An old saying suggests that those who have been in China for a
day, write a book; those who stayed for a month, write a
page, while those who stayed longer find it all too complex to
explain. Due to this complexity, no single book can provide the
definitive guide to China. The good news, however, is that some
'Old China Hands' have defied the conventional wisdom and wrote
a book reflecting their personal experiences and views.
In my view, China may
best be approached like the infamous five blind men approaching
the elephant - everyone explored a part and together they obtain
a reasonable image. Thus, I recommend to read around the topic -
read history and autobiographies, economic studies and novels,
especially by local authors. Here are a few books that I enjoyed
in recent years :
I am not a great fan of 'Doing Business In' books, yet the
following books provide rounded insights into business in Asia,
and China in particular.
China Entrepreneur: Voices of Experience
from 40 International Business Pioneers,
by Juan Antonio Fernandez and Laurie Underwood, published by
This book systematically reviews all aspects
of doing business in China for foreign businesses, while
providing hands on experience and anecdotes and short case
studies. The authors are a professor and a journalist, and the
book brings out the best of both professions by being both
systematic and accessible. Empirically, the book is grounded in
fairly detailed interviews with 40 entrepreneurs.
The focus is on an unusual sort of
international business, individuals who set up their own
entrepreneurial business in China. They thus operate like a
Chinese entrepreneur, yet coming from the outside with all the
advantages (e.g. international linkages) and disadvantages (e.g.
lack of local guanxi) that come with it. While challenging, it
is possible, as all these entrepreneurs have a track record of
The hands-on character of the book is at its
best when tackling sensitive issues, where generalizations are
difficult. Fernandez and Underwood let their interviewees do the
talking, relaying very rich experiences that they had in dealing
with local business partners, employees, and authorities. There
overall message is one of optimism "it can be done - if you know
what fallacies to avoid". For example in the chapter on "Ethics
and Corruption", they tell stories of individuals who have been
(or felt) cheated at some stage, but have learned their lessons,
and prevailed. The authors draw their own suggested lessons, but
the best preparation for a diverse and unpredictable environment
may be to know a lot of stories to be recalled when facing a
by Barbara Xiaoyu Wang and Harold Chee, published by Palgrave
With the accelerated inflow of
expatriates into China, writing books about business in China is
a flourishing business where it is difficult to say something
new. The authors of this book have worked extensively as coaches
to foreigners working in China, or preparing for an expat
assignment, and thus have a lot of hands-on experience to talk
about the cultural differences that leaders face.
However, they start with a brief excursion
into Chinese history and philosophy which provides some of the
intellectual reference points that the later discussion is based
upon. On this basis they summarize how businesses in China are
led - offering interesting observations on the differences
between state, private and foreign-owned companies (Chapter 5).
Other key differences that Westerners tend to struggle with
include the nature of interactions within organizational
hierarchies, and the problems facing task delegation in a
Chinese context (in addition to the well-known issues around
networks [guanxi] and face [mianzi]).
Overall, I found quite a few insightful
observations in this book. It is however - as most
practice-oriented books on culture - making quite a lot of
generalizations. That is unavoidable unless one wants to write
an academic study with lots of 'ifs' and 'buts', but it is a
limitation that readers have to be aware off. It depends how you
use the book: Good managers use stereotypes or generalizations
from books as starting point for their own experiential
learning, but abandon or revise them based on their own
experience. If used in this way, this book is likely to be
helpful to many aspiring expats.
KFC in China:
Secret Recipe for Success, by Warren K
Liu, published by Wiley in 2008.
KFC is one of the biggest success stories of
foreign investors conquering Chinese consumers, exploiting the
appeal of American fast food, yet becoming more Chinese than
most - what they call 'An American brand with Chinese
characteristics. Globally KFC may be trailing McDonald, but in
China KFC is undisputed #1 in this segment. Warren Liu was part
of this success story for a few years in the late 1990s, and now
tells the story partly as insider who recalls how it happened,
and partly as outsider with the distance that allows for
critical reflection. The book is still written with the positive
spin that business people like to give to their stories, not the
critical analysis an academic might deploy, but even so it
provides many insights as to what works and what does not work
The 'secret recipe' had been to find
innovative ways of being both global and local at the same time.
KFC was one of the first to enter China, and it made this
pioneering spirit the core of its philosophy driving to ever
more cities and towns across China. Perhaps most critical at an
early stage was to bring together people with both fast-food and
China expertise - mostly from Taiwan - to build operations that
fit China with its idiosyncratic and rapidly changing consumers
and government relationships. Emphasizing the development of
people, and empowering them to develop solutions that fit the
local context allowed KFC to grow faster, build a brand highly
valued by Chinese consumers, and be more profitable than KFC
elsewhere in the world. This book provides a very accessible
account of how they achieved it, while providing insights of
what happens 'behind the stage' of a fast food restaurant chain.
400 Million Customers,
by Carl Crow, published in 1937;
republished by Earnshaw Books in 2008.
Business seems always changing, yet some
things remain the same, or even come back after they lay
dormant for generation. This book, written by an 'old China
hand' in 1937, provides a glimpse of Chinese business and
culture through the eyes of an advertising agent, who worked (and
made lot of money) in Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s,
introducing Western goods to Chinese consumers. Advertising
agents observe potential consumers much like an anthropologist
would, though with more mercurial objectives. Educated as a journalist, Carl Crow
writes about his experience in a lively way, providing wonderful
insights in the Shanghai of the 1930s.
Naturally this leads to reflections over the
continuity and discontinuity of culture - and business culture
in particular. In some ways Shanghai 2010 is more like Shanghai
1930 than Shanghai 1970. Yet, in other ways, Shanghai seems to
have changed for good - for example the constant haggling over
price is still a popular past time, but taxis and shopping mall
work with fixed prices. But many Shanghai women today may still
fit this description (p.19): they "discovered many
centuries ago that, if they would make themselves attractive
enough, their husbands would willingly employ servants to do the
cooking and scrubbing" [which was the job of the typical
American housewife of the time].
More on business, and of great concern to
contemporary business is the observation (p.80): "Because he is
always an individualist it is not easy for a Chinese to fit
comfortably into a big business organization. He feels at home
in a small one, for that is more or less a family affair...". I
believe Crow is right to characterize Chinese as individualistic
with strong loyalty to family and other relationships - very
much in contrast to the assertion by management guru Geert
Hofstede who categorized them as collectivists.
As a bonus, Crow offers in chapter 18 and
succinct comparison of British and American export managers
("John Bull and Uncle Sam") flogging their produce in Shanghai.
Business: A Guide for Managers Worldwide,
Ming-Jer Chen, published by Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
is probably the most insightful early book on Chinese businesses that
I have read. Ming-Jer Chen aims to explain how Chinese people
conduct their business, discussing in particular cultural
aspects that are often hard to comprehend for their Western
counterparts. He thus outlines his understanding of, for
example, family business, guanxi networks, face-saving
communications. His main focus is overseas Chinese business groups from
Indonesia to Singapore and Taiwan.
is less coverage of
Mainland China than the title might suggest, where probably most
change has happened since the publication of the book. Yet,
there are important communalities in the culture that make this
book worthwhile for business travelers heading for Beijing
or Shanghai. The author is a highly regarded US business scholar
with roots in Taiwan,
but this book is aimed at business
persons looking for a not-overly-complex introduction
to Chinese business culture and, possibly, insights from Chinese
management practice that are relevant beyond Asia.
China's Management Revolution: Spirit, Land,
Energy, by Charles-Edouard Bouée,
published by Palgrave, 2011.
This book advances the central hypothesis that
China economic advance experienced a fundamental shift in the
year 2008. From 1978 to 2008, the author argues, China has
essentially tried to emulate the American model of capitalism,
see it as a means to overcome its own economic backwardness.
Yet, in 2008n three events happened that changed the way Chinese
people - and their government in particular - view the world and
themselves. Firstly, the Sichuan earthquake which was handled by
the authorities in a relatively mature manner, second, the
Olympic Games in Beijing which demonstrated to Chinese people
themselves their coming off age, and, third, the world financial
crisis which undermined the role model function of
Anglo-American capitalism. In consequence, China has become less
likely to adopt lessons from the USA (let alone listen to them),
and more focused on developing its indigenous approaches to
developing its economy. This is a very important hypothesis,
and, if correct, the consequences for the world economy are both
profound and hard to foresee.
The hypothesis is outlined in chapter 2. The
rest of the book, however, while generally knowledgeable about
China, did not tell me many new insights. The author does not
discuss the consequences of his important hypothesis. Moreover,
I got very irritated by his US-centric way of interpreting
China. For example, he calls the 1978-2008 period "The American
Experiment", and constantly refers to the US as the only
relevant version of capitalism (except for a brief remark in the
penultimate chapter on page 162). In my understanding, the
Chinese authorities have always been highly selective when it
came to adopting imported ideas, and they have been looking at
the experience of more than one other country. While such
US-centric may be sadly common among Harvard MBA graduates of
that generation, I kept wondering how a leader in world-famous
consultancy with responsibility for France, Belgium and North
Africa - and a French name - can fail to realize that there is
more than one version of capitalism in this world?
Silicon Dragon: How China is Winning the Tech
Race, by Rebecca Fannin, published by McGrawHill, 2008.
This is a book about entrepreneurship that
happens to take place in China. Journalist
has interviewed IT entrepreneurs in China, and talked to their
business partners and industry insiders, to tell the story of 12
remarkable individuals striving to build a new business. The
experiences have a lot in common with IT entrepreneurship
elsewhere, for instance in Silicon Valley: inventive engineers
with ambitious ideas and big money slashing around - yet whether
the business models will eventually generate rich returns for
the entrepreneurs, or yet another technology changes the path of
history, is often hard to predict.
This book has little to say about
China-specific issues, which is also its main message: China is
rapidly converging with the West, both technologically and in
terms of how capitalism works. Fannin asked her interviewees
about issues such as the tenuous relationship between businesses
and the party, and censorship, but her respondents suggest that
it is a non-issue: tech savvy internet surfers appear to know
how to get around the 'firewall' (are you sure?). However, in
passing she makes another important observation: Chinese
entrepreneurs in their 30s and 40s lack role models at home, but
are rapidly becoming role models for the next generation of wizz
Rebecca Fannin is also blogging for the
Huffington Post on IT entrepreneurship in China, and has a
with IT news from China.
The Economist ran a story on the same topic
suggesting that consumer behaviour on the internet in China is
developing its own characteristics, which leads to differences
in the business models that internet business develop, and
provides local firms an advantage over local competitors: The
with Chinese Characteristics, July 30.
(Auto-)Biographies: Western Perspectives
are often the richest and most practical avenue to build an
understanding, provided they are written with a healthy degree
of humility and self-reflection. China is changing so rapidly
that some may dismiss the relevance of past decades. Yet, the
past informs peoples' views of the world, and their perception
of the presence. Older autobiographic stories thus complement
The Man who Loved China: The Fantastic
Story of the Eccentric Scientist who Unlocked the Mysteries of
the Middle Kingdom, by Simon Winchester, published by
HarperCollins, New York. 2008.
1937, Joseph Needham fell in love with with a Chinese women,
then with the Chinese language and eventually with China itself.
He was a distinguished scholar in Cambridge, who even at young
age had distinguished himself in the field of embryology. Yet,
an encounter with a Chinese colleague changed the path of his
scholarly endeavors, and in 1943 he found himself in Chongching
in the most unlikely circumstances. The Japanese had occupied
most of China, Chongching was the capital of the nationalist
government of Chiang Kai-chek, and life was hard for everyone in
free China as well as in the occupied territories.
In these circumstances, Needham's scientific
ambitions led him on a scholarly travel adventure to some remote
corners of the country. His ambition was to prove to the world
that for centuries, China had been creating many scientific
inventions well before Europeans, let alone Americans. He
collected records from historical sources and from Chinese
scholars, that became the basis for his epic 24-volume work "Science
and Civilisation in China" (Cambridge University Press,
1954-2004). Simon Winchester tells the story of this remarkable
man, and through his eyes reports life in China in the middle
of the 20th century, and in centuries before. The book is
immensely readable and makes the reader think - not just about
China's past and future, but about the sometimes surprising
pathways of scientific inquiry.
Go Gently through Peking, by Lois Fisher, first
published by Souvenir Press, London, 1979. (In the US, it was
published as "A Peking Diary" 1980; I read the German
translation "Alltag in Peking" published by Fischer TB)
In 1973, few foreigners were allowed into China. As one of
the first Western journalists, Gerd Ruge reported for German
television from Beijing
during Mao's final years. His American wife, Lois Fisher, joined
him and had to organize their lives under tight official
restrictions and poor general living conditions. Her
autobiographic report tells of the joys and frustrations of live
in Beijing - from finding a flat to live, to shopping where
Westerners had not ventured before. She makes friends with
Chinese people and provides insights in their lives that
official reports - even journalists - can rarely capture. Her
story culminates in the events surrounding Mao's funeral, and
the dawn of a new time. Reading this autobiography three decades
later, one can only be amazed of the transformation that Beijing
has gone through since that time - not only in high profile business and
politics, but in
everyday lives. For example, bicycles have been replaced but cars -
creating traffic jams unimaginable in 1973.
China nach dem Sturm
(China after the Storm), by Klaus Mehnert, published by
DVA Stuttgart, 1971; Published in English by Dutton as "China
"Until recently, China was almost as unknown as the moon", Klaus
Mehnert writes in his introduction in 1971. Hard to imagine today,
China was entirely closed to foreigners during the Cultural
Revolution, and Mehnert was one of the first foreigner to
receive a visa and the permission to travel across the country.
Yet, this was not his first visit to China; he had visited it
several times from 1929 to 1957, and spend World War II as
university teacher in Shanghai. He was an established scholar of
the socialist countries when he took off for a month-long visit
in 1971. The account of his journey provides a unique immediacy
of experiences, observations and conversations with people with
and without power. They are set in the context of the evolution
of the socialist regime under Mao Tse-Tung (who was still alive),
including the Great Leap Forward, the centrally coordinated
push for industrialization, and the Cultural Revolution.
Business Republic of China: Tales from the Front Line
of China's New Revolution, by Jack Leblanc, published by
Blacksmith Books, Hong Kong, 2008.
The publisher presents this as a business book,
but in my view it is foremost an autobiography - and therein
lies its main value. The author has lived in China since the early 1990s, and
got involved in a variety of business activities. He writes
about his experiences in a series of anecdotes telling the
stories ranging from his facilitating business negotiations,
advising joint ventures that failed, riding the internet bubble
to helping out friends. His perspective is often close to the
local partner in the businesses, and thus provides insights on
what those 'barbarian' foreigners did wrong in the eyes of their Chinese
partners. The book provides rich insights in the practical sites of
doing business, including the wining-and-dining aspects of it. The
author offers occasional suggestions to those wishing to follow
his footsteps, yet for most parts readers can form their own
opinion of the lively stories unfolding before them.
Chinese people recounting their own live provide not only
insights the practicalities of live in China in the recent past,
but in the Chinese ways of thinking. Often, I found the most
interesting biographical stories to be written by Chinese who
eventually settled outside China, and thus write in a way that
makes their experiences accessible to Western readers.
The Good Women of China
and Miss Chopsticks
by Xinran, translated by Esther Tyldesley, published in 2002 and
2007 by Random House.
The Good Women of China
and Miss Chopsticks are
like yin and yang; neither is complete without the other, either
one alone would remain unbalanced. The Good Women of China
is one of the most depressing books I have ever read; it gives
voice to women who could not talk about their lives in a
repressed society, until a late-night radio host listened,
recorded and collected their stories. Many lives were touched,
if not destroyed, by the cultural revolution and its side
effects. The short stories are true stories recorded by the
author during her work as a journalist.
Miss Chopsticks sets an optimistic tone for a
new generation of country girls who succeed in the city life.
Woven into the tale of three girls are subtle descriptions of
Nanjing and its people. Their story illustrates more than
scholarly work ever could how wide the gulf is between city and
country in China even today. Pictures and TV provide nice
images, yet only a book can convey the differences in hearts and
personal homepage, and The Economist's
recommendation of her latest book "China
Witness" (2008) which is based on interviews with the older
generation of Chinese.
Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the
Soul of a New China, by Philip P. Pan, published by Simon &
As Journalist for the Washington Post in
Beijing, Philip Pan recorded stories of people who stood up and
suffered under the Chinese communist party. Most of the stories
explore periods of Chinese history that are many Chinese still
feel uncomfortable discussing, or in fact know little about,
including the rightist movement and the Great Leap Forward in
the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s as well as the
events surrounding the Tian-An Men protests of 1989. A central
chapter introduces the life of Lin Zhao, a female Peking
University student who was imprisoned during the anti-rightist
movement in the 1950s and executed in 1965. Pan brings her live
alive through the eyes of Hu Jie, a passionate documentary film maker
who for five years collected information about her life, traced
down and interviewed people who had known her, and gradually
pieced together her
life, and personality, and eventually distributed his documentary
film through informal channels.
Pan's American-style journalism with
sensationalist terminology, and the weaving of interpretations
with reports of the people portrayed sometimes confused me
whether the book is telling the views of the journalist, or of
his interviewees. Yet, this stylistic concern not-withstanding,
this book brings to life the lives of people whose history
deserves not to be forgotten, even though telling it may still be painful as
many of the scares of the violence decades ago have not healed
yet. The author has his own
accompany the book.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung
Chang, first published by Simon and Schuster in 1991.
A young Chinese American women explores her heritage and her
identity through conversations with her grandmother, who grew up
in pre revolutionary (i.e. pre-1912) China and only late in live
joined her daughter and granddaughter in the USA. This
three-generational autobiography provides a unique glimpse
especially in the live of the generation who lived and suffered
through China's turbulent 20th century.
This book has become a worldwide bestseller, and has its own
Fiction: Novels and Short Stories
I like to read novels and short stories as
complement to more factual sources of information because they
can convey much better than an academic study could the
atmosphere, and the feeling, anxieties and beliefs of
individuals. Some of the books in this section helped me a lot
to understand how Chinese people might think and feel about
Distant Star, by Barbara Bickmore, published by
Ballentine Books in 1993. (I read the German version "Ein
Ferner Stern in China" published by Knaur).
This is a novel, that
provides rich inside into the
complex of modern Chinese history that is hard to understand for outsiders, or even for
Chinese themselves. This novel takes the reader on a tour of
China that starts in the Shanghai of the 1920s when the
fictitious heroine lands as wife of a journalist. She lives in
China for the next decades, encounters ordinary people and
writes about her daily life. The novel shows how life in China
used to be, and how it has changed under the pressure of
historical events. The heroine becomes friends with Madame Sun,
wife of Sun Yat-Sen, and interviews many other personalities of
historical importance. These encounters happen only in the
authors imagination, but they paint a vivid picture of China at
the time, describing the atmosphere during the historical
events. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though the last chapter
can be skipped without loss.
The Bridegroom, by Ha Jin, published by Vintage
International, New York in 2000.
This collection of short stories provides lively insights in
the lives of ordinary Chinese people in the early years of
economic reform. These stories provide fascinating insights in
the complex webs of relationships in private life and the work
place, embedded in Chinese culture and the pervasive influence
of the communist party. My favorite story is "After Cowboy
Chicken Came to Town", which tells the fast food revolution in
provincial China from the perspective of an ordinary worker
struggling to believe their luck of earning more than his
accomplished father, yet unable to understand how the business
works, and why they do what they do. While scholars explore the
cultural shock experienced by Western expatriates in China, this
vivid story illuminates the culture shock of facing an
expatriate in your own company.
Character Dancer, by Xiaolang Qiu, published by Hodder
A crime novel set in
Shanghai in the early 1990s. In some ways, Inspector Chen
resembles famous characters of British crime novels like
Inspector Morse or Hercule Poirot. Yet, solving a crime in China
is not as straight forward as in Britain as forces unknown are
lurking in the background, some political, some criminal.
In this story, Inspector Chen is joined by a
female U.S. officer searching for a missing women whom she is to
take to the US to help a crime investigation there. Jointly, the
exchange poetry, plenty of rich food, with a bit of romance is
hanging in the air. Qiu manages to subtly integrate descriptions
of life in Shanghai in the story, which provides not only with a
gripping crime novel, but a vivid introduction to the
multifaceted life in Shanghai in the early 1990s - a time so
recent but already history.
The Uninvited, by Geling Yan, published by Faber in
Set in Beijing at the turn of the millennium, this novel
shows China from the perspective of someone who did part-take in
the rapid economic boom and tries to enter through a backdoor:
Pretending to be a journalist, he joins banquets where the
nouveaux riche aim to impress
journalists and other mortals. Yet in this bright new world, he
also encounters the trappings of a society with rapidly changing
its rules, and sometimes with apparently no rules at all. Others
left behind see him as a means to publicize their plight, and
thus he travels through various undercurrents of Beijing's
diversity society. The novel exposes failings of modern Chinese
society, with the novelist's liberty to exaggerate, it may be a
bit scary for those not yet familiar with China. It does however
introduce readers to the riches of Chinese cuisine, which may
delight some and disturb others.
Reading about a country's history is always
worthwhile if you aim to understand its people, their
aspirations and their mental baggage. In China this is
particularly complex as many people are reluctant to talk about
the recent past (1950s to 1970s), and my students seem often
blissfully unaware of the grandparents life experience. On the
other hand, certain much earlier periods are glorified, yet
rarely critically reflected in China itself. Thus, Western
sources often provide more differentiated perspectives.
On China, by Henry
A. Kissinger, published by Allen Lane, 2011 (Paperback, Penguin,
Henry Kissinger is both a highly acclaimed
political scientist, and a has been a pivotal player in
U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations in the 1970s. His combination
of deep scholarly knowledge and practical experience in
diplomacy are integrated in this book, probably on of the best
contemporary books explaining Chinese history and politics to
About one third of the book is dedicated to
explaining how Chinese, especially Chinese leaders, see their
own history and hence the role of China in the global society.
Historically, China saw itself at the centre of the world, and
as the most advanced economy: At its peak in the late 18th
century it probably accounted for a quarter for worldwide GDP.
From this perspective, the decline of the 19th and 20th century
is an anomaly; hence most Chinese leaders over recent decades
see their rightful place on par with the big powers. Kissinger
artfully outlines Chinese history form this perspective,
skillfully outlining the broad lines without getting stuck on
From 1970, Kissinger was deeply involved in
establishing diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China,
including a secret visit in 1971 preparing president Nixon's
historic visit in 1972. In this book, he recounts his
conversations and the diplomatic thinking of the Nixon
administration that led to those historical events, and a tacit
(though never formalized) alliance between socialist China and
capitalist America against their common foe, the Soviet Union.
For the latter parts of the book, Kissinger interprets world
politics since that time to the present day in light of both
Chinese history and the events of the 1970s.
Reading of the cold war period today, it
appears that the diplomacy between the superpowers was primarily
concerned with preventing any one of the three (Soviet Union,
China, U.S.A.) to assume hegemony beyond their region, or to
'encircle' the other, but paid negligible attention to the
national interests (or human rights) of smaller nations. Treated
like pawns in someone else's game, they obviously weren't happy
- and more than once 'when elephants dance grass got trampled',
in this case especially in Korea and Vietnam. Unfortunately,
Kissinger does not nearly display as deep understanding of
Vietnamese history than of Chinese history.
de Shanghai, by Marie-Claire Bergère, published by Librairie
Arthème Fayard in 2001 - English translation by Janet LLoyd "Shanghai:
China's Gateway to Modernity", published Standford
University Press, 2009.
Shanghai is a buzzing place
for business, culture and sometimes politics - yet in the long
history of China it is a relative newcomer. Before becoming a
'treaty port' in the treaty of Nanjing in 1842, it was a minor
city on a secondary river in the Yellow River delta. Yet with
the establishment of foreign the concessions (de facto
extra-territorial areas), Shanghai became a magnet for
adventurous minds, attracting business people and crooks,
military and paupers. Shanghai became a city of immigrants - not
just foreigners (who were a small minority, after all) but from
migrants from all parts of China, many retaining their distinct
languages and social networks over decades - and controlling
specific trade. Throughout the 19th century and up to the 1930s,
this dynamic mix of people has been the driving force of
economic modernization and social change, being far more outward
looking than the rest of China (and thus often see with distrust
by more traditional provinces).
All this economic dynamism,
multicultural interface and international trade came to a
crashing end with the Japanese occupation in the 1930s and
1940s. In the heyday of communist central control, Shanghai was
distrusted by the leaders and sidelines. Only in the 1990s did
Shanghai gain connect to its history as an outward looking,
business driven city.
Bergère traces the history from
the 1840s to the 1990s, uncovering details, diversity and
underlying trends that few Westerners (and probably many
Chinese) are not aware off. She gives due credit to the
diversity of groups, including the subtle differences between
the French Concession and the International (i.e. British &
American) Concession, as you would expect from a French author.
The book provides interesting background for those trying to
understand contemporary Shanghai - and China in general.
One quibble: the book cover of the
English version shows the contemporary Shanghai skyline with its
skyscrapers, yet the 'histoire' covered in the book does
not cover the period when they were build.
Shanghai Splendor: Economic Sentiments and
the Making of Modern China 1843-1949,
by Wen-Hsin Yeh, published by University of California Press,
a history professor at University of California, Berkeley, takes
a more analytical and interpretative approach to explore the
evolution of Chinese society in Shanghai over 100 years. She
studies in great detail the social structures and their
evolution in the city, and in some exemplary companies such as
Bank of China. Changes in workplaces that come with 'modern' and
urban patterns of work affected all aspects of life, including
notably the shift from large families to urban 2 child families.
Yeh makes extensive use of local newspaper
archives, exploring especially the letters section, to elicit
insights on the changing social structures, and the personal
dilemmas that individuals in all parts of society faced. The
roaring 1930s brought great opportunities, high life, and the
import of Western products and ideas, but it was also a period
of hardship for many less fortunate. "Shanghai Splendor"
provides a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary Chinese in
the early 20th century, before the Japanese invasion and later
the communist take-over changed the course of history.
God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly
Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan Spence, published by
Norton in 1996.
Jonathan Spence had been recommended to me as the
most eminent scholar of Chinese history, telling history in a
most lively style. I was not disappointed, the book lived up to
these high expectations.
The story of the Taiping, a religiously
motivated uprising against the Qing emperors, is one of the most
horrific experiences of Chinese history. It started in the 1930s
with a poor man in the South of China having a dream that made
him believe that he was the son of god. His military force
conquered a major chunk of central China, mercilessly killing
its enemies, and set up imperial rule in Nanjing in 1853.
Endless military campaigns later, costing probably million
lives, the Taiping were annihilated by the Qing in 1864, and
quite literally killed off. The cruelty of this episode of
history falls nothing short of the worst periods of 20th century
Reading the account of the Taiping raises many
questions of human nature - how can such a thing happen?
What makes intelligent people follow religious zealots?
What does it tell us about the state of the Qing imperial rule
over China - regime that already had overstayed their welcome
but still survived til 1912. Being aware of such history also
helps understanding contemporary sentiments in society, even if
more recent history left further deep traces: With the
experience of the Taiping, it should be no surprise that Chinese
rulers are suspicious, or perhaps paranoid, of religious cults
in all forms.
A Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Adeline Yen Mah,
published by Harper Collins in 2002.
I had difficulties in classifying this book, and eventually
decided to place it in the history category. The author travels
through Chinese history and contemporary society using famous
proverbs as guide. Many Chinese proverbs synthesize a historical
event dating over two thousand years back. This book tells the
stories of these events and their historical context underlying
these proverbs, and explores how the wisdom embedded in the
proverbs influences the ways contemporary Chinese think and act,
including the author's personal experiences.
Adeline Yen Mah is better known for her autobiography 'Falling
Leaves' (as in the saying 'falling leaves return to their
roots'), which I have not yet read.
China: Eine Weltmacht kehrt zurück
(The Return of a World Power),
by Konrad Seitz, published by Berliner Taschenbuch Verlag in
China's history is long and complex, and
it influences modern China in ways subtle ways - both official
policies and individual mindsets. Yet, many accounts of Chinese
history are partial and, especially if written by local authors,
provide a particular ideological twist in interpreting events.
Thus, it is useful to read multiple accounts to form an opinion,
and to gain an understanding of the undercurrents in Chinese
society. The fist half of this 500-pages book provides a careful
review of China's history with an emphasis on the 20th century.
On this basis, the author then analyses the economic and
political reforms of the last three decades, and China's
prospects in the global economy.
(I am not aware of an English translation)
Der Erwachte Drachen: Großmacht
China im 21. Jahrhundert (The Dragon has Awoken), by Martin G.D. Chan, published by Theiss, 2008.
Chan outlines an insider's view
society and politics, and of China's its role in the world,
informed by eclectic study of China and personal involvement. His writing style often
includes sweeping statement and rarely does he provide concise
evidence for his assessments (there isn't even a bibliography),
thus inviting criticism on many of his specific assertions and
conclusions. Yet the
author is obviously knowledgeable on many aspects of
contemporary China and its recent history, and he outlines,
overall, a realistic image of where China stands in the world.
Moreover, he has the courage of outlining the role that he
expects China to play in the global economy by the middle of the
21st century as a strategic player in world politics. He predicts
that China will continue to raise, and a civil society will
emerge that offers a high degree of individual liberties yet not
democracy in the Western sense of the World. Yet he also
predicts major problems of an aging society and environmental
damage, and in consequence a role for China on the political
world stage that would be
constraint by domestic politics. This vision of the future of
China is highly uncertain as predictions always are, but it
provides a reasonable scenario for those wishing to engage with
China in the long term. (I am not aware of an English translation).
I am sure there are plenty of good books out there,
which I have not yet had the time to read. I welcome
recommendations, and I look forward to some holiday in the
future when I will have the leisure of reading more. But, one
thing might excite me even more, to travel and to see for