4 books you need to read to understand modern-day China

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It’s a country as complex as it is vast, of contrasts and contradictions, with a history spanning 5,000 years. This can make China difficult for outsiders to understand. “Today’s China is hard to fully understand because it is huge, rapidly changing and complex,” writes Dingding Chen of the University of Macau.

But as the world’s second-largest economy — with analysts predicting it will overtake the US within the next couple of decades — we can’t afford not to. These four books, recommended by experts with a deep knowledge of the country and a mix of fiction and non-fiction, will get you started.

Peter Hessler, an American journalist, spent many years living in China, first as an English teacher and then as a correspondent for the New Yorker. His third book on the country sees him take to the road to explore its large network of highways. One of only a few foreigners to undertake such an endeavour — visitors and tourists are not allowed to drive, and even those with a residence permit are said to avoid it because of the risks involved — his journey takes him from impoverished villages to industrial factory towns.

In doing so, he manages to reveal a side of China outsiders very rarely get to see, as the Economist wrote in its review: “Through the lives of the ordinary Chinese he gets to know so well, he explains the country’s complexity, insecurities and tensions better than many of the more analytical works that have appeared in recent years.”

It’s impossible to understand a country without knowing something about its history. And for China, that’s a history that stretches backs thousands of years.

This book from British-American historian Jonathan Spence goes all the way back to the Ming Dynasty of the 17th century, explaining how events that happened generations ago were still being felt in China at the time of publication in 1990. “To understand the burdens and opportunities embedded in China’s past there is no better place to start than Jonathan D. Spence’s excellent book,” the New York Times wrote in a review when it was released. “His book provides Western readers with the historical background necessary to understand China’s continuing struggle for survival, integrity and modernization.”

She’s been described as China’s most influential female writer. And while this novel might at first glance not seem too revolutionary — it follows the life of a woman who finds love again after divorce — it did at the time of its release challenge accepted conventions, particularly the status of women.

Her short stories provide a glimpse into a China on the cusp of modernization. “Chang’s stories are about men and women, especially women, who have no choice but to navigate the treacherous passage from the world of traditional China to the freedoms, ambitions, and dangers of modern life,” the New York Review of Books wrote.

You’ve probably never heard of it, but this novel — which also goes by the name of Dream of the Red Chamber — is essential reading for people in China. “Apart from its literary merits, Chinese readers recommend it as the best starting point for any understanding of Chinese psychology, culture and society,” the Telegraph explains.

Legendary British-Chinese journalist Xue Xinran has in the past described it as one of her favourite books — and essential reading for anyone wanting to understand China. “For me it is like a bible for everything to do with Chinese culture. Books like this remind us what true Chinese culture is all about and how to preserve it.”

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