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.
All About China by Allison Branscombe
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.
Studying in China by Patrick McAloon
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.
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.
Xinjiang: A Traveler's Guide to Far West China
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.
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
Fried Eggs with Chopsticks
A more recent travelogue thanRiding the Iron Rooster
Author: Polly Evans
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
The quintessential book on doing business in China. Anyone who is even thinking remotely about it should readMr. China
Author: Tim Clissold
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.)
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Author: Paul French