Three Great Books about China

China is almost as big as Europe, and definitely feels immense. I know I certainly felt overwhelmed a few times. But these books helped me understand China a bit more. I hope! I mean to say that after a monarchy, the Kuomintang, Japanese occupation, and the Cultural Revolution, China has seen a lot. The world I saw, especially as a tourist, was probably miles away from how it had been only a decade or two before.

So the following are some books I read as prep. Others I was recommended include Red Star Over China, Out of Mao’s Shadow, The Penguin History of China, and anything by Peter Hessler.
I’ve also been slogging through Mao: the Untold Story. It’s, erm, been slow going.

Wild Swans: this 1991 book has been hugely successful, with good reason. It’s a memoir of three women of China: grandmother, concubine to a powerful warlord; mother, a communist officer; and daughter Jung Chang, the author of this book and an emigre to Britain. Beautifully told and really engrossing, it’s actually still censored in China.

Midnight in Peking: In 1937, just as the Japanese were to invade Peking, 19-year-old Pamela Werner, daughter of a former British consul, ended up brutally murdered. This fascinating, horrific case was never formally solved, but Paul French tries to piece together the puzzle.

Empire of the Sun: Set around the same time as Midnight in Peking, Empire of the Sun tells the story of young Jim, eleven years old and separated from his parents in Shanghai. Sent to various work camps by the invading Japanese, he befriends some very strange characters, and becomes an independent young chap. This is a very sweet, sometimes tear-inducing story that comes from author J.G. Ballard’s own memories. Also turned into a Spielberg film with young Christian Bale!

I’ve heard that Paul Theroux (the writer) likes to read something totally different from his surroundings. Think: Madame Bovary in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle. Still others read only books set in the places they’re traveling. How do you do your travel reading?


2 Comments on “Three Great Books about China”

  1. gkm2011 says:

    I loved Wild Swans, read it over five years ago now. Still miffed that I loaned my copy to a friend who never gave it back. Will have to try the other two.

  2. Rhea says:

    Another China book you might be interested in is “The Last Empress” by Anchee Min. I started reading it by chance and just loved it.

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