What to read on your first trip to China

Best books about ChinaAs we enter high summer, another cohort of students are preparing to spend their summer or fall semester in China. In the past few years a flurry of books have been published that provide nuanced and up-to-date perspectives on the country for general readers. Here are those CBR most recommends for the best possible sweep of how China’s history, politics, economics, and society interact.

Wealth and Power by Orville Schell and John Delury provides the historical context that has shaped modern China through eleven profiles of leaders and thinkers including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Readers will find in the nationalistic pride, humiliation, and conflicted feelings about the West captured in these pages a clear path to Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.”

Richard McGregor’s The Party is still the definitive look into how China is governed, but readers will want to supplement with additional reading on how Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and anticorruption efforts are reshaping the country.

Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos, a compilation of the New Yorker journalist’s essays, is an unrivaled and at times quirky look at how China’s dizzying development has affected the lives of its people. (See also his profile of Xi.)

Last is China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Arthur Kroeber, which is a comprehensive and accessible look at the full sweep of China’s economy and its contradictions.

First-timers can safely skip longer reads such as Henry Kissinger’s On China, Michael Spence’s history, The Search for Modern China, or John Pomfret’s history of US-China relations, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom. For those whose reading satisfaction is a function of book length, Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping, the man who led China into Reform and Opening Up, is perhaps the best lens into understanding China’s past century.

This summer, Harvard professor Graham Allison’s Destined for War, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman’s Easternization, and journalist Howard French’s Everything Under the Heavens will compete for space on many summer reading lists. Ian Buruma’s omnibus review in the New Yorker will give you the essentials and the Financial Times‘ history lesson on the “Thucydides trap” provides a fun and necessary corrective reading.

The corollary to the question of what Americans coming to China should read is what Chinese should read about America. Akhil Amar’s guide to America’s Constitution would be a strong start in these politically turbulent times. Similarly, a subscription to the New York Times is a rolling education in American studies, not least the virtues and limits of a free press.

Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me (or his shorter essay in The Atlantic, “My President was Black“) offers a window into America’s fitful dialogue on race while Eric Liu’s essays on the Chinese-American experience in A Chinaman’s Chance can offer a perhaps more relatable entry to American history.

Fiction can say just as much, if not more, about the American experience. If limited to two, The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird will likely gain readers the most social currency because they have been so widely read.

But to read about America would in some ways be to misunderstand it. As the home of Hollywood, America must be watched. While House of Cards has achieved a certain popularity in China, the show is, more than anything, a succumbing to confirmation bias. Better instead to watch The Wire, the critically acclaimed yet somehow still underrated show described by its creator as a “visual novel.” Each successive season takes a more panoramic look at the painful contradictions of post-industrial America.

Whereas the recommendations for Chinese more directly put them in conversation with their host country, those for Americans are indirect translations, if you will, of conversations that many Chinese are not able to have themselves. Ultimately, both countries must be experienced to be understood.