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Reading modern China

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Understanding modern China can be a difficult task. China is cut off from the Western world in terms of its pictographic language and its divergent politics, yet China is still a major superpower and world player, with one of the fastest growing economies and the largest population (1.5bn). China, in Chinese, is called ‘Zhong Guo’ (中国), which literally means ‘middle country’. To the Chinese, their country is the middle of the world and, in terms of modern culture, this is an easy point to argue. Thus, to understand any part of the world that we live in today, we should try to understand China. Here are a few books that may help you to do this.

The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone, Cao Xueqin (1868)

This 19th-century novel is so long that it has been split into five volumes for its modern publications. It is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels. When asking about important Chinese literature, it is the first book that Chinese people will recommend. Read this novel if you want to learn about courtly Chinese life before the changes that occurred in the country during the 20th century. In its translation, it is radically different from English literary styles. Each chapter ends with a sentence such as, ‘But the outcome of this discussion will be dealt with in the following chapter.’ If that suspense doesn’t make you want to read more, I don’t know what will!

Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos (2014)

In his critically acclaimed debut, journalist Evan Osnos’s observational non-fiction novel aims to dispel preconceived notions about modern China. He gives 21st-century Chinese people a voice in the West by interviewing them and retelling their stories in a sensitive yet honestly revealing way.

Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, Alec Ash (2015)

Alec Ash tells six stories of China’s youth, the millennials that are shaping China today. Through the lives of Fred, Lucifer, Xiaoxiao, Mia, Snail and Dahai, Ash investigates how modern-day China affects (and is affected by) the young.

Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, ed. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom (2015)

A brilliant collection of informative essays accompanied by beautiful photographs, which build up a picture of China’s place on the global stage.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang (1991)

If you only read one book from this list, make it Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. Chang moved to England in the late 70s to study English. She ended up being the first Chinese person to be awarded a PhD from a British university. Written in English, the novel explains 20th-century China from the perspective of women from three generations of Chang’s family. The first, her grandmother, was a concubine for an important military general at the turn of the 20th century. Her mother grew up during the upheaval of Chinese politics in the early 20th century and eventually became a Communist party official. Chang tells her part of the story against the backdrop of Mao’s Communism and expresses the ups and downs of the latter half of the 20th century in moving ways. It is an important novel for understanding women’s place during this tumultuous period. Not only this, the novel makes us consider how China stands today, on its own and in a global context.

Note from editor: The books on this list are the blogger's personal selection.


Would you like to visit China? What books about other countries have you read?


empty's picture
empty 18 June, 2019 - 06:46

One of my relatives travels to China sometimes . That made me interested into China and its culture . I think Chinese are amazing people .

1 user has voted.
Rukaiyatasnim's picture
Rukaiyatasnim 17 April, 2019 - 16:44

I love to know about different people and different culture around the world. As a big country, China has various types of culture. So I want to know about China not only by reading books but also by visiting there.

0 users have voted.
englishnerd's picture
englishnerd 19 December, 2017 - 17:16

Hi! I'd love to visit China!
I've never been out of Spain, without when I travelled to Portugal for four days.
To be honest, I have never ever read a book about another country which isn't Norway or the USA (Percy Jackson, I love it).
Thanks for writing such an interesting article!!

8 users have voted.
SLMT's picture
SLMT 21 November, 2017 - 03:22

I love to visit China.Great wall,one of Unisco Heritage places,is my dream place.I wish I could fulfill my childhood dream one day.I have read “Anne Frank’s Diary.In that book,Anne described Germany’s beautiful sensory and the ugly side of war.I want to vist there.I can know how she had to struggle by imagining .I want more about it .That’s why I also want to go there.

9 users have voted.
catastrophe's picture
catastrophe 31 July, 2017 - 11:46

Whoa, China, huh? Finally! The home of the so-called Disney World!!!
I definitely would love to visit such a marvellous place. China is a really great country. I have even a Chinese family in my neighborhood, and they're pretty nice. I've gotten a few friends too!! China is a place known for its amazing architecture and marvellous technology. And moreover, I like this idea of the Chinese New Year! So, who's coming with me? ✌

18 users have voted.
rosyclouds's picture
rosyclouds 21 May, 2017 - 08:15

Wow,as a chinese girl, I am pleased to see so many people want to visit china! I really welcome all of you to have a trip here! As for the books, I only know the first one--the Dream of the Red Chamber. It's really a masterpiece and a representative of Chinese culture. The large part of description and the lively words make it worth the name. Many chinese girls, including me, are absorbed in the book and fascinated by the author's writing skills. And I think reading about ancient China will also benefit us and make the views comprehensive.

35 users have voted.
hadia's picture
hadia 22 May, 2017 - 11:06

Hi Rosyclouds!!
Chinese are so cute and loveable. I want to visit china too. How amazing it would be to be a part of world's most populated country. I read an essay about "China's way to progress". It showed how determined, pleasant and amazing people are Chinese. :))))
I'm from Pakistan. And we are friends. ;)))

35 users have voted.
poppymoore's picture
poppymoore 14 May, 2017 - 15:04

China is my neighbour and really want to visit it. As far as I have come to know China is a beautiful country. My aunt went there for a conference and she was really happy about that place. I have read a lot of books about foreign countries so I don't know where to start.

30 users have voted.
AlicePaper's picture
AlicePaper 7 May, 2017 - 20:52

A trip to China is my dream) I'm thinking about moving to Beijing after university XD. Maybe I'll work at Chinese school as a Russian or English teacher)

37 users have voted.
Sergelen's picture
Sergelen 6 May, 2017 - 05:23

I have read about Australia. As a matter of fact our neighbor country is China, therefore I had already visit three times there. During that time not good... thanks

38 users have voted.
mariaa03's picture
mariaa03 3 May, 2017 - 18:00

Hi! I'm new in this page and I want to improve my english reading and watching films or series.
Someone can recommend me some book, film or serie? (I have level B2/C1)


39 users have voted.
hadia's picture
hadia 29 April, 2017 - 05:46

My Uncle visits China very often. This arouses a deep desire in me to visit it too. To know about its culture and everything. Chinese are very sweet and amazing people. :)

45 users have voted.