20 China books to read (and 5 to avoid)10 min read

Essential reads for your China library

‘Tis the season of merriment and listicles. Before we break for Christmas, we’ve updated our list of essential China books, in case our latest staff picks weren’t enough for you. We’ve split this into five lists of five: books on contemporary China; books on Chinese history; books from Chinese voices; Chinese classics; and a new fifth section, China books to avoid. (We don’t mean that these books have no value – they are all informative – but that they are ultimately misleading and so you should avoid them in favour of others.)

We hope this is useful as an open sesame for new China watchers, or for old China hands to plug holes in their bookshelf. The lists are designed as all-you-need to pack your bag/Kindle 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. See also our lists of 12 must-read Chinese fiction books, and a dozen Chinese films to watch.

5 Books on Contemporary China

Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China by Philip P. Pan (2008) – 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”

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang (2008) – Sensitively told and deeply researched, this gives the human (and women-driven) side of the factory boom, with Chang’s own history woven in

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler (2010) – 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

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos (2014) –  A series of profiles and articles on a range of Chinese dreamers and dissidents, and a winner of the National Book Award

Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road by Rob Schmitz (2017) – A portrait of a Shanghai street and its occupants 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 (1990) – 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

The Heritage of Chinese Civilisation by Albert M. Craig (2001) – 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

A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World by Rana Mitter (2004) – Mitter provides a broad span of 20th century Chinese history through an original and compelling lens, the pioneering May 4th movement

Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century by Orville Schell and John Delury (2013) – Scholarly researched profiles of 11 individuals who made modern China what it is, a gripping approach

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham (2018) – Intuitive Q&A structure, with concise, clear answers to the key questions about China’s past and present


5 Books from Chinese Voices

Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today’s China ed. Howard Goldblatt (1995) – The perfect introduction to contemporary Chinese literature, with a range of short stories from fiction writers

China Candid: The People on the People’s Republic by Sang Ye (2005) – 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

The Corpse Walker: China From the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu (2008) – Surprising and often moving narratives of ordinary people from all over China’s countryside, bringing out everyday experiences with empathy

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua (2010) – 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

This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver) by Han Han (2012) – Social commentary from the superstar Chinese blogger, on the new generation of young Chinese born after 1980


5 Chinese Classics

Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, trans. David Hinton (ancient, pub. 2010) – The most comprehensive collection out there giving a feel for the origins of Chinese poetry and culture, by one of the best translators in the business

The Analects of Confucius by Confucius, trans. Simon Leys (5c. BCE, pub. 1997) – For ancient Chinese philosophy, Confucius may be a conventional recommendation, but Simon Leys brings the heart of Chinese thought to life

Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, trans. David Hawkes (1760s, pub. 1974) – The last and richest of China’s four classic novels, in stylish translation by David Hawkes and John Minford (in, alas, five volumes)

The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun trans. Julia Lovell (1920s, pub. 2010) – 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 (1947, pub. 2004) – 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


5 China Books to Avoid

The Coming Collapse of China by Gordon Chang (2001) – We’re still waiting for this collapse of China’s economy and politics, 18 years after the book came out. This is why you never make a prediction in a book title

When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques (2009) – From the other end of the prognostication spectrum. Some insightful analysis, but in the end these birds-eye-view big-thesis China books just aren’t worth it

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (2005) – Mao was a complex figure who caused horrific suffering, but this book demonizes him without nuance, and ultimately does disservice to impartial history

Lost on Planet China, by J Maarten Troost (2008) – It might be cruel to single this one out over others, but it’s an example of the “look how wacky this place is” China memoir, which plays for cheap laughs but is shallow as a puddle

Death by China: Confronting the Dragon, by Peter Navarro (2011) – The book that started the new yellow peril scare, and catalysed Trump’s trade war. A classic example of exaggerated scaremongering in the China Threat genre