Want to know more about China? My five reading suggestions

China is a much-discussed country following the increasingly important role it is taking up in the world. This also means there is a wealth of books out there (not to mention blogs, articles, and all kinds of other news) which all explore some part of China. A simple query on Amazon brings up tens of thousands of titles. Wow.

I recently finished another book on China, one which has gotten a lot of exposure and good reviews since it was published in 2010. The book made me look back at what I have been reading over the last few years and I’ve put together my personal top 5 of non-fiction books on China, for anyone looking for some interesting reading. The books are a mix of politics, society, history and a little bit of economics – and posted in random order.

Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan
This book is a collection of essays on Chinese regular citizens who made a difference, in one way or another, written by a former China-correspondent of the Washington Post. What I liked about it is that the stories are very personal, every chapter is on one individual. Together, the stories touch on a lot of important parts of Chinese history and society: Tiananmen Square in 1989, SARS in 2004, hutongs being demolished in Beijing etc. This means that you get a pretty good grasp of modern history and society, while at the same time being drawn in to the personal stories of these individuals.

The Party: The secret world of China’s communist rulers by Richard McGregor
I’ve seen this book at the top of various Top 10 China book listings, and I’m not surprised. The book describes how the Chinese Communist Party works and every chapter discusses a different part of its workings, including the judicial system, HR inside the party, state-owned enterprises etc. Fascinating to read how all-encompassing this system really is.

The Concrete Dragon by Thomas J. Campanella
The subtitle of this book is China’s urban revolution and what it means to the world, which sums up pretty well what this book is about. I’m quite interested by how cities grow and evolve, as this will be increasingly difficult to do well with an ever-expanding population and growing pressure on resources, land, etc. This is not only true in Europe, but much much more so in China where cities of several million inhabitants and more are the rule, rather than the exception. This book discusses how cities in China have evolved, discusses the impact on society of these changes, and shows some fascinating examples of Chinese urbanisation right now with a chapter devoted to for example themed suburbs and themeparks. It’s a more academic read than the other books in this list, but I enjoyed it a lot.

Tied to this book I also want to mention another book on Chinese urbanisation which looks at the same topics from the perspective of the people living in those cities: How the city moved to Mr. Sun, written by Dutch journalists Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen. The duo visited 13 of China’s new megacities: cities away from the Eastcoast and more inland such as Chongqing, Lanzhou and Hohhot. In these cities they follow the life of someone who lives there and this story represents the impact these expanding cities have on China and its population. Besides containing interesting stories, the book is also beautifully designed with lots of photographs and additional information.

Red Dust by Ma Jun
This is a very different book than the others which are listed in this post, as this is a travelogue by a Chinese journalist who leaves Beijing to travel around China for three years in the early 1980’s. I haven’t read it for a long time (and in fact, gave it away to an ex-colleague – as I’ve done with many of these books) but it still sticks with me as quite a special and fascinating travel story of China 30 years ago.

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter
This book actually prompted this post, as I finished it most recently. It has received quite a bit of coverage since its publication in 2010 and it’s clear why: the book uses formerly inaccessable Chinese archives to go through the couple of years of the famine which occurred during the Great Leap Forward between 1958-1962. I didn’t know that much about this particular part of Chinese history. Most of the gruesome history is told about the Cultural Revolution – but not anymore. Through his research Dikötter estimates that around 45 million people died during these four years in China, through famine and related causes. The book contains LOTS of numbers, statistics and facts that made it slow reading, but the amount of research put into this book is dazzling and it’s very recommended if you want to get a better understanding of how the Chinese Communist Party made their decisions – at least during this time it seemed to be all about keeping up appearances to your boss and to the outside world. But at least not based on what is happening in the country itself.


So, the above are my favourites on China (in random order) but of course there is much more that I haven’t read, and I have a couple of books waiting on my book shelf, but this top 5 will be hard to break into.

What have you read, and what did you like? Please share your additional recommendations in the comments!

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