In all honesty I haven’t read a lot of books about China. I suspect I’ll want to read them more after I leave! That said, there are three books about China I’ve read over the years that I really, really like – and highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand more about China.
All three books are written by are expats seeking to understand China – asking questions, learning language, finding the perspective that isn’t obvious on the surface. Not just observing, but asking the question “why?” These books reflect the China that I know. If you want to understand China better, China as it is today, these are the books I would point you to.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Peter Hessler)
Peter Hessler spent two years living in rural Sichuan teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteers; River Town is a reflection on these experiences, and China as he experienced it. This was the first book I read that resonated with my own experience of China. It’s funny, because on the surface my experience had no overlap at all with the author’s. He lived in a small town in the hills beside the Yangtze in Sichuan province in the late nineties; I lived in the huge city of Beijing 5 years later, have no experience with river towns, and when I first read the book had never visited Sichuan. But his approach to China, to understanding it as a place and as a people, to seeing the impact of thousands of years of continuous cultural history – it resonated. It still does. I am amazed at how many overlaps I find between the experiences he describes and my own experiences – small moments, personal interactions, perspectives. Hessler has since written two more China books since then, I enjoyed Oracle Bones very much, but I haven’t read Country Driving yet.
Dreaming In Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language (Deborah Fallows)
I picked Dreaming In Chinese off a shelf when I was housesitting for friends. I couldn’t put it down. It was the first time I’d read a book that so clearly reflected my own experiences. The author’s years in Beijing overlapped my own, and she had a similar attitude to learning Chinese. She found a perspective from which to understand Chinese culture through understanding the concepts behind Chinese characters. I read the whole book really quickly, even though I was trying to savour the familiarity of it. I also went online and bought copies for some people back home – wanting to share a picture of the world I lived in.
China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (Rob Gifford)
Rob Gifford is a journalist who decided to finish his time in China with a road trip following a major highway from one end of the country to the other. He hitchhikes and hires drivers and eventually makes his way to the end of the line, talking to Chinese people from all walks of life along the way. He covers so many topics – history, geography, social issues, religion, politics… And it’s all strung together smoothly, into a story well worth reading. (In reality, the stories come from several trips, but that doesn’t spoil the book at all.)