8 Great China Reads: A Primer on the Middle Kingdom

To the Chinese, the number 8 is a lucky number, as it carries with it a connotation of prosperity and higher status. In the spirit of chasing success, we’ve chosen eight great reads for anyone seriously considering a prolonged trip to the Middle Kingdom for study, work or enlightened tourism.

This collection offers a mishmash of useful reference materials, history, culture and enjoyable entertainment. We’ve selected this list based on our own past reading enjoyment and because we think any curious traveler might like a thoughtful approach to preparing for the unique experience that is China.

While nothing can prepare the average Westerner for life on the ground in mainland China, understanding some of the significant cultural and historical underpinnings of Chinese society provides the best base from which to start. Go forth and prosper.

1. Decoding China

Matthew B. Christensen

Billed as a “handbook for traveling, studying and working in today’s China,” this approximately 300-page reference is part travel guide, part cultural passport. Above all, Decoding China serves as an easy-to-digest instructional manual on how to get things done, whether you’re looking to build a business or just trying to order food. Rather than break China down geographically, as most travel guides do, this book instead divides up the material by functional areas relevant to the visitor’s intent. With chapters for living, communicating, eating, working or just surviving the culture shock, there are handy tidbits for travelers looking to maximize their time and experience in the country. With a slew of helpful “behind the scenes” sections, Decoding China provides on the ground insights that are invaluable getting by.

2. Chinese Business Etiquette

Scott D. Seligman

Focusing on the practical interactions among the people of China, Chinese Business Etiquette is a handbook for anyone traveling for professional reasons. Giving tips on social protocols, avoiding embarrassing social faux pas and interpreting behavior of ordinary Chinese, this book has been called a “must have carry-on item for business travelers heading to China.” Seligman uses his deep experience in Asia to explore not just how things are, but also why, giving readers solid advice for communications, culture and behaving politely and respectfully in a rapidly modernizing country where business is booming. With frequent updates, readers are presented an array of tools for dealing with the common, modern challenges of business between the Chinese and the West.

3. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

Peter Hessler

Widely regarded as one of the most illuminating and engaging reads for Western travelers in China, this award-winning story about the clash of new and old in modern China is recounted through the eyes of Hessler, a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher who spent two years in the 90s in Fuling, China, during a time of great social, economic and cultural upheaval. As one of the first Americans to set foot in this part of the country since before Mao’s revolution, Hessler had a front-row seat to one of the great societal transformations in human history, and he captures the experience with deft narrative writing.

4. The Search for Modern China

Jonathan Spence

This book is more for serious students of China, but it's chock full of interesting and useful background information that anyone planning to spend significant time in the country should at least attempt to understand. Written in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, this book impressively attempts to outline hundreds of years of history and distill the most impactful happenings of the past into what it means to China today. Written in an accessible way, Spence chronicles the experience of every level of Chinese society, from peasants to the ruling class, and offers glimpses into how they all fit together to create the identity of the Chinese people.

5. Confucius and the World He Created

Michael Schuman

The name says it all. No attempt to understand China can be achieved without an in-depth look at its most important and most well-known cultural icon and philosophical teacher. Born in 406 B.C.E., Confucius in many ways laid the groundwork for much of what we commonly recognize today as the essence of Chinese culture. With his emphasis on learning, patience and discipline, Confucius created the underpinnings of a philosophy that permeates not just China, but almost the entirety of East Asia. Examining both the bad and the good, this book gives a course on Confucian thought and how it is still relevant in China today.

6. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers

Xiaolu Guo

This list would not be complete without some contemporary fiction, and Guo provides it here in this acclaimed story of a Chinese woman’s trip to the West and her struggles to understand the cultural definition of love in a place far away and far different from the China of her past. Providing a reverse perspective, the story is both an enjoyable read and instructive for its insights into relationships between Chinese and modern Westerners. Making light especially of the challenges of language learning and communications, Guo weaves a thoughtful narrative around her unique cultural point of view and difficult path to comprehension in modern England.

7. The Man Who Loved China

Simon Winchester

Winchester is known for his history-based story-telling and this one is a worthy entry into this best-selling author’s collection. The tale follows Joseph Needham, an eccentric British scientist from Cambridge, who travels to China to unlock the secrets of China’s once world-defining scientific past. More a biography of an interesting man than a story of China itself, the story provides an excellent perspective on the great influence and innovation of Chinese thought, scholarship and discovery, a perspective that is often lost on modern observers who too often characterize Chinese innovation as rooted in emulation.

8. China: A History

John Keay

For hardcore history buffs, there is no better resource than this one. Arguably one of the most complete historical overviews of the country’s enormously rich 5,000-year history, this book gives excellent insight into the people, events and constant change that together created the country we know as China today. Covering everything from economics, religion, war, culture, politics and geography, the book spans 500 pages and wraps everything in an unbiased, third-party perspective, giving the ultimate historical foundation from which readers can draw to observe and react to Chinese culture and society.

Joey Campbell

As one hand of the co-founding tag team behind Internships In Asia, Joey is the resident talker, commentator and opinionator who gives voice to the site's perspective on all things international travel, education and...

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