8 Must Read China Books for 2016

Give us your recommendations, too

Abbey Heffer , May 27, 2016 10:49am (updated)

Having divested three separate bookshops of their China collections in Thailand’s Chiang Mai last summer, I have happily spent the remaining half year devouring them. Christmas is a particularly quiet time in a foreign-facing Chinese government department, sat in the office all day despite all regular clients being unreachable while enjoying a festive break. It is a good opportunity to trawl the internet for new year’s reading materials, and to reflect on the good reads of 2015. A particularly good collection, despite placing Anchee Min 20th, is Time Out Beijing’s Top 20 Best Chinese Fiction Books of the Last Century. For the more high-brow reader, Forbes’ 10 Must Read Books That Explain Modern China was a good starting point last year. Falling somewhere in the middle of these two lists, here are a further 8 Must Read China Books from What BC Read This Year from the across the genres of fiction, economics and history, for those who live, love and breathe China. Notable exceptions from this list are Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Kissinger’s On China, which should be prescriptive reading for anyone moving to China — even if Kissinger is dreadfully dry and painful to read. 

1 | The New Emperors (2014) by Kerry Brown

Political Commentary | Chinese Governance

There is nothing as solid and well defined in modern China as a standard group of people operating like an aristocracy as part of a highly unified elite with a set identity and firm rules of how power can be passed from one to the other.

Throughout this volume, Brown poses several arguments about the leadership process which culminated in the appointment of Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and just five other members to the highest echelons of the Chinese government system. In relatively appealing prose, Brown manages to just about scratch the surface of factors leading up China’s 2012 leadership change. Though it takes nearly 250 pages to do so, he manages to state the most obvious fact known to anyone who lives and works in China. Guanxi is the answer, now what is the question?

To his credit, he does spend the first chapter destroying the assumption that factionalism governs leadership changes in China, and that Xi Jinping’s appointment as Commander in Chief is down to the fact that he manages to span all relevant internal Party factions at once. Factionalism is an explanation best left to high school history textbooks and lazy undergrads, not political commentary in China.

Also to his credit, the final chapter is somewhat redeeming. After nearly 200 pages dedicated to the importance of guanxi networks, webs of patronage and friendship, Brown finally gets around to an analysis of the Standing Committee leaders written work. The fifth generation of leadership have left a surprising paper trail, with a journalist, a historian and a lawyer standing beside their more traditionally opaque colleagues.

In terms of a bare-bones biography of China’s current leadership goes, Brown offers a pleasant and easy read. For readers new to the political landscape of Chinese governance, it is a more than adequate introduction to a complex and multifaceted organisation. With a light writing style, Brown manages to perpetuate the patriarchal tone of the oligarchy he describes; dedicating barely five pages in the entire book to the women in and around leadership, and with only fleeting reference to the infamous and exceptionally interesting character of Li Wei, The New Emperors could easy be recommended to university students as an introduction to a course on Chinese governance. It is a great start, but leaves an inquisitive reader wishing for far more meat. That said, I would still definitely recommend reading it.

2 | Sky Burial (2004) and The Good Women of China (2002) by Xinran 

Biography | Fiction | History

No one likes crying, but tears water our souls. So, perhaps my thanks should be to allow you to cry for the Chinese women in my books.

Having read some of the stories in The Good Women of China, it was only half a new read. Xinran’s Sky Burial, however, was a completely new and utterly beautiful read. Though she herself admits that she injected a fair amount of creative fiction into the otherwise true-story account of Shu Wen, a Suzhou native who searched the Tibetan wilderness for her missing husband for fifty years. Regardless of creative licence, Xinran takes us on captivating journey within some of Tibet’s most surreptitious nomadic communities. Shu Wen’s journey is both a cultural odyssey, as a member of the invading ethnic group, and an emotional epic, as she searches over decades for the husband she held for only three days after their wedding. When she finally returns to speak with natives of her own country, Shu Wen finds that the entire world has changed, the cultural revolution happened and all the people she knew are dead or lost or both. The beauty of Xinran’s characterisation of Shu Wen, however, is the solace she finds in her adopted culture. Returning to Suzhou in full Tibetan dress, Shu Wen tries to reconnect with the past that she had forgotten in the plains of Tibet.

With the same vivid storytelling, Xinran begins The Good Women of China with a few biographical details of her own. As a radio presenter, Xinran began receiving the stories of her female listeners, and discussing the issues raised on her nightly show. In this volume, she ties together some of the most heartbreaking and surprising stories of her years working with Chinese women. For anyone wishing to give a greater depth to their understanding of women in China, Xinran’s collection is a must-read. Though it must be acknowledged that all her retellings include a little creative licence and artificially added literary devices, the world of Chinese women opens a little to the western world in her work.

3 | Impressing the Whites: The New International Slavery (2011) by Richard Crasta

Race Relations | Political Satire

A young Frenchman who had recently visited China and was greatly upset. Why? Because the modern Chinese were not as spiritual as he had been primed by the Western media to expect. In fact, these bloody Chinamen with their 30 million cell phones were as materialistic as . . . as . . . as he was!

Though this is not specifically China-related, it does pose interesting arguments about the stereotyping and de-sexualisation of Asian men (of both the Indian and Eastern variety) in western culture. With wide-reaching implications for both gender studies and race relations, Crasta hilariously and mercilessly engages the reader in a series of very real analogies that characterise the postcolonial world from a non-white perspective. Impressing the Whites should be prescriptive reading for each and every white person in the developed world for its blunt and brilliant honesty in the face of what can only be described as globalised institutional racism.

Crasta’s most pervasive point, in an book filled with point after pervasive point, is that the constant subversion of truth and honesty on the subject of race relations is as damaging to those repressed by an overtly white system, as it is to those ruling said system. It would be a mistake to think that Crasta’s observations can only apply to the Indian context, as some American reviewers have implied. I only wish that someone with Crasta’s humour and forcefulness could be born in China, and publish a similar volume on white and non-white power relations here

4 | Red Azalea (1994) and The Last Empress (2004) by Anchee Min

Fiction | Historical Novel

I led my schoolmates in collecting pennies. We wanted to donate the pennies to the starving children in America.

Red Azalea was a reread of a much-loved Anchee Min classic; however The Last Empress was a new read — though chosen out of love for the author rather than critical acclaim.

The dreamlike quality of Min’s writing in Red Azalea paints a vivid picture of a sexual repression, confusion and desire. Evocative and enchanting, Min’s semi-biography takes the reader on a journey in which memory and fantasy crossover and intertwine inexplicably. As a work of art, both Min and her editor have cleverly reconstructed a red-tinted snapshot of the China of the Cultural Revolution. Sexualising the revolution, Min pushes the importance sexuality to the forefront of Cultural Revolution accounts and testimony. If only one Anchee Min novel is to be read, it would have to be Red Azalea, by far her most disruptive and groundbreaking work.

Though fitting of Min’s style of prose, The Last Empress was a little too fanciful for even my love of the author. Based on the life of the infamous Dowager Empress Cixi, Min’s fictional biography aims to tell the woman’s side of a story splashed across newspapers and books worldwide for over a hundred years. The life and lies of the Orchid Empress are known from London to Toyko, and none serve as a pleasant read. Modelled after the Tang Dynasty Empress Wu, stories circulating about Cixi speak of an immoral woman with multiple lovers and an unquenchable thirst for power. In attempting to right these wrongs, Min emphasises the impact of Cixi being a wife and mother before her imperial responsibilities. Min intentionally dramatically overstates the extent to which such accounts were reflective of a gravely misunderstood old woman. It is an interesting take on a well-known character in modern Chinese history.

5 | To Change China (1980) by Jonathan D. Spence​

History | Foreign Policy

China had never dreamed that anything of value might be found in the West. What new techniques could be needed in a country that drew its wisdom from the Sages, controlled 150,000,000 subjects with a small and sophisticated bureaucracy, had touched perfection in art and poetry, and plumbed the mysteries of sea, earth and sky?

A long-time favourite author of mine, Jonathan Spence was a journalist at the very beginning of the country’s reform and opening up. As that process of opening to the world began, Spence investigated China’s history of foreign advisors and the trials they faced while trying to change China.

Though a little outdated, reading To Change China struck many raw nerves. Having worked directly for the Chinese government for the last two years, many of the historical issues facing China’s foreign advisors are still very much an issue. Following the stories of sixteen foreign men who gave their lives to change China, Spence dryly narrates the highs and lows of the foreign experience in China. For those who could not humble themselves before the longevity of Chinese culture and power, disappointment and Spence’s mild and sarcastic disapproval are their only rewards.

A very interesting read for any foreigner frustrated by what they perceive to be China’s backwardness, the experience of Spence’s advisors would caution against arrogance in such situations. In the end, it is difficult to decide who has manipulated who, and which party acts as exploiter.

6 | 23 Things They Didn’t Tell You About Capitalism (2010) by Ha Joon-Chang

Political Commentary | Economics

Economists are not some innocent technicians who did a decent job within the narrow confines of their expertise until they were collectively wrong-footed by a once-in-a-century disaster that no one could have predicted.

Despite being self-proclaimed China non-specialist, Ha Joon-Chang’s masterful take-down of commonly-held beliefs about the state of the world economy and the righteousness of free market economics is a must-read for anyone following the current trajectory of China’s development. It debunks the presumption of many free market economists, and members of the public guilty of blindly arguing the strength of an American economic model, at the expense of all others. Questioning both popular and professional understanding when it comes to the concept of free market economics, Ha’s arguments should be taken into account when critiquing countries like China.

7 | Ancestors (1988) by Frank Ching

History | Family History

My first conscious memory, as a five-year-old boy in the summer of 1946, is peeping through the porthole of a passenger liners as it churned through the South China Sea, taking our family to exile in Hong Kong.

With an intriguing introduction to the dispertion of his immediate family, separated in the wake of the Communist Party’s 1949 takeover, Ching explains the inspiration behind his gargantuan family history project. Ancestors charts the developments, deterioration and distribution of the Qin clan worldwide. With some members remaining within the P. R. China, some fleeing to Taiwan and Hong Kong, others to the United States, even just a background on Ching’s immediate family would fill reams of pages. Yet Ching goes even further, taking his clan history 900 years back, to the founding father of his ancestral dynasty: the Song poet Qin Guan.

As with many studies into the pre-modern history of China, the modern often interferes with fieldwork. Ching personalised this interference by giving a first-hand account of problems caused by the relatively recent Cultural Revolution, during which locals would plaster graves to protect them from roaming Red Guards. Ching mentions of the relative ease with which he may travel in China as a foreigner, by fortune of being ethnically Chinese and having surviving family members there.

8 | Wu (2007) by Jonathan Clements

History | Women’s Studies

She killed her sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother. She is hated by gods and men alike… The Chinese empress who schemed, seduced and murdered her way to become a living God.

Writing about one of the most infamous and powerful women in Chinese history, Clements takes a refreshingly balanced approach to documenting the life of the Tang Dynasty Empress Wu Zitian. Though in many ways he fails to adequately interrogate the issues facing women at this time, Clements takes a broad-brush approach and discrediting overall the attitude of contemporary and modern scholars in their handling of a woman who was otherwise a relatively adequate leader. Despite having stabilised the Tang dynasty and prevented it from crumbling into ruin, Wu is more often known in history for having destroyed a dynasty remembered as the Golden Age of Chinese culture.

Clements’ mention of the wrongfully similar treatment of other powerful female characters in by historical scholars, such as the Dowager Empress Cixi and Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao-Tsedong, is unsatisfying. That he mentions such comparative figures is hardly revolutionary but notable, but he does not go far enough into debunking a comparison of these completely and utterly incomparable women. Wu could be read in conjunction with modern day accounts of Jiang Qing, such as The White Boned Demon, for a comparison of the historical treatment of such women even as recently as 1980.

However, Clements’ treatment of the biases surrounding Tang Dynasty accounts of the Wu Empress is well-rounded, he discusses the impact of Confucian thinking, imperial prerogative and the influence of folk legend on the changing face of history. This volume could be read as an introduction to women’s studies in Chinese history, it is both easy to read and engaging.

Further Reading:

  • Making the Foreign Serve China (2003) by Marie-Ann Brady
  • Struggle for the South China Sea (2014) by Bill Hayton
  • What We Say Goes: U.S. Power in a Changing World (2007) by Noam Chomsky

If you have anything to add, or if you would have create a different list entirely, let us know in the comments below!

Note: The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of any unit of the Chinese government. Responsibility for the views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author.

Abbey Heffer

London-born historian and environmental enthusiast working for a local government.