Every article I write about China starts with the same sentence.
“I lived there for five years and fell in love with the country”. And that’s true. I did. Those will forever be the most memorable years of my life.
However, it takes more than living in China to actually UNDERSTAND China. If you’re living in a foreign expat bubble in Shanghai, you can perfectly survive without understanding anything about what’s going on in the country you’re living in.
But I went deep. Very deep. Not only did I spend hundreds of hours learning Mandarin Chinese.
I have also read more than 20 books about Chinese people, the history, Chinese politics as well as the culture. In order to actually understand the mindset of the people, basic knowledge about these topics are absolutely crucial.
In this article, I will give you a list of 10 books that made me learn a lot about China. And I will explain very carefully what these books helped me to achieve.
Table of Contents
- In a hurry? These three books should be read by anyone who got an interest in China
- 1. “The Private Life of Chairman Mao” by Li Zhisui
- 2. “Hidden hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World” by Clive Hamilton
- 3. “We have been Harmonized – Life in China’s Surveillance State” by Kai Strittmatter
- 4. “China Witness” by Xinran
- 5. “Factory Girls” by Lesie T. Chang
- 6. “The Corpse Walker” by Liao Yiwu
- 7. “Beijing Welcomes You” by Tom Socca
- 8. HSK – Learn Chinese with HSK Books
- Other ways of learning more about China
- Other posts about China
In a hurry? These three books should be read by anyone who got an interest in China
If you want to read more about what I think of these 8 books, feel free to keep scrolling down.
1. “The Private Life of Chairman Mao” by Li Zhisui
To me, this is the book that is best at describing China. Because in order to understand modern China, you have to understand the mindset of Mao Zedong.
- Written by his personal doctor that knew him very well
- Not censored in any way or form
- Gives valuable insight to the Chinese culture
- Still hyper relevant today as Mao is more “God than human”
Most publications coming out of China about Mao Zedong portrait a national hero that helped China to achieve fantastic things. The problem with things coming out of China is that they are very often not…true.
Dr Li, Mao Zedongs’ personal doctor, wrote this book – and obviously had to leave China before it was published. Among other things, the book describes how Mao Zedong:
- Refused to use a toothbrush
- Had a taste for very young women…VERY young women…unfortunately.
- Took country-wide decisions based on absolute nonsense and a “gut feeling” rather than common sense.
- Was very active in The Great Leap Forward, which killed about 70 million Chinese people. (Read this article from The Washington Post about this topic).
…and a lot more. The book is quite thick, which made me spend about six weeks finishing it. However, I was never bored. The book is very well-written and exciting from page 1.
In the middle of the book, you will find several unique pictures of both doctor Li and Mao Zedong. That was a part of the book that I really enjoyed – and I went several times back and forth between the text and the pictures.
What will you learn about China from this book?
You will learn an awful lot about Chinese culture. First and foremost, this is a book about the Chinese mindset. It describes perfectly why the truth is hidden for many people due to the fact that certain powerful men are not willing to lose face.
In addition to that, “The Private Life of Chairman Mao” gives the reader a superb insight on all the drama surrounding key happenings in Chinese modern history. If you don’t know a lot of Chinese history now, this book will give you all the insight that you need.
2. “Hidden hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World” by Clive Hamilton
If you think that CCP only cares about full domination in China: you’re wrong. And this book tells you exactly how dangerous the Chinese Communist Party is to the world.
- Very good research
- Frightening message
- A “must read” by anyone
The Chinese Communist Party is looking for world domination. I don’t think most people understand how extremely dangerous that political party is. Not only do they force their own citizens to somehow support their values and messages.
Now they’re looking forward to taking over your country as well.
In order to understand why and how this is happening, you should read this book from Clive Hamilton. But I would also want to embed a video from Youtube. In the video below, a guy who previously worked for the Chinese Communist Party talks about how they BANNED him after he exposed some of their secrets to the world:
Why is this book relevant for those who want to understand more about China?
Because China is no longer the “sleeping dragon” that tries to avoid conflict. When Xi Jinping went from “President” to “Dictator”, he had one goal in mind: world domination. And unfortunately, he desperately tries to achieve that by bullying all other countries.
This is the perfect book to understand HOW China plans to take over the world. In fact, they’ve already started. Soft propaganda is a very strong and powerful tool. You might not know this, but hired CCP trolls spam more than 480,000 pro-China messages on Western social media platforms every day.
In order to understand more of that concept, feel free to read this article that I’ve previously written about “Chinese Internet Trolls”. Please also notify the angry comments from Chinese nationalists below the article. Charming.
3. “We have been Harmonized – Life in China’s Surveillance State” by Kai Strittmatter
What would happen if we lived after all the principles in George Orwells’ book 1984? Well – we already know that. Welcome to the most terrifying surveillance state in history: China.
- Won a “Notable Work of Nonfiction” in 2020 by The Washington Post
- Describes perfectly HOW Chinese people are being surveilled every day
- Describes perfectly WHY the Chinese Communist Party monitor their citizens every day
- Gives a unique insight to modern surveillance techniques that you probably didn’t know existed
When I lived in China, I very seldom thought about the fact that someone was following me all the time. But they did. These are just some of the points that I can think of:
- We always had to register at the local police station every time we came back from holiday in Europe. CCP will not let any foreigners be in their country without having full control of where they’re staying.
- Several times, random police officers came to our apartment to “check on our visas and passports”.
- We were not allowed to freely travel to other places in China without telling the government first.
…and these are only SOME of the incidents that happened to us foreigners in China. I can only think how bad it must be for Chinese people. And this book, “Life in China’s Surveillance State” is a brilliant description of what Chinese people go through today.
Why is this book good to understand China and the Chinese society?
Because it very well answers the question: “Why don’t Chinese people do something about their horrible government? Why don’t they stand up?”.
They are not allowed to enter websites where the truth about their government can be found. If they think about protesting, they will get caught and sent in prison. Any attempts to criticize the government on social media will be heavily cracked down on.
In addition to that: you must always use your national ID card to buy plane tickets, airline tickets, and bus tickets. The state HAS to know where all Chinese citizens are located at any given time. And this book gives unique insight to how they have created such a society – and why this type of society is FANTASTIC for a developing dictatorship regime.
4. “China Witness” by Xinran
Have you ever heard about the concept “Humans of New York”? It’s a concept where a journalist travels around New York trying to get people to talk about their life stories. You might think it’s impossible to do in China.
Well – an anonymous author named “Xinran” managed to do so. This is a masterpiece of a book that gives brilliant insight into the forgotten Chinese generation.
- The book is banned in China (which is a compliment…)
- Amazing stories are being told from the people who survived the Mao era
- Unfiltered and raw
With the undertitle “voices from a silent generation”, grandparents and great-grandparents tell their stories in this amazing book. Many people are aware of what Mao Zedong did to the Chinese people, but very few real voices have been heard.
The Chinese Communist Party does NOT want these people to be heard. As of today, Mao Zedong is considered a national hero – despite the fact that he murdered 70 million Chinese people.
Why is this book great to understand China?
As previously mentioned, Xi Jinping strives to take China back to the Mao Zedong era. He wants a “strong China” where the dictator in chief is God-like.
There are many problems with developing such a society. And this book goes into the core of those problems. In order to understand what will happen in 20-30 years in China, Xinran gives a perfect description of how people dealt with fear and struggle during Chinas’ previous dictatorship regime.
5. “Factory Girls” by Lesie T. Chang
Most people think that the growing middle class in China has lifted people out of poverty. That’s not true. More than 130 million migrant workers are currently living in poor conditions in China. In “Factory Girls”, the author follows two of them on an interesting journey over 3 years.
- Real life stories
- Very well-written
- Easy to read for me as a person who is not native in English
- Raw and unfiltered
- Deemed “A notable book” by The New York Times
Let me just get straight to what this book will tell you about China.
For most people in the West, the picture of a “rising and rich” China is somehow true. The Chinese Communist Party is brilliant at spreading propaganda about how successful the party has been to lift people out of poverty.
Guess what. There are loads of people in China who can barely afford food and a decent lifestyle. This book gives you a very deep insight into the minds of two Chinese girls who are migrant workers.
The dark truth
My feelings when I read “Factory Girls” were somehow split. On one side, I was super impressed by the research that had been done. The stories are being told in a very honest way. On the other hand, you get sad when you understand the context of the stories. These 130 million migrant workers in China have a very bad life – and the CCP does not give them much hope to break out of that poor lifestyle.
6. “The Corpse Walker” by Liao Yiwu
Stories from the bottom of Chinese society. “The Corpse Walker” invites you to the places of China that CCP does not want you to see…
- Follows 5 different men that struggle financially in China
- Real stories from real people
- Very well written
- But is it all true…?
Again: “The Corpse Walker ” is quite similar to “Factory Girls” in what it tries to achieve. The book gives an introduction to a wide range of low-paid workers that have lived their whole life in China.
I enjoyed this book quite a lot.
Raw, but maybe not unfiltered?
I always have a clear skepticism when the author himself is Chinese. The reason for that is very clear. Most Chinese people do not dare to write anything that would put themselves at risk in regard to the Chinese Communist Party. If you write a book that portrays Chinese society in a bad way, you’re in trouble.
There were several times during the book where I thought: “Oh, maybe this isn’t true?”
After all, I’ve lived in China and know a bit about the society.
7. “Beijing Welcomes You” by Tom Socca
Author Tom Socca researched the Beijing Olympics 2008 preparations between 2004 until 2008. The result is this brilliant book.
- Explains very well how the power fight in the CCP works
- Provides unique insight on how Chinese people collaborate and work together towards a common goal
- Good book for anyone interested in the Olympics – and especially the Beijing Olympics
I’m not gonna lie – I believe this book would be very different if Tom Socca wrote a book about the planning for the Beijing Olympics 2022. A lot has changed in China between 2008 and 2021. Unfortunately.
However, this book gives great insight into how China did EVERYTHING they could in order to make their country look good for the Beijing Olympics 2008. 12 years later, people around the world still talk about THAT opening ceremony. Socca talks to the scientists that worked with changing the weather, the architects that drew the stadium called The Birds’ Nest – and the people who had to move house because of this amazing project.
A good read.
Too good to be true?
What I will say is that the book does not go too deep when it comes to the dark sides of the Beijing Olympics. After all: a lot of people had their houses and hopes crushed.
8. HSK – Learn Chinese with HSK Books
One of the best ways to learn about Chinese culture is to learn the language. This book from Jiang Liping will help you develop the skills you need to get a grasp of basic Mandarin.
- HSK is the official Chinese language test
- Super good books that will make you learn basic Chinese quickly
- No teacher needed to progress
When I first came to China, I did not understand how important the language is to understand the culture. Now that I learned Mandarin Chinese, I understand how extremely naive I was back then.
I’m sorry to say this, but you almost HAVE to learn the language if you fully want to understand the Chinese culture. That’s why I have put the HSK books on this list.
PS! If you want to look for other books that can help you learn Chinese, I have written a full article called “10 Useful Books for Learning Mandarin Chinese”.
Other ways of learning more about China
There are several podcasts about China. Unfortunately, most of them are political. As its hard to run a podcast about the culture of a country without being subjective, most of the China-related podcasts that I know are quite bad.
However, there are two of them that you can check out:
- The China history podcast
- Bottled in China
Get a Chinese friend
Chinese people are literally all over the world. If you’re in Bangkok, Oslo, Stockholm, Amsterdam, or Medellin doesn’t matter. There are always some Chinese people around.
Go to the local Chinese restaurant. Or go on Craigslist and create a post.
Getting to know real people from China is probably the single most important thing I did in order to understand their culture and history.
Learn the language
I cannot stress how important it is to learn Chinese if you REALLY want to dig deeper into the Chinese society. Their language is the key to success.
All of the books in my life above will teach you important things about China.
Many other websites have similar lists. What differs me from them is that I have actually read the books that I recommend. I’m not just browsing Amazon and randomly find some books that might be popular about China.
So I really hope you appreciate my effort to provide you with a great life of books that will teach you about Chinese history, society, and language. If you think I’ve missed out on any books: feel free to comment below and I will make sure to try to get to read them! 🙂
Moving to China is the best way to understand the society. Books is the second best thing.
As very few of us will have the chance to ever live in China, I would recommend you to start to pick up a book.
In the list above, I’ve written down all my recommendations.
And yes – I have personally read each and every book that I recommend.
In order to understand anything about the Chinese society or history, you need to understand the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
As an example, I would say that the best book about understanding the Chinese mindset is actually the book about Mao Zedong written by his doctor. The book touches on so many aspects of how Chinese people think – and they are still as valid today as they were back when Mao was alive.
Other posts about China
If you’re intersted in China, I want to introduce you to a couple of other articles on SustainabilityMattersDaily. All my China-related posts are written purely out of interest and passion.