The 100 China books you have to read, ranked
This is the SupChina Book List, 100 books about China across all genres — fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and everything in between — ranked from 100 to 1.
We sourced broadly, in an attempt to create a unique, inclusive list that has something for everyone, neither catering to a specific taste nor pandering to any preconceived idea of what such a list should look like.
There was no criteria except availability in English. Yes, this was more mad than methodical — but we’re proud of the result.
We decided to limit all authors to one title. All selections are related to mainland China, with exceptions: We considered some older Taiwanese writers who were active at a time before a distinct Taiwanese literary tradition had emerged, and Hong Kong writer Jin Yong, whose martial arts epics have had tremendous influence on Chinese readers everywhere. In the end, this is what we came up with: A list with books by journalists and historians, migrant poets and politicians, Nobel Prize winners (three, in fact) and dissidents; on topics including sex, sorcery, food, debt, Chinese medicine, gay life, and footbinding; across all eras, from the 14th century (Three Kingdoms) to 2019 (the books that come in at Nos. 36 and 39); featuring canonical histories, short story collections, travelogues, memoirs, treatises, and more.
And of course, all of it ranked. The folly of ranking, I assure you, is not lost on me. But as the overseeing editor, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Like all great art, literature’s value lies in part in its ability to spark conversation; think of this list as not merely a resource, but a dialogue-starter. We welcome disagreement. Tweet us @supchinanews, or me personally @anthonytao.
Finally, I want to say a big thank you to all of our blurb writers, who are listed here (along with, in the case of some, the China books they themselves have written).
— Anthony Tao
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Note: For every book, we’ve listed the original publisher and year of publication (for translations, the year is when the translation first appeared), but if you click on the title or image, you will be taken to the most readily available print edition.
Elizabeth C. Economy (Oxford University Press, 2018)
The Third Revolution, which begins with Xi Jinping’s rise to power and details his desire to “project the current Chinese political and economic development model globally,” is a smart, compact, carefully assembled primer on high-level Chinese political thinking today, answering the questions of why China is the way it is, what Beijing wants, and how the U.S. should respond. In the short time since the book’s publication, one feels it could already use an addendum to address the techno-trade war that has dominated recent headlines, but Elizabeth C. Economy — who is the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations — makes an observation in the book’s final chapter that feels pertinent no matter the state of U.S.-China affairs: “China can and should be an important U.S. partner whenever possible.”
— Anthony Tao
Paul Theroux (Putnam, 1988)
Riding the Iron Rooster is a fine antidote to the colonialist travelogues of the first half of the 20th century, as well as the self-serious immersive reportage books that came to dominate in the first half of this century. Theroux spent a year crisscrossing the country by rail, going as far as Xinjiang in the west and the Shandong coast in the east, often accompanied by government minders. As in all of his travel writing, he is unfailingly human, at turns prickly, lascivious, poetic, or just plain fed-up. If you were lucky enough to take a trip by train in the days before high-speed rail, you will find yourself nodding along in recognition. The off-the-cuff conclusions Theroux tosses out might read as offensive now (he writes off Hong Kongers as philistines and suggests there might be some truth to the idea that Tibetans were descended from a “sexually voracious ogress”), but he has plenty of venom left for the Western tourists, journalists, and businessmen that were flocking to China in the 1980s, and his boorishness is undercut by a natural inquisitiveness that leads to genuine exchanges with the people he meets along the way.
— Dylan Levi King
Peter Goullart (John Murray Publishers, 1955)
This is a valuable first-person narrative from an author who spent almost a decade in Lijiang, Yunnan Province during the 1930s and 1940s. Originally a tour guide in Shanghai, the Russian-born Peter Goullart eventually became appointed by the Nationalists as chief of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives in Lijiang, where he learned to speak Naxi, the language of the dominant ethnic group. Descriptions of his encounters with local traders, merchants, and inn keepers are sensational (like the time a Muosuo woman offered herself as “payment” for medicine), and it’s hard to believe that the story of his kidnapping by upland bandits wasn’t embellished. Still, Goullart’s highly attuned descriptions of the Han Chinese, Tibetans, Nakhi (Naxi), and Lolos (Yi) merchants from all walks of society present a vivid portrait of an ethnically diverse southwest China during a pivotal time in the country’s history.
— Rosalyn Shih
97. Shanghai Baby
Wèi Huì 卫慧, translated by Bruce Humes (Deckle Edge, 2001)
This controversial Chinese novel tells the story of Coco, a Shanghai waitress in search of love, whose ambition it is to become a famous writer. Shanghai Baby focuses on city life and the sexual awakening of the young socialite, containing many sexually explicit scenes of Coco’s encounters with her Chinese and foreign boyfriends. Within China, this book was officially banned in 2000, with 40,000 copies publicly burned. Outside of China, it was either marketed as “that banned book” or as some Chinese equivalent of Sex and the City — often leaving foreign readers disappointed when their expectations weren’t met. Shanghai Baby isn’t considered a literary masterpiece, but it shouldn’t be categorized as chick-lit, either.
Because of all the controversy and misconception, I decided to write my thesis in Literary Studies about this book years ago, arguing that it needs to be put back in its context of the PRC in the late 1990s. Wei Hui was one of the pioneers of the so-called “beauty writers” (美女作家 měinǚ zuòjiā) wave, together with authors Mian Mian (Candy) and Chun Sue (Beijing Doll): young urban women authors who were not afraid to write about unconventional lifestyles and sexual experiences. What they did was bold, especially in 1990s China, giving voice to a new generation of strong, independent Chinese women.
— Manya Koetse
96. Iron and Silk
Mark Salzman (Random House, 1986)
Mark Salzman was among the first generation of Americans to teach in China, in the 1980s, when he was in Changsha. His was by no means the average waiguoren (foreigner) experience; Salzman was already fluent in Mandarin (and conversational in Cantonese) when he arrived, and he was an expert in wushu. He’s a sharp observer, and he tells his story through vignettes that are both beautiful and brief — actually, there is something Daoist in his economy. The China that he depicts is something of a lost world — it’s hard to grasp how poor and isolated places like Changsha were at this time. After China, Salzman went on to a great career as a novelist and memoirist, with an impressive range of subjects. But he never returned to China after filming the movie version of Iron and Silk in 1989.
— Peter Hessler
Huò Dá 霍达, translated by Guan Yuehua (Panda Books, 1992)
It’s a sad fact that many important novels of the late-1980s and early-1990s, a golden age for contemporary fiction, remain untranslated, or received subpar or abridged translations. The Jade King, or Funeral of a Muslim, as the title is also sometimes rendered, is one of those books. Huo Da’s novel is a family epic based on her own upbringing as a Hui Muslim in China’s capital. The story of Han Ziqi, an orphan raised by Hui and tutored in the carving of jade ornaments, ranges from the late Qing Dynasty to the end of the Cultural Revolution, and from Beijing to London. Shortly after The Jade King’s release, it did receive an abridged translation, but the book remains virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, despite its enduring popularity in its home country, where it has won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, sold close to five million copies, and been adapted for film and television.
— Dylan Levi King
Mara Hvistendahl (Public Affairs, 2011)
China has no shortage of problems on its horizon, but perhaps one of the most alarming and underappreciated is its severe gender imbalance, which will see tens of millions of men go permanently without a female partner. In this book, journalist Mara Hvistendahl traces the origins of the problem, from Western fears of overpopulation in the 1960s though the present day, where a patriarchal culture, strict birth limits, and sex-selective abortion have made China ground zero for this problem with global implications. Hvistendahl’s vivid character-driven storytelling combined with her experience as a science reporter shine through, as she draws on extensive interviews, scientific research, history, and sociology to give a fascinating page-turner into how the problem developed and what its future implications may be. From increasing crime rates, human trafficking, and rising housing prices to the potential for more hawkish nationalism and social instability, she notes that, “Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live. Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent.” This book is the go-to resource for understanding one of China’s greatest challenges, which will continue to strain the country in both obvious and subtle ways for decades to come.
— Eric Fish
Yán Liánkē 阎连科, translated by Julia Lovell (Grove Press: Black Cat, 2008)
Set during the height of Mao Zedong’s personality cult, Serve the People! is a deceptively simple story of a passionate affair between the wife of a general and an orderly. As the Cultural Revolution rages, the lovers find excitement in breaking taboos and Mao’s busts — only to surrender to the historical forces that have swallowed up and spat out individuals throughout China. Published in 2005, the book was immediately banned for its political undertones as well as its raunchiness — which naturally increased its demand. Aside from Serve the People!, Yan Lianke is also gained notoriety for The Dream of Ding Village, a novel depicting the AIDS crisis in rural China. A prolific writer of novels, novellas, and literary criticism, he has won several prizes, including the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Franz Kafka Prize.
— Masha Borak
Lisa See (Random House, 2005)
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an intricately imagined novel that seeks to portray the complex inner lives of two women during the Qing Dynasty. A subtly feminist work, at each major milestone in the lives of its two main characters, the author reminds the reader that for all the exotic trappings and social strictures of their time and place, women in Imperial China had their own voices, desires, and methods for exerting some measure of control over their lives.
The book follows the life of the narrator, Lily, beginning with her experience of footbinding in early childhood and, perhaps paradoxically, its role in helping her rise from the social class of her birth through an advantageous marriage. Footbinding is also Lily’s gateway to being instructed in “women’s script” (女书, nǔshū) — an actual writing system developed and used exclusively by women deep in Hunan Province — and, in turn, to being paired with a pen pal of sorts, the eponymous Snow Flower, who will become the single most important personal relationship of her long life. The book traces the experiences and written exchanges of these women as they navigate key life milestones and reflect on the ever-changing world beyond the seclusion of their “women’s quarters,” until the Taiping Rebellion and its aftermath threaten to overturn everything they know — including their deeply felt bond.
Snow Flower provides an important and humanizing glimpse into the lives of women in Imperial China, giving a lyrical voice to individuals who have otherwise been all too frequently overlooked.
— Siodhbhra Parkin
Paul French (Penguin Books, 2012)
The story of 19-year-old Pamela Werner’s grisly murder and postmortem dismemberment and dissection in 1930s Peking was mostly forgotten by the time Paul French began investigating the story in the mid-2000s. French sets his reconstruction of the events of 1937 against the backdrop of a city and a nation on the verge of monumental change. The novelistic retelling of the Werner story is as compelling as French’s portrait of Peking in the dying days of Old China, and the city’s collection of expatriate misfits, colonial holdouts, weirdos, and perverts.
— Dylan Levi King
Eliot Weinberger (Moyer Bell Limited, 1987)
A quiet, wooded mountain; a glint of sunlight; a patch of moss. These are the components of ”鹿柴” (Lù Zhài), the poem that forms the subject of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (originally published in 1987, expanded and reissued in 2016). Wáng Wéi 王维 — an innovative painter, high-ranking court official, reluctant rebel, and devout Buddhist — sits alongside Li Bai and Du Fu in the triumvirate of great Tang Dynasty poets. Like their best-known works, Wang Wei’s poem has become a proving ground for many a generation of translators, and in this slender volume Eliot Weinberger collects a range of their efforts, dissecting them with fine-grained attention to detail and acerbic humor (Witter Bynner’s translation, for example, takes place in “a world where no statement can be made without a pregnant, sensitive, world-weary ellipsis”). Read Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei to appreciate the art of classical Chinese poetry, the practicalities of translation, and the subtle gradations of the English language.
— Dave Haysom
Xinran (pen name for Xuē Xīnrán 薛欣然), translated by Esther Tyldesley (Chatto and Windus, 2002)
If you’ve ever flipped through FM stations in a Chinese city late at night, you’ve likely heard this: a woman’s voice, coming down a phone line, sharing private pain and unimaginable suffering. Xinran helped pioneer the format on her Words on the Night Breeze program, and the stories in The Good Women of China are mostly drawn from letters she received while hosting the show. Xinran does her best to pry open the trapdoor to what still goes unspoken. The stories she collects of rape, incest, domestic violence, forced abortion, kidnapping, and suicide are shocking — but even more shocking is the seeming mundanity of the brutalization of women and girls, sometimes by less extreme but far more insidious means. Perhaps Xinran could be faulted for trying too hard to pin the case on political and social chaos under the Communist Party; still, the stories she relates — including her own — are timeless and depressingly universal.
— Dylan Levi King
Jonathan Tel (Other Press, 2009)
Over the course of 12 short stories, Jonathan Tel conjures a vibrant, complex Beijing of multitudes, of idealists and thieves, migrant workers and musicians, of surreal twists and fantastical elements nevertheless grounded in the possible. Tel’s Beijing is one where a gorilla mascot is subjected to Cultural Revolution-style torment in advance of the Summer Olympics, where a boy goes on a Monkey King-like adventure to procure a cotton candy machine, and where a girl with runaway dreams transforms into a modern-day Cinderella. This is the Beijing I imagine telling people about when I talk to those who have never been here. “How wonderful to be alive in the Beijing of possibilities,” thinks the girl in the title story. I believe that sentiment, in the same way people believe in great fiction.
— Anthony Tao
Nien Cheng (Grove Press, 1987)
The 1980s witnessed a publishing boom in English-language (or translated) China memoirs that focused on individual experiences of political campaigns from the 1950s through the Cultural Revolution. Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai stands out in a crowded and exceptional field that includes Wu Ningkun’s A Single Tear, Yue Daiyun and Carolyn Wakeman’s To the Storm, Gao Yuan’s Born Red, and Yang Jiang’s A Cadre School Life: Six Chapters. When the Cultural Revolution began, Nien Cheng worked in a senior position at the British Shell oil company in Shanghai with the blessings of the Shanghai Communist Party, which also had allowed her and her late husband — a former Kuomintang diplomat who was invited to work with Shanghai’s new government — to keep their grand house and servants. Overnight, she became an accused British spy and enemy of socialism. Condemned to six and a half years in prison, she endured physical and psychological torture and deprivation. Her beloved daughter, meanwhile, committed suicide. Cheng is a sharp observer and a gifted storyteller; her fierce intelligence, wit, and courage are evident on every page. When the book came out, some critics carped that her status as a wealthy bourgeois rendered her story “untypical.” I’d argue that her strength of character, her unbending spirit, and her search for justice make it universal.
— Linda Jaivin
86. China’s Great Wall of Debt: Shadow Banks, Ghost Cities, Massive Loans, and the End of the Chinese Miracle
Dinny McMahon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)
Making China’s complex and shadowy debt-fueled economy engaging to the ordinary reader is no easy task, but Dinny McMahon, a veteran financial reporter, does just that. One of the ways he cuts through the abstruse is through characters he’s met over the years: There are baijiu dealers, ambitious local politicians, despairing architects, and more, all offering a human face to the world of unsecured loans and peer-to-peer lending. McMahon also addresses ghost cities, state monopolies, and a manufacturing boom that has simultaneously generated huge prosperity and created what he sees as economic time bombs. His forecasts are gloomy, but there have already been a number of incidents, such as last year’s P2P lending scandal, that indicate his insights should be taken seriously. All together, China’s Great Wall of Debt is a slim economic treatise and lively reader’s guide to China’s contemporary economy.
— Amy Hawkins
Lín Yǔtáng 林语堂 (Blue Ribbon Books, 1945)
This collection of essays from social commentator and polyglot Lin Yutang — a Chinese scholar with the rare gift of being able to address a Western audience in plain English prose — is a phenomenally digestible primer on “the Chinese,” an attempt by the author to dispel the image of inscrutability and exoticism which dogged public perceptions of China at the time (and, regrettably, still does to this day). Lin could perhaps be called one of the first anti-Orientalists, but also a debunker of the Yellow Peril.
Despite being written at a time when China was fractured, subjugated, and ablaze, this book is replete with good-humored musings on the habits and thinking of the “average Chinese,” a man (sadly, Lin’s views on women are not ahead of its time) who prefers goldfish and canaries to guns and cannon, and who doesn’t need to be “right” to win an argument with a neighbor — merely “reasonable.”
One can derive comfort from Lin’s genial assessment of the Chinese as, ultimately and eternally, “reasonable people leading reasonable lives.” He paints a picture of a people too thoughtful for demagoguery, too placid for warfare, too happy-go-lucky for ruthless exploitation of others. His words speak to those of us who try to square the reality of our intellectually dynamic, generous, and open-minded Chinese friends with their monolithic state, and remind us that there is indeed a difference.
— Jack Smith
Dorothy Ko (University of California Press, 2007)
A self-proclaimed “alternative history” of the practice of footbinding in China, Cinderella’s Sisters is a gratifyingly challenging book. The premise is straightforward, if somewhat provocative: The dominant narrative of footbinding as a painful patriarchal practice imposed upon women for the pleasure of men is an ahistorical oversimplification — and one that serves to obscure the voices and experiences of the women at the heart of the story. In her complex book, which simultaneously serves as a social history, literary criticism, and study of material culture, Dorothy Ko seeks to “unwrap” footbinding in an effort to reveal the desires, motivations, and lived experiences of the women themselves who endured and to an extent drove the practice for the thousand or so years it persisted. While Ko, who teaches history at Barnard College, is careful to never fully condone or condemn footbinding, and does not shy from the unpleasant — and, as many would persuasively argue, brutal — realities of the practice, she does emphasize that for many Chinese women, bound feet were integral to their perceptions of dignity and self-worth. In this vein, Ko explores how different styles of footbinding emerged and flourished at different periods and locations, locating the various methods of breaking, bending, and binding the female foot within the more conventional history of Chinese fashion. Drawing on an array of sources, Ko thus convincingly seeks to dispel the perception of footbinding as a practice uniformly and unidirectionally inflicted upon women by men, and instead weaves a more complex tale that allows for an “open-ended space,” to use Ko’s phrase, in which the resilient voices of those whose feet were bound might finally find an audience.
— Siodhbhra Parkin
Ted J. Kaptchuk, O.M.D. (Congdon & Weed, 1983)
First published in 1983, this book is a classic introduction to Chinese medicine that is equally well-suited for an acupuncture training course, a university philosophy class, or the bedside table of anyone interested in Chinese culture. Its author, Ted Kaptchuk, is a Harvard professor who studied traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Macau and is also known for his work on the efficacy of placebo effects in medical treatment. In addition to what you might expect from a guide to Chinese medicine — for example, explanations of various kinds and capacities of qi, pulse-taking, and careful comparisons of Chinese and Western notions of the body, illness, and healing — this book delves deep into the practical and philosophical roots of TCM, from the five aspects of the spirit to yin/yang oscillations to poetic (yet rigorous) meditations on landscape painting, the senses, and nature. Ultimately, this book is an ontological sketch of the Chinese universe. By taking this system of thought and practice and animating it for foreign readers, Kaptchuk challenges the notion that Western science has “a unique handle on the truth — all else is superstition.”
— Hanna Pickwell
82. Taipei People
Pai Hsien-yung (Bái Xiānyǒng 白先勇), latest English edition translated by the author and Patia Yasin (The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2018)
The title of Pai Hsien-yung’s collection of short stories of mainlanders in exile is a clear nod to James Joyce’s Dubliners (a more overt nod when their Chinese titles are set side by side). Like Joyce, Pai uses his naturalistic portraits of urbanites in service of a larger story about exile, nostalgia, cultural stagnation, and nationalism. Pai’s Taipei people are not really from Taipei, but are merely stuck there. There are septuagenarian generals recalling the Wuchang Uprising of 1911 and professors reminiscing about the failures of the May Fourth Movement, a war widow running a noodle shop for city clerks homesick for Guilin noodles and Kuomintang aristocracy pausing over their shark’s fin soup to sing a few bars from the opera The Imperial Favorite Drunk with Wine. Just like them, Pai Hsien-yung was obsessed with a cultural China that no longer existed, but Taipei People is also thoroughly modern — as complicated and contradictory as Pai Hsien-yung’s own identity…
Pai was the son of a Hui Muslim general in the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army, and he was moved around mainland China before his family fled, first to Hong Kong and then Taiwan. He later emigrated again, heading to America in the 1960s, where he started to seriously work on Taipei People while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a legendary program that has been home over the years to writers like Joy Williams, Yiyun Li, and Raymond Carver. Considering the events that were about to come on the mainland and Taiwan, with the madness of the Cultural Revolution and the collapse of KMT autocracy, Taipei People is even more tragic, 50 years after its original publication.
— Dylan Levi King
Damien Ma and William Adams (Pearson FT Press, 2013)
Educators should put this excellent and highly readable book on their syllabi. Organizing their analysis of China’s economics, politics, society, and even culture around the theme of scarcity — scarcity of resources, scarcity of public goods, of cultural products, of ideological legitimacy — the authors suggest that China’s breakneck growth will actually end up holding China back. Peppered with sly and sometimes not-so-sly humor, and with gleeful pop culture references, this book will provide a solid foundation for understanding contemporary China.
— Kaiser Kuo
Leta Hong Fincher (Zed Books, 2014)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a student opens a Chinese history textbook that addresses the status of women in Communist China, they will be confronted with one of Mao’s most famous utterances: “Women hold up half the sky.” What is less certain is whether that same text will talk about everything that women have endured in the many decades since. Leta Hong Fincher’s seminal work, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, lays out in no uncertain terms just how empty that platitude rings for Chinese women in the contemporary era. Devastating in its forthrightness, Hong dissects the rise of the demeaning term “leftover” (or 剩女 shèngnǚ, leftover women) to shame young women into marriage and childbearing — regardless of their own personal dreams for higher education or professional success. Hong also captures the political and social background that contextualizes precisely how women are kept from advocating for even the most basic rights, such as protection from abusive partners and economic exploitation.
Written in the years leading up to the Feminist Five incident and the #MeToo movement, Leftover Women lays the groundwork in a clear and unflinching way for understanding the cataclysmic events that have reshaped the landscape of contemporary Chinese feminism. Time may be up for tired maxims about holding up half the sky, but for Chinese feminist activism, Hong’s work proves that things are just getting started.
— Siodhbhra Parkin
Henrietta Harrison (Stanford University Press, 2005)
In this beautifully written work of local and personal history, author Henrietta Harrison provides a gentle yet compelling corrective to the tendency for books about China to focus on individuals and ideas with outsize impact. As she writes in the preface to this fascinating account about an ordinary man living an ordinary life in a tiny village in Shanxi Province, “Real humanity in historical accounts is all too often restricted to great leaders, famous writers, or original thinkers.” Without a trace of irony, she notes of the eponymous main character of her book: “Liu Dapeng was none of these.” Using the 400 or so volumes of personal diaries Liu left behind, Harrison paints a deeply human portrait of Liu and his family as they struggle to cope with the massive changes that gripped China in the late-19th and early-20th century. At the same time, Harrison artfully demonstrates how seemingly abstract developments such as the gradual shift away from Confucian ideology had immediate and deeply felt personal impacts. The Man Awakened from Dreams is therefore an important reminder that when it comes to a country as vast and complex as China, the best stories that teach us the most are not always the ones taken straight from the headlines.
— Siodhbhra Parkin
Fuchsia Dunlop (W .W. Norton & Company, 2008)
The mouthwatering spice of noodles, the chaos and stench of a wet market, the surprisingly rubbery crunch of intestines, and more…all described in savory detail — beware, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper may well trigger your visceral sensations. Author Fuchsia Dunlop’s personal story begins like it does for many expats, as a student exploring a Chinese city. But, as detailed in this memoir, after she enrolls in the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine — the first-ever foreigner to do so — she begins a decades-long journey traversing the country in search of discovery, understanding, and good food. Along the way, she becomes one of those rare Westerners in China to achieve true culinary enlightenment, able to enjoy the bits and pieces that the rest of us merely politely endure. Through personal anecdotes and historical research, she places the vast and varied world of Chinese cuisine into much-needed context, and — as a bonus for us — ends each chapter with a recipe. I recommend this book to anyone, but especially to those who see the “eccentricities” of the Chinese diet as an opportunity to explore, to learn, and to challenge one’s own preconceptions.
— Jessica Colwell
Cáo Wénxuān 曹文轩, translated by Helen Wang, illustrated by Meilo So (Walker Books, 2015)
Bronze and Sunflower, a 400-page novel aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds, takes us back 40 years to a poor Chinese village during the Cultural Revolution. Sunflower has arrived with her artist father and other educated townsfolk, at the May 7 Cadre School (in reality, a labor camp), where the adults will clear the land, build houses, and run a fish farm. The lonely seven-year-old eventually makes friends with a mute boy called Bronze from the nearby village, Daimadi, and together they share hardships and adventures both in the village and further afield. While village life is viewed through slightly rose-tinted spectacles and there are scant details about what it’s like to grow up dirt-poor and hungry, there is plenty of wry humor; for instance, the villagers are nonplussed by the newcomers in the May 7 Cadre School, who have “their own language, their own activities, and their own ways of doing things.” Many young readers will find this an engrossing read. Cao Wenxuan won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2016 for best children’s writer, and Helen Wang won the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation for her translation of Bronze and Sunflower.
— Nicky Harman
F.W. Mote (Harvard University Press, 1999)
When it comes to English-language books on China, F. W. Mote’s Imperial China is as magisterial as it gets, taking on a broad canvas with confident strokes. Mote, who first went to China during World War II with the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s precursor), packs 40 years of scholarship into his work. By starting at the fall of the Tang and running through the high Qing, Imperial China has room to delve deeper than other general histories that aim for “5,000 years.” Mote makes the most of this decision, delivering narratives compelling enough to prompt frequent Wikipedia dives into his well-drawn characters, like standouts Liao Emperor Abaoji and reformist councilor Wang Anshi.
At its core, Imperial China is political history. Mote takes emperors and eunuchs to task for their failings, unafraid to judge leading characters for their decisions without undue deference to received historical tradition. He then makes his history relevant by grappling with challenges of governance applicable across ages. The book is particularly strong in two aspects: information on steppe peoples and elite political philosophy. It perhaps works best as a capstone for a 101 learner, bridging knowledge across dynasties and inspiring curiosity for deeper reading.
— Jordan Schneider
Yáng Jiàng 杨绛 (born Yáng Jìkāng 楊季康), translated by Judith M. Amory and Yaohua Shi (Hong Kong University Press, 2007)
The novel Baptism takes readers deep into Beijing’s 1950s literary scene, during the beginning of Mao’s purges and the unraveling of societal trust. It traces the ruination of a social class: scholars who were a source of national pride found themselves suddenly lampooned as a national embarrassment. Yang Jiang portrays self-serving relationships between colleagues, friends, and spouses, showing how individuals were manipulated into abandoning genuine expression in favor of performative political genuflection. As one character notes in the face of an allegation of theft, “These days morality has to hide its face, and dishonesty rules!” Yang’s characters write contrived self-criticisms, wrestling with how vivid, dramatic, and incriminating their confessions should be, knowing that striking the right tone is essential to their survival.
Yang Jiang and her husband, the author Qian Zhongshu (Fortress Besieged), were both consigned to “reform through labor” in the 1960s, a period she documented in her memoir A Cadre School Life: Six Chapters (a later translation renders it as Six Chapters From My Life “Downunder”). At that time, Yang was punished for working on a translation of Don Quixote, which she finished in 1978. She died in Beijing 38 years later, at age 104.
— Johanna Costigan
Shěn Fù 沈复, translated by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-Hui (Penguin Classics: Harmondsworth, 1983)
This is an early 19th-century book that crosses genres, blending memoir and novel to give us a portrait of a mid-level official and his relationship with his dear wife, who dies young. It’s a very accessible, short work, partly because four of the six records are lost. When I was first getting interested in China I read it and it sort of brainwashed me, in a very good way, making me realize the universality of ambition and disappointment, love and sadness, among people around the world. I feel that these kinds of books, which tell us about how people really live their lives, often in microscopic detail, are more lasting and telling than the usual “must-read” China books, which have a shelf life of a few years. They get under your skin and stick with you, which is what great writing should do.
For many Chinese readers, it’s also been an inspiring work. For example, the writer Yang Jiang used it as a loose template to record her time with her husband, the novelist Qian Zhongshu (Fortress Besieged), in a labor camp (A Cadre School Life: Six Chapters).
— Ian Johnson
Eugenia Lean (University of California Press, 2007)
In the fall of 1925, a warlord named Shi Congbing was decapitated by his rival. His head stuck was stuck on a pole outside a train station. Ten years later, Shi’s daughter — Shi Jianqiao — tracked down her father’s murderer to a temple, where he was leading a sutra-chanting group. She dumped three rounds from a Browning semi-automatic into the back of his head, splattering his brains all over his prayer circle.
Eugenia Lean gives a fine account of the gory details, the media circus, and the legal wranglings that followed, but her purpose is teasing out something about the sociopolitical character of the Republican Era. Lean uses the Shi Jianqiao case to illustrate a new “popular sympathy” (tóngqíng 同情) in the Republican Era, when a new urban audience was able to follow updates in the case almost as they happened. One of the first trials by media, an unruly debate took place between those upholding rule of law (murder is illegal) and more ancient ethics (avenging your father’s murder is justified). We won’t give away the ending, but just know that Shi Jianqiao — whose spirit is revived in Lean’s book — went down in history as a bad-ass heroine.
— Dylan Levi King
Angus C. Graham (Open Court, 1989)
Disputers of the Tao is a marvelously sophisticated survey of the major streams of thought of pre-Qin China, how they emerge in response to the social-political environment and how they are in constant interaction with each other over time. As the title suggests, Graham reminds us that the notion of “Tao” was not particular to Taoists, but that each school of thought was working out its own Way. That is what they disputed: how should Tao be understood and practiced. The book is an excellent introduction to the differences between Confucius and Mozi and the Yangists and others. It clearly draws out distinctions between Confucius and Mencius and Xunzi. The Sophists and Zhuangzi are expertly analyzed. And it is fairly persuasive on a point that not everyone will accept: the nonexistence of a historical person, Laozi, the credited founder of Taoism. Surveys of this sort are difficult to pull off well without lapsing into textbook simplicity, but this one succeeds in both introducing basic concepts and also drilling deeply into fascinating philosophical, historical, and linguistic debates.
— Sam Crane
71. Beijing Comrades
Běi Tóng 北同 (pseudonym), translated by Scott E. Myers (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2016)
Written by an anonymous author in 1998 and first published as an online novel, Beijing Comrades tells a love story between two men against the backdrop of political and economic upheaval in 1980s Beijing. Handong, an unsympathetic business man with political connections, falls for Lan Yu, a young, seemingly naive newcomer to the Chinese capital. Over 384 pages, the book follows their decade-long infatuation with each other, not shying away from explicit sex scenes, plenty of relationship conflict and emotional turmoil, and questions about the role of sexual identity and desire in the face of societal expectations — questions all too familiar to both current and older generations of men who love men in many other countries.
As a cultural product, no other publication may be as representative of the gay experience in China. Beijing Comrades was popularized online, turned into a movie in Taiwan, blocked from publication in China even in its safe-for-work version, and recently translated into English in cooperation with the anonymous author — though there is no authoritative version. Instead, the book speaks to the constant need for adaptation and change faced by the Chinese queer community, which will find spaces to survive no matter what.
— Katharin Tai
Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, edited by Derek Sandhaus (Earnshaw Books, 2011)
Sir Edmund Backhouse is a reflexively interesting character. He was a reclusive linguistic genius and an English dandy, the best-selling chronicler of the late-Qing Dynasty and a literary fraud, the alleged lover of Oscar Wilde and the Empress Dowager Cixi. Who wouldn’t want to read that autobiography? The two-odd years I spent decoding his handwritten memoirs — a dense thicket of polyglottal meanderings, contradictory claims, and byzantine literary allusions — were as mad and exasperating as any an editor is likely to encounter. But I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything, because Décadence Mandchoue is a book unlike any other.
It is not a book for everyone. Many struggle to navigate its dense prose and baroque sexuality, and the line between reality and fantasy is blurred to the point of indecipherability. Yet readers who follow where its author leads — through the gay brothels of Qianmen, the seat of Manchu power, and the Forbidden boudoir — will glimpse a salacious but poignant portrait of a forgotten China.
— Derek Sandhaus
Lánlíng Xiàoxiào Shēng 兰陵笑笑生 (a.k.a., the Scoffing Scholar of Lanling), translated by David Roy (Princeton University Press, 1997)
The Great Learning (大学 dàxué), one of the Four Books of Confucianism and a cornerstone of late Imperial education, describes how morality and proper order radiate outward from a cultivated individual. Through self-cultivation, the Great Learning says, the ancients improved their minds, their persons, their households, and ultimately their country.
This is not what happens in The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅 Jīn Píng Méi). What happens in Jin Ping Mei is precisely not this. Unlike the other “masterworks of Ming fiction” (Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Outlaws of the Marsh), which recount the heroic deeds of righteous heroes, Jin Ping Mei focuses on the squalid life of Xīmén Qìng 西门庆, a vulgar merchant who devotes his time, energy, and considerable wealth exclusively to the gratification of his own baser urges: his sexual escapades, described in exhaustive and increasingly unappealing detail, have earned Jin Ping Mei a reputation as an elaborately scandalous work of pornography. The rarity of good editions — the novel has been banned (with varying degrees of success) for most of the 400 years since its first printing, and unbowdlerized texts are still hard to find in the PRC — has probably contributed to this misunderstanding, as have the age and obscurity of the novel’s language and the magpie’s nest of allusions and quotations that make up much of the book. In fact, the sex scenes for which the novel is infamous account for less than 1 percent of the work as a whole, and seem to have been intended to complement the other perversions — of justice, of morality, of proper social order — that the anonymous author documents with the same pitiless clarity. Ximen Qing debauches, ravishes, and whores his way through much of the novel, but he also cozens, suborns, and climbs to heights of wealth and access that no one of his character or social status should ever have.
For an educated reader of the late Ming Dynasty, the conclusion of the novel — the collapse and dispersal of the Ximen household, juxtaposed with the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty to the Jurchens — would have come as no surprise, and not just because the Northern Song had ended five hundred years previously. Ximen Qing and his rapacity are symptoms, not causes, of a terminally sick society. Despite its Northern Song setting, which it borrows (along with its main characters and much of its first 10 chapters) from Outlaws of the Marsh, Jin Ping Mei is transparently about the late 16th century world in which its author and its first readers lived. The fashions, institutions, and characters are all straight out of the late Ming — the author’s eye for detail has made the book an important resource for historians of the period — as are the social ills it documents.
Imagine a world where the people in power are every bit as venal and corruptible as the merchants they officially despised. Imagine a state that imprisons and exiles the just. Imagine a society in such complete moral free-fall that the only imaginable goal is more. How long can it survive before the Jurchens show up? How long does it deserve to?
— Brendan O’Kane
Jan Wong (Doubleday Anchor Books, 1996)
Jan Wong’s memoir of China in the 1970s and ’80s is mostly forgotten outside of her native Canada, where she is more famous for a column dishing dirt on Toronto celebrities. But it presents a unique twist on the genre of books written by foreigners on sojourn in the Middle Kingdom. Red China Blues charts Wong’s first visit to China in 1972 as a student fired up by Maoist fervor, her attempts to learn Chinese while also hauling pig manure, her marriage to Norman Shulman, an American draft dodger, her disillusionment with the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and then her eventual return to China as a foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail. She arrived back in Beijing just in time to have a front row seat for the earth-shaking events of the summer of 1989. The book attempts to make sense of the political upheaval of the past half-century and her own connection to her ancestral homeland.
— Dylan Levi King
67. To Live
Yú Huá 余华, translated by Michael Berry (Anchor, 2003)
Yu Hua is known for stories that capture an uncanny mix of comedy and tragedy in the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. His seminal novel To Live chronicles the life of Xu Fugui, a hapless witness and participant in some of contemporary China’s most iconic historical junctures, from the tail end of imperial China through the Cultural Revolution. The scope and tone of the novel resembles Forrest Gump, another famous work of fiction whose titular character stumbles through decades of tumultuous change. To Live is a story full of heartbreaking tragedy that is deliberately devoid of maudlin sentimentality. By juxtaposing unadorned, matter-of-fact language against senseless horrors caused by rash decisions made by China’s political pantheon, Yu paints an extremely sympathetic portrait of China’s humble 老百姓 (lǎobǎixìng — “the people”), of their resilience and resignation. Though Fugui’s life is marred by loss and trauma, his capacity to accept the enormity of the suffering in his life will leave the reader in awe.
— Frankie Huang
Chí Zijiàn 迟子建, translated by Bruce Humes (Harvill Secker, 2013)
Jiang Rong’s blockbuster Wolf Totem and Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon were published within about a year of each other in the mid-2000s. Jiang’s book, a bloodthirsty prescription for national renewal that praised the nomadic Mongolian spirit, played fast and loose with the facts, and was attacked as “fascist,” went on to sell four million copies within a year. Chi’s haunting novel recording the past century of Evenki life in Inner Mongolia received a far more muted reception outside of literary circles, despite rendering a more intricate and evocative picture of nomadic life.
The author put in countless hours studying the Evenki, who now number in the tens of thousands and live mostly in the Evenki Autonomous Banner, close to where the Mongolian, Inner Mongolian, and Russian borders meet. The unnamed narrator, an elderly woman descended from tribal chieftains, describes the Evenki’s move from a nomadic life — herding reindeer across the steppes and hunting in the boreal forest — to settlement in permanent townships, and her own fight to stay connected to the mountains that she was raised in. Reindeer may not be as marketable as wolves, but Chi Zijian’s story is just as gripping as Jiang Rong’s, with none of his tiresome didacticism.
— Dylan Levi King
Kai-Fu Lee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)
As a venture capitalist who has invested heavily in China’s technology sector, Kai-Fu Lee is hardly an unbiased observer of artificial intelligence’s development on either side of the Pacific. But it is also precisely because of his unique depth and breadth of involvement in both worlds that makes him uniquely qualified to write this book.
Lee covers a great deal in a relatively short space (less than 300 pages), from a brief history of AI technology to the basics of how AI systems operate, all in the context of China’s tech ecosystem and the entrepreneurs who made it happen. AI Superpowers takes a complicated topic and makes it both entertaining and easy for laypeople to understand. The future of AI might well be the future of the world; use this book to make your acquaintance.
— Elliott Zaagman
Louisa Lim (Oxford University Press, 2014)
The protests and bloodshed around Tiananmen Square in 1989 is well documented, but The People’s Republic of Amnesia is about much more. There was a second massacre in Chengdu, for instance, one of the many cities around China where protesters flocked to the streets in support of the demonstrators in Beijing. Lim also delves into the battle between those who want to remember June 4 and those who want it forgotten in lieu of the story of China’s remaking ever since. The most poignant tales come from the Tiananmen Mothers, a collective of aging parents who have been campaigning tirelessly for the government to officially recognize their children’s deaths on the night of June 3 and early morning of June 4. With riveting firsthand accounts of those who stood on both sides of the violence, Lim’s book ensures that at least for her readers, this date won’t be forgotten.
— Amy Hawkins
Běi Dǎo 北岛, edited by Eliot Weinberger, with translations by Bonnie McDougall, David Hinton, and Eliot Weinberger (New Directions, 2010)
Bei Dao began writing poetry during the Cultural Revolution, founded the first unofficial literary journal in the People’s Republic of China in 1978, became one of the country’s best known poets in the ’80s, and then was in exile after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989; he moved to Hong Kong in 2007 and has been allowed to travel in mainland China following a stroke in 2012, and remains one of the best known poets writing in Chinese today — and one of the leading lights of Chinese literature. The Rose of Time presents the most moving and innovative selections of his oeuvre up to 2010, from the “I — do — not — believe” of “The Answer” from the ’70s to his more recent “Black Map,” with the lines “I go home — reunions / are one less / fewer than goodbyes.” For an entryway either into Bei Dao’s own output over the last four decades or where contemporary Chinese poetry is, The Rose of Time is indispensable.
— Lucas Klein
Lìjiā Zhāng 张丽佳 (Atlas, 2008)
Much has been written about the personal tragedies experienced during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the 1989 student demonstrations, but there is too little about the lives of individuals during the intervening period. Socialism is Great! is one of the few English-language memoirs that bridges the gap. Chinese author Lijia Zhang came of age working in a Nanjing rocket factory in the 1980s as the country was emerging from the tatters of the Mao era and starting to embrace a more capitalistic and open society, albeit under still-draconian social controls. Like many of her generation, this small opening allowed Zhang to break with the ideological constraints that had defined her parents’ cohort and embrace more individualistic desires. From a growing fascination with Western culture to forbidden sexual rendezvous, Zhang gives an honest and beautifully written reflection of life in a society that wasn’t quite ready for a free spirit like her. Regardless of one’s interest in China, this book is a wonderful coming of age memoir, but it’s especially valuable for the China enthusiast. In reading, one gets a feel for the sorts of experiences and influences that gave 1980s youth just enough that many realized they wanted even more, and those desires began to outpace what their government was willing to allow. To wit, the book concludes with Zhang becoming a protest leader in the 1989 student movement.
— Eric Fish
Jīn Yōng 金庸 (pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung [查良鏞 Chá Liángyōng]), translated by Anna Holmwood (Maclehose Press, 2018)
Jin Yong has had a greater influence on the literature and culture of the Sinosphere than any writer of his generation. His martial arts-driven wuxia epics earned the praise of literary theorists and his fellow writers (with the notable exception of Wang Shuo, who memorably beefed with Cha in the early-2000s), while also selling into the hundreds of millions of copies and winning a devoted following among politicians, gangsters, schoolchildren, and taxi drivers.
Anna Holmwood’s translation of A Hero Born, part of an expected set of four volumes, is a rare chance to read the author’s work. Set in the 13th century, the novel tells the story of two patriotic sons cast into exile in barbarian lands. With Cha’s identity as a mainlander in exile in Hong Kong, it was not hard to read political allegory into the book’s story of ethnic identity. Just as Chinese internet users reference characters and quotations from the Four Classic Novels to evade censorship while discussing contemporary politics, so too do they make allusions to Cha’s 15 novels — especially Legends of the Condor Heroes.
— Dylan Levi King
Maurice Meisner (Free Press, 1999)
If there is a reason why the late Maurice Meisner’s Mao’s China, originally published in 1977 and now in its revised third edition (Mao’s China and After, 1999), was and is still widely assigned in history and political science courses on China, it is that Meisner maintains an evenhanded and dispassionate stance when tackling episodes and personages in PRC history that tend to excite passions. Meisner’s command of detail and knowledge of the arcana of the Communist Party bureaucracy doesn’t interfere with his ability to identify what really matters, and his personal politics — he was a lifelong leftist — don’t soften the blows when he delivers them.
— Kaiser Kuo
Liào Yìwǔ 廖亦武, translated by Wen Huang (Pantheon, 2008)
Many years before being branded a professional dissident, Liao Yiwu was a Chinese state-authorized poet. But his outspokenness over the Tiananmen student protests landed him in jail, and upon his release, he found himself abandoned by his wife, ostracized by acquaintances, and thrust into the bottom rungs of society. During this time, part of it wandering the streets of Chengdu, he compiled stories — via interviews — of China’s underclass, talking to a leper, a musician, a former Red Guard, a grave robber, a Falun Gong practitioner, and more. Sixty interviews were collected and published in Taiwan in 2001; 27 of those were translated for The Corpse Walker, which remains Liao’s representative English-language work.
Liao didn’t take notes while his subjects spoke, but he captures their voices and tries his best, where applicable, to preserve something of their human dignity. “I used to drive a human-waste truck,” a bathroom attendant says. “Nobody looked down on me because I was handling shit.” Liao himself is very much part of the dialogues, as when he tells a slick-talking human trafficker, “If I were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punishment.” The title story is about professional mourners who literally walk corpses from the world of the living into the world of the dead. “People in the countryside still believe that the fake money is used to bribe the corpse’s guardian ghosts so they don’t block the road to heaven,” Liao’s interviewee says, to which Liao quips: “So people used to think the world of the dead was equally corrupt.”
— Anthony Tao
Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals (Harvard University Press, 2006)
This is the book to recommend whenever you come across someone tossing out comparisons between the Cultural Revolution and present-day political campaigns, internecine Twitter battles, or campus free speech wars. Mao’s Last Revolution is the book on the Cultural Revolution, and it manages to overturn both the official Communist Party narrative of bad elements co-opting the campaign as well as received wisdom in the West, which has Mao and a couple of buddies leading a campaign against their foes. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’ weighty tome is sharply written and draws on documents and sources previously unavailable to scholars. Mao’s Last Revolution reveals the extent of the chaos between 1966 and 1976, with top leaders turning on each other, factions within the Party rising and falling, a near-civil war that saw the People’s Liberal Army clashing with youth militias, “revolutionary masses” fiddling with nuclear weapons, and sustained violence that continued even after the arrest of the Gang of Four.
— Dylan Levi King
Translated by Eleanor Goodman (White Pine Press, 2016)
After publication, Iron Moon became the most widely reviewed book of Chinese poetry in English translation in years. In part this is because of its themes: Chinese factories create the world’s goods, and so many in the world will be curious about Chinese factories. But also it’s because of the quality of the poems, as translated by Eleanor Goodman. Most renowned of these poets is Xu Lizhi, a Foxconn worker who committed suicide in September 2014, with his most famous poem “I Swallowed an Iron Moon”: “I swallowed an iron moon / they called it a screw // … // I can’t swallow any more / everything I’ve swallowed roils up in my throat // I spread across my country / a poem of shame.” But also included is Zheng Xiaoqiong, a poet from Sichuan who worked in factories in Guangdong and now wins awards for her poetry and is invited to international poetry festivals. In these poems, tropes of classical Chinese poetry get reborn and put to new use: images of “moonlight” (月光 yuèguāng) indicate the poets’ homesickness, but also indicate that these industrial workers are part of the “moonlight clan” (月光族 yuèguāng zú), or class of people whose money is all spent up by the end of the month.
— Lucas Klein
Ráo Píngrú 饶平如, translated by Nicky Harman (Pantheon, 2018)
Rao Pingru was 87 when he began to write the story of his life, focusing on his long marriage to his recently deceased wife, Meitang. In the absence of surviving photographs, he taught himself to paint, and so it is that Our Story is illustrated with his charming, quirky pictures.
Born in 1922, Rao received a Confucian education, and acquired an abiding love of classical Chinese poetry. As a young man, he fought in the anti-Japanese War (he paints the bloody battles vividly), escaping death by a whisker on several occasions. When peace came, his father arranged his marriage to Meitang. Rao gives us fascinating glimpses of the life they led in the late-40s and early-50s: their travels around China, local food specialities (illustrated in great detail), and his desperate attempts to find a job. Eventually, the couple settled in Shanghai, where he worked as an editor and they raised five children — before he was sent away to do reform through education during the Cultural Revolution. In the last part of the book, Rao describes in heartbreaking detail how he cared for Meitang as she battled diabetes and dementia, and mourned her death.
Rao became a TV celebrity when Our Story was first published in Chinese. He is now 97, and recently appeared at the Shanghai International Literary Festival.
— Nicky Harman
55. Ruined City
Jiǎ Píngwá 贾平凹, translated by Howard Goldblatt (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016)
Jia Pingwa’s Ruined City hit the Chinese literary scene like an atom bomb upon publication in 1993. The grim, funny portrait of literary bad boys was banned almost immediately, and remained officially out of print until 2009. Roasted by critics as pornographic and self-indulgent upon its release, the reputation of the novel only grew during the 16 years it circulated in samizdat editions and online bootlegs. Apart from being heralded as one of the finest novels of the past century, it was also credited as a sex-ed manual.
The novel’s anti-hero Zhuang Zhidie, a stand-in for Jia himself, scythes through the literary and political scene in Xijing, a thinly veiled version of Xi’an, tangling with rivals, having his palms greased by local bureaucrats, and still making time for dalliances with a lineup of adoring female fans. Ruined City is aggressively modern in its concerns, but borrows the forms of late Ming and early Qing vernacular novels. The dense prose of the original, full of classical allusions, as well as political jargon, makes Howard Goldblatt’s translation all the more impressive.
— Dylan Levi King
Vera Schwarcz (University of California Press, 1986)
No period is more crucial to the understanding of modern Chinese intellectual history than the May Fourth Movement, centering on the protests of 1919 but also describing the five or so years preceding and following that event. In this scholarly book, Vera Schwarcz examines the tension at the heart of the movement: between the exigencies of national salvation (救国 jiùguó) and enlightenment (启蒙 qǐméng), between nationalism and cultural iconoclasm. How, she asks, did thinkers of the May Fourth period reconcile the urgent need they felt to save the nation — from warlords, from imperialist aggressors — with the view so many of them shared that it was China’s very traditionalism, its national essence, that was at the root of its problems?
— Kaiser Kuo
53. Border Town
Shén Cóngwén 沈从文, translated by Jeffrey C. Kinkley (Harper Perennial, 2009)
Shen Congwen, born at the turn of the last century, was a marginal figure in the New Culture Movement of the 1920s, and perhaps because of his age and his political leanings (or lack thereof), never attained the same level of renown as writers like Lu Xun. Border Town, considered one of Shen’s masterworks, is set in West Hunan and draws deeply from the well of local culture to tell the story of local girl Cuicui and her courtship by two brothers. Shen’s career as a novelist was ended in 1949 by a string of purges, but when he was rehabilitated in the late 1970s, his writing was rediscovered by a new generation. The roots-seeking movement of the 1980s, whose writers proclaimed the need to return to native place and local culture, took Shen Congwen as their model. The literary DNA of Shen Congwen’s Border Town can be found in the most important novels of the past 40 years, including Jia Pingwa’s Qinqiang, Han Shaogong’s A Dictionary of Maqiao, and Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum.
— Dylan Levi King
Lenora Chu (Harper, 2017)
Chinese American reporter and writer Lenora Chu and her husband, both based in Shanghai, made a bold decision for their young son: They enrolled him in one of the most competitive, high-performing schools in one of China’s most hyper-competitive, education-obsessed cities. The results are recorded with great candor and humor in Chu’s book. Little Soldiers is not, however, a simple screedo against rigid Chinese pedagogy. Instead, as she follows the lives of not only her son but of other Chinese students, Chu looks critically at both the Chinese and U.S. education systems and offers many important insights.
— Kaiser Kuo
Fāng Lìzhī 方励之, translated by Perry Link (Henry Holt and Company, 2016)
A world-renowned astrophysicist and a tireless advocate for freedom and democracy in China, Fang Lizhi was labeled “the biggest blackhand” behind the Tiananmen Square protests by Chinese authorities, and sought refuge in the U.S. embassy after the crackdown. During the 13 months he and his physicist wife spent at the embassy before they were allowed to leave China, Fang wrote a memoir, recounting his life with grace, candor, and disarming wit. From his boyhood in wartime Beijing to surviving Mao-era campaigns, from pioneering modern cosmology amid political pressure to championing human rights on the path of dissent, Fang’s formidable intellect and humane spirit shine through every page. Masterfully translated by Perry Link, a longtime friend of Fang’s, and published after Fang’s death in 2012, the book is a rare first-person account of life in the People’s Republic during its tumultuous first four decades, an important examination of science’s role in an authoritarian state, and a compelling lesson in universal values as fundamental as the laws that govern the stars.
— Yangyang Cheng
Chu T’ien-wen (朱天文 Zhū Tiānwén), translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin (Columbia University Press, 1999)
Chu T’ien-wen, the daughter of Taiwanese literary luminary Chu Hsi-ning (朱西甯 Zhū Xīníng), got her start as a writer of maudlin romances on classical themes before breaking into the world of film, collaborating with Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝贤 Hóu Xiàoxián) and other auteurs of the New Wave cinema movement. Her work as a screenwriter, as well as the new political and cultural environment that came with the lifting of martial law in 1987, shook her loose from imperial Chinese nostalgia and drove her to create a new body of work that was focused on the unique experiences of urban Taiwanese.
Notes of a Desolate Man, published in 1994, tells the story of a gay man approaching middle age, who has flown from Taipei to Tokyo to care for a friend dying of AIDS. It’s a deeply sad, deeply passionate book that sprinkles its explorations of urban ennui, aging, sex, and the limits of radical politics with references to Lévi-Strauss, Fellini, Ozu, and classical poetry. This is among the finest records of middle age ever written, and a keen portrait of fin de siècle Taiwan.
— Dylan Levi King
49. Rickshaw Boy
Lǎo Shě 老舍, translated by Howard Goldblatt (Harper Perennial, 2010)
Xiangzi just wants a new rickshaw with which to ply an honest trade. But 1920s Beijing (“Beiping” at that time) is tough, and he is thwarted by war and camels, swindlers and women, love and disease. Hope flickers in Xiangzi’s misguided sense of purpose, but even that is progressively snuffed out by a society that refuses to reward virtue, ambition, or effort. Rickshaw Boy is a classic, a popular novel by one of China’s greatest 20th-century writers, with an earlier translation even becoming a bestseller in the U.S. Its depictions of the city, from its brothels to gates, its alleyways to still-recognizable landmarks like Tiananmen and the Temple of Heaven, are to be savored. However, be warned: read in the context of Lao She’s eventual suicide amid persecution during the Cultural Revolution, this “darkly comic” book at times feels simply sad. Rickshaw Boy isn’t merely a critique of individualism — it shows us how little agency any of us have, yoked as we are to our machines, bearing the weight of the world’s epithets and perpetually running in circles.
— Anthony Tao
Hā Jīn 哈金 (pen name of Jīn Xuěfēi 金雪飞) (Deckle Edge, 2019)
Ha Jin’s The Banished Immortal is in a category all its own, uniquely illuminating on its subject, Lǐ Bái 李白 and his poetry, but Chinese poetry more generally and life in the Tang Dynasty too. Relying on original sources, including contemporary accounts, Ha Jin makes Li Bai come alive in all his ambition and restlessness, warmth, egocentrism, and dissipation — a flawed and complicated man who composed some of the most divine poetry ever written.
Before reading The Banished Immortal, I had never understood just how special and heartbreaking was Li Bai’s relationship with Dù Fǔ 杜甫 — considered alongside Li Bai as one of China’s greatest poets — or comprehended the desperate lengths Li Bai went in his quest for an appointment to the imperial court. It’s fascinating to read about how he frequently sabotaged his chances through egotistical posturing around the people whose help he craved. The Banished Immortal is a nuanced portrait of a complex man and his relationships with his wives, friends, fans, and the world around him more broadly. If Ha Jin exposes Li Bai’s flaws, he never diminishes his genius; his translations and commentaries on the poetry alone make this book a treasure.
— Linda Jaivin
Deborah Brautigam (Oxford University Press, USA, 2011)
The first major work to take on the question of China’s impact in Africa, Brautigam’s book tends to accentuate the positive, as its title suggests. She builds on the insight that what China has done in Africa — infrastructure-for-resources deals, where China for instance builds a copper mine, a railway to the coast, and a container port and takes payment in copper until the debt is paid — is exactly what Japan did in China in the 1970s and 1980s, and the success of such projects in driving development in China is the rationale behind China’s initiatives in Africa. She takes on common critical tropes one hears in the West — debt-traps, enabling of kleptocrats and tyrants, neo-colonialism — with an impressive command of data.
— Kaiser Kuo
46. Soul Mountain
Gāo Xíngjiàn 高行健, translated by Mabel Lee (Harper Perennial, 2000)
“What I want to say here is that literature can only be the voice of the individual and this has always been so,” Gao Xingjian said in his acceptance speech for the 2000 Nobel Prize. Gao’s voice is resounding in Soul Mountain, his most famous work, a part-autobiographical, part-fictional account of one man’s journey along the Yangtze River in search of the fabled mountain Lingshan. Gao, who became a French citizen in 1998, fled the oppressive political environment of Beijing in the 1980s to travel the remote mountains of Sichuan Province in southwest China. Soul Mountain was the result, a free-flowing, ecstatic, sometimes stream-of-consciousness novel that traces an unnamed protagonist’s physical and spiritual quest for inner peace and freedom. The novel is a rarity in the Chinese literary landscape, where studies of the human self are vastly outnumbered by plot-driven narratives.
— Bingxuan Wang
Mei Fong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)
One Child follows the twists and turns of China’s most notorious social experiment: the planned birth policy instituted in 1980. Limiting families to a single offspring may have seemed prudent at the time, when China’s population was growing at alarming rates, but in reality, that decision carved out immense challenges for Chinese individuals as well as the world’s most populous country. For example, there’s Zhu Jianming, who had a reverse-sterilization operation just weeks after the death of his only child. His story illustrates the despair that accompanied the policy’s forced abortions and sterilizations. Yang Libing’s daughter was seized by family planning officials and placed on the global adoption market, a story that touches upon the corruption and human trafficking the policy fostered. And Liu Ting’s story is a harbinger of China’s future, when a generation will age out of the workforce amid a shrinking population. A former Wall Street Journal reporter out of Beijing, Mei Fong meticulously researched and documented these stories over the course of five years. One Child harkens back to an era that seems bygone — Chinese are now allowed two children — yet understanding the long-lasting effects of China’s social planning experiment is more important than before, as the country’s status grows ever larger on the global stage.
— Lenora Chu
44. Red Sorghum
Mò Yán 莫言 (pen name for Guǎn Móyè 管谟业), translated by Howard Goldblatt (Viking Adult, 1994)
Red Sorghum is the first novel by 2012 Nobel laureate Mo Yan. It recounts the convoluted — and non-chronological — story of two generations of a particular family, in the voice of a member of the family’s third generation, from Gaomi county, Shandong Province. In between pursuing personal vendettas and other local politics, Grandma, Grandpa, and Father own and run a distillery, which is famous for making liquor out of the locally-grown red sorghum. It is impossible to summarize succinctly, but suffice it to say there are exciting descriptions of banditry and guerrilla warfare, as well as love and betrayal. The novel spans the lawless Warlord era and into the Japanese invasion of China during the Second World War, with also a few moments of the narrator’s present in the Communist period. Gaomi, which is a fictionalized version of Mo Yan’s own birthplace, serves as the setting for many of his novels and is often compared to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The Nobel committee that selected Mo Yan praised him for a prose style of “Hallucinatory Realism” — this seems to be a way of indicating a Magical Realist style without using that term, to which Mo Yan has objected in the past — which is on full display in Red Sorghum.
— Andrew Stuckey
Margaret MacMillan (Penguin, 2006)
Richard Nixon sat with an ailing Mao Zedong for only one hour on February 21, 1972, neither man saying anything surprising or interesting. But that meeting was a “geopolitical earthquake,” according to Winston Lord (then an aide to Henry Kissinger), and the following seven days, when Nixon visited three Chinese cities, may well have been “the week that changed the world” (Nixon’s words). Margaret MacMillan brings all this to life in Nixon and Mao, deploying biographical sketches and rich anecdotes against the backdrop of Chinese history, the Cold War, America’s relationship with its Asian allies, and Vietnam. She notes that while the time was ripe for the U.S. and China to come together, both sides took significant risks to make it happen. “Asia will be at the center of the world again,” MacMillan writes. “Yet there will be no peace for Asia or for the world unless those two great Pacific powers, the United States and China, the one supreme today and the other perhaps tomorrow, find ways to work with each other. To understand their relationship we need to go back to 1972, to the moment when it started anew.”
— Anthony Tao
Chuang Tzu (Zhuāngzi 庄子), translated by Victor Mair (University of Hawaii Press, 1998)
This is a wonderfully idiosyncratic translation of one of Daoism’s foundational texts. Victor Mair believed that too many translations of Zhuangzi lose the whimsical and even comic nature of the original text, so he created a version that is lively and highly colloquial. It reads like a contemporary text, which is appropriate, given Daoism’s eternal themes about man and nature, philosophy and consciousness. And language: “A rabbit-snare is for catching rabbits; once you’ve caught the rabbit, you can forget about the snare. Words are for catching ideas; once you’ve caught the idea, you can forget about the words. Where can I find a person who knows how to forget about words so that I can have a few words with him?”
— Peter Hessler
Cán Xuě 残雪, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping (Open Letter, 2017)
Can Xue prides herself on challenging readers with her experimental fiction, and challenge she does with Frontier, originally published in 2008 and translated in 2017. The novel is set in the mysterious Pebble Town, teeming with wildlife, where people make references to nearby Snow Mountain and a tropical garden in the sky. Each chapter focuses on the interactions between a few characters, drawing the reader into a beautiful and frightening world where everyone tries to figure out why they have come to work at the seemingly purposeless Design Institute and what their relationship is to one another. The reader remains in a haze as the events unfold, but the direct narration and compelling imagery is a powerful draw, immersing us in the strangeness and wide open sky.
— Lily Hartzell
Julian Gewirtz (Harvard University Press, 2017)
The three decades of China under Mao have been extensively written about by scholars and laymen, dissected by historians and theorists, and they still loom large in the Western imagination of China. But as China marks the 40th anniversary of Reform and Opening, the nuts and bolts of that economic revolution are far less better understood. Julian Gewirtz’s Unlikely Partners tells the story of the Chinese economists and their foreign counterparts who helped build the foundation of the socialist market economy. Zhao Ziyang — Deng Xiaoping’s economics majordomo — oversees a vast economic experiment, struggling against the hardliners and trying to corral the reformers while also figuring out how to incorporate the prescriptions and theories of Western economists like James Tobin, János Kornai, and Lawrence Klein.
— Dylan Levi King
David Eimer (Bloomsbury USA, 2014)
For every hundred tedious China memoirs or airport books with a play on words about dragons in the title, there is a book like David Eimer’s. The Sunday Telegraph’s former man in Beijing set himself a tougher task than most: traveling through the borderlands, meeting the ethnic minorities that call them home, and attempting to get a feel for the “huge, unwieldy and unstable empire that is China.”
Eimer’s book details his visits to Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan, and then Dongbei (the country’s northeast). The timing was right, since many of the areas that Eimer visited between 2007 and 2012 are now either nearly impossible for foreigners to access or have been swamped by tourism and investment from the center. Eimer is not an expert, but his keen eye for detail makes him an excellent reporter on regions few outsiders get to experience. He also knows when to shut up and let the story happen to him — he knows, when a United Wa State Army chief offers you a meth pipe, etiquette dictates you smile and take a rip.
— Dylan Levi King
Xiao Hong 萧红 (pen name of Zhāng Nǎiyíng 张乃莹), translated by Howard Goldblatt (Cheng & Tsui, 2006)
Chinese literature owes a great debt to female authors, who have often been dismissed as sentimental writers incapable of broadening their vision beyond trifling stories about love affairs, family issues, and motherhood. This gendered narrative of women’s writing is laughably flawed, as this two-book collection by Xiao Hong, one of China’s first and foremost feminist writers, demonstrates.
Xiao’s writing career lasted only eight years — she died at age 31 — but she published prolifically in that short span. At the heart of her work is women who lead lives of loneliness, desperation, and oppression in a world where patriarchy is seen as “natural.” She published her debut novel, The Field of Life and Death, when she was only 23, after having experienced a series of devastations, including the death of her mother and abandonment by her longtime partner, who left her while she was pregnant. Drawing inspiration from her suffering, Xiao weaves together three family sagas in the Harbin countryside, spanning several decades. Tales of Hulan River, published five years later, is an autobiographical fiction based off Xiao’s childhood in a small town called Hulan, filled with rural villagers seeking their identities in a time of change.
— Jiayun Feng
37. The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
Simon Winchester (Harper, 2008)
The “man who loved China” is Joseph Needham, an eccentric young biologist — and adventurer, nudist, accordionist, chain-smoker, etc. — who arrived in Chongqing during the Second World War and was instantly entranced. He spent the next decade producing what would become a 15,000-page, 24-volume encyclopedia called Science and Civilisation in China, an authoritative account of a country no Westerner had ever known with such depth or clarity. As author Simon Winchester giddily relays, “Needham slowly and steadily managed to replace the dismissive ignorance with which China had long been viewed — to amend it first to a widespread sympathetic understanding and then, as time went on, to have most of the western world view China as the wiser western nations do today, with a sense of respect, amazement, and awe. And awe, as fate would have it, was in time directed at him as well.” The Man Who Loved China is a delightful read about a distinguished scientist whose manic energy leaps off the pages.
— Anthony Tao
Jude Blanchette (Oxford University Press, 2019)
The story of China’s transition from the chaotic ideological morass of Maoism to the embrace of market economics during the decades of reform and opening that began in December 1979 has tended to be Whiggish in its telling. In his first book, Jude Blanchette complicates and challenges that narrative, turning his lens on the conservative reaction to reform from the immediate post-Mao period to the present, focusing on leftist figures like Chen Yun and Deng Liqun, and on online neo-Maoist websites like Utopia. With lively writing and a great capacity for empathy, Blanchette rescues his subjects from the simplistic caricature to which they’d been relegated in many accounts.
— Kaiser Kuo
Wáng Ānyì 王安忆, translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan (Columbia University Press, 2008)
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow is an exquisite and melancholy novel that is part of the “roots-seeking” (寻根 xúngēn) movement of post-Cultural Revolution China. It explores the meaning of Shanghainese identity by tracing the life of a young Shanghai woman over four decades, from post-World War II to reform and opening up. It probes the longtang, the crowded, maze-like alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods, where the protagonist, Wang Qiyao, was born. Qiyao is aware of her own beauty and seeks fame, but must endure the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history — to say nothing of the men she loves. The novel won the 5th Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2000 and was later adapted into a movie and TV series.
— Kimberly Jin
Qián Zhōngshū 钱钟书, translated by Jeanne Kelly and Nathan K. Mao (Gardners Books, 2005)
Like many of his literary peers in the Republican Era, Qian Zhongshu received a fine education, first at Tsinghua, then at Oxford and the University of Paris, but, unlike so many of his fellow writers, he eschewed explicit political work for pointed satire of middle-class neuroses. In the words of Christopher Rea, translator of the author’s Humans, Beasts and Ghosts: Qian’s goal was to establish an “autonomous republic of letters.” Fortress Besieged tells the story Fang Hongjian, his voyage back to China with a fake diploma, his adventures in courtship and marriage, and his attempts to snag an academic job. The “fortress” that is besieged in the title is the institution of marriage, with Fang throughout the book trying to storm the gate or free himself. The book’s humor, wit, and keen insights into human nature made it an instant classic.
— Dylan Levi King
Zhào Zǐyáng 赵紫阳, translated and edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, Adi Ignatius (Simon and Schuster, 2009)
In 1987, it was possible to believe that the liberal reforms which had pulled China out of the Mao era would continue indefinitely. Zhao Ziyang was a big reason for that optimism: He was elevated to General Secretary of the Party that year, at the relatively young age of 68. But you probably know what happened next: Impatient with the speed of the reforms and upset at the proliferation of corruption, students took to the Beijing streets in April 1989, culminating in a bloody crackdown two months later that not only derailed China’s progressive course, but ruined a generation of the country’s best and brightest.
Zhao Ziyang was merely the most prominent of Tiananmen’s victims, spending the last 16 years of his life under house arrest. But that time wasn’t passed in complete silence: He secretly recorded his recollections in a set of tapes, 30 in total, each about an hour long, and had friends smuggle them out. Four years after his death, transcriptions of those tapes were published as the book Prisoner of the State, giving the public its first truly intimate look inside the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
In his journal, Zhao recounts, in agonizing detail, the battle within the walls of Zhongnanhai between himself and conservative rivals, and how Zhao’s faction might have persuaded Deng Xiaoping to pursue a different course of action…if only. If only, for instance, Zhao had not been called away for business in North Korea in late April; if only Li Peng hadn’t published a scathing People’s Daily editorial under Deng’s name while Zhao was gone; if only martial law had not been declared, which only invigorated the demonstrators; and so on. There is an alternative reality in which the Tiananmen protests are not violently suppressed, and China does not go on to fill its moral vacuum with hard-hearted materialistic pursuit. We realize, reading Zhao’s memoir, how tantalizingly close we were to that reality — and in the process understand the possibility that people like him still lurk behind the opaque curtains of the central government. Even in death, Zhao remains a source for hope.
— Anthony Tao
David Kidd (Aurum Press, 1988)
A book that remained fairly obscure until being picked up for reissue by the New York Review of Books’ publishing wing, Kidd’s Peking Story is one of the truly unique records of a foreigner in China. Kidd arrived in Beijing (then known as Beiping) at a moment of great change, two years before the city fell to the Communists — bad timing for an aesthete in love with the material culture of the Old China, even worse timing for a man married into an aristocratic Manchu family. He writes odes to the silks, bronzes, and elegant paintings that furnish the mansion of the Yu family, then watches all of it tossed into the fire and the aristocrats turned out into the street. The son of a Kentucky coal boss, raised in Detroit, the tale of Kidd is just as captivating as the story of aristocratic collapse. The details of Kidd’s later life and the fact that several of his contemporaries have raised concerns about the accuracy of Kidd’s account only adds to the mystery.
— Dylan Levi King
Luō Guànzhōng 罗贯中, translated by Moss Roberts (Foreign Language Press, 2011)
Said to be 70 percent history and 30 percent fiction, this riveting Ming Dynasty retelling of the events surrounding the fall of the once-great Han Dynasty deserves its place as one of China’s Four Great Novels (along with Dream of the Red Chamber, The Water Margin, and Journey to the West). Of the four, Three Kingdoms — we recommend the English translation of that name by Moss Roberts — arguably reveals the most about the Chinese political mind. It centers, in its first half, on the three sworn brothers Liu Bei (a distant relation of the embattled Eastern Han imperial family), Guan Yu (who would go on to be deified as the God of War), and the bruiser Zhang Fei, the Luca Brasi of the Three Kingdoms world. The cunning and ruthless Cao Cao; the brilliant strategist Zhuge Liang, and hundreds of other characters populate this tale. But peppered throughout the book are clever stratagems, subtle psychological manipulations, and feats of heroism and sacrifice. It’s really about how to govern, how to deploy talent, and how to wage war both on the field and in the mind. It’s this that makes the novel so enduring and memorable.
— Kaiser Kuo
Xiǎolǔ Guō 郭小橹 (Grove Press, 2017)
Xiaolu Guo was introduced to Anglophone readers by Cindy Carter’s translation of Village Of Stone in 2005. It was impossible not to read the autobiographical novel of a girl escaping to the city without wanting to know more about the author’s own life. Guo returned to the autobiographical with her first novel written in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, which was based on her own expatriation to London in 2002. Turning to memoir made perfect sense, but few Chinese writers, with the exception of old-guard heavyweights and those in exile, ever produce novel-length memoirs. That makes Guo’s Nine Continents even more special. She writes of her childhood, growing up in miserable poverty in a fishing village in the 1970s before escaping to follow her dreams at Beijing Film Academy, then in England, and her experience of motherhood and return from self-imposed exile. Guo’s story of overcoming her background to seek her dreams is — especially in China — not unique, but her perspective is one we are rarely given access to; and her talents as a writer make this an essential story of the Chinese experience.
— Dylan Levi King
Rana Mitter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)
Rana Mitter’s book on China during the Second World War looks not just at the Communists in Yan’an or the Nationalists in Nanjing and their wartime capital of Chongqing: He also takes an unblinking look at the puppet regime of Wang Jingwei 汪精衞, who capitulated to the Japanese in 1937. The book makes use of many newly available sources, including the diary of Zhou Fohai 周佛海, who served at various points under all three regimes, as one of the founders of the CCP in 1921, a member of the Kuomintang after 1924, and finally, at the “peak” of his career, second in command under Wang Jingwei. Chiang Kai-shek, often portrayed as a sniveling villain in the Chinese propaganda of an earlier time, and as venal, vain, corrupt and incompetent in the account burned into the American consciousness by Barbara Tuchman’s Stillwell and the American Experience in China, emerges in this telling as a much more complex and conflicted character.
— Kaiser Kuo
Susan Shirk (Oxford University Press, 2007)
As protest and conflict continue to rage in Hong Kong, Susan Shirk’s 12-year-old book about the fundamental insecurity of the Chinese government proves both eerily prescient and more relevant than ever. While Fragile Superpower, originally published in 2007, focused mainly on the frightening prospect of international conflict over other regional hotspots — her opening salvo, an imagined collision between U.S. and Chinese fighter jets in Taiwanese airspace and the messy aftermath, was all too vividly portrayed — Shirk’s takeaway message has unfortunately withstood the test of time: The Chinese government is more terrified of internal regime breakdown than external conflict.
In particular, her analysis of the dynamics of state-curated nationalism and the dangers it poses in terms of ultimately backing government actors into a corner is presented in a manner that is as accessible as it is foreboding. At the same time, subsequent events have proven less kind to some of her other conclusions; Shirk’s repeated entreaty that reason will prevail over raw emotion in responding to China’s many sins is less self-evident in an age of mass detentions in re-education camps. Nevertheless, adding to the sense of authority and immediacy to be found throughout the work is the fact that Fragile Superpower was written following Shirk’s stint as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia during the second Clinton administration, and draws directly on her firsthand experience working closely with Chinese officials. That makes this book a treasured staple of political science classes and general interest audiences alike, a rare work that seamlessly crosses the boundaries that ordinarily separate academic, journalistic, and political takes on otherwise well-trod ground. This invaluable message in a bottle is a timely and compelling reminder that the more things change in China, at its insecure core, the more the Party stays the same.
— Siodhbhra Parkin
Wú Chéng’ēn 吴承恩, translated by Arthur Waley (The John Day Company, 1943)
Monkey is the book for those convinced they don’t like either Journey to the West (西游记) or its mercurial, rebellious, transdualistic smart-ass protagonist, Sun Wukong (a.k.a. the Monkey King, a.k.a. “Aware of Vacuity,” a.k.a. Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, a.k.a. Buddha Victorious in Strife…the list goes on). It is a picaresque, allegorical, compact folk novel full of notable characters from Chinese myth, from philosophers like Lao Tzu (Laozi) to beloved bodhisattvas like Kuan-yin (Guanyin). Is there adventure? Oh you bet. After upsetting a Peach Banquet and consuming magical fruits and pills, Monkey tussles with Buddha, wards off calamities, wields scimitars, claps back at immortals, lodges many-a-threats to cudgel fools upside the head, and eventually finds purpose with a band of misfits accompanying a monk on his journey to India.
What games are played, poems recited? What trouble befalls them? If you are interested in the answers, dear reader, listen to what is told in the next chapter.
— Anthony Tao
Carl Crow (Harper & Brothers, 1937)
When Missourian Carl Crow stepped onto the shore of Shanghai’s Bund in the summer of 1911, his only credo as he arrived was to “just have fun.” He did, and along the way saw a dynasty fall, a republic rise, warlords run rampant, and Shanghai boom. He launched newspapers, magazines, and an advertising agency, and was instrumental in creating the legendary Shanghai calendar girl. He learnt every trick of the China trade — got fooled plenty, dreadfully let down, became quite rich, was surprisingly supported, and made a lot of friends. He compiled all the lessons he learned — from protecting your valuable IP to understanding the uselessness of any paper contract; from guanxi to bribery; and most of all, the unrealistic dreams of the foreign businessman who, when they thought of China, saw only vast profits on the horizon and missed the poverty, local competition, and nonexistent infrastructure — and put them down in his 1937 book, Four Hundred Million Customers, which became a New York Times bestseller, was universally praised, and became the handbook for American business in China, translated into a couple of dozen languages. And then…war, revolution, Maoism. It was to be 50 years before Western business came back to China. Having largely forgotten Crow, they had to learn all those lessons again, the hard way. If only they’d looked at their grandfather’s bookshelves.
— Paul French
Eileen Chang (Zhāng Àilíng 张爱玲), translated by Karen S. Kingsbury (NYRB Classics, 2006)
Love in a Fallen City is a collection of six short stories by charismatic writer Eileen Chang. First published in the 1930s and ’40s, her stories are about love, longing, troubled family lives, and political and sexual ambiguity amid social constraints and upheaval. In her own words, she only tried to describe “the little things that happen between men and women.”
Little things they may be, but they’re cannily observed, psychologically fraught, full of intrigue, and expressed with Chang’s trademark poise. The story “Love in a Fallen City” is among Chang’s most popular. In it, a handsome couple — Fan Liuyuan, a playboy who grew up in England, and Bai Liusu, a divorcee stuck in a household dominated by her father’s extended family in Shanghai — engage in a game of hide and seek, each with their own agenda: he to regain his Chinese identity, she to remarry. It’s war that pushes them together and perfects their love.
I’d also recommend Lust, Caution, Chang’s most controversial book (now a movie by Ang Li). I first encountered Chang’s works in the mid-1980s when I was a factory worker in Nanjing, seeking an escape through reading and writing. I was immediately fascinated by her characters: well-drawn, complex, and often desperate, differing dramatically from the so-called “tall, big, and perfect” characters of revolutionary literature or the one-dimensional protagonists in the “scar literature” of the time, when the protagonists were all victims lacking moral ambiguity. A forerunner of Chinese modernist writing, Chang’s prose is sharp and imaginative, winning her millions of fans all over the country.
— Lijia Zhang
Ian Johnson (Pantheon, 2017)
The Souls of China brings the reader face-to-face with the practitioners of a variety of spiritual traditions in China. Ian Johnson describes in vivid detail such experiences as Buddhist temple pilgrimages and festivals on the outskirts of Beijing, Daoist and folk religion practices in Shanxi Province, and the politics of protestant Christian house churches in Chengdu, Sichuan. Not all of religion and spirituality in China is covered here, but enough of it is, and the description and context given is so illuminating that the book, taken as a whole, communicates a compelling message about the direction of China’s national “soul” today. In short, although the lines of religion, spiritual practice, and “culture” are blurred — sometimes intentionally by the state — the Chinese people are responding to a genuine spiritual and moral vacuum created by many decades of state-led destruction and economic dislocation.
— Lucas Niewenhuis
Julia Lovell (Picador USA, 2011)
Utilizing extensive contemporary accounts and letters from participants, including the Emperor and British foot soldiers, Julia Lovell is able to capture the quasi-surreal “tragicomedy” of intransigence, self-deception, and slaughter that was the First Opium War. “Two and a half years after this war had started,” she writes, “[Chinese Emperor] Daoguang found himself still lacking the most basic information about his antagonists: Where in fact…is England?…How is it they have a 22-year-old woman for a queen? Is she married?” In the second half of the book, Lovell shows how the war, in many ways of little consequence at the time, would be used by Britain and U.S. for the next 150 years. Released in 2011, the sections about contemporary China read a bit dated, as 10 years ago feels nearly as foreign as the 1840s; still, the book is a compelling, comprehensive account of the war itself, and the war in the public consciousness that rages at all times across the world.
— Gabriel Clermont
Michael Meyer (Walker & Company, 2008)
The Peace Corps program in China produced Peter Hessler, whose River Town and Oracle Bones are justly celebrated, but Michael Meyer’s three books of immersive reportage (The Last Days of Old Beijing, In Manchuria, and The Road to Sleeping Dragon) are equally worthy of acclaim. The Last Days of Old Beijing, Meyer’s first book, is a dispatch from a hutong near Dashilar in central Beijing, ground zero of the city’s aggressive transformation in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. Meyer describes his life in his rented room and his job at a local school, but rather than being yet another solipsistic China memoir, The Last Days is refreshingly analytical and unsentimental, teasing out the political economy of the backstreets, reporting on the attempts at saving heritage buildings, and sketching the lives of his neighbors. Reading the book less than a decade on, it’s jarring to think that much of what he described is already gone.
— Dylan Levi King
21. Wild Swans
Jung Chang (Harper Collins, 1991)
This book will always have a special place on my shelf. I was 12 years old when I first read it, probably too young for some of its content — it is known as “scar literature,” after all, part of a category of books penned after the Cultural Revolution in which authors shared the pain suffered by the people during the 1960s — but it gave me my first glimpse of a culture and history I knew nothing about. I’m sure that’s the case for many readers: It is now a global phenomenon, having sold more than 13 million copies in nearly 40 languages. Wild Swans is often categorized as nonfiction, but it reads like a literary novel. I absolutely recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about China’s tumultuous 20th century, as told through the eyes of three generations of Chinese women who survived it.
— Manya Koetse
John Pomfret (Henry Holt and Company, 2016)
Early in John Pomfret’s wildly ambitious 700-page masterpiece on the history of U.S.-China relations is an observation that sets the theme for the entire book: “If there is a pattern to this baffling complexity, it may be best described as a never-ending Buddhist cycle of reincarnation. Both sides experience rapturous enchantment begetting hope, followed by disappointment, repulsion, and disgust, only to return to fascination once again.” Indeed, many of the characters throughout the nearly 250 years of U.S.-China interaction can be found today, from the idealistic missionaries seeking to “change China” to the Chinese students with American educations who return to become their country’s political and business elite.
And that’s what makes The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom such a captivating read. Its thoroughly researched stories of riveting individuals throughout history put today’s U.S.-China relationship in much-needed context, particularly as that relationship falls under increased strain. Pomfret writes what is at its core a turbulent love story of two nations whose passions swing violently between desire and loathing. It’s a recipe for a dysfunctional relationship, but a relationship that defines our present and future — and one that makes for a fascinating book.
— Elliott Zaagman
Liú Cíxīn 刘慈欣, translated by Ken Liu (Tor Books, 2014)
Liu Cixin was born in 1963, and came of age during some of the most chaotic years in China’s recent history, which no doubt shaped him as a writer. As the first Chinese author to receive the prestigious Hugo Award, Liu has single-handedly put Chinese science fiction on the international map, winning a legion of fans that includes the likes of Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. In The Three Body Problem, the first of the Remembrance of the Earth’s Past trilogy, Liu weaves familiar science fiction tropes with the devastating events of the Cultural Revolution (even as Liu insists his works are not commentary, but escapism from reality). The result is a searing epic that explores the brutal psychological trauma caused by dehumanizing political struggle, amplified by the existential dread of an encroaching alien civilization with annihilation on their minds. The stakes are high from the onset, as important military officials meet in secret, scientists die mysteriously, and conflicting motives clash. As the novel progresses, Liu unravels the horrors and tragedies of the past and present, all to build up to a moment of judgment that will determine the fate of humanity. To read The Three Body Problem is to be gripped by terror and wonder at the world Liu has created, and be awed by the wide scope of his fatalistic imagination.
— Frankie Huang
Ray Huang (Yale University Press, 1982)
If you’ve ever been in a museum in China and found yourself bored to tears by the endless displays of various earls and emperors’ furniture, robes, and other regalia, then here is a book for you. For in 1587, you will learn the truth about the late Ming Dynasty, which is that life in the imperial court was just as boring for the people who lived through it as it seems to us today. In Ray Huang’s telling, the Ming government was a doomed mess of foible and failure, like a 16th-century Veep. He describes the pomp and grandeur and pointless ceremony of imperial business with a kind of submerged dry wit: “The daily audience with the court, for instance, was loathed even by the most diligent statesmen.” But his thesis is a serious one: Ming society had become so paralyzed by elaborate rules, rituals, and moral constraints that it stifled whatever power any individual — even the Wanli emperor himself — could exert to arrest its decline. It’s a sad, sobering look at how things started going wrong for China all those centuries ago, especially at a time when the country’s current leaders have their own ideas about how to put things right.
— Ray Zhong
Howard French (Knopf, 2014)
China’s growing presence in Africa has been a hot topic for years, with rival camps staking out positions on so-called debt trap diplomacy, on allegations of neo-colonialism, or exploitative resource extraction, or unfair labor practices. What gets overlooked too often is the lived experience of ordinary people, whether Chinese or Africans. Howard French, a veteran reporter with the New York Times, with extensive reporting experience in Africa and in China, addresses this gap in an excellent book that profiles, with great sensitivity and sympathy, a number of Chinese living and working in countries around Africa. Their personal stories go far toward a better understanding of China’s ambitions as well as its challenges. French has the rare combination of experience, reporting skill, and writing chops that make this book essential reading for anyone seeking to make sense of China’s extensive involvement in Africa.
— Kaiser Kuo
16. The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900
Diana Preston (Walker Books, 2000)
The Boxers — so-called because foreigners associated their brand of ritualistic calisthenics with pugilists — were impoverished and dispossessed northerners who launched an initially obscure peasant movement that turned murderous, with Western missionaries and Chinese Christians bearing the brunt of their attacks: “hacked to pieces, skinned alive, set alight, or buried still living,” Diana Preston writes. But The Boxer Rebellion is more than an accounting of atrocity: it explains the how and why of the conflict in the context of global colonialism at the end of the “British Century,” of Darwinism and scientific revolt, of a world on the brink of all-out war, the rising militarism of Japan, the legacy of Empress Dowager Cixi, and the waning days of the Qing Dynasty. And what was all the bloodshed for? This is perhaps the most sobering lesson of it all: the Boxer Rebellion merely presaged more senseless fighting to come, in Europe, on a much greater scale.
— Anthony Tao
Orville Schell and John Delury (Random House, 2013)
Through lengthy historical profiles of 11 iconoclasts who changed China — all reformers or revolutionaries in one way or another — this wonderful book shows how China traveled the road from the Qing Dynasty to today, driven by the same quest for 富強 fùqiáng: wealth and power.
We are introduced at the start to Wei Yuan and Feng Guifen, two 19th-century scholars who pioneered the 自強 zìqiáng, or “self-strengthening school,” and warned of the growing gulf between China and the West. Then there are the reformers, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao (as well as Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang), whose efforts were met with mixed responses from the Empress Dowager Cixi, the last ruler of the Qing. Next are Sun Yatsen, the 国服 guófú (or “father of the nation” — and its first president, if only for 45 days before military leader Yuan Shikai took over), and New Culture intellectual Chen Duxiu, who was integral to the May Fourth Movement during the early days of the Republic. More familiar figures then emerge, including Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Zhu Rongji — who oversaw China’s economic miracle in the 1990s and early 2000s — and Liu Xiaobo, who protested for political reform and was punished severely for it.
— Alec Ash
Geremie R. Barmé (Columbia University Press, 1999)
In the Red is arguably the best work of cultural criticism about post-Mao China. It comprises 12 interweaving essays that present a wide-ranging history of urban Chinese culture in the first two decades of the reform era. Sinologist Geremie Barmé, who was personal friends (or frenemies) with most of the key figures in this story, explores both how Beijing constructed a “velvet prison” to beguile intellectuals into self-censorship, and how artists, scholars, and writers approached their work under an increasingly marketized authoritarianism. Some suffered for their ideals, others profited from “packaged dissent,” still more lent their services to marketing a regime in desperate search of a meaning. The book is consistently engaging and provocative, as Barmé’s striking prose exemplifies the possibilities for sophisticated analysis without the obtuse academic jargon and somniferous theoretical excursions that asphyxiate much cultural scholarship. Present-day readers — perhaps those perusing the work on their iPhones or Kindles — will notice that the internet had not conquered China by 1999, but Barmé’s incisive observations remain enormously insightful for understanding Chinese cultural politics.
— Neil Thomas
Stephen Platt (Vintage 2012)
The author of this stand-out book argues convincingly that the “Taiping Civil War” would be a better name for the bloody conflagration best known as the Taiping Rebellion. That war pitted a quasi-Christian sect against the Qing Empire from 1851 to 1863, during much of which the Taipings ruled from the old Ming capital of Nanjing. In this richly detailed and beautifully-written telling, Stephen Platt focuses on the careers of two individuals on opposing sides of the conflict. On the Taiping side, there is Hong Rengan, cousin of Taiping founder and “God’s Chinese son” Hong Xiuquan. Hong Rengan, who would become the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom’s “Shield King,” was steeped in Christian theology as the assistant to a British missionary and worked hard to win the support of British and other Western powers to the Taiping side — and nearly did. On the dynastic side of the fight, Platt presents Zeng Guofan, an eminent Han scholar-official who, despite what any 21st century reader might casually diagnose as depression and anxiety, leads Qing forces to narrow victory. A profoundly important book about one of the most consequential conflicts in human history, which claimed a staggering 20 million lives.
— Kaiser Kuo
Peter Hessler (Harper, 2006)
In 2002, Peter Hessler followed up River Town, his account of teaching young people in Fuling in the late 1990s, with a book that delves deeper into greater contemporary China. He starts at both ends, as it were; he goes right back to the oracle bones of the book’s title, the system of divination that dates back more than 3,000 years, and then interpolates history with descriptions of how his former college students have progressed since graduation, and interviews numerous other ordinary people whom he meets as he travels around China. Reviewers have commented that the format is over-ambitious, that inevitably in a single book, Hessler can only touch on limited aspects of China’s history, culture, and contemporary development, and that his choices are “random.” But what almost all readers agree on is that he has a beguiling ability to relate to ordinary folk and relate their lives. It is interesting to note that his style of longform journalism has attracted a great deal of admiration in China. In the words of one writer, “Chinese people worship Hessler,” and many of his books have been translated into Chinese.
— Nicky Harman
Philip P. Pan (Simon & Schuster, 2008)
Out of Mao’s Shadow is a tribute to survivors: the Chinese who persevered through famine, revolution, shattered idealism, and the inversion of values systems. It is a profile of the Chinese national character, of brave men and women whose struggles exemplify the enduring human spirit. Philip Pan, who reported for the Washington Post for eight years in Beijing, interviews lawyers, activists, doctors, officials, and everyday people, and tells on-the-ground stories about SARS, censorship, politicians, martyrs, and more. Two profiles in particular stand out: The first is on Hu Jie, a man obsessed with Lin Zhao, a girl imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution who legend has it wrote on the walls with her own blood; the other is on Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer harassed by authorities and goons in his rural village. (Chen would capture international headlines years later when he escaped house arrest, turned up at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and was eventually granted permission — after high-level negotiations — to leave for the U.S.)
It’s hard to read Out of Mao’s Shadow and not come away marveling at the Chinese people and thinking that the state could benefit from celebrating its most colorful and intrepid characters. Alas, reading this book 11 years later, it’s perhaps more appropriate to wonder who will continue to take up the struggle as the void left by Mao’s death becomes increasingly filled with money and power. How much soul is left to struggle for?
— Anthony Tao
Leslie T. Chang (Spiegel & Grau, 2007)
I can’t tell you how many times people have mistaken me, a former factory girl who wrote a memoir about my experience (No. 62 on this list), for Leslie Chang, the author of Factory Girls. I always say I’m flattered, but I have to disappoint them. It so happens that Factory Girls is one of my favorite books about contemporary China.
A former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Chang is brilliant in providing social and economic context, but Factory Girls goes much deeper. Her book is an intimate and powerful portrait of young migrant workers in Dongguan, a giant manufacturing base in southern China’s Pearl River Delta, where women account for 70 percent of the labor force. The city is “a perverse expression of China at its most extreme,” as Chang writes. The girls in Dongguan leave their home villages to venture out to the city because “there’s nothing to do at home.” They fill out the production lines in one of hundreds of factories. In the feverish and chaotic city, they switch friends as frequently as they change jobs. They go to night schools to better themselves as slogans tell them that “to die poor is a sin.” These factory girls are really the unsung heroes of China’s economic miracle.
— Lijia Zhang
Evan Osnos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Age of Ambition is itself an ambitious book, aiming to capture the essence of contemporary China through a diverse set of people that Evan Osnos met during his eight years in the country, where he was a staff writer for the New Yorker. What Osnos achieves is a compelling series of snapshots of 21st-century China, threaded together by each character’s burning desire to change their fortunes. Part of this book’s achievement is its treatment — with equal respect — of outliers such as Ai Weiwei and ordinary people like internet entrepreneur Gong Haiyan. After all, they all have something valuable to say, and are all part of the “real China” story. In one particularly entertaining vignette, Osnos joins a Chinese tour group on a holiday to Europe; for him, the explorers are absurd, but also poignant and proud. You’ll find yourself laughing with them, and cheering them on as they pursue their grand, sometimes quixotic ambitions.
— Amy Hawkins
Iris Chang (Basic Books, 1997)
Hailed after her suicide as one of the last victims of the Nanjing Massacre, Iris Chang’s memorial sits among those brutally killed in the weeks following the city’s capture. The Rape of Nanking propelled what Chang termed “the forgotten holocaust” back into the public consciousness, leading in turn to death threats from Japanese ultra-nationalists amid an 18-month book tour. The book is a searing exploration of the nature of humanity and that “thin veneer of civilization” which, once stripped, led the Japanese Imperial Army in Nanjing to kill more civilians in six weeks than the initial death tolls of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Given Chang’s mission to give a voice to the (politically convenient) silence of its victims, The Rape of Nanking assumes no prior knowledge of readers. While pilloried by less-renowned historians for her lack of academic rigor, Chang was responsible for uncovering multiple primary sources, including the meticulously thorough diaries of two prominent defenders of the international safety zone, credited for saving the lives of at least 200,000 civilians. In examining the massacre through the various lenses of perpetrator, victim, and finally international observer, Chang tasks readers to draw their own conclusions regarding the heavily disputed events of 1937-38, putting in context the complicity of foreign governments to whom the subject was inconvenient, East Asia scholars who considered it taboo, and the ongoing outrage at continued reticence of Japanese officials to acknowledge and atone for the sadistic rape, torture, and murder of half of Nanjing’s population.
— Nell Greenhouse
Philip Kuhn (Harvard University Press, 1990)
Much as a good paleontologist can do with a single fossilized dinosaur bone, a gifted historian can take a single historical episode from a given time period and paint a vivid and accurate picture of the whole. This is precisely what the late Philip Kuhn, who died in 2016, did with his second book, Soulstealers. Focusing on the Qing imperial administration’s reaction to a rash of allegations of witchcraft (practitioners of which were said to be snipping off the braids of victims and stealing their souls), and drawing on extensive archival research, Kuhn deftly captured the essence of the imperial bureaucracy and the nature of political control during the Qianlong reign, while also shedding light on the lives of ordinary people across a range of social strata. And it reminds us that even back in 1768, some Chinese were already cutting queues.
— Kaiser Kuo
Pearl S. Buck (John Day, 1931)
The Good Earth is a sweeping novel in the tradition of English literary realism, but at its core is unmistakably Chinese. At her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, titled “The Chinese Novel,” Pearl S. Buck praised the Chinese novelist as a writer for the people: “His place is in the street. He is happiest there.” She concluded, “He must be satisfied if the common people hear him gladly. At least, so I have been taught in China.”
She was well taught. For the first half of her life, Buck felt more at home in China than anywhere else. She learned classical Chinese at an early age, attended school in Shanghai, and moved to Anhui Province soon after her first marriage, an experience that depressed her but provided the basis for The Good Earth, which was published in 1931 to critical acclaim and commercial success. The novel begins with Wang Lung’s marriage to O-lan, hardscrabble characters who form the story’s backbone. They persevere through hardship and war brought about by the fall of the Qing Dynasty, experience fortune and joy and scandal, desire like sickness, and devotion that might as well be called love. They break our hearts with the way they fight against the forces of life, and through it all, there is no question that they reside in the proverbial street, surviving off a land that any Chinese novelist would be proud to claim as their own.
— Anthony Tao
Richard McGregor (Harper, 2010)
One evening in Beijing in the late 1990s, Rupert Murdoch quipped to fellow dinner guests that he had yet to meet any Communists during his trips to China. The modern rulers of the Middle Kingdom might not be the Marxist ideologues Murdoch imagined, but they operate very much like the Communists of old: behind an opaque screen, with a hard grip over the military and state apparatus.
One of the guests at Murdoch’s dinner was the veteran journalist Richard McGregor. In The Party, he draws from years of reporting and scholarly analysis to pierce through the red fog and shed light on the Chinese Communist Party, a deeply powerful yet often misunderstood organization. Ambitious in scope and rich in detail, the book offers an acute dissection and vivid accounting of the Party’s roles, how it operates, and the reasons behind its longevity. Published in 2010, The Party predated the reign of Xi Jinping, but as the current Chinese leader expands and tightens the Party’s control over all sectors of society, the book feels particularly timely, even prescient. By reading it, one understands that the Party is always the big boss, deriving its authority not from any one individual at the helm, but an expansive system — one that creates and enables power-brokers and abusers of that same power.
— Yangyang Cheng
Lǔ Xùn 鲁迅 (pen name of Zhōu Shùrén 周树人), translated by Julia Lovell (Penguin Classics, 2010)
This is an essential collection of work from China’s greatest 20th-century writer, expertly translated by Julia Lovell.
In his 1921 satirical novella The Real Story of Ah-Q, Lu Xun captures the opportunism, anti-intellectualism, and narcissism of late-Qing, early-Republican China. From the village of Weizhuang, the educated, jobless Ah Q recoils at his oppressors — those who are above him in the hierarchy — but bullies those who are below him. He confronts humiliations with self-deception, convincing himself of his “spiritual victories.” One of the most famous scenes is at the opening: After Ah Q brags about being from the same clan as one Mr. Zhao (赵太爷), he is summoned by a tyrant who slaps him in the face: ‘How could you be named Zhao! Do you think you are worthy of the name Zhao?” Ah Q is often seen as a symbol of the shortcomings of China’s national character — even today. On the internet, dissidents often refer to China’s dignitaries as from the “Zhao family,” whose self-interests are defended by voiceless, amnesiac Ah Q’s who have convinced themselves that they belong to the clan.
Also included in this collection is the famous short story “A Madman’s Diary.” Not to be confused with Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” Lu Xun’s madman slowly realizes that the villagers around him — his neighbors, doctor, and even his brother — are cannibals who are coming after him. He implores in the end, “Save the children…” As the very first modern work published in vernacular Chinese, this 1918 story became the centerpiece for China’s New Culture Movement, during which intellectuals critically reassessed traditional Chinese culture and began rejecting its cultural norms.
— Tianyu M. Fang
Jianying Zha (The New Press, 1995)
Published six years after the Tiananmen massacre, China Pop’s opening page sees Jianying Zha making a bold and refreshing request for readers to consider China outside the shadow of June 4, 1989. The proposition is all the more powerful because so very few people are able to write as authentically and piercingly on that subject. An example from the book:
We are the golden children who went astray, the delicious promise that turned sour, the little angels who somehow grew horns on our heads. Our lesson about history is that it should never be repeated. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind — but how can we reasonably expect others to carry this burden or feel the same way about our past? After all, hadn’t we bitterly resented our parents for clinging to their own history? Our younger siblings have little recollection of the Cultural Revolution. Our children will have no memory of Tiananmen. They may read about these events in the history books, see them in films, hear stories about them at dinner tables. So we hope. But they probably won’t share our intensity about them. They will have a lightness of spirit about life that doesn’t come naturally to us. Or so we hope.
Zha’s gifts as a witness and writer are to be envied; in China Pop, she repeatedly exercises her special ability to tap into the country’s collective conscience without resorting to armchair psychoanalysis or excuse-making. The book feels uniquely hers: It is filled with pop culture references and Chinese proverbs (“If the fish likes what’s on the hook, well then, fishing is fair play”), interviews with film directors and authors — Chen Kaige, Jia Pingwa, Chan Koonchung, Wang Shuo, etc. — rock stars and intellectuals, and observations about transformation and loss, Hong Kong and cassettes (“Red Sun, an adaption of famous old hymns praising Mao to soft rock rhythms with electronic synthesizers”), McDonald’s and porn. China Pop is an unvarnished document of an era, filled with evocative and wry reflections on a generation of Chinese I wish we could hear more from. They speak loudly in this book, and memorably.
— Anthony Tao
Jonathan Spence (W. W. Norton & Company, 1990)
This classic, first published in 1990 but with second and third editions published in 1999 and 2013, remains the go-to single-volume history book covering China from the end of the Ming through the Reform Era. Aimed at general readers and students, the book is at once accessible and erudite, and it may be many years before it is dethroned as the volume most frequently recommended to readers new to the study of modern China. It takes its place alongside other excellent books by Spence, including The Gate of Heavenly Peace, To Change China, and The Chan’s Great Continent. Spence based the book on lecture materials for his popular intro to modern China class at Yale.
— Kaiser Kuo
Cáo Xuěqín 曹雪芹, translated by David Hawkes (Volumes 1-3) and John Minford (Volumes 4-5) (Penguin Classics, 1974)
In the second half of the 18th century, hand-copied manuscripts of an anonymous novel called The Story of the Stone began to circulate among the noble readers of Beijing. Anyone fortunate or well-connected enough to get their hands on a copy would have been treated to an early preview of the greatest novel yet produced by China’s literary tradition — a preview, but not yet the work known today as A Dream of Red Mansions (a.k.a., Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦 [hónglóumèng]), since none of the manuscripts went past Chapter 80.
In those first 80 chapters, we meet Jia Baoyu, the young scion of the aristocratic Jia clan, who is unusual not only for his literary talent (otherworldly) and good looks (ditto) but also for the fact that he was born with a mysterious jade in his mouth. We meet his orphaned cousin Lin Daiyu, a consumptive, melancholic beauty more than Baoyu’s equal in talent and keenness of feeling, and another cousin, Xue Baochai, who embodies more conventional feminine virtues but is no less gifted than Daiyu. Around them, we meet the rest of the sprawling Jia household, whose wealth and status derive from generations of Imperial favor, most recently including the selection of Baoyu’s older sister as an Imperial Consort, an honor that results in the construction of the exquisite garden where much of the novel’s action takes place.
In the novel’s prologue and at later points, we also get glimpses of another story: Countless aeons ago, when a fight between gods broke one of the pillars holding up the heavens, the goddess Nüwa melted down stones and produced 36,501 stone blocks to mend the shattered firmament, a job that turned out to require only 36,500 stones. Having been created by a goddess, the leftover block possessed certain magical abilities, including the powers of speech and sentience, and was perhaps understandably a bit messed-up about the situation. Seeing a couple of monks walking past one day, the stone begs to be taken down into the mortal realm. It returns from its trip inscribed with an account of its temporal incarnation — the very Story of the Stone that we ourselves are reading — and the hard-won enlightenment it attained there. A verse on the back of the stone explains the nature of the book we’re reading:
Found unfit to repair the azure sky,
Long years a foolish mortal man was I.
My life in both worlds on this stone is writ:
Pray who will copy out and publish it?
For the most part, however, the novel keeps its focus on the world we believe to be the real one. Like Jia Baoyu, the earthly incarnation of the stone, the reader may be so overwhelmed with the onslaught of sensuous detail about worldly things — the Jia household and its fine garments; its refined pleasures; the playful competitions of poetic skill — that they forget the “real” story of the novel almost entirely, save for a growing sense that none of this is going to end well.
Just how badly it would have ended remains a mystery. In the novel as we have it, which acquired the title A Dream of Red Mansions and a 40-chapter conclusion with its first print edition in 1792, the Jia clan falls out of favor with the Emperor and nearly loses everything before seeing its fortunes restored by a combination of Imperial clemency and supernatural intervention. As frightening and genuinely harrowing as this ordeal is, hints and foreshadowing in the first 80 chapters point toward a far more complete destruction. The 20th century identification of Cao Xueqin (1715? – 1763) as the author of the novel strengthens the case: Cao was born into an aristocratic Han Bannerman family whose fortunes reversed sharply and tragically after the death of the Kangxi Emperor and the rise of the Yongzheng Emperor. He died in poverty outside Beijing in 1763 or early 1764, leaving very little other than this novel behind. (The family history probably also explains the incomplete state of the novel at Cao’s death, the delay in publication, and the considerably sunnier conclusion of the novel as published: anything even potentially reading as criticism of the imperial government would have had severe consequences for Cao and his family.) The Jias of the novel are not a straightforward fictionalization of the Caos, but Cao undoubtedly took real things, events, and people as raw material for his fiction, and his sumptuous descriptions of the Jia household’s belongings are surely enriched by memory and loss.
Written in elegant Mandarin and filled with classical allusions, multilayered wordplay, and delightful poetry, Cao’s novel is a testament to what Chinese literature was capable of. Readers of English are fortunate to have David Hawkes and John Minford’s The Story of the Stone, which distills a lifetime of scholarship and reading into what is probably the finest work of Chinese-to-English literary translation yet produced. You will be rewarded every bit of attention you give it, many times over.
— Brendan O’Kane
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