My favorite books on people's lives in contemporary China

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a professor emerita of Anthropology at Berkeley. I have written books on Muslim women in runaway factories; the modern Chinese diaspora; Cambodian refugees in the US; neoliberal Asian states; and Singapore's biomedical hub. I also write on contemporary Chinese art. We live in worlds interwoven by assemblages of technology, politics, and culture. Each situation is crystallized by the shifting interactions of global forces and local elements. Given our interlocking, interdependent realities, a sustainable future depends on our appreciation of cultural differences and support of transnational cooperation. For many people, China today is a formidable challenge, but learning about its peoples' struggles and desires is a beginning toward recognizing their humanity.


I wrote...

Book cover of Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality

What is my book about?

The book discusses the complex strategies of overseas Chinese navigating the immigration regimes of Western countries. It draws on research among elites who fled Hong Kong before the return to Chinese rule in 1997.  Business families invented flexible transnational practices -- e.g. multiple passports, overseas investments -- to funnel their capital and children to liberal Western economies. The influx of Pac Rim capital does not, however, erase perceptions of cultural mismatch in California. Today, we are witnessing an even larger river of emigrants from China, and like the early generation, their flexible citizenship maneuvers require flexible cultural practices as well. This book introduces flexibility and migration as important features of contemporary society.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Aihwa Ong Why did I love this book?

China's economic miracle is based on millions of young village women who labor in the industrial zones along the coast. Chang's extensive interviews reveal the hidden hardships and intimate dreams of some factory women as they grew distant from their home villages. The rich stories show how rural women learn to be self-reliant and entrepreneurial in the city, learning new ways to work and love. They are not feminists in the Western sense but practical and resourceful in taking care of themselves in a tumultuous milieu. This book is a classic on rural women's unheralded contribution to China's rise as the workshop of the world.

By Leslie T. Chang,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Factory Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China.

China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta.

As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a…


Book cover of Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng's China

Aihwa Ong Why did I love this book?

China's gargantuan size has haunted its efforts to become a modern nation. Anthropologist Greenhalgh argues that in the late 1970s, Chinese rocket scientists, influenced by doomsday policymakers in the West, convinced the Chinese government to impose a one-child family planning program. The draconian enforcement of the one-child policy subjected millions of women to intimate corporeal surveillance that resulted in uncounted numbers of forced abortions, hidden births, and suffering for the masses. By 2016, when the two children policy was instituted, family planning contributed to an unbalanced gender ratio, delayed marriages, and a possibly irreversible population decline. Social engineering is a modus operandi of the Chinese state, and ironically, its most famous strategy threatens the nation's sustainability as a world industrial power.

By Susan Greenhalgh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Just One Child as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

China's one-child rule is unassailably one of the most controversial social policies of all time. In the first book of its kind, Susan Greenhalgh draws on twenty years of research into China's population politics to explain how the leaders of a nation of one billion decided to limit all couples to one child. Focusing on the historic period 1978-80, when China was just reentering the global capitalist system after decades of self-imposed isolation, Greenhalgh documents the extraordinary manner in which a handful of leading aerospace engineers hijacked the population policymaking process and formulated a strategy that treated people like missiles.…


Book cover of Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade

Aihwa Ong Why did I love this book?

This is a stunning story of China's copycat economy represented by peasant artisans in Dafen village who paint classics of Western art -- from Monet to Warhol -- for the global market. An art historian, Wong conducted ethnographic research among the enterprising peasants whose paintings shaped a flourishing global economy in art reproduction. The Dafen case challenges a conventional art history opposition between the authentic and the copy. Wong's innovative research illuminates how creativity rests in the labor and not in the authenticity of the artistic product. Readers will learn about the peasants' adept capitalization of opportunities fueled by Western consumerist capitalism.

By Winnie Won Yin Wong,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Van Gogh on Demand as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the Guangdong province in southeastern China lies Dafen, a village that houses thousands of workers who paint Van Goghs, Da Vincis, Warhols, and other Western masterpieces, producing an astonishing five million paintings a year. To write about life and work in Dafen, Winnie Wong infiltrated this world, investigating the claims of conceptual artists who made projects there; working as a dealer; apprenticing as a painter; surveying merchants in Europe, Asia, and America; establishing relationships with local leaders; and organizing a conceptual art show for the Shanghai World Expo. The result is Van Gogh on Demand, a fascinating book about…


Book cover of Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person

Aihwa Ong Why did I love this book?

This collection, by anthropologists and psychiatrists, gives us a glimpse of soul searching by ordinary people as China compresses centuries of industrial growth into two decades. The unprecedented fragmentation of families and loss of culture have scattered lives and disoriented minds. The chapter authors consider intimate topics --  death, sex, depression, stigma, suicide, and madness -- that lie beneath the glossy images of Chinese achievements. They reveal the deep confusion of ordinary people as they struggle with questions of morality and humanity in a relentless, turbulent world.

By Arthur Kleinman, Yunxiang Yan, Jing Jun , Sing Lee , Everett Zhang , Pan Tianshu , Wu Fei , Jinhua Guo

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Deep China" investigates the emotional and moral lives of the Chinese people as they adjust to the challenges of modernity. Sharing a medical anthropology and cultural psychiatry perspective, Arthur Kleinman, Yunxiang Yan, Jing Jun, Sing Lee, Everett Zhang, Pan Tianshu, Wu Fei, and Guo Jinhua delve into intimate and sometimes hidden areas of personal life and social practice to observe and narrate the drama of Chinese individualization. The essays explore the remaking of the moral person during China's profound social and economic transformation, unraveling the shifting practices and struggles of contemporary life.


Book cover of Land of Big Numbers: Stories

Aihwa Ong Why did I love this book?

Drawing from her work as a journalist, Chen gives us unsettling stories crystallized by the ferocious competition that engulfs everyone in the vast anonymous landscape that is contemporary China. The endless micro-struggles of small-town individuals to escape poverty or gain an educational foothold reveal their warped understanding of society and life. Mindless mishaps, fears, and even cruelty are everyday experiences of people struggling to survive and protect their families. The great hidden human costs of China's rise are simply mind-boggling. 

By Te-Ping Chen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Land of Big Numbers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A dazzling debut collection which, deftly and urgently, tells the stories of those living in the biggest and most complicated country on earth.

A BARACK OBAMA READING LIST SELECTION FOR SUMMER 2021

'In this magnificent collection of stories, the author vividly captures the desires and losses of a richly drawn cast while drawing on the realities of contemporary China' Cosmopolitan

A brother competes for gaming glory while his twin sister exposes the dark side of the Communist government on her underground blog; a worker at a government call centre is alarmed one day to find herself speaking to a former…


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Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…


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