Learning More About China: Books

posted in: Preparation | 5


This blog gives you a glimpse of what China is like, but it is only one glimpse at a large, diverse, and complicated country.  Several times while I was in the U.S. I was asked about what books I recommend about China.  Today’s post is the first in a series on resources that can help you gain a broader perspective on China.  This post shares some of my favorite books about China, and it will be followed by posts sharing blogs and movies and TV shows that share aspects of Chinese life.



China Road: A Journey into a Rising Superpower by Rob Gifford

“What do most people in the West think about China?’ asks his young colleague.  I tell him that people in the West are a little confused about China because it’s a country that seems very capitalist but is run by a Communist Party.  ‘We’re all confused about China,’ says Mr. Zhou with a smile.  ‘It’s a confusing time for many people.  There is so much change” (China Road, Rob Gifford, pg. 200).

Gifford, a former NPR correspondent in Beijing, took a trip along the road from Shanghai to Northwestern China and talked with all kinds of people along the way.  Gifford shares many stories of those people that show the contradictions and issues of modern China.  It was published in 2007, and I do wonder what new contradictions and stories he would find if he took the trip again today.


Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows

“There are some compound words that go right to the heart of Chinese life.  One is rènao, (hot) + nào (noisy).  My dictionary defines rènao as ‘noisy and exciting in a pleasant way, boisterous, bustling.’  This odd definition doesn’t do justice to the real-world connotations of the word….Rènao is the default mode of Chinese social life; it is the standard to strive for.  At a rènao restaurant in China, diners squeeze around too-small tables that are squeezed into too-small spaces.  They toast, drink, tell stories, pass food, hop from their seats to drink to each other, sing, laugh, eat…The measure of a great evening is the hotter and noisier the better” (Dreaming in Chinese, Deborah Fallows, Chapter 9, “Think Like the Chinese Think”).

Fallows is a linguist who moves to China with her husband and starts learning Chinese.  In this book she reflects on her experiences studying this language and explains some of how the language works, and she uses the language to reflect on the culture.  She writes about how different foreigners use different methods to get to know and understand China–some learn Chinese music or cooking, and she uses learning Chinese.  I love this book for the way it captures the experience of learning Chinese and living in China.


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel by Lisa See

“When I knew I couldn’t suffer another moment of pain, and tears fell on my bloody [foot] bindings, my mother spoke softly into my ear, encouraging me to go one more hour, one more day, one more week, reminding me of the rewards I would have if I carried on a little longer.  In this way, she taught me how to endure–not just the physical trials of footbinding and childbearing but the more torturous pain of the heart, mind, and soul…In our country, we call this type of mother love teng ai.  My son has told me that in men’s writing it is composed of two characters.  The first means pain;  the second means love.  That is a mother’s love” (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See, “Sitting Quietly”).

This historical novel is set in rural nineteenth-century China and explores the experiences of young girls growing into women, communicating with “nu shu” or women’s writing.  It gives a glimpse into the culture of feudal China (which ended less than 100 years ago, making it quite recent in the scope of Chinese history) and is a story about the status or and relationships between women.  Through the eyes of the characters we see the segregation between men and women, how marriages were arranged, responsibilities to a husband’s family, and more.  Although many things have changed for women, I still hear echoes of these concepts in stories I hear from Chinese friends.


The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed by Michael Meyer

“Cities are like people,’ the architect told me.  ‘They don’t learn from other’s mistakes, they learn from their own mistakes.  I hope Beijing does it quickly” (The Last Days of Old Beijing, Michael Meyer, Chapter 21, “Echo Wall”).

Meyer lived in a hutong (alley) in Beijing in the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics.  He weaves tales of his neighbors into a history of Beijing city planning.  I knew some of the outlines of the story he shares about the conflict between progress and preservation (“progress” has won in Beijing), but I learned so much about the city I call home from this book.


Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Felicia Dunlop

“The Dan Dan noodles–well, they were undoubtedly the best in town, the best anyone had ever tasted.  They looked quite plain: a small bowlful of noodles topped with a spoonful of dark, crisp minced beef.  But as soon as you stirred them with your chopsticks, you awakened the flavours in the slick of spicy seasonings at the base of the bowl, and coated each strand of pasta in a mix of soy sauce, chilli oil, sesame paste, and Sichuan pepper.  The effect was electrifying.  Within seconds, your mouth was on fire, your lips quivering under the onslaught of the pepper, and your whole body radiant with heat” (Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, Felicia Dunlop, Chapter 2, “Dan Dan Noodles!)”!

This book recounts the British author’s experiences studying at a Chinese culinary school and eating her way around China.  Through her experiences you learn a lot about the many different varieties of Chinese food, some of the unique flavors and dishes, and how China has changed in the last 20 years.  She also includes a recipe at the end of each chapter, if you want to try some of the flavors yourself.


China Survival Guide: How To Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps by Larry and Qin Herzberg

“The reason is, of course, so obvious that only a Westerner would fail to understand the logic.  If the Chinese provided free toilet paper, what are the chances that someone, sitting out of sight in the stall, would pull out, say, a hundred feet of toilet paper from a giant-sized roll and simply carry it home for later use?…Now, don’t get us wrong: the smaller airports and places like the fancy new malls do indeed provide toilet paper, but it’s in the logical place–OUTSIDE the toilet stalls, right inside the entrance to the restroom” (China Survival Guide, Larry and Qin Herzberg, Chapter 1, “A User’s Guide to the Chinese Restroom”)!

This book is geared towards people preparing for a trip to China.  It doesn’t cover things to do or places to stay, but does cover important information like how to use the restroom, how to stand in line, and basic etiquette.  The Herzberg’s were my Chinese professors at Calvin, and the writing style sounds a lot like the way Larry tells stories.  It is slightly tongue in check and they have had many more dramatic things (getting a foot run over by a bike and flight reservations that disappeared) happen to them in their travels than I have.  Its a good read to have an idea of what to expect and make sure you aren’t expecting too much, because China is a dizzying array of contrasts.

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

I’ve actually written about this graphic novel set before, several years ago.  In brief, these two volumes tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two different perspectives: a member of the Boxers, a peasant uprising around 1900 fighting to save China from foreign influence (which included Chinese people who had become Christians) and a young Chinese Christian girl.  This rebellion was one of the important incidents in the recent (in Chinese history) relationships between China and the west that has lingering effects today.


Note: none of the links in this post are affiliate links, the links are only to help you find what books I’m referring to.



5 Responses

  1. Amy Young

    Ruth, I LOVE reading book lists :). Thank you :)!! I’ve read most of these (which makes me feel good), and have added a few to the list !

    • Ruth

      Which ones have you not read? And do you have favorites that I didn’t include on my list?

      • Amy Large

        I’ve read all but one of these as well (the graphic novel). ^_^

  2. Paul

    Fascinating readings…
    I am sure these stories come alive as you actually live, eat and travel in China.
    For some, they are exotic stories. For others, they are real stories at hand.
    Thanks for sharing these books.

Leave a Reply