The best books to understand the heart and soul of China

Who am I?

I studied modern Chinese history so, when Qu Leilei told me the story of the Stars Art Movement, I couldn’t understand why I hadn't heard their courageous story. I spent three years interviewing Qu Leilei, researching and visiting China with him before writing the Stars story as a historical novel. I am a freelance writer, author, and speaker.

I wrote...

Brushstrokes in Time

By Sylvia Vetta,

Book cover of Brushstrokes in Time

What is my book about?

Brushstrokes in Time is the fictional memoir of Chinese artist Little Winter, who tries to re-establish the bond with her American daughter, telling the story of her emotional and rebellious past. While growing up in Communist China, Little Winter discovers talent and rebellion, joining ‘The Stars’ art movement for freedom of speech in an era where self-expression and love were a dangerous act.

China expert Guardian journalist, John Gittings read it determined to find fault but says that he failed. He endorses it, as do Harvard and Oxford academics. Dr. Maria Jaschok lived in China between 1980-1996 and says, "Moving but never mawkish, informed yet entirely accessible, this book should have popular appeal."

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Tao of Sketching: The Complete Guide to Chinese Sketching Techniques

Why did I love this book?

I was reviewing Qu Leilei’s Everyone’s life is an Epic at the Ashmolean when a chance encounter changed my life. While writing Qu's profile, I learned about the first contemporary art movement in China - the Stars in Beijing in 1979 - and spent three years interviewing him for the background to Brushstrokes in Time

Leilei’s art is imbued with deep humanity but he is also a fine teacher- hence my recommending The Tao of Sketching. Daoism influenced traditional Chinese art and is a focus for meditation. The empty space is important. If you want to get into that cultural mindset, try Leilei’s books.

By Qu Lei Lei,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Award-winning artist Qu Lei Lei offers an inspirational view of art from the Chinese perspective. Instead of looking at the sketch as an end in itself, he focuses on the work as personal fulfillment for the artist and as a valued meditation. All the essential techniques are here?from choosing and using materials to mixing the ink to mastering brushstrokes. With the natural world as his subject, Lei Lei pulls out key features?water, trees, landscapes?and focuses on practical ways of depicting their different varieties. A master class covers techniques for capturing pets at play, and for conveying the spirit of all…

Book cover of A Life in Chinese Art Essays in Honour of Michael Sullivan

Why did I love this book?

Michael Sullivan was a leading expert on twentieth-century Chinese art and he and his partner Choan donated his world-class collection to the Ashmolean - the world’s first public museum. The cover portrait is by Qu Leilei. This tribute book includes ten essays by friends, colleagues, art experts, and artists including Qu Leilei and Weimin He. Linking visual arts, calligraphy, and poetry is very Chinese. Strangely, Michael Sullivan’s first visit to China was in 1939 driving an ambulance for the Red Cross.

By Shelagh Vainker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Life in Chinese Art Essays in Honour of Michael Sullivan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

. paperback copy, bright clean copy no markings, Professional booksellers since 1981

Book cover of China's Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism

Why did I love this book?

I am disturbed by what is happening in Hong Kong and Xinjiang but it’s important to take a long and balanced view if we want to influence China. Chinese dynasties harbour long memories including the humiliation of the Opium Wars and the sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace by colonial powers and the atrocities committed by Japan in WW2 in China. If we start by empathising with this shared but forgotten history of China in WW2, maybe we can help swing the pendulum to one that respects the diversity that is needed in both East and West.

By Rana Mitter,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Chinese leaders once tried to suppress memories of their nation's brutal experience during World War II. Now they celebrate the "victory"-a key foundation of China's rising nationalism.

For most of its history, the People's Republic of China limited public discussion of the war against Japan. It was an experience of victimization-and one that saw Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek fighting for the same goals. But now, as China grows more powerful, the meaning of the war is changing. Rana Mitter argues that China's reassessment of the World War II years is central to its newfound confidence abroad and to mounting…

Monkey King: Journey to the West

By Wu Cheng’en, Julia Lovell (translator),

Book cover of Monkey King: Journey to the West

Why did I love this book?

In addition to the novel's comedy and adventure, it has been enjoyed for its biting satire of society and Chinese bureaucracy and for its allegorical presentation of human striving and perseverance. Just as the stories of ancient Greece have left their mark on Western culture, so too do their traditional myths and legends deeply resonate in China. Monkey and Pigsy delight but they are accompanying Tang Sanzang who is based on the Buddhist monk Xuanzang ( 602-664CE) who travelled to India in the seventh century. I’m biased because I also use him in my Oxford /India novel Sculpting the Elephant but there is something of the modern superhero stories about Journey to the West. 

By Wu Cheng’en, Julia Lovell (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

One of the world's greatest fantasy novels and a rollicking classic of Chinese literature, in a sparkling new translation and published in a Clothbound Classics edition.

A shape-shifting trickster on a kung-fu quest for eternal life, Monkey King is one of the most memorable superheroes in world literature. High-spirited and omni-talented, he can transform himself into whatever he chooses and turn each of his body's 84,000 hairs into an army of clones. But his penchant for mischief repeatedly gets him into trouble, and when he raids Heaven's Orchard of Immortal Peaches, the Buddha pins him beneath a mountain. Five hundred…

Book cover of Four Sisters of Hofei: A History

Why did I love this book?

Fiction and biography are a good way of walking in someone else’s shoes. Although this biography isn’t a gripping read, I’d recommend it for anyone interested in depth about Chinese culture and society and how it changed over one hundred years. It follows the lives of well-educated sisters from a prosperous background not just in Beijing and Shanghai but in a diversity of provinces too.

By Ann Ping Chin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Four Sisters of Hofei as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The true story of four sisters born between 1907 and 1914 in China, Four Sisters of Hofei is an intimate encounter with history. The Chang sisters lived through a period of astounding change and into the twenty-first century. Unusual opportunities and an extraordinary family education launched them into varied worlds -- those of the theater, modern literature, classical studies, and calligraphy -- but their collective experience offers a cohesive portrait of a land in transition.
With the benefit of letters, diaries, poetry, and interviews, writer and historian Annping Chin shapes the Chang sisters' stories into a composite history steeped in…

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