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10 Books to Read Before Going to China

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China is a nation with the world's largest population and a cultural influence that is just as just as immense. Because of this, it is important to be well informed about China prior to visiting. Whether you are visiting China to explore its 5,000-year history, do business, or just to see the tourist sights, reading some books about China by people who have first-hand experience is a wise decision.

As a traveler you should pick up one or more of the excellent China guides by Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Fodors, Frommers, DK Eyewitness Travel, and Gorilla (for business travelers), which cover the tourist routes concisely and practically. Our China Guide pages cover in-depth information on everything from sights to cities, culture to tips. But below are 10 books that will really broaden your horizons about the Middle Kingdom.

1. China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas Kristof / Sheryl Wu-Dunn

Written by reputable New York Times journalists Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wu-Dunn, China Wakes explores the recent history of China from the firsthand perspective of journalists. This non-fiction book analyzes the the rise of communism in China, its gradual transition to capitalism, and China's hopeful future.

Kristof and WuDunn also make incredible efforts to eliminate the bias and misconceptions that many Westerners have about China. Along with political commentary and historical overviews, China Wakes describes the culture and lives of Chinese individuals and families. China Wakes is the comprehensive resource for learning about many aspects of China through several different perspectives. While China Wakes is a very informative text, it is written in a way that is gripping and entertaining; it's a true page-turner. This is a must-read for academics and those interested in global affairs.

2. Understanding China by John Bryan Starr

china mapMap of China

Understanding China is the perfect book for the traveler in search of information about all the numerous facets of modern China. Lucian W. Pye of The New York Times states Understanding China as "An excellent introduction to China for anyone in search of solid but concise information about that complicated country." Just as Pye says, this text throws the reader directly into a journey to learn all of the many details of China's economy, history, and culture.

The book's author, John Bryan Starr, takes a unique approach to China by explaining how historical ideas such as Confucianism and Mandate of Heaven have affected and continue to affect modern Chinese society and culture. Understanding China covers a huge variety of topics in its 407 pages. This includes geography, historical patterns, the single-party system, politics, economy, regionalism, differences in rural and city cultures, ethic identities, environmental challenges, education, the legal system, special administrative regions, globalization, and Chinese relations with Taiwan.

With so much comprehensive information, this text is an excellent resource for travelers that would like to know as much as possible before travelling to China. Study-abroad students can especially benefit from the information that Understanding China offers.

3. A History of China by John Keay

For history buffs, John Keay's A History of China is the book to read. This text not only offers a historical overview of China, but it also goes on to explain in extreme detail the finer aspects of Confucianism, Buddhism, and China's many dynasties. A History of China breaks down China chronologically by its dynasties and then goes on to explain what happened to China during that time period. Famine, cultural revolutions, golden ages, medical advancements, new technologies, important philosophers, and all of the other pertinent information is included in each dynasty's thorough analysis.

A History of China is arguably one of the greatest resources for learning about China's entire 5,000 year history. Understanding China's philosophies and dynasties is relative to understanding its modern culture and society, so this text is excellent for travelers who would like to truly appreciate the country and its people during a visit to China. With 535 pages and small text, A History of China is a long read. Set aside the time to read the book in its entirety or use the index to only learn about topics that may be important during a specific visit to China.

4. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

temple of heavenBeijing's House of Prayer

Written by a former Chinese resident of Beijing, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a novel composed of 10 stories that serves to examine a China undergoing turbulent change due to globalization, capitalism, and the cultural expressions of the nation's youth. This novel offers an interesting view of China in terms of younger people living in its cities. Each story within A Thousand Years of Good Prayers has a unique theme that sums up a certain area of China's political and cultural atmosphere.

The commonly used clash of tradition and new ways that is found in many other Chinese novels (especially The Joy Luck Club) is also present in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. As fiction, some instances may be exaggerated for entertainment purposes, but A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a good book to read for those interested in seeing how Chinese culture has changed since the 1980s.

5. Tiger Head, Snake Tails by Jonathan Fenby

Tiger Head, Snake Tails is full of information covered in the previously mentioned China Wakes, but it is presented from an academic's perspective instead of that of a journalist. Most notably, the book's author, Fenby, analyzes China's modern economy and single-party state. Special attention is also given to the equality gap between rural Chinese and urban workers. Fenby also analyzes the different solutions as to how China as we know it can survive during this century as capitalism and the influence of money threaten the single-party system.

This book is ideal for China watchers and travelers with an interest in China's future, as well as its successes and flaws. Understanding the concepts presented in Tiger Head, Snake Tails is essential to grasping the situation of the average Chinese citizen. Travelers such as students and business people can also benefit from reading this thorough analysis of modern China.

6. The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds by Jonathan Spence

Regarding China, many Westerners have many generalizations and misconceptions. The Chan's Great Continent addresses these common misconceptions and explains what China is truly like. This non-fiction book examines China from numerous angles and the result is an entertaining read.

7. China: People Place Culture History by Peter Neville

Mural Paintings of Eastern Jin Dynasty-travelAncient Chinese art

The book commemorates the art, culture, history, and landscape of China with a combination of spectacular photographs and informative text. Page after page provides readers with a quick look at the picturesque terrain of various regions that varies from deserts, fields and forests to mountain tops.

Explore the country's history through easy to read articles, artifacts and a detailed timeline. Enjoy the stories told by citizens about their daily lives. The drawings, paintings and poetry offer a sampling of the beautiful cultural art created through the centuries.

8. China: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter

Backpacking more than 35,000 miles around the country and visiting all 33 provinces in the span of two years, photojournalist Tom Carter completed his goal of representing the people through pictures.

Living on a meager budget and traveling by boat, bus, train, motorcycle or mule, he collected almost 1,000 photographs of the people. His adventure took him from the city lights of Hong Kong and the arid deserts of Xinjiang to the lush jungles of Yunnan and many other locations. Along the way, Carter met people from 56 different ethnic backgrounds that he believed portrayed the soul of China. Considered an amazing effort, Carter managed to create a unique look at the country's vast population.

9. DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: China by DK Publishing

Filled with colorful pictures, drawings and an array of descriptive maps, the travel guide provides a wealth of information about many different regions within China.

Visitors learn a number of tips concerning travel by private vehicle, bus, rail, boat or on foot. Find listings of the most highly recommended hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues whether traveling on a budget or taking a luxury vacation. The guide also provides illustrated, photographic and textual information about streets, villages, cities and recommended attractions.

10. Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

linzhou gliding baseAnyang

The title comes from ancient bones discovered in the city of Anyang that archeologists believe originated in the second century B.C. Carvings on the bones remain of particular interest to Chinese and Western scholars alike. The bones become a metaphor for Hessler's novel.

Tired of teaching English and working as a freelance journalist, Hessler sets out to become a correspondent for the New Yorker in Beijing. What follows is an array of interesting stories about the country's archeological history combined with accounts of his interactions with everyday citizens. Twenty-four chapters tell the tale of the years that he spent in China until 2002.

Hessler's stories relate the personal lives of individuals combined with thousands of years of culture and history in the environments in which they live. For example, his ongoing communication with three former students from the Sichuan Province provide a glimpse into China's current socio-economic condition.

Further Reading

Many of the themes mentioned above are covered, if somewhat briefer, on our Travel Guide Pages.

  • Developing China covers the issues associated with China's rapid development.
  • For the briefest of summaries, see China Facts.
  • See our China Culture pages for the China's kaleidoscope of cultural facets.
  • Our China History pages cover each period and dynasty, recommending places to see relating to each era.