I’ve been living in China for about a year and half now and studying China for the past three and half years, so I’ve enjoyed reading quite a few English-language books about Chinese history, society, and culture. Whether you’re looking for a gentle introduction into what life in China is like, a more rigorous read, or some top anthropological books, this list has it. Let me know what your recommendations might be if you’re a China-enthusiast or a wannabe. There’s always room for more books in my Kindle!
Best Light Reads
A linguist by training, Fallows spent three years in China with her journalist husband. In this playful book she takes an introductory look at the culture by way of the language. For anyone just starting Mandarin studies or thinking of doing so, this book is a delightful, manageable, and approachable read.
Full of inside jokes, cautionary tales, and adventure, Troost’s naked eye view of China is surprisingly on target when it comes to the challenges of traveling and learning the ins and outs of Chinese culture. This book can be appreciated by the adventurous traveler or the seasoned ex-pat; it’s a quick, light, and humorous read.
Lisa See’s historical fiction is mesmerizing, well-researched, and brings you into the intimate worlds of two Chinese girls, whose friendship spans distance and class to create a touching, slightly tragic tale.
Best Rigorous Reads
Arguably the best book written about China to date, Hessler traces China’s past and present through the mystery of the oracle bones, through the Cultural Revolution, and into contemporary Beijing where he works as a reporter. Although I study Chinese culture for a living, this book brought Chinese history alive, and provided an interesting contemporary reflection on the plight of the Uighur minority in and outside China today.
This read is rigorous in the emotional sense, as you will feel as though you’re traveling along with Evans to China to pick up her adopted daughter. She helps readers begin to unravel the complexity of the international adoption explosion from China in the 1990s-2000s. Although a little outdated, this book is a powerful, factual, reflective look at foreign adoptions from China.
Technically an anthropological look at Chinese family life, this nonfictional account reads much like a novel of intimate family life in rural Taiwan, during the mid-60s. Wolf tells the story of a family that struggles to live together under one roof, rather than “divide the hearth,” as many of the neighbors had begun to do. You’ll feel transported in time, and begin to understand the complicated dynamics which pervade Chinese family life.
Best Anthropological Reads
The earliest foreign post-revolution ethnography of Chinese family life, the Potters chart the Maoist transition through life in one village. Their cultural insights make the Chinese experience accessible and understandable, and they provide a snapshot in time in rapidly developing, ever-changing China.
Yan’s deft account of the emotional lives of Chinese villagers, argues that the collapse of the socialist system actually created an unprecedented development of private life, individualism, and egotism among rural Chinese. Yan’s 2003 account of life since the Cultural Revolution is apt and still poignant to present-day China.
Yang tackles the total social phenomenon of guanxi and the way in which it has transformed from traditional kinship ethics, under Maoism, and into the present. Yang’s reflection on her own identity, as well as the cult of Maoism, are important forays for Chinese Anthropology, and the book is a masterful treatment of contemporary social life, its idiosyncrasies and dynamics.