology written by a former Oxford lecturer on Modern Chinese. It’s a great introductory text to those who don’t know a lot about Chinese mythology already — which is why it earned its place on this list. From deities like Guanyin to ancient heroes like Yi the Archer, this short but complete guide not only retells their stories. But it also considers where they fit within Chinese religion, culture, and history.
From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: The Essential Guide to Chinese Deities by Xueting Christine Ni
Last but not least, remember when I said the Chinese pantheon had over 200 deities? They are too many to cover in a single book, but Xueting Christine Ni does a great job of exploring 60 of those deities — both ancient and modern — in great detail. That’s why From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao is an absolute must-read when studying Chinese mythology! Some of the deities covered in this book include the goddess of mercy Kuan Yin, the demon slayer Zhong Ku, the guardian of sex workers Bai Mei Shen, and the supreme goddess Xi Wang Mu.