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Best 30 Books to Understand Modern China (Recommended by What’s on Weibo)

The best books to understand modern China – from society and history to gender and (online) language.

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A list of the best English-language books on Chinese history, online environment, modern Chinese culture and more, recommended by What’s on Weibo.

In the What’s on Weibo inbox, we often receive messages from readers who are looking for recommendations of what books to read on various China-related subjects.

It led to a compilation of this list on our resource page of recommendations that readers of What’s on Weibo may also appreciate.

This list was compiled based on own preference and that of many readers whom we asked about their favorite sources within this category. If you think certain books are not here that should be here within these categories, please let us know in the comments below and we might compile a second list in the future.

There are many great books out there on modern China, and a lot of them are written in Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Dutch, and many other languages – but for the scope of this particular list, we have chosen just to focus on the books that have come out in the English language.

 
ON CHINESE MODERN HISTORY
 

Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945

by Rana Mitter, 2014

Rana Mitter is a British historian and political scientist who specializes in China’s history, and we’re a huge fan of his refreshing perspectives and selection of topics. In Forgotten Ally, Mitter notes that “In the West, (..) the living, breathing legacy of China’s wartime experience continues to be poorly understood.” Mitter’s focus is essential because a proper understanding of China’s wartime experience is also key to understanding the development of modern China. Interestingly, outside of the USA, this same book is sold under a different title: China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival. This book became an Economist Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year.

Get on Amazon: Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945
Get on iTunes: Forgotten Ally – Rana Mitter
Get on Bookdepository: Forgotten Ally – Rana Mitter

 

Mao’s Great Famine – The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62

by Frank Dikötter, 2017 (2011)

It is estimated that more than 45 million lives were claimed during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) – a project that was meant to make China a greater nation than the United Kingdom within a time frame of 15 years. It is a dark and important period in the history of modern China that is written about with great detail in this work by Frank Dikötter, in which he explains how such an ambitious plan could have turned out so catastrophic. Dikötter’s research is impressive and not be missed for anyone searching for deeper insights into China’s modern history.

Get on Amazon: Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62
Get on iTunes: Mao’s Great Famine – Frank Dikötter
Get on Book Depository: Mao’s Great Famine
Audiobook: Mao’s Great Famine

 

● Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

by Rana Mitter, 2008

Oxford University Press has a series of short introductions to over 200 different subjects, from Globalization to Foucault and from Shakespeare to Nothing. Well-written, compact, light-weight, and affordable, these books are the perfect starting point to any topic – and this edition is a great and concise introduction to Modern China; especially since it’s been written by the acclaimed Rana Mitter. (BTW the Introduction to Modern Japan by the excellent Chris Goto-Jones is also to be recommended.)

Get on Amazon: Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Get on iTunes: Modern China: A Very Short Introduction
Audiobook: Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Unabridged) – Rana Mitter
Get on Book Depository: Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

 

● Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present


by Peter Hessler, 2006

This is one of the works many of our readers recommend as a book that really helps to understand China. This is not a classical work on Chinese history – we were doubting whether or not to put in the ‘Chinese society’ section; it belongs in both. Through personal and historical narratives, Peter Hessler moves between present and history in this work, telling stories that go from the ancient oracle bones to modern-day urbanization.

Get on Amazon: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
Get on iTunes: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
Audiobook: Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China (Unabridged) – Peter Hessler

 

● The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History

by R. Keith Schoppa, 2000

If the Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History is not on your bookshelf yet – it should be. It is the to-go book on China’s modern history that is recommended to every student when first getting into the modern history of China. Schoppa has a very clear and no-nonsense approach to Chinese history, explaining the importance of crucial events over the past century and how they came to form modern China.

Get on Amazon:The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History
Get on Book Depository: The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History

 

● The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan Spence, 1991

Although this work, more elaborate than the aforementioned by Schoppa, is one of the recommended essential works on Chinese modern history, we’d also recommend to consider Jonathan Spence’s Gate of Heavenly Peace as a book of choice for an introduction to modern China.

Get on Amazon: The Search for Modern China
Audiobook: The Search for Modern China (Unabridged) – Jonathan D. Spence
Get on Book Depository: The Search for Modern China

 

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

by Jung Chang, 2003 (1991)

Practically every garage sale or thrift shop nowadays has a copy of Wild Swans lying around since its immense success in the 1990s. The book is an account of the tumultuous Chinese 20th century from the perspective of three generations of women. It is a personal account of Jung Chang, the author, but offers a glimpse into an incredible time in the history of China in a personal and captivating way that more formal history books could never do. An absolute recommendation for anyone who wants to know more about how the Cultural Revolution and the period before and after affected Chinese women, families, and society at large.

Get on Amazon: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Get on iTunes: Wild Swans – Jung Chang
Get on Book Depository: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Audiobook: Wild Swans 

 
ON CHINESE SOCIETY & POPULAR CULTURE
 

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

by Ian Johnson, 2017

While many books on the transformation of Chinese modern society focus on the mushrooming of new companies, the rapid urbanization of China, or its staggering consumerism, Ian Johnson takes on an entirely different, yet so important, topic in this work; religion and spirituality in the post-Mao era. He does so in a way that sometimes reads like a novel, vividly writing about people’s attitudes on religion and how some have made it their life’s work to safeguard it. One person interviewed by Johnson for this book said: “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor. But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing and that’s a spiritual life.” This work is quite essential for anyone who wants to understand more about what happened to China’s religious life after the end of the Cultural Revolution – it gives crucial perspectives on it and creates an understanding among readers that Chinese religions may not be what you thought they were.

Get on Amazon: The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
Get on iTunes: The Souls of China – Ian Johnson
Get on BookDepository: Souls of China

 

Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World’s Most Populated Country

by Wade Shepard, 2015

Brand new skyscrapers and shopping malls, but silent streets and empty apartments. China’s so-called ‘ghost cities’ are a hot topic in the media nowadays. The city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia, is one of the most famous. In 2015, author Wade Shepard published this book about China’s ghost cities. Shepard’s account is refreshing in how he argues that the term ‘ghost cities’ is actually not that appropriate because rather than places that once lived and then died, these places are the future cities built by world luxury developers who are working on constructing new urban utopias all over China.

Get on Amazon: Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World’s Most Populated Country (Asian Arguments)
Get on iTunes: Ghost Cities of China
Get on BookDepository: Ghost Cities of China

 

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

by Evan Osnos, 2014

Like Peter Hessler, whose work is also in this list, Evan Osnos is one of the names that recurringly comes up when asking people about their favorite books to understand China. In Age of Ambition, Osnos focuses on ‘aspiration’ as being one of the most important ‘fevers’ that characterizes the transformation of China – a country where, besides this force of aspiration, there is also that of a strong authoritarian rule. Through the themes of ‘fortune’, ‘truth’, and ‘faith’ – all of which were not accessible to China’s older generations due to poverty and the political climate – Osnos captures the country’s current situation through the stories of men and women who took the risks to change their lives.

Get on Amazon: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Get on iTunes: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Get on BookDepository: Age of Ambition

 

China’s Urban Billion: The Story behind the Biggest Migration in Human History

Tom Miller, 2012

The phrase “the biggest human migration the world” has almost become a cliche now when media talk about China’s urbanization. But in this work, Miller goes behind that phrase to explain China’s transformation from poor country to economic superpower, and gives insights into how China’s so-called ‘urbanization’ is actually “bogus”, because many of those living in the cities have no access to urban services and facilities due to China’s hukou household registration system. The situation of China’s ‘floating population’ is essential to understand; it plays a huge role in the everyday topics being discussed on Chinese social media, too.

Get on Amazon: China’s Urban Billion: The Story behind the Biggest Migration in Human History (Asian Arguments)

 

Visual Political Communication in Popular Chinese Television Series

by Florian Schneider, 2012

Florian Schneider, lecturer at Leiden University, is an expert in taking popular phenomena or events in China and analyzing the greater discourse behind them. In this work, that was awarded with the 2014 EastAsiaNet Award, Schneider focuses on Chinese TV drama series; with China being one of the largest producer and consumer of TV drama in the world, this form of entertainment plays a significant role in the popular culture of China and is a powerful tool to guide public opinion. Schneider gives a nuanced overview of the complicated processes involved in producing TV dramas in China, examining important and highly interesting questions relating to the major players in the TV drama market and how they influence drama discourses, the political-ideological frameworks of television series, and the role of TV entertainment in regulating Chinese society. There’s just one downside to this publication – which that it is not cheap. However, it is very worthwhile for any student of China Studies or anyone interested in popular culture and (media) politics in China, so if you can’t purchase yourself you could ask your library to do so.

Get on Amazon: Visual Political Communication in Popular Chinese Television Series (China Studies)

 

China in Ten Words

by Yu Hua, 2011 (translated from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr)

“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,” Yu Hua writes: “So I limit myself to just ten words.” By taking on ten different words and concepts, such as People (人民), Leader (领袖), or Revolution (革命), Yu takes readers through the social complexities and contrasts of modern China – its politics, history, society, and culture.

Get on Amazon: China in Ten Words
Get on iTunes: China in Ten Words
Audiobook: China in Ten Words (Unabridged)

 

Celebrity in China

edited by Louise Edwards,‎ Elaine Jeffreys, 2010

China has a booming celebrity culture, which plays an enormous role in the social media environment and popular culture in general. This is also the reason why this book in this list; it is the first book-length exploration of celebrities in contemporary China. In a collection of academic studies, this book goes explores a wide range of ‘celebrities’ in China, such as literary celebrities or online celebrities (who remembers Furong Jiejie, the first social media superstar?!).

Get on Amazon: Celebrity in China
Get on Bookdepository: Celebrity in China

 

● China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society

by Daniel Bell, 2010 (2008)

What is it like to be a Westerner teaching political philosophy in an officially Marxist state? Why do Chinese sex workers sing karaoke with their customers? And why do some Communist Party cadres get promoted if they care for their elderly parents? These are some of the questions addressed in this book by Daniel Bell, drawing on personal experiences to explain how Chinese society is transforming so quickly while still sticking to old traditions – of which Confucianism is one of the most important ones.

Get on Amazon: China’s New Confucianism
Get on iTunes: China’s New Confucianism
Get on Book Depository: China’s New Confucianism

 

Pop Culture China! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle

by Kevin Latham, 2007

Pop culture in China changes faster than the chef’s special of the day, but nevertheless, this work is still very relevant; it might miss some of the more contemporary forms of popular culture, but goes deep into the roots of pop culture in China back to the early days of the 20th century, the Cultural Revolution, and the early years of radio and television. Anyone interested in pop culture in China cannot understand the current environment without understanding where it came from – and this book provides a full overview of that environment from 1919 to 2007.

Get on Amazon: Pop Culture China!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle
Get on Book Depository: Pop Culture China!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle

 
ON CHINESE (ONLINE) MEDIA
 

The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China

Edited by Jacques deLisle, Avery Goldstein, and Guobin Yang, 2016

It is somewhat difficult to recommend any book on China’s online developments; the changes are happening so fast that any book on the topic is bound to be outdated from the moment it is published. This academic publication, however, is an insightful work that consists of a total of nine chapters in which the authors make sense of China’s online environment. Both Chapter 2, in which Marina Svensson explains the idea of connectivity and Weibo’s ‘micro-community,’ and Chapter 2, in which Zhengshi Shi and Guobin Yang write about new media empowerment in China, are especially relevant in this publication.

Get on Amazon: The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China
Get on Book Depository: The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China

 

Micro-blogging Memories: Weibo and Collective Remembering in Contemporary China


by Eileen Le Han, 1st ed, 2016

In this 2016 publication, Eileen Le Han looks at the development of microblogging platform Sina Weibo from the perspective of collective memory. The author notes that there is a strong desire to remember what is happening and an anxiety over forgetting on this platform. What is remembered for what reasons, and what is forgotten? This book gives a profound insight into how collective memory is made on Weibo, and the role of Chinese media and journalism in this process.

Get on Amazon:Micro-blogging Memories: Weibo and Collective Remembering in Contemporary China
Get on iTunes:Micro-blogging Memories: Weibo and Collective Remembering in Contemporary China

 

Religion and Media in China

Edited by Stefania Travagnin, 2016

Okay, okay, there is some bias in recommending this book – as editor-in-chief of What’s on Weibo, I personally wrote one of the chapters in this book about the Confucian influences on the portrayal of women in China’s television drama (which actually all started with one of these very first articles ever published on What’s on Weibo). But the 15 different chapters in this book each give unique insights into the world of media and religion in China, such as that on Buddhism online or digital Islam, which will be helpful and refreshing to anyone interested in modern China and how it deals with religion and the media.

Get on Amazon: Religion and Media in China

 

Internet Literature in China

By Michel Hockx, 2015

Chinese internet literature, wangluo wenxue (网络文学), is a unique and fascinating part of China’s online culture, and Hockx is the first one to provide such a comprehensive and well-written survey in English of this phenomenon. Not only does he describe and explain the (short) history of Internet literature in China, especially focusing on the 2000-2013 period, he also provides examples of the innovative nature of online literature and analyzes how it pushes the boundaries of China’s highly controlled publishing system.

Get on Amazon: Internet Literature in China
Get on iTunes: Internet Literature in China
Get on Bookdepository: Internet Literature in China

 

Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet Is Transforming China and Changing Everything

By Liz Carter, 2015

Besides that Carter is a really fun and interesting person to follow on Twitter (@withoutdoing), she is also the author of this 2015 book that sheds light on China’s internet, censorship, government, and society in the Weibo era – with a focus on those years in which social media really flourished in mainland China.

Get on Amazon: Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet Is Transforming China and Changing Everything
Get on iTunes: Let 100 Voices Speak : How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything

 

Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China

by Daniela Stockman, 2014 (2012)

Daniela Stockman is a Professor of Digital Politics and Media at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. In this book, she offers an in-depth introduction and exploration of the various market forces in Chinese media, going deeper into the existing polarisation in discourses on media marketizing in China – which is that they either emphasize growing liberalization or growing control. She argues that in the case of the PRC, market-based media promote regime stability rather than destabilizing authoritarianism. This is not a light read but a very well-researched and elucidating work on China’s marketized media relevant to anyone studying Media or China’s media environment in specific.

Get on Amazon: Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China
Get on BookDepository: Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China

 
ON DIGITAL DEVELOPMENTS & TECH IN CHINA
 

The House That Jack Ma Built

by Duncan Clark, 2016

If you ever have been to a Chinese bookstore, you’ll know that there’s always an entire shelf or section dedication to Alibaba founder Jack Ma, the hero of post-socialist China. Hundreds of books have been written about him and his company. Because he plays such an important role in the business (and celebrity) culture of China today, we had to include at least one book about Ma in this list. According to Dutch China tech blogger Ed Sander, this book is worth reading for those who want to know more about the business side of how Ma created his empire. The initial chapters also focus on Jack Ma as a person, but generally dives deeper into the power of Alibaba and how the company was built, also creating more understanding on the scale and speed of China’s economic transformation in general.

Get on Amazon: Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
iTunes: Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
Get on Book Depository: The House that Jack Ma Built

 

Little Rice : Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream


By Clay Shirky, 2015

Little Rice is an easy-to-read case study that tells the story of the rise of one of the world’s largest mobile manufacturers – yet its name is still unknown to those less familiar with Chinese brand names: Xiaomi (literally meaning: ‘little rice’). So many books have already been written in the English language about the success of companies such as Apple or Samsung; Xiaomi does deserve more attention, and this account of the rise of this tech giant also shines a light on Chinese political power and how Chinese tech brands are shaping present-day economy in China.

Get on Amazon: Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream
Get on iTunes: Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream
Book Depository: Little Rice : Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream

 

China’s Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business

by Edward Tse, 2015

Tse’s book on some of China’s biggest and most relevant companies has become a very popular one within its category over the past few years. Tse does not just provide an oversight of the companies that are really changing the Chinese market and are impacting the world, but tells the story behind them and their motivations, with a focus on business strategies and China’s economic environment.

Get on Amazon: China’s Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business
Get on iTunes: China’s Disruptors – Edward Tse

 
ON SEX AND GENDER
 

Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower

by Roseann Lake, 2018

What’s on Weibo already featured an article on Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower and the author when it just came out earlier this year. Lake brings a deeply insightful and captivating account of China’s so-called ‘leftover women’ – the unmarried females who are shaping the future of the PRC. She does so in a playful way, telling the stories of China’s young, single females through the various women she has encountered during the years of living and working in China. For those familiar with the controversy about this book when it just came out with regards to Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher (also in this list), we recommend reading both books so readers can form their own opinion based on the texts at hand.

Get on Amazon: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Get on iTunes: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Get on Bookdepository: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Audiobook: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower

 

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

by Leta Hong Fincher, 2014

Fincher’s book on Leftover Women is a refreshing work within the topic of China and gender, which argues that the labeling of women as being “leftover” is part of a state-sponsored media campaign that has created a greater disparity between men and women in China today – contrary to a popular assumption that women have benefited from the market reforms in post-socialist China. Fincher explores and explains the challenges women in China face when it comes to issues such as real estate, economic well-being, and gender inequality within marriage. In doing so, this book has become an important work for anyone studying gender relations in China today.

Get on Amazon: Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China
Get on iTunes: Leftover Women – Leta Hong Fincher
Get on Bookdepository: Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

 

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China

by Richard Burger, 2012

Burger, who once ran Peking Duck, one of the first English-language blogs on China, offers a colorful and different perspective on Chinese culture and society through the lens of how it deals with sex. As the author points out, there are some dramatic contradictions when it comes to sex in China; on the one hand, society seems to be very liberal on sexuality, on the other hand, it is extremely repressed. Burger discusses a variety of topics, from marriage, views on premarital sex and virginity to prostitution and homosexuality.

Get on Amazon: Behind the Red Door: Sex in China
Get on iTunes: Behind the Red Door
Get on Book Depository: Behind the Red Door

 

Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China

by Leslie T. Chang, 2010 (2008)

Chang’s work has become a classic within its field, not just because of the highly relevant topic of this book, but also because of the captive narrative voice of the author. With the book being divided into two parts of The City and The Village, Chang describes how the economic rise of China has transformed the lives of many women, who have come from the countryside to spend days on end working in one of China’s many factories. This book focuses on the factory life of various women in Dongguan, southern China, and the hardships and hierarchy they face in everyday factory life.

Get on Amazon: Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China
Get on iTunes: Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China
Get on Bookdepository: Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China

 
ON (ONLINE) CHINESE LANGUAGE
 

A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language

by David Moser, 2017

Besides the fact that Moser’s writing style makes this a delight to read, A Billion Voices is just a work that any serious student of Chinese language should read as it provides great insights in how putonghua or standard Chinese came to be the common language of the PRC – even if approximately one third of the population does not even speak it. With so many languages and dialects alive in China today, Moser provides an essential and accessible linguistic history of China.

Get on Amazon: A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language
Get on iTunes: A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language
Get on Bookdepository: A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language

 

● (Bonus Mention -#31-) China Online: Netspeak and Wordplay Used by over 700 Million Chinese Internet Users

by Véronique Michel, 2015

As an extra mention on this list, for a fun and light work – China Online is a concise book by translator and multilingual netizen Véronique Michel, that offers an exploration into China’s rapidly changing society and its flourishing Internet environment, where new expressions emerge every day. Although any book on a topic such as this will inescapably be outdated from the moment it is published, Michels has nevertheless created an informative and entertaining introduction to China’s online language that will still be relevant as a reference to the popular expressions that once were (and some still are) – although it’s just a short and really light read, it does help to understand the environment and the ‘feel’ of this online culture where new Chinese expressions come from.

On Amazon: China Online
On iTunes: China Online
On Bookdepository: China Online

By Manya Koetse

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Bruce Moon

    April 20, 2018 at 2:58 am

    I would add Ian Johnson’s Souls of China and Frank Dikotter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s Hiatory and The Tragedy of Liberation.

  2. Mike Cairnduff

    April 20, 2018 at 11:51 am

    Wild Swans is still my favourite! An old classic 🙂

  3. Ed Sander

    April 20, 2018 at 10:08 pm

    Some more suggestions:

    On Chinese young people:
    Wish Lanterns – Alec Ash (probably my favourite of the last couple of years)
    China’s Millennials – EricFish (I liked this better than Oracle Bones)

    Business:
    China’s Super Consumers – Michael Zakkour and Savio Chan
    All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Lines of Marketing to China’s Youth – Mary Bergstrom
    Alibaba’s World – Porter Erisman

    Sex, Corruption etc:
    Red Lights – Zheng Tian Tian
    Anxious Wealth – John Osburg
    Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel – in Ho and Wen’guang Huang (on the Bo Xilai scandal)

    Various stories about China:
    From The Dragon’s Mouth – Ana Fuentes
    China Road – Rob Gifford
    Out of Moa’s Shadow – Philip P. Pan
    Environment:
    When A Billion Chinese Jump – Jonathan Watts

  4. LH

    April 22, 2018 at 8:14 am

    Adding another vote in favor of Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns, which along with Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition is my favorite book on Modern China.

  5. Pingback: Links 4/26/18 | AlltopCash.com

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China Books & Literature

Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower by Roseann Lake

In a new book on China’s Leftover Women, author Roseann Lakes highlights the strength and merit of China’s unmarried women.

Published

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With Leftover in China – The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower, author Roseann Lake brings a deeply insightful and captivating account of China’s so-called ‘leftover women’ – the unmarried females who are shaping the future of the PRC. A must-read book for this Spring Festival holiday.

As the count-down for China’s most important event of the year, the Spring Festival, has started, countless unmarried daughters and sons anticipate the reunion with their parents and relatives with some horror. “Why are you still single?” is amongst the top-dreaded questions they are facing during the New Year’s dinners at the family dining table.

More so than the bachelor sons, it’s China’s unmarried daughters in their late twenties and early thirties who came to be at the center of a media storm over the past decade. The so-called ‘leftover women’ (剩女 shèngnǚ) have become a source of critique, banter, worry, fascination, and inspiration for the media, both in- and outside China.

The term shèngnǚ became a catchphrase ever since the Chinese Ministry of Education listed it as one of the newest additions to Chinese vocabulary in 2007. The shengnü label is mainly applied to unmarried (urban) women in their late twenties or early thirties who are generally well-educated and goal-oriented, but who came to be associated with ‘leftover food’ because of their single status and long-standing beliefs about the right age to marry.

One 2015 survey by Chinese dating site Zhenai, that was held amongst 1452 single men and women, shows that 50% of Chinese men think that women who are still single at the age of 25 are ‘leftovers.’

 

SILVER LININGS

“I’m pro-active about finding a partner, but not to the extent that it gets in the way of other ambitions.”

 

After the success of much-acclaimed books such as Factory Girls (Leslie T. Chang 2008) and Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Leta Hong Fincher 2014), Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower  (2018) by Roseann Lake, Cuba correspondent for The Economist, brings fresh insights into the role and position of young women in a rapidly-changing society.

At the root of the ‘leftover women’ phenomenon and the media frenzy around it lies China’s One-Child Policy (1979-2015), the country’s imbalanced sex ratio, and traditional perceptions on wives and mothers being the building blocks of Chinese families and the nation at large.

Leftover in China is Roseann’s Lake first (non-fiction) book.

Lake describes how the onset of China’s One-Child Policy and a traditional preference for sons, together with the available ultrasound technology in the late 1980s, led to an enormous rise of abortions on female fetuses. The gender imbalance it brought about is most severe in China’s rural areas; in places such as Tianmen, Hubei, the gender ratio is a shocking 176 males to 100 females. It leaves villages full of men who are unable to find a bride and start a family. Guānggùn (光棍), they’re also called, literally the “bare branches” of their hometowns.

While the ‘bare branches’ reside in China’s more rural areas, the ‘leftover women’ live in China’s more urban areas. The ‘bare branches’ and ‘leftover women’ both have difficulties in finding a partner, albeit for radically different reasons. For the rural men, there simply are not enough marriage candidates, whereas for the urban women, there are not enough suitable marriage candidates. A major difference between the countryside and the urban environment is that China’s cities have seen a much better-balanced gender ratio, with parents pampering and pressuring their only child – whether it was a boy or girl.

Although Lake does explain the “gruesome cloud” of China’s One-Child Policy and female foeticide and the demographic problems it has triggered, she especially focuses on the “silver lining,” which is that the sociopolitical circumstances have also ‘forced’ parents to value their daughters more than ever before. Over the past decades, millions of Chinese daughters have been given the opportunities and liberties their mothers and grandmothers never had. Their increased educational and professional prospects have made marriage somewhat less of a priority for them.

While China’s unmarried, urban woman are often stigmatized by Chinese state media for being too ‘spoilt’, ‘picky’, or ‘promiscuous’ to marry, Roseann Lake casts an entirely different light on China’s urban bachelorettes as being determined, independent, and self-assured. “I’m pro-active about finding a partner,” one of the ‘leftover women’ in Lake’s book says: “But not to the extent that it gets in the way of other ambitions.”

 

CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING LOVE

“Leftover women are resisting ultimatums to wed because they want to marry for love, and not just for the sake of being married.”

 

Lake’s strong connection to Chinese culture and society jumps off the pages of Leftover in China, in which she playfully and compellingly offers a window into the female experience in modern China, explaining fascinating concepts that are unique to modern-day society. One such example is the ‘phantom third stories’ phenomenon; two-story houses with an unfinished ‘fake’ third story, built by unmarried men and their family to make the house appear more grandiose in the hopes of attracting a wife.

The interest in China started when Lake took a sabbatical from her job with the French government in New York, and went to Beijing. “I was only supposed to stay for three months,” she tells What’s on Weibo: “But shortly into my stay I bought a hot orange electric – Chinese – ‘Vespa’, and that changed everything.”

Journalist Roseann Lake.

As Lake was riding her scooter, which she lovingly nicknamed ‘Fanta’, she took in the city and all of its aspects, including its love and romantic relationships. On what first caught her attention within this field, she explains that it started one afternoon as she was riding her scooter in Beijing and spotted a very angry Chinese woman on the side of the road, screaming profanities at a man who appeared to be her romantic partner. The altercation turned violent, and it was not the first time Lake had witnessed such a scene between couples in public.

“I felt that something seemed afoul with the state of romantic relationships in China,” she says – which was a start of her interest and research into romance, love, and the role of Chinese women in this. “For thousands of years, marriage has largely been a mercenary, transactional agreement in China, made with the best interests of the key stakeholders – the parents – in mind.”

Romantic love as a reason for marriage in China, Lake says, is a relatively new concept. She tells What’s on Weibo: “Down the line, this better helped me understand the situation of leftover women – many of which, as I discovered, were resisting ultimatums to wed because they wanted to marry for love, and not just for the sake of being married.”

The topic of China’s changing marriage values and the generation gap in perceptions on love and marriage between parents and their daughters recurringly comes back in Lake’s book, for which she followed the lives of various ‘leftover women’ over a period of several years. Through the stories of women such as Christy, the CEO of a successful Beijing PR firm, or June, a “return turtle” who came back to the mainland after graduating from Yale, readers can get a grasp of the pressures and problems many single women are facing in China today.

An important lesson to draw from this book is that the phenomenon of China’s ‘leftover women’ cannot be explained through a unidimensional lens. Lake highlights China’s historical, societal, cultural, and economic dimensions in her approach of why this large group of unmarried women, despite all of their personal, academic and professional achievements, are still being labeled through their single status.

 

THE TOAST OF THE NATION

“There is irony and absurdity in the fact that these women are referred to as “leftover” but are really such an important part of China’s future.”

 

In 2016, an ad campaign by skincare brand SK-II titled ‘She Finally Goes to the Marriage Corner’ (她最后去了相亲角) gained huge popularity on Chinese social media. The short video showed how women, pressured to get married by their families and society, pluck up the courage to speak out and get their message heard.

The video received much praise, with many women protesting against the derogatory ‘leftover women’ label. CCTV recently also posted a feature article on social media in which various women plead for the elimination of the “leftover woman” or shèngnǚ label.

The campaign by SKII in 2016 ignited a movement that protested the ‘leftover’ label.

Why, then, would Lake still refer to the ‘leftover’ label on the cover of her book? About the book’s title, Lake says: “There was a different title that I preferred, but my publisher disagreed with it, so we compromised on ‘Leftover in China.’ It has grown on me. I’m told that for non-fiction books, the subtitle is just as important as the title itself, and I think “The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower” is apt. It underscores the irony and absurdity of the fact that these women are referred to as “leftover” but are really such an important part of China’s future.”

Throughout the course of writing this book, Lake spoke to many experts on the importance of China’s young (unmarried) women in shaping Chinese economics. One of them is Dr. Kaiping Peng, the founding chair of the Department of Psychology at Tsinghua University, who is quoted as saying: “The Chinese economic miracle has two secrets. The first are migrant workers, and the second are young, educated women.”

All the love, time, and money that Chinese parents and grandparents have invested in their only (grand)daughter has now paid off – not just for them, but for the economy at large. These well-educated and hard-working women play a powerful role in running China’s economic engine.

 

THE FUTURE OF CHINA’S LEFTOVER WOMEN

“Few people know that the most imbalanced year for sex ratio at birth in China was actually 2005.”

 

When talking about the future of China’s ‘leftover women,’ Lake suspects that they will continue to get married later in life or not at all – on trend with what is also happening in countries such as Japan or South Korea. “This would be much to the dismay of the Chinese government” Lake says, “- which desperately wants babies, but hasn’t done much to incentivize or make it easier for women to have them.”

Social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat also play an important role in the lives of these women: “When I was living in China and writing the first drafts of this book, there were a few groups on Weixin [WeChat] where women would chat, share articles, and plan gatherings. They’ve dramatically multiplied! More content is shared, more ideas are exchanged, and the ease of these platforms means that Chinese women abroad can easily remain a part of the conversation.”

Lake is more worried about the so-called guānggùn, China’s ‘bare branches’: “We all may imagine that the worst years for gendercide were in the 80s and 90s, when population controls were stricter in China, but I think few people know that the most imbalanced year for sex ratio at birth in China was actually 2005. That means that boys who are now 13 years old will likely have a harder time finding a wife than any generations of men before them.”

This Spring Festival, Lake is anticipating the launch of her book (release February 13, 2018), which has already been listed as one of the must-read books for 2018 by the South China Morning Post.

For China’s many bachelorettes, they’ll just have to face the nagging questions at the New Year’s dining table, but they need not worry too much about being called ‘leftover women.’ Through books such as these, the term loses its derogatory tone – it is becoming a badge of honor instead.

 
Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower by Roseann Lake is now available for pre-sale:
Get on Amazon: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Get on iTunes: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower
Get on Book Depository: Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower

By Manya Koetse

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Backgrounder

Remembering San Mao – the Bohemian Writer That Captured the Hearts of Millions of Chinese

27 years after her suicide, bohemian writer San Mao still strikes a chord with Chinese netizens.

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Renowned author and world traveler San Mao (三毛) was one of the first Chinese mass media celebrities. Exactly 27 years after her passing, Weibo netizens collectively commemorate her free spirit, inspirational life, and tragic death.

In a time when Beijing’s first fast-food restaurants opened their doors, people were hooked on Teresa Tang’s sweet voice, and television sets entered Chinese living rooms, pirate editions of books by the wildly popular Chinese author San Mao first started spreading all over mainland China.

Before this time in the late 1980s, the female author was already a celebrity in Taiwan and Hong Kong since the 1970s; not just because of her many books, newspaper columns, song lyrics, and public lectures, but also because of her free, cosmopolitan, and “legendary” life that captured the imagination of many Chinese eager to look beyond their own borders.

Researcher Miriam Lang (2015) describes San Mao as “one of the first mass media celebrities in the Chinese-speaking world” (440).

On January 4th 2018, the 20th-century writer became a trending topic on social media when various media commemorated her. Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily dedicated a post to the iconic author on Weibo, titled “Today, we cherish the memory of San Mao.”

People’s Daily writes:

She was born in Chongqing, moved to Taiwan, studied in Spain, and settled in the Sahara. All of her life she pursued freedom and touched the hearts of many with all of her words. Her love-story with Jose stirred people’s emotions. Her mother said that maybe her life was not perfect enough for her, but we now know that her life-long pursuit of her dreams has already become romantic legend. Today, in 1991, writer San Mao committed suicide.”

Besides that the post itself attracted thousands of comments and was shared nearly 3800 times, many other media outlets and netizens also posted their own commemorations to the author on Weibo. One post by the Communist Youth League received more than 100,000 comments on January 4th.

“She was the first author I really loved,” one person comments: “Whether she was in the Sahara or Madrid, the way she describes her love has become like a little gemstone in my own life.”

 
A Woman Writer Named Chen, Echo, and San Mao
 

San Mao is known as the wandering writer. Throughout her life, she moved from place to place; a life pattern that already started forming in the early years of her childhood.

San Mao was born in Chongqing, China, in 1943. Her parents, mother Miao Jinlan and father Chen Siqing, named their little girl Chen Mao Ping (陈懋平). Chen, however, later preferred to be called Chen Ping, and gave herself the English name of ‘Echo’ to honor her painting teacher. Once she started writing, she used the pen name San Mao (三毛), which is how she came to be remembered.

Chen Ping aka San Mao during her time in the Sahara.

San Mao’s early years took her from wartime Chongqing via Nanjing to Taiwan, where the 6-year-old girl had trouble fitting in at school. She preferred reading books over doing schoolwork, and while she read literary classics such as Don Quixote at an early age, she failed in mathematics and received low grades.

After a teacher at her Taipei school embarrassed her in front of her classmates by drawing a ‘0’ grade on her face and making her parade around, she refused to continue her classes there and was home-schooled by private tutors and her own father, who was a lawyer (Chen 2007).

San Mao as a young girl.

After studying Philosophy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan, the 20-year-old San Mao set out to broaden her horizons and moved to Spain, where she enrolled at the University of Madrid. It was the start of her bohemian lifestyle, that brought her from Spain to Germany, from the Sahara Desert to the Canary Islands, and from Central and South America back to Taiwan.

San Mao experienced many adventures but also had to face many difficult times. Her first great love whom she was to be married to, a German teacher 19 years her senior, died of a heart attack when San Mao was 26 old.

Chen Ping aka San Mao with her good friend Father Barry Martinson, a Jesuit priest.

Ten years later, her Spanish husband Jose Maria Quero Y Ruiz, whom San Mao lovingly called ‘He Xi’ (荷西) and with whom she had spent six years in the desert, tragically died during a diving accident.

San Mao and her Spanish husband ‘He Xi’ (荷西).

Miriam Lang, in her study of San Mao (2015), describes her as “unusual for a woman of her time and place”; she traveled far from home, married a non-Chinese man, and remained childless. Nonetheless, Lang notes, San Mao was also traditional in that she represented herself as a “happy housewife” while married, and expressed conservative feminine values in her books (443).

San Mao and Jose.

Although San Mao published her first book at the of 19, she did not really gain fame until the release of her first book The Stories of the Sahara (撒哈拉的故事) in 1976. This work revolves around San Mao’s personal experiences in the Sahara desert together with her husband Jose (Ying 2010, 162).

 
An Unhappy Ending
 

In the decade following her husband’s death, San Mao first set out on a 6-month journey to America but then traveled less and finally settled in Taiwan in 1982, where she started teaching literature and creative writing at the Chinese Culture University.

San Mao in the US.

Being a celebrity, her classes were always packed – students lined up to attend her lectures.

In 1989, she first visited mainland China again since her childhood, where she started working on the screenplay of Red Dust, a love story set during the Sino-Japanese war. Although the film eventually received much acclaim – even winning the prize for Best Film at the Golden Horse Awards of 1990 – San Mao received criticism for creating a “too positive picture” of the leading male character, who was perceived to be a traitor to the Chinese nation (Lang 2015, 442).

Despite all of her activities in her later career, San Mao never parallelled the success she had with her stories about the Sahara. In 1990, San claimed she had won a literary prize in Spain for novella written in Spanish, but the work appeared to be non-existent (Lang 2015,442).

In early 1991, San Mao admitted herself to a hospital in Taiwan where she was tested for cancer. The results turned out negative, but San reportedly asked the nurse for a sleeping pill for the night and asked her not to wake her (Chen 2007).

San Mao ended her own life by hanging on January 4, 1991, at Rongmin General Hospital. She was 47 years old.

Father Jerry Martinson, a Jesuit priest who knew San Mao for years as the brother of her close friend Barry Martinson, told UCA News two weeks after her suicide that San Mao “desired to escape from her fame’s pressure and emotional entanglements, and to reunite with Jose (..). His death was a trauma in her life.”

He also said that Antoine Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince was San Mao’s favorite reading: “At the end of the story, the Little Prince wanted to go back to his planet, reachable only through short suffering.”

Throughout her life, San Mao visited over 54 countries and wrote a total of 26 complete works (Chen 2007; Lang 2015, 442; Huang 2017). An English translation of her work Stories of the Sahara (1976) is expected to be released by publishing house Bloomsbury in 2018.

 
Online “San Mao Fever”
 

The suicide of San Mao generated a new wave of “San Mao fever” in the 1990s. And now, more than two decades after her death, the Chinese celebrity still has major appeal to social media users, who post her quotes, photos, and audio segments.

“How I love San Mao,” one person writes: “Her every word is just immersed with her wisdom.”

But not all commenters are equally positive. Some say that San Mao is representative of a time when Chinese women “blindly followed” western values, adoring foreign men.

For the majority of commenters, however, San Mao is a name that brings out new inspiration or old memories. “Whenever I think about her stories from the Sahara, it just moves me.”

One Weibo user honors San Mao by posting one of her quotes*:

Often, I asked myself, what is distance? Then I heard my own answer, saying that distance is what I desired most in life – that it is freedom.
A freedom far, far away, like the air.
At that moment, I realized that I had slowly released myself from all the things I didn’t need that were binding me to my life. I then thought: I can go to the most remote corners of the earth if that is where my heart wants to go.
It was in that moment, that my freedom had finally arrived
.

If you are interested in this story you might also be interested in reading the story of Li Xianglan, the superstar who was caught between China and Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The Stories of the Sahara (in Chinese) can be purchased from Amazon:
The story of the Sahara (Chinese Edition)

The complete works of San Mao can also be purchased in Chinese online:
The Complete Works of Sanmao (Chinese Edition)

iTunes also offers The Stories of the Sahara in Chinese:

By Manya Koetse

Sources & References

Chen, Shaoshua. 2007. “San Mao – Taiwan’s Wandering Writer.” Women of China, November 30. http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/people/writers/8/8989-1.htm [4.1.18].

Huang, Echo. 2017. “The brave, tragic adventurer who inspired generations of Chinese girls to adopt her nickname.” Quartz Magazine, April 24. https://qz.com/963273/the-world-traveling-writer-san-mao-inspired-generations-of-girls-to-adopt-her-nickname-echo/ [4.1.18].

Lang, Miriam. 2015 (2003). In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese women – The Twentieth-Century 1912-2000. London/New York: Routledge.

Treichel, Tamara. 2013. “The Echo Effect.” Global Times, March 10. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/767044.shtml [4.1.18].

UCA News. 1991. “PRIEST SAYS WRITER WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE WANTED TO BECOME CATHOLIC NUN.” UCA News, February 21. https://www.ucanews.com/story-archive/?post_name=/1991/02/19/priest-says-writer-who-committed-suicide-wanted-to-become-catholic-nun&post_id=32086 [7.1.18].

Ying, Li-hua. 2010. Historical Dictionary of Modern Chinese Literature. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press.

Images

http://www.baike.com/wiki/%E4%B8%89%E6%AF%9B%5B%E4%BD%9C%E5%AE%B6%5D
http://designblog.rietveldacademie.nl/?tag=mask
http://cq.people.com.cn/GB/365409/c24845560.html
http://www.360doc.com/content/14/0623/15/700274_389097947.shtml
https://www.lemiaunoir.com/san-mao-mujer-escritora/
http://www.sohu.com/a/142240780_767795
http://www.sohu.com/a/130964781_488738
https://elpais.com/elpais/2016/10/25/inenglish/1477405923_390849.html

* “常常,我跟自己说,到底远方是什么东西。
然后我听见我自己回答,说远方是你这一生现在最渴望的东西,就是自由。
很远很远的,一种像空气一样的自由。
在那个时候开始,我发觉,我一点一点脱去了束缚我生命的一切不需要的东西。
在那个时候,海角天涯,只要我心里想到,我就可以去。
我的自由终于在这个时候来到了.”

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©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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