Preparing to travel to China usually involves a lot of detailed planning. Too often, though, the logistics of the trip overshadow the equally important mental preparation of travel. Perhaps you want some historical and/or cultural background for your China trip but you don’t know where to start? Here are six recommendations of must-read books about China to get you going.
I enjoy reading for pleasure, but I don’t consider myself a voracious reader.
Over time, my fascinations about China has brought me to a number of books, some of which I’ve enjoyed and others that I’ve never even finished.
There’s one thing I’ve come to believe, though: my appreciate for regional history, culture and spirituality has only deepened the more that I’ve read.
Some of the best books on China are also the best way to prepare for a trip there.
So I’d like to take a few minutes to share with you some of my favorite books on China. I’ve categorized them by topic so you can find what would suit your interests.
Pick a couple to purchase and read on the plane!
Note: Some of the links to these books on Amazon are affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I may be compensated if you choose to purchase one of the books.
China History: On China by Henry Kissinger
For the history buff, the name “Henry Kissinger” is all-to-familiar. As a former US Secretary of State and a man credited with orchestrating the opening of relations with China, it stands to reason that he has a deep understanding of the country.
I love how this book walks through ancient and modern history in such a way that your attention is never lost.
It’s equal parts historical narrative and behind the scenes look at the inner workings of Chinese diplomacy.
Here’s one Amazon review that sums up what you can expect in On China by Henry Kissinger, a great book about China history.
This is a history book taking you from era through era, and then, beginning with President Nixon, from US administration through US administration up to the present day. You learn that in the years following Nixon’s famous trip to China, it HASN’T been all smooth sailing for the United States. Every post-Nixon administration has had its China challenges, major or minor.
Modern China: Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
Fast forward to the present. If you’re wanting to look at China through the lens of its modernization and economic growth, Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos is a winner.
For years, I loved reading Osnos’ take on China affairs during his stint as the China correspondent for The New Yorker. He was always witty, insightful and easy to read.
This book is no different.
Here’s how one Amazon reviewer described their experience with this book:
It’s a very absorbing read, and its multiple story-lines are impressively woven together, without any of the stitches showing. The people Osnos writes about run the gamut from a public figure like Lin Yifu (the World Bank economist who defected to mainland China from Taiwan in 1979) to an obscure figure like Michael Zhang, a young energetic optimist whom Osnos first meets at a Crazy English conference and then follows for a few years.
China Travel: Everything You Need to Know Before Traveling to China by Josh Summers
When it comes to great books about China, it’s hard to ignore all the books written about travel to the region.
Most China travel guide books tell you where to go or what to see in China, but very few of them teach you how to travel around China.
That’s where this China travel handbook comes in handy.
It covers the basics of staying connected, using transportation, getting money, and pretty much anything else you’ll need to know to get around China.
I’m biased (of course), but you can read what other reviewers say, such as Geneva:
This book helps to prepare you for the situations you will never think of, or would be impossible to think of unless you already have prior experience. If you were on the fence about visiting China, this book will definitely tip the scales in either direction because you will be left with accurate knowledge and more realistic expectations of China.
China Censorship: The Great Firewall of China by James Griffiths
If you’re not familiar with the term “Great Firewall”, this book may not make sense to you.
In short, it’s a term given to China’s censorship of the internet that blocks hundreds of foreign websites and apps.
But how did China get to this point? And why did China decide to censor the parts of the internet that is extremely popular around the world?
James Griffiths, a senior producer for CNN International, provides an in-depth analysis based on his own personal experience.
Here’s what one Amazon reviewer had to say:
This book contains a great in-depth history of the Great Firewall and gives a chilling look at where things can go from here. The writing is sharp and engaging, and helps this fairly technical topic feel fresh and interesting. A must-read for China and technology followers, but also for the average social media and internet user who is looking to understand the online world beyond U.S. and European borders.
Chinese Culture: Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz
Ever since I met Rob Schmitz in person, I’ve been a huge fan.
As the international correspondent for NPR, he’s been based in Shanghai for many years, and Street of Eternal Happiness is his description of small town life in a massive city.
In the same literary fashion as Peter Hessler of Oracle Bones fame (they served in the Peace Corp together), Rob paints a beautiful and detailed picture of life on this one simple street in Shanghai, using this as a vehicle to explain many parts of Chinese culture.
Here’s what another reviewer on Amazon had to say:
Rob Schmitz has brought modern China to life by focusing on the small shopkeepers and other inhabitants of the street in Shanghai that he rides his bike up and down every day. Placing his attention squarely on real people and their real lives, he not only provides a glimpse of life today in a city that changes every time that I visit, but also a perspective on an ancient nation that has brought more of its citizens out of poverty and into the modern world faster than any of us would have thought possible.
Religion in China: The Souls of China by Ian Johnson
There aren’t a lot of books about religion in China, which isn’t surprising considering how China has suppressed various expressions of faith throughout history.
This particular book isn’t amazing, in my opinion, but it’s one of the few you’ll find that does a decent job of describing the impact of religion in China.
If you’re curious about how various religions have left their imprint on modern China, this book might interest you.
Here’s what another Amazon reviewer had to say:
This book will help you better understand – even challenge your old knowledge on – what “religion” is, what China is, and how contemporary faith is practiced by ordinary Chinese people.
Final Thoughts | Best Books on China
Unless you’re one of those special people that can devour books easily, it’s likely you won’t be able to read all of these before you leave for China.
However, I do recommend that you take time to pick one or two that will provide more context to your visit to China. Anything is better than nothing, and I’ve never heard anybody tell me “I wish I had never read any history or China books before I traveled here“.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
So grab a book, sit down with a cup of coffee (or take it with you on the plane!) and dive into the deep well that is Chinese history, culture and spirituality.
Susann Ozuk says
I, too have been immersing myself on China through reading. I recommend the following:
1) The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, America and China, 1776 tot he Present by John Pomfret
2) Forgotten Ally, China’s World War II 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter
3) The rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
4) Last boat out of Shanghai by Helen Zia
Josh Summers says
Great list, Susann. Personally, I had a hard time reading The Rape of Nanking. Such a terrible period in history!
Great list! I will need to check some of these out. I also strongly recommend “China’s Forgotten People” By Nick Holdstock, and “End of an Era by Carl Minzer.
Josh Summers says
Good stuff. I’ve read Nick Holdstock’s book but not the one by Minzer.
brian n. cox says
Actually, I think the best book to read, whether going to china as a tourist or to live for a few years, is one i wrote myself:
“understanding china and the chinese people: an insider’s view for visitors, tourists and people planning to live in china” by brian n. cox
my website: https://www.bcoxbooks.com
Tyler B says
Nice list! I will have to check these out. Another good book about China is A Billion Voices by David Moser. It is about how Mandarin came to be the common language of China.
Josh Summers says
Thanks for sharing, Tyler!
I agree and rec anything by mo Jan
Peter Hessler is also worgh reading. Rivertown Is about his year living in a small town on the yangsTze. Later he went To china as a journalist and wrte country driving, wIth 3 sections, the Development of a factOry ( more interesting ghan you might think), the slow change of a Village, and some of its inhabitants, to become a toUrist spot, and an attempt to drive along the great wall. His wife, lesley chang wrote a book
Called Factory Girls.
Then there’s Xinran’s book The Good Women of China, stories Of women during the cultural revolution, and China Witnes: Voices from a Silent Generation. All those books tell you about the lives of ordinary Chinese people.
Phyllis Warden says
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by jung Chang
MAO, THE UNTOLD STORY – same author