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.