Klaus Meyer

From my Bookshelf: Pathways to China

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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

China Entrepreneur: Voices of Experience from 40 International Business Pioneers, by Juan Antonio Fernandez and Laurie Underwood, published by Wiley, 2009.

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 survival.

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 difficult situation.


Chinese Leadership, by Barbara Xiaoyu Wang and Harold Chee, published by Palgrave 2011.

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 in China.

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.


Inside Chinese Business: A Guide for Managers Worldwide, by Ming-Jer Chen, published by Harvard Business School Press, 2002.


This 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.


There 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 Rebecca Fannin 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 kids.

Rebecca Fannin is also blogging for the Huffington Post on IT entrepreneurship in China, and has a personal blog 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 Economist, 2010, An Internet with Chinese Characteristics, July 30.


(Auto-)Biographies: Western Perspectives


Personal experiences 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 recent ones.



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.

In 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 Returns", 1972.


"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.

(Auto)biographies: Chinese Perspectives


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 minds.


Also see Xinran's 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 & Schuster in 2008.

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 website to 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 Wikipedia entry.


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 their life.



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.



A Loyal Character Dancer, by Xiaolang Qiu, published by Hodder in 2002

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 2007.

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.


History and Society


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, 2012).

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 Western audiences.

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 details. 

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.  


Histoire 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.

Marie-Claire 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, 2007.

Wen-hsin Yeh, 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 world history.

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 2000.


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 myself!

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