Whether you’ve been in Shanghai for 5 months or 5 years, the hunt for a great book on China continues. The book that manages to teach you something about the country you’ve adopted without being so dry it makes you want to throw it into the Huangpu. The book that lets you nod confidently and maybe even contribute a gem or two to a conversation about current affairs in China.*
Here are top ten picks, ranked from intro to expert. As you progress through the list, you’ll have gained enough context and knowledge to tackle the beast otherwise known as Big Deng. There is a mix of ten fiction and nonfiction selections, with a few extra picks at the end for further reading. The titles with asterisks next them have been banned in mainland China, so you might need to buy them via Kindle or wait until your next visa run to pick them up.
*Editors note: under no circumstances are you allowed to use your newfound knowledge to start/participate in a “profound” conversation about China on Yongkang, Yongfu, or any place of expat imbibery (new word). Don’t be that douche. Restrict your profound comments to your living room or to discussions with China-newbies, who will be duly impressed by your scholarship and expertise. Use your powers wisely.
ONE. *Wild Swans by Jung Chang. You’ve probably at least heard of this book by now. It deserves its fame and its 13 million copies sold, since it is hands-down the most accessible introduction to 20th century Chinese history. Wild Swans is told through the life stories of three women: the author, her mother, and grandmother. You start with Chang’s grandmother, a concubine with bound feet, move to her mother’s involvement in the Communist Party, and end with Chang’s account as Red Guard-turned-UK expat. This perspective allows the book to read like a novel, but inform like a history book. It’s a quick read and the perfect first step towards China expertise.
TWO. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. This is the quintessential handbook for China expats, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s beautifully written. It was written in 1996, so some of Hessler’s discussions don’t seem entirely relevant to today’s China (he focuses a fair amount on the impending completion of the Three Gorges Dam and its unforeseen consequences). Yet, it is an account that still rings very true. Shanghai-dwellers might not fully identify with its description of rural life, but Hessler’s observations and insight on daily life in China – both funny and frustrating – are so familiar. Hessler’s tales of baijiu-banquets, tongue-tying tones, and moments of sheer street-side absurdity will make you feel like this is the book you should have written, only better.
THREE. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. This is a classic Oprah-book-club selection, one with friendship, history, heartbreak, and all of the feels. It’s a good story made better by its setting in 19th century rural Hunan, as the author delves into details of the customs and patriarchal society of the time period. The struggles of the two heroines leave us all grateful for the Pill and Lean In, yet you’ll wish you also had a secret language with your best friend. The film adaptation is pretty good, too.
FOUR. Shanghai: the Rise and Fall of a Decadent City 1842-1949 by Stella Dong. This book attempts to sell itself as a “sordid” history book, and mostly succeeds. It gives you a quick scan of the major events in Chinese history that affected Shanghai’s development, but primarily focuses on the city’s rise from trading center to hedonistic playground. It’s a bit dry in places, but once you reach the roaring 20’s and the drama of opium lords, black markets, crime, and all of the partying (which might sound familiar), it’s full steam ahead. Someone should write its companion book detailing the last two decades of Shanghai decadence to bring it full circle.
FIVE. On China by Henry Kissinger. This is an excellent overview of modern Chinese history, by the realpolitik master of diplomacy himself. Kissinger succeeds in writing an account that is both accessible and compelling, partially thanks to the details of his personal experience of certain major events in recent Chinese history. This is, after all, the man who orchestrated the handshake between Nixon and Mao. Kissinger doesn’t precisely claim to be objective in his arguments, but it’s still worth keeping in mind the inherent subjectivity of this work – there are a few not-so-subtle backhanded compliments once he steps onto the world stage. But this book will give you an excellent overview of the “psychological diplomacy” that has shaped East-West relations over the last century from a man who should know.
SIX. Waiting by Ha Jin. This novel is not exactly a joy to read. Its title says a lot – you may find yourself waiting for the action to start. While it never quite moves quickly, this slim novel will leave a lasting impression of what life was like for an everyman in communist China. The story starts in the early 1960’s, revolving around Lin Kong, an army doctor stationed in rural northeast China, and his interminable wait to legally divorce his peasant wife in order to marry his mistress. It provides a bleak portrait of those small joys he is able to achieve in the twenty-year span of the novel, and depicts Kong’s grim struggle to reconcile his desire and his obedience. Not sold yet? It won the National Book Award in 1999, so that’s gotta count for something.
SEVEN. China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa by Howard French. In this book, New York Times journalist French investigates the Chinese presence in Africa – both official and unofficial – and how these forces are altering the geopolitical balance. Its premise will sound familiar to anyone who reads the news: yet another construction project in Country X funded by China. The book not only gives you an overview of these state-sponsored projects and their implications, but it also documents the Chinese diaspora in Africa. The migrants’ views on their country – why they left, essentially – are fascinating. Their stories give you a perspective on the problems of modern Chinese society that’s echoed all over the continent. As a bonus, the author’s concise and insightful commentary gives you an excellent sketch of current African development. Win-win.
EIGHT. *The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung. This is the Chinese version of 1984 that won’t make it onto a public high school reading list here. Its content is pure dystopian critique, and while it can go on too long in places it is worthy of your patience. Shanghainese author Chan presents an eerie version of China’s near future, where economic triumph masks a collective amnesia of an entire month of Tiananmen-style protests. The novel is hard to get into, but the characters’ attempts to prove government censorship might seem both sinister and familiar.
NINE. *Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and John Halliday. This controversial biography, co-written by Chang’s husband, is weighty in more ways than one. Critics cast doubt on Jung’s broad use of sources, and this portrayal of Mao is far from detached. The book is nothing short of vilification, and the authors’ accusations against Mao are hefty. The first sentence asserts that Mao was responsible for the deaths of 70 million people in peacetime, and continues from there. It is a comprehensive history that keeps you interested throughout. She debunks some of the biggest myths about Mao’s rise, and even if you take her claims with a proverbial grain of salt you’ll still find yourself shaking your head at his machinations at more than one point. It’s far from impartial, but if you keep her bias in mind it’s still a portrait that will make you pause every time you see Mao’s smirk on a 100-yuan note.
TEN. Deng Xioping and the Transformation of Modern China by Ezra F. Vogel. This book – at nearly 1000 pages - is not for the fainthearted, nor is it for the China neophyte. But Vogel’s exhaustive research contributes to a biography that reaches beyond Deng and gives us a detailed account of China’s transformation in not just the why but also the how. While you need to slog through the minutiae of many (many) economic reforms, it is a fundamentally important book that gives you insights into the 180 degree turn that changed the world. Plus it just looks so badass on your bookshelf.
• Howard French and Qiu Xiaolong Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life
• Evan Osnos Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
• Peter Hessler Oracle Bones and Strange Stones
• Jung Chang Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China
• Yu Hua and Allan H. Barr China in Ten Words
• Leslie T. Chang Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
• Jonathan Fenby The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present. 2nd Edition.
WORDS BY LOGAN CURRIE