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5 Must Read Books About Modern China

I first moved to China at the age of 21.  I’d never travelled there before, and knew no one. What I did have was a large stack of books about modern China, which I read eagerly, trying to get some understanding of my new home.

After a few months, I gave most of the (now dog-eared and well-read) copies to another newbie, and went to the store to buy more books. And since then, I’ve never stopped reading about China.

Luckily, as China has grown, a huge number of books have been written aiming to introduce modern Chinese society and culture to the outside world. In this blog post - a follow up to this post with my favorite books about Chinese history - I introduce my top 5 favorite books about modern China!

1.  ‘Wish Lanterns’ - by Alec Ash

China’s millennials are lucky in many ways. Born into a fast-growing economy with new job opportunities, infrastructure, and shopping malls springing up every day, they don’t face the hardships of their parents’ generation.

But, they do face extreme pressure – from China’s notoriously competitive  高考 (gāo kǎo)college entrance exam – to pressure to buy an (increasingly expensive) apartment, get married, and land a prestigious job.

"Wish Lanterns" follows six young Chinese as they grow up, graduate, and search for fortune and love in twenty-first century China.

From “Fred”, the privileged and sensible daughter of a communist party official, to “Lucifer” – a budding rock star – the six stories expertly capture the challenges facing young Chinese people.

This book is frequently hilarious, sometimes incredibly sad, and a must-read if you want to better understand the pressures facing your young Chinese friends, classmates, and colleagues.

2.  ‘River Town’ - by Peter Hessler

I read "River Town" during my first month in China, while I was struggling to get to grips with life in a totally new country, and everything seemed confusing and challenging.

Peter Hessler’s beautifully written account of his first two years in China was a huge comfort to me (I re-read it three times!).

Hessler was assigned by the Peace Corps to teach English at a college in Fuling, Sichuan province. "River Town" describes his struggles to impress his demanding Chinese teacher, understand the confusing college politics, and deal with being one of two foreigners in the entire city.

For anyone preparing to move to China – especially to a small town or city – this book is an invaluable resource.

But, the fantastic writing and absorbing stories from Fuling mean it is well worth a read, no matter whether or not you plan to go to China.

3.  ‘Street of Eternal Happiness’ - by Rob Schmitz

Over the past thirty years, Shanghai has transformed from a run-down former colonial trading port to a world financial and technological center.

Shanghai locals have experienced a transformed skyline, rocketing house prices, and a huge number of new residents from other places in China and abroad.

And, behind Shanghai’s buzz of weaving scooters, steaming dumpling shops, and troupes of dancing 阿姨 (ā yí) - aunties - lie fascinating personal stories.

In this book, Rob Schmitz chronicles the lives of his neighbours along the Street of Eternal Happiness – or 长乐路 (cháng lè lù) in Chinese – a street in central Shanghai’s French Concession.

This book is an intimate insight into how China’s largest city is growing and changing.

I hope one day I can understand the ups and downs of my own Shanghai street as well as Schmitz understands 长乐路 (cháng lè lù)!

4.  ‘Mr. China’ - by Tim Clissold

You wouldn’t expect a business book to be funny. But "Mr. China" made me laugh out loud – a lot.
Wall Street businessman Tim Clissold arrived in China in the 1990s with little knowledge of the country but dreams of making it big. Needless to say, he ran into trouble. "Mr China" is Clissold’s hilarious account of his experiences.
From managers who tried to sabotage their own companies, to business partners who recommended smuggling as a solution to legal issues, this is a rollercoaster insight into China’s early years of capitalism.
While doing business in Chinese these days is (usually) much easier, this book serves as a stark warning about what can go wrong for unprepared foreign investors.
Most of all, it’s a witty, engaging read (no matter whether or not you’re doing business in China).

5.  ‘Scattered Sand’ - by Hsiao-Hung Pai

When I first arrived in China I went to register with the local government, as all foreign residents have to do. I expected to find lots of other foreigners doing the same thing.
Instead, I found queues and queues of Chinese people. "What are they all doing here?" I asked the colleague tasked with helping me find my way around. “They’re 外地人 (wài dì rén) – from another place” (literally ‘outside place people’) she replied.
This book tells the stories of one group of 外地人 (wài dì rén): the 农民工 (nóng mín gōng) – migrant workers (literally “countryside person worker”), who have travelled to the city in search of a better life, and who power Chinese factories, construction sites, and restaurants.
It’s impossible to comprehend how China has developed without knowing the role of the country’s literally hundreds of millions of migrant workers. But, their (sometimes grueling) stories are often forgotten in the buzz about China’s growing middle class and high-tech sectors.
Deeply personal, but based on years of meticulous research, this book is a must read for understanding a little-known face of modern China’s development.

Learn More!

Looking to leave the present day and go back into Chinese long and storied history??  Check out this post, "5 Must Read Books About Chinese History".

Learning Mandarin is your key to the huge world of Chinese history and culture!  Learn to speak and understand Chinese with our Conversational Courses and learn to read and write with our Chinese Character Courses.  

The first units in each course are free, so check it out and see how we make learning Mandarin possible:

Have you read any of these books?  Do you have any recommendations about modern China? Please share with us in the comments!