The best books on China perspectives

Brantly Womack Author Of China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry
By Brantly Womack

The Books I Picked & Why

Country Driving

By Peter Hessler

Book cover of Country Driving

Why this book?

The first step to enriching perspectives on China is to go there—something more difficult in times of COVID and political tensions. One of the most pleasant virtual visits is to take a back seat as Peter Hessler roams the Great Wall backcountry. He does American things in an un-American place: getting a driver’s license, renting a car, meeting hitchhikers, countryfolk, and their city kids. He moves on to the factories, and we meet the Chinese that put the “Made in China” label on our daily world. Hessler is a regular at the New Yorker, is living in China, and always a good read.

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Home Is Not Here

By Wang Gungwu

Book cover of Home Is Not Here

Why this book?

Home is Not Here is a touching autobiographical account of a past Chinese world completely different in time and place from that of Hessler’s explorations. In the first half of the twentieth century millions of Chinese left China and migrated to Southeast Asia, including Wang’s parents. Wang traces their struggles to maintain their Chinese identity as minorities in different cultures. In telling his family’s story he gives a vivid picture of the upheavals and tribulations of both China and Southeast Asia in a troubled era. Wang Gungwu is my favorite historian of China, and author of many books on the grand sweep of Chinese history, but here we see China’s and Asia’s most turbulent era from a personal perspective.

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Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia

By David M. Lampton, Selina Ho, Cheng-Chwee Kuik

Book cover of Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia

Why this book?

Two prominent aspects of China’s recent economic development are its mushrooming network of high-speed rail and its efforts to encourage infrastructure in its neighbors and beyond through the Belt and Road Initiative. The careful research of this book brings the two together. In exploring the different attitudes toward China among its southern neighbors the authors give a concrete account of how involvement is shaped by the prospects, concerns, and politics of each country. Meanwhile, it is clear that China is achieving a new centrality and connectivity in mainland Asia. What remains to be seen is whether a connected Asia is also a unified one.

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China and Japan: Facing History

By Ezra F. Vogel

Book cover of China and Japan: Facing History

Why this book?

Until his death in 2020 Ezra Vogel was Harvard’s preeminent scholar on East Asia, and the author of classics on both China and Japan. This book is special, however, because in it Vogel uses his mastery of both Chinese and Japanese histories and cultures to explain each to the other. He relates how each has contributed to the core identity of the other. For outsiders like myself, reading Vogel’s grand narrative of the interaction of China and Japan is a reminder of the complexities of national identity. Civilizations do clash, and certainly China and Japan have done so. But they learn from each other as well.

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A Relational Theory of World Politics

By Yaqing Qin

Book cover of A Relational Theory of World Politics

Why this book?

Qin is the former president of China Foreign Affairs University and China’s foremost thinker on international relationships. This book is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort because Qin presents an original perspective on world affairs that is rooted in Chinese intellectual traditions. In contrast to current theories of international relations, Qin emphasizes the importance of relationships over transactions—attention to managing long-term, particular connections rather than “the art of the deal.” In addition, he describes a dialectic based on the mutual transformation of opposites—a yin-yang relationship—rather than the usual Western assumption of separate categories. Qin is a hard read because he is presenting a new way of thinking.

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