Top Books to Read about China

I love a good travelogue as much as I do a historical novel. When I first visit a place, I personally find I don't do much reading about it before I go. I dislike having preconceptions about what I'm going to find. That said, I usually end up spending half a day in the English-language bookstores looking for books to read on the place once I'm there. This list should save you that trouble. By all means, read them before you go, but if you're like me, buy a few to take along to read once you've arrived in China.

  • 01 of 15

    All About China by Allison Branscombe

    all about china book review
    Courtesty of Tuttle Publishing

    Allison Branscombe's All About China is a great primer for kids who may be about to embark on a family trip to China or whose families might be moving to China. Filled with good bits of history and culture it's a good starting point to introduce China to children. Read more.


  • 02 of 15

    Studying in China by Patrick McAloon

    Image courtesy of Tuttle Publishing. All rights reserved.

    Patrick McAloon's Studying in China is a very good resource for people who will move to China for a week or a year to study Chinese. With good first-time visitor information for anyone coming to China, travelers may find it useful as well. Read more.


  • 03 of 15
    shanghai future book cover
    Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

    If you live in Shanghai or have spent a lot of time here and have a lot of questions relating to "why", like "why are all the building so spread out in Pudong but not in Puxi?" and "where have all the street food vendors gone?", you might enjoy Anna Greenspan's book about the future of this city. Read more.


  • 04 of 15

    Xinjiang: A Traveler's Guide to Far West China

    xinjiang travel guide
    Photo by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.

    If you will be traveling to Xinjiang then you must read this book. I used this book extensively when planning my own travel there and with the digital version, carried with me everywhere when we were there. I can't recommend a local guidebook more highly. Read more.

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  • 05 of 15

    Factory Girls

    Narrative reportage of life in Dongguan, China's "factory" to the world. The author hangs out with migrant women who come seeking their fortunes from all over China. It's an amazing window into real peoples' lives and makes you stop and think about the hands that put together your Nike shoes and Apple iPhone. Chang's own family narritive is slightly less interesting but the book is worth a read.

    Author: Leslie T. Chang

  • 06 of 15

    Fried Eggs with Chopsticks

    A more recent travelogue than Riding the Iron Rooster, Evans travels by rail and bus to interesting parts of China. A sole woman traveler, it's a good read if you're thinking about backpacking or traveling on your own.

    Author: Polly Evans

  • 07 of 15

    Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World

    While the author is a bit self-aggrandizing, this tale is an interesting one of China's minority cultures colliding with the modern day.

    Co-authors: Yang Erche Namu & Christine Mathieu

  • 08 of 15

    Mr. China

    The quintessential book on doing business in China. Anyone who is even thinking remotely about it should read Mr. China for the full scoop on how it is to do business with locals. It's a hilarious read, but should make you pause before you dive head-first into a business venture...while there are a billion customers there are at least as many headaches, or worse.

    Author: Tim Clissold

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  • 09 of 15

    Oracle Bones

    Fascinating interwoven tales of everyday people that the author meets and knows in China with stories of China's archeological history. One of the most readable accounts of China today I've come across.

    Author: Peter Hessler (Peter Hessler is my favorite China author. Read his books if you don't read any others about China.)

  • 10 of 15

    Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now

    A self-avowed Maoist and one of the first two foreign students allowed entry to China in 1972 to study at Beijing University, the author narrates a fascinating picture of how it was to be a student under Mao Zedong. She describes with wit her battle with her inner convictions to Mao Zedong Thought and the everyday craziness that went along with its implementation. She struggles for the “privilege” to join her worker-peasant-student classmates in hard labor both in the countryside and in machinery factories. And while she believes in the thought-reform that would come from such manual labor, she secretly eats imported sweets and celebrates on return to Beijing with a big meal at her favorite restaurant.

    Author: Jan Wong

  • 11 of 15

    Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China

    Join Mr. Theroux on his train journey throughout China in the late 1980s. This is a great introduction to travel in the different areas of China, although things have certainly gotten a lot easier since Mr. Theroux's journey.

    Author: Paul Theroux

  • 12 of 15

    Chasing the Monk's Shadow

    With one foot in the seventh century following Xuanzang, a Chinese monk who traveled from China to India visiting Buddhist holy sites, and the other foot in the twenty-first trailing Xuanzang's quest, Saran's travelogue is a spellbinding journey between historical storytelling and day-by-day travel.

    Author: Mishi Saran

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  • 13 of 15

    Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City

    A well-told history of Shanghai. This book really takes you down the laneways and into the opium dens of Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s.

    Author: Stella Dong

  • 14 of 15

    Wild Swans

    If there's one historical book to read to gain an understanding of modern China, this is the one. This book is available only in an edited (censored) version in mainland China due to its frank discussion of the Cultural Revolution.

    Author: Jung Chang

  • 15 of 15

    Carl Crow, a Tough Old China Hand: The Life, Times, and Adventures of an America

    Follow intrepid Crow from Missouri to Shanghai at the turn of the twentieth century and watch Shanghai change from a riverside village to the Paris of the East through his eyes.

    Mr. French is himself an old China hand and occasionally speaks about Carl Crow in Shanghai and abroad. Certainly try to catch one of his talks if you happen to be in town at the time.

    Author: Paul French

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