The best books to understand China today

Who am I?

A Seattle-based author, I have written eight books, including When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening, about the eight years I spent as Business Week’s reporter covering China, 1982-1990. In it, I give readers an inside look at China’s transformation from Maoism to modernity. A fluent speaker of Mandarin, I have traveled widely in China for over forty years and befriended Chinese people at many levels of society, leading me to a strong belief in the importance of direct cross-cultural communication and deepened mutual understanding.


I wrote...

When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China's Reawakening

By Dori Jones Yang,

Book cover of When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China's Reawakening

What is my book about?

The best books by foreign correspondents give readers a deep look inside another country at a particularly pivotal moment of history. I was fortunate to be a U.S. correspondent covering China during the 1980s, just as it began opening to the outside world. This book weaves my personal story as a young woman in a male-dominated profession—who met and married a Chinese man—with the dramatic ups and downs of China’s early experiments with capitalism. Today we are witnessing another pivotal moment in US-China relations, and it’s important for English speakers to seek out the “story behind the story.”

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China

Dori Jones Yang Why did I love this book?

By offering free taxi rides in Shanghai, long-time NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt opened his ears to a wide variety of ordinary Chinese from all walks of life. Due to the pandemic, Americans haven’t been able to travel in China lately, so this is the closest a reader can get to actual conversations with Chinese people about life in China today. Most do not seem oppressed!

By Frank Langfitt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Shanghai Free Taxi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A unique, kaleidoscopic view of Chinese society ... A must read' Qiu Xiaolong, author of Shanghai Redemption

As any traveller knows, the best and most honest conversations take place during car rides. So when journalist Frank Langfitt wanted to learn more about the real China, he started driving a cab - and discovered a country amid seismic political and economic change.

The Chinese economic boom, with its impact on the environment, global trade, and the tech industry, has been one of the most important stories of the twenty-first century. Yet few realise that the boom is largely over, and that…


Book cover of A Village with My Name: A Family History of China's Opening to the World

Dori Jones Yang Why did I love this book?

Also formerly a public radio reporter based in Shanghai, Scott Tong takes us inside his own extended family, scattered across China. Personal stories of the relatives he found reveal not just their troubled histories but also the unvarnished stories of their varying ability to adapt to the opportunities of a modernizing China.

By Scott Tong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Village with My Name as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When journalist Scott Tong moved to Shanghai, his assignment was to start the first full-time China bureau for "Marketplace," the daily business and economics program on public radio stations across the United States. But for Tong the move became much more--it offered the opportunity to reconnect with members of his extended family who had remained in China after his parents fled the communists six decades prior. By uncovering the stories of his family's history, Tong discovered a new way to understand the defining moments of modern China and its long, interrupted quest to go global.

A Village with My Name…


Book cover of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World

Dori Jones Yang Why did I love this book?

I’m not fond of the title, but I like this book because it exposes us readers to a little-known population: China’s poor migrant workers. During many visits over ten years, Bloomberg BusinessWeek Beijing correspondent Tiff Roberts befriended a rural family in impoverished Guizhou Province and their relatives who had found industrial jobs in modern Guangdong. His unusual access lets readers understand a key weakness of modern China: the discontent of those not able to prosper during these decades of modernization.

By Dexter Roberts,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Myth of Chinese Capitalism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The untold story of how restrictive policies are preventing China from becoming the world’s largest economy

Dexter Roberts lived in Beijing for two decades working as a reporter on economics, business and politics for Bloomberg Businessweek. In The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, Roberts explores the reality behind today’s financially-ascendant China and pulls the curtain back on how the Chinese manufacturing machine is actually powered.

He focuses on two places: the village of Binghuacun in the province of Guizhou, one of China’s poorest regions that sends the highest proportion of its youth away to become migrants; and Dongguan, China’s most infamous…


Book cover of We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China's Surveillance State

Dori Jones Yang Why did I love this book?

Frankly, it makes me squirm to recommend this book, but it’s a topic we Americans need to understand better. Under Xi Jinping, China has expanded its use of surveillance cameras and begun a “social credit” system to track people who are—and aren’t—following the rules. Kai Strittmatter, who reported from China for a leading German newspaper for more than a decade, relies on strong research and concludes that China is Orwellian. And yet, most Chinese citizens I know do not feel watched and oppressed. I’m eager to get back to China to judge for myself.

By Kai Strittmatter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Have Been Harmonized as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named a Notable Work of Nonfiction of 2020 by the Washington Post

As heard on NPR's Fresh Air, We Have Been Harmonized, by award-winning correspondent Kai Strittmatter, offers a groundbreaking look, based on decades of research, at how China created the most terrifying surveillance state in history. 

China’s new drive for repression is being underpinned by unpre­cedented advances in technology: facial and voice recognition, GPS tracking, supercomputer databases, intercepted cell phone conver­sations, the monitoring of app use, and millions of high-resolution security cameras make it nearly impossible for a Chinese citizen to hide anything from authorities. Commercial transactions, including food…


Book cover of Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

Dori Jones Yang Why did I love this book?

By nature, the American press has a very U.S.-centric view. This author, who served many years as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, presents a clear-eyed view of the perspectives of both the U.S. and China, analyzing the motives, history, and values of each. From an impartial standpoint, he gives candid advice on the importance of deeper understanding and concludes that either both countries win or no one wins.

By Kishore Mahbubani,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Has China Won? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The twenty-first century's great geopolitical contest has begun. A major trade war has broken out. American and Chinese naval vessels are having close encounters in the South China Sea. American congressmen and businessmen are cheering their government's public attacks on China. China is standing firm and resolute. Who will win this contest? What is at stake? And who will judge the winner?In this book, Kishore Mahbubani evaluates the two sides, and shows how China has been thinking on a global scale, launching ambitious initiatives under some of the world's most pragmatic and competent leaders. Most critically, the Chinese people have…


You might also like...

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

Book cover of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

Christina Ward Author Of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

New book alert!

Who am I?

For me, history is always about individuals; what they think and believe and how those ideas motivate their actions. By relegating our past to official histories or staid academic tellings we deprive ourselves of the humanity of our shared experiences. As a “popular historian” I use food to tell all the many ways we attempt to “be” American. History is for everyone, and my self-appointed mission is to bring more stories to readers! These recommendations are a few stand-out titles from the hundreds of books that inform my current work on how food and religion converge in America. You’ll have to wait for Holy Food to find out what I’ve discovered.

Christina's book list on the hidden history of America

What is my book about?

Does God have a recipe? Independent food historian Christina Ward’s highly anticipated Holy Food explores the influence of mainstream to fringe religious beliefs on modern American food culture.

Author Christina Ward unravels how religious beliefs intersect with politics, economics, and, of course, food to tell a different story of America. It's the story of true believers and charlatans, of idealists and visionaries, and of the everyday people who followed them—often at their peril.

Holy Food explains how faith pioneers used societal woes and cultural trends to create new pathways of belief and reveals the interconnectivity between sects and their leaders.

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

What is this book about?

Does God have a recipe?

"Holy Food is a titanic feat of research and a fascinating exploration of American faith and culinary rites. Christina Ward is the perfect guide – generous, wise, and ecumenical." — Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams

"Holy Food doesn't just trace the influence that preachers, gurus, and cult leaders have had on American cuisine. It offers a unique look at the ways spirituality—whether in the form of fringe cults or major religions—has shaped our culture. Christina Ward has gone spelunking into some very odd corners of American history to unearth this fascinating collection of stories…


Genres
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5 book lists we think you will like!

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