If you’re anything like me, part of the anticipation of any major international travel involves a lot of reading and research. Perhaps you’re planning to travel to China in the next year or two and you’re hungry for some books that can help give a foundational understanding of Chinese culture, Chinese history, and what to expect on your journey.
If that’s you, I’d like to share what I currently think are six best books to read about China. While you’re still going to want to invest in a good China travel guide book eventually (think Lonely Planet or Fodors), these books represent a good primer on China that will both expand your knowledge of this complex country while also providing some good entertainment.
6 of the top books about China
1. Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler (2009)
The fact that this book still remains a “must-read” for China enthusiasts a decade after its publication tells you just how good it is. Pretty much any book on China by Hessler will be enjoyable, but Oracle Bones was the one that launched his writing career.
Hessler has a way of weaving together a story of China’s transformation that includes well-researched history alongside beautiful descriptions of modern China.
You’ll walk away from this book with a greater appreciation for China as a whole and the hard-working people that have made China’s jump into the 21st century possible. And if you’re lucky, you might even find yourself learning about China’s past without having to crack open a boring history book!
2. Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash (2017)
What Oracle Bones does for a reader’s understanding of China’s growth over the past century, Wish Lanterns does for a reader’s view of China’s millennial generation. This book gives readers an account of China' human history.
As there are 320 million millennials in their teens and 20s in China, this group will also be the primary driver of change in China’s future. Alec Ash, a journalist living in Beijing, explores this group by featuring six young ordinary Han Chinese.
What I love most about this book is it gives us a glimpse into both past and present in that we can understand the expectations and values their parents shouldered them within their schooling and understand their aspirations for the future along with views on popular culture, social issues, and of course, politics.
Overall, the experiences highlighted of these six millennials here reflect the large issues present today in China and are great conversation starters for when you run into some young Chinese people eager to speak with you during your travels.
3. Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go by Josh Summers (2019)
As much fun as these narrative commentaries on China’s culture are to read, they don’t do much to prepare you for your travels to China. For those who have never traveled to China before, it’s difficult to know what to expect when you land.
Most travel guides do a great job of showing you what destinations to visit in China and what it costs, but they do a poor job of helping you set expectations or teaching you how to travel around China.
As the old saying goes, they give you a fish but they don’t teach you how to fish.
In Travel to China, I personally take you through the process of preparing for your trip and knowing how to function when you arrive step-by-step. This China travel book covers topics such as applying for a visa, how to travel without speaking Chinese, how to use local transportation, how to stay connected while traveling, etc.
It’s a compilation of everything I wish I had known before I first stepped foot in Beijing. Over the past decade, my travel experiences have taught me a lot about what makes smooth and easy travel possible, and I wrote this book as if I were sitting down with a friend over coffee, sharing my war stories and travel tips.
If you’re planning to visit to China, you won’t be disappointed by what you learn here.
4. China in the 21st Century | What Everyone Needs to Know by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom & Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (2018)
Continuing with the theme of everything you need to know before going to China, in this book, the authors present a short and simple book of China’s rise from a developing country to superpower over the past 100 years.
One of the most thorough books on modern China, it explores China’s rise from historical legacies including Confucian thought, Western and Japanese imperialism, 20th century Mao Zedong era, the Tiananmen Massacre and post Mao current events such as the political dominance of Xi Jinping and strained political relations with the USA in the Trump era.
Sounds comprehensive right? Additionally, this book is easy to read and many commentators say it’s a great read on the flight over to China. I also feel it serves as a good guide to reference on guided tours or for passive study when taking the subway, bus, or train in China.
5. Jade King – History of a Chinese Muslim Family by Huo Da (1988)
Also titled The Muslim Funeral in Chinese, this masterpiece of a story is one of the best novels I have ever read and is perfect for fans of Chinese fiction books and those moderately familiar with contemporary Chinese history.
This Chinese novel tells the story of the lives of three generations of a family engaged in a jade carving business in Beijing starting from the early Republican period and ending in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.
The main characters are of the Hui ethnicity whereby the story presents a detailed portrait of Islam in China and how the Hui people differ from the majority Han Chinese both religiously and culturally.
For me what really sticks out is the way the narrative is told. Instead of being a linear tale, the writer tells the story by jumping from past to present to where you guess who is who as the characters both change with time and refer to themselves with different names in their youth.
As a Chinese history buff, I also really enjoy the references to historic heroes in Chinese history like Zheng He and the traditional Chinese story the Butterfly Lovers as forbidden romance and tragedy is a common theme throughout the novel.
Although this sits on my top shelf of must-read Chinese books, getting a copy yourself can be difficult as it is out of print in English and only used copies are for sale on Amazon. It’s definitely worth scoring yourself a copy or checking to see if it is available at your local library.
6. China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Arthur R. Kroeber (2016)
For folks interested in diving into China’s economic miracle experienced after the “reform and opening up” period and how the machine functions today, Arthur Kroeber’s work is a superb page-turner that will keep you intrigued from cover to cover.
Among the topics explored is China’s transition from planned to market economy, how China’s state-owned enterprises function along with central-local government relations and their influences on China’s economic system.
There are also plenty of other surprising insights in the book not commonly reported in Western Press such as how the agricultural economy has functioned and evolved over the past forty years, the size strength of the non-state economic sector on the overall economy, as well visibility into the emerging consumer economy.
Anyone with an interest in China's economic policies can easily pick up this book and not get lost in the details covered in each chapter. The best part is after bringing yourself up to speed on the economy, you can see everything the book introduces for yourself while traveling around modern China.
Final thoughts: reading about China
So that’s my list! Even if you only have time to read one or two of the books, you’ll find the investment of time to be well worth the effort. In my experience, it adds depth to your travels that you wouldn’t experience otherwise.
Some people spend decades of their life studying Chinese culture, China's past, and its politics. You’re never going to be able to grasp the full scope of any of these topics before you go, but you’ll be surprised how much you soak in while reading through one of these entertaining books about Chinese culture and more.
What do you think of my personal favorite books on China? Do you think there are other books to read about life in China before going there? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.
Other Interesting Books About China
Read all the books above and want to keep reading more about China? Try some of these titles:
- Country Driving by Peter Hessler
- Factory Girls: From Village to City in Changing China by Leslie T Chang
- Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century by Orville Schell and John Delury
- Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
- China in Ten Words by Yu Hua
- When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order by Martin Jacques
- The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao by Ian Johnson
- The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor
- China's World War II, 1937-1945 By Rana Mitter
- The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up, Liao Yiwu
Notes About The Author
Josh Summers is an author and entrepreneur who first moved to China in 2006. His writing has been published by the BBC and Lonely Planet and he has been featured on CCTV, China’s TV broadcaster. Josh continues to write about travel in China on his website TravelChinaCheaper and you can follow his work on Facebook and Pinterest.
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