SOUL MOUNTAIN, by Gao Xingjian: He’s the only Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize, and this is his best book. It reflects the period in the 1980s when the reforms first started to take hold, and Chinese, like Gao, began to travel and gain a new sense of their country.
RED AZALEA, by Anchee Min: There’s something mesmerizing about this book, which covers a devastating period in short sentences, one after another, until the Cultural Revolution is broken down into a train of impressions and emotions and visions of brutality. That’s how an anti-individual political campaign appears to somebody who is fiercely individualistic.
SHIFU, YOU’LL DO ANYTHING FOR A LAUGH, by Mo Yan: China’s most critically acclaimed author wrote this collection of eight astonishing stories – the title story of which was made into the film Happy Times. In his writing, which is shaped by his own experience of almost unimaginable poverty as a child, Mo Yan exposes the harsh abuses of an oppressive society. These diverse, powerful tales are tied together by the author’s deep compassion for his fellow man, which is equaled by his disdain of bureaucracy and repression.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN, by J.G. Ballard: Before starting to write about sex and coke, Ballard was a child once. This is the story, adapted to the screen by Spielberg in the homonym film, of his childhood in a detention camp in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Presented as a fiction novel, it’s full of autobiographical elements.
RED DUST, by Ma Jian: Like Gao’s book, Red Dust describes the travels of an artistic young man during the 1980s. However, Ma Jian’s book is non-fiction and he gives a fascinating glimpse into a society during that period – for example, the cross-country contacts of the intelligentsia, who protected and supported each other. Many parts of the book are quite funny.
YANGTZE: NATURE, HISTORY, AND THE RIVER, by Lyman P. Van Slyke: In this author’s opinion, this is the best history book about the Yangtze River. It’s not weighed down by a need to be relentlessly comprehensive or authoritative; Yangtze feels like the work of a historian who simply loves the texture of the river’s past.
RIVER TOWN, by Peter Hessler: In the heart of China’s Sichuan province, tucked away amid the terraced hills of the Yangtze River valley, lies the remote town of Fuling. The author arrives there as a Peace Corps volunteer, marking the first time in more than half a century that the city had an American resident. Hessler taught English and American literature at the local college, but it was his students who taught him about the ways of Fuling. Poignant, thoughtful, funny, and enormously compelling, River Town is an unforgettable portrait of a Chinese city and its people.
1587: A YEAR OF NO SIGNIFICANCE, by Ray Huang: This history book’s subtitle is “The Ming Dynasty in Decline,” and it describes in wonderful detail a ruler who is losing his grip on the empire. Some aspects of this book – the weight of bureaucracy, for example – are still recognizable to anybody who lives in China. Chinese histories can be so overwhelming, but this book is valuable because its narrow focus actually allows for a broader scope: a powerful sense of time, authority, and empire.
THE GOOD WOMEN OF CHINA, by Xinran: As an employee of the state radio system in the late 1980s, Xinran recognized an invaluable opportunity. She was given the approval to host a radio call-in show. Operating within the constraints imposed by the government censors, her program for women sparked a tremendous outpouring, and the hours of tapes on her answering machines were filled every night. Anonymous women bore witness to decades of civil strife and of halting attempts at self-understanding in a painfully restricted society. Xinran brings us the stories that affected her the most and offers a graphically detailed and unprecedented work of oral Chinese history.
TRAVELERS’ TALES – CHINA, edited by Sean O’Reilly, James O’Reilly, and Larry Habeggar: “What’s it like to be in China?” This book gives you the best possible answer through the true stories of other travelers. Delightful, funny, cautionary, or inspiring, there’s no better road map than the experiences of others for deepening and enriching your travels through China.
INSIGHT GUIDES CHINA, edited by Scott Rutherford: This book includes a section on China’s history, several features looking at parts of the country’s life and culture (including traditional medicine to ornate pagodas). Also included is a region-by-region tourist’s guide to the sights, and an exhaustive Travel Tips section,
ENCOUNTERING THE CHINESE, by Hu Wenzhong and Cornelius L. Grove: It is difficult enough to fathom China’s complex culture, and even more challenging to identify the cross-cultural factors that often lead to embarrassing misunderstandings when Westerners encounter the Chinese. The authors give us a sensitive cross-cultural analysis that should guide Westerners toward more rewarding relationships with the Chinese.
CULTURE SHOCK – SHANGHAI, by Rebecca Weiner, Angie Eagan, and Xu Jun: The authors take you on an in-depth tour of China’s most exciting city. This cultural, etiquette, and educational guide discusses Shanghai’s glamorous and tragic history, its unique and enterprising people, and its amazing resurgence as a world-class cosmopolitan city.
GETTING RICH FIRST: LIFE IN A CHANGING CHINA, by Duncan Hewitt: Comprehensive, pithy and easy to understand look at present day China. Massive cultural, economic and social changes have taken place in the South East Asian behemoth over the last 15 to 20 years and this book opens the reader’s eye to them. Sensitive and objective, it is the perfect read for both dedicated Sinophiles and people who have little previous knowledge of China.