My firm is in the throes of defending a strike suit brought against Sea Shepherd by Japanese whaling interests. The Japanese whalers are seeking an injunction to stop Sea Shepherd. Under U.S. law, to get equity, one must do equity and one of the things we have learned about the Japanese whaler plaintiffs that we consider to be less than equitable, is that they have used nearly $30 million in tsunami relief money (I kid you not) to fund their whaling operations. 

A young lawyer in my office was shocked that this would go on. Her shock stemmed not even so much from the fact that the funds would be used so deceptively, but more so from the fact that it seems never to have occured to the whalers that using tsunami relief funds to kill whales would be viewed with such horror by just about everyone outside Japan. I told her of how a friend of mine who is completely fluent in Japanese and lived there a long time is always telling me of how the average Japanese businessperson knows nothing of how Japan treated China during World War II, and so just assumes that China’s anger towards Japan is based on “jealousy.” 

I then ordered her the book, Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Modern Japan.

Whenever I want someone to have a sense for Japan, I buy them Dogs and Demons. And whenever I want someone to get a quick sense for Korea, I buy them The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. Both of these books have been recommended to me by countless people who really know Japan and Korea, respectively.

Well that got me to thinking. What is the one book to recommend to someone who wants to learn about the Chinese people? Now I know that no one book is going to do that so please nobody write about how no one book is enough, but is there any one book that shines above the rest for this? If I had to pick one right now, I would actually choose John Pomfret’s book, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. Though not really intended to provide an overview of a people, by writing about the Chinese students with whom he attended Nanjing University in 1982, Pomfret’s book at least makes clear (as if it were ever necessary) the great diversity that is China. But I am more thinking about a book that seeks to explain the Chinese people and why they are what they are.

What is that one book?

  • I think it’s pretty revealing that no one is answering here after a few hours…

  • If there is such a book, it probably was written a long time ago when people took the time to think before they wrote. I like the idea of Pomfret’s book but I think more of thinkers such as Matteo Ricci who figured out the convergence of Catholicism and Chinese spiritual thought (or in modern terms “Hey, they are not as weird or different from us westerners as you think!”) or any book by Jonathan Spence who is by far the best writer on Chinese history. Lawyers should be required to read: “Treason by the Book”. Such books won’t make you an expert but no single book can. Any of Spence’s or Ricci’s will give you a real flavour and that is all you can expect.

  • “Country Driving” by Peter Hessler, to get inside the heads of the Chinese themselves without editorializing. Brilliant. If you want something more in-depth, go with Hessler’s “Oracle Bones.”

  • As someone who has lived in Japan for a long time, the only English book I can recommend about the country is “Dave Barry Does Japan.”
    “Dogs and Demons” is essentially several hundred pages of moaning about the practice of paving rivers. It’s a good book to show people if you want them to hate Japan without ultimately learning much about it.

  • Also, I wonder how many Americans are aware of what their compatriots did to the people of Tokyo in 1945.
    Pretty much every country (with the possible exception of Germany) has selective amnesia when it comes to dark spots in their history.

  • Never been to China, and have no idea if it’s the ONE book, but River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler is one book that I loved reading. Hessler spent tow years in China with the peace corps teaching English to high school students and this book is about his experiences. Will check out Chinese Lessons, sounds like a great book too.

  • Philip

    The Chinese Have a Word For It – this book gives Mandarin phrases in conjunction with cultural insights usually based on policies that have shaped Chinese mentality.

  • John

    I think you may be suggesting that there is one book that one can read that explains the Chinese people. I don’t believe that is even possible. I have been in China for 12 years and I’m married to a Chinese lady with family in China. I have done business here for the same amount of time. I am constantly learning new things about the people that are friends, family and work associates and I still don’t know everything. The only sure fire way of learning about he people is to live here. The culture is just way to complicated to learn it by reading a book.

  • David Delgado

    Great post and as a Shanghai expat for a few years fascinated with the fundamental differences in world view and re-interpretation of modernity, I try to read as many of these kinds of books as possible. I would recommend Martin Jacques: When China Takes Over the World if you want to understand the Chinese Peoples relationship to the State, societal differences, race and gender views, and self-perception. It cleared up a lot of questions I had after discussions with Chinese friends over the issue of diversity and multi-culturalism. the second half isn’t as good in my opinion as it mostly goes into his theory, which may or may prove to be true.

  • Try “The Corpse Walker”. You’ll never read another book like it. I’ve read Pomfret’s book. It was fantastic. I was in China in 1979 and his book brought back many memories. The combination of both books will tell much of the (recent) story of China.

  • MHB

    For me, Fortress Besieged (围城) is pretty comprehensive!
    There are so many great caricatures in the story which ultimately leads nowhere – so it feels much more like an exposition on China and Chinese character than a novel.
    I also enjoyed Aileen Zhang’s ‘Golden Cangue’ – great caricature of Chinese decadence. Particularly relevant today.

  • I like your choice of Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret, but if I could give someone only one China book it would be Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang.

  • Dan E.

    Hessler’s books are certainly quite good. I actually think Hessler’s wife Leslie Chang’s book, “Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China,” is one of the best books on China to come out in the last several years. It touches on many of the recurring themes of modern China — urbanization, migrant workers, life in the countryside among those left behind, etc — but Chang manages to probe a bit deeper than Hessler and others do, perhaps because she can blend in with the locals or perhaps because of better language skills or simply her reporting talent. And “Factory Girls” is just as readable and full of compelling personal narratives. It’s a great snapshot of what China is like right now.

  • Peter

    Any of Hessler’s books.

  • DBL

    Quotations from Chairman Mao. I’m being serious.

  • DD

    China Shakes the World by James Kynge.

  • Will Lewis

    Pomfret’s book is absolutely amazing, and gives a nice overview of the influence that recent history has wrought on 5 quite different people.
    I’m partial to Brothers by Yu Hua. It is a window into CR and the effect of CR on its children. You get the human element from a talented writer. Plus, it is very entertaining.

  • nicolas

    I’m a big fan of Carl Crow’s “400 million customers”. Written in the 30’s but I found lots of insights that are still relevant today. The update, James McGregor “One billion customers” is also very insightful.
    Another thing that taught me a lot about china was driving here. I spent a few months being always pissed off, and always told off by my girlfriend for letting people cut me off. When I changed my attitude to not giving anyone any leeway unless it would injure my car, not look inganywhere but straight in front of me and continuously base my assumptions on the fact that everyone else was being self centred, my driving life became almost pleasurable.

  • Andy

    Pomfret’s book is a great recommendation but I propose Chinese Characteristics by Arthur Smith. My Chinese friends tell me that when they read it they feel he is describing them despite the age of the book.

  • This is an enjoyable exercise, especially since via the comment thread, you quickly go from one book to many. I like a lot of the books listed, including Factory Girls and Country Driving, as well as some that aren’t up there, such as Yu Hua’s new China in Ten Words and Zha Jianying’s Tide Players, both of which I wrote very positive reviews of this year. At the risk of self-promotion (and no, I’m not about to mention a book I WROTE), I’d like to mention that this fall the University of California Press will be bringing out one called CHINESE CHARACTERS: Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, which like many of the best books on China, including Pomfret’s and Zha’s and Sang Ye’s CHINA CANDID, conveys the country through life stories. What’s different about this one (which has a tumblr site up already ) is that it will be an anthology of pieces by gifted writers with deep knowledge of China. Hessler and Chang will both be represented (so you don’t have to choose one or the other), as will (among others) Ian Johnson, Evan Osnos, Ananth Krishnan (who covers China for The Hindu newspaper), Xujun Eberlein (who mostly writes fiction but here goes into reportage), and some academics (who mostly write with footnotes, but go footnote-free here). I co-edited the book with freelance writer Angilee Shah (hence my comment about self-promotion…a way of saying you should take everything I say about the book with a grain of salt).

  • david whistler

    Lots of great books there but I would nominate Richard McGregor’s The Party. Best book for the general poltical reader to understand the mindset.