The Best Books about China: Part 1 History, Current Affairs and the Future

Books about ChinaI’ve been fortunate to have a lot of time to read in China. Here’s a list of some of the most worthwhile books I’ve laid my eyes on in the past 3 years. Mostly non-fiction by Western China watchers, with the odd novel in between. Here’s part one on History, current affairs and the future.

Good book lovers: anything by Peter Hessler.
Hessler is my favourite author about China. His book Oracle Bones was the first I read about China, describing the lives of his friends and former students as well as the history of the Chinese language. He weaves together the lives of regular people with broader trends and always does so with humour. His book River Town is a classic for English teachers and Country Driving a funny and engaging book about life in the country side just outside of Beijing.

Forward thinkers: When China Rules the World- Martin Jacques.
Really impressed me with its in depth analysis of China, its great explanations of China’s cultural background and historical relations with neighbouring countries. Also see his 15 minute TED talk, Understanding the Rise of China. It has sparked controversy among China watchers, for example Will China Dominate the 21st Century by Jonathan Fenby.

Current Affairs Lovers: The Age of Ambition, Chasing Fortune Truth and Faith in the New China- Evan Osnos
Former correspondent for the New Yorker describes the clash between the individual and the State in modern China through real life stories. “Anybody who scratched beneath the surface of Chinese life discovered a more complicated conception of the good life (…).”

History buffs: On China- Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger was one of the architects of the opening up of the USA-China relations. His “On China” is a great introduction to the last 150 years of Chinese history. Due to the many foot notes, the book looks more like a study book, but it is very informative.

Environmentalists: When a Billion Chinese Jump- How China Will Save Mankind- Or Destroy It- Jonathan Watts
Where do smog and filthy rivers originate? The Chinese try to control nature, with sometimes devastating effects. Watts travels all over the country and describes what he finds, from cloud hunters to cloned poplar trees. Sometimes depressing but worthwhile read.

Beijing residents: The Last Days of Old Beijing- Michael Meyer
What happens behind those hutong doors? Meyer describes it from within, living there while teaching English at a local school. A tale of a disappearing society. His new book, In Manchuria, is worth reading if you want to know more about the transformation of rural life in North East China- urbanization seen up close.

Language Learners: Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows
This modest book explains why foreigners say “please” way too much in Chinese, and many other intriguing differences in the Chinese language. Another worthwhile read in a moment of language learning frustration is this article: Why Learning Chinese is so Damn Hard by David Moser. Finished? Now read Why Learning Chinese isn’t as hard as you think and get back to your studies :)

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