Top 10 Recent China Books9 min read

A holiday shopping list of China nonfiction and fiction

The season of end-of-year listicles has arrived, and we’re kicking it off with a Christmas wish list of noteworthy China titles from the last several years. We’ve previously run lists of 20 Best China Books and 12 Best Chinese Contemporary Fiction Books, and this one has some overlap, but the focus here is on recent titles published in the last decade, and we’ve capped it at a more manageable ten. From Shanghai streets to fictional fields, historical biography to family memoir, the list is far from comprehensive and necessarily misses a number of excellent titles (such as your not-so-humble editor’s own new rerelease), but it covers a range of topics and genres to fill out any growing China bookshelf. The first are by foreign journalists and academics; the second half is from Chinese voices. Wishing everyone a happy holidays, and a comfortable reading couch to rest your feet.

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
Oxford University Press (3rd edition), 2018

From those entering the learning curve to the so-called experts, everyone needs a primer, or a reference book, that is quick and easy to read. This slim volume’s intuitive question-and-answer structure and chronological framework make it the perfect candidate, recently updated in the third edition. Simple and common queries (“How did Qing rule finally end?”; “Who are the Feminist Five?”; “Is China likely to become a democracy?”) are given clear and thorough answers, from ancient philosophy all the way up to China’s high tech boom and environmental fallout. Perfect for the plane ride over to Beijing – whenever that’s possible again.

Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century
Orville Schell, John Delury
Little Brown, 2013

Just as contemporary China is shaped by the individuals who comprise it, so too has the history of the nation been forged by great people (for better or worse). To understand China’s story we must know theirs too, and this book is the best place to start. Schell and Delury profile eleven historical figures who formed modern China, from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. The range covers reformist officials such as Feng Guifen and Liang Qichao, revolutionaries including Chen Duxiu and Mao Zedong, all the way up to the democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. A must read.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Evan Osnos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

A contemporary classic from a seasoned China reporter, Age of Ambition is an acclaimed title well worth getting to plug that hole on your bookshelf. The chapters are woven together from Evan Osnos’s previous journalism, with a focus on profiles of notable individuals, from youth nationalists to the dissidents challenging the system. Connecting these disparate threads is an overarching thesis of personal and national ambitions that have come to define China’s newest incarnation, and that give a good feel for the realities of the nation. Osnos is a master-craftsman in style and narrative, so it’s also an engaging read in its own right.

Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road
Rob Schmitz
Crown, 2016

In the midst of all the birds’ eye views of the nation, some of the best China books reveal the general through the particular, on the ground. In this work, radio journalist Rob Schmitz follows a small number of individuals on a single street in his Shanghai neighborhood. Auntie Fu gets involved in pyramid schemes. Café owner CK dreams of a life different to his parents’. Zhao is a former factory hand working her way up. Through these ordinary and extraordinary lives, we are knitted a tapesty of socialist capitalism, and see the ambitions that have driven China’s citizens in its new era.

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
Ian Johnson
Pantheon, 2017

From a journalist who won the Pulitzer for his work on China’s repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, this work takes on an under-reported aspect of the ‘new’ China: its religious revival since spiritual practice was allowed again (with caveats) after the 1980s. Over the course of a year – with the passing seasons forming the structure at the book’s heart – Johnson follows underground church members, Daoist priests, Buddhist pilgrims, Confucian sages and other characters as they negotiate what it means to have faith in a communist nation where the only salvation one is supposed to get is from the Party.

China in Ten Words
Yu Hua, trans. Allan Barr
Anchor, 2012

We would be remiss not to include Chinese voices in this list, so the second half focuses on home writers. First up is novelist Yu Hua’s best nonfiction work: using chapters based on ten Chinese words as his conceit (“revolution”, “disparity”, “bamboozle”), he traces China’s transition from the Mao to reform periods and beyond. Blending argument with memoir, Yu splits open the contradictions of contemporary China in his trademark elegant, clear prose. His concerns mix the contemporary with the historical, but as the essays were written before China’s latest ‘Xi era’, the book can feel dated at moments.

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up
Liao Yiwu, trans. Wen Huang
Pantheon, 2008

As Yu Hua did with concepts, Liao Yiwu does with people – bringing the human stories of China’s diversity to life in this work of oral history in the American tradition of Studs Terkel. Like Terkel, Liao focuses on their professions, profiling ordinary folk’s working lives in the ‘new’ China. There is a professional mourner, a human trafficker, a retired government official, a former Red Guard, a political prisoner, a village teacher, a Falun Gong practitioner, and more. Each profile is candid and direct, preserving the voice of the subject. As such, it’s a valuable window into China that humanises a country all too often seen as monolithic.

Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China
Karoline Kan
Hachette Books, 2019

A new generation of Chinese writers is coming out of the woodwork, and Karoline Kan’s family memoir is a good example of what we hope there will be more to come of from new voices in China. Kan was born in 1989, and tells the story of how she first came to learn of the Tiananmen massacre of her birthyear, as well as other coming-of-age struggles. Woven into these personal reflections are the stories of her family, from her grandparents’ experiences in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution to those of her parents and cousins as China emerged into capitalism’s brave new world.

The Garlic Ballads
Mo Yan, trans. Howard Goldblatt
Arcade, 2012

Mo Yan achieved international recognition with his 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, but much of his work is stylized and at times impenetrable. This novella, however, is a delight to read and a perfect ‘open sesame’ for Chinese contemporary literature. Set in ‘Paradise’ country, Mo’s tale of farmers clashing with the local government over their garlic crops oozes with social commentary and drips with symbolism. With a range of grotesquely comic characters and a violent denouement, this is a fun read that still feels relevant today, even if literature like it is increasingly rare to find in Xi’s China.

Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories
Various, ed./trans. Aili Mu
Columbia University Press, 2017

To close out the list with a further sampling of fiction, this new collection presents a range of translated contemporary short fiction from China next to the original Chinese – so it’s perfect for Mandarin learners as well as literature fans. The stories are themed conceptually (‘Filial Piety’, ‘Governance’, ‘Face’, ‘Change’ etc.) and include a wide sampling of modern writers including Chi Zijian and Shi Tiesheng. Translated into English and edited by Aili Mu with the poet Mike Smith, this is a far from comprehensive introduction to contemporary Chinese lit, but it’s a good start for a student.