Best Books on China

Best books on China

About a week ago, I did an article, The Five+ Best Books for Understanding China  [link no longer exists]. The article was a public response to a  request that I reveal “3-5 good books to read to understand China that are contemporary, but also something providing some historical perspective to current doings. ”

I listed the following five:

  1. China in the 21st Century, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
  2. Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, by Phillip Pan
  3. Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, by John Pomfret
  4. Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China, by James Fallows
  5. One from the following: Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in ChinaRiver Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler

I then added suggested James McGregor’s One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China and/or Tim Clissold’s Mr. China: A Memoir for anyone who wants to better understand what it is like for foreign companies in China.

We received many great responses from that article and those comments convinced me to develop this post as a source for those seeking help on what they should be reading to better understand China. Though it presently focuses on books, we welcome suggestions on all good readings. We also welcome criticisms of what others (or we) have chosen.

Let me first explain a bit more about my previous book picks. Above all else, I wanted to pick fun and enjoyable books that can be read from beginning to end in 20 hours or less.  I wanted one book to serve as a broad introduction to China and I wanted the rest to “give a feel” for the country.  Again, though, I wanted to make sure the reader would enjoy my recommended books and that meant that they had to be well written.

I picked Wasserstrom’s book as the “broad-brusher” because though very brief (less than 200 pages), it makes for a great introduction to various aspects of China. It is the perfect first read and I have since learned that it is required reading at Johns Hopkins’ Nanjing program.

I picked the other four books because, above all else, they are extremely well written. And by well written, I mean they make you feel as though you are there and that you know and understand and want to learn more about the people described in them. They have character development. I know this sounds trite, but if you read these four books, you will never view China as an amorphous mass of 1.3 billion people who think alike. I chose these four books because they give quick and enjoyable insights into China’s people. Was I right or wrong to focus so much on this one thing?  Was I right or wrong in choosing these four books for that one thing?

Here is some of what readers said, followed in some instances by my own comments.

Some readers recommended Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China’s Most Wanted Man, by Oliver August and Iron and Silk, by Mark Salzman. I do not know these books and I would love to hear reader thoughts on them.

Many mentioned On China, by Henry Kissinger. I thought about listing this book, but chose not to for two reasons. First, I have yet to read it. Second (and I hesitate to comment on a book I have not read), I figured it would deal a more with U.S.-China relations than with China.

The Search for Modern China, by Jonathan Spence. Undoubtedly a classic and I actually thought long and hard about including this book, but in the end chose not to do so simply because it is not exactly light reading.

One reader recommended Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang. I remember reading many positive reviews when this book first came out last year and resolving to read it, but I have yet to do so.

Don Clarke of Chinese Law Prof Blog recommends Governing China: From Revolution Through Reform, by Kenneth Lieberthal, because it “tells you about the relationship between the center and the provinces, the role of the PLA, or what the Standing Committee of the Politburo does.”  He also wrote that when it comes to books about China’s economy, none (to my knowledge) surpasses Barry Naughton’s “The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth.”  It’s not light airplane reading, but required in any serious China library. Yasheng Huang’s book, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State, is great, too, but Naughton’s is more foundational.

What Does China Think? by Mark Leonard. I read a number of reviews when this first came out and I recall people I respect saying it was a bit simplistic. Is this true?

The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, by Richard McGregor. I have heard nothing but great things about this book, but I have yet to read it. Speaking of a book I want to read and of which I have heard nothing but great things: Factory Girls, by Leslie Chang.

Another reader mentioned China Inside Out: 10 Irreversible Trends Reshaping China and its Relationship with the World, by Bill Dodson. I put this book in the same category as China Shakes the World, by James Kynge and The China Price, by Alexandra Harney. All three of these books provide an excellent top level view of China’s business/economy.  My sense is that Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer, by Tom Doctoroff, fits into this same category, but I have never read it.

Where East Eats West, by Sam Goodman. A reader described this book as containing “all of the major ingredients as the many China 101 books, but in a way that at least makes you smile, like getting a lolly after your shots: it still hurts, but at least you have a lolly, right?” I agree and I have recommended this book countless times to clients. Someone suggested Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers, by Lawrence L. Allen, and described it as a “great case study.” If you want to know how to sell to the Chinese consumer, buy this book.

A number of readers recommended “old” books and talked of how they are still plenty topical. Thunder Out of China, by Theodore H. White and Analee Jacoby, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, by Barbara Tuchman, Forever China, by Robert Payne, and Two Kinds of Time by Graham Peck, The reader who recommended Peck’s book described it as “written in Chongqing in 1944 and still valid today. Tells you more about China and how it works than anything by Edgar Snow, Mark Kitto or Peter Hessler.” Is that true?

The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985 by John King Fairbank, also got a mention. I know this is a great book, but because I had to read so much Fairbank in college, I have bad memories.

Chiang Kai Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost, by Jonathan Fenby. A reader described this book as “not just a biography, but literally the best history of the Chinese Civil War and World War II in China that I have been able to find in English.” I have never read it.

Is it really that good?

One reader extolled avoiding books on either China’s “imminent or eventual collapse” or dominance. He used Gordon Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China as an example on how China is inevitably going to run the world and Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, as an example of the other extreme.

One reader wrote that he thinks newspapers are the way to go and recommends the following: Wall Street Journal, Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Times, Washington Post, South China Morning Post, and the Christian Science Monitor.

Another reader recommended China Road, by Rob Gifford, Red China Blues by Jan Wong and Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang, which she described as “three excellent memoir-esque observations of the changes in China.”

Another reader wrote of a “recent publication by Dr. Kevin Fountain, “How Chinese Think and How to Deal With China and extolled Dr. Fountain’s “over 30 years experience living/dealing with the Chinese” and described this book as “a must read for anyone who is planning a visit to China. It’s not just informative, it’s interesting. A good read – not at all dry.”

Jeffrey Wassestrom (who wrote China in the 21st Century) suggests Factory Girls:From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang, Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China, by Ian Johnson, The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, by Michael Meyer, “Socialism Is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, by Lijia Zhang, China Candid: The People on the People’s Republic, by Sang Ye, Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China, by Jianying Zha, which just recently came out.

Jeff also puts in a plug for the Los Angeles Times (especially Barbara Demick), for the Guardian newspaper out of London, and for the Economist Magazine and American Public Radio (NPR/Marketplace). I would add the BBC to this. Jeff also recommends the New York Review of Books (especially now that Howard French and Ian Johnson have been added as China-focused contributors) and the New Yorker (where Evan Osnos has taken the baton from Peter Hessler)” and “The China Digital Times.

John Xenakis suggested we all read the following:

Borrowed Culture recommends “anything by Hessler” and also “Rebecca E. Karl’s Mao Zedong and China in the 20th Century World: A Concise History, which “does an excellent job of conveying a broad and extremely complex set of years while managing to use language that I found to be very accessible.”

Dan Berg says Imperial China, 900-1800 will “REALLY change the way you perceive China.”

Kumar checked in to express his appreciation for our including fiction, which he says “does not always get the recognition it deserves.”

G. Hurst takes us to task for not mentioning any of the excellent legal or tax publications by CCH or LexisNexis. To which I say if you want to read about good China legal books, I suggest you check out this post, setting out Best China Law Books.

Tarrant Mahony relates on how he assigns six books for his MBA class and his list looks “quite a lot like” my list. He assigns Mr. China and One Billion Customers (for the business coverage), Out of Mao’s Shadow and The Party (for the political coverage) and Chinese Lessons and The Chinese Dream (for general social observation).”  He then goes on to recommend Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing, by Alan Paul, “an engaging story of expat life in China with a twist — he founded a blues band and became a big hit, hence the title. The book is a great read and it is very contemporary, i.e., most of the places he mentions still exist!”

DaMn mentioned Managing the Dragon, by Jack Perkowski as a great business “how to” book.

Chris recommends Death By China, by Peter Navarro, which he was sure would be “polemical”, but “turns out to be a very considered work and generally quite believable. I did not end up agreeing with all of it, but I am looking at China differently than before I read it.”

Tom recommends When A Billion Chinese Jump, by Jonathon Watts, because “it covers so much geographical territory and so many of the issues facing modern China.”

Dean Barrett suggests we read his book Don Quixote in China: The Search for Peach Blossom Spring, which he describes “as a humorous, somewhat mad romp through Hunan and Jiangsi provinces looking for the legendary Peach Blossom Spring”.

Please keep the comments coming.

16 responses to “Best Books on China”

  1. I can’t say how pleased I am to find myself on a list that has so many writers I admire!
    I was tempted to write after the first post to draw attention to Factory Girls, but since that is mentioned in this one, I’d just like to flag a few other titles that I point people to when they ask me similar questions. I have limited myself to books that fit your stated criteria for the four titles on your list of five other than my own: meaning the ones that follow are all accessible and engaging to read and help ensure that a reader will “never be able to view China as an amorphous mass of 1.3 billion people who think alike.” Here they are, in no particular order:
    Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China; a little bit older but has many of the same strengths as Philip Pan’s book, for example, and is carefully reported and unusually well crafted.
    Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing, especially if, as is likely, the reporter is going to be based in that city (there are other works to flag for a Shanghai-bound journalist).
    Sang Ye’s China Candid (a Studs Terkel-like collection of oral histories of an eclectic mix of people).
    Lijia Zhang’s “Socialism is Great”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, which is a spirited tale of an unconventional life.
    Zha Jianying’s new Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China, which I reviewed very favorably for Time recently.
    As for newspapers, two thoughts. Though it doesn’t have as much coverage of China as the ones you mentioned, the paper I grew up reading and now, since returning to Southern California, read each morning with my coffee, the Los Angeles Times, carries some excellent pieces on the country. A few recent ones by Barbara Demick come to mind immediately. And the Guardian has an excellent people in China right now.
    Finally, moving beyond blogs and newspapers, the Economist and American public radio (both NPR and Marketplace and when it touches on China, “The World”) are go to places for me as I try to stay abreast of things happening across the Pacific. Also valuable are the New York Review of Books (especially now that Howard French and Ian Johnson have been added to the set of China-focused contributors) and the New Yorker (where Evan Osnos has taken the baton from Peter Hessler). The China Digital Times (an aggregator and selector rather than a blog per se) is in a class all its own as a resource.
    Thanks again for including me on your list; you’ve now made my week, not just once but twice,
    Jeff

  2. “Mao’s Great Famine” by Frank Dikotter is a great historical, well researched book. Also thought it helped explain some cultural aspects of modern China.
    “The China Fantasy” by Jim Mann is looking more and more prophetic.
    “Tide Players” by Jianying Zha. I thought it was like a poor man’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow” but it has received solid reviews.
    “China Inc.” by Ted C. Fishman. One of the first books I got into about China. Good broad strokes about China’s increasing competitiveness with the US. Not incredibly academic but well written.
    “Red Capitalism” by Carl E. Walter and Fraser J.T. Howie. Fascinating book on China banking system. Banks loan to SOE’s who lose money. Gov’t bails out banks b/c of NPL’s from SOEs. Pretty technical but very in depth and eye opening.
    “The Beijing Consensus” by Stefan Halper. Theory that Beijing’s model of gov’t/state led economic growth might take hold in the developing world, specifically Africa/SE Asia. Interesting premise, I think it has some validity, but I just don’t think one-party states are sustainable models in the future (but thats just my opinion, read for yourself to find out!)
    Thanks, I love this post.

  3. Many of the above books I found to be fantastic, in particular anything by Hessler. In addition, I particularly enjoyed reading Rebecca E. Karl’s “Mao Zedong and China in the 20th Century World: A Concise History”. It does an excellent job of conveying a broad and extremely complex set of years while managing to use language that I found to be very accessible. A great read in conjunction with “Out of Mao’s Shadow”.

  4. Wonderful post. So many great books, some of which I have read, most of which I have heard, but some I am going to have to buy and read. I would especially like to thank you for noting some fictional works about China as I fear such works do not always get the recognition they deserve.

  5. Mark Salzman’s “Iron and Silk” is an excellent book, but perhaps a bit too focused on a personal experience of Changsha in the early 80s to suit the purposes here.

  6. Hi Dan – great post, thanks so much for sharing this list and your views. I will definitely check out some of these books as I seek to understand China better.
    Thanks again,
    Martyn

  7. Two blogs: sinologistical violincellist and justrecently. Not sure of the addresses. . . Try googling those words.

  8. Great blog, Dan. I assign six suggested books for students in an iMBA class that I teach, and my list looks quite a lot like yours: Mr. China and One Billion Customers (for the business coverage), Out of Mao’s Shadow and The Party (for the political coverage) and Chinese Lessons and The Chinese Dream (for general social observation).
    I also would recommend “Big in China” by Alan Paul which is an engaging story of expat life in China with a twist — he founded a blues band and became a big hit, hence the title. The book is a great read and it is very contemporary, i.e., most of the places he mentions still exist!
    Thanks for starting this thread,
    Tarry

  9. I thought I would ask about “Managing The Dragon.” which was deemed “The Best, Jerry. The Best.” in 2008 yet has no mention here.
    http://www.chinalawblog.com/2008/03/managing_the_dragon_the_best_j.html
    “This book is the best book I have read on how to do business in China. The best, Jerry! Businesspeople often ask me what book they should read to learn about China. From now on, I will tell them, Managing The Dragon. It is that good. One of the reasons I liked it so much is because I agreed with just about every word of advice in there on how to conduct business in China.”
    Has anything changed that would make its advice or learnings out of date?

  10. Peter Navarro’s book, Death By China, which just recently came out. I expected not to like it as I was sure it was going to be polemical. It turns out to be a very considered work and generally quite believable. I did not end up agreeing with all of it, but I am looking at China differently than before I read it.

  11. What a great list of resources. We just wrote a series on doing business in Asia. China clearly now plays a pivotal role in the global economy and we will be coming back to your blog to hear what you have to say. Look forward to keeping up the conversation.

  12. Another book to AVOID is Eamonn Fingleton’s “In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Dominance.” The problem with this book is that Fingleton portrays China’s economic rise too much in the image of Japan’s rise from the 60s to the 80s and that the author has never spent more than a few years in China; his long experience living in Japan shapes his perception of China. Fingleton’s book definitely fits Bill Dodson’s description of a bad book on China – author spent little time in China (as I already mentioned), leaves the reader more narrow-minded rather than open-minded and is overly prescriptive in his assessments. Worse, Fingleton fails to consider the immense problems in China that could flounder its economic growth and henceforth strength abroad. Overall, his book can easily deceive readers who do not understand China to develop unnecessary fear and suspicion of the rising superpower.
    For excellent news articles and analysis on China, I would recommend two websites:
    – The Asia Times Online – it has articles and analysis on China’s domestic politics and foreign policy that are more insightful and are less likely to subject to self-censorship unlike the South China Morning Post
    – Patrick Chovanec’s blog – Chovanec is an economics professor at Tsinghua University who regularly appears on CCTV-9. But don’t expect him to give the Chinese government mantra – this professor will provide honest assessments and criticisms of Chinese economic and domestic policy and delve deeply into the Chinese political system. Throughout his life, he has managed to visit all of China’s provinces and territories, including Taiwan. Check out his featured posts, such as “The Nine Nations of China” and “Primer on China’s Leadership Transition.”

  13. I think “When A Billion Chinese Jump” by Jonathon Watts needs to be on this list, as it covers so much geographical territory, and so many of the issues facing modern China.

  14. For a somewhat satirical look at China, may I humbly suggest my own book, DON QUIXOTE IN CHINA: THE SEARCH FOR PEACH BLOSSOM SPRING. If a humorous, somewhat mad romp through Hunan and Jiangsi provinces looking for the legendary Peach Blossom Spring appeals to you, I think you will enjoy it. Man man tso.

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