On the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, take a closer look at what led up to and what followed this day. There’s no easy place to start, but we’ve compiled ten books that provide an introduction to contemporary China. From classic fiction by Eileen Chang to nonfiction accounts by Liao Yiwu, learn more about Chinese culture and history to better understand where we are today.
Yu Hua is one of China’s most famous contemporary writers, whose celebrated novel To Livecatapulted him to international fame. Framed by ten phrases common in the Chinese vernacular, China in Ten Words uses personal stories and astute analysis to reveal as never before the world’s most populous yet oft-misunderstood nation. In “Disparity,” for example, Yu Hua illustrates the expanding gaps that separate citizens of the country. In “Copycat,” he depicts the escalating trend of piracy and imitation as a creative new form of revolutionary action. And in “Bamboozle,” he describes the increasingly brazen practices of trickery, fraud, and chicanery that are, he suggests, becoming a way of life at every level of society. Witty, insightful, and courageous, this is a refreshingly candid vision of the “Chinese miracle” and all of its consequences.
Banned in China for its candid exploration of a young girl’s sexual awakening yet widely acclaimed as being “the first novel of ‘tough youth’ in China” (Beijing Today), Beijing Doll cuts a daring path through China’s rock-and-roll subculture. This cutting edge novel — drawn from the diaries the author kept throughout her teenage years — takes readers to the streets of Beijing where a disaffected generation spurns tradition for lives of self expression, passion, and rock-and-roll. Chun Sue’s explicit sensuality, unflinching attitude towards sex, and raw, lyrical style break new ground in contemporary Chinese literature.
China Witness is a remarkable work of oral history that lets us see the cultural upheavals of the past century through the eyes of the Chinese who lived through them. Xinran, acclaimed author of The Good Women of China, traveled across China seeking out the nation’s grandparents and great-grandparents, the men and women who experienced firsthand the tremendous changes of the modern era. Although many of them feared repercussions, they spoke with stunning candor about their hopes, fears, and struggles, and about what they witnessed: from the Long March to land reform, from Mao to marriage, from revolution to Westernization. In the same way that Studs Terkel’s Working and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation gave us the essence of very particular times, China Witness gives us the essence of modern China—a portrait more intimate, nuanced, and revelatory than any we have had before.
China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta.
Shanghai, 1930s. Shen Shijun, a young engineer, has fallen in love with his colleague, the beautiful Gu Manzhen. He is determined to resist his family’s efforts to match him with his wealthy cousin so that he can marry her. But dark circumstances—a lustful brother-in-law, a treacherous sister, a family secret—force the two young lovers apart. As Manzhen and Shijun go on their separate paths, they lose track of one another, and their lives become filled with feints and schemes, missed connections and tragic misunderstandings. At every turn, societal expectations seem to thwart their prospects for happiness. Still, Manzhen and Shijun dare to hold out hope—however slim—that they might one day meet again. A glamorous, wrenching tale set against the glittering backdrop of an extraordinary city, Half a Lifelong Romance is a beloved classic from one of the essential writers of twentieth-century China.
The Corpse Walker introduces us to regular men and women at the bottom of Chinese society, most of whom have been battered by life but have managed to retain their dignity: a professional mourner, a human trafficker, a public toilet manager, a leper, a grave robber, and a Falung Gong practitioner, among others. By asking challenging questions with respect and empathy, Liao Yiwu managed to get his subjects to talk openly and sometimes hilariously about their lives, desires, and vulnerabilities. The Corpse Walker reveals a fascinating aspect of modern China, describing the lives of normal Chinese citizens in ways that constantly provoke and surprise.
London translator Iona Kirkpatrick is at work on a new project: a collection of letters and diaries by a Chinese punk guitarist named Kublai Jian. As she translates the handwritten pages, a story of romance and revolution emerges between Jian, who believes there is no art without political commitment, and Mu, a poet whom he loves as fiercely as his ideals. Iona cannot know that Jian has come to Britain seeking political asylum and is mere miles away in Dover, awaiting news of his fate. Mu is in Beijing, writing letters to London, feverishly trying to track Jian down. As Iona charts the course of their twenty-year relationship from its beginnings at Beijing University to Jian’s defiant march in the Jasmine Revolution, her empty life takes on an urgent purpose: to bring Jian and Mu together again before it’s too late.
When Tom Scocca arrived in 2004-an American eager to see another culture-Beijing was looking toward welcoming the world to its Olympics four years later, and preparations were in full swing to create a renewed city. Scocca talked to the scientists tasked with changing the weather; interviewed designers and architects churning out projects; checked out the campaign to stop public spitting; documented the planting of trees, the rerouting of traffic, the demolition of the old city, and the construction of the new metropolis.
Since the first publication of When China Rules the World, the landscape of world power has shifted dramatically. In the three years since the first edition was published, When China Rules the World has proved to be a remarkably prescient book, transforming the nature of the debate on China. Now, in this greatly expanded and fully updated edition, boasting nearly 300 pages of new material, and backed up by the latest statistical data, Martin Jacques renews his assault on conventional thinking about China’s ascendancy, showing how its impact will be as much political and cultural as economic, changing the world as we know it.
China is in the midst of one of the world’s great spiritual awakenings: some 300 million Chinese currently practice a faith, while tens of millions more follow personal gurus, populist masters and New Age sages. This astonishing revival began in 1982 when the Communist Party pledged to allow what it thought would be a small-scale practice of religion under government supervision. But the faithful have expanded far beyond the Party’s expectations: Today, China’s cities and villages are filled with new temples, churches, and mosques as well as cults, sects and politicians trying to harness religion for their own ends. Fueling this resurgence is a popular desire to rediscover a moral compass in a society driven by naked capitalism. For six years, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Ian Johnson lived for extended periods with three religious communities: the underground Early Rain Protestant congregation in Chengdu, the Ni family’s Buddhist pilgrimage association in Beijing, and yinyang Daoist priests in rural Shanxi. Johnson distills these experiences into a cycle of festivals, births, deaths, detentions, and struggle that reveals the hearts and minds of the Chinese people—a great awakening of faith that is shaping the soul of the world’s newest superpower.