Michael Cormack of Agenda Beijing (a consistently good read, BTW) just did an article, entitled, “What China Books” [link no longer exists] on the China books Cormack finds “most interesting.”  Cormack was spurred to write his article after reading Kaiser Kuo’s list of tips to expats seeking to “acclimatise into life in China,” which included reading books on modern Chinese history.

Cormack’s China book list consists of the following:

  • China: Fragile Superpower, by Susan Shirk.  This book examines “the tensions on the fault-lines of China’s national security structure.”  I have not read this book so I cannot comment.
  • Designated Drivers: How China Plans to Dominate the Global Auto Industry, by G.E. Anderson. According to Cormack, “this book is a marvelous introduction into Chinese economic policy and the numerous actors – and just because several are state actors does not mean that they are homogenous – behind the scenes, through the prism of the car industry.” I have not read this book either, but I have read a lot of G.E. Anderson and I have many friends who know him well.  From my readings and from my friends, I have absolutely no doubt that this is a superb book. Anderson clearly knows China and he clearly knows its auto industry.
  • When China Rules The World, by Martin Jacques.  I have read this book and it is okay.  Jacques makes some excellent points and has some deep insights into China.  In particular, this book is a great way to see China from a perspective different from that usually presented by the Western media.  But in the end, this book is too much a leftist paean to a China that does not exist and will never exist.
  • The China Twist, by Wen-Szu Lin.  Amazon describes the China Twist as “the firsthand story of two Wharton MBAs who brought a beloved U.S. food franchise to China and encountered outrageous obstacles that will make anyone in business laugh, cringe, and think twice about doing business in Asia.”  Cormack says that “Every single entrepreneur or businessperson thinking about entering the Chinese market should first read this.” I also have not read this book, but I plan to do so.  A couple people have read it to me and it is just the sort of book I tend to like.
  • On China, by Henry Kissinger.  I hate to admit that I have not read this book, though I have read many excerpts. Not surprisingly, Cormack thinks it an important tome on US-Sino relations.
  • Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, by Richard Burger.  According to Cormack, Burger “takes the reader through a whirlwind tour of attitudes and practices, from the permissive Tang to the ludicrously repressive Maoist epochs, and divides subsequent chapters into useful sections, like The Family”, “Homosexuality”, “Dating and Marriage”, “The Sex Trade” and does so without ever being prurient.  Burger is a friend of mine and one of the best China bloggers ever, writing masterpieces at Peking Duck since 2002! I plan to read this book because I am certain it is excellent.

Cormack then lists out the following books he has not read as possibly “useful”:

I also recommend the following books and apologize in advance because I know that I will be leaving out other must reads in doing so:

  • China in the 21st Century, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom. This is the best China beginner book I have read. It is accurately subtitled “What Everyone Needs to Know” and it consists of a blissfully short and easy 192 pages. It is meant to be basic and it is, but it is not in any way simplistic.

Cormack ended his article by asking for additional recommended books and I will do the same.  What other books should people new to China be reading?

  • I am just finishing China’s Urban Billion – this is an excellent book that packs a great deal of valuable information into less than 200 pages – protecting land rights of farmers displaced by urbanization, the challenge of hukou reform and the need to provide migrants to urban areas a full range of urban services, issues of pollution, congestion and urban sprawl that plague many Chinese cities – to name some of the issues covered. Hill takes a hard look at the problems without preaching or condescending in any way. Terrific.

    A book that is not on the list but should be is Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 by Odd Arne Westad. This book presents a delightful contrast to the dreary CCP narrative which describes foreign involvement in modern China as almost entirely negative from start to finish. While Westad acknowledges the wrongs and unfairness of the unequal treaties, the horror of the Japanese invasion, etc, he also believes that foreigners in their interactions with Chinese helped to trigger and nurture China’s quest for modernity, that the story of these interactions both in China and in the places outside of China where the Chinese diaspora settled is complex with both positive and negative outcomes. The writing is stylish and the book is accessible to general readers while having plenty for diehard China hands at the same time. Yes, this is a history book, but this is history that is well worth knowing something about if you are working in or with China.

  • I just finished China Shakes the World by James Kynge. I found it to be an extremely well written and intelligent book. The best books on China, I think, are by those who have lived in China for an extended time and have gone native to some extent – at least as far as Chinese language acquistion goes. Kynge has been in China on and off since 1982 I believe and is fluent in Mandarin. He knows a heck of a lot about the place and his interpretation of change in China is riveting. Great book !

  • Fred

    The China Myth, by James Mann

  • John Pomfret

    I think Jean Pasqualini’s book “Prisoner of Mao” remains a classic and should be read by anyone interested in China, not simply to understand the history of the labor camps but also to understand the psychology that the Party-State has used — and continues to use — to rule its people.