The Best Books On China By Western Journalists

The Books I Picked & Why

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

By Peter Hessler

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

Why this book?

After China started to open up in the 1980s, there were a spate of books by Westerners about the China that they encountered. None match this evocative portrait of life in a Sichuan Province town on the Yangtzee River. It’s written by a young American Peace Corps volunteer who went on to become a New Yorker writer. It’s a tale of discovery. The students begin to learn about the world outside of China and the writer starts a decades-long romance with Chinese society. Smart, touching, and beautifully written.


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Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

By Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Why this book?

China’s remarkable economic rise was powered by the tens of millions of young migrants who left their villages to work hundreds of miles away in the factory sweatshops along China’s southern coast. Many were young women who lived in dormitory-style buildings and put up with financial and sometimes sexual abuse. The women are the subject of this engrossing book by a former Wall Street Journal reporter who follows their journeys. It’s hardly all dire. The cities offer freedom and opportunity too. (Interesting note: Hessler and Chang are married.)


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The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers

By Richard McGregor

The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers

Why this book?

The Chinese Communist Party is a mystery and this book is the best journalistic guide to try to understand it. This book inspired my reporting in China. It made me understand that the party is at the heart of every important decision made by Beijing though its decision-making is rarely visible. Written by a former Financial Times reporter, the book documents the big role the party plays in everything from picking the CEOs of China’s biggest firms to revamping the military.


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The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present

By John Pompfret

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present

Why this book?

We are used to thinking about how much China has changed in the past 50 years, thanks to the actions of the United States. But we rarely think about China’s historic impact on the U.S. This magisterial book by a former Washington Post reporter with long experience in China corrects that imbalance. There is a reason the author uses 1776 in his subhead. The tea tossed into Boston Harbor was shipped from Xiamen, and America’s founders were inspired by Chinese society which they viewed as a meritocracy. China’s democratic reformers looked to the U.S. for inspiration too.


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The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

By Jonathan Kaufman

The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

Why this book?

This is a fun read about a forgotten history. The writer, a former Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal reporter, masterfully tells the tale of two Baghdadi Jewish families – Sasoon and Kadoorie—who helped shape the economy and society of Shanghai. The families are both heroes and villains. Much of their money came from the opium trade, but they also helped turn Shanghai into a Jewish refuge from the Nazis. 


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