20 China books to read (and 5 to avoid)


This is a (revised) answer I posted on Quora to the question "What are some good books that can give me a window into modern China?" I'm selective, and have split it into five lists of five: books on contemporary China, books on modern China (i.e. late and post Qing history), books from Chinese voices, China books from the canon ... and a bonus list of China books to avoid.

I hope this is useful as an open sesame for new China watchers, or to encourage old hands to plug the holes in their bookshelf. The lists are designed as all you need to pack your bag or Kindle with to understand that aspect or perspective of China, without being overwhelming. Do go ahead and say what I missed in the comments.



Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, by Philip P. Pan – very readable, stories from the post-Mao era that shaped China as it is today

China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua  – a Chinese perspective of that transition from Cultural Revolution to the contradictions of 21st century China

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, by Peter Hessler – third book Hessler wrote from China, and the one both most up-to-date and widest in scope

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie Chang – sensitively told, the human side of the factory boom, a continuation of the China story

Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, ed. Angilee Shah, Jeffrey Wasserstrom – disclosure: I have a chapter in this book



The Search for Modern Chinaby Jonathan Spence – the daddy of China history books, from late Ming to 1989, this doorstopper is also a pleasure to read

Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Centuryby Orville Schell and John Delury – 14 individuals who made modern China, absolutely terrific

A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World, by Rana Mitter – looks at the broad span of modern Chinese history through an original and compelling lens

Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There, and Where It Is Heading, by Jonathan Fenby – a holistic approach to China's history which also looks to its future

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Knowby Jeffrey Wasserstrom – slim, comprehensive, perfect reading for the plane trip over



To Live, by Yu Hua – novelistic treatment of the broad span of Chinese 20th century history from one family's perspective, and a gripping riches-to-rags story

The Corpse Walker: China From the Bottom Up, by Liao Yiwu – surprising and often moving narratives of ordinary people from all over China's countryside

This Generation: Dispatches from China's Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver)by Han Han – social commentary from superstar Chinese blogger

Chinese Lives: An Oral History of Contemporary China, by Sang Ye and Zhang Xinxin – snapshots from the 1980s, a ground up understanding of the people that make up China

Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China, by various – terrific collection of urban stories, much more relevant to today's China than reading Mo Yan



The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun, trans. Julia Lovell – China's George Orwell. At least read "The True Story of Ah Q" and "Diary of a Madman"

Fortress Beseiged, by Qian Zhongshu – Funny and sharp indictment of Chinese society in the late 1930s, and an often overlooked classic

The Analects of Confucius, trans. Simon Leys – Confucius say, a gentleman reads Confucius. Or at least dips into it for the famous quotes

Wandering on the Way, by Zhuangzi, trans. Victor Mair – And for the other side of the Chinese philosophy coin (Taoism), this translation's a real treat

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck – 1931 American novel of a rags-to-riches Chinese farmer, it might be dated but Oprah's book club is never wrong



The Coming Collapse of Chinaby Gordon Chang  – published in 2001, we're still waiting Gordon ... this is why you never make a prediction in a book title

When China Rules the World, by Martin Jacques – the titles of these first two taken side by side should persuade you that birds-eye-view big-thesis China books just aren't worth it

Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday – Mao was a complex figure who caused horrific suffering, but demonising him without nuance is just bad history

East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia, by Daniel A. Bell – Readable, with valuable perspective, but can come too close to apologism for authoritarianism

Shanghai Baby, by Wei Hui – If you're tempted by this "dark and edgy" novel of sex and self discovery, run in the other direction. It's unbearably affected and pretentious

(*I don't mean that these books have no value – they all have value and are informative – but that they are ultimately misleading or single-sided and you should avoid them in favour of others.)


Finally, in coda, here's New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos recommending another five books on China – and his own will be out in the summer – on the literary website Five Books where I worked for two years, hence my obsessive interest in listing books in quintuplicate.

Now go get reading ...

Alec Ash, Sat 9 November 2013 - 06:06