I have read a number of books about China, but only a few of them have made noticeable differences in the way I actually perceive China. On this page I will be providing short summaries of a few books that I think will help you better understand China (New additions will be added to the top of the list).
My favorite books for learning Chinese
Zhang Pengpeng, has a unique approach to teaching Chinese that made it much easier for me to learn. He argues that teaching students how to speak and write at the same time is ineffective, because the characters provide no assistance in the pronunciation (compared to a language like Spanish or Korean). This idea of teaching the character with every new vocabulary word proves to be a stumbling block for many learners, since the oral part of the class usually drives vocabulary. Zhang says that by teaching them separately, both can be taught in a more systematic approach. Full Review
Liao Yiwu’s attempt to answer the question, “How did Chinese Christians survive the Cultural Revolution?” Through interviews with individuals from around the country, he beautifully captures not only inspiring stories from the past, but a unique glimpse of Christianity in the present day as well. Full Review
Colorado China Council (CCC) Executive Director and author of this book, Alice Renouf, collects letters from former teachers and organizes them into a wide range of topics, and sorts them by location and date. I found this a wonderfully novel approach to creating a clear picture of China’s development and the diversity of experiences. This book shows it all, from adventurous eaters, eager teachers and avid explorers to painfully bad writing classes and border-line abusive department heads. Even though Alice works to place American teachers in China, she does not shy away from giving a complete picture of what that commitment entails. Full Review
Historian Frank Dikötter, outlines the full scope of horror that was the Great Leap Forward which in four years claimed 45 million lives. However, that number fails to capture the suffering and individual abuse that was pervasive throughout the country. While it is by far the most complete account of that period, it makes for rather dark reading. Full Review
Clark Nielsen came to China with no training and no clue how to be an English teacher, his book is the enjoyable record of what happened next. The majority of the book focuses on his experiences in a variety of classroom settings and his failure to understand how to properly lesson plan. A fun read for the frustrated expat. Full Review
This translation of Koonchung Chan’s 2010 novel is a bleak look at a possible near future. The US economy has crashed, pulling Europe down with it, and China is the sole superpower. As the main character sets out to explore this brave new world, he soon realizes that China’s rise to power was not without its secrets. This is an excellent exploration of many concepts key to understanding modern China. My full review.
Troy Parfitt visited China on a marathon journey to try and find proof that China would rule the world. Failing to find anyone able to explain what was so great about Chinese society, he continues to explore China’s cities and their history for evidence to make a case in the opposite. Read my full review
Written by a Chinese sociologist in the 1940’s, this series of essays tries to explain how Chinese society is organized, and what that means for a new China. Despite its age, the book remains remarkably accurate in its descriptions of the Chinese countryside. Read my full review
An excellent book focusing on China’s environmental challenges, and attempts to overcome them. Read my full length review here
This book is one that I credit for making the biggest difference in the way I view China. It was written by Chinese journalists in Anhui province in an attempt to root out official corruption. Their work was originally praised by the national government before being banned in China, (I can’t even see it on Amazon here without a proxy).
The authors lay out several well documented cases of government corruption, over taxing peasants, extrajudicial prisons and even a few murders. It also provides a number of interesting facts that helped me piece together the way levels of gov’t in China interact.
If you want to understand the way the China really works, add this book to your reading list.
This book combines Minnie Vautrin’s diary and letters together with a few outside sources to provide an interesting narrative of the Rape of Nanking. I found this account more interesting than some of the other diaries in that Minnie was such a strong woman in a situation that was so dominated by men.
Minnie Vautrin is also one of the lesser known actors in the Rape of Nanking, but I believe she was the one who pushed John Rabe to create the International Safety Zone that saved thousands of Chinese. Her story deserves to be read.
Liang Heng’s recounting of growing up during the Cultural Revolution is unique in it’s scope. I found it a quick read. This man experienced virtually every aspect of the Cultural Revolution first hand. His parent’s are sent away to labor camps, his schools is closed and he joins a Red Guard group that gets involved in a number of skirmishes with other Red Guard groups.
I encountered this book in college in an introductory class on China. It serves as an excellent entry-level book for those of you who are interested in learning more about one of China’s most infamous moments in history.
Full disclosure: I get a tiny commission off of any books purchased through the links on this page, which means it isn’t worth promoting books that aren’t any good. The little money I do receive from this will be used to buy more books and films to review.
If you have any questions about these links feel free to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to answer your questions.