25 Best Books on China: History, Culture, and Travel

by Feb 15, 2019Books, China

“China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep. For when she wakes, she will move the world.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Are you planning on visiting China in the near future? Or are you just an armchair traveler and would like to know more about this fascinating country? Here are 25 of the most interesting and informative non-fiction books on China that I’ve read.

I’ve organized the list into 5 categories:

  • memoirs about the Cultural Revolution,
  • books written from a foreigners’ perspective
  • books on Chinese history
  • travel books written by those passing through China
  • books on China that’ll scare you

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Books on China set during the Cultural Revolution

As Mao Ze Dong once said, “a revolution is not a dinner party.” After reading any one of these books on the Cultural Revolution, you’ll realize that he wasn’t kidding. The Cultural Revolution took place from 1966 to 1976. Mao Ze Dong’s aim in starting the revolution was to destroy all remnants of foreign and traditional Chinese culture in order for him and the Communist party to stay in power. He did this by pretty much manipulating the people into destroying their own culture and each other. It was ugly.

You should read at last one of these books in order to understand how far China has come since 1976. They’re also all really fascinating books on how human beings can overcome even the worst that others can dish out to them. You definitely won’t be bored.

These three books are not the only ones written about the Cultural Revolution, but I feel that they are the best. They may also be the most honest as they were all the earliest ones written and so were not tainted by anything written previously to them.

Jung Chang wrote this very moving and tragic family history/memoir about her grandmother during the first revolution, her mother’s life during the Japanese occupation and finally her life as a teenager growing up during the Cultural Revolution.

Wild Swans gives you the history of the whole twentieth century, and thus, it makes for a good choice out of these three books on the Cultural Revolution. She’s also a good writer and the story of her family is incredibly fascinating and heartbreaking. Her books are banned in China.

Out of all the books on China set during the cultural revolution, this one is probably the best.

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2. Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nien Cheng

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Life and Death in Shanghai is another moving memoir written about the Cultural Revolution. Like Wild Swans and Son of a Revolution, it came out early, in 1987.

However, unlike the other two, Nien Cheng wasn’t a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. She was already a widow. She was also of a different class from the authors of the other two books. She came from a very wealthy and westernized family, and since she was an adult, she was not just an observer but a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Her story makes for an unputdownable read.

Along with Wild Swan, Life and Death is another great book on China set during the Cultural Revolution.

Liang Heng is the son of a journalist and a police officer, both members of the Communist Party. During the Cultural Revolution, his parents were targeted for being anti-revolutionary. The family, as a result, suffered great hardship, poverty, separation, and betrayal.

Published in 1984, Son of the Revolution was one of the first books on China that focuses on the Cultural Revolution. Liang Heng wrote this book with his then-wife, Judith Shapiro. Unfortunately, this book is out of print and cannot even be purchased as an e-book.

 

Books on China – Written by Foreigners

I don’t think there is a country that has been more written about by a foreigner than China has. These books are part memoir and part socio-cultural observations. The earliest were written by English teachers in the 80s and 90s. Then we had the ones written in the early 2000s by journalists who were once English teachers. Now the latest ones are written mainly by mainstream journalists.

I’ve chosen only the books whose authors painted a fairer and more nuanced picture of the country that you usually don’t get from the American media. There’s a focus more on the experiences and dreams of the average person rather than the powerful or famous. Most importantly, though, I chose books whose writers had both a deep affection for and a real understanding of China.

You should definitely read at least one or two from this list to get a really good understanding of China. Peter Hessler is probably the best author on this list, so I strongly suggest reading one of his books and then another one of your choosing.

4. Red China Blues

By Jan Wong

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Choosing my all-time favorite of all these 25 books on China was pretty easy to do. Hands down, Red China Blues is definitely my all-time favorite book on China.

Written by Canadian journalist, Jan Wong, Red China Blues is a memoir of her time studying Chinese as a college student in Beijing in 1972. China is still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. People are still wearing those lovely blue Mao suits, waving their little red book around, and throwing out quotes of Mao Ze Dong.

It’s a great book because it’s such a unique story. Most stories about the Cultural Revolution are told from the perspective of the Chinese; this one is told by someone like you and me DURING the Cultural Revolution. How cool is that? While reading it, I literally could imagine myself inside the Cultural Revolution. Fascinating!

5. Rivertown

By Peter Hessler

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Did you know that Peter Hessler is a rock star? Ok. Not a rock star in the traditional sense. He’s pretty much famous only within a small group of people who’ve spent any amount of time living in China or obsessing about the country.

Why is he so admired in China circles? I think it’s because he says exactly what most ex-pats living in China or who have lived in China think and experience.

If you want to read a journalist who really knows and understands China, then read any of these three books by Peter Hessler.

Rivertown, his first book, is about his time as an English teacher in a small town in Sichuan province in the 1990s. Rereading this book after so many years makes me very nostalgic for the simple and innocent China of the past. It’s a great book to read about life in the interior of China in the 90s and the life of an English teacher back then. As usual, Hessler has an eloquent way of highlighting the absurdities, the innocence, and the kindness of life in China back then.

6. Oracle Bones

By Peter Hessler

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Oracle Bones is the best of the three. The author deftly weaves back and forth between telling us about the ordinary lives of the people he met over his time in China to the history of China. Many of the people he writes about are the students from his time teaching in Fuling. He follows them as they migrate from the village to the big cities on the coast. Their stories represent the billions of other stories of ordinary Chinese doing the same exact thing.

At the same time, we get to follow Hessler himself as he makes his way through Chinese bureaucracy, the Chinese reaction to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and returning home after 9-11.

The book is eye-opening. Not only will you learn a lot about China, but if you’re American, you’ll learn something also about your country as well.

7. Country Driving

By Peter Hessler

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Country Driving is Hessler’s third book about China. The book is divided into three parts all with some connection to cars.

In the first part, Hessler drives along the route of the Great Wall all the way to the end of the much poorer western provinces exploring China’s past.

The second part of the story is sort of more somber than the other two. He rents a house in a small village outside of Beijing and befriends a Chinese husband and wife and their son. I think what is significant is the readers get to see how a rural family that doesn’t migrate to the city fairs in a rising China.

In the last part, Hessler explores Zhejiang province and the prosperous area of Wenzhou.

Hessler is a more mature and confident journalist and writer in this book than the other two.

8. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

By Leslie T Chang

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you’ve seen Factory Girls before, it might be because it’s on pretty much everyone’s 10 best books about China list. And it’s deservedly so. It’s a classic that should be read by anyone who wants to understand how China got where it is today. I hear so many people say that China is rich now because it stole from the United States. But really you have to look no further than at these factory girls to understand China’s success.

Chang tells the story of the largely ignored population of Chinese: the young women who have migrated from China’s small villages to the factory towns of the coast.

Chang blended in with the locals in the factory town of Dongguan by dressing, acting, and living like them. She got to know these young women, building up their trust, and in return, they told her some amazing stories of survival, bravery, determination, self-reliance, and grit. All necessary qualities for success.

This book more than any other tells me why China has become so wealthy. It’s not just the powerful, but it’s also these women.

9. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating

By Fuchsia Dunlop

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Fuchsia Dunlop is along with Peter Hessler my idol. She was a student in Chengdu in the same year (the 1990s) I was an English teacher in Chengdu. Our universities were across the street from each other. Along that street and on one of its side streets, which was called Noodle Alley,  were restaurants upon restaurants serving the tastiest and cheapest Sichuan food I’d ever eaten. In Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, she writes about the same restaurants where I ate.

She writes about something else as well and it’s what has made Dunlop so special.  She was the first Westerner to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Shark Fin’s and Sichuan Pepper is about her time learning how to cook Sichuan food.

She’s also written three of the best cookbooks ever written on Chinese food: Land of Plenty, Every Grain of Rice, and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (her 4th one is not that useful).  If you’re interested in food and China, this is one of the best books on China.

10. Street of Eternal Happiness

By Rob Schmitz

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmit Schmitz writes about the stories of the people living on one particular street called the Street of Eternal Happiness in the old French quarter of Shanghai. And oh what fascinating stories they are!

For me, what sets Schmitz’s writing apart from the millions of other China books written by white guys from America is that he’s a much better storyteller than most. And like Leslie Chang in Factory Girls, he tells his stories with so much warmth, love, and affection for people. I became so absorbed in the stories of Auntie Fu, Zhao, CK, and Wang Ming that I didn’t want to move from my sofa until I knew that Auntie Fu would be ok, CK’s business would flourish, and we’d get to meet Wang Ming.

I have to admit that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I thought I’d read enough books on China for a lifetime, and I’d learn nothing new. I was wrong.

11. The Last Days of Old Beijing

By Michael Meyer

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It’s been said that in order to find the real culture of Beijing, look no further than its hutongs and courtyards. Beijing’s courtyard houses lie along the hutongs, or small alleyways, that make up central Beijing. The hutongs are as wide as a car and contain some of Beijing’s most traditional and beautiful buildings.

Many of these hutongs and courtyards were razed by real estate developers to make way for luxury condos and hotels.  In The Last Days of Old Beijing, Michael Meyers writes a beautiful description of the ordinary citizens who reside(d) in these hutongs and the fight many of them had to resist being evicted by these developers.

I highly recommend reading The Last Days of Old Beijing especially if you’re planning a trip to the city or if you’re eager to learn more about one of the most important components of the Chinese economy: its housing market, which makes 16% of its GDP (7% for the U.S.).

12. Young China

By Zak Dychtwald

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In Young China, Zak Dychtwald presents a fascinating portrait of the generation of Chinese born after 1990, also known as the Jiu Ling Huo. He bases himself in the coastal city of Suzhou and the interior megalopolis of Chengdu. Dychtwald tells us what this generation of young people are thinking about–sex, the West, their government, gay people–and what they’re most concerned about—having enough money for an apartment, finding someone to marry, dealing with the pressure of being an only child, and getting into the right school.

While reading his book, most of the time I felt that not much had changed. Sure they’re richer and can travel more, but these young people are still like my students in the 90s back in China.

13. The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

By Ian Johnson

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Souls of China, written by Ian Johnson, is about the re-emergence of religion in China. I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but I really enjoyed this book. What I liked about the book is that Johnson doesn’t just cover Christianity; he also focuses on Buddhism and Daoism equally. Second, I learned so many things about China that I didn’t know before. Johnson clarified for me how Chinese people understand the words, “religion” and “faith.”

 

 

MORE BOOKS FOR THE ARMCHAIR TRAVELER:

Books on the History of China

I’ll bet you a million dollars that at least once in China, a Chinese person will remind you of the 5,000 years of Chinese history. Is this really true? Does China have more history than other people? Based on archaeological evidence, we only have proof that China goes back to 1600 BC, which adds up to 3,600 years of history. Egypt and even Europe are older than that.

Still those 3,600 years of history were indeed fascinating. Before leaving for China, make sure to read at least one book on Chinese history along with something on the Cultural Revolution. The Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and World War II are the most fascinating events in modern Chinese history. If you’re interested in delving into anything earlier than that, try one of the books in the History of Imperial China series.

Stephen Platt writes a character-driven page-turner about the events that led up to the Opium War.

Imperial Twilight isn’t your typical dry history book. Instead, Platt fills the pages with high drama, suspense (Will the British be allowed to forgo the kowtow? Will the Chinese deign to accept Lord Napier’s request?) and absurdity. What he really focuses on are the characters. And oh what characters they are! Platt’s description of some of the most eccentric characters that have ever been written about is what makes this an enthralling read. It’s not only fascinating but also prescient and relevant for what is happening today between China and the U.S.

15. Midnight in Peking

By Paul French

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Midnight in Peking is probably the most unputdownable book on this list of books on China. It kept me up late into the wee hours of the morning wanting to find out who murdered Pamela Werner.

Pamela Werner is a young British schoolgirl who is brutally murdered. Her body is found mutilated near an old tower called Fox Tower, where the Chinese believe evil spirits reside. Her murder is investigated by a British detective and a Chinese detective.

Paul French does an excellent job of transporting you back in time to 1937 Beijing when China was on the verge of war with Japan. I felt like I was right there in the old hutongs of Beijing.

The book is part history and part true crime.

Probably the hardest book on China to read is The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. She describes what took place when the Japanese military invaded Nanking in December 1937. At that time, Nanjing was the capital of China, but as the Japanese were on the verge of entering the city, the government escaped to the interior of China. The Japanese met with very little resistance, but they murdered, raped, and tortured indiscriminately the local population for several weeks, killing between 40,000 and 300,000 people.

It’s not easy to read about the atrocities that the Japanese committed, but I think it’s a necessary book to read to understand the animosity the Chinese have toward the Japanese.

17. God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

By Jonathan Spence

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Probably one of the strangest events in Chinese history was the Taiping Rebellion. One of the greatest scholars of Chinese history, Jonathan Spence writes a very detailed and fascinating history of this rebellion in God’s Chinese Son. In the mid-1800s right after China’s humiliating defeat in the Opium Wars, a failed Confucian scholar named Hong Xiuquan has a dream in which God tells him that he is his son (making him Jesus’s brother) and that he has been sent to China to convert the Chinese people to Christianity, drive out the Manchus and restore the Ming to power. He is so successful in his conversions that he is able to build an army and wage a war against the Manchu government, conquering the southern half of China. The civil war that ravaged China at that time killed over 20 million people.

At times in the book, I had difficulty following the descriptions of the various Gods and beliefs of Chinese folk religions, so I hesitate a bit in recommending this book. Stephen Platt wrote a book on the same subject a few years ago called Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom that might be easier to read, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

18 – 23. History of Imperial China Series

By Harvard University Press

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Ok. I promised my list of books on China would not be dry. But I must include the Harvard University Press series in this review for the serious Sinophile. The six books in the History of Imperial China series are not for the inexperienced China reader or for those who have little patience for history. Yes. They’re dry and a bit confusing as they don’t tell the history of China chronologically. But if you’re interested in delving more deeply into any of China’s dynasties, then these are for you. As a Sinophile, history nerd, and bookworm, I love ‘em.

The Earliest Chinese Empires (Book 1) Qin and Han Dynasties

China Between the Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties (Book 2) – Han and Sui Dynasties

China’s Cosmopolitan Empires (Book 3) – Tang Dynasty

The Age of Confucian Rule (Book 4) – Song Dynasty

The Troubled Empire (Book 5) – Yuan and Ming Dynasties

China’s Last Empire (Book 6) – Qing Dynasty

Travel books on China

In my opinion, most of the books written by travelers on China are not that good.  The only one I can recommend is Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux. His observations are generally spot-on as well as witty and honest. You want the truth? Then read Paul Theroux. He’s not going to whitewash traveling anywhere.

24. Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China

By Paul Theroux

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

My all-time favorite travel writer, Paul Theroux, wrote one of my all-time favorite travel books, Riding the Iron Rooster. Ok. So this book is really outdated. I admit it. But Theroux is so damn good and I love this book so much that I just had to put it on this list of books on China.

Theroux is acerbic and witty as hell. Like Hessler, he writes about things that I myself experienced while in China. If you want to read about what it was like traveling around China by train in the 1980s and see how much China has changed, read this book.

 

Books on China and the U.S.

If you’ve looked on Amazon for books on China, what often comes up are books warning everyone about the country.  There are books on China’s role in Asia, China and cybersecurity, China in Africa, China’s economy, and on and on. I’ve only read one book and that is the one below.

Are you looking for a book that’s as scary as a Stephen King novel? If you’re American, be prepared to be terrified out of your wits in Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap?

Thucydides was an ancient Greek historian who wrote a book on the Peloponnesian War, a war fought between Sparta, the most dominant power in the Mediterranean world in ancient times, and Athens, an upstart nation that was challenging Sparta’s dominance. Thucydides postulated a theory that the cause of the war between Sparta and Athens was that Sparta feared that a rising Athens would replace it as the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Allison argues that this scenario has occurred 12 times in history and 8 out of the 12 has resulted in war, the last one being World War I when Britain wanted to suppress rising Germany. The trap is that these countries find themselves inevitably leading to war. He argues that the United States (Sparta) and China (Athens) are headed in the same direction.

For most of the book, my jaw was literally on the floor. I knew China was a rising power and had a large economy, but I wasn’t aware where its economy was in relation to the United States’. If you’re not from the United States, this book probably won’t be as interesting for you. If you’re American, you should read it.

It’s hard to pick a favorite from this list of 25 books, but if I had to, I’d say these three are my favorite:

Wild Swans

Oracle Bones

Red China Blues

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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  Travel addict and bookworm! This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore the history, heritage, and culture of Asia and beyond. On this site, you’ll find itineraries to help you plan your trip, reviews to help you make better-informed decisions, lots of history and cultural information to help make your travels more meaningful, and book recommendations to help you understand your destination more deeply.

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