Understanding modern China can be a difficult task. China is cut off from the Western world in terms of its pictographic language and its divergent politics, yet China is still a major superpower and world player, with one of the fastest growing economies and the largest population (1.5bn). China, in Chinese, is called ‘Zhong Guo’ (中国), which literally means ‘middle country’. To the Chinese, their country is the middle of the world and, in terms of modern culture, this is an easy point to argue. Thus, to understand any part of the world that we live in today, we should try to understand China. Here are a few books that may help you to do this.
The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone, Cao Xueqin (1868)
This 19th-century novel is so long that it has been split into five volumes for its modern publications. It is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels. When asking about important Chinese literature, it is the first book that Chinese people will recommend. Read this novel if you want to learn about courtly Chinese life before the changes that occurred in the country during the 20th century. In its translation, it is radically different from English literary styles. Each chapter ends with a sentence such as, ‘But the outcome of this discussion will be dealt with in the following chapter.’ If that suspense doesn’t make you want to read more, I don’t know what will!
Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos (2014)
In his critically acclaimed debut, journalist Evan Osnos’s observational non-fiction novel aims to dispel preconceived notions about modern China. He gives 21st-century Chinese people a voice in the West by interviewing them and retelling their stories in a sensitive yet honestly revealing way.
Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, Alec Ash (2015)
Alec Ash tells six stories of China’s youth, the millennials that are shaping China today. Through the lives of Fred, Lucifer, Xiaoxiao, Mia, Snail and Dahai, Ash investigates how modern-day China affects (and is affected by) the young.
Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, ed. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom (2015)
A brilliant collection of informative essays accompanied by beautiful photographs, which build up a picture of China’s place on the global stage.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang (1991)
If you only read one book from this list, make it Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. Chang moved to England in the late 70s to study English. She ended up being the first Chinese person to be awarded a PhD from a British university. Written in English, the novel explains 20th-century China from the perspective of women from three generations of Chang’s family. The first, her grandmother, was a concubine for an important military general at the turn of the 20th century. Her mother grew up during the upheaval of Chinese politics in the early 20th century and eventually became a Communist party official. Chang tells her part of the story against the backdrop of Mao’s Communism and expresses the ups and downs of the latter half of the 20th century in moving ways. It is an important novel for understanding women’s place during this tumultuous period. Not only this, the novel makes us consider how China stands today, on its own and in a global context.
Note from editor: The books on this list are the blogger's personal selection.
Would you like to visit China? What books about other countries have you read?