The best books about the Han Chinese

2 authors have picked their favorite books about Han Chinese and why they recommend each book.

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Useful Phrases for Immigrants

By May-Lee Chai,

Book cover of Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories

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


Who am I?

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which Time Magazine listed as one of the hundred best fantasy novels of all time. Her other books include The City in the Middle of the Night, Victories Greater than Death, and Never Say You Can't Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories. She organizes the long-running spoken word series Writers With Drinks, helps to organize tours of local bookstores, and also co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. Her short fiction has appeared in Tin House, Conjunctions, Wired Magazine, Slate, and the Boston Review.


I wrote...

Even Greater Mistakes

By Charlie Jane Anders,

Book cover of Even Greater Mistakes

What is my book about?

Even Greater Mistakes is a collection of 19 short stories that straddle the line between speculative fiction and literary fiction. These stories explore the saving power of love, friendship, and community in the face of total absurdity and weirdness. In "Six Months, Three Days," two people who can see the future enter into a relationship they know is doomed. In "Don't Press Charges and I Won't Sue," a trans woman is trapped in a nightmarish facility with her former best friend. In "The Bookstore at the End of America," the United States has broken into two separate countries, with a tiny bookstore straddling the new border.

These stories have won the Hugo, Locus, and Sturgeon awards.

The Ghost Bride

By Yangsze Choo,

Book cover of The Ghost Bride

This historical fantasy has some serious Spirited Away vibes working in its favor. I especially love Li Lan: her charming naivety, her compassion towards others, her stalwart convictions, and her daring to uncover secrets kept by both the living and the dead. Her would-be in-laws are all kinds of shady and her own family has skeletons in its closet, but as these truths unfold, she remains her considerate, hardworking self.

In its careful treatment of the afterlife, this story helps me contemplate my own ancestry, what honor I give to those who came before me, and what they might expect me to become.


Who am I?

I come from a large family, both immediate and extended. As a result, my writing often includes a spectrum of family relationships, from the functional to the toxic. Nurturing or gaslighting? Supportive or undermining? Fantasy is my genre of choice for playing with these dynamics because its otherworldliness creates a safe space to consider true-to-life patterns, including the default trust we grant to those closest to us, how quickly that crumbles when expectations fall short, and the echo effect our earliest interactions have upon the rest of our lives.


I wrote...

The Heir and the Spare

By Kate Stradling,

Book cover of The Heir and the Spare

What is my book about?

Tormented at home and bullied during her studies abroad, second-born Iona of Wessett hides in the quiet corners of her father’s castle. When the neighboring country proposes a marriage alliance between its crown prince and Iona’s venomous older sister Lisenn, Iona sees it as a promise of reprieve and retribution. The would-be groom is her former bully, Jaoven of Deraval, who deserves Lisenn’s malice as much as Lisenn deserves his.

But although it seems like a poetic match, Jaoven, humbled by the war that elevated his rank, appears to have reformed. Now the fate of two kingdoms hinges on the disastrous union he’s about to make, and Iona is the only person who might intervene. 

Shanghai Homes

By Jie Li,

Book cover of Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

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…


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by history since I spent a year in Britain as a ten-year-old. I became hooked on novels set in ancient Greece and Rome and found it incredibly exotic to walk through old buildings and imagine the lives of the people who had walked through those same doors. In college, I began studying history in earnest and grew intrigued by China, especially Chinese cities during periods of upheaval and transformation. My first passion was Shanghai history, and I spent time there in the mid-1980s before the soaring Pudong skyscrapers that are now among its most iconic structures were built. I have since shifted my attention to Hong Kong, a city I had enjoyed visiting for decades but had not written about until after I completed my last book on Shanghai. My fascination with cities that are in China but enmeshed in global processes and are sites of protest has been a constant.


I wrote...

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom,

Book cover of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink

What is my book about?

Written between June and October of 2019, while Hong Kong was in the midst of the most dramatic social movement it had ever experienced, Vigil combines elements of history and reportage. A short book, it is written in a lively and engaging style and draws on the author’s deep familiarity with Chinese history and expertise in the comparative analysis of protests and authoritarianism. It is also shaped by the experiences the author has had during many visits to Hong Kong, some before and most after the 1997 Handover changed it from a British colony to part of the People’s Republic of China. While introducing many events from Hong Kong’s complicated past, it is above all a work to read to understand and place into perspective recent developments in a David vs. Goliath struggle, in which activists, facing impossible odds, pushed back against efforts to tighten controls on local political life.

Chemistry

By Weike Wang,

Book cover of Chemistry

I devoured this book. It’s charming and funny, but this is one of those books where I loved it because of the main character. I’ve struggled with indecisiveness in my life and found that part very relatable. We really get inside her head. The voice is unique and the sentence structure is short and choppy. A quick wonderful read. 


Who am I?

I have anxiety and depression. While obviously not a replacement for therapy and/or medication, reading books that somehow make me feel good is an important part of my self-care. They can be silly or witty or charming or whatever, but a book that makes me smile or giggle or just swoon is one I’ll reach for when I’m feeling down.


I wrote...

One of the Guys

By Lisa Aldin,

Book cover of One of the Guys

What is my book about?

Tomboy to the core, Toni Valentine understands guys. So Toni is horrified when she's sent to the Winston Academy for Girls, where she has to wear a skirt and learn to be a "lady" while the guys move on without her. Then Toni meets Emma Elizabeth, a girl at school with boy troubles, and she volunteers one of her friends as a pretend date. Word spreads of Toni’s connections with boys, and she discovers that her new wealthy female classmates will pay for fake dates. Looking for a way to connect her old best friends with her new life at school, Toni and Emma start up Toni Valentine’s Rent-A-Gent Service. The business meets a scandal when Toni falls for one of her friends – the same guy who happens to be the most sought-after date.

The Myth of Chinese Capitalism

By Dexter Roberts,

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

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.


Who am I?

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


I wrote...

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

By Dori Jones Yang,

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

What is my book about?

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

Home Is Not Here

By Wang Gungwu,

Book cover of Home Is Not Here

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.


Who am I?

Where you sit determines what you see. China is complex, and so it pays to move around and view it from as many perspectives as possible. My view of China is formed by visits to all of its 31 provinces and to most of its neighbors.  A professor of foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, I have taught and written about Chinese politics for the past forty years, and I have worked with Chinese universities and scholars. This list suggests some excellent books presenting different vantage points on China’s past and present.


I wrote...

China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry

By Brantly Womack,

Book cover of China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry

What is my book about?

For a different perspective on China, an important place to sit is in China’s neighborhood. China and Vietnam have been managing their misunderstandings for thousands of years— most of the time successfully. How have they done it?  How does Vietnam keep its national autonomy while China maintains its regional stature? This book is a study of their asymmetric relationship from the Bronze Age to the present. 

Oil and Water

By Tom Cliff,

Book cover of Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang

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.


Who am I?

I was living in Xinjiang on 9/11 and got to witness the swiftness with which the state imposed strict regulations that harmed the Uyghur community. For me, this was an indelible lesson in the abuses of power and authority on people who just wanted to work, raise families, and enjoy their lives. Since then I’ve tried to raise awareness, first in my memoir, The Tree That Bleeds, then in my journalism. I hope my work helps people think about how to respond as both politically engaged citizens and consumers to one of the worst human rights violations of the 21st century.


I wrote...

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

What is my book about?

My book is an introduction to the politics, history, and culture of Xinjiang, which I wrote as a corrective to the then-prevailing notion of the region as a turbulent, volatile place beset by Islamist terrorism. It argues that since 9/11 the Chinese government has been promoting an alarmist narrative for which there’s little support, an idea it has used as an excuse to inflict draconian policies on the Muslim peoples of the region.


It was also important to me to give a sense of Xinjiang as a place, and to present some of the ways in which Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples have tried to find ways to adapt to discrimination against their language, religion, culture, and right to work. Ultimately, the book’s main message is that the current policies of the Chinese government – mass internment, indoctrination, and intimidation – demonstrate that they regard the existence of Uyghur identity as an existential threat.

From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express

By Haiming Liu,

Book cover of From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States

It was hard finding just one book out of the many that have been written about Chinese food’s fortune’s abroad, but Liu ably chronicles a love-affair that is as old as the United States themselves, which begins with would-be rebels throwing chests of Fujian tea into Boston harbor. Liu points to the long history of Chinese in America, and the impact they have had as laborers, miners and cooks, particularly for low-income groups who welcomed the rarity of the warm hash dishes that came to be known as chop suey. This is a book that allows the reader the chance to appreciate the degree to which “Chinese” food in America is in a world, and a class, all of its own.


Who am I?

Jonathan Clements is a historian specialising in East Asia, and the author of A Brief History of China, The Art of War: A New Translation, and Confucius: A Biography. Several of his books have been translated and published in Chinese. He has presented three seasons of Route Awakening (National Geographic), an award-winning TV series about icons of Chinese culture. From 2013-2019, he was a visiting professor at Xi’an Jiaotong University, China.


I wrote...

The Emperor's Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals

By Jonathan Clements,

Book cover of The Emperor's Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals

What is my book about?

Jonathan Clements tracks the diverse history of China through its food and drink, from the sacrificial cauldrons of the Bronze Age to the contending styles of a modern Chinatown. He outlines how changes in politics, technology, and ingredients have altered “Chinese” food over the centuries, as the nation copes with new peoples, crops, and climate conditions.

Clements focuses on the personalities connected to Chinese food – the drunken priest-kings of the Shang dynasty; the Tang noblewomen experimenting with tea and lychees; the stand-off between Mongols and Muslims over halal meat. Later chapters carry the impact of Chinese food out of its homeland and around the world, as migrant communities cater to local tastes and encounter new challenges. “Chinese” food is different, yet again, depending on if you eat it in small-town Canada, a Mumbai mall, or a Singapore street market.

Migration in the Time of Revolution

By Taomo Zhou,

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

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.

Who am I?

During the later Cold War, I grew up in neutral and peaceful Switzerland. My German mother’s family lived apart in divided Germany. I knew as a child that I would become a historian because I wanted to find out what had happened to my mother’s home and why there was a Cold War in the first place. My father’s service as a Swiss Red Cross delegate in Korea after 1953 raised my interest in East Asia. After learning Russian and Chinese, I wrote my first book on The Sino-Soviet Split. When I was finishing the book, I resolved to reinvent myself as a global historian, which is why I wrote my second book as a reinterpretation of the global Cold War as a series of parallel regional Cold Wars in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.


I wrote...

Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe

By Lorenz M. Lüthi,

Book cover of Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe

What is my book about?

What was the Cold War that shook world politics for the second half of the twentieth century? Standard narratives focus on Soviet-American rivalry as if the superpowers were the exclusive driving forces of the international system. I offer a different account, restoring agency to regional powers in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe and thereby revealing how regional and national developments shaped the course of the global Cold War.

Despite their elevated position in 1945, the United States, Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom quickly realized that their political, economic, and military power had surprisingly tight limits given the challenges of decolonization, Asian-African internationalism, pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism, Arab–Israeli antagonism, and European economic developments. As a series of Cold Wars ebbed and flowed, the three world regions underwent structural changes that weakened or even severed their links to the global ideological clash, leaving the superpower Cold War as the only major conflict that remained by the 1980s.

1421

By Gavin Menzies,

Book cover of 1421: The Year China Discovered America

Long subject to debate due to its assertion that China discovered America, this book remains an astounding Ming dynasty source that should not be overlooked based on a single controversial claim. It has a decidedly maritime, diplomatic, and economic focus, offering a comprehensive – often technical – account of the 1421 Ming fleet’s expedition with attention to historical figures like Admiral Zheng He. It vividly paints Ming dynasty China as an economic might that traded extensively for various world products and received tributes and envoys from places as far as Malindi in southeast Africa. Published in 2002, the book has a certain prophetic quality: it highlights early Ming China’s trade dominance on the world stage as though Menzies sensed that history could repeat itself. Today, China is once again seen as an economic superpower.


Who am I?

I am an honours graduate in aerospace engineering and psychology and I have written five historical novels. My debut novel, The Ming Storytellers, is set during China’s Ming dynasty and was well-reviewed by the Historical Novel Society. To pen this 600-page saga, I spent six years researching the Ming dynasty while studying a year of mandarin. I have travelled to Beijing, along the Great Wall, and to China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. Being a descendant of the Vietnamese royal family gave me access to rich genealogical sources passed down from my scholarly ancestors. These stories of concubines, eunuchs, and mandarins made the past come alive, complementing my research with plausible drama.


I wrote...

The Ming Storytellers

By Laura Rahme,

Book cover of The Ming Storytellers

What is my book about?

Set against the backdrop of China’s sixth naval expedition in the early Ming dynasty, this is the story of an imperial concubine’s rise in the reign of the Yong Le emperor, and her forbidden relationship with one of China’s most illustrious figures, Admiral Zheng He. A complex tale of thwarted love, adventure, crime, and mystery, The Ming Storytellers brings a cast of fascinating supporting characters. We meet a mysterious storyteller on board Zheng He’s ship whose long winding tale will turn out to be more than it originally seemed. Also traveling with the Ming fleet and bound for her home in Zanzibar, the secretive Persian traveller, Shahrzad, watches Zheng He closely. But what does she seek? 

A rich story unfolding in Beijing, on the Ming ships, and in a mountainous village in Yunnan, The Ming Storytellers explores a distant world and brings to life key events in China’s history.

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