The Best Books about China: Other Worthwhile Reads

Chinese Bookstores have intriguing categories.

Chinese Bookstores have intriguing categories.

These books did not fit into the categories of post 1, 2 or 3, but are worth reading. Three novels and one true story about China that reads like a novel. Enjoy!

Country side dwellers: The Good Earth- Pearl Buck
A China classic, Buck tells the story of a poor farmer in the countryside in the 1930ies. I imagine that despite the economic rise, there are still millions in China’s countryside leading a similar life, or are but one generation away from it.

Tourists and travelers: Lenin’s Kisses- Yan Lianke
This is a hilarious novel about creating a tourist attraction from scratch. A local village chief decides to buy the embalmed remains of Lenin from Russia and construct a major tourist attraction. For those traversing China by train, Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster is a classic.

Romantic souls: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers- Xiaolu Guo
Reverse Culture Shock. A novel about a Chinese girl who moves to England for study and finds love while being lost in translation.

Storytellers: Mao’s last dancer- Li Cunxin
A beautiful, real-life story about how a boy (Li Cunxin) growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China becomes a major ballet star in the United States. There is also a film made of this, though I haven’t watched it yet.

The Best Books about China: Part 3 Women’s Lives

What is the Chinese Dream of Women?

What is the Chinese Dream of Women?


“Women hold up Half the Sky,”

Mao Zedong said famously, but there are no women in the Standing Committee of the Communist Party today. These books take a look into the life of ordinary Chinese women. There are very successful female entrepreneurs in China nowadays, but I have yet to read a book about them. I prefer not to put “women books” in a separate category as this may put off people (yes conservative men, I mean you), but how can you understand China or its economy for that matter if you do not take the female perspective into account?

The Good women of China: Hidden Voices- Xinran
Chinese Oprah Winfrey, radio host Xinran, tells the riveting tales of women calling in to her late night talk show. Beautiful and heart-breaking stories.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China- Leslie Chang
How do the girls who make your IPhone live and work, love and think? How a stolen phone may mean the end to your social life in a vast city like Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in Southern China. Former Washington Post correspondent delves into the life of factory girls. A novel doing something similar is Northern Girls by Chinese author Sheng Keyi, though the tone is completely different.

Wild Swans- Jung Chang
A real life story of 3 generations of women in 20th century China, connected to the broader historical developments in China in that period. The writer’s grandmother was the concubine of a general, her mother a high party executive.

The Best Books about China: Part 2- Economy and Politics

Where Politics and Economy coincide: Tiananmen Square Beijing.

Where Politics and Economy coincide: Tiananmen Square Beijing.

Whether it is possible to make a clear distinction in categories between the first post and this one, is a matter to be debated. But here are some more good reads about China.

For the Time deprived: The 1 Hour China Book- Jeffrey Towson and Jonathan Woetzel
Two American professors at leading Chinese University Peking University describe six “ Mega Trends” in the Chinese economy, from urbanization to the internet. They claim the book can be read in 1 hour, though a closer read warrants 2 to 3 hours. While the authors admit that China is big and complicated, the book gives a good and simplified overview of current issues.

Politically savvy– The Party- Richard McGregor
How has the Communist Party shaped China and how is it ruling this vast country in the 21st century? McGregor points out how what was once a revolutionary party is now firmly the establishment. A must read for those who want to understand more about how this vast country is governed.

Entrepreneurs: Mr China- Tim Clissold
After China opened up to foreign investors in the late seventies, Western investors tried to grab their chances and huge amounts of foreign investment became available. Many became rich, though not necessarily the Western investors themselves. Although the Chinese economy has changed tremendously, the book still contains lessons for foreigners wanting to do business in the Middle Kingdom.

Marketeers: As China Goes, So Goes the World- Karl Gerth
People who visited China in the 80ies or early 90’ies always tell me about the throngs of bicycles in the streets. Gerth explains why dreams of turning China into the first motorized vehicle free economy have been replaced by the smoggy, congested cities we know today, and gives examples of the Chinese consumer’s needs.

Negotiators: Chinese Commercial Negotiating Style- Lucian Pye
This book is only available second hand, but a relevant and concise introduction into Chinese negotiating. Many books about doing business in China focus on irrelevant details about handing over business cards with both hands. Pye on the other hand explains that Chinese believe patience is a value in negotiations and takes it from there, answering questions such as why the Chinese have a preference for informal sessions and who really is in charge of the negotiations.

Looking for in-depth knowledge:Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China- Ezra Vogel
I hesitated to add this book to the list. Not because it is not worth reading, but rather because it takes such a long time. However, if you want to understand the enormous transformation that China, and particularly its economy, has undergone, this book provides you with an in-depth description, with Deng Xiaoping as the leading man. The architect of Opening Up and Reform, he had a fascinating career in the Communist Party, but was purged from it 3 times.


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 :)