Books on China

On my little vacation in Terry’s flat, I availed myself of his library. Not only does he like to read, but he and I have similar taste in books. So I read books about China in English while in Shanghai! and learnt about what was going, albeit filtered through the eyes of ‘expats’. Much easier than actually trying to have conversations in with strangers, in a dialect that has rusted away in my brain. (I was surprised, and saddened by how little Mandarin I know any more.)

It’s really amazing how China has metamorphosed in the past couple of decades. Time does not stand still anywhere, but while it jogs elsewhere, it sprints in China. Every 5-years in recent China is about the equivalent of a generation’s worth of change in most other stable-r countries. Books about mid-1990s China are so hopelessly out of date today. Stories about 1980’s China seem like medieval Dark Age fantasies. The China as my grandparents or my mom knew it when they lived there no longer exists. A nuclear bomb may have dropped on Hiroshima and wiped it clean off the map then, but the various political/social/economic/cultural upheavals in China since 1949 has had almost the same effect.

Sometimes I wish long-time Chinese immigrants in the US (especially those who don’t travel to China) could read these books and find out how different China is now, just make them realize how irrelevant their conceptions are of the China that is fixed in their mind at the time of their departure.

Now, with China becoming a superpower, there’s more general interest in learning about what makes China tick; and no shortage of books to explain and ‘unmask the inscrutable’ . . .

Anyways, here’s the list I’ve read and mostly recommend. (Note: I didn’t read all of these books at Terry’s. Some of these books I read before, back in the Bay Area.)

Peter Hessler: Oracle Bones and River Town – Two Years on the Yangtze
“Oracle Bones” is the most recent snapshot of China in its continual flux.
“River Town” is the archetype of the genre of “Author moves to a foreign country to teach English and documents the experience”. But he does so with honesty, no white-washing over the warts.
Leslie Chang: Factory Girls (These two writers are married to each other!) If you want to put names and personalities to the people in sweatshop factories who make the stuff on Walmart’s shelves. Horatio Alger had nothing on these migrant workers.
Jen Lin-Liu: Serve the People: A Stir Fried Journey Through China. People are so interested in the experiences of cooks and restaurants nowadays! Take this and plop it in a PRC setting for a twist! “Mooncakes are the Chinese cultural equivalent of fruitcake”? What blasphemy. This book was so-so. (Not to be confused with Serve the People! by Yan Lianke)

Jan Wong: A Comrade Lost and Found. The chapter “Neither of Us Can Handle the Twenty-First Century” is the most hilarious thing I’ve read in a month of Sundays. Wong, herself a reporter with moxie to spare, is cowed even by the brazenness of the ‘mercurial’ friend who gives her an architectural tour of Beijing.

Geling Yan: The Banquet Bug: A Novel. This was thoroughly entertaining, I don’t know why it hasn’t been more prominently read.

Oliver August: Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China’s Most Wanted Man. This has nothing to do with the classic novel “Dream of the Red Mansion.” Forget about the trigger-happy mafia/triads you seen in HK films, this book shows how corruption and ill-gotten-wealth comes about in China today (with less bloodshed, but just about as much . . . uh . . . female companionship.)


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