“The longer I live in China, the less I understand it.” I’ve heard expats say some version of this on several occasions and felt this way myself at times. While there is no substitute for living in and traveling around China for yourself, it’s essential to know which books and writers to read if you want to fully understand the history, culture, and politics of this enigmatic country. Below are seven books, geared towards the Western reader, that will hopefully challenge and deepen your understanding of the Middle Kingdom.
Source: Nong Vang
A book I read very recently, Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World, was the inspiration for writing this article in the first place. It is also extremely topical, given the ever-evolving relationship between China and the US. MacMillan takes the reader inside the exact moment that laid the foundations for the modern ties and struggles between the world’s most powerful nations: Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing in February 1972. In my opinion, this book is essential reading for any foreigner living in China.
An ode to a lost age, this is the story of China on the eve of the Japanese invasion, more than a decade before the communist takeover. From a setting on the famous Shanghai Bund, Grescoe’s story is populated with historical characters, including legendary New York Times reporter Emily Hahn, celebrated author Ernest Hemingway, and the incredibly wealthy Sir Victor Sassoon. While this story takes place less than a century ago, so much has changed in China that it’s hard to imagine what life was like back then. Grescoe succeeds in creating a vivid and engrossing picture of old Shanghai.
In this highly critical and Western-oriented account of the life of Mao Zedong, Chang and Halliday provide first-hand reports of China under Mao. In recounting wars, devastating famines, deadly political intrigue, and brutal policies Mao: The Unknown Story paints a picture of a nation and a man on the edge. While some scholars and reporters have debated the veracity of some of the book’s claims, and though it is openly one-sided, it remains an eye-opening and important account of one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic and polarizing figures. Chang is also the author of the excellent memoir Wild Swans. Both books are banned in China, so don’t expect to be able to buy them here.
Sun Yat-Sen is one of the most important figures in the history of China. Born in Guangzhou under the Qing Dynasty in 1866, he lived to see the fall of this last Chinese dynasty and was a crucial figure in bringing China into the 20th century. A doctor by training and a dissident by nature, he traveled widely in the US and lists Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln among his inspirations. He is revered today as a fervent nationalist and a modernizing force, although his legacy is often overshadowed in the history books by the communist takeover that came two decades after his death. This very balanced biography, documenting both Sun Yat-Sen’s achievements and failures, sheds fresh light on one of China’s most interesting leaders.
If you’ve ever turned on a television in China, you’ve likely seen a TV series or film depicting some aspect of the Japanese invasion and perhaps wondered why the Chinese are so obsessed with this one historical event. As the title of this book implies, many people outside of China know very little about the Japanese massacre in Nanjing (sometimes referred to as Nanking) in the late 1930s, a brutal event that forms a large part of the continued sore feelings. Approximately 300,000 men, women and children were systematically killed by Japanese soldiers, and the massacre looms in the background of Chinese-Japanese relations even today.
In this book, Iris Chang, whose grandparents narrowly escaped the massacre, argues that this event was, in fact, one of the first battles of WWII, and thus deserves to be recognized for its global significance. Using previously unearthed historical documents and the testimonies of survivors, Chang tells the story from three perspectives: that of the Chinese residents, the Japanese soldiers, and the Westerners who refused to abandon the city. As a side note, I would recommend a visit to the memorial museum in Nanjing, but only if you have a strong stomach and a packet of tissues on your person.
The only first-hand account in English of the ascendancy of Mao Zedong and the communists in the 1930s and 1940s, Snow’s book draws on interviews and writings from when Mao and his band of angry men were little more than guerrillas emerging starved and depleted from the infamous Long March. While the book is an invaluable eye-witness account of one of the major events of the 20th century, it is often criticized in the West for being overly sympathetic and ingratiating toward Mao and communism in general. As it is still widely read in Chinese schools today, however, it provides a great basis for understanding how Chinese people view the history of their country and the Party.
Evan Osnos is, in my opinion, the best reporter writing about China today. I would strongly recommend any of the articles he’s written in recent years for The New Yorker, but for something a little longer and more in-depth, this book is not to be missed. The Age of Ambition, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, is the most current of the books on this list. While most of the other books here use a historical lens to make sense of modern China, Osnos is reporting the situation on the ground today. Through extensive travel and access to important industrial and government figures, as well as average citizens, Osnos takes us on a whirlwind tour of what is new China.
This country is always surprising and always evolving. Its recent history alone could take a lifetime to fully understand, while the present political landscape —including issues with US trade, 5G and the COVID-19 pandemic—could be looked back on as major turning point for the future. I have chosen the above titles because I believe they provide a good cross-section of Chinese culture, politics and recent history, but obviously they make up only a tiny fraction of the available literature. There are hundreds of books on 20th and 21st century China, with more being published almost every day.
My hope is that the titles and authors represented here will at least provide a good starting point from which you can explore the aspects of China that are most interesting and relevant to your life. Most importantly, I encourage you to curate and constantly update a reading list of your own, so that the longer you live here, the more you understand this weird, wild, and wonderful country.
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Keywords: Books about China
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