Books have always been one of my favorite ways to escape and explore new worlds and characters. Books have that magical ability to transport you to other times and places. Books can also help you understand and appreciate places in fresher and more interesting ways. While I was living in China I had no TV and slow internet, so books became my way of escaping the often-times stressful reality of living in Shanghai. During my year abroad in China, I read tons of books on China and developed a deeper appreciation for its people, history, and even its quirks that frustrated the hell out of me. Here are my top 5 books to read before going to China.
China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Superpower is a great introduction to modern China. Robert Gifford is a journalist who spent nearly two decades in China and spent six years as the Beijing correspondent of National Public Radio. Gifford, who is fluent in Mandarin, returns to China to take a three-thousand mile road trip along Route 312 starting from the glitzy city of Shanghai to the small border towns of Kazakhstan. During his six-week journey, Gifford encounters characters that represent the dichtomies of China, from young, entreprenurial men and women who do everything from hawking merchandise to acting as prostitutes in karaoke bars to older peasants, who remain in the countryside while their children and grandchildren take off to the cities seeking opportunity. Gifford also explores some of the unsavory aspects of China including the AIDS villages in Henan where government-run schemes encouraging farmers to sell their blood led to an AIDS/HIV epidemic. The book also has some funny moments of love/hate China syndrome that I personally identified with. While China Road is a little dated at this point, being almost ten years old, the book remains relevant as China continues to wrestle with the complexities of its past while defining its future.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze is a memoir by journalist and writer Peter Hessler about his two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, China in the late 90’s. Hessler, who has gone on to write many excellent books about China, writes about living in China and some of the issues associated with being an outsider in China. While being a foreigner does allow for special treatment in a lot of cases, as Hessler learned when he lived in a nicer apartment than many of his fellow Chinese professors, it also feels like you can never completely assimilate. Hessler also recounts the unique personalities of his students and admires their attempts at analyzing English literature with their unique cultural lens. Hessler also recounts some of his students experiences as they leave college and decide to seek opportunity in many of the factories sprouting up throughout China.
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang, who happens to be married to the author of River Town Peter Hessler, gives an intimate look into the lives of factory girls – young women, usually from the countryside, who find themselves working in factories where they eat, sleep, and dream about love and money. Chang also provides an account of girls with newfound financial mobility who are spending more time being free, single and empowered. The girls Chang chronicles are also masters of reinvention and starting over as career and love setbacks keep them on the path towards reinventing themselves, much like China continues to reinvent itself and break down the old to make way for the new.
The Last Empress by Anchee Min is a beautifully written revisionist recount of the last Empress Tzu Hsi, or Empress Orchid, one of China’s controversial figures who ruled China during the late nineteenth century. Empress Orchid has commonly been portrayed in Chinese history as a cruel, selfish, power-hungry woman, yet Min downplays these attributes and portrays the Empress as a victim of time and circumstance. According to Min’s account, the Empress did what she had to do in order to save China from threats of foreign intervention and internal rebellion.
A Fortune Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East by Tiziano Terzani provides not just an account of China, but also surrounding Asia. Terzani is an Italian journalist who, after consulting a Hong Kong fortune teller who warned him not to fly in 1993, decides to travel through Asia by train, bus, and boat. Terzani examines the role luck and superstition play in the lives of Asians by examining practices such as Feng Shui and consulting more fortune tellers. Terzani offers an immersive account of living in Asia and how fortune telling, feng shui, and Chinese medicine play a role in the lives of Asians. You will be left wondering if the Hong Kong fortune teller’s prophecy came true (hint: read to find out).