Great books about China?
January 13, 2008 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend books about China and the Chinese.

I am going to China for a month's holiday at the end of April, woohoo! I am going from Hong Kong to Beijing to Shanghai and I would like some book recommendations to read before I go there. I intend to buy a decent guidebook too (so recommendations are very welcome for those) but I am also interested in histories, current affairs, reportage and fiction.

Part of the reason I am posting is that there seems to be such a vast selection of books on China and the Chinese that I might miss the wheat for the chaff. Ideally, I would like to read one cracker of a book of each type mentioned above (plus points if it focuses on the places I am visiting). AskMe has always come up trumps in the past and I hope it can again.

posted by ClanvidHorse to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Wild swans is a great history of china through the recounting of the lives of three generations of chinese women. It does a great job of describing what life was really like for ordinary people through the cultural revolution. It covers around the last century. Really interesting read.

My parents have been to China and their stories of visiting the place are mainly about the attitude of the other sightseers they were with. They always wanted to see "the real china" but when it came to meals would stuff themselves on chips and western food. Their overall opinion, was that to experience China while you're there, you really ought to be a little hungry. Not starving, but just to have an awareness of the economic resources it takes to farm and prepare food.

It certainly seems like a really interesting place to visit, i'm envious.
posted by galactain at 7:54 AM on January 13, 2008

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler is truly excellent.
posted by milquetoast at 8:01 AM on January 13, 2008

Seconding Wild Swans. It is set more in central China and finishes in Chengdu but is a great 'culture' book.
posted by geekyguy at 8:02 AM on January 13, 2008

Thirding Wild Swans. In fact, even if you're not going to China, read Wild Swans.
posted by greytape at 8:08 AM on January 13, 2008

Best answer: You might like:
The Good Women of China by Xinran
China road : a journey into the future of a rising power by Rob Gifford
One Man's Bible by Gao Xingjian
Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
Sons of Heavan by Terrence Cheng
posted by nimsey lou at 8:14 AM on January 13, 2008

When you land in Beijing, if you are unlucky, customs may seize some of these wonderful books—once in a while Lonely Planet guidebooks get seized for having Taiwan in the wrong color.

That said, I liked Dietrich's People's China as a very introductory text on the history of China under communism. Maybe find it in a library somewhere and give it a skim.

You probably won't find many books focusing on Hong Kong along with the two mainland cities; Hong Kong has its own distinct history, culture, etc. I am skeptical about its modern relevance, but everyone recommends Coates's Myself a Mandarin and it's a good read, so I won't rock the boat.
posted by deeaytch at 8:58 AM on January 13, 2008

If you're interested in the life of the ordinary people you may like China's urban villagers. It's from '91 and a little academic (ethnographic case study) - but it'll give you a very important perspective on rich vs poor/urban vs rural, what does Chinese communism mean in a practical sense and where is Mao in all this. It's very good.
posted by Craig at 9:03 AM on January 13, 2008

2nd-ing China road : a journey into the future of a rising power by Rob Gifford.
posted by sharkfu at 9:05 AM on January 13, 2008

Another Wild Swans rec here. I just finished it and have been reading news articles about China with way more interest now that I have a more vivid grounding in recentish Chinese history. That said, it's a memoir with little or no documentation, sources cited, or explanation of methodology - I wondered as I was reading it how its presentation of history is viewed by those who know more about China than I.
posted by yarrow at 9:07 AM on January 13, 2008

I enjoyed "Death of a Red Heroine" by Qiu Xiaolong. It's a detective story set in Shanghai in the '90s. It's not amazing but the flashes of the city and political culture are pretty interesting. (The author's other books are not nearly as good though).
posted by patricio at 9:21 AM on January 13, 2008

Best answer: The Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan Spence (life in seventeenth century Shandong)
Red Dust by Ma Jian (80s politics and picaresque)
Philip Short's biography of Mao. (Steer clear of Jung and Halliday's)
Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants By Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao
In the Red: Contemporary Chinese Culture Geremie R. Barme
Thinking Through Confucius if you like philosophy.
Don't worry about customs. I regularly return from abroad with anti-Communist works and banned books written in Chinese; you'd be extraordinarily unlucky to have anything written in English confiscated (you can buy the Lonely Planet just down the street from me here in Beijing). Do message us for a meet-up when you're in town if the urge takes you.
posted by Abiezer at 9:29 AM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Jacques Gernet's History of Chinese Civilization could be a good before-you-go read. It's a nice survey of history from the beginnings right up to today.
posted by gimonca at 9:54 AM on January 13, 2008

Peter Hessler's books (River Town, Oracle Bones) and magazine articles (New Yorker) are excellent. He's one of the rare "foreigners" who portray China accurately.

nthing Wild Swans.
posted by be11e at 11:26 AM on January 13, 2008

Best answer: Please please please read Jan Wong. She's a journalist who was born in Canada to Chinese parents. She went to university in China during the Cultural Revolution and returned as a journalist in the 80s. Her memoirs of her experiences are hilarious, informative, and quite moving (her moment-by-moment description of Tienanmen in Jan Wong's China is stunning.) They're great books for getting a modern historical perspective on current Chinese society.

Start with Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now.

The effective sequel is Jan Wong's China: Reports From a Not-So-Foreign Correspondent

The most recent of the series is Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found, but I haven't read that one yet 'cause it's still just in hardcover.
posted by loiseau at 12:29 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

(Apologies: the Tienanmen sequence is in Red China Blues.)
posted by loiseau at 12:31 PM on January 13, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. I have marked a few of those with multiple suggestions as best answers but all answers and advice are very much appreciated.

I think that Wild Swans sounds like a definite as do some others. Please keep 'em coming.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 1:31 PM on January 13, 2008

Seconding Jonathan D. Spence's The Death of Woman Wang, or anything else by Spence, really. I got a lot out of his Search for Modern China as well, but that's a near 1000 page monster, and is a bit hard to travel with. Though it won't prepare you for going to China, you may want to consider buying a few books in China itself. You won't have the selection, but it's not hard to find really cheap English books in large bookstores in major cities.
posted by pantagrool at 1:42 PM on January 13, 2008

I've very much enjoyed Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries. Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat and Chinese historian (with a penchant for Ming-era pornography) who wrote a series of novels featuring the crime-solving Confucian Judge Dee, set in the 7th century CE. Pleasant light reading set in an educationally historical context.
posted by mumkin at 2:14 PM on January 13, 2008

Good call mumkin - read all those in the college library but had forgotten until you just mentioned them.
posted by Abiezer at 2:21 PM on January 13, 2008

The Chung Kuo novels have very strong Chinese cultural plot elements.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:24 PM on January 13, 2008

I recommend John Pomfret's Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. Pomfret studied in China as an exchange student in the early '80s (one of the first Americans ever to do so), and he tells the story of recent Chinese history in large part through the stories of five of his classmates (hence the subtitle). It's on the State Department's suggested reading list [PDF] for the Foreign Service exam.
posted by electric water kettle at 3:24 PM on January 13, 2008

One Billion Customers by James McGregor is a 2005 book about doing business in China. It might be interesting to you in that it focuses on differences between Chinese and Western perspectives. Much of it is a very interesting, readable narrative of different case studies and in some of the cases he's demonstrating how business deals fell apart simply because of different understandings of business practices and business etiquette. In the course of his stories he also gives many details and anecdotes, including personal anecdotes, of the transition from communism to capitalism in China during the last few decades.

A nifty feature of it is that he tries to condense the lessons that he thinks each case study demonstrates into Chinese-style epigrams at the end of each chapter like
China’s modernization is aiming at "rule by law" not the "rule of law," so relationships and personal power reign supreme.
The name of the book is meant to echo that of a 1937 book on the same topic, 400 Million Customers, by another American businessman in China, Carl Crow^.
posted by XMLicious at 4:00 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

James Fallows is currently based in Shanghai for The Atlantic. He's been writing interesting stuff which should be archived here (but I can't be sure because my system won't let me read it.)

A somewhat older journalistic take is China Wakes by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (married New York Times correspondents based in China at the time. Kristof of course is now a columnist.)

I also liked Spence's history mentioned above.
posted by Jahaza at 4:13 PM on January 13, 2008

Mao's Last Dancer [writer escapes me at the moment] is also a wonderful book. About a young peasant boy who grows to be the best dancer in china. Won't spoil it for you. Definitely worth looking up.
posted by shesaysgo at 5:08 PM on January 13, 2008

Wild Swans is anti-chinese propaganda. Please read it with this in mind. Try Shanghai Baby instead.
posted by markovich at 11:28 PM on January 13, 2008

Best answer: Here are some influential works of Mainland Chinese literature:

Wang Xiaobo is hugely popular among the younger generation in China and really has a special style. Check out the editorial reviews on the Amazon site for a better idea.

To Live by Yu Hua is a story of a family's experiences during the Chinese civil war and the Cultural Revolution, and was made into a film by Zhang Yimou.

Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu is a satirical novel about middle-class Chinese society in the 1940s. (WP article)

Of these, Fortress Besieged is probably the most famous, but if you have to read only one, definitely read Wang Xiaobo! In general, if you want to get a good "feeling" for China, I'd suggest you to read books written by Chinese authors for a Chinese audience. There's so much you can learn just by observation.

Personally, I think many of the "Chinese" books written for a Western audience such as Wild Swans or the Joy Luck Club are biased towards the negative aspects of Chinese culture and history, which, sadly enough, is often what Westerners want to read. Definitely read all you can, but try coming to China without any preconceptions about the country or the Chinese - too many people have a distorted view of China before they even get there. It's a disappointing trend that even guidebooks like Lonely Planet are written with such a strong anti-Chinese tone (BTW, besides being terribly biased, a lot of Lonely Planet's info is completely wrong or outdated - I definitely don't recommend it).

I would also recommend Iris Chang's book if you're interested in Chinese-American history.
posted by pravit at 6:13 AM on January 14, 2008

I can't really recommend those translations of Wang Xiaobo or Qian Zhongshu, though -- the former reader extremely clunkily to me, and the latter is almost criminally unreadable, full of clunkers like "This is really neglect of filial duties in the extreme!" To Live fares better in translation, as I recall.

Also, Shanghai Baby is great -- if you're interested in reading about the dull, pretentious exploits of a shallow Shanghainese bimbette who thinks she's the next Henry James and considers Titanic deeply moving.

Seconding Abiezer's recommendations and n-thing the recommendations of Peter Hessler -- he is by far the fairest and most insightful foreign observer of China writing at the moment. Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret is also worth a read, and I enjoyed China Shakes The World by James Kynge.
posted by bokane at 4:20 PM on January 16, 2008

If you are interested in history/memoir, I really enjoyed the book Chen Village by Anita Chan, Richard Madsen and Jonathan Unger. It's a history of one village from about 1950 to 1980, right through the Cultural Revolution - all based on the testimony of people who had lived there and later escaped to Hong Kong. It offers an interesting contrast to the experiences of the educated and urban classes, which most memoirs are obviously about.
posted by jb at 11:51 PM on January 16, 2008

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