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.
5 BOOKS ON CONTEMPORARY CHINA
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
5 BOOKS ON MODERN CHINESE HISTORY
The Search for Modern China, by 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 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 – looks at 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 – informative history of a transitional moment, clears a lot of cobwebs
China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom – slim, comprehensive, perfect reading for the plane trip over
5 BOOKS BY (LIVING) CHINESE AUTHORS
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
5 CHINA BOOKS FROM THE CANON
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
5 CHINA BOOKS TO AVOID*
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 – 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 ...
Updated 5.2.14 – new list added (Chinese authors), others tweaked (Garlic Ballads, River Town deleted; Country Driving, Bitter Revolution, Death of Mao added; Shambaugh replaced with Bell)