349 books directly related to China 📚

All 349 China books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Book cover of Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945

Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945

By Rana Mitter

Why this book?

For many years, American views of the China’s role in World War II were strongly influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s best-selling, Stilwell and the American Experience in China published in 1971. Tuchman painted China’s war effort as brave but costly and ineffective thanks to the incompetence and corruption of Chiang Kai Shek. Portrayed as a kind of Chinese George Washington in the U.S. media, Tuchman saw Chiang as being in fact, far less interested in defeating the Japanese than in ensuring that his regime survived the war in a position to vanquish its domestic rivals, especially Mao Zedong’s Communists 

In contrast,…

From the list:

The best books to understand the Asia Pacific War from 1937-1945

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Book cover of Red Star over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism

Red Star over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism

By Edgar Snow

Why this book?

This was a bestseller when it was first published in 1937, when the War of Resistance against Japan (essentially WWII in the Pacific) was on the cusp of going all out. It was a must read for anyone back then who wanted to know what was going on in the Far East and it is still a must read for anyone today who wants to understand China.

From the list:

The best books about the Pacific Theater in WW2

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Book cover of The Message

The Message

By Mai Jia

Why this book?

The Message is a novel about five codebreakers and one traitor. Set in China during World War II when the Chinese resistance challenged the Japanese backed puppet government, this is a complex counterintelligence novel, written by a Chinese storyteller, who is no stranger to the Chinese intelligence services. By telling the same story from two different perspectives, Mai Jia, as a colleague recently suggested, intentionally problematized the truth because both versions were plausible. I recommend this book because it provides insight into the multilayered intelligence story of wartime China, it is one of the few books on this topic, and…

From the list:

The best books on World War II intelligence history

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Book cover of Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

By Fuchsia Dunlop

Why this book?

In China there’s an expression that roughly translates, “It’s not a meal without alcohol.” The converse is equally true: Chinese alcohol yearns to be paired with food. This list would thus be incomplete without a book that seriously delves into Chinese food culture. And in many ways, my own journey into Chinese spirits was an unintentional compliment to Dunlop’s earlier book. We both learned from local experts, followed our respective passions around China, and spent the bulk of our time in the idyllic Sichuanese capital of Chengdu. I especially appreciate Dunlop’s willingness to explore uncomfortable cultural dissonances, and the compelling…
From the list:

The best books on Chinese alcohol and drinking culture

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Book cover of The Banquet Bug

The Banquet Bug

By Geling Yan

Why this book?

Released in my native Britain as The Uninvited, Yan’s novel offers an unexpected angle on Chinese food by presenting the banquet as the place in China where alliances are forged, deals are done, and palms are greased. Her hero is a member of the Beijing underclass who somehow finds himself gate-crashing big society feasts. Pretending to be a journalist ready to be “entertained”, he discovers food he never dreamed of, but also comes to develop a sense of social responsibility. He starts to inhabit the part he is playing, and becomes not an uninvited guest, but a crusader on the…

From the list:

The best books on Chinese food

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Book cover of Slippery Noodles

Slippery Noodles

By Hsiang Ju Lin

Why this book?

Thick with Chinese-language citations, and seasoned heavily with recipes from the pages of history, Lin’s book is a real insider’s view of how it feels not only to taste Chinese food, but live inside the world it creates. She retells famous stories from the history of food in China, and quotes extensively from manuals that are otherwise unavailable to English-speaking readers. A wonderful buffet of a book, that you can pick at and graze upon for days.

From the list:

The best books on Chinese food

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Book cover of How to Cook and Eat in Chinese

How to Cook and Eat in Chinese

By Buwei Yang Chao

Why this book?

First published in 1945, and reissued in many later editions, Chao’s book was immensely influential on the spread of American food in China. An academic and medical professional who fell into Chinese food-advocacy by accident, she presents a series of everyday recipes, “things for folk like you and me” that were nevertheless impossibly exotic at the time she was writing. Her book is a fascinating time capsule of attitudes and assumptions in the era before America could boast of a Chinese restaurant in every suburb, but also a no-nonsense cookbook for the beginner.

From the list:

The best books on Chinese food

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Book cover of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

By Peter Hessler

Why this book?

Considered by many to be the gold standard of the Peace Corps memoir genre, this volunteer’s account is resplendent in its imagery, witty insights, and down-to-earth prose. The depiction of day-to-day life serving as a schoolteacher in China, interspersed with the challenges of learning a new language and culture, and the occasional plunge into the history of the region (anthropologically, geographically, and politically) round out the narrative to give the reader an immersive cultural experience unlike any other. The narrative’s boots-on-the-ground perspective gives the reader a true insider peek at life in China—at turns baffling, humorous, poignant, and, above all,…

From the list:

The best books about serving in the Peace Corps

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

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

By Frank Langfitt

Why 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! Published in June 2019. 

From the list:

The best books to understand China today

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

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

By Scott Tong

Why 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. Published in March 2019.

From the list:

The best books to understand China today

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

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

By Dexter Roberts

Why 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. Published in March 2020.

From the list:

The best books to understand China today

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

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

By Kai Strittmatter

Why 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. Published in September 2020.

From the list:

The best books to understand China today

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

Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

By Kishore Mahbubani

Why 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. Published in March 2020.

From the list:

The best books to understand China today

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Book cover of Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War

Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War

By Taomo Zhou

Why this book?

Migration in the Time of Revolution pushes the international history of the 20th century into a new and exciting direction. Using the Chinese diaspora in Indonesia as a lens, Taomo Zhou elevates citizens to agents in international relations. On the basis of Chinese archival research and oral history, she explores how Indonesians of Chinese descent lastingly influenced the diplomatic relations between their home country and divided China during the Cold War.
From the list:

The best books on Cold War history published recently

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Book cover of Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference

Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference

By Jane Burbank, Frederick Cooper

Why this book?

Empires or nation-states? Which do you prefer? Most of us have assumed that the endpoint in world history is the nation-state. Empires are somehow relics of the past, you know, ‘bad’ things associated with the Europeans in the 19th century or only something the Americans would dare to do today. In this tour de force, Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper demolish this idea by showing us that empires have always been and are still a part of our world. Burbank and Cooper don’t start their story in ‘1492’ with the usual European suspects; they open with the Romans and…

From the list:

The best books on empires in world history

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Book cover of The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

By Kenneth Pomeranz

Why this book?

We all know from our grade school history books that, from the late 15th century, the Europeans took to the sea in droves because they wanted to reach the ‘Chinese market’ via their own routes. Kenneth Pomeranz does not contest this; but he makes two powerful arguments that should require us to revise our history books for this period. First, the West did not so simply best the rest from 1492 – certainly not the Chinese empire. In this brilliant comparative economic history, Pomeranz shows that the Chinese economy remained as vibrant as the Western European ones until the…

From the list:

The best books on empires in world history

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Book cover of Into the Teeth of the Tiger

Into the Teeth of the Tiger

By Donald S. Lopez

Why this book?

When I met Don Lopez in the late 1970s while he was the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, I was interviewing him for a magazine article about his exploits as a fighter ace in China during World War II. The intelligence, graciousness and sense of humor I noted that day come through loud and clear in this memoir published in 1997. In contrast to the rest of the books I’m highlighting here, Lopez provides a vivid, first-hand account of what it was like to actually do the fighting in the skies over China, 1943-45. A…

From the list:

The best books on the Air War in the China-Burma-India Theater during WWII

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Book cover of The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking: Including an Unorthodox Chapter on East-West Desserts and a Provocative Essay on Wine

The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking: Including an Unorthodox Chapter on East-West Desserts and a Provocative Essay on Wine

By Barbara Tropp

Why this book?

An authoritative overview of Chinese techniques, ingredients, and tools, and an exemplary selection of recipes, written by an American who studied in China and fell in love with the cuisine. Tropp brings an outsider’s perspective and an academic’s rigor to the study and teaching of Chinese cuisine. The recipes are meticulous and detailed, and the introductions and technique notes are informative and personal.

From the list:

The best Chinese cookbooks that have influenced my cooking

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Book cover of The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore

The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore

By Grace Young, Alan Richardson

Why this book?

An intimate and unique celebration of Chinese culture and food, expounded through an in-depth contemplation of the wok, one of the world’s most versatile cooking tools. Young teaches us how to choose a wok, how to care for it, and how to use it in myriad ways, not just for stir fry.

From the list:

The best Chinese cookbooks that have influenced my cooking

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Book cover of The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques, Ingredients, History, And Memories From America's Leading Authority On Chinese Cooking

The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques, Ingredients, History, And Memories From America's Leading Authority On Chinese Cooking

By Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

Why this book?

It is difficult to choose just one of Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s many books to recommend, but “Chinese Kitchen” is a great overview of Chinese cooking and food culture, with an excellent guide to ingredients, helpful photographs, and a well chosen array of recipes, ranging from simple home cooking to elaborate banquet dishes.

From the list:

The best Chinese cookbooks that have influenced my cooking

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Book cover of Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking

Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking

By Fuchsia Dunlop

Why this book?

Written by another westerner who studied in China and fell in love with the food, in this case the distinctive food of Szechuan. Once again an outsider’s perspective allows for a clear step-by-step introduction to the flavors and recipes of a complex and delicious cuisine.

From the list:

The best Chinese cookbooks that have influenced my cooking

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Book cover of Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945

Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945

By Barbara Wertheim Tuchman

Why this book?

General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, the American liaison to Chiang Kai-Shek’s China during World War II, was the opposite of a politician. Blunt, profane, disrespectful, and sarcastic—he called Chiang the “peanut”—Stilwell was incapable of being politic, which makes Tuchman’s book the ultimate political biography. Like many great biographers, including three of the five authors on this list, Tuchman came to history from journalism or publishing, not from academia, something she felt was an asset in helping her write in a style that produced both a Pulitzer and best sellers.

From the list:

The most well written political biographies

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Book cover of The Lover

The Lover

By Marguerite Duras, Barbara Bray

Why this book?

The Lover was published in 1984. It is set in the French Indochina in 1929 and tells the story of a clandestine romance between an older rich Chinese man and a fifteen-year-old girl from a French family that has family difficulties. This book is not only important for the period and the love story itself, there is something more, like the way it’s narrated in the first person by the young woman, with the pain and challenges between mothers and daughters. Also on the opposite side, there is the father of the Chinese man and a society that would not…
From the list:

The best books by European authors with female anti-heroes characters through time

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Book cover of The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem

By Liu Cixin, Ken Liu

Why this book?

The Three-Body Problem is on the one hand a science fiction novel, one that imagines a distant race that would (literally) kill to have a home world as stable as our little earth. But it's also a historical novel (it begins during China's Cultural Revolution), and an anthropological exploration. It seems to study the human race from a vast distance, and to severely judge our myopia and hubris. This is something I’ve always been interested in as a writer… getting above it all and trying to recontextualize our species within the vastness of the cosmos. 

From the list:

The best books that make you question everything

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Book cover of The Death of Woman Wang

The Death of Woman Wang

By Jonathan D. Spence

Why this book?

We know more about “ordinary people” from the 17th century than any previous period. Some wrote their autobiographies; others left life histories written by friends or family; others still appeared in multiple sources that historians can link to reconstitute their existence. Most of the surviving evidence concerns males, but Jonathan Spence’s book about a region in northwest China examines the impact of floods, plagues, famines, banditry, and heavy taxation on women as well as men. One of those women was an unhappy wife – we don’t even know her name – who ran away from her husband with her…

From the list:

The best books on the 17th Century

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Book cover of Midnight

Midnight

By Mao Dun

Why this book?

Published in 1933 Mao Dun’s Midnight is the Chinese novel that most accurately shows the harsh effects of the freewheeling capitalism that characterised old Shanghai in its international treaty port days. The city’s great wealth is built on low wages, awful conditions, and exploitation. This is Shanghai as a powder keg about to explode.

From the list:

The best novels about old Shanghai

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Book cover of Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution

Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution

By Feng Jicai

Why this book?

The beauty of this book is that it teaches us about leaders without featuring any leader. The Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, during which the country underwent complete upheaval, with millions of victims, was the brainchild of one powerful man: Chairman Mao Zedong, who held on to power in China by unleashing the country’s youth on the older generation. But the book does not look at Mao at all. Instead, it shows the effects of one leader’s decisions on those under him by featuring personal testimonies from survivors of those “ten years of madness” who lived to tell stories that…

From the list:

The best books on leadership and history

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Book cover of June Fourth

June Fourth

By Jeremy Brown

Why this book?

This newly published book is the definitive account of the Tiananmen protest movement of 1989 and its suppression, which has turned out to be the pivotal political event in the post-Mao era. Weaving a range of personal stories and new documentation into a highly readable analysis, it lays bare its unpredictable course and tragic but avoidable outcome. There is nothing else in print that manages to describe the drama while providing a shrewd and cool-headed critical scrutiny of a range of competing scholarly interpretations and official misrepresentations.

From the list:

The best books about China from the Mao years through Tiananmen

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Book cover of Mao's Last Revolution

Mao's Last Revolution

By Michael Schoenhals, Roderick Macfarquhar

Why this book?

This instant classic was the first to draw deeply on a wide range of previously inaccessible sources about the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. Highly readable and authoritative, it provides extensive insight into Mao’s actions and those of his subordinates and victims and documents the destructive impact of these conflicts all across China from the initial salvos at Peking University in May 1966 to the immediate aftermath of Mao’s death, which led to the arrest of Mao’s most ardent radical followers, the “Gang of Four”.

From the list:

The best books about China from the Mao years through Tiananmen

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Book cover of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

By Ezra F. Vogel

Why this book?

Deng Xiaoping is the most important person in contemporary Chinese affairs. It was under his time as the paramount leader of China that modernization started in earnest. He judged policy effectiveness on whether it worked or not. His story is engagingly told by historian Ezra Vogel.
From the list:

The best books about the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong

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Book cover of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962

By Yang Jisheng, Stacy Mosher

Why this book?

Yang, a recent graduate of an elite Chinese university, was a reporter for the official New China News Agency during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1960, and he witnessed first-hand the tragic consequences of misconceived agricultural policies that generated a well-documented 30 million deaths due to starvation, the greatest famine in Chinese history, almost entirely man-made. Yang’s vivid and heart-wrenching first-hand account, well-grounded in long-classified official documents, lays bare the suffering created by a bureaucratic machine that accelerated out of control, forcing peasants to turn over grain to the state even as they starved.

From the list:

The best books about China from the Mao years through Tiananmen

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Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

By Jung Chang

Why this book?

The memory of this 'novel' – which crosses the line to biography for some – still gives me heartache. It offers the most fascinating insight into the demise of an Empire and the brutal, ruthless making of a communist nation, in which nothing is as superfluous and as expendable as human life. As such, it is reminiscent of my series and the making of Russia we know today. However, I left the last pages of Wild Swans unread, as the inhumane suffering so casually imposed on women was unbearable to witness. Still, I took so much away from it, above…
From the list:

The best books about history’s hidden heroines

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Book cover of Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

By Peter Hessler

Why this book?

Not long ago outsiders viewed China as a 5000-year-old country where nothing ever changed. Today, China has become one of the most dynamic regions on earth. In Oracle Bones, Hessler explores the human side of that transformation, viewing modern-day China and its growing links to the Western world through the lives of a handful of ordinary people.

From the list:

The best books on modern China's myths, religions, politics, & culture

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Book cover of The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

By Simon Winchester

Why this book?

In 1937, while working as a biochemist at Cambridge University, Joseph Needham fell in love with a visiting Chinese student, with whom he began a lifelong affair. Persuaded to travel with her to China, he explored the farthest frontiers of this ancient empire, searching for evidence to bolster his conviction that the Chinese were responsible for hundreds of mankind's most familiar innovations—including printing, the compass, explosives, suspension bridges, even toilet paper—often centuries before the rest of the world. This is a true and unforgettable story.

From the list:

The best books on modern China's myths, religions, politics, & culture

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Book cover of Waiting: A Novel

Waiting: A Novel

By Ha Jin

Why this book?

In Waiting, Ha Jin portrays the life of Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor torn by his love for two women: one who belongs to the New China of the Cultural Revolution, the other to the ancient traditions of his family's village. The author explores the conflict between the individual and society, between the timelessness of love and the constantly-shifting politics of the moment in China.

From the list:

The best books on modern China's myths, religions, politics, & culture

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Book cover of The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

By Michael Meyer

Why this book?

Books on Chinese cities by foreigners have long lamented the redevelopment juggernaut’s steamrolling of old buildings and neighborhoods (Juliet Bredon’s Peking for one). Meyer’s exhaustively researched study of the Beijing neighborhood in which he lived in the early 2000s takes this a step further to a grassroots political call for action, before “replicas replace architectural heritage across China.” By illuminating his neighbors’ lives and their histories and reaching back into the city’s past, Meyer attempts to immortalize the disappearing Dashilar neighborhood literally in the form of a book, which if nothing else will be of future documentary value. Driving the…

From the list:

The best books about old Beijing

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Book cover of Border Town

Border Town

By Shen Congwen, Jeffrey C. Kinkley

Why this book?

This 1934 work tells the moving story of a young country girl called Cuicui and her ferryman grandfather. As the girl comes of age, she catches the eye of two brothers. It’s a simple plot but beautifully told, with sympathetic depictions of the common folk and rich nostalgic evocations of rural life. The “border” in the title refers to the West Hunan setting near the provincial border with Sichuan. The area is also a cultural border between the Han and various minorities. Shen Congwen grew up there and was himself of mixed heritage. Chosen to receive the 1988 Nobel Prize…

From the list:

The best novels set in Hunan Province in China

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Book cover of The King of Trees

The King of Trees

By Ah Cheng, Bonnie S. McDougall

Why this book?

Set in China’s southwestern mountainous rainforest borderland of Xishuangbanna, this novella is based on the author’s time as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution. Politics take a backseat to the intimate friendships forged during those years, alongside the heedless degradation of the country’s lushest lands. The famed director Chen Kaige—who had served two mountains away from the author—made a faithful film adaptation.

From the list:

The best books set in China’s diverse regions by local Chinese writers

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Book cover of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

By Liao Yiwu

Why this book?

The 27 interviews in The Corpse Walker are selected from the 60 interviews in Liao Yiwu’s book, originally titled Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society in Chinese. Liao gives voices to social outcasts: a human trafficker, corpse walkers, a leper, a peasant emperor, an abbot, a mortician, a Tiananmen father, artists and shamans, crooks, even cannibals. Ironically, every one of them speaks more honestly than Chinese official media, which causes the book to be banned in mainland China. These are the stories of unsung heroes and epic tragedies, but to me, most importantly, the work that…

From the list:

The best books on China’s one-child policy and Tiananmen Square protests

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Book cover of Love in a Fallen City

Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury

Why this book?

Though these collected stories were popular in Chang’s native China when first published in the 1940s, decades passed before they were translated into English. The title story brings war-torn Hong Kong to life, but even against the most dramatic political backdrop, Chang’s focus is firmly on women and relationships. Though the time and place may seem remote, readers will find universal emotions in these carefully constructed tales. 

From the list:

The best fiction about women’s experiences of World War II

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Book cover of A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

By Kevin Peraino

Why this book?

President Truman sends George Marshall to China in December 1945 on a special mission to unify the Communists and Nationalists and create a non-Communist China. Marshall returns to the US in early 1947. The mission has failed. Had he been truly neutral as a broker, could the mission have succeeded?

From the list:

The best books on modern Asia

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Book cover of Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present

Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present

By Ben Kiernan

Why this book?

This work is thorough and informative on the US invasion and defeat but unlike many books on the war also provides extensive discussion of Vietnam’s long history, which dates back more than two millennia. It covers Vietnam’s contentious relations with China and France.

From the list:

The best books on modern Asia

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Book cover of Pan-Asianism and Japan's War 1931-1945

Pan-Asianism and Japan's War 1931-1945

By Eri Hotta

Why this book?

Important for Japan’s shifting policy in China, but also for the responses in China and in Russia.  Identifies key figures in the military responsible for war planning and their conflicts as well as the role of the emperor. This book emphasizes the twisting path toward Pearl Harbor and how it might have been avoided.

From the list:

The best books on modern Asia

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Book cover of My Several Worlds

My Several Worlds

By Pearl S. Bucks

Why this book?

Pearl S. Bucks was the first American woman who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was brought to China by her missionary parents when she was an infant. She continued to spend much of the first half of her life in China from 1892 to 1934. This autobiography covers her growing up in China and returning to the U.S. Good-hearted and open-minded, she was the very few foreigners who had intimate access to ordinary Chinese people's lives and souls, which remain mysterious to most outsiders to this day. As a sharp-eyed observer and skillful writer, she gave an extraordinary…

From the list:

The best books of the Westerners’ experience in China

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Book cover of Two Kinds of Time

Two Kinds of Time

By Graham Peck

Why this book?

This book is the comparatively underrated one among my five choices, but I guarantee it worthwhile. Peck went to China in 1935. He served in the U.S. Office of War Information in China throughout the 1940s. This memoir chronicles his life in China from the beginning of the Japanese invasion to the end of the Pacific War, during which the U.S. was the ally of the Nationalists, who lost to the Communists in the following years. The China Peck described was a sleepy, isolated world, characterized by apathetic people, rampant corruption, and senseless internal friction. When the book first came…

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The best books of the Westerners’ experience in China

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Book cover of Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now (Anchor Books)

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now (Anchor Books)

By Jan Wong

Why this book?

Growing up in Canada, left-winged Wong dropped out of university and flew to China in 1972 to participate in the Cultural Revolution. But she was soon disillusioned by the reality of a police state and the hypocrisy dominating everyone's life, from which even she, as a foreign nationality, couldn't escape. However, Wong remained in China and eventually worked as a journalist for Canada’s The Globe and Mail. When the Tiananmen Protests happened in 1989, she tracked down and interviewed dissidents and eyewitnesses. This memoir covers her active years in China from the 1970s to the 1990s, during which China…

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Book cover of Country Driving

Country Driving

By Peter Hessler

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…

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Book cover of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve

Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve

By Lenora Chu

Why this book?

This book deals with the new challenge brought by the Chinese education system. As an American journalist dispatched to Shanghai, Chu chose an unconventional way of educating her son by enrolling him in an elite state-run public school instead of an international school. This memoir delineates her navigating inside China's high-achieving yet somewhat insular education system. When the Chinese use military-like high-pressured techniques to educate their students and "out-educate" the Americans, people couldn’t help but wonder if the Chinese educational philosophy could teach the world a lesson or two. Chu discovered that the Chinese system was designed to weed out…

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Book cover of Chinese Clothing

Chinese Clothing

By Hua Mei

Why this book?

So you wish to paint your lips red like ancient Chinese women but are worried about confusing your Tang from your Ming. Get your make-up right with this manual. This succinct and wonderfully illustrated book is a treasure for lovers of Chinese fashion history or historical novelists like myself who may not be fluent in mandarin and depend on English publications. Creating vivid descriptions of concubines or Ming court characters is made easy when you can visualise exactly how people dressed or painted their faces during the different periods of China’s long history, including the Ming dynasty. I loved this…

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The best books on China’s Ming Dynasty

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Book cover of 1421: The Year China Discovered America

1421: The Year China Discovered America

By Gavin Menzies

Why this book?

Long subject to debate due to its assertion that China discovered America, this book remains an astounding Ming dynasty source that should not be overlooked based on a single controversial claim. It has a decidedly maritime, diplomatic, and economic focus, offering a comprehensive – often technical – account of the 1421 Ming fleet’s expedition with attention to historical figures like Admiral Zheng He. It vividly paints Ming dynasty China as an economic might that traded extensively for various world products and received tributes and envoys from places as far as Malindi in southeast Africa. Published in 2002, the book…

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Book cover of When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433

When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433

By Louise Levathes

Why this book?

Another much-loved book about the Ming dynasty’s naval fleet but this time, all seven maritime expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He are dutifully described. It outlines the evolution in ancient Chinese ship construction which saw the development of the formidable Ming ‘treasure fleet’. The reader can explore the Chinese mariners’ lives and occupations at sea, their navigation techniques, Ming China’s world trade and its diplomatic relationships, and the Ming fleet’s fascinating destinations, including Champa (now South Vietnam), Sumatra, Kuli (Kozhikode in India), Mogadishu, Malindi, and Hormuz. Cultural and socio-political details relating to the period are seamlessly weaved into this account…

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

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

By Susan Greenhalgh

Why 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…

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The best books on people's lives in contemporary China

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

Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade

By Winnie Won Yin Wong

Why this book?

This engaging book looks at globalization and art from a perspective well beyond the conventional art world. Wong analyzes the work of artists in the Chinese "urban village" of Dafen where some five million paintings are produced a year–copies of Western masterpieces. Rather than viewing this industry condescendingly, Wong takes Dafen as a laboratory for understanding what qualities make an artist, and how creativity exists even in contexts of reproduction and replication. 

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The best books on art and globalization

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

Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person

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

Why 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.

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Book cover of On China

On China

By Henry Kissinger

Why this book?

Written by America’s former Secretary of State, this book is the one to read for Westerners to understand today’s China and some of its history. Mr. Kissinger successfully used some well-known Chinese stories, historical events, and Chinese games to communicate his message. The effects of the Opium War in 1840, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the board game weiqi (Go) were all accurately and thoroughly examined as instruments to understand today’s China. Mr. Kissinger and his collaborators performed a fantastic job translating Chinese classic works into English.

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The best book for understanding China and Chinese culture

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Book cover of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

By Graham Allison

Why this book?

This book is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the rivalry and the ‘inevitable’ conflict between the United States and China. Allison makes some compelling comments on the contrasts between Chinese and American worldviews. The author talks about how both countries approach foreign policy, more importantly, what the West needs to know and needs to do in order to come up with a comprehensive plan to cope with China and other international concerns.

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Book cover of The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream

The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream

By Michael Wood

Why this book?

This fascinating book explains China from a historical perspective. It presents a detailed look at how China has transformed from its past to today, from the Middle Kingdom to Red Communist. 4,000 years of history is almost impossible to fit in a single-volume book, yet this book did its best and successfully summarized the most fundamental parts of the country’s history, introducing one of the oldest civilizations alive on earth to those who wish to learn more about China.

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

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

By Richard McGregor

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 best books on China by Western journalists

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

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

By John Pompfret

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

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

By Jonathan Kaufman

Why this book?

A great deal has been written about the Jewish refugees who flooded into Shanghai during World War II, but that’s not the case with the story of the wealthy Sephardic Jewish families who arrived in the early days of opium trading and built fabulous fortunes. In Last Kings of Shanghai, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jonathan Kaufman weaves the epic tale of the Sassoons and the Kadoories, stretching from Baghdad to Shanghai to London and Hong Kong. It’s a story of business acumen and political intrigue, of wartime survival and the choices that saw one family perpetuate its wealth and…

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The best books on China’s greatest city Shanghai

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Book cover of The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

By Yang Jisheng, Stacy Mosher, Guo Jian

Why this book?

Perspectives on one of the most bewildering and turbulent periods in modern Chinese history – the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, in the decade from 1966, by one of contemporary China’s foremost historians. Yang, who has worked on the era of the great famines in China prior to this, is well served by two excellent translators. A book that brings the vastness of this revolution down to the stories of specific people and places, including those who were most involved in creating and directing this seminal event.

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The best books on modern Chinese history

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Book cover of Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to XI Jinping

Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to XI Jinping

By Klaus Mühlhahn

Why this book?

To understand where China is now, and where it has been travelling from since 1949 when the People’s Republic was established, you need to grapple with the complex history that preceded that. German sinologist Klaus Muhlhahn expertly does this, succinctly drawing out the key theme of institution-building and showing how this provides the link between the final imperial period of the Qing to its collapse in 1911, and then the slow rise to power of the Communists over the 1920s to the 1940s when China was fragmented and beset by war. Accessible, authoritative, and ambitious.

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Book cover of Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village

Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village

By Ralph A. Thaxton Jr.

Why this book?

A tremendous piece of scholarship by American Ralph Thaxton, looking at a specific village during the late 1950s and early 1960s as it experienced the great famines. This shows the impact of that tragedy on everyday Chinese lives, and the ways in which the suffering of that period was to overshadow so much of what happened afterward. Beautifully written, with wonderful deployment of other scholarship, an exceptional work, and one that is part of a trilogy that takes the story forwards in the late 1960s.

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The best books on modern Chinese history

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Book cover of Home Is Not Here

Home Is Not Here

By Wang Gungwu

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…

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Book cover of A Relational Theory of World Politics

A Relational Theory of World Politics

By Yaqing Qin

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…

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

Tao of Sketching: The Complete Guide to Chinese Sketching Techniques

By Qu Lei Lei

Why 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…

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The best books to understand the heart and soul of China

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

A Life in Chinese Art Essays in Honour of Michael Sullivan

By Shelagh Vainker

Why 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.

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

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

By Rana Mitter

Why 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.

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Book cover of Monkey King: Journey to the West

Monkey King: Journey to the West

By Wu Cheng’en, Julia Lovell

Why 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…

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Book cover of Four Sisters of Hofei: A History

Four Sisters of Hofei: A History

By Ann Ping Chin

Why 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.

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Book cover of Making Hong Kong China: The Rollback of Human Rights and the Rule of Law

Making Hong Kong China: The Rollback of Human Rights and the Rule of Law

By Michael C. Davis

Why this book?

Before Hong Kong people embraced the Sino-British agreement to cede Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China, China promised the people of Hong Kong they would enjoy a high degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework so that their way of life and its socio-economic and political system would remain unchanged for 50 years, This ended in 2020, before the halfway point of the promised 50 years, when China imposed a National Security Law on Hong Kong that criminalized actions or speeches that people in Hong Kong were free to pursue hitherto. Davis provides a meticulous account…

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The best books on Hong Kong’s history and politics

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Book cover of For The Love Of Hong Kong: A Memoir From My City Under Siege

For The Love Of Hong Kong: A Memoir From My City Under Siege

By Hana Meihan Davis

Why this book?

This is a short and very personal account by a young journalist born and brought up in Hong Kong.  As her parents are academics who had also played activist roles in Hong Kong, Hana got to know some of Hong Kong’s democracy activists and fighters from a very young age. She writes with passion about why the young people of Hong Kong fight for democracy in Chinese Hong Kong, where the prospect of success was very dim, if not non-existent. If you are interested in how Hong Kong’s young people think about democracy, this is a good starting point.

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Book cover of Heaven Lake

Heaven Lake

By John Dalton

Why this book?

Hard to beat for the quality of writing, this is a thoughtful coming-of-age story about faith, loneliness, and love, and also beautifully captures the early post-martial law years when Taiwan was newly rich and free for the very first time. It’s 1989 and recent college graduate Vincent arrives in small-town Taiwan to serve as a missionary. He’s approached with an offer to make some easy money; he just needs to go to Xinjiang in China’s far northwest and marry a woman and then bring his wife back to Taiwan. Vincent initially turns down the offer, but circumstances will see him…

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The best novels set in Taiwan

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Book cover of Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology, Part 5, Fermentations and Food Science

Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology, Part 5, Fermentations and Food Science

By H.T. Huang

Why this book?

During the height of the Second World War, British biochemist Joseph Needham traveled across China with his assistant H.T. Huang to study Chinese scientific development, braving breakthroughs, and Japanese incursion along the way. Needham spent the next half-century compiling his findings into the Science and Civilization in China series, which rewrote our understanding of China’s place in world history. The story of its creation, and the colorful characters behind it, is memorably told in Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China, a book that sadly had little to tell us about Chinese drinks. This volume, however, written by Huang,…

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The best books on Chinese alcohol and drinking culture

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Book cover of Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

By Colin Thubron

Why this book?

I must have read dozens of books on China but Colin Thubron’s elegiac account comfortably takes the crown. Behind the Wall captures a unique moment in China’s history when foreigners were first allowed to travel around the country but the nation was yet to be influenced by the outside world. Having learnt to speak Mandarin in advance of travelling, the author probes deep into the rural areas and distant desert outposts of a closed communist empire still recovering from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

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The best solo adventure books

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Book cover of Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution

Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution

By Helen Zia

Why this book?

Decadent Old Shanghai was never going to survive a Communist takeover. It wasn’t easy to leave—in her family, my mother was told she was the lucky one, and so was the mother of author Helen Zia. An accomplished journalist, Zia masterfully captures what it was like for four young people—including her mother—to make the wrenching decision to leave their homes for places unknown, the chaos and distress of boarding that fabled “last boat” out of Shanghai, and what came after. The core of the story unfolds through the authentic accounts of the main characters Benny, Annuo, Bing, and Ho. Additionally,…

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Book cover of The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey

Why this book?

Enriched by more than 200 pictures, mostly in color, as well as maps and line drawings, it is an illuminating and succinct account of Chines civilization from prehistoric times through the rise of the “Three Teachings” (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism) to the modern communist state. As someone who taught a popular undergraduate college course on Chinese civilization for many years, I can testify that the overall length (384 pages) of the book and its structure of 12 chapters plus an epilogue make it a perfect choice of required texts.
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The best books to understand China, and its people and civilization

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Book cover of The Arts of China

The Arts of China

By Michael Sullivan

Why this book?

From a leading Western scholar on the topic, it is a comprehensive, well-researched, and highly readable account of Chinese fine arts from the Neolithic to the contemporary. It serves the need of college courses on Asian or Chinese art history as well as the interest of a common reader who wants to explore or better appreciate the aesthetics of Chinese art relics, including bronze, pottery, sculpture, etc., as well as the honorable splendor of calligraphy and painting.
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Book cover of Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

By Richard E. Strassberg

Why this book?

This is a singular anthology of pre-modern Chinese travel writing from the first century A.D. to the 19th century, copiously illustrated with paintings, portraits, maps, and drawings. It offers a unique resource for Western travelers to China and for students of Chinese art, culture, history, and literature.
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Book cover of Another World Lies Beyond: Creating Liu Fang Yuan, the Huntington’s Chinese Garden

Another World Lies Beyond: Creating Liu Fang Yuan, the Huntington’s Chinese Garden

By T. June Li

Why this book?

The handsome hardback volume, enriched by colored photos, consists of essays from a variety of contributors, including an art historian, a botanist, and literary scholars. It introduces to the reader the construction of Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the largest Chinese garden outside China, and discusses its aesthetics in Chinese culture and civilization. It provides a valuable guide for both lovers of gardens and students of garden architecture.
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Book cover of Pavilion of Women

Pavilion of Women

By Pearl S. Buck

Why this book?

Pearl Buck is an author whom I admire for her genuine love and respect of the Chinese culture and people. This sentiment shines through her novels. Pavilion of Women is unique in that it highlights a pronounced social change in China in the early 20th century, when Western values began to nudge younger Chinese to unyoke themselves of old traditions and customs. The fastidious, all-wise, and freedom-seeking protagonist attempts to dictate other people’s lives to keep her household in order, but fails miserably. She finally learns from a renegade missionary that her rigid attitudes and lack of empathy are…

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The best realist novels that take place in China

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Book cover of Wolf Totem

Wolf Totem

By Jiang Rong, Howard Goldblatt

Why this book?

When traditional nomadic herders live under communism and alongside aggressive social development, their lifestyle and environment will be disturbed to the core. So, it happens in the Wolf Totem. This book’s main characters are a Chinese young student, a Mongol family, and a wolf. Even though the book was initially censored in China, later it became an official market item and a sensational bestseller. I read Wolf Totem in Mongolian language when it was translated from Chinese. It was a slow but beautiful read. I spent one month to digest the book fully. For those, who find it difficult to…

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The best books that were banned, or based on stories forbidden to be told

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Book cover of The Last Quarter of the Moon

The Last Quarter of the Moon

By Chi Zijian, Bruce Humes

Why this book?

This is a very unique novel about the life of a nomadic tribe of hunters and reindeer herders called Evenki who reside in the northern part of Inner Mongolia. The story is told through an old woman at the end of the 20th century looking back at the joyful and tragic events of five generations of her clan. Wild nature is at its most beautiful and most cruel. Then the Japanese invasion, the Chinese lumber trade, and modernization gradually force the tribe to give up their carefree lifestyle. Sadness drips from the story, told in a wistful and quiet…

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Book cover of The Rice Sprout Song

The Rice Sprout Song

By Eileen Chang

Why this book?

This is a heart-wrenching novel about hunger and starvation in the early 1950s in a Southern China village. The book title implies the joy of harvest, which has a rhetorical effect as it runs counter to the book theme. Its metaphor for hunger is watery gruel that the rural poor eat for every meal as they slowly starve. The story is about the impending great famine after the Communist Party introduces the land reform policies and how villagers suffer in silence atrocious government abuse. 

This novel is a must-read if you want to understand what starvation feels like.

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Book cover of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang

Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang

By James Millward

Why this book?

Eurasian Crossroads is an essential resource for anyone seeking to learn about the complex historical context of the genocide taking place in Xinjiang today. James Millward, who is widely regarded as the leading historian of Chinese Central Asia, provides an accessible-yet-thorough examination of the various peoples and empires that have called the region home. 

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The best books on the Uyghur Genocide

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Book cover of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

By Ian Johnson

Why this book?

Let’s start in the present and work backward. And for a look at religion in China today, there is no better authority than Ian Johnson, journalist, author, and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I knew Ian back in the 1990s when we were both newspaper correspondents in Beijing. Since then, he’s plumbed the depths of the spiritual awakening in China since 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution. In The Souls of China, he examines not just the rise of Christianity through the house church movement, but also explores the revival of interest…

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Book cover of A New History of Christianity in China

A New History of Christianity in China

By Daniel H. Bays

Why this book?

In my journey to understand the historical backdrop for my family saga, I started with this tightly-written, comprehensive book by the late Daniel H. Bays. A former professor at the University of Kansas and Calvin College, Bays was an incredibly generous scholar. When I worked in China for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bays was frequently sought out by me and other reporters who needed to understand the long view of Christianity in China. I put this book in what I call the “readable academic” category. Yes, it’s often used as a college textbook, but it’s a good way to get…

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The best books about the history of Christianity in China

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Book cover of Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China

Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China

By Xi Lian

Why this book?

The Christian experience in China is different. More than a century ago, a popular, independent religious movement began to take hold and continues today through “house churches” that operate beyond the control of the central government. Xi Lian, a professor of world Christianity at the Duke Divinity School, explains the political and cultural reasons for this and focuses on the Chinese Christians at the vanguard of the indigenous movement—including my great-uncle Watchman Nee.

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Book cover of Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857-1927

Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857-1927

By Ryan Dunch

Why this book?

Fuzhou serves as a perfect microcosm for examining the rise of Christianity in China. It’s less familiar than Shanghai or Beijing and, as a result, this very accessible history book has a freshness to it. Like Bays, Ryan Dunch, a China scholar at the University of Alberta, is an academic who knows how to make history engaging. The story begins in 1857 after the forced opening of Fuzhou as a treaty port after the First Opium War, and ends with anti-western violence that roiled the city in 1927. I owe Dunch a debt of gratitude. Fuzhou was the birthplace of…

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Book cover of The Call

The Call

By John Hersey

Why this book?

I know I said in my introduction that there are too many books from the missionary perspective and not enough from a Chinese point of view, but I’m going to make an exception here with the only novel, too, in the group. In this 1985 title, the extraordinary John Hersey captures the urge of American missionaries to proselytize in China, as well as their complicated relationship with Chinese Christians. This sweeping fictional biography of David Treadup, whose character is a composite of the lives of actual missionaries, including Hersey’s father, carries the reader from New York state in the early…

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Book cover of History of the Pirates Who Infested the China Sea from 1807-1810

History of the Pirates Who Infested the China Sea from 1807-1810

By Yuen Yung Lun, Charles Friedrich Neumann

Why this book?

The original chronicle of the massive pirate outbreak along the China coast in the early 19th century. Written by a Chinese amateur historian, he makes his patriotic agenda clear on every page: to boost the maligned reputation of China’s imperial navy in allegedly quashing the pirates (by twisting the historical truth, to put it mildly). The main characters and incidents are based on fact, while he fills in the gaps with private conversations and meetings that no one could have been privy to. Translated into English by a German missionary in 1835, this mix of fact and speculation is…

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Book cover of A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates: In the Chinese Seas

A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates: In the Chinese Seas

By Fanny Loviot, Alex Struik, Amelia B. Edwards

Why this book?

In 1852 a young French woman set out on a round-the-world tour, stopping in Brazil and California before sailing to the young British colony of Hong Kong. Her return vessel to San Francisco was damaged in a typhoon, then hijacked by pirates. She chronicles in effervescent detail her treatment by the pirates, both callous and kind, offering a rare glimpse of Chinese pirate life. The original French edition was a big hit and soon translated into other languages. In the spirit of other 19th century travelogues, this book transports the reader in exquisite detail to many colorful and exotic far-off…
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Book cover of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression

By Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin

Why this book?

This was the first real effort to bring together a picture of the whole story of the global Communist movement and the many famines it created. It covers the whole-scale of the misery in regimes in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, Russia, India, China, and southeast Asia. It’s a lot of ground to cover but the narrative does not flag. Although the opening of the archives had produced more information, this is still a very impressive book however sobering it might be.
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Book cover of Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic

Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic

By Maurice Meisner

Why this book?

Generally speaking, there is a tendency both in China and the West to view the rise of China as the result of post-Mao reform. Mao is either perceived as a monster at worst or hopeless in economies at best. Deng Xiaoping takes the largest credit for China’s spectacular economic takeoff. Meisner is one of the first who presents a balanced view of China’s contemporary development, presenting convincing evidence to show that China’s industrialization and modernization started in the era of Mao.
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Book cover of Red China's Green Revolution: Technological Innovation, Institutional Change, and Economic Development Under the Commune

Red China's Green Revolution: Technological Innovation, Institutional Change, and Economic Development Under the Commune

By Joshua Eisenman

Why this book?

This book, like Mao and After, credits the era of Mao with far more achievements than they are given by the political and intellectual elite in post-Mao China. This book particularly focuses on the collective system or what was called the Commune and exploits the technical innovation and economic developments under the Commune. This is in total contrast to the accepted wisdom that there was economic stagnation in the era of Mao
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Book cover of Telling the Truth: China's Great Leap Forward, Household Registration and the Famine Death Tally

Telling the Truth: China's Great Leap Forward, Household Registration and the Famine Death Tally

By Yang Songlin, Baohui Xie

Why this book?

The accepted wisdom about the Chinese Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961 both in and outside of China is that the Great Leap Forward famine death toll was 30 million. This book challenges this wisdom. The book’s argument is based on the research of Professor Sun Jingxian who is a mathematician, who, after having examined the domestic migration pattern during the period, comes to the conclusion that the famine death toll was about 4 million.
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Book cover of Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

By Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, Nicholas Loubere

Why this book?

The fact that the edited book collects more than 50 world’s renowned scholars in the field is itself unique and worth reading. The other feature of the collection is that each scholar focuses on one topic, or one theme, such as class struggle, global Maoism, or poetry. In other words, each and any reader can find his or her topic of interest. “The masterful ensemble of essays challenges us to learn from China’s socialist past – its visions, accomplishment, and mistakes – as we contemplate our possible futures” as commented by one reviewer
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Book cover of Sihpromatum - Backpacks and Bra Straps: Backpacks and Bra Straps

Sihpromatum - Backpacks and Bra Straps: Backpacks and Bra Straps

By Savannah Grace

Why this book?

Continuing the saga that began in her first book, I Grew My Boobs in China, Savannah Grace moves into new territory with Backpacks and Bra Straps, which takes the reader to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, through Western China, and into Tibet. Grace gracefully weaves in interpersonal dynamics of traveling with family and the backpacking community while coming-of-age during travel in Asia.
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Book cover of Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

By Quincy Carroll

Why this book?

Carroll’s debut novel has earned considerable praise for its quiet, elegant prose and the affecting realism of its characters: a young introverted American wholly at home in the small backwater college in Hunan Province where he teaches English and builds an aeolian harp, the awkward female student who tries to befriend him, and the choleric old misanthrope of an American with a crippled leg, who joins the school and inadvertently proceeds to disrupt their lives. What makes the novel work is its dramatic irony – the chemical reactions that ensue when three peculiar and hapless personalities combine and threaten to…

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The best novels written by foreigners in China

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Book cover of A Dictionary of Maqiao

A Dictionary of Maqiao

By Han Shaogong, Julia Lovell

Why this book?

This strange novel consists of vignettes presented as encyclopedia-style entries written by the narrator. He’s an “educated youth” relocated to the fictional rural Hunan village of Maqiao as part of the Cultural Revolution “learn from the peasants” movement, reminiscent of Han Shaogong’s own experience of being sent to the countryside. First published in 1996 and in English in 2003 (expertly translated by Julia Lovell), the novel is better than the premise suggests, and it often features in “best of” Chinese literature lists.

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The best novels set in Hunan Province in China

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Book cover of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

By Lisa See

Why this book?

The beauty of the novel is like a fan, folded, layered, and fragile in its quiet storytelling of the transience of life and poignancy of how women were quickly forgotten and tucked away. Set in a remote, secluded town in nineteenth-century China, where foot binding was a tradition few could escape, the novel tells the affection between two women and their secret love. Nu Shu, the women’s script highlighted in the story, was especially fascinating to me–I have come across it during my research and learned that it was once a popular communication method for educated women in ancient China.…

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Book cover of The Sand Pebbles

The Sand Pebbles

By Richard McKenna

Why this book?

An old army buddy of mine used to say that when he had trouble at work and was worried about being able to support his family and when life was beginning to be a little too much, he would pick up a copy of The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. Soon, he’d be transported to the deck of the USS San Pablo, during the 1920s, steaming up the Yangtze River in the heart of China and suddenly everything was right.

McKenna was a sailor in the US Navy for 22 years (1931 to 1953). He enlisted at the age of…

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Book cover of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory Over the West

Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory Over the West

By Tonio Andrade

Why this book?

Few stood against many as the fate of Taiwan hung in the balance. This is a gripping account of the 1660s clash between Ming loyalist Koxinga and besieged Dutch colonists at Fort Zeelandia. Written by a historian with a flair for narrative, Taiwan’s most exciting historical episode is recounted in fascinating detail, with twists and turns, and wide zooms out for comparisons of European and Chinese technological prowess. It’s an accessible book yet so richly informative and dramatic that it rewards multiple readings. 

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Book cover of Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia

Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia

By George Crane

Why this book?

While taking tea with his Buddhist monk neighbour Tsung Tsai, who brings the water to a boil nine times before putting in the tea, George Crane is advised: “Georgie, I am going to travel to China to place a monument on the grave of my master. You are going to come along and write a book about it.” George is flabbergasted: ”Who’s going to give money to an unknown like me to write such a book?” The monk advises him to try and, sure enough, a publisher is found. They set off on this long pilgrimage, transporting a huge granite…
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Book cover of Longevity Park

Longevity Park

By Zhou Daxin

Why this book?

This expertly translated Chinese novel tells the compelling story of a family in Beijing with an aging patriarch. Narrated largely from the perspective of the rural nurse hired to care for him, Longevity Park reveals the many difficulties facing Chinese individuals as they age as well as the difficulties facing Chinese families with an aging loved one. These challenges resonate with those of individuals and families globally, including pervasive stigmas against the elderly, particularly those who are not as agile mentally or physically as they once were; and the particular hurdles facing family members with their own mental health and…
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Book cover of Sanctioned Violence in Early China

Sanctioned Violence in Early China

By Mark Edward Lewis

Why this book?

This is the classic study of the changes in violence and war in Chinese society from the Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period. Lewis demonstrates that war, hunting, and the sacrifices of the Spring and Autumn chariot-riding aristocracy were key to demonstrating membership in that class. Political power moved from the feudal rulers to their ministers, who were lower-ranking members of the aristocratic class, and the struggle for power among those men transformed warfare and society. Violence was transformed from a class-defining activity into a state-building tool that had to be controlled by the feudal ruler.
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Book cover of Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900

Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900

By David Graff

Why this book?

This is the best Chinese military history in any language. Scholarly, yet readable, it lays out the military, political, and social history of a complicated period in great detail. Despite challenging source material, Graff manages to create a coherent and comprehensible narrative.
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Book cover of The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military under the Qing Dynasty

The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military under the Qing Dynasty

By Joanna Waley-Cohen

Why this book?

This is a series of six essays that present a “new Qing history” approach to 17th and 18th century Chinese military history, specifically the culture involved in the military campaigns from 1636 to 1799.  Waley-Cohen not only presents a more positive view of the Qing’s Manchu rulers, but also the centrality of military activities and culture to Chinese culture.  The Qing government enthusiastically promoted its martial accomplishments, and martial culture was in turn reflected in visual culture, religion, and popular culture.

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Book cover of The Communist Party of China and Marxism 1921-1985

The Communist Party of China and Marxism 1921-1985

By Laszlo Ladany

Why this book?

The author, a Jesuit priest from Hungary, spent years in China before moving to Hong Kong. He was the preeminent scholar on China in the 1970s-80s. Ladany poured over what the CCP said about itself to construct a marvellous “self-portrait” of the CCP, including insights about Hong Kong. His scholarship is awesome and there hasn’t been someone quite like him among scholars on China.
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Book cover of The Dynamics of Chinese Politics

The Dynamics of Chinese Politics

By Lucian Pye

Why this book?

Lucian Pye’s parents were American missionaries in China, and the author was born in northwest China. He was a sought-after China expert in his lifetime. He had a deep understanding of China and its politics, which meant he understood the CCP, and the book includes references to Hong Kong in the days when Hong Kong was a British colony but something was rumbling.
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Book cover of China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation

China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation

By Karl Gerth

Why this book?

Gerth's sweeping research, eye for detail, and beautiful prose help us understand how the rejection of foreign commodities was critical to the creation of Chinese nationalism and state-building in the early twentieth century. Rather than reject consumer culture per se, the Government and businesses pushed the Chinese to consume only "Chinese" goods. This nationalistic consumer culture was built though with the same tools we find in the West--advertising, exhibitions, and fashion. Chinese consumer culture can be seen then as both global and local.
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The best books to understand tea and other Chinese things

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Book cover of Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History

Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History

By James A. Benn

Why this book?

This is the book I had been waiting for and was so delighted when it appeared. It provides a fascinating and sweeping account of the meaning of tea in Chinese culture from its earliest appearance to the late imperial period. Benn has a wonderful eye for examples and delicious details that illuminate how religion, art, poetry, class, and gender created a commodity and culture that travelled around the world. A great place to start if you are interested in the history of tea or China.
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Book cover of The Social Life of Opium in China

The Social Life of Opium in China

By Zheng Yangwen

Why this book?

We know a lot about how the Chinese state sought to ban, limit, and exclude opium from its borders, but this book uniquely delves into the multifaceted way that the demand for the drug emerged in the first place and then spread down the social scale to become a mass commodity. I especially loved the detailed way in which the author showed how consumers produced a variety of meanings surrounding opium and incorporated it into both elite and popular culture. Writing against so many myths, Yangwen shows us that for much of its history, opium was celebrated not demonized.
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Book cover of Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757-1937

Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757-1937

By Robert Gardella

Why this book?

A classic work of global political economy written just before the genre became fashionable. I constantly return to this book to think about the role of China in producing, shaping, and being altered by global capitalism in the nineteenth century. Gardella does not romanticize the Chinese economy as an alternative to Atlantic world slaved-based capitalism, but rather he considers how Chinese practices could be deeply exploitative. At the same time, he shows how the Chinese worked with and against the colonizing forces of Euro-American imperialism right up until the 1930s. I also love Gardella's amazing footnotes!
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Book cover of Britain's Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Britain's Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By Elizabeth Hope Chang

Why this book?

Much of the Western world but especially eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain obsessively purchased, collected, displayed, and thought about Chinese things. A brilliant literary critic, Elizabeth Chang traces this obsession through a wide variety of British texts from Sir William Chambers, Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772) to Isabella Bird's, Chinese Pictures (1904). Chang takes us on an intimate journey into a pleasurable yet imperialistic and often racist material culture that still shapes the way the West looks at and consumes Chinese products.
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Book cover of Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern

Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern

By Prasenjit Duara

Why this book?

One of the first scholars to write a full-length monograph on Manchukuo, Duara delves into the Chinese and Japanese writers who viewed northeast China under Japanese occupation as a means to envision their own Pan-Asianist ideals. He analyses this in the context of a broader "East Asian modern" in Manchukuo, and utilizes political and literary sources to unearth previous connections with previous iterations and currents of Chinese nationalism tied to the Pan-Asianism of the early twentieth century.
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Book cover of Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production

Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production

By Annika A. Culver, Norman Smith

Why this book?

In this edited volume with contributions from scholars from China, Japan, Korea, and North America, we investigate the intellectual climate of Manchukuo and interrogate how writers found both opportunity and peril in this new state under Japanese control. This study approaches Manchukuo literature from a transnational perspective, and most importantly, not all of the scholars in our collection agree with each other! We contest the "collaboration-resistance" binary that had been so persistent in much scholarship related to China under Japanese occupation by illuminating the complex choices made by cultural producers during their careers. One of our chapters features an essay…
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Book cover of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

By Paul Theroux

Why this book?

When I retired from my 45-year career as an international filmmaker and multimedia producer, I decided to concentrate on creative nonfiction writing, using my experiences and memories as a basis for the many stories I wanted to tell. I began to read and listen to travel memoirs to learn how to write in a captivating and entertaining way. Paul Theroux is one of the top writers in this genre and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is one of his best. He doesn’t make it to Borneo, but reaches many familiar places I traveled to during my years in…
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Book cover of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States

Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States

By Andrew Coe

Why this book?

Chop Suey is the scholarly, entertaining story of how Chinese food found a home in America. It opens in 1784, as the Empress of China sets sail from New York to initiate U.S.-China trade. But not until the California Gold Rush, which drew waves of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and eventually Chicago and New York, did Chinese vegetables and delicacies like birds’ nests and dried oysters arrive in this country. Soon, Chinese restaurants proliferated. Among the topics in this fascinating book are the Americanization of Chinese cuisine, its expansion into the suburbs and exurbs, and restaurant décor—juxtaposed with the…

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Book cover of Unwelcome

Unwelcome

By Quincy Carroll

Why this book?

In this memoir disguised as a novel (or novel disguised as a memoir), the shy and socially awkward Cole, of mixed Chinese and white American parentage, struggles to hold down a job as an imported beer salesman in China’s Changsha while pursuing his only romantic hope, a female scam artist who bilked him out of thousands of dollars. In a parallel narrative, friends and family in the Bay Area shed more light on the hapless anti-hero during his stints back home. One wonders how the author and protagonist could ever be the same person and how Carroll was able to…

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Book cover of Humanism in China:A Contemporary Record of Photography

Humanism in China:A Contemporary Record of Photography

By Ge An, Huangsheng Wang, Wugong Hu

Why this book?

This vast book in 500 pages broke new ground in publishing and photojournalism circles in China. Edited by the visionary curator Wang Huangsheng this extraordinary collection of colour and black and white material from hundreds of photographers both professional and amateur remains unmatched in scope. With unflinching courage to show both the brightest and darkest sides of life in the People’s Republic Wang selected many previously unpublished images along a range of themes from ‘desire’ to ‘time’, existence’ to ’relationships’. Crime and punishment, rural schools, and worker demonstrations - all sorts of subjects that were rarely seen in the state…

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Book cover of Visions of China: Photographs, 1957-1980

Visions of China: Photographs, 1957-1980

By Marc Riboud

Why this book?

A gentle observer of a nation undergoing transformation. Riboud witnessed a wide range of people from the top leaders mingling with Western diplomats to steelworkers, farmers, and students. At a time when most foreign visitor's access was highly restricted and choreographed scenes of socialist paradise were the norm he somehow managed to capture the energy and spontaneity of his subjects. By singling out individuals who were not reacting to his presence he allows their dignity to shine through. His compositions invariably elegant and technically beyond reproach nevertheless are full of life, particularly his earlier work.

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Book cover of From One China to the Other

From One China to the Other

By Henri Cartier-Bresson

Why this book?

The grandmaster of 20th Century photojournalism long had a fascination with China and was fortunate to get access to the country both pre and post-revolution. These times were chaotic and characterised by social upheaval yet Cartier-Bresson finds order and meaning through close observation and attention to geometric form until the ‘decisive moment’ is reached. Civil war, political turbulence, and an undercurrent of violence were the prevailing themes of this period yet the Frenchman’s sensitivity to the humanity and strength of his subjects is what lingers in the mind long after closing the cover.

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Book cover of One Billion Journeys: A Documentary that Spans 40 Years

One Billion Journeys: A Documentary that Spans 40 Years

By Wang Fuchun

Why this book?

Spontaneous photojournalism has not been a feature of the People’s Republic as the state-run media prefers rigid control of any media message. One of the most distinguished early practitioners of documentary photography to challenge this dull approach was Wang Fuchun. His book on life on the long-distance trains that trundled across the country delighted and informed first his compatriots and then the world. Most of the journeys he witnessed were in the age before mass tourism and are a far cry from the world-beating high-speed trains of the 21st century. It feels like ancient history but steam-powered locomotives were still…

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Book cover of China after Mao: Seek Truth From Facts

China after Mao: Seek Truth From Facts

By Liu Heung Shing

Why this book?

After the gradual normalisation of relations between China and the US and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, a small number of western journalists were allowed to open bureaus in Beijing. Access was limited and travel difficult but one talented Chinese American photojournalist really pushed the boundaries in showing the rest of the world what the long inaccessible country was like. His tenacity and eye for the telling detail were an inspiration for me to take up the challenge to devote my career to covering the historic era of change in due course. Such was Liu’s ability to…

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Book cover of Nadav Kander: Yangtze, The Long River

Nadav Kander: Yangtze, The Long River

By Jean Paul Tchang, Nadav Kander

Why this book?

The Yangtze River is only how outsiders know it: to Chinese it is simply ‘Changjiang’ or ‘Long River’. Flowing through the heart of the country from the Tibetan Plateau to Shanghai it is central to the lives and imagination of countless generations of Chinese. Kander, better known for his advertising and commercial work, brings a sedate and contemplative approach to this huge subject. The silt-laden river and the smoggy air around it present a challenge to any photographer as shapes and shadows melt into the yellow and grey. Here they provide a palette of otherworldly views, anchored by careful placement…

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The best colour photography books on China

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Book cover of Bruno Barbey: China 1973 - 2013: From Mao to Modernity

Bruno Barbey: China 1973 - 2013: From Mao to Modernity

By Jonathan Fenby

Why this book?

One of the storied Magnum agency’s less known yet supremely talented photographers, Barbey was a virtuoso of colour before many publications were geared up to print it. The Frenchman who died in 2019 had a long history of visiting China and his body of work is not as well known as that of Cartier-Bresson or Riboud but that may change as modern printing technology finally does justice to it. This book is probably the best available in English but a huge tome both larger and better produced has come out in China to a great reception.

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Book cover of Notes of a Crocodile

Notes of a Crocodile

By Qiu Miaojin, Bonnie Huie

Why this book?

This affecting and disturbing novel about a group of queer friends in late-80s Taiwan was ahead of its time in content, form, and vision. Premised on the idea of a collection of notebooks, the text incorporates multiple literary forms, and the “otherworldly” element is in Qiu’s use of the crocodile as a literalized metaphor for queer identity. A sobering and captivating read. 

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The best novels of an otherworldly Taiwan

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Book cover of Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station

By China Miéville

Why this book?

China Miéville is a brilliant writer, and Perdido Street Station is one of his earlier novels, but I would recommend anything he has written. What I like specifically about this novel, though, is that the main character runs a renegade printing press which is key to spreading information about their growing underdog movement, and in addition, his partner is from another species which is vilified and misunderstood. The evil beings in this world that they are fighting are massive moths that are so beautiful if you stare at them they suck your brains out. Ew, right? The group is a…

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Book cover of The White Lotus War: Rebellion and Suppression in Late Imperial China

The White Lotus War: Rebellion and Suppression in Late Imperial China

By Yingcong Dai

Why this book?

Few include the White Lotus War in their discussion of nineteenth-century rebellions. Yet, in many ways, it provides the perfect starting point. Lasting over eight years, plowing a path of destruction across five central Chinese provinces, and emphatically marking the end to nearly a century of peace and commercial prosperity, the White Lotus War is an ominous harbinger of what was to follow. Chinese historian Yingcong Dai highlights the many disparate factors – from bureaucratic negligence and administrative apathy to the rise of secret societies and charismatic religious leaders – that transformed otherwise weakly connected local protests into a massive…

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The best books to make sense of 19th-century China’s rebellions, uprisings, and wars

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Book cover of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

By Julia Lovell

Why this book?

A brilliant account of the two Opium Wars showing how they have been remembered in particular ways in order to make modern political points. Lovell shows us how political operators on both sides used the question of the opium trade to further their own interests. It exposes the nasty business of imperialism but also takes down a lot of myths about the wars. The book allows us to see the conflicts both in terms of what happened at the time, and how views over those events changed over the following century and a half. She explores the international history of…

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The best books on the emergence of modern China

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Book cover of Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

By Stephen R. Platt

Why this book?

If the Opium War represents the greatest threat to China’s global stature, the Taiping Rebellion certainly posed the greatest domestic challenge to the ruling dynasty. On the surface, the bare facts of the rebellion defy belief. Its leader, Hong Xiuquan, after failing the imperial civil service examination, came to believe that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and embarks on establishing a kingdom that upends thousands of years of beliefs by instituting a wide array of socially progressive ideas. Using both Chinese and Western sources, Chinese historian Stephen Platt breathes new life into both the extraordinary rise of…

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Book cover of What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China

What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China

By Tobie Meyer-Fong

Why this book?

While Stephen Platt offers a brilliant starting point for those interested in the Taiping Rebellion, Professor of Chinese history Tobie Meyer-Fong reveals the terrible realities of the war from the perspective of the survivors. Shifting her focus to the individual trauma caused by the rebellion, the author details the harrowing personal losses of the Taiping Rebellion. Meyer-Fong’s explicit and straightforward account of the hacking, slicing, and burning of both the Taiping and imperial soldiers accentuates the long-lasting psychological scars caused by the uprising that lingered on into the early twentieth century. What Remains pushes the reader to move beyond military…

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The best books to make sense of 19th-century China’s rebellions, uprisings, and wars

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Book cover of The Origins of the Boxer Uprising

The Origins of the Boxer Uprising

By Joseph W. Esherick

Why this book?

If the White Lotus marks the beginning of China’s rebellious nineteenth century, the Boxer Uprising (1900-1) emphatically brought it to its end. This account of the Boxers, written by scholar Joseph Esherick, although the oldest of the books recommended here, almost certainly served as their intellectual forerunner. Esherick’s iconoclastic approach upended traditional descriptions of the event and indeed transformed the way that scholars of China viewed rebellions as a whole. Moving away from the well-worn western perspective of the very missionaries and diplomats who were the targets of the anti-foreign, anti-Christian, and anti-modern movement, Esherick offers a richly textured description…

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Book cover of China

China

By Hiroji Kubota

Why this book?

Tapping into the long tradition of panoramic landscapes in Chinese art Kubota produced a mammoth tome of exquisite wide vistas. Back in the 1980s, these large-format images were a revelation to me and many around the world who had not experienced the spectacular scenery of China. Printed and produced to a very high standard this book came out to a rapturous reception in his native Japan and around the world at a time before mass tourism and industrialisation would change much of the country. The unspoilt views of snowscapes in the Northeast to the karst hills of Guilin’s Li River…

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The best colour photography books on China

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Book cover of China

China

By Edward Burtynsky, Ted Fishman, Mark Kingwell, Marc Mayer

Why this book?

Another master of the grand view, the Canadian artist brought his view cameras and production team to definitively capture the vastness of China’s growing industrial might. The studies of production lines and factory life offer a glimpse into the 21st century’s workshop of the world. The technical and stylistic perfection Burtnysky deploys match the scale of his subjects whilst never losing the human element in the scenes. We are all richer from the experience of understanding the context of where so much of what we use on a daily basis comes from.

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Book cover of Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

By Kenneth M. Swope

Why this book?

Contrary to previous scholarship, Ming China was not in military decline at the end of the 16th century, and the Wanli Emperor was not an ineffectual ruler during the conflict in Korea with the Japanese. Swope also demonstrates the importance of guns in the conflict, with the Japanese army strong in harquebuses and the Chinese army strong in cannon.
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China, Korea & Japan at War, 1592-1598: Eyewitness Accounts

By J. Marshall Craig

Why this book?

This book is valuable because it combines the first-person perspective of Yu Songnyong’s account with deft historical analysis. Craig chooses a number of interesting subjects for his work, including a Japanese Buddhist monk who accompanied the armies, a Korean scholar who became a war refugee, a Chinese doctor-spy, a samurai warrior, and a Korean diplomat. He translates excerpts from their works and adds historical context. This gives readers the opportunity to see the varying views of the belligerents side by side and it also offers a broader perspective on the effects of the war on different levels of the populace.

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The best books on the Great East Asian War of 1592-1598

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China in the Tokugawa World

By Marius B. Jansen

Why this book?

This book pairs well with Kaempfer’s History, because it challenges the notion that Japan was cut off from the rest of the world except for its relations with the Dutch VOC. The author (disclosure: my Ph.D. adviser at Princeton) challenges this idea of seclusion through his focus on Japan’s relationship with its closest Asian neighbors, particularly China, through the port of Nagasaki. The book skillfully analyzes the impact of the China trade on Japan’s political, economic, and cultural history. Based on a series of lectures, this relatively short book (160 pages) is quite an enjoyable read, even for people…

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The best books to excite your imagination about Tokugawa (early modern) Japan

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Book cover of The Telling

The Telling

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Why this book?

We live in a world where freedom of thought and expression is constantly threatened by those who would like to be unquestioned rulers. Le Guin’s Aka planet is one such, where those in power have attempted to erase history and ban books. But as in so many of Le Guin’s books, a utopian streak comes shining through here in the form of an underground movement keeping alive memory through the sacred act of telling. I loved the subversive current in the story, The Telling of which is itself an act of hope and inspiration.  

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The best books of utopian fiction

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Book cover of How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics

How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics

By John M. Friend, Bradley A. Thayer

Why this book?

This book is a concise examination of the pervasive ethnocentrism in contemporary Chinese society - which the authors refer to as “Han-Centrism.” Although it mentions Xinjiang and the Uyghurs specifically only a handful of times, one cannot hope to understand what is happening there today without also understanding the influence of Han-Centrism.

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The best books on the Uyghur Genocide

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Book cover of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia

China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia

By Peter C. Perdue

Why this book?

Peter C. Perdue gives an exhaustive account of the Qing Dynasty’s conquest of Xinjiang - which, according to many historians, was the first time a Chinese Dynasty consolidated its rule over the whole of the region. This history has important implications for claims regarding the legitimacy of Chinese rule over Xinjiang.

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Book cover of China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

By Rana Mitter

Why this book?

For years the major war waged in China by the Japanese armed forces was ignored or played down in standard histories of World War II. Rana Mitter’s book is the first to explore the war in full and to put it back into the context of the wider world war. This was the Japanese army’s largest conflict and it created the conditions for the emergence of modern Communist China. The use of Chinese archives long neglected or previously closed makes this an original and convincing history, essential reading for anyone who wants to know what happened in Asia during the…

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The best books about key events in World War II and the soldiers who fought in them

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Book cover of Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China

Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China

By Tiantian Zheng

Why this book?

Whilst studying in the U.S. in the early-2000s, Tiantian Zheng decided to return to her home city of Dalian, in northeast China, to embed herself for over two years with sex workers at local karaoke parlors. There, she witnessed, and at times personally endured, all manner of customer abuse, police crackdowns, government corruption, and catty relationships between hostesses, while somehow managing to keep copious secret notes for her ethnographic fieldwork (which eventually became Red Lights). It is an eye-opening but purely academic text, not a mass-market page-turner, which will primarily be of interest only to those of us researching…
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The best books about Chinese prostitution and vice

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Book cover of Northern Girls

Northern Girls

By Keyi Sheng

Why this book?

A post-70s generation Chinese authoress who capitalized on the big international book deals cleared for her by the commercial success of Shanghai Baby and Beijing Doll, and who likewise has developed an unsavory reputation among Communist authorities, Sheng Keyi has published many heralded (and banned) books. But her crowning achievement is 2012’s Northern Girls, about young female migrant workers who leave the countryside for the big city but fall into the trappings of prostitution. Unlike the memoirs penned by her counterparts, this is an obviously fictional story that falls under the sub-genre of “magical realism”. I’d suggest reading…

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Book cover of Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom

Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom

By Carl Crow

Why this book?

Arguably Chinese history’s most romanticized foreign resident, Carl Crow is a sort of Gatsby-esque expatriate hailing from glamorous 1920s Shanghai. The dapper ad agency magnate (who was behind those now-iconic “haipai” Chinese calendar girls), penned 16 books about China, most notably Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom. Rivaling The Great Gatsby in decadent cocktail parties, privileged bachelors on the prowl, and shameless colonialist classicism, Flowery focuses strictly on the ritzy lives of Shanghai’s Occidental aristocracy, with only a passing mention of the people whose world they inhabit. To contemporary readers, it may come across as offensively unwoke, but…

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The best books about expats in China

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Book cover of The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet

The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet

By Graham Earnshaw

Why this book?

Graham Earnshaw, who has resided in the Middle Kingdom for the past 40+ years (longer than any other living expat here today), has also been casually strolling from Shanghai due west toward Tibet over the past two decades. Fluent in Mandarin, his spontaneous conversations with local peasants he has encountered along the way make The Great Walk a delightfully pleasant and profoundly insightful read. Published in 2010 by a small Hong Kong indie press and tragically overlooked by most Sinophiles, I can’t recommend this enough to anyone seeking an upbeat, unpretentious narrative of a foreigner drifting among the Chinese.
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Book cover of And The City Swallowed Them

And The City Swallowed Them

By Mara Hvistendahl

Why this book?

There are several true-crime books about foreigners who have been killed whilst residing in China, notably Paul French’s Midnight in Peking (which should be read together with its dismissive detractor, A Death in Peking by Graeme Sheppard). Despite its brevity (only 60 pages), Mara Hvistendahl’s And The City Swallowed Them holds its own in the true-crime genre as a well-researched work of investigative journalism covering the stabbing of a Western female model working in Shanghai in 2008. Hvistendahl’s shocking expose focuses in equal parts on the seedier aspects of modern expat life, China’s marginalized peasant working class, and the…

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Book cover of The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

By Isham Cook

Why this book?

Decidedly contemporary China’s most provocative foreign writer, Isham Cook has spent the past decade in Beijing penning books about taboo subject matter that heretofore few expat authors have been willing to publicly reveal about their lives here. Specifically, prurience and libertine excess. I liken him as a reincarnated Edmund Backhouse with a hint of Henry Miller and a dash of de Sade. In his putative memoir The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai, Cook reimagines himself as an Asian woman in order to psychoanalyze his past relationships with Chinese girlfriends whom he tormented with polyamory. If nothing else, read this for…

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Book cover of Shanghai Baby

Shanghai Baby

By Wei Hui

Why this book?

Like her or not, the reigning queen of the naughty girl subgenre of Chinese literature decidedly is Wei Hui, whose debut, Shanghai Baby, was a cultural phenomenon that resulted in public book burnings, an international media frenzy, dozens of imitators, and one so-bad-it’s-good movie adaptation starring Bai Ling. Not that Wei Hui is a particularly well-regarded writer – Shanghai Baby is basically a knockoff of shallow Western-style chick-lit, about a designer-brand-obsessed young woman who has an affair with a married foreigner – but in 1999 it was groundbreaking for kicking the publishing doors down for the post-1970s generation of…

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The best books about naughty Chinese girls

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Book cover of Candy

Candy

By Mian Mian, Andrea Lingenfelter

Why this book?

Wei Hui’s literary and literal nemesis is Mian Mian – the two authoresses reportedly used to get in hair-pulling catfights at Shanghai nightclubs back in their glory years – yet whilst Wei Hui made millions, Mian Mian received critical acclaim for her engaging storytelling and poetic prose. Candy is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s sex-and-drugs-addled upbringing in 90s-era Shenzhen. Officially banned in China as “spiritual pollution”, it is a touching read, offering a rare glimpse into the lives of disenfranchised youth growing up on the cusp of a brave new China. It is among my favorites of this genre,…

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The best books about naughty Chinese girls

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Book cover of Beijing Doll

Beijing Doll

By Chun Sue

Why this book?

Chun Sue is like the literary little sister to Mian Mian and Wei Hui, copying her elder sisters and trying to follow in their footsteps – but stumbling because their heels were still too big for her to wear. In fact, despite its derivative nature, Beijing Doll did quite well, landing Chun on the cover of Time Magazine in 2004 and turning her into a pseudo-celebrity for her punky, tough-girl persona (a stark contrast to Wei’s slinky, sexy image). Western adult readers may roll their eyes at the melodramatic musings of middle-school heartbreak, but read within the context of its…

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Book cover of Red Azalea

Red Azalea

By Anchee Min

Why this book?

The godmother – the empress dowager, if you will – of all naughty Chinese authoresses is the inimitable Anchee Min. Her debut memoir, Red Azalea, was published half-a-decade before Shanghai Baby, and takes place half-a-century prior, at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. The first half of her story is set in a countryside labor camp, where teenaged Min and another young woman carry out a secret affair, with regrettable consequences. The second half of Min’s memoir finds her returning to her native Shanghai, now as the star of a movie production about Madam Mao, while carrying out…

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Book cover of Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

By Jung Chang

Why this book?

Having interviewed hundreds of Chinese Canadians, I knew that many of Canada’s earliest Chinese migrants met and gave money to Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, though most were less enthusiastic about Chiang Kai-shek. This book presented a complicated narrative of US-Chinese relations from the perspective of the Soong sisters, who straddled the boundaries of west and east and lived in a world where most Chinese were excluded because of their race. Similar to many of the bachelors in my book, the sisters were also influenced by KMT politics and religion. Both the Soong sisters and the bachelors knew…

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The best books to reimagine Chinatown

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Book cover of Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai

By Nicole Mones

Why this book?

At the center of the novel Night in Shanghai is Black American musician Thomas Greene, who arrives in Shanghai from segregated Baltimore to find wealth, position, and love—only to have his life changed forever by the outbreak of World War II. Author Nicole Mones was a businesswoman in China in the 1970s; her China experience, coupled with meticulous research, makes this a pitch-perfect portrait of the city and its denizens. A talented storyteller, she describes the little-known Black American experience of Shanghai, taking the reader from go-go Shanghai to wartime, weaving in actual events, characters, and depictions of the nightspots…

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The best books on China’s greatest city Shanghai

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Book cover of A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai

A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai

By Tess Johnston

Why this book?

Hard to imagine now, but when Tess Johnston arrived in Shanghai as an American diplomat in 1981, no one was researching or writing much about Old Shanghai. Fascinated by the city’s old Western buildings, she collaborated with Shanghainese photographer Deke Erh to piece together the stories behind the once-grand architecture. Photographed in the 1980s and ’90s, A Last Look provides a provocative visual history of Old Shanghai, accompanied by succinct text penned in Johnston’s personable style. This oeuvre is not only an appealing entrée into a lost era but has become a precious remembrance, as many of its subject buildings…

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Book cover of World History and National Identity in China

World History and National Identity in China

By Xin Fan

Why this book?

Over the last twenty years, China has become one of the most powerful nation-states in the world, both economically and politically. Since 1949 it has been ruled by a Communist Party which is still claiming today that is pursuing socialism with a Chinese face. It unites a turbo-capitalism with a strong nationalism that seeks to bring the Chinese people behind the Communist Party. This book shows how alien nationalism is to many of China’s most distinguished intellectual traditions over the course of the twentieth century. Especially those historians working on non-Chinese topics have for a long time attempted to use…

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Book cover of An Excess Male

An Excess Male

By Maggie Shen King

Why this book?

An exploration into the future consequences of China’s one-child policy, I discovered An Excess Male by accident, finding a battered second-hand copy in a local Berlin bookstore. And what a find! Maggie Shen King’s novel skillfully weaves together the narratives of its four protagonists, all of whom are part of — or about to join — a single group marriage. With this future China housing far more men than women, such marriages are increasingly common, yet the novel doesn’t limit itself, as it also explores the status of closeted gay men and people with autism. It’s a horrifyingly real and…

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The best novels exploring polyamory and non-traditional love

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Book cover of Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao

Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao

By Keith McMahon

Why this book?

Imperial China provides an incredible case study for queenship and the agency of royal women. Keith McMahon’s two volumes, Women Shall Not Rule and the follow-on Celestial Women: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Song to Qing are the ideal introductions to the lives and roles of women in Imperial China. You won’t need a background in queenship studies or an understanding of Asian history to enjoy this book and absorb both the anecdotes of the intriguing women featured and the key arguments that McMahon makes on how the position of royal women shifted over individual reigns as well…

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Book cover of Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China

By Jung Chang

Why this book?

Jung Chang, best known as the author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, here turns her considerable creative skill to the story of the woman who rose to the height of power in one of the world’s most important empires. Cixi’s trajectory from concubine to mother of the Tongzhi Emperor reminds us how sexual and reproductive labour are often critical to women’s access to power. 

Chang locates Cixi’s personal experiences, enjoying extreme luxury in secluded palaces yet displaying keen interest in the outside world that China was forced to confront, against a grand narrative of extraordinary changes to…

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Book cover of Sino-Russian Relations

Sino-Russian Relations

By Rosemary Ouested

Why this book?

Western commentators still try to analyze East Asian politics without reference to Russia as if countries ignore bordering great powers. For this obvious reason, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian leaders pay careful attention to each other because they share crucial borders. There are hardly any books on Russia’s pivotal role in Asia and most authors who try read none of the relevant languages. Rosemary Quested packed a lot into her concise book highlighting Russia’s role in the evolution of the Asian balance of power.

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The best books to understand the origin of the Asian balance of power

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Book cover of The Cambridge History of China: Volume 10, Late Ch'ing 1800–1911, Part 1

The Cambridge History of China: Volume 10, Late Ch'ing 1800–1911, Part 1

By John K. Fairbank

Why this book?

The Qing dynasty is covered in both volumes 10 and 11 of this wonderful series. Volume 10 contains essays that earlier in my career I would always go back to—not for the riveting prose but for the solid information. John K. Fairbank (1907-1991), the father of U.S. Sinology and longtime professor at Harvard University, invited the finest Sinologists to contribute to these volumes. Pick and choose from among the excellent chapters including: Joseph Fletcher (Inner Asia and Sino-Russian relations), John K. Fairbank (the treaty port system), Philip A. Kuhn (the Taiping Rebellion) in volume 10; and Immanuel C. Y. Hsu…

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Book cover of Mr. Smith Goes to China: Three Scots in the Making of Britain's Global Empire

Mr. Smith Goes to China: Three Scots in the Making of Britain's Global Empire

By Jessica Hanser

Why this book?

This is a jewel of a book. It takes a strange coincidence and weaves it into a wonderful tale of world history. It explores the lives of three Scotsmen, all called George Smith but not related, who traded in Asia during the eighteenth century, a crucial time for the development of the East India Company and ties between East and West. It really opens a window into the lives of these pioneers and brings this neglected history alive. In particular, it complicates the usual story of the East India Company by showing how it was a force for stability in…

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Book cover of Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century

Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century

By Orville Schell, John Delury

Why this book?

This book is an excellent introduction to some of the most important characters in modern Chinese history, from nineteenth-century reformers to twentieth-century communist leaders. We meet some of the characters I write about in The Invention of China like the great journalist Liang Qichao and the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, along with others such as Mao Zedong. The authors link their overlapping lives together showing how the old Qing Empire crumbled and was overthrown and replaced by a new Republic, which was itself overthrown within 40 years. It’s a great way to experience China’s journey from a time when it…
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Book cover of Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal

Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal

By Patrick Fuliang Shan

Why this book?

Very few people outside China have even heard of Yuan Shikai, the last prime minister of the Qing Empire who became president of the Republic of China before briefly declaring himself to be a new emperor. If it hadn’t been for Yuan, however, China would look very different today. He held the country together for a few crucial years after the revolution but then took some decisions that split it apart. He has been vilified ever since as a buffoon and a dictator, but this book asks us to take him seriously as a neglected and important figure in China’s…

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Book cover of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

By Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway

Why this book?

Talk about a shift in perspective! In the Collapse of Western Civilization, the year is 2393, and the world is almost unrecognizable. A scholar looks back in time on all that went ignored for decades based upon what we already know today about climate change, its causes, and potential solutions. In science-based fiction, we get a glimpse into the “Great Collapse of 2093,” triggered by soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, widespread drought; it is the collapse of Western civilization as we know it.

Written by a pair of world-renowned experts in the history of science, this book reads like…

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Book cover of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

By Grace Lin

Why this book?

Winner of a Newbury Honor, this is the first installment in a trilogy of fantasy novels by Grace Lin, well known also for her many picture books and realistic middle-grade novels exploring Chinese-American heritage. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon tells the story of young Minli, who is seeking the Old Man of the Moon to bring good fortune to her family. Lin brilliantly fuses Chinese fairy tales and adventure stories with contemporary American fantasy; in its tempo and ornament the book evokes the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, but Minli will be as accessible to young…

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Book cover of Bronze and Sunflower

Bronze and Sunflower

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So

Why this book?

I always like reading anything about day-to-day living in China. In this book, I loved the descriptions of what life is like in rural China, eg making their own reed shoes and building their own roofs. On the surface, this book is about the idyllic life in the countryside. However, it is set during the cultural revolution but so subtly described in the back-drop that it is perfect for the target audience. We often read about the people banished to the countryside, and this book tells me what happens to them when they arrive.

I also enjoyed it as it…

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Book cover of Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

By Na Liu, Andrés Vera Martínez

Why this book?

This graphic novel, based on the author’s own childhood experiences, offers a darker picture of life in 1970s China than I usually like to share with other Americans, whose view is often already bleak at best. But Little White Duck passes my nuance test: for every episode that strikes the reader as shockingly foreign, there is something that highlights the commonality of human experience. The story begins in 1976, when four-year-old Na attends a funeral for Chairman Mao with her grief-stricken parents. In the years that follow, Na’s life continues to be shaped by political campaigns: inspired by the heroic…

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Book cover of Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints

By Gene Luen Yang

Why this book?

I’ve always loved Hong Kong New Wave movies, but they often emphasize action and flashy melodrama over historical context. For someone wanting to dig a little deeper, the graphic novel Boxers & Saints is a look into the parallel lives of two Chinese teenagers during the Boxer Rebellion—One is a red-blooded patriot eager to fight Western invaders. The other is a troubled girl who finds liberation in Christianity. Both characters are carried along, motivated, and then betrayed by fanaticism. When their paths cross, they are forced to learn the difference between religious faith and religious mania. The simple artwork isn’t…

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The best ideological adventure books

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Book cover of Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories

Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories

By May-Lee Chai

Why this book?

This story collection is mind-blowing in the best way. As its name suggests, a lot of the stories in this book deal with immigrants, including Chinese people who've immigrated to the United States, but also rural people who've migrated to cities. Chai's characters are struggling to balance traditional Confucian values with postmodern urban existence, and a lot of these stories feature tensions between different generations in a single-family. The best story is probably the award-winning "Fish Boy," in which a boy moves from the Chinese countryside to the big city and ends up working at a seafood restaurant whose offerings…

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The best short story collections that could change your life

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Book cover of The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

By Xinran

Why this book?

This collection of hidden testimonies of women in China, based on call-ins to a radio show in the 199Os, depicts what women think and feel about their world and their realities. We hear women speaking for the first time about forced marriages, poverty, persecution, love – and their triumphs. It is key to understanding the thoughts and feelings behind what we think we know.

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The best books about Asian women

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Book cover of Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China

Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China

By Sterling Seagrave

Why this book?

This book takes what you think you know about China’s Last Empress, Cixi, and turns it upside down. Far from the monster created by puerile Western conquerors to justify their imperial domination over China, this historical account uncovers the reality behind the woman who held great power in China. This reality is core to the destruction of the Dragon Lady stereotype in Western culture that I lay out in my book.

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The best books about Asian women

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Book cover of Miss Jill: A Novel

Miss Jill: A Novel

By Emily Hahn

Why this book?

Emily Hahn, prolific author and New Yorker correspondent whose sojourns in Shanghai (1935-39), Chungking (1939-40), and Hong Kong (1941-43) coincided with the Japanese invasions of these cities, fictionalizes the life of Canadian Lorraine Murray, turned high-class prostitute in Shanghai after living as a foreign geisha in Japan. Hahn was fascinated by sex workers and hung out with them (Hahn and Murray were roommates), but the novel later morphs into the autobiographical as the beautiful Hahn ingratiates herself with Japanese military officials until she’s forced into a Hong Kong internment camp for several years. Hahn is more reporter than novelist, but…

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The best novels written by foreigners in China

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Book cover of Empire of Glass

Empire of Glass

By Kaitlin Solimine

Why this book?

The experience of being a teenage exchange student living with a Beijing family whose mother is dying of cancer and whose father makes an aborted sexual pass on her marked Solimine deeply enough to inspire this novel. The author wisely shifts the focus away from herself and adopts the role of frame narrator as she reconstructs the family’s history and events leading up to her arrival, where she inserts herself into the story. The narrative unfolds in flashbacks, impressionistic vignettes, and haunting poetic imagery to capture fleeting moments which build in intensity. It’s the kind of novel readers may not…
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The best novels written by foreigners in China

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Book cover of Harvest Season

Harvest Season

By Chris Taylor

Why this book?

An idyllic mountain town in Yunnan Province of the sort which drew Chinese artists and Western pot-smoking hippies several decades back (probably Dali or Lijiang before their tourist invasions) is the setting of an epic culture clash between older-generational locals and the motley crowd of foreigners and their teepees and incomprehensible ways. The characters and the narrative breathe with too much realism to be based on anything but real people and events, and we assume the first-person narrator to be the author himself thinly disguised. But whatever events inspired the story, Taylor succeeds in limning each scene and dialogue with…

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The best novels written by foreigners in China

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Book cover of Party Members

Party Members

By Arthur Meursault

Why this book?

Here we have the most politically incorrect of novels, an unflinchingly vicious take on China by a Westerner, though Party Members (pun on the second word) does have an acknowledged precursor in fellow Englishman Ralph Townsend’s Ways That Are Dark, an equally unsentimental account of China published in 1933. We follow the faceless bureaucrat protagonist, Yang Wei, as he inventively combines his passions for sex and KFC (China’s comfort food of choice) at one and the same time, and eggs on the state-sanctioned thugs who set his mother’s house on fire to clear it for developers – with her…

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The best novels written by foreigners in China

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Book cover of The Scar

The Scar

By China Miéville

Why this book?

Armada is a pirate city, populated by both mundane and outlandish citizens, and built on decommissioned vessels connected to each other by bridges. The politics of the city are fascinating as are its enigmatic rulers, the scarred Lovers. Mieville’s densely poetic prose brings the city to life and while most of the populous are background figures, there are some notable exceptions, including the Remade Tanner Sack who takes us beneath the surface of the ocean.

Magic exists as a resource, fuelling political intrigue as countries and empires battle for supremacy. The quest to control a particular form of magic drives…

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The best and grittiest dark-fantasy novels

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Book cover of Mommy, Buy Me a China Doll

Mommy, Buy Me a China Doll

By Harve Zemach, Margot Zemach

Why this book?

“Mommy, buy me a China Doll, Do, Mommy Do,” but, “What could I buy it with, Eliza Lou?” Eliza Lou has many suggestions…trade our Daddy’s feather bed…"Then where would Daddy sleep”…He could sleep in the horsey’s bed. “Then where would horsey sleep”…and on and on until Eliza ends up asleep herself…on Mommy’s lap. A soothing lullaby with or without the evocative illustrations by the Zemach team.   

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The best singing picture books

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Book cover of The Library of Legends

The Library of Legends

By Janie Chang

Why this book?

Chronicling the real-life evacuation of Chinese university students during the Battle of Nanking, Janie Chang makes history and magic come alive in The Library of Legends, perfectly tying together the trials and tribulations of a group of students evacuating Nanking with the myths and legends that they’re sworn to protect – and which protect them in turn over the dangerous 1,000-mile journey to safety. Quite simply, this book is magical.  

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The best books to transport you to another era

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Book cover of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

By Dai Sijie

Why this book?

Set in a distant, rural world far away from the city where two young men were sent for re-education during the Cultural Revolution, this tender, seductive novel weaves the passion of reading with the yearning for romance. It’s a humorous look at life in exile but also a touching story about a young woman’s discovery of her power and sexual awakening. I’ve read this book years ago and still remember it.

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The best books to understand Chinese women

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Book cover of Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid

By Anchee Min

Why this book?

Empress Wu, the protagonist of my historical duology The Empress of Bright Moon, was often mistaken for the Empress Cixi in this novel, which often prompted me to explain that Empress Wu lived in the seventh century and she was the only female who ruled China in her name. But Empress Cixi, perhaps, was the only equivalent to her, as Cixi wielded great power and ruled the country from behind a thick, embroidered curtain in the late nineteenth century. Well-researched, the novel chronicled the rise of a cunning concubine, a woman of the reigning ethnic group over the Han…

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The best books to understand Chinese women

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Book cover of Dragon Mountain

Dragon Mountain

By Katie Tsang, Kevin Tsang

Why this book?

Dragon Mountain is fast and cinematic, full of excitement and thrills. It’s the story of a group of children at a holiday camp, who find a secret entrance to a world of dragons. There are battles and races and high-speed chases. I’ve always loved stories with a training session segment where the character learns new skills and, really, who wouldn’t want to learn to fly a dragon?

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The best middle grade books of magic and adventure

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Book cover of The Long Game: China's Grand Strategy to Displace American Order

The Long Game: China's Grand Strategy to Displace American Order

By Rush Doshi

Why this book?

There is a veritable cottage industry now on books on China and its global strategy and influence. This book by Rush Doshi is one of the best because its analysis is based on extensive analysis of Chinese Communist party documents over decades. Doshi's analysis asks whether or not China has a grand strategy by examining China’s foreign policy concepts, capabilities, and conduct. This makes for a compelling and detailed analysis. 

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The best books on China’s global and African strategies

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Book cover of The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership

The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership

By Clyde Prestowitz

Why this book?

This is a fascinating book by a long-time Washington insider on the reasons for, and strategy behind, China’s rise. He details the crucial geopolitics behind America and China’s changing positionality. He argues that China’s rise was facilitated by common animosity towards the Soviet Union and fundamental misunderstandings by the American policy elite of the Chinese system. It is packed full of interesting insight and details, including that the Chinese Communist Party does not legally exist, so can never be held to account. 

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The best books on China’s global and African strategies

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Book cover of China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

By Peter Martin

Why this book?

Many analysts have noted a more aggressive or assertive international posture by China in recent years, sometimes termed “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” after a Chinese action movie from 2017 where a Chinese former special forces soldier defeats an American adversary. This book explains the origins and evolution of China’s diplomatic corp and how it has always been run on military lines, including having a twinning arrangement for diplomats where they are required to report on their partner if they become “ideologically impure.” Martin explains the reasons for China’s more assertive foreign policy in recent years, including through the weaponisation of trade…

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The best books on China’s global and African strategies

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Book cover of China and Africa: The New Era

China and Africa: The New Era

By Daniel Large

Why this book?

The ascent to power of Xi Jinxing in China in 2013 heralded a new era in China’s overseas engagements and in its domestic politics and economic policy; what Elizabeth Economy has called the “third revolution.” This fascinating book by Large brings the story of China’s engagements in Africa up to date. It is packed with fascinating details and analysis and shows how China’s interests on the continent are shifting from being primarily economic to being more geopolitical. It is a detailed and nuanced analysis of the changed nature of relations. 

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The best books on China’s global and African strategies

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Book cover of Land of Jade: A Journey from India Through Northern Burma to China

Land of Jade: A Journey from India Through Northern Burma to China

By Bertil Lintner

Why this book?

Bertil Lintner’s many books on Myanmar were essential background material for me when I lived there doing my own research on the country’s never-ending civil war. Land of Jade is a vivid and insightful study of Myanmar’s conflicts, and my favorite of his works. In 1985, he struck out to walk on foot from India, across northern Myanmar (then Burma), and eventually into southwestern China. The journey was the first (and likely only) time a journalist would undertake such an arduous, dangerous, and unforgettable trek.

His hosts along the way were a bewildering array of rebel groups at war against…

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The best books on the human toll of civil war

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Book cover of Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China's Rise

Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China's Rise

By Scott Rozelle, Natalie Hell

Why this book?

This book is probably one of the best books on China’s economy and development that’s come out in recent times. Based on years of field research in China, the authors throw an extraordinary spotlight on China’s shortcomings in educational attainment, which is to economic development as wings are to a plane. Interesting comparisons with other countries, how China might slip into a middle income trap, and cognitive learning problems among China’s still largely rural population are not your run-of-the-mill China economy book diet, but these and other things will open your eyes. 

From the list:

The best books on understanding modern China

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Book cover of China's Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption

China's Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption

By Yuen Yuen Ang

Why this book?

Everyone knows China has experienced amazingly long and rapid development, but also that in an autocratic country with plenty of laws but no rule of law, corruption is rife. Normally, deeply corrupt countries don’t ‘make it’, but China has, and I found Yuen Yuen Ang’s book an illuminating guide to just how and why a particular form of corruption in China has worked to its advantage. 

She calls this ‘access money’ as opposed to other forms of corruption such as embezzlement, petty bribery, extortion, and thuggery. She shows how to access money while producing perverse and risky outcomes, has actually…

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The best books on understanding modern China

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Book cover of The Chinese Economy: Adaptation and Growth

The Chinese Economy: Adaptation and Growth

By Barry J. Naughton

Why this book?

Naughton is the grandfather of China economy books, having written prolifically and with great authority on it for what seems like an eternity. This second edition updates his original 2006 work and should be considered a sort of bible, certainly an essential reference, on how China emerged from poverty under Mao to become what it is today. There are no economic or economic policy or structure stones unturned in this tome.

If you are more minded to read an authoritative narrative rather than a sort of handbook, I recommend a much shorter, readable book by the same author, published last…

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The best books on understanding modern China

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Book cover of The World According to China

The World According to China

By Elizabeth C. Economy

Why this book?

Liz Economy’s grasp of international relations is compelling and insightful as she sets out to explain how China sees itself in the world, especially in the light of the pandemic. Looking to recover its past glory and status, China under Xi Jinping has seized both on what he sees as the West’s economic and political failings, and China’s own accomplishments and size to advance new agendas. At home, a leftward lurch resembles a throwback to the Mao era. In the world, China wants to reshape global institutions to reflect better its interests and to get others, for example in The…

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The best books on understanding modern China

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Book cover of Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World

Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World

By Clive Hamilton, Mareike Ohlberg

Why this book?

While it’s important to get a grip on what’s going on inside China, it\s also essential to appreciate how China presents itself and tries to influence the world and a second but rather different book that does this is this one. But instead of looking at China from an international relations point of view, these authors look at how the Communist Party uses agencies and institutions to not only influence politicians, think tanks, universities, and businesses in other countries - which is by no means unique - but also to interfere, which is more exceptional. 

This book makes a number…

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The best books on understanding modern China

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Book cover of Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People's Republic of China

Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People's Republic of China

By Igor Golomstock, Robert Chandler

Why this book?

Rich in illustrations, ambitious in scope, and still relevant despite having been written in the pre-perestroika Soviet Union, Golomstock makes his four-way comparison accessible and convincing by insisting that “totalitarian art,” a distinct genre with its own aesthetics and style, organization, and ideology, emerged with the rise of the four regimes indicated in the title of his book. 

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The best books on art and aesthetics in Nazi Germany

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Book cover of The Empty Pot

The Empty Pot

By Demi

Why this book?

Oh, this book is one of my all-time favorites. This amazing folktale has such a powerful message about telling the truth and being true to who you are. I cannot say enough good things about this text. I have read this story every single year and it is one that my students have asked that I re-read-which doesn’t happen all that often. The storyline, the art, and the message make this folktale one of the best out there.

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The best folktales for children ages 4-8

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Book cover of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

By Elizabeth C. Economy

Why this book?

Those of us who study Chinese history know that the global dominance the West has enjoyed over the last couple of hundred years is a mere blip on the radar to scholars and leaders in China. That’s what makes China so fascinating to me and drives me to write so many novels set there and to teach Daoist arts like tai chi and qigong. China was long known as the Middle Kingdom because it really was the social, cultural, and military center of the world. This author, a well-known scholar, policy expert, and now member of President Biden’s “China Team”…

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The best books to better understand and appreciate China

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Book cover of The Art of War: A Graphic Novel

The Art of War: A Graphic Novel

By Sun Tzu, Pete Katz

Why this book?

Both the monk and the martial artist in me have long found Sun Tzu’s treatise on how to conduct military campaigns to be fully as seminal as Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War.” Both books are studied at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I find Sun Tzu’s wisdom to be applicable to both combat and life’s more pleasant endeavors, such as relationships and work. Sun Tzu’s is purported to be the student of the great Daoist Sage Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, a seminal work that many folks find impenetrable. Perhaps that’s why Sun Tzu…

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The best books to better understand and appreciate China

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Book cover of A Floating Life: The Adventures of Li Po: A Historical Novel

A Floating Life: The Adventures of Li Po: A Historical Novel

By Simon Elegant

Why this book?

This novelized biography of a poet some consider China’s greatest pleases me over and over again. Rendering Li Po (sometimes Li Bai) as a libertine living on a barge, drinking too much and partaking with gusto in the pleasures of the flesh at the red-candle district near which he moors, really helps bring alive the great man’s life and work. There’s also a bit about his relationship with Du Fu, more of a straight arrow. Those two, along with Wang Wei really offer a picture of the Daoist life I so adore and the feeling of watching the world spin…

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The best books to better understand and appreciate China

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Book cover of The Deer and The Cauldron: The First Book

The Deer and The Cauldron: The First Book

By Louis Cha, John Minford

Why this book?

There is an argument to be made that Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) is modern China’s version of William Shakespeare. From Cha’s unimaginably rich and bottomless imagination come unforgettable stories and characters that have had a huge impact on not only contemporary China but the rest of the world. Writing in the category of wuxia (martial arts fiction) he sold 100 million copies of his books, making him China’s most famous author. Countless films and TV shows have been based on his stories, that typically portray the under classes struggling against overlords. One of my favorite memories of travels in…

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The best books to better understand and appreciate China

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Book cover of The Lacquer Screen: A Chinese Detective Story

The Lacquer Screen: A Chinese Detective Story

By Robert Van Gulik

Why this book?

Van Gulik is a giant in the field of historical mysteries, having penned the better part of 20 novels about his favorite protagonist “Judge Dee.” Set in ancient China, the stories typically involve political intrigue, moral quandaries, and settings so evocative it is easy to just close your eyes and see yourself in a pavilion overlooking a swan-filled lake or in a lady’s bed-chamber, a scholar’s library, or an artist’s studio. These novels are mood pieces as well as whodunnits, and the immersive experiences the author offers lead me to recommend not only this title but any and all in…

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The best books to better understand and appreciate China

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