9 books to help you better understand the culture and history of China

With over 1.3 billion people, 56 ethnic groups, five thousands years of history and dozens of extraordinary transformations, China is a giant of a country. From the politics and economy to the history and culture, China is filled with so many complex contradictions, customs and histories, it can seem almost impenetrable. If you want to learn about the culture and history of China, read on to discover 9 books that will help you get to the true heart of the country.

1. China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua book cover
Image credit: Penguin Random House

Renowned Chinese author Yu Hua, takes you you on an incredible journey through the complexities and contrasts of China. He does it in just ten different words and concepts commonly found in the Chinese vernacular; People, leader, reading, writing, Lu Xun, revolution, disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle.

Yu Hua says “If I were to try to attend each and every aspect of modern China, there would be no end to this endeavour, and the book would go on longer than The Thousand and One Nights. So I limit myself to just ten words.” With this foundation, Yu Hua covers Chinese culture, history, politics and society. He opens up the mysteries of modern China by sharing a witty and refreshing Chinese perspective. As one of the country’s most famous contemporary writers, you can’t miss reading this masterpiece.

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2. The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu book cover
Image credit: Penguin Random House

If you’d want to meet the regular people of China, this fantastic book by Liao Yiwu is a must-read. Liao Yiwu goes on a journey across China to meet the ordinary people, often those cast to the bottom of society, who really make China tick. From a professional mourner to a grave robber to a public toilet manager and a Falun Gong practitioner, Liao Yiwu is a master at getting his interview subjects to talk openly. The result is a moving, funny and fascinating book about the everyday lives of people in modern China. 

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3. China Witness by Xinran

China Witness by Xinran book cover
Image credit: Penguin Random House

This ground-breaking book gives a voice to the silent generation, sharing the untold stories from the 20th century history of China. Renowned author Xinran travels across the country, speaking to grandparents and great-grandparents. These are the people who experienced the astounding changes of China in two key periods; after 1912 when five thousands years of feudal rule ended, and after 1949 when Mao Zedong rose to power. The book’s subjects bravely share their experiences, struggles and dreams, many for the first time. Many also still fear repercussions for speaking out.

Xinran pays tribute to these incredible men and women who lived through war, revolution, famine and urbanisation. They watched China transform from an agricultural state to a modern country with over 1.3 billion people. You’ll meet ordinary, yet fascinating people; taxi drivers, teachers, shoe menders, a herbalist, lantern makers, an acrobat, Red Guards, a naval general and many more, all ranging in age from their seventies to nineties. While they were once forced to be the silent generation, their precious stories will now live on in this remarkable work of oral history. 

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4. Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang book cover
Image credit: Penguin Random House

China is home to 130 million migrant workers. Every year they travel to their home villages for the New Year’s holiday and it’s the world’s largest human migration. Leslie T. Chang tells the story of these migrant workers through two young women working on the assembly lines of the industrial city Dongguan. Chang follows the women for three years, observing how the economic boom of China has changed the lives of many women working in the factories. From Chang’s own history to the real hardships and human side of China’s manufacturing industry, this book is a must-read on Chinese culture and history. 

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5. The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao by Ian Johnson

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao by Ian Johnson book cover
Image credit: Penguin Random House

When we examine China in the post-Mao era, we often focus on the booming urbanisation, consumerism, technology and mega-companies. But what about the religion and spirituality of China? This topic is crucial for understanding the complex fabric of modern China. Ian Johnson masterfully uncovers what happened to China’s spirituality after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

The incredible revival of religion in China began in 1982. The Communist Party allowed the small-scale practice of religion under strict government watch. Today, over 300 million Chinese now practice a faith and villages and cities are dotted with churches, temples and mosques. Johnson delved into this resurgence, spending six years living with three religious communities, including Protestants, Buddhists and Daoists. He speaks to Chinese locals to get their perspective on spirituality and discovers a great reawakening of faith in China.

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6. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang book cover
Image credit: Harper Collins Publishers

This moving true story shares the tale of three generations of women spanning the 20th century – one of the most transformative eras in China’s history. The story shares the lives of the author Jung Chang, who was a Red Guard, her mother, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, and her grandmother, who was a warlord’s concubine. Wild Swans offers such a captivating glimpse into this turbulent time in Chinese history, you won’t want to stop reading. It has inspired a generation of people to look back on their own histories and stories. And it’s a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China.

7. Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present by Peter Hessler

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present by Peter Hessler book cover
Image credit: Harper Collins Publishers

If you want to understand the culture and history of China, you’ve got to read Peter Hessler. He’s published four books on China, including the highly acclaimed ‘Oracle Bones’ in 2006. This book draws on personal and historical narratives and stunning descriptions of Chinese life spanning from the ancient to modern China. Peter Hessler connects with ordinary Chinese locals who have felt the impact of political issues such as the Cultural Revolution. They include his former students, the archaeologist Chen Mengjia who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, and a Uighur dissident who fled to the USA, among others. This eye-opening book offers a precious glimpse into the lives of China’s hard-working people. You’re sure to head straight for Peter Hessler’s other books on China after reading this one. 

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8. Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang

Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang book cover
Image credit: Penguin Random House

If you want to understand the intimate social dynamics in the culture and history of China, Eileen Chang is a must-read author. In Half a Lifelong Romance, set in 1930s Shanghai, Chang explores the Chinese traditions of family duty, wealth, and the role of women in society, all wrapped up in a beautiful love story. Chang tells the tale of a young engineer who falls in love with his colleague, despite his family’s efforts to marry him off to his wealthy cousin. Dark secrets and betrayal force the lovers apart, and over time they fall apart. But they hold on to a sliver of hope that they may one day be together. This modern classic is a heart-wrenching story in a dazzling city and is essential for understanding Chinese societal pressures.

9. The Art of War by Sun Tzu

The Art of War by Sun Tzu book cover
Image credit: Harper Collins Publishers

As one of the oldest preserved books in China and a timeless classic, The Art of War has influenced countless politicians, executives, military figures and anyone looking to master the art of conflict and become a better leader. Written by the warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu over 2,000 years ago, the author famously states that conflict is an inevitable part of life, but “to win without fighting is best.” This masterful book also delves into China’s history and it’s a must-read for anyone looking to learn more about the politics and psychology of conflict in China and the world.

Can you recommend any books on the culture and history of China? Let us know in the comments below!

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