20 Best China Books4 min read

Essential reading for your China library, in four categories

Third and last in our mini-series of summer listicles, after 12 must-read Chinese fiction books, and 12 must-watch Chinese films, comes this master list: 20 of the best general books about or from China. We are selective, of course, and these recommendations are far from comprehensive. We’ve also split it into four lists of five: books on contemporary China, books on Chinese history, books from Chinese voices, and Chinese classics.

We hope this is useful as an open sesame for new China watchers, or to encourage old hands to plug holes in their bookshelf. The lists are designed as all you need to pack your bag or Kindle with to grasp that aspect or perspective of China, without being overwhelming. Naturally, we have missed out a plethora of wonderful books. But, we hope, this is only the beginning of your reading.

5 Books on Contemporary China

Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China by Philip P. Pan – A very readable work, featuring stories from the post-Mao era that shaped China as it is today, the perfect primer on the “new China”

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler – The third book in New Yorker correspondent Hessler’s China trilogy, both the most up-to-date and the widest in scope, from southern factory to northern farm

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang – Sensitively told and deeply researched, this gives the human (and women-driven) side of the factory boom, with Chang’s own history woven in

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos –  A series of profiles and articles on a range of Chinese dreamers and dissidents, and a winner of the National Book Award

Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land ed. Angilee Shah, Jeffrey Wasserstrom – An anthology that brings out the range of ordinary and extraordinary lives in China


5 Books on Chinese History

The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence – The grandaddy of China history books, taking China’s modern story from the late Ming dynasty up until 1989, this doorstopper is also an absolute pleasure to read

Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century by Orville Schell and John Delury – Scholarly researched profiles of 14 individuals who made modern China what it is, a gripping approach

A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World by Rana Mitter – Mitter provides a broad span of 20th century Chinese history through an original and compelling lens, the pioneering May 4th movement

The Heritage of Chinese Civilisation by Albert M. Craig – One of the best primers on the vast sweep of China’s dynastial history and culture, this volume is clear but has the added advantage of not being overly long

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jeffrey Wasserstrom – An intuitive Q&A structure, with concise answers to the key questions about China’s past and present. Perfect reading for the plane trip over


5 Books from Chinese Voices

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua – A Chinese perspective of the nation’s transition from Cultural Revolution to opening up and the contradictions of 21st century China, compelling non-fiction written by a master novelist

The Corpse Walker: China From the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu – Surprising and often moving narratives of ordinary people from all over China’s countryside, bringing out everyday experiences with empathy

This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver) by Han Han – Social commentary from the superstar Chinese blogger, on the new generation of young Chinese born after 1980

China Candid: The People on the People’s Republic by Sang Ye  – Oral histories of ordinary Chinese lives, from barefeet doctors to PLA soldiers – a grassroots portrait of China since 1949 in the style of Studs Terkel

Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today’s China ed. Howard Goldblatt – The perfect introduction to contemporary Chinese literature, with a range of short stories from fiction writers


5 Chinese Classics

The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun trans. Julia Lovell – China’s George Orwell, or closest equivalent, and an essential writer to have read firsthand. At least read ‘The True Story of Ah Q’ and ‘Diary of a Madman’

Fortress Beseiged by Qian Zhongshu – A wonderful novel, hilariously funny and a razor sharp indictment of Chinese society in the late 1930s, this often overlooked but still relevant classic is a modern must

Monkey by Wu Cheng’en, trans. Arthur Waley – An approachable translation of Journey to the West, the most accessible of China’s four classic texts, in a stylish translation by Arthur Waley in only one volume

Wandering on the Way by Zhuangzi, trans. Victor Mair – For ancient Chinese philosophy, skip Confucius and Laozi for now, and go straight to Zhuangzi, the most mischievous and humorous of sages

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck – Classic 1931 American novel of a rags-to-riches Chinese farmer, and a useful lodestone for foreign perspectives of China; it might feel a bit dated, but Oprah’s book club is never wrong

A version of this list first appeared at the Anthill.