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Recommended Reading on Chinese History + Culture

Recommended Reading on Chinese History + Culture

Old Mar 1st, 2005, 07:46 PM
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Recommended Reading on Chinese History + Culture

I'll be traveling to China in a month and would like to brush up on my Chinese history and culture before I leave.

What are some recommended books on the subject? Unfortunately, I only have time to read one or two, so just the best suggestions will do. I would prefer to have something that covers a portion of history (kind of like history textbooks) as opposed to the telling of a particular story.

Oh, and if there are any recommended films as well, please do share.

Thanks so much!
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Old Mar 2nd, 2005, 12:14 AM
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The Good Earth (Pearl S Buck) and Dream of the Red Chamber (Cao Xueqin) are classic books about China. The Art of War (Sun Tzu) is another classic written in something like the 15th century that has application even today. Going through my bookshelf, here are a few more suggestions:

Hong Kong, by Jan Morris. If you are going to Hong Kong, read this before any other book. I believe she has either updated or written another book which came out just about the time of the handover in 1997 (or reunification to be politically correct).

Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang - fascinating story of the Soong family and the three sisters, all educated at Wesleyan College in the US in the early 1900's. One married Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai Shek, one married a Chinese finance minister.

Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng - one woman's true story of life during the Cultural Revolution

The Soong Sisters, by Emily Hahn - also about the Soong sisters

Tai Pan, James Clavell. Almost a classic, thinly fictionalized story of the Jardine Fleming empire started in Hong Kong in the 19th century. His book about the Chiangi POW camp in Singapore during WWII is also excellent.

Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth, edited by Barbara Sue-White. This is a collection of letters and stories by others (Queen Victoria, Rudyard Kipling, WH Auden) which tells the history of the Hong Kong over several hundred years. Also has some interesting photos of old Hong Kong.

On a Chinese Screen; The Painted Veil, by Somerset Maugham. The first is a collection of short stories about life as he encountered it in China in the 1930s. The other book opens in Hong Kong in the 1920s, the balance of the story takes place in a small Chinese village. Somerset Maugham has written extensively about SE Asia, you can find collections of his short stories in most bookshops. He focuses more on Malaysia, Singapore and the Indonesian islands.

Falling Leaves; Chinese Cinderella, by Adeline Yen Mah. Compelling autobiographies of a Chinese woman born into a wealthy family in Shanghai the 1930s who, being a girl, was unwanted.

Sterling Seagrave has written a number of non-fiction books about China and Asia which make very interesting reading. The Soong Dynasty and Dragon Lady are two very good ones.

Robert Elegant has written a number of fiction and non-fiction books on Hong Kong and Asia. His most popular fiction book is "Dynasty", he has also written a book called "Mandarin". I have not read either. I have read some of his non-fiction including "Pacific Destiny: Inside Asia Today" which I found very interesting and well-written, but might be dated at this point. You might search to see if he has updated it. He has also written a book called Last Year in Hong Kong which came out in 1997 and is presumably about the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC.

There is also a website which lists the above and other books on China, take a look at http://www.travelintelligence.net/ws...yplce_151.html

Finally, there is a series of books called "Culture Shock" on virtually every nation, including China. While not a guidebook, they are a very helpful description of culture and customs in each country.

Movies on China:
The Last Emperor
The Joy Luck Club
Raise the Red Lantern (Mandarin with English subtitles)
The Oilmaker's Wife (Mandarin, with English subtitles)
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (Mandarin, with English subtitles)

Of the films, I think Raise the Red Lantern would be the most interesting in terms of seeing life in a rich Chinese houselold in the early 20th century. Last Emperor is also good for background on the beginnings of modern China.
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Old Mar 2nd, 2005, 01:45 AM
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Hi: I'm also spending nearly every free minute doing the same. First, I got a couple of Modern History Series from local library (about High School level, easy to read/lots of pics, giving an overview. Then went on to others: Awakening China-John Fitzgerald; A Great Wall-Patrick Tyler (6 Presidents & China); Sextants of Beijing-Joanna Waley-Cohen; The Courage to Stand Alone-Wei Jingshen;The Morning Deluge-Han Suyin. All from library. Am saving own copies of "Wild Swans" and "Mao's Last Dancer"-Li Cunxin for in-flight reading. A backup easy Oz in-flight read is "Benign or Imperial" from the Boyer Lectures 2003 by Owen Harries ISBN 0-7333-1349-3. The net is a good source via History/China and can print sections of interest. Also good for timelines.
Of course, once you start it is hard to stop, as you need to see the position of China in the world at a particular time in history.
Us also going in a month and having done some reading I will look at China with new eyes. All the best.
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Old Mar 2nd, 2005, 04:28 AM
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If you are going on the Yangtze Cruise, I highly recommend River Town: 2 Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. It is a fascinating account of what life is like on the small villages that you will be passing.

For a readable history of China from 1600, The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence is a good choice.
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Old Mar 2nd, 2005, 04:53 AM
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By far the best book for history is Spence's Search for Modern China.
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Old Mar 2nd, 2005, 01:24 PM
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My vote for a must read is Wild Swans. It is fascinating.Also read Legacies by Bette Bao Lord but Wild Swans is better. Currently reading River Town.
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Old Mar 2nd, 2005, 01:41 PM
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"Wild Swans" is my very favorite book about China. It describes the lives of three gnerations of women in one Chinese family -- one a concubine during the Qing dynasty; her daughter, a freedom fighter during the people's rebellion; and her granddaugher,a member of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. After reading what these women went through, I can only wonder what gave them (and thousands of other Chinese women) the strength to survive. They are remarkable stories that provide a wealth of insight into the history and culture of China during the past one hundred years.
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Old Mar 2nd, 2005, 02:11 PM
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Wow, what a great post! Cicerone, as always, thanks for the comprehensive list and information. I'm in the process of reading Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng and it's so interesting.

Also on my reading list are The Chinese in America and The Rape of Nanking, two books by Iris Chang who died tragically recently.

On a related note, does anyone have suggestions for Chinese magazines? I'm familiar with China Today, China Pictorial, Beijing Today, China Travel & Tourism, etc...and am looking for other publications to keep informed about what's going on in China.
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Old Mar 2nd, 2005, 05:12 PM
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Great book suggestions! I'd like to add Peking Story by David Kidd, which is about living as a foreigner in Beijing during the 1940s... he marries into a wealthy Chinese family and lives in their enormous Beijing mansion.

Wild Swans is not about the Soong sisters, but is a memoir that traces three-generations in the author's (Jung Chang) family.

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Old Mar 2nd, 2005, 10:21 PM
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If you have only time to read one or two books, then Cicerone's "Culture Shock" book is good. Jonathan Spence's mighty tome on Modern China is really not a quickie intro; however, I would recommend that you read his much more readable volume on the Emperor Kang-hsi, a beautifully written book which will give you a good idea of a great Manju emperor. When you visit Beijing, you will have a much greater appreciation for the places that you visit if you read this "autobiography" of the Emperor.

"Wild Swans" is a good choice also.

Jan Morris is one of today's great travel writers and a most gracious person.

Two other books, also contemporaneous, are:

"The River at the Center of the World" (about his travels along the entire length of the Yangtze River) by Simon Winchester (who wrote "The Professor and the Madman&quot and

"Spring Winds of Beijing" by Gail Copeland. This is a fascinating account by an American woman studying in Beijing in 1989 and becoming an eyewitness to the Tienanmen Incident.

If you are a murder mystery fan, then try Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee stories, which have been reprinted. van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat in China, wrote original mysteries alleged occurring during the Tang dynasty and based on an actual historic character, Judge Dee.

When you get really interested in China and have the time, try any of the translations of Chinese literature by Arthur Waley, whose translations are not only accurate but very beautiful.

Enjoy! Reading about China can be fun and not at all a chore.
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Old Mar 3rd, 2005, 02:39 AM
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I loved "Wild Swans" too. One book that I don't think has been mentioned that made a big impression on me is "Real China: from cannibalism to karaoke" by John Gittings. I read it almost 10 years ago and of course things have moved on - I just remember it covering a wide range of different aspects of the country. Definitely worth dipping into.

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Old Mar 3rd, 2005, 06:02 AM
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Once again..thanks everyone for the reading tips...even though I didn't post the request. Cicerone, you have been so helpful and willing to give lots of information. The gal's response to your cruising reply blew me away. (and by the way, you're right on. Cruising Glacier Bay in Alaska was a blast..but S.E.Asia or Europe?) Guess their travel intent is different. That's ok, but no exucuse to be rude. Please keep the information coming! Your advice for one person may suit another.
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Old Mar 11th, 2005, 01:09 PM
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"My Country and My People" by Lin Yu Tang is a must read. It gives you a great sense of the land and its people. It's a classic, therefore it's surprising how few people read this book.

The book was written prior to the formation of the Cummunist regime, but it gives you a sense of the Chinese mind, the philosophy, the tradition. I still remember reading his description of a Northern Chinese vs. a Southern Chinese. And it helps to explain why the Chinese are the way they are today.

You can find this book on Amazon. I would recommend reading before you leave for China, but come to think of it, reading this afterwards, would help you get more out of your trip.

Hope this helps!

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Old Mar 26th, 2005, 06:58 PM
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Before we went I read Mandate of Heaven-The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China's Leaders by Orville Schell. The insights I gained from this book allowed me to see China in a way I never would have if not having read it. It has also allowed me a perspective on current events which expands my understanding. Another book I enjoyed was River Town--Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler.
You might find my report and photos worth looking at as you prepare your journey. http://www.janeandken.com/travelmemories.html Just navigate to China.
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Old Mar 26th, 2005, 07:11 PM
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Iron and Silk is an interesting book written by Mark Salzman. It's about his experiences in China teaching English.

I went through a period where I read many, many books about China but I don't remember the names of most of them. what I did was go to the library and look in for books on China that were not strictly travel guides. The Boxer Rebellion was an interesting subject as is pretty much anything about the cultural revolution if it's well written.

If your video store has a decent foreign film section check out movies as well. Raise the Red Lantern is good, but there are many others and to be honest with you, I can't remember the names of the others either! There was a good one about a family that owned a fireworks factory, anyone know the one I am thinking of?
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Old Apr 16th, 2005, 08:37 AM
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I am reading "Wild Swans" and I will be leaving for China very soon. Does anyone know if I can bring the book into China? The author wrote in her prologue of the new edition that the book is banned in China. I certainly don't want to get in trouble.
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