399 books directly related to China 📚

All 399 China books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

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

By Rana Mitter,

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

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, Mittar’s focus is not on policy squabbles or specific military issues but on the overall impact of the war on China and its people. He highlights that country’s remarkable achievement, not in winning battles but in surviving the Japanese onslaught for eight long years despite the early loss of almost all industrial resources, fragile political and social cohesion and almost intolerable demands on its domestic population. The war cost China at least 14 million, perhaps 20 million dead, shredded its economy and created at least 80 million refugees.

Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze

By Peter Harmsen,

Book cover of Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze

Why this book?

This was a major battle that happened in 1937, right before the Rape of Nanking. After the fall of Shanghai, the Japanese army would march toward, Nanking (Nanjing), the capital of China then. Although it was front page news throughout much of the world then, few people other than historians know it today. It is no hyperbole to call the battle Stalingrad on the Yangtze. The book reads like an engrossing historical novel.

Becoming Enlightened

By Dalai Lama XIV,

Book cover of Becoming Enlightened

Why this book?

This is the longest book on the list and the one I have read most recently. I keep coming back to this book again and again for insights and inspiration. The ageless wisdom of the Dalai Lama comes alive in a book that is not only informative but is actionable. As someone who has long been interested in Buddhism this gem not only is a deep dive into the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism but it goes into the theme of Enlightenment in a way that I have never found elsewhere.

This book is filled with insights that reveal so much about the Dalai Lama and the ancient philosophy that governs himself and his people. There is something profound here to be discovered for anyone thinking deeply about life, death, Buddhism, and enlightenment.

The Message

By Mai Jia,

Book cover of The Message

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 it was written in China and published outside of the country with permission from the government.

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

By Fuchsia Dunlop,

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

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 and poignant case she makes for overcoming them.

Slippery Noodles

By Hsiang Ju Lin,

Book cover of Slippery Noodles

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.

How to Cook and Eat in Chinese

By Buwei Yang Chao,

Book cover of How to Cook and Eat in Chinese

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.

The Third Eye

By T. Lobsang Rampa,

Book cover of The Third Eye

Why this book?

A long time ago, I used to own part of a Jazz club. There was a jazz guitar player named Sunny Greenwich and he turned me onto this book. It is a compelling story of an English man who was a reincarnated Tibetan lama. This book changed my life and it gave me a vision of who we really are, why we are, and how we are. And, how we are all connected to our spiritual selves. When our bodies die they go back to their spiritual selves, and we are just out here to gain experience. This book sent me to some good places and helped open my eyes so I could see the next book on my path.

The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan

By Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, Unknown,

Book cover of The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan

Why this book?

For me personally, this book changed my life more than any other, opening me up to the inspiring possibility that a deeply imperfect person could become enlightened through sincere and mighty efforts. This work is one of the world's great stories. The name Milarepa has inspired people for a millenium throughout Central Asia, being almost synonymous with being a yogi and with redemption through heartfelt efforts. It includes Milarepa's life story and some of the many poems which he spontaneously composed to educate and enlighten others as he wandered through the Himalayas.

Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition

By Jan Willis,

Book cover of Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition

Why this book?

This book does a remarkable job of exploring the nature of spiritual biography itself. It compares and contrasts Western hagiographical traditions with the unique ways that Tibetans (and other Central Asians) use outer, inner, and secret biographies not only to share the stories of great Buddhist masters but also to share history, inspiration, and implicit teachings to apply to one's own practice of the path. Willis explores these themes in complex ways and also provides translations of the life stories of 6 Tibetan lamas of the Ganden tradition who combined profound scholarly and deep yogic pursuits in unique ways.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee

By Robert Van Gulik,

Book cover of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee

Why this book?

As the West had its long history of Rome and her influence in Europe, so Asia has an even longer story of the Chinese people and their state. For an introduction and appreciation of this brilliant and complex civilization, I recommend Celebrated Cases Of Judge Dee: Dee Goong-An, by Robert van Gulik, and the same author's series of Chinese detective novels featuring Judge Dee.

The real Judge Di Renjie was a member of the Tang Dynasty civil service in the 7th century, who rose to be a chancellor to the Empress Wu. A legendary figure in Chinese history, he became a popular literary detective - a sort of Sherlock Holmes. Van Gulik, himself a civil servant, was a Dutch scholar who served as an advisor to the Chinese government during WWII. He made this translation of an 18th century Chinese detective novel about Dee, and followed it with about 20 novels he himself wrote (and illustrated) about this beloved figure, exploring the lives of the people urban and rural, the classes and professions of the period, civil and military organisation, differences across regions, and the Chinese way of looking at life. It is real history, delightfully presented, by a very learned man.

The Blacks of Premodern China

By Don J. Wyatt,

Book cover of The Blacks of Premodern China

Why this book?

Everyone knows about how the People’s Republic of China treats Tibetans and Uighurs today, but how many know about premodern China’s response to people it considered foreign, barbarian, or Black?  Don Wyatt’s book shows how people in Southeast Asia—Sumatra, Java, the Malay archipelago—were considered by China as Black, alongside actual Africans.  An excellent companion book to read together with this is Shao-yun Yang’s The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China.  Many books on race before the modern era focus on the West, but how about race elsewhere? How about China, a country that’s fast becoming a world power? 

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

By Peter Hessler,

Book cover of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

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, fascinating.

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

By Scott Tong,

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

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.

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

By Dexter Roberts,

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

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.

Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

By Kishore Mahbubani,

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

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.

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

By Taomo Zhou,

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

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.

The Heart of the Buddha: Entering the Tibetan Buddhist Path

By Chögyam Trungpa,

Book cover of The Heart of the Buddha: Entering the Tibetan Buddhist Path

Why this book?

Moving from the Zen lineages over to another branch of this tradition, Tibetan Buddhism, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was famous for making the esoteric accessible. In this book he covers a wide variety of topics ranging from the four foundations of mindfulness over to advanced Buddhist views around taking vows and maintaining sacred outlook throughout one’s day. Bonus: there’s a section devoted to a number of modern day issues where he offers Buddhist teachings on relationships, art, and money.

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

By Kenneth Pomeranz,

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

Why this book?

Taking us away from cities, this book will set your eyes on how these cities and their trades fit within a global framework. Kenneth Pomeranz argues that the key was the Americas which allowed Europe to engage in further specialization, and the fortunate location of coal in Britain, the country that started the industrial revolution. This industrial revolution was the key difference that led to the dominance of the West in global affairs.

Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings

By Andy Ferguson,

Book cover of Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings

Why this book?

A virtual encyclopedia of great Zen stories translated by Ferguson that takes the reader through twenty-five generations of Chinese Zen ancestors with commentary that paints a rich picture of the background. 

Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger

By Martha Byrd,

Book cover of Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger

Why this book?

Like the Tigers themselves, their granite-faced commander was much glorified during the war and afterward, but he was a man with flaws. Claire Chennault lied about his age, among other things, and it wasn’t until Martha Byrd thought to examine the family bible that the record was corrected. Hers is the only reliable biography of the man who forged the fighter group that defended Burma and China in the early days of the Pacific War.

Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942

By Daniel Ford,

Book cover of Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942

Why this book?

In my bookshelf alone I count eight unit histories of the American Volunteer Group, the storied band of American pilots and technicians who fought for China in the first seven months of America’s involvement in World War II. I’m sure there are more. But when I need to check a fact about the AVG, the first book I turn to is Daniel Ford’s 1991 work. Ford was the first author to research Japanese sources to tell the full story of the Flying Tigers, and for that he was roundly criticized by AVG veterans who felt he had denigrated them by revealing that Japanese records did not support all of the AVG claims of combat success. In my view, however, the important contribution of the AVG was not the number of enemy planes its pilots did or didn’t shoot down but instead was the morale boost its successes gave to an American public otherwise shocked and discouraged by the advances of Axis forces across the globe during the first half of 1942.

Into the Teeth of the Tiger

By Donald S. Lopez,

Book cover of Into the Teeth of the Tiger

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 terrific storyteller, he goes beyond descriptions of exciting air battles to explain the emotional highs and lows he experienced as his personal successes and those of his fellow pilots in the air failed to blunt the major enemy offensive that was underway on the ground at that time.

Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945

By Barbara Wertheim Tuchman,

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

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.

The Three-Body Problem

By Liu Cixin, Ken Liu (translator),

Book cover of The Three-Body Problem

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. 

The Death of Woman Wang

By Jonathan D. Spence,

Book cover of The Death of Woman Wang

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 lover but reluctantly returned when abandoned by the lover. Her husband then murdered her. Woman Wang thus epitomized the verdict of her English contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, that life in the 17th century was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

June Fourth

By Jeremy Brown,

Book cover of June Fourth

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.

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

By Ezra F. Vogel,

Book cover of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

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.

Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959

By Jianglin Li, Susan Wilf (translator),

Book cover of Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959

Why this book?

For years, the Dalai Lama was courted by Beijing in efforts to incorporate Tibet into the new Chinese Communist State. Drawing on official Chinese documents and memoirs and interviews with Tibetan emigres, Li pulls together a dramatic account of the maneuverings, miscalculations, and events during a critical period that culminated in an uprising in Lhasa that was violently crushed by the People’ Liberation Army, leading to the dramatic flight of the Dalai Lama to India. The account provides fresh new light on a dramatic failure of Chinese policy whose consequences are felt to the present day.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

By Jung Chang,

Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Why this book?

I was so transfixed by Jung Chang’s saga of her family in the 1990s that when I finished it, I immediately went back to the beginning and read it all over again. We in the West seemed to know so little about China then, and here was this very human and readable account of a totally different world, itself going through a period of seismic changes—and how three generations of women coped with it all.  There’s a strong impression of the importance of family, and through these heart-rending personal sagas, we do also begin to get to know China. It’s a tale of survival, and despite many horrors, an uplifting one, thanks to the courage of these Daughters of China.

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

By Peter Hessler,

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

Why this book?

This is the second book by Peter Hessler that I have read (River Town was the first). Having visited China several times since the 1980s, when the country was first open to visitors from the West to my more recent trips, I have seen so much change. What I like about this book is how Hessler, a reporter who has lived and taught English in China, tries to describe and explain these changes.

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

By Simon Winchester,

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

Why this book?

I am delighted to recommend this book. Not only is it a fascinating true story, but it is also a page-turner. The story starts in 1937 when Joseph Needham, an English biochemist, falls in love with a Chinese student. He travels to China with her, where he begins a lifelong quest to document the scientific contributions of ancient China.

Life and Death in Shanghai

By Cheng Nien,

Book cover of Life and Death in Shanghai

Why this book?

I read this book when it was originally published in 1988, and I can still recall how I was blown away by the amazing first-hand account of a brave woman who became a target of China's cultural revolution. Nien Cheng, a fluent English speaker who worked for Shell in Shanghai under Mao, was placed under house arrest by Red Guards in 1966 before she was sent to prison. Despite torture, she refused to confess to being a British spy or to be “re-educated”. When she was released, she was told that her daughter had committed suicide. In fact, Meiping had been beaten to death by Maoist revolutionaries.

Border Town

By Shen Congwen, Jeffrey C. Kinkley (translator),

Book cover of Border Town

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 in Literature, he died before the announcement, and the prize – following the rule against awarding posthumously – went to another writer. 

The King of Trees

By Ah Cheng, Bonnie S. McDougall (translator),

Book cover of The King of Trees

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.

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

By Liao Yiwu,

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

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 people performed, the families they raised, many lost to famines, political purges, and massacres, and the persecutors they forgave, the conscience they wrestled with, their past, present, and future—these are the remarkable stories of ordinary Chinese people from 1949 to present in their raw, unvarnished form.

Love in a Fallen City

By Eileen Chang, Karen S. Kingsbury (translator),

Book cover of Love in a Fallen City

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. 

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

By Kevin Peraino,

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

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?

My Several Worlds

By Pearl S. Bucks,

Book cover of My Several Worlds

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 account of the major events such as the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Boxer Rebellion, and the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. The missionary work brought her to China in the first place, but in the end, she admitted failure in bringing God to China. Pearl S. Bucks was one of the brilliant minds of her time, and her book is incredibly relevant today. As one of the critical American chroniclers of China, she offered remarkable insights and objectivity, which could help readers understand why China is what it is today.

Two Kinds of Time

By Graham Peck,

Book cover of Two Kinds of Time

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 out in 1950, the Communists took over China a few months ago, and the Americans were in a hot debate, “Who lost China?” The valuable historical and political information Peck provided in this book offered a unique voice to answer the burning question. His opinion of China could be summarized by the book's title, which suggests that China was living in a different time from the outside world.

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

By Jan Wong,

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

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 was undergoing a sweeping change from Mao’s era to Deng’s era. It is a prelude to China's marching toward its economic prowess.

Country Driving

By Peter Hessler,

Book cover of Country Driving

Why this book?

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

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

By Lenora Chu,

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

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 the incompetent, and as a result, every student who successfully entered higher education was a fighter and survivor. Educational practices reveal the core value of a society. Chu raises an important question in an increasingly flattened world as to how to raise American kids to compete globally. 

Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

By Shih-Shan Henry Tsai,

Book cover of Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

Why this book?

My favorite Ming dynasty source. It is rich with details on the eunuch institution during the Ming dynasty including its supply chain— the parts of society and of the world where eunuchs were historically drawn. Described here, are the various agencies within the Beijing Forbidden City where Ming dynasty eunuchs worked: Carpentry, Palace Servants, Palace Foods, Royal Clothing, the Nursing Home, and others, including a Toilet Paper agency. Readers not only gain insights on the imperial palace’s operations, but also on the eunuch ranking system, the emperors’ policies concerning eunuchs, and the rise of powerful eunuchs in the Ming secret police (Eastern Depot) and in Ming diplomacy. The latter came to its apogee with Admiral Zheng He, himself a eunuch, leading the Ming fleet during seven world voyages.

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

By Louise Levathes,

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

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 which closely follows the life and works of Admiral Zheng He.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

By Leslie T. Chang,

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

Why this book?

A portrait of some of the millions of workers who toil in factories in southern China, most of whom are young women. They leave behind their families and work long hours for little money in boring, repetitive assembly line jobs, making mobile phones, toys, purses and other items for the rest of the world. The realities and challenges for the young women behind the goods we buy daily make this a compelling read.

Land of Big Numbers: Stories

By Te-Ping Chen,

Book cover of Land of Big Numbers: Stories

Why this book?

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

On China

By Henry Kissinger,

Book cover of On China

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.

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why

By Richard E. Nisbett,

Book cover of The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why

Why this book?

To understand China we must understand how its people think, and how the Chinese people think differently from Westerners. In this book, Nisbett not only presents the elements Westerners often overlook when studying East Asian culture but also details the psychological difference between Chinese and Americans. This is book is recommended to anyone who wishes to thoroughly comprehend Chinese and Chinese culture.

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

By Michael Wood,

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

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.

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

By Richard McGregor,

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

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.

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

By John Pompfret,

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

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.

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

By Jonathan Kaufman,

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

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 influence in China, and the other fade into history.

The Killing Wind: A Chinese County's Descent Into Madness During the Cultural Revolution

By Tan Hecheng, Guo Jian (translator), Stacy Mosher (translator)

Book cover of The Killing Wind: A Chinese County's Descent Into Madness During the Cultural Revolution

Why this book?

A searing account by a retired Chinese journalist of the impact of social unrest and factional clashes in a rural area of central Hunan province in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. Tan’s haunting account starts with his memories of passing through this area around the time the events he goes on to recount as a young journalist decades before. With research and investigation, he finds that the quiet but unsettling place he remembers witnessing was in fact consumed by murder and bloodshed. Some of these events he documents. A book that describes but does not judge, making its impact even more powerful.

Home Is Not Here

By Wang Gungwu,

Book cover of Home Is Not Here

Why this book?

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

China and Japan: Facing History

By Ezra F. Vogel,

Book cover of China and Japan: Facing History

Why this book?

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

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

By Sogyal Rinpoche,

Book cover of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Why this book?

A lot of people I spoke to in Britain and the US regarded thanatophobiathe fear of dyingas the right, proper, and ordinary human state. So it’s very comforting to read about our death culture through the eyes of someone who wasn’t raised that way. In TTBOLAD, the ‘western’ view of death is held up and examined as very much one of many ways to respond to itand while it’s certainly not healthy to ignore it until you’re dealing with grief or you’re dying yourself (ie. when you’re at your highest moment of trauma), with this book it becomes very clear, very quickly that it’s not the only option.

Tao of Sketching: The Complete Guide to Chinese Sketching Techniques

By Qu Lei Lei,

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

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 that cultural mindset, try Leilei’s books.

A Life in Chinese Art Essays in Honour of Michael Sullivan

By Shelagh Vainker,

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

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.

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

By Rana Mitter,

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

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.

Monkey King: Journey to the West

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

Book cover of Monkey King: Journey to the West

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 but there is something of the modern superhero stories about Journey to the West. 

Four Sisters of Hofei: A History

By Ann Ping Chin,

Book cover of Four Sisters of Hofei: A History

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.

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

By Michael C. Davis,

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

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 of how China reneged its promises and rolled back human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.

The World of Suzie Wong

By Richard Mason,

Book cover of The World of Suzie Wong

Why this book?

This story is so sweet and funny, I must have read it a dozen times since first arriving in China. That a Western male writer conceived a female Chinese character as charming and relatable as Suzie without ever straying into offensive farce really says something about the author, Richard Mason’s, craft. His prose is old-school eloquent, and deftly includes the smallest details that bring Suzie, a naughty yet affectionate hooker with a big heart, and her 1950s Hong Kong brothel settings, to vivid life. If I had only five desert-island books, The World of Suzie Wong would be one of them.

Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

By Colin Thubron,

Book cover of Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China

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.

Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

By Lynn Pan,

Book cover of Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

Why this book?

Lynn Pan, who was born in Shanghai before 1949 and then returned to live there early in the twenty-first century after spending time in many other parts of the world, is in many ways my single favorite Shanghainese writer. So, when I put together a list like this, the question is not whether a work by her will be on it, but rather which one of several excellent ones by her will make the cut. This volume is a beautifully produced one that complements Champions Day nicely, focusing on similar themes but coming at them via a focus on architecture and creativity. It is a book for those fascinated by Shanghai, for obvious reasons, but like a lot of books on the city’s past, it is also intriguing to read by those who have been fascinated by Hong Kong’s cultural and creative vibrancy and have been following the news about the way it is now being threatened. That city, which was one where Pan spent time between her two periods living in Shanghai, is also one where the mixing of cultural traditions led to the emergence of a very special style—a style that could only flourish for a time but has left a complex lasting legacy.

Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

By Jie Li,

Book cover of Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

Why this book?

At this point in a list, it isn’t bad to note connections between works, so I’ll begin with those. This is the only book other than Champions Day that is by an academic, but Li, like Carter, is one who knows how to write for general audiences in a compelling and accessible way. Hers is another book, like Zia’s, that is partly an effort to reconstruct the history of the author’s own family, as key figures in this author’s reconstruction of the changing (and enduring) rhythms of life in a Shanghai neighborhood in the 1950s and beyond are relatives she interviewed. There is also a tie to Lynn Pan’s work, in the sense that Li has moved between different parts of the world in her life. All this said, Shanghai Homes is a unique work that reminds me of the best ethnographically minded studies of connections between people and patterns of quotidian existence I’ve read about any time and place. There is also a charming use of photographs.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey,

Book cover of The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

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.

The Art of Chinese Poetry

By James J. Y. Liu,

Book cover of The Art of Chinese Poetry

Why this book?

How does the Chinese language, with all its linguistic idiosyncrasies, including its structure, implications, and associations of words, auditory effects, and grammatical aspects, serve as a medium of poetic expression? What are some of the traditional Chinese views on poetry? How should one understand Chinese poetry as a way to explore worlds and language per se, its imagery and symbolism, its allusions, quotations and derivations, and its natural tendency towards antithesis? Published nearly six decades ago, this book has not been superseded and, in fact, has become an indispensable classic for the English-speaking reader.

Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

By Richard E. Strassberg,

Book cover of Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

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.

Tea Horse Road: China's Ancient Trade Road to Tibet

By Michael Freeman, Selena Ahmed,

Book cover of Tea Horse Road: China's Ancient Trade Road to Tibet

Why this book?

This hefty tome is a dream book for anyone fascinated, as I am, by the ancient trade road, dating back to the 7th century AD and stretching over 1000 miles, along which tea was carried on the backs of pack animals from southwest China up to Lhasa, where it was traded for Tibetan ponies. Freeman’s wonderful photographs and Ahmad’s text capture and explain the life of the villagers in the famous tea mountains of southern Yunnan, where tea trees live up to 3,000 years; the rituals of the Buddhist priests in their temples; the different ethnic peoples that live in the remote regions along the road; the ceremonies that take place to honour the ancient tea trees, and views of the landscape where rivers wind, yaks graze, and life revolves around tea.

City of Broken Promises

By Austin Coates,

Book cover of City of Broken Promises

Why this book?

This book has stayed in my memory even though I read it many years ago. Subtle in the telling, this novel is one that drills into your soul. Set in 18th century Macau (then a Portuguese enclave), it is a story of forbidden interracial love, prejudices, and intrigue surrounding a British trader surnamed Mierop and a Chinese orphan named Marta da Silva, based on true events. The author got his inspiration for the novel when he saw a portrait of a Chinese lady, Marta Mierop, in a Macau museum. In the story as well as in real life, Marta rose from her humble and wretched childhood to become a legend and one of the most influential women in Macau.

I love this novel for the impeccable setting, the moving plot, and the larger-than-life protagonist.

Wolf Totem

By Jiang Rong, Howard Goldblatt (translator),

Book cover of Wolf Totem

Why this book?

Rong’s Wolf Totem is not a typical Cultural Revolution book, and its focus is on relationships between humans and the wildlife of the grasslands. The protagonist is an urban youth, who’s a Han (the majority ethnic group in China), sent to inner Mongolia for “reeducation.” While trying to raise a wolf cub captured from the wild, he encounters a cultural clash between the Han Chinese and the locals, learns about the wolf and other wildlife, and reflects on history, nature, and humanity. 

The Last Quarter of the Moon

By Chi Zijian, Bruce Humes (translator),

Book cover of The Last Quarter of the Moon

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 tone.

I love the novel for the rich imagery of nature and the human interaction humming underneath.

The Rice Sprout Song

By Eileen Chang,

Book cover of The Rice Sprout Song

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.

China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

By Nick Holdstock,

Book cover of China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

Why this book?

This book provides the most accessible account of the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the native peoples of Xinjiang. Holdstock draws on his own experience living in Xinjiang to show how the CCP’s failure to recognize the genuine grievances of the native peoples of the region helped to drive the terrorism problem that the CCP claims to be addressing today through its genocidal policies.

Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uyghur Community in Xinjiang China

By Jay Dautcher,

Book cover of Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uyghur Community in Xinjiang China

Why this book?

This book is an ethnographic account of Uyghur suburban life in the mid-1990s, which might sound very far removed from the political and humanitarian crisis going on in the region today. Yet the portrait it offers of Uyghur family life, market trading, informal socializing, and forms of religious devotion has arguably never been more important, given that the Chinese state has been targeting precisely these benign, everyday practices and beliefs in recent years by separating children from their parents, sending officials to live with Uyghur families, and destroying traditional Uyghur homes. Reading it is an immersive, often funny, experience, which should make people understand the consequences of the state-sponsored violence these communities have been subjected to.

Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang

By Tom Cliff,

Book cover of Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang

Why this book?

Since 1949 the demographics of Xinjiang have been altered radically by waves of migration of Han Chinese, initially with the paramilitary bingtuan organisation, but in recent decades by economic migrants. Cliff’s book is an important reminder of how their presence functions in a neo-colonial fashion, and the influence that their needs and concerns have on official policy in the region – which to put it simplistically, is to keep them happy. Though he emphasises that Han in Xinjiang are far from a homogenous social group – something that often gets forgotten or obscured – the common viewpoints and concerns that emerge from his interviews are a sobering reminder of the difficulties in finding common ground between Han and Uyghur in the region.

The War on the Uyghurs: China's Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority

By Sean R. Roberts,

Book cover of The War on the Uyghurs: China's Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority

Why this book?

Roberts is one of the foremost authorities on the ‘terrorism’ issue in Xinjiang. The strong argument of this book is that the Chinese government has opportunistically used the US-led War on Terror as an excuse to repress all forms of dissent in the region by grossly exaggerating the threats they faced, which eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In his view, the concentration camps, destruction of mosques, attacks on Uyghur intellectuals, and attempts to marginalise the Uyghur language amount to a ‘cultural genocide’. The book provides a concise and forceful recapitulation of Chinese policy in the region over the last two decades.

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

By Ian Johnson,

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

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 in Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.

A New History of Christianity in China

By Daniel H. Bays,

Book cover of A New History of Christianity in China

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 grounded in China’s unique religious history.

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

By Xi Lian,

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

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.

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

By Ryan Dunch,

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

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 my grandparents and I discovered on the pages of this book that in 1927, an anti-foreign mob attacked the Rev. Lin Pu-chi—a fact unknown to my family. That event was the key to deciphering the psyche of my grandfather.

The Call

By John Hersey,

Book cover of The Call

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 1900s to the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s.  

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

By Yuen Yung Lun, Charles Friedrich Neumann (translator),

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

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 the ur-document on which every western account of these pirates is based. Newer editions include an eyewitness narrative by a British sailor who spent six months as a captive of the pirates. Essential and entertaining reading which should be taken with large pinches of (pilfered) salt.

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

By Maurice Meisner,

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

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.

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

By Yang Songlin, Baohui Xie (translator),

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

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.

Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

By Christian Sorace (editor), Ivan Franceschini (editor), Nicholas Loubere (editor)

Book cover of Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

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

A Dictionary of Maqiao

By Han Shaogong, Julia Lovell (translator),

Book cover of A Dictionary of Maqiao

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.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

By Lisa See,

Book cover of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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. I wish there were more novels about the secret language!

The Sand Pebbles

By Richard McKenna,

Book cover of The Sand Pebbles

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 18 and was assigned to the “China fleet,” patrolling largely between Guam, Okinawa, and Japan. He served through World War II and the Korean War. After finally retiring, he went to school on the GI Bill and started to write. His first and only novel was The Sand Pebbles, which turned out to be a bestseller and a critical triumph.

The story was inspired by tales he’d heard from veteran sailors concerning the gunboats of the 1920s that patrolled the rivers of China, enforcing unfair foreign claims on Chinese sovereignty. The protagonist was Jake Holman, a poor boy from Grover, Utah who became a respected member of the “black gang” operating the steam engines powering the ships of the time. His unlikely love interest was Shirley Eckert, a Christian missionary to China. But unrest was growing and China was changing, explosively, rejecting foreign rule.  The members of the crew of the San Pablo (AKA the Sand Pebbles) engaged in danger and battle and conflict.

The book was purchased by Hollywood to be made into a major motion picture starring Steve McQueen as Jake Holman and the luminous 19-year-old Candice Bergen as Shirley Eckert. After so many years of serving his country and collecting great military stories to share with the world, Richard McKenna passed away in 1965, a few months before The Sand Pebbles was released in theaters in 1966.

Accidental State: Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan

By Hsiao-ting Lin,

Book cover of Accidental State: Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan

Why this book?

How did Taiwan become the country it is today, how did it become the Republic of China? Hsiao-ting Lin, a leading Taiwanese historian and an archivist at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, convincingly argues that the Nationalist state in Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek came about in large part from happenstance. The book draws on both English- and Chinese-language archival materials, including newly released official files and personal papers to explain what happened to Taiwan in the crucial years following World War II; it also examines what didn’t happen but might have, such as the island being placed under temporary American trusteeship. Accidental State is unbiased and nuanced history, and packed with fun but intelligent counterfactual nuggets.

Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia

By George Crane,

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

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 slab. The journey is full of wonderful moments as these two very different personalities interact, George usually the butt of Tsung Tsai’s humour. One of the book’s secrets: always travel with a friend.

Longevity Park

By Zhou Daxin,

Book cover of Longevity Park

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 other concerns. Zhou’s novel also eloquently describes the many hurdles facing healthcare providers.

The Dynamics of Chinese Politics

By Lucian Pye,

Book cover of The Dynamics of Chinese Politics

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.

The Changing Legal Orders in Hong Kong and Mainland China: Essays on "One Country, Two Systems"

By Albert H. Y. Chen,

Book cover of The Changing Legal Orders in Hong Kong and Mainland China: Essays on "One Country, Two Systems"

Why this book?

Hong Kong, as a Special Administrative Region operating a separate system than the one in Mainland China, is a pragmatic innovation of the CCP. The author is from Hong Kong and is a law professor. His scholarship on China’s constitutional history and issues is second to none. This collection of essays reveal how the CCP created a unique entity for post-colonial Hong Kong.

China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation

By Karl Gerth,

Book cover of China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation

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.

Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History

By James A. Benn,

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

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.

The Social Life of Opium in China

By Zheng Yangwen,

Book cover of The Social Life of Opium in China

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.

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

By Robert Gardella,

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

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!

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

By Elizabeth Hope Chang,

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

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.

Intoxicating Manchuria: Alcohol, Opium, and Culture in China's Northeast

By Norman Smith,

Book cover of Intoxicating Manchuria: Alcohol, Opium, and Culture in China's Northeast

Why this book?

This excellent book illuminates the culture of intoxicants in northeast China under Japanese occupation. Smith examines Chinese literature, advertisements, and popular culture to show how liquor and opium were depicted in contemporaneous mass media and impacted local urban communities. He also investigates how popular conceptions of "health" tied in with programs initiated by the Japanese authorities to control local populations, while advertisers of patent medicines, cordials, and tonics also picked up on these themes. Some of the highlights of Intoxicating Manchuria include masterfully vivid descriptions and illustrations of cartoons revealing the uneasy relationship between law enforcement, retailers, public health practitioners, and corporations.

Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production

By Annika A. Culver (editor), Norman Smith (editor),

Book cover of Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production

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 by one of Manchukuo's last living writers.


By Quincy Carroll,

Book cover of Unwelcome

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 gain the distance and objectivity to pen the narrative at all, much less with such skill. We sense that the fictional bulwark is resorted to as a defense against the author’s merciless deconstruction of himself, right down to the sexually fraught, agonizingly ambiguous ending. This is not a feel-good redemption tale but a disturbing airing of personal laundry of epic proportions, and that’s the kind of original writing I admire and respect.

Mao's Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China

By Covell F. Meyskens,

Book cover of Mao's Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China

Why this book?

Mao's Third Front is one of the first books on life and the economy in the PRC of the Cultural Revolution that marries archival research to memoirs and oral history. Largely unknown outside of China, the Third Front was a strategic relocation program of vital industries and whole cities to the country’s hinterland during the 2nd Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution. It essentially amounted to the largest government investment program in the Mao period. Meyskens’s book manifestly shows how closely the global Cold War and local developments interacted with each other.

Humanism in China:A Contemporary Record of Photography

By Huangsheng Wang (editor), Ge An (editor), Wugong Hu (editor)

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

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 media, even the anal inspection of army recruits. Never before and rarely since, particularly in the last few years, has such a daring serving of so many slices of life been served. This important book is a reminder that despite the limitations of China’s state media and the much denigrated Western coverage of the country millions of talented eyewitnesses are out there keeping a record. I look forward to many such books in the future.

Visions of China: Photographs, 1957-1980

By Marc Riboud,

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

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.

From One China to the Other

By Henri Cartier-Bresson,

Book cover of From One China to the Other

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.

China after Mao: Seek Truth From Facts

By Liu Heung Shing,

Book cover of China after Mao: Seek Truth From Facts

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 cover more than his hosts were quite ready to show ethnic Chinese foreign journalists found it near impossible to gain accreditation for many years afterwards.

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

By Yingcong Dai,

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

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 revolt that threatened to upend the Qing imperial state (1644-1911). As a specialist on Chinese warfare and imperial governance, the author pulls back the curtain on a rarely told tale that brings turn-of-the-18th-century China to life.

The Origins of the Boxer Uprising

By Joseph W. Esherick,

Book cover of The Origins of the Boxer Uprising

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 of the Boxer’s fantastical religious impulses and harsh social context. In this way, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising rich and vivid telling of the Boxer’s “Society of Harmony and Justice” is as exciting today as the day it was published.


By Hiroji Kubota,

Book cover of China

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 opened a window to the beauty of this vast country that had been off-limits to the rest of the world for more than half a century.


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

Book cover of China

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.

China in Ten Words

By Yu Hua, Allan H. Barr (translator),

Book cover of China in Ten Words

Why this book?

Culture is how we group ourselves. Culture is how we see. To make ourselves understood by people of other cultures, we have to lend them our eyes. That’s hard, but Yu Hua meets that challenge for me. His book China in Ten Words offers ten essays about China, each with a one-word title: Revolution. Reading. Copycat. Words like that. Each essay surrounds its title-word with content until one understands what the word means, not to oneself, but to Hua. The essays work like a fusion of memoir and history. They draw the reader into one man’s experience; and at the same time they illuminate a broad patch of history—Maoist and post-Maoist China.

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

By John M. Friend, Bradley A. Thayer,

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

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.

Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods

By Amelia Pang,

Book cover of Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America's Cheap Goods

Why this book?

In this book, Amelia Pang examines all aspects of China’s system of forced labor, which she explains has recently been deployed as a tool in the Uyghur genocide but has existed long before the genocide began. Importantly, she explains how Western consumers are complicit in Chinese forced labor through their choices to purchase the cheap goods that this system produces.

China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia

By Peter C. Perdue,

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

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.

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

By Rana Mitter,

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

Why this book?

In my opinion, you cannot fully understand the Pacific War without grasping the tragedy of the undeclared Sino-Japanese War which preceded Pearl Harbor by virtually four and a half years. Remarkably, however, the story is not well known. It’s often passed over as if it was of hardly any consequence at all. Far from being a minor item on the road to war, however, China’s horrendous struggle with Japan is pivotal because it managed to suck in arguably the best troops of the Imperial Japanese Army and kept them fighting throughout the duration of the Pacific War. This ensured that they couldn’t be released to go elsewhere because China refused to give in. Mitter’s excellent book reveals why this dramatic fight for survival influenced Chinese leaders both then and now.

Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China

By Tiantian Zheng,

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

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 socioeconomic conditions in China.

Northern Girls

By Keyi Sheng,

Book cover of Northern Girls

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 alongside Lijia Zhang’s Lotus (an acclaimed yet in my opinion far less fun read) also on sex workers in modern China.

Whispers and Moans: Interviews with the Men and Women of Hong Kong's Sex Industry

By Yeeshan Yang,

Book cover of Whispers and Moans: Interviews with the Men and Women of Hong Kong's Sex Industry

Why this book?

The definitive sociological examination of prostitution in contemporary Hong Kong, Yeeshan Yang spent one year – out of plain curiosity – alongside the city’s sex workers, listening to their stories of how they arrived there, how they spend their days/nights, and what becomes of them when they leave the trade. These humanizing case studies provide separate yet occasionally intersecting profiles of female streetwalkers and club hostesses, as well as male prossies and pimps, and their sometimes sad, sometimes funny, tales of the world’s oldest profession in the Orient. Whispers and Moans was also adapted (by Yang) into a 2007 film by the famed Cat-III Hong Kong director Herman Yau.

Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom

By Carl Crow,

Book cover of Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom

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 as a historical account of that era’s high society expatriates, it is fascinating.

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

By Graham Earnshaw,

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

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.

And The City Swallowed Them

By Mara Hvistendahl,

Book cover of And The City Swallowed Them

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 country’s opaque justice system.


By Mian Mian, Andrea Lingenfelter (translator),

Book cover of Candy

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, so much so that I invited Mian Mian to write the afterword to my own book.

Red Azalea

By Anchee Min,

Book cover of Red Azalea

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 yet another forbidden relationship, with one of Mao’s advisers. Min published seven subsequent books, all to critical acclaim, but Red Azalea is her at her most fearless.

Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

By Mike Davis,

Book cover of Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

Why this book?

This book is best known for its controversial argument that not only did British imperial policies worsen the droughts-famines-epidemics that devastated India from 1876 to 1878 but that Victorian policy-makers could have intervened to save millions of lives but refrained. Yet Davis also provides a wrenching account of Brazilian droughts in 1876-79 and 1896-1900 that left millions dead, particularly in the Sertão, the northeastern hinterland. He shows the connections between climate (El Niño), economic transformations, and mass displacements, and starvation in Brazil, and how European empires, the United States, and Japan took advantage of these crises. 

Some readers will appreciate his polemical style, others not; Davis, however, is a fantastic writer and presents a nuanced and well-researched depiction of famine in Brazil. 

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

By Jung Chang,

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

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 that religion trumped race and that Christian identities and faith helped them open doors to dominant society that remained closed to most Chinese of the era. 

World History and National Identity in China

By Xin Fan,

Book cover of World History and National Identity in China

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 their cross-cultural competencies to counter nationalist historical narratives.

The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

By Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka,

Book cover of The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

Why this book?

This skillful history links politics, economics, and military concerns to the development of Japan’s empire in Manchuria. Beginning with the end of the Russo-Japanese War and concluding with the takeover of Manchuria from 1931, Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka shows how Manchuria remained a looming presence within Japanese political life. More strikingly, he argues against the idea that Japanese imperialism in the 1930s represented a radical break from the past. Far from it, he shows the construction of Manchukuo and Japanese foreign policy “as the denouement of an older story as much as the beginning of a new.”  

An Excess Male

By Maggie Shen King,

Book cover of An Excess Male

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 addictive story.

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

By Keith McMahon,

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

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 as major dynastic transitions.

Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989

By Bruce A. Elleman,

Book cover of Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989

Why this book?

Outsiders do not grasp the frequency let alone the magnitude of the civil and foreign wars that ravaged China well into the Maoist era. Sometimes China was the aggressor and sometimes the victim and, in its many civil wars, the Chinese government was always brutal. Concise chapters describe each conflict.

Sino-Russian Relations

By Rosemary Ouested,

Book cover of Sino-Russian Relations

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.

Great State: China and the World

By Timothy Brook,

Book cover of Great State: China and the World

Why this book?

A great place to start to understand the long history of connections between East Asia and the rest of the world. Thirteen chapters take the reader from the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century up to the end of the Second World War. Each follows a particular person and their encounters with peoples of Inner and Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. They show how many things that historians have assumed to be ‘Chinese’ were borrowed from foreigners. Even the idea of the Great State, the framework through which later Chinese emperors used to describe their realm was taken from the Mongols. They also allow us to remember the ‘messiness’ of history with pioneers and villains on all sides.

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

By Jessica Hanser,

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

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 trade with China and it was the ‘free traders’ taking inspiration from people like the economist Adam Smith back in London, who upset the relations and created the conditions for the nineteenth-century Opium War.

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

By Orville Schell, John Delury,

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

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 could be described as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ to an era in which its ‘strength and power’ unsettled the world.

Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal

By Patrick Fuliang Shan,

Book cover of Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal

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 transition. Although the book focuses too much on trying to decide whether Yuan was a good or bad person, it does what it promises and ‘reappraises’ an important life.

Bronze and Sunflower

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So (illustrator),

Book cover of Bronze and Sunflower

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 is a translated text, so there is a sense that this is authentic.

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

By Na Liu, Andrés Vera Martínez (illustrator),

Book cover of Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

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 tales of Lei Feng, Na and her friend perform many acts of kindness, but their attempt to “save” some baby chicks ends badly.

Most poignant of all is the story of Na’s trip to visit her grandmother in the countryside, where Na comes face to face with profound social inequity. The great divide between urban and rural life (seen also in Bronze and Sunflower and Moth and Wasp) separates Na from her cousins, but sadly, there is no one like Bronze or Pu Zhelong to help Na bridge the gap. Illustrated by the author’s husband, the book offers an intimate and bittersweet portrait of Na Liu’s childhood in China. 

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

By Xinran,

Book cover of The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

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.

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

By Leta Hong Fincher,

Book cover of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

Why this book?

This book by the leading expert on China’s feminist movement speaks to the modern-day realities of women in China – where the promise of the Communist revolution to deliver gender equality has been betrayed. Today’s women in China have experienced a dramatic rollback of the rights and gains they achieved early on. The structural discrimination against women in all sectors, from politics to business to relationships, is not easily overturned.

Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism

By Lama Anagarika Govinda,

Book cover of Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism

Why this book?

In the preface, Govinda explains: Anticipating the future, Tomo Geshe Rinpoche, one of the greatest spiritual teachers of modern Tibet and a real master of inner vision, left his remote mountain hermitage ... and proclaimed that the time had come to open to the world the spiritual treasures which had been hidden and preserved in Tibet for more than a thousand years. Because humanity stands at the crossroads of great decisions: before it lies the Path of Power ... leading to enslavement and self-destruction – and the Path of Enlightenment ... leading to liberation and self-realization.

This deeply spiritual book takes the reader through the Tibetan mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum in a way that gives true meaning to what it really is to be human.

The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State

By James F. Warren,

Book cover of The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State

Why this book?

This book explains how a powerful sultanate located on an archipel in the South China Sea maintained its independence until the very end of the nineteenth century. Being the centre of a ferocious slave-raiding network, it played a pivotal role in supplying the slave labour for commodity production both for China and the West. Warren’s book links an upsurge of slave raiding in Southeast Asia at the end of the eighteenth century with imperial expansion of the West and the economic resurrection of China. It questions the dominant perception that piracy and slavery in Asia were antithetical to economic growth.

I find Warren’s thesis tremendously valuable to understand processes of globalisation and a source of inspiration for my own research and teaching on slavery in the Indonesian archipelago in the nineteenth century. It also opened my eyes to the fact that the upsurge of slave-raiding was fed by illicit arms sales by traders from Europe.

Harvest Season

By Chris Taylor,

Book cover of Harvest Season

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 archetypal significance, so that the novel transcends mere reportage dressed up as fiction for the sake of anonymity. It also makes a good companion piece to Carroll’s Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

Party Members

By Arthur Meursault,

Book cover of Party Members

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 inside. To be fair, China is evolving out of the nasty pre-2008 Olympics era Meursault is documenting and this is after all satire. But the novel is not only very funny, it’s required reading precisely due to its pariah status.


By Wu Cheng’en, Arthur Waley (translator),

Book cover of Monkey

Why this book?

I’ve always been fascinated by the ways writers can transmute real-life events into art. Dante was indirectly doing this when he turned his life of exile into his underworld journey, but Wu Cheng’en’s 1592 novel is actually based on the travel account of a seventh-century monk, Master Xuanzang, who’d journeyed to “the West” -- India -- in search of Buddhist texts. In Wu’s imaginative vision, the monk has to surmount 81 dangers on the way, aided by a river ogee, a talking horse, and a mischievous, irascible monkey named Sun Wukong, “Monkey Enlightened to Emptiness”. Who knew that enlightenment could be so lively?

The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations

By Zhu Xiao-Mei, Ellen Hinsey (translator),

Book cover of The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations

Why this book?

Zhu Xiao-Mei was born to middle-class parents in post-war China. Taught to play the piano by her mother at age 10, she developed into a prodigy.

But in 1966, when Xiao-Mei was seventeen, the Cultural Revolution began, and life as she knew it changed forever. One by one, her family members were scattered, sentenced to prison or labor camps. By 1969, the art schools had closed, and Xiao-Mei spent the next five years at a work camp. Life in the camp was nearly unbearable, thanks to horrific living conditions and intensive brainwashing. Yet through it all, Xiao-Mei clung to her passion for music.

Heartbreaking and heartwarming, The Secret Piano is the true story of one woman’s survival in the face of unbelievable odds—and in pursuit of a powerful dream.

Mommy, Buy Me a China Doll

By Harve Zemach, Margot Zemach,

Book cover of Mommy, Buy Me a China Doll

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.   

Dangerous Friend: The Teacher-Student Relationship in Vajrayana Buddhism

By Rig'dzin Dorje,

Book cover of Dangerous Friend: The Teacher-Student Relationship in Vajrayana Buddhism

Why this book?

Dangerous Friend is an Eastern wake-up call for Western ‘seekers’ and ’would-be spiritual teachers’. Drawing from Vajrayana teachers, Rig’dzin Dorje clarifies betrayal is a “final portal of freedom…in which we are able to question…our narcissistic determination to maintain the illusion of duality.” As a transpersonal psychologist, I’ve noticed sometimes Western seekers who hunger for enlightenment imagine devotion to their Spiritual Teacher will give them a ticket to ride a wave of bliss into nirvana.

A teacher must betray a student’s fantasies, attachments, and delusions, (including those about their teacher), in favor of devotion to the teachings. Despite a desire to have others be accountable to us, and responsible for us, this book confirms the necessity to cultivate Self-compassion and awareness—and to turn inward for liberation.

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

By Rush Doshi,

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

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. 

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

By Clyde Prestowitz,

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

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. 

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

By Peter Martin,

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

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 and tourism and in one case the beating up of Taiwanese diplomats. 

China and Africa: The New Era

By Daniel Large,

Book cover of China and Africa: The New Era

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. 

Magic and Mystery in Tibet

By Madame Alexandra David-Neel,

Book cover of Magic and Mystery in Tibet

Why this book?

Looking around me as a young man I found a grey world that had been stripped of all its glory and fabulousness by the exploitation and utilitarianism of human beings. 

Alexandra David-Neel was an amazing explorer. She was the first European woman to meet the Dalai Lama and in 1924 became the first to enter the forbidden Tibetan capital, Lhasa. She had already spent a decade travelling through China, living in a cave on the Tibetan border, where she learned about Buddhism from hermits, mystics, and bandits. 

She describes in this book how these people learnt such seemingly impossible skills such as telepathy, defying gravity, running for days without food or drink or sleep, and surviving with hardly any clothes in the subzero Himalayan blizzards. 

This magical world vanished when the Chinese invaded in 1947. 

To think that this miraculous way of life existed in the same century as me on the same planet! This was not a fantasy, this was real. It was inspiring. It offered hope that another way of life was possible. 

I haven't recommended any other book in my life as much as this one.

The Chinese Economy: Adaptation and Growth

By Barry J. Naughton,

Book cover of The Chinese Economy: Adaptation and Growth

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 year called The Rise of China’s Industrial Policy. It’s also very topical and pertinent to contemporary China discussion.

The World According to China

By Elizabeth C. Economy,

Book cover of The World According to China

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 Belt and Road, to support China’s narratives. 

How Xi intends to do this, whether he is likely to succeed and how the United States and the international community should respond and prepare for the challenge ahead will hold your attention to the last page.

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

By Clive Hamilton, Mareike Ohlberg,

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

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 of claims, and while some may be more soundly based than others, readers should look at the themes in the round and will learn a lot of what they might not have suspected r read about before.

The Empty Pot

By Demi,

Book cover of The Empty Pot

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.

Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up

By Xiaolu Guo,

Book cover of Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up

Why this book?

The great Chinese British powerhouse writes about her childhood in a poor coastal village in post-Mao’s China where she’s made to live with her grandparents and life is rough and hard, especially for a girl. It’s a very atmospheric tale, that paints a vivid picture of this incredible society. It’s also a Cinderella story, about a suffering child that, thanks to incredible stubbornness and stamina, rises up to become one of the twelve (out of a million or so) applicants that are accepted into the Chinese Film School in Beijing each year. She later moves to England and her descriptions of the west are super fresh and priceless.

The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

By Elizabeth C. Economy,

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

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” sets the stage for how and why Xi Jinping is a serious adversary with his sights set on dominating the world.

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

By Simon Elegant,

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

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 out of control in war but also the peace and solitude of a mountain retreat.

The Deer and The Cauldron: The First Book

By Louis Cha, John Minford (translator),

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

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 China was sitting at the tea house inside Hong Kong’s Peninsula hotel and spending the day reading this book and munching on dim sum. If I’d stepped out and been hit by a bus, I would have died a happy monk.

The Lacquer Screen: A Chinese Detective Story

By Robert Van Gulik,

Book cover of The Lacquer Screen: A Chinese Detective Story

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 the series. Heaven for someone like me who loves what China used to be.

Further News of Defeat: Stories

By Michael X. Wang,

Book cover of Further News of Defeat: Stories

Why this book?

I cannot think of a more perfect title for Michael Wang’s Further News of Defeat. Imminent loss haunts the edges of each story, ready to pounce on Wang’s indelible characters. In America, we’re often uncomfortable with this kind of storytelling. We prefer our characters to be redeemed, to either prevail over calamity or to fail due to their own weaknesses. Wang’s characters are both at the mercy of outside events and circumstances and participants in their own fates. Most of the stories are set in fictional cities and rural villages in China. War, regime and societal changes, poverty, immigration, and identity are running themes. Several of these stories are so gripping I could imagine them as longer works. Further News of Defeat is a beautifully rendered and well-researched book. 

The Chinese Confessions of Charles Welsh Mason

By Charles Welsh Mason,

Book cover of The Chinese Confessions of Charles Welsh Mason

Why this book?

Charles Welsh Mason, self-described “unconscious martyr of the Antichrist,” for reasons the author himself is only able to ascribe to a “morbid hallucination,” gives up his post, servants, and comfortable life as a young English customs officer in a treaty port in 1890s China for a bizarre plot to lead a band of Chinese rebels to overthrow the Manchu Government and declare himself “King of China.” The scheme unravels when he’s caught with a hoard of illegal arms. Almost unbearable suspense unfolds, masterfully narrated, as the authorities struggle to connect the dots. Even after his arrest Mason is wined and dined by his British superiors in Shanghai, incomprehension preventing their full appreciation of his mad plot. Finally imprisoned, Mason is shipped back to England to live out his remaining decades as a solitary eccentric. I do not recall any book set in China’s past or present, whether fiction or nonfiction, which builds up dramatic tension as this memoir does.

Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Prison in Modern China

By Robert H. Davies,

Book cover of Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Prison in Modern China

Why this book?

Xinjiang Province was a very different place mere decades ago when it was China’s Wild West and all kinds of foreign characters were drawn to the region like a magnet. Englishman Robert Davies ran bars and tourism ventures and married an Uyghur woman, a love affair passionately recounted in his memoir, before being arrested for hashish smuggling on trumped-up charges (a drug native to the Uyghurs, who openly sold it in Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing as late as the 1990s) and sent to a Shanghai prison for eight years. Davies and those busted with him were the first such group of foreigners to be made an example of (and survive with mind intact). His account is highly readable, chock full of vivid detail, and an excellent general introduction to Chinese culture and society of the 1980s—from within the belly of the beast. I was most impressed by Davies’ fearless embrace of the culture in his taboo love affair with a Uyghur and his illegal hashish running: you can’t get deeper into the local scene than that.

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

By Susan Blumberg-Kason,

Book cover of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

Why this book?

Absorbed by Chinese culture while a grad student in Hong Kong, Susan Blumberg-Kason is charmed into marriage with Cai, a PhD student of Taoist music from the Hubei Province backwater. Marital discord arises when the openhearted Midwesterner realizes her function as a wife is to produce a son, turn it over to his (not her) parents for upbringing, and get out of the way so the husband can carry on with his philandering and porn watching. But even as he molts his intellectual shell and his narcissistic monster emerges, Cai can also be sympathetically understood as a product of his culture. Intercultural conflict is what makes this fairy tale so readable and engrossing, with its timeless theme of the loving sweetheart enthralled and entrapped in her dark prince's perverted castle. What moved me most was Blumberg-Kason’s honesty in laying everything bare, at the risk of baring her own flaws.

The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man's Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942

By Henrietta Harrison,

Book cover of The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man's Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942

Why this book?

This beautifully written book gives a picture of the life and times of one ordinary man. Unusually, he maintained a daily diary throughout his entire life, which was mostly lived in a remote—but certainly not isolated—village. Harrison highlights the tumultuous political, social, and economic changes China was undergoing through the lens of a man who lived from the Qing Empire through the 1911 Revolution and the warlord era and into the rise of the Communist movement.

Rickshaw Beijing: City People & Politics in the 1920s

By David Strand,

Book cover of Rickshaw Beijing: City People & Politics in the 1920s

Why this book?

Another beautifully written book, this one about how Beijing residents of all backgrounds found their identities in a tumultuously changing environment and how they fought with and against each other for political agency. Readers see into the lives of policemen, rickshaw-pullers, tram conductors, and the middle classes. It reminds me of how history is made brick by individual brick.

History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

By Paul Cohen,

Book cover of History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

Why this book?

This book is by a man who has done as much as anyone to shape how historians approach the study of modern China. Here he not only looks at the rise and fall of the infamous Boxers (1898-1900) but also what the Boxer movement felt like to its various participants at the time, and finally the many strikingly different ways (myths) later generations have understood the Boxers. I learned how to better think about history from this book.

The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures

By Justin M. Jacobs,

Book cover of The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures

Why this book?

A good deal is known about the Westerners who dug up ancient artifacts in Central Asia (China’s Far West) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not least because these explorers were great self-promoters. This book tells the story from the Chinese side, and it is a lot more interesting and complicated than you might expect. It is only with the birth of Chinese nationalism that the tens of thousands of artifacts now found in the museums and collections of the West came to be defined as Chinese and their loss defined as imperialist looting. By academic standards, this book is a page-turner.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution

By Jonathan D. Spence,

Book cover of The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution

Why this book?

Recreating the experience of a variety of Chinese literary figures whose lives collectively spanned most of the 20th century, Jonathan Spence helps his reader to understand how and why individuals from across the political spectrum were drawn to the goal of recreating a strong and unified China, and were willing to sacrifice themselves—and fight against each other—in its pursuit. A cultural rather than a political history, we nonetheless begin to understand the power that politics has to shape lives and constrain the possibilities open to individuals, especially during times of significant upheaval. 

Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

By Philip A. Kuhn,

Book cover of Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

Why this book?

Set in the heyday of Qing glory—or some might say at the beginning of its decline—Philip Kuhn traces a panic that swept through rural China in which commoners feared for the safety of their children’s lives at the hands of imagined bands of “soulstealers.” Alternately tracing allegations of incidents and the imperial response, which the reader gradually comes to understand is fueled by its own brand of paranoia, the author describes the intricate workings of bureaucratic procedure and justice in Qing China in which the emperor sometimes felt foiled by his own ‘deep state.’

The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

By Timothy Brook,

Book cover of The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

Why this book?

In The Confusions of Pleasure Timothy Brook captures the consternation of a local official as he witnesses the cultural and economic changes wrought by the rise of private wealth in the late Ming, (c. 1600). Unable to raise adequate revenue or to adapt the conservative agrarian foundations of its legitimacy to changing times, the Ming eventually collapses from within, unable to protect itself from marauding bands led by a disgruntled former government post station worker and subsequent invasion by a foreign force. Yet, those who are able to adapt to changing times survive. The resonances for our own day are multiple and apt. 

The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties

By Timothy Brook,

Book cover of The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties

Why this book?

Brooks is a Canadian scholar of Chinese history who specializes in the Ming Dynasty. In this work, he offers an overview of the transition from the Mongol Yuan to the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which is the setting for my own writing, and so is a period I consider to be of unrivaled appeal! Brooks studies, among other things, how extreme weather caused political upheaval and why emperors needed to worry when the locals started reporting dragon sightings. He also offers perspective on the autocratic rule of the Ming founder, “the brilliant and ruthless Zhu Yuanzhang,” and how his example impacted the rest of the dynasty.

The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records (Oxford World's Classics)

By Sima Qian, Raymond Dawson (translator),

Book cover of The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records (Oxford World's Classics)

Why this book?

I am recommending this collection of eight essays from the immense Historical Records primarily for Chapter 7, “The Story of the Rebel Xiang Yu.” This is a rebel who didn’t win – Xiang Yu was defeated by the man who went on to found the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE, which makes this perhaps China’s most famous tale of personal failure. The Grand Historian Sima Qian veered from his format to write this biography because he had so much to say about Xiang Yu. As I work on my own novels about the founding of the Ming, I keep Xiang Yu in mind as a reminder of how generals can achieve glorious victories and then lose everything over a few casual mistakes, and of how storytellers decide how a hero gets remembered.

Thief of Souls: An Inspector Lu Fei Mystery

By Brian Klingborg,

Book cover of Thief of Souls: An Inspector Lu Fei Mystery

Why this book?

This book really came as a surprise; the kind of surprise where you can’t turn the pages fast enough. For one thing, the setting is completely unique. It’s China, but not Beijing or another location that Western audiences would easily recognize. No, the first Inspector Lu Fei mystery takes us to Raven Valley, outside Harbin, China in a cold and unlovely part of the country.

Lu Fei is the deputy chief of the Public Security Bureau there, where a young woman’s murder upends the cycle of boredom and drinking. Both security and Communist Party officials from Beijing descend on Raven Valley and Lu is soon caught between his old boss in Harbin, who hates his guts, and the upwardly mobile Beijing officials who will take credit for his work if he solves the murder and stick a knife in his ribs if he doesn’t.

Having studied China during my 30-year career as an intelligence officer, I was awed by the way author Klingborg absolutely nailed China’s labyrinthine political system. No one believes in the system’s own propaganda but it’s a steamroller that crushes dissent and imagination.

China’s modernization is also critical to the plot. A family can have designer clothes but not indoor plumbing. Not only is Thief of Souls a riveting whodunit, but in my view, it’s an insider’s view of today’s paradoxical China, written in a lush, gripping style. 

The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of t'Ang Exotics

By Edward H. Schafer,

Book cover of The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of t'Ang Exotics

Why this book?

This book examines the exotics imported into China during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) and depicts their influence on Chinese life. During the three centuries of Tang came into the land the natives of almost every nation of Asia, all bringing exotic wares either as gifts or as goods to be sold. Ivory, rare woods, drugs, diamonds, magicians, dancing girls—the author covers all classes of unusual imports, their places of origin, their lore, their effect on fashion, dwellings, diet, painting, sculpture, music, and poetry.

This book is for students of Tang culture and laymen interested in the same topic. Its author Edward Schafer was an eminent American sinologist.

Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

By Donald S. Lopez Jr,

Book cover of Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

Why this book?

When my grandparents died they left small presents for their grandchildren, and in a way that many Buddhists would recognise I bought a book about Buddhism – a funny and sad one. Lopez’s book tells the story of how Western fantasies talk over actual Tibetans and their struggles, from what we think we know about the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” to Lobsang Rampa’s spurious The Third Eye, passing through how we talk about Tibetan art and what we say about the mantra “Om mani padme hum”. This is a deeply humane book about how Tibetans are trapped not only by superpower politics and colonialism but also by how they are represented to the West. 

Chinese Senior Migrants and the Globalization of Retirement

By Nicole Dejong Newendorp,

Book cover of Chinese Senior Migrants and the Globalization of Retirement

Why this book?

Immigrants often try to reunite their families once they settle in their new home countries. This book looks at the experiences of elder Cantonese parents who have followed their children from China to the US. Newendorp’s sensitive ethnography reveals the joys, strains, and tensions as reunited families renegotiate the rules around family support, filial duty, and the rearing of Chinese-American grandkids. 

Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada

By James P. Delgado,

Book cover of Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada

Why this book?

What could be cooler than underwater archaeology? This book tells the incredible story of how Mongol emperor Kublai Khan attempted to conquer Japan, not once, but twice in the late twelfth century. Both invasions were unsuccessful, and Kublai’s second fleet was sunk by a “divine wind” or kamikaze in the waters off Kyushu island in western Japan—only to be rediscovered in modern times by underwater archaeologists.

These Violent Delights

By Chloe Gong,

Book cover of These Violent Delights

Why this book?

Have you ever read about a book and thought there is no way it could possibly exist because it brings together far too many of your favourite tropes/interests and how could all that goodness exist in one story? It’s set in 1920s Shanghai, with enemies to lovers in the form of “if Romeo and Juliet had broken up and met again years later.” Add to that, rival mob families and a paranormal mystery.

What a gorgeous story. It's evocative and dreamy and sharp and insightful. Every single character is brilliantly crafted with a distinct personality and all their jagged edges rub along in such wonderful and conflicted ways. 

The book is part of a duology and trust me, the second half lives up to this magnificence.


By Robert Shea,

Book cover of Shike

Why this book?

An oldie, but I loved this book! It was actually two books when originally published (Time of the Dragons and Last of the Zinja). Set mostly in Mongolia and Japan, it tells the story of a warrior monk who falls in love with a Japanese princess who becomes a consort to Kubilai Khan (Ghenghis Khan’s grandson). As a kid, I loved the TV show Kung-Fu with David Carradine and Jebu (the main character) is a much bigger, badder version of Cane. Like Cane, Jebu is a half-blood but his barbarian side is the one that shows through so he is huge and red-haired. Lots of good action in this one. 

Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate & Circumstance

By Denise Chong,

Book cover of Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate & Circumstance

Why this book?

Denise Chong explores a similar period of Chinese Canadian history in Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate & Circumstance. Similar to my own book, Lives of the Family looks beyond Vancouver and British Columbia Chinatowns to tell the story of Chinese Canadian migrants, whose lives straddled continents, who ran successful businesses, and were involved with the KMT. 

The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen

By Chogyal Namkhai Norbu,

Book cover of The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen

Why this book?

If you want a clear explanation of Tibetan spirituality, and gain a deeper understanding of sutra, tantra, and Dzogchen, this is your book! Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche’s direct and clear style of teaching is vibrant in this book. And like its title, this book is the crystal that with one’s awareness or rigpa, can bring light into your practice and everyday life.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

By Madeleine Thien,

Book cover of Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Why this book?

This multigenerational saga leaps across decades and continents, from the life of a Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in Vancouver in the 1990s, to the horrors of WWII and the Cultural Revolution in China, when Western classical music was banned. The role of music in the book is complex: it can be both passion and livelihood, private beauty, or blunt political instrument. When love for music can threaten someone's physical survival, a “pretty” piece of piano music is anything but: the notes “drip down to the parlour, seeping like rainwater over the persimmons on the table, the winter coats of her family, and the placid softness of Chairman Mao’s face in the grey portrait frame on the wall.” 

The Bridegroom: Stories

By Ha Jin,

Book cover of The Bridegroom: Stories

Why this book?

Ha Jin is a writer close to my heart. I find his spare prose and his trenchant images extremely effective in portraying the oppression of the Chinese regime. In The Bridegroom, Ha Jin uses twelve stories to show a China in transition from a society that’s just emerged from the cultural revolution to a more modern land where Western-style chicken restaurants, with their capitalist modes of operation, disrupt the accepted order of things. The Bridegroom has everything a good story collection is supposed to have: memorable characters, interesting situations, good doses of humor, and resonant images. It’s a book I have learned much from and one repeatedly taught in my classes. 

Illustrated Myths & Legends of China: The Ages of Chaos and Heroes

By Dehai Huang,

Book cover of Illustrated Myths & Legends of China: The Ages of Chaos and Heroes

Why this book?

This book stands out because it delves deeper into popular characters that appear repeatedly in similar books. I have also enjoyed coming across new names and places not previously found. But far from being obscure names, I have encountered these in Chinese fantasy dramas.

Best of all, it includes pictures of relevant artwork and museum artifacts. I get to see these without having to travel to the four corners of the world. Giving us a sense of where we are in place and time, these displays show that throughout the long Chinese history, these legends and myths are integral to the lives of Chinese people.

The Good Earth

By Pearl S. Buck,

Book cover of The Good Earth

Why this book?

There is a reason why The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize, is a regular on best books lists and was featured in Oprah’s Book Club. I have reread this story so many times over the years. It is a heart-wrenching tale of a farmer and his wife struggling to survive in 1920s China. The story follows the birth of their children, the extremes of both wealth and destitution, and the fragility of farm life. Ultimately their children turn their backs on the land that sustained the family for so long. It is a timeless tale of family relationships, severe hardship, love, loss, and the will to survive. A true classic. (If you like to watch the movie after reading the book, the 1937 film won a few Academy Awards as well).

Beijing Coma

By Ma Jian, Flora Drew (translator),

Book cover of Beijing Coma

Why this book?

Ma Jian, a preeminent dissident writer, returned to Beijing in 1989 and supported the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square. In his novel Beijing Coma, protagonist Dai Wei, a molecular biology Ph.D. student, was struck by a soldier’s bullet and fell into a deep coma. Dai Wei has lain in bed for over a decade, like a vegetable, but with acute hearing and sense of smell, as he relieves his past—his childhood and student life, and the heady days of the democracy movement—while all around him China continues to change. Beijing Coma examines the confusion and contradictions of the Tiananmen Square protests and evokes the horrors of an oppressive regime in minute, gruesome detail. I admired the story’s stark beauty and Ma Jian’s unflinching gaze.

China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese Cultural History

By Wolfgang Bauer, Michael Shaw,

Book cover of China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese Cultural History

Why this book?

What the Manuels did for the West, Bauer did for China. Sometimes we think of the Chinese as eminently practical people, but they had their dreams of perfect worlds as well. And these dreams were not necessarily kept to the world of sleep but found expression in the lives of individuals and communities. The Manuels confronted the fact that dreams fade with a touch of cynicism, Bauer with a touch of melancholy.  

China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty

By Mark Edward Lewis,

Book cover of China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty

Why this book?

The Tang dynasty is often called China’s “golden age,” a period of commercial, religious, and cultural connections from Korea and Japan to the Persian Gulf. It was a time of unsurpassed literary creativity. Lewis captures a dynamic era in which the empire reached its greatest geographical extent. And, he shows that under Chinese rule, painting, and ceramic arts flourished, women played a major role both as rulers and in the economy, and China produced its finest lyric poets (Wang Wei, Li Bo (Li Bai), and Du Fu). 

This book is a useful companion volume to my book, which is about the founding and the rise of the Tang dynasty.

The Sui Dynasty

By Arthur F. Wright,

Book cover of The Sui Dynasty

Why this book?

This book by the famous Yale sinologist Arthur Wright is written with the general readership in mind. It covers the rise and fall of the Sui empire with great clarity. The Sui empire reunited China for the first time since the fall of the Western Jin in the early 4th century. The Tang dynasty rose on the ashes of the Sui. Many important characters in my book were key actors in the Sui-Tang transition, including Tang Taizong Li Shimin and his father Tang Gaozu Li Yuan. 

Journey to the West

By Cheng-En Wu, William John Francis Jenner (translator),

Book cover of Journey to the West

Why this book?

One of the most popular books in the history of East Asia, this classic sixteenth century novel is a combination of adventure fiction and folk epic that mixes satire, allegory, and history into a rollicking tale. The epic journey is the one undertaken by the monk Xuanzang under the escort of the roguish Monkey, who has many encounters along the way with major and minor spirits, gods, demigods, demons, ogres, monsters, and fairies.

The monk Xuanzang was active during the reign of Tang Taizong, the protagonist of my book. Monk and emperor have many interactions in that novel.

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way

Why this book?

This comprehensive, beautiful “rendition” (in Le Guin’s words) of Lao Tzu’s ancient wisdom packs an elegant spiritual punch, especially for the Western mind. I love that Le Guin was a teenager when she began studying her father’s 1898 version of the Tao. She worked for decades to create a version that would break the work’s enduring gaze toward the male-oriented “sage.” As she writes in the introduction: “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” Her commentary is illuminating, as though a strong gust of rain-washed air blew off the old dust, allowing sharper, fresher meanings to emerge. Check out Number 53. It’s good for a chuckle!

Lin Yi's Lantern

By Brenda Williams, Benjamin Lacom (illustrator),

Book cover of Lin Yi's Lantern

Why this book?

I chose this book because it makes a great companion to my book. Set in China it tells the story of Lin Yi and his longing for a red rabbit lantern for the upcoming Moon Festival. Lin Yi’s mother sends him to the market to buy special food, not forgetting the peanuts for Uncle Hui. Lin Yi may keep any change to buy his lantern, but however hard Lin Yi barters he doesn’t have enough money. But a surprise awaits him when he gets home! The story is illustrated with atmospheric pictures of family life in rural China. 

To Live

By Yu Hua, Michael Berry (translator),

Book cover of To Live

Why this book?

I first read the book when I was at college in China, and over the years, I’ve read it several times. In China, Yu Hua is one of the few leading writers known as both a literary master and a popular writer with huge commercial success. His charm is well demonstrated in To Live, which has become a classic in modern Chinese literature. It’s a story of a common Chinese man named Fugui living through one after another social and political changes. The story is dramatic, sad, humorous, and sarcastic at times yet never sentimental and judgmental, and it draws you in with a simple but compelling question: after you lose everything dear to you, can you still go on to live? 

Confucianism in China: An Introduction

By Tony Swain,

Book cover of Confucianism in China: An Introduction

Why this book?

Most books on the history of Confucianism are dry and concentrated on the earliest period, during and soon after Confucius lived. I’m not saying Confucius himself wasn’t important, but the greatness of Tony Swain’s book is that it manages to be both fascinating and engaging, even occasionally snarky, while also bringing the story of Confucianism all the way up to the twenty-first century. If you want to think about Confucianism as something important today, it helps to understand the evolving ways the tradition has been lived throughout the centuries. 

The Story about Ping

By Marjorie Flack, Kurt Wiese (illustrator),

Book cover of The Story about Ping

Why this book?

This is another classic tale, originally published in 1933. Despite its publication decades ago, the story remains relevant which puts it in the classic category. It was read to me in kindergarten and when choosing what books to read to my preschool classes seventeen years later I fondly remembered Ping. Ten years after that, I was reading Ping to my kids. Its main characters are Ping, a young duck, and a Chinese boy who wants to save Ping from becoming the family's dinner. The plot occurs on the family's fishing boat as the boy is faced with a difficult dilemma that will save the duck's life. I think it's important that kids hear stories about children making difficult decisions who live in other cultures. The universality of such experiences unites children everywhere.