Best 30 Books to Understand Modern China (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 preferences 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.
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.
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 to 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
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
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
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.
by Jonathan Spence, 1991
Although this work, more elaborate than the aforementioned one 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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 is that it is not exactly 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.
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.
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?!).
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.
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 won’t be able to understand its current environment without understanding where it came from – and this book provides a full overview of that environment from 1919 to 2007.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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