4 must-read Books open the window of Modern China

China’s economy is the story of the century, but the country remains difficult for many westerners to understand. These books bridge the divide.

China is a place of contradictions and nuances.

Casual readers about China are lucky in one sense: The complexity of the place has attracted some of the world’s best storytellers. They are drawn here for all kinds of reasons, but China’s 5,000-year history, unique culture, and crazy characters provide material most writers could only dream of.

So what follows are 5 books by writers who allow a story to unfold — who spend time showing the reader the parts of China we don’t know, instead of telling us about them — as they explain modern China to outsiders.

  1. Country Driving, Peter Hessler

Personally, I really fancy Hessler’s 3 books on China, which are elegantly written, hilariously funny, and deeply insightful. The third, Country Driving, provides an on-the-ground account of the rapid industrialization in China that foreigners often read about but rarely see.

As the title suggests, the book is partly a study of China’s new driving culture, it also illustrates how industries across the country, far away from the glitzy skylines of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, continue transforming China with consequences both positive (new-found wealth) and negative (a carelessness about pollution).

2. Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos

Osnos, another former New Yorker correspondent, includes known figures like artist and activist Ai Weiwei, whom he befriended in Beijing, and former World Bank chief economist Justin Lin, who defected to mainland China from Taiwan in 1979, as well a striving Chinese English student named Michael Zhang. He pulls back to describe the historical events that inspired characters living in what he calls China’s Gilded Age.

3. Factory Girls, Leslie Chang

First time I heard about Leslie, was from her TED speech about her experience of living with those factor girls in China. Her book depicts what tens of millions of Chinese are going through to reach the middle class. The trend on which Chang focuses — a migrant class numbering 130 million in China, what she calls the largest human migration in history — is likely to remain part of the country’s growth story for years to come.

When they meet each other for the first time, Chang’s factory girls ask only two questions: “How old are you? How much do you make?” Chang’s writing is crisp and funny, and the core of her book leaves readers with a sense of what the tens of millions of future middle-class females in China are really like.

4. One Billion Customers, James McGregor

McGregor’s book about how to do business in China. Tells of his experiences and others’ negotiating with Chinese partners, working with local governments, and navigating endemic corruption.

He’s funny, direct and pithy and offers advice that sounds like a corporate version of Mao’s Little Red Book. In the first pages, McGregor tells the story of flying to a coastal city in China. He’s shocked when his plane abruptly pulls up moments before touching down. Only when it circles back and he hears the landing gear engaging for the first time does McGregor realize what the pilots forgot to do the first time. It’s a nice metaphor for how far China has come and how far it still has to go.

(Reference: Ten must-read books that explain modern China by Scott Cendrowski)

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