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 those 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


Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler – The third book Hessler wrote from China, this is 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


Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There, and Where It Is Heading by Jonathan Fenby – The best short read "big picture" book about China's rise out there


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 China by Jonathan Spence – The grandaddy 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 Century by 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 – The broad span of modern Chinese history through an original and compelling lens


The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer – Insightful history of the dramatic year of Mao's death in 1976


China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jeffrey Wasserstrom – Slim, comprehensive, intuitive. Perfect reading for the plane trip over




China in Ten Words by Yu Hua – A Chinese perspective of the transition from Cultural Revolution to opening up and the contradictions of 21st century China


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


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


China Candid: The People on the People's Republic by Sang Ye  – Oral histories of ordinary Chinese lives, a ground up portrait of China since 1949


Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today's China ed. Howard Goldblatt –The perfect open sesame to contemporary Chinese literature




The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun trans. Julia Lovell – China's George Orwell. At least read the canonical "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, an often overlooked but still relevant classic


Monkey by Wu Cheng'en, trans. Arthur Waley – Approachable translation of Journey to the West, the most accessible of China's four classic texts, in a great translation


Wandering on the Way by Zhuangzi, trans. Victor Mair – For ancient Chinese philosophy, skip Confucius and Laozi, I say, and go straight to Zhuangzi, it's more fun


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




The Coming Collapse of China by 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 – Some insightful analysis, but in the end these 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 – Offers 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 and so you should avoid them in favour of others. It's all very subjective.)


Finally, in coda, here's New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos recommending another five books on China – his own will be out in the summer is out now – 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 ...


Update 8.17.14 - I've made some changes to this list since it was first published, in the spirit of getting it just right. Fenby, Mitter, Palmer and Goldblatt are the new additions. I should also disclose I know some of the authors

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