Klaus Meyer

From my Bookshelf: Pathways to China

Society - Business -  History - Biographies West - Biographies East - Fiction

About Me





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 its 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 about 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 have enjoyed over the years:

Contemporary Society


Good books on contemporary China are scarce because it rather difficult to write a balanced analysis of today's Chinese society without being out of date very quickly. There are a number of journalistic books that selectively report negative aspects, but that miss the bigger picture; I don't recommend that sort of book. There are also propaganda pieces that I don't value much either. Hence, the selection that I have here is short and starts with a book that starts with a lot of history.

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 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 volume, probably one 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 more than a quarter for worldwide GDP. From this perspective, the relative 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 from 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.

Kissinger's account of the cold war period highlights the strategic diplomacy of the superpowers aiming to prevent any one of the three (Soviet Union, China, U.S.A.) to assume hegemony beyond their region, or to 'encircle' the other. Yet, they 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 and Korean history than of Chinese history.  


The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers , by Richard McGregor, published by Allen Lane, 2010 (Penguin Paperback, 2011).

How China is really ruled is a puzzle for most Western observers, even for many Chinese themselves. The party appears to be everywhere, yet at the same time it does not have the same degree of micro-control that authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the world may have. After several years as Financial Times correspondent in China, Richard McGregor put together his insights on the party in a lively and very insightful book.

Extracting key insights from the book however is difficult, for two reasons. First, the interfaces of the party with virtually every major organization in China are complex and hard to capture in a few sentences. Second, McGregor's writing style is not very helpful in that he is meandering, jumping from one anecdote (experience, news item, personal interview) to another and back again, emphasizing the every present nature of the party - but not presenting what evidence he has systematically, or explaining the logic of how it works. By journalists' standards he does reasonably well (you probably expect me to call for more systematic presentation of facts and more systematic analysis, given that I am an academic).  However, the subject itself deliberately obscures itself such that such systematic evidence is hard to come by (for a good attempt see Brodsgaard, China Quarterly, 2012). Yet, there are a few journalistic generalizations, even polemics, which make it too easy for those aligned with the party to dismiss the book as poorly researched propaganda.

Reading this book however does help a lot to explain contemporary politics in China, such as the rise and fall of Bo Xilai as governor of Chongching, and the succession of Xi Jinping to the leadership of the party. One function of the party resembles an HR department of a large company: it follows all cadres careers, and makes sure that those that actually taking leadership positions have worked in a variety of different functions and provinces before - all the seven new leaders in 2012 have before been leading economies (i.e. cities or provinces) of the size of a major US state or European country.

Understanding the role of the party also greatly helps explaining why it is an uphill struggle to contain corruption, even though it is prioritized by the new leadership in 2012. Essentially, Chinese provinces enjoy a lot of autonomy, even tough their leaders are rotated around the country, and power is highly concentrated - the government, police heads, judges and even journalists are in one way or another dependent one the same party leaders. Hence, China does not have what in the West since the French revolution is called the 'separation of powers'. This makes it very difficult to launch an independent investigation into any government mis-behavior (e.g. shady land deals), and corrupt officials tend to 'fall' only when they either fall out of favor politically (like Bo Xilai), or when they overdo the corruption and the display of wealth.

There is much more to this book that this small review can't capture. It is a worthwhile, perhaps even required, reading for those engaging with China, though not an easily digestible read.


Across the Great DivideAcross the Great Divide: The Sent-Down Youth Movement in Mao's China, 1968-1980, by Emily Honig and Xiaojian Zhao, published by Cambrdige University Press, 2019.

The 'sent-down youth' movement was one of the socially disruptive policies of communist China. School graduates from the urban centres along the coast were resettled to the country side. There supposed objectives were to combat youth unemployment, in the cities, "reducate" the poiled urban youth, and to help economic development in the Western provinces. However, both senders and receivers were ill prepared for the supposed contribution they were to make. Instead, the movement pulled families apart and created extensive suffering among the young people unfortunately enough to complete their school years in the early 1970s. There are indeed often refered to as the lost generation - in that age group, China lack university-educated people.

Honig and Zhao have traweled through documents in both sending cities and receiving communities, and interviewed eye witnesses to provide new insights on how the movement unfolded. The mobilization of the 'youth' in teh city was predictable difficult, and certainly not voluntary. At later stages, the better connected the family, the less likely youth would be sent, and the better their chances of early return. Many receiving communities initially struggled to find meaningful work for the youth, and to feed them. Intergration rarely happened. However, Hong and Zhao also identify some cases of economic benefits through informal ties created by the youth; thus city governments would send supplies and even machines to the communities where their youth lived, and and thereby indirectly helped their development. Ultimately, the movement however failed in achieving its overarching aim of reducing the economic and social divide between urban and rural China.

The account by Honig and Zhao is vivid in its stories, and compelling in the breadth of the evidence. It makes for uncomfortable reading of a depressing episode in recent Chinese history; an episode that is rarely openly discussed in China itself.

Wu Jianglin 2021Facing the Era of Great Transformation: Essays on Deepening Reforms, by JInglian Wu, published in English in 2021 by Palgrave Macmillan.

The continuous debates within China that underpin its remarkable transformation over the past half century are often hard to appreciate for outsiders. The path of reform policies has been shaped by internal debates between influential groups within the political elite (see Cheek et al., 2021). Jianglin Wu of CEIBS has been an active participant in these debates.

This book brings together essays and speeched that Professor Wu, a highly respected senior economist in China, has given between 2007 and 2013. His essays describe the reform processes - and associated debates - over the past decades, and offer informed opinions on this recent history. Throughout his various contributions, he emphasizes the importance of continued opening and market reform, emphasizing the role of private entrepreneurs in China's economy growth, and the importance of market processes in enabling such entrepreneurs. He comments various specific concerns arising over time, and offer constructive suggestions to adress these within the existing political institutional context of China. A theme that runs through his essays, especially those written after the outbreak of the global financial crisis (which had comparatively little effect on China) is the concern of a reemergece of state actors directly interfering in businesses, rather than focusing on emhanced regulation of market activity.

Reading these essays in 2021 - they were originally published in Chinese in 2014 - highlights recent changes in two ways. First, the trajectory of institutional change has significantly changed direction since 2014; the balance between state and market as well as between openness and self-sufficiency have shifted significantly. These debates, by the way, have been oscilating in China for centuries, not just in the current era. Second, the style of debate within China also has significantly changed.  

Image result for rory truex making autocracy workMaking Autocracy Work: representation and Responsiveness in Modern China, by Rory Truex, published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press.

How can a political system by authoritarian, yet stable? For decades Western observers have predicted the demise of Chinese political regime  because of it non-democratic nature and the changing needs of an increasingly affluent urban society. This study offers an answer to the puzzle by explaining the role of the National People's Congress (NPC).

Rory Truex, an Assistant Professor at Princeton, argues that China's system of "representation within bounds" is based on four principles: 1) representatives, i.e. NPC members, are encouraged to convey opinions of the people of their constituency to the leaders, but only on 'low preference issues'. The critical condition here is 'low preference issue' which means issues that are not central to the views of the autocrat - say, the need for better water irrigation, a new school building, or resolution of an environmental issue locally. 2) representatives face penalties if the challenge 'high preference issues', which in the Chinese context refer to the legitimacy of the rule of the party, the legitimacy of individual leaders, and any issues remotely related to the boundaries of China. 3) representatives are incentivized to show 'selective empathy' with their constituents, i.e. effectively representing their interests on low preference issues, while representing the party line when it comes to high preference issues. 4) Representatives will be rewarded for their loyalty, for example by re-appointment or through indirect benefits arising from the networks created as a NPC member.

Truex offers a very comprehensive and thorough analysis of his propositions, first by explaining the incentives of all key actors in a game-theoretical model, and then by a series of specific empirical studies that test some of the predictions of his theory. Data on the activities of NPC members are limited, but he still has been able to find an impressive amount of details which allow his to rigorously test the propositions. For business scholars perhaps most interesting is the monetary benefit of NPC membership: he finds that firms gaining representation in the NPC in 2008 increased returns by 1.5% and operating margins by 3 to 4% while share prices were on average more than 10% higher than comparable benchmark firms.

Overall, based on my own numerous communications with lots of people in China, the findings and the theoretical argument explaining them is highly credible. Hence, if you worry how stable China is politically, read this book.


Trouble in the Middle: American Chinese Business Relations: Culture, Conflict, and Ethics, by Steven P. Feldman, published in 2013 by Routledge.

Steven Feldman set out to study Chinese-American business relationship through interviews in both business communities, and presents a profoundly insightful description and analysis not only how both business communities operate, but how they think about each other, and how they manage to do businesses despite deep gulfs between their practices and value systems. His central thesis is that the middlemen, who are so often managing the interfaces between American and Chinese sides in a business, face most of the moral dilemmas, while American business persons pretend to know anything of practices that would be unethical or illegal in the USA.

Feldman focuses on the ethics of practices in use. He starts from the recognition that ethical standards are part of culture, and therefore not universal. Individuals from different cultures, and hence ethical value systems, thus necessarily encounter situations where their value systems do not match. He thus observes that in this situation step "middlemen, who specialize in developing relationships with both cultures so as to bridge the relationship between them. But from an ethical point of view, the situation does not develop community, ... the middleman keeps the two business cultures apart. Since the ethical context for each culture is different, keeping the sides apart keeps the seeds of a new moral community from developing, ... it keeps the parties wary and distrustful." (page 37).

Using his interviews as a starting point, Feldman explores and analyses both Chinese business culture and the perceptions and actions of US businessmen in China by setting them in broader sociological and historical perspectives. This leads him to explain the extensive use of  personal relationships (the book cover features the characters for guanxi 关系), and of bribes, as an outcome of not only cultural values but of power relationships (including those in the political sphere), and of legacies of an unprocessed recent history. Overall, thus, he ends up being very critical of US businessmen compromising their values (while formally complying with the US foreign corrupt practice act), and pessimistic regarding the evolution of a moral common ground that would allow US-Chinese business relationship to prosper based on a common understanding of what is and what is not permissible.



I am not a great fan of 'Doing Business In' books, yet the following books provide rounded insights into business in China that is informed by both first-hand experiences and a broader vision of the Chinese context.


Pioneers, Hidden Champions, Changemakers, and Underdogs by Mark J. Greeven, George S. Yip and Wei WeiPioneers, Hidden Champions, Change Makers and Undersogs, by Mark J. Greeven, George S. Yip, and Wei Wei, published by MIT Press, 2019.

Over the past 30 years, China has become an entrepreneurial powerhouse. Depite the persistent presence of large and historially state-owned firms, the economic transformation of China has to a significant degree been driven by entrepreneurs. 

In this book, three business professor and consultants document 35 Chinese entreprenurial firms that have driving domestic innovation in China. They reflect a wide variety of experiences across generations, personalitsies, industries and approaches to innovation. These entrepreneeurs are either market leaders in China in tehir industry using technologies and/or business models that are ditinctly different from those in "advanced" Wetsern economy (in some case, notably in the digitla economy, even ahead of North America or Europe), or they have espetblished themselves globally as leaders in particular niche industries. They each have developed thier own approach to innovation, but research and technology is at the core of what they do. However, they also reflect a huge diversity: The main lesson I took from the book is that there is not one Chinese approach to entreporeneurship, but many diverse approaches.

The ecosystem of entrepreneurial firms documented in this book provides a foundation not only for China's economic prosperity and global competitiveness, but for China's ability to respond to the coronavirus respone (the book was published before the crisis). If we want to understand the miracle of the recent unprecedented economic growth in China, and its ability to handle a variety of different economic shocks, we need to look beyond teh role of industrial policy and other government interventions (which are mentined but not analyzed in depth in this book), to understand how individual entrepreneurs have been taken advantage of innovation opportunities and thereby transfered Chinese society.  
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.


China's Disruptors, by Edward Tse, published by Penguin, 2015.

By 2015, entrepreneurship in China is gathering pace, and several books are trying to clear up the myth that business in China is all about copying ideas from elsewhere. Edward Tse, a seasoned China-based consultant, provides a comprehensive argument supported by a wide range of hands-on examples such as Alibaba, Tencent and Xiaomi (new books in 2015 with similar objectives are Alibaba's World by Porter Erisman, and The End of Copycat China by Shaun Rein).

Entrepreneurs have become drivers of change in many industries, and thus of society, in China. Edward Tse emphasized their entrepreneurial spirit, and their evolving business models over the past three decade - along with institutional change in the country. He attacks in particular the assumption in American media and talk shows that Chinese businesses are all about copying. To the contrary, he argues, Chinese entrepreneurs are engaged in very fast paced innovation processes. Their innovations are however primary in business models and processes rather than in technology per se, and perhaps for that reason not so evident from a distant. Yet, competition is intense in China, and only those who continuously come up with new product variations can stay ahead.

Tse is taking an uncompromisingly optimistic view of both the power of entrepreneurship and of the evolution of Chinese economy and its regulatory environment in the future. No space for critical reflections here. I guess consultants are like that. This is refreshing in its contrast to other books I find on American airport bookshops. Yet, in my own view, Tse underrates the tensions and risks faced by Chinese entrepreneurs, not only due to volatility of the economy, but also because the path of regulatory reform is in many sectors hard to predict - it is often two steps forward, one step back - or even three steps back (say, on internet regulation). The two steps forward are important, but only part of the story. Entrepreneurs in China face a tenuous relationship with the authorities that to manage is an important skill required to succeed in China. Tse cites Wang Jianlin, CEO of the real estate group Dalien Wanda, advising "be close to government, but far from politics"; a very insightful comment indeed.


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.


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? 


China's Technological Catch-Up StrategyChina's Technological Catch-Up Strategy, by Michael T. Rock and Michael A. Toman, published by Oxford University Press, 2015.

This has over the past three decades invested heavily in reducing its energy use and its carbon emissions. This has resulted in major reductions of the energy and carbon intensity of the Chinese economy. While industrialization and economic growth have resulted in China becoming the largest emitter of carbon, these emissions are about one third of what they would have been without technological catch-up in a 'business as usual' scenario (Figure 10.1 of the book).

This scholarly study investigates the question how China has achieved this carbon reduction, focusing on four industries: cement, steel, aluminum and paper. At the outset in the 1980s, China has an unusually fragmented industry with may sub-optimal sized operations, a result of the peculiar industrialization policy of the 1960s and 1970s. Closing many of the small plants thus contributed to enhancing efficiency and reducing emissions. Beyond that, firms have invested in technological upgrading not only by importing latest technology, but by developing human capital to optimize such machinery under Chinese conditions. The authors emphasize that firms acted under a policy regime that shaped incentives firstly by ensuring that prices for energy closely resemble their true costs (in contrast to other emerging economies where energy is often subsidized), and secondly through specific interventions such as energy consumptions targets and investment in R&D.

The book presents a lot of evidence to support these basic insights, which unfortunately makes it rather boring to read. Most readers will find the essence of the arguments and findings in Chapter 3. The firm level case studies within the next chapters also insightful: Luzhong Cement Factory (p. 51-56), Baosteel (p. 88-93), and Yueyang paper company (p. 160-166). Moreover, Chapter 9 provides an illuminating comparison with Indonesia that shows how important it is that industry insiders do not 'capture' policy makers, but competition between firms and local government - despite all the imperfections of bureaucracy in China - is key to driving this progress. 

Silicon Dragon: How China is Winning the Tech Race, by Rebecca Fannin, published by McGrawHill, 2008.

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.

With the rapid evolution of e-commerce in China, the book is already becoming historical. The Internet in China is developing rapidly but not following the same paths laid out by Californian entrepreneurs a decade ago. Hence, Chinese entrepreneurs now advance distinct business models that provide local firms an advantage, see for an early account 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. 

Mr China: A Memoir, by Tim Clissold, published by Harper, 2004.

Tim Clissold was involved in some of the first foreign investments in China in the mid 1990s: When China opened up for financial investors, he toured the country in search of investable firms, and set up joint ventures. He recalls his experience of the years 1993 to 1999 in a most vivid way, telling of companies and people that went through the most remarkable transformations. As a foreign investors with an office in Beijing yet not on the ground in the provincial towns of his investments, he experienced many dramas of fights over control of the businesses that his company thought they owned, only to find their investments disappearing like quicksand.

It is hard to draw lessons from this, and even harder to assert whether these lessons still hold true today, 15 years later. But the messages that I drew from his various investment case studies are: 1) you can't control a business in China simply by having majority equity control, you have to have your own trusted person on the ground. 2) China is big, and Beijing is far - if you made in in Beijing that doesn't mean you understand China, 3) In the inland provinces, you need to have a good relationship with the local party and the local government officials, because if a conflict emerges it is relationships, not letters of the law, that decide how get it his way.

The title, "Mr. China" is rather presumptuous - he may have been called that by his American friends with a wink in the eye, yet is obvious that to his Chinese partners he remained - even though he was speaking Chinese fairly well - always "Mr. Foreigner", or perhaps "Mr. Wallstreet".


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.

Inside China's Shadow Banking: The Next Subprime Crisis? By Joe Zhang, published by Enrich Professional Publishing (Hawaii) in 2014.

The books starts as an autobiography of a banker who followed a somewhat unconventional career-path, moving from a well paid investment banking position in Hong Kong to a micro-credit organization in China, before loosing hope that micro-credit might actually do something substantial for the better of business in China. The book then offers wide ranging reflections over the state of the Chinese financial sector, pointing out risks but concluding that the situation is far from hopeless. 

The pivotal experience recounted in the this book is Zhang's role as Chairman of a small Guangzhou based micro-credit institution. He joined with the expectation that the development of the micro-credit sector in China might be the key to advancing small entrepreneurs and businesses similar to the famous Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. However, he encountered an an industry straight-jacketed by regulation, yet at the same time subject to extensive bad practices: Whom you know often counts for more than the quality of your business plans when it comes to getting a loan. Zhang spares not with blunt comments about what Indians might call the 'license raj', with overlapping responsibilities of multiple regulators.

His wider reflections offer some insights about the bubbles that many observers nowadays (2013) believe to be present in the Chinese financial markets, including local government loans and the housing market in at least some cities. The government is actively intervening to prevent bubbles from bursting, but interventions lead to flows of easy money elsewhere. At the same time, the main (state-owned) banks sit comfortably on attractive business models, getting savings at a regulated low interest rates, and lending out to the lowest risk customers. Higher risk customers, that's small business in particular, find it difficult to get loans from the big banks, while the sorts of organizations that do offer them loans operate at the borderline of legality and charge immense fees. Liberalization of the interest rate and easier entry for private banks may address these issues, but are politically not en vogue, yet.

Joe Zhang has also been blogging on shadow banking.


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 a website to accompany the book.


Zehn Jahre in Deutschland 1935-1945(留德十年), by JI Xianlin(季羡林), German translation published by Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press and Georg August University Göttingen, 2009.

Personal memories are a rich source of insights; while we know the broad flows of history from textbooks, it is often hard to imagine how individuals experienced the times of political turbulence. JI Xianlin was stuck in Germany for 10 years because of the upheavals in his own country in the 1930s and 1940s, and lived through the most difficult years of German history in Göttingen a small university town. Several decades later, he took pen to paper to recall his memories. By then, he had become the leading scholar in China of old Indian languages such as Sanskrit, building on his studies that he began in Germany in the 1930s. He came as an idealistic young man planning to spend two years in Germany, but as fate had it, he spend an entire decade.

What makes his memories so interesting to read are his astute observations about people he met on his 10 year journey, and communicating to his own countrymen first hand insights of German culture - some of which still characterizes Germans today, and some of which has faded away. People that left a lasting impression, for better or worse, include rich-kid Chinese students who were enjoying live in Berlin 1935 rather than studying and, so he felt, rather embarrassing his country; German professors in his specialized subject who devoted their effort to his learning, his German landlady who looked after him like after her own son, and American solders of the liberating forces whose wasteful lifestyle annoyed both him and his German friends.

Throughout these challenging years, he showed a humanity and respect for people of all walks of life, and was received in similar by many of the people he met. His engagement and appreciation of people he knew little about when he set off on the trans-Siberian railway, still serve as models for students seeking studies abroad today.


Herr Huang in Deutschland: Ein Chinese Chinese auf Weltreise zum Kulturerbe, by Huang Nubo, German version published by Georg Olms, Hildesheim, 2015.

German tourists have a bad reputation, especially in Southern Europe, for always trying to evaluate everything, for being rather direct with their critique - even if they may be right - and for being somewhat insensitive to the feelings of their hosts. After reading this book, I learned that there is one group of people that is even worse than German tourists: Chinese nouveaux riche! My Huang traveled first class to see the UNESCO world heritage sites in Germany, and this book is his diary: a blend of reminiscences his experiences, conversations with people he met - including a fair number of local VIPs, historical backgrounds of the heritage sites, and plenty of grumbles about lousy service. The intended audiences is other potential Chinese tourists (presumably those able to afford first class), the German translation thus gives insights on how one Chinese communicates to other Chinese, rather than to German audiences.

The most interesting bits are the encounters with people, be it ordinary people on the street or local dignitaries, with whom he discusses a wide variety of topics, and offers reflections on both contemporary Germany and contemporary China. His historical introductions to the site are accurate - he thanks his extensive support staff in the acknowledgements - but primarily for Chinese audiences. His critique of German service culture put his finger on some sour points: especially when visiting small towns in Eastern Germany service is slow, un-smiling, and often speak poor English. His permanent repetition of this point, however, is annoying to say the least. And some of his other generalizations from some poor experiences are pretty offensive - especially on issues where Germany is light-years ahead of China, such as road safety and drivers actually respecting rules. In fact, in some passages I doubted whether he actually lives in China, or in a nouveau rich cocoon disconnected from the lives of ordinary Chinese. Just one simple basic point about German culture: the rules apply to everyone, people who ask for exception and not well liked; people who demand exceptions will be met with the firmest response. Sadly, even by the time of his return journey he didn't learn that - he still tried to get a heavier bag checked in than the safety rules permit. The bottom line seems to be this: dictating your experiences in a recording devise is a good way to get to a first draft of a travel book. But from the first draft to the final book is a process of hard work - cutting repetitions, integrating themes, edit passages displaying your earlier ignorance, and offering reflected opinions rather than the anger of the moment. If you skip that hard work, it will show.



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.

The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives, edited by Timothy Cheek, Klaus Muhlhahn and Hans van de Ven, published by Cambridge University Press.  The Chinese Communist Party

How to synthesize 100 years of complex history of China in a readable book of realistic size? Timothy Cheek and his co-editors have chosen to illuminate each decade of the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) through a bio biography of an active participant in the party’s activities. What emerges is not only a rich kaleidoscope of personal experiences, but an illustration that throughout its history, debates over the future path of the party have been commonplace and recurring, and at time led to violent conflicts. While the party has transformed from a small revolutionary group to long serving ruling party, its policy priorities have shifted many times. Thorughout the history of the party, the struggles of the party have been not only a struggles to attain and retain power, but also struggles for the 'right' path forward, and the relationships with those people who lost an argument.

However, a persistent theme is the quest for a distinctly Chinese approach to the big issues of the day – from revolution, to economic catch-up, and to engaging in global trade and politics. The multiple perspective approach to history of this book contrasts refreshingly with the party’s own view of its history, which is rather selective, and not exactly encouraging historians to dig into sensitive topics. Readers will find it an accessible lens to a complex story. 

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.


When China Ruled the Seas, by Louise Levathes, published by Oxford University Press, in 1994.

By now, it is probably well known even in Europe that Chinese merchants once traded across South East Asia. Many will also have heard about Zheng He, the Chinese general who in the early 1400s led a fleet of Chinese ships to sail not only to South East Asia, but to India and the Arab peninsula. At least, when I show a map of those ancient shipping routes in my introductory session of an international business class, very few seem surprised.

Yet, how did China bundle its resources to build such a massive fleet? And who was the man who let it, Zheng He? This book provides the historical context for these journey, and synthesis of (de facto) Chinese international relations in the early Ming period. A few insights stood out for me. Chinese traders have been the leading international traders in East and South East Asia from about the 8th century B.C. However, Chinese foreign policy experienced very strong swings of a pendulum between strict isolationism and aggressive globalization (to use 21st century terms). Under the third Ming emperor, the pendulum swung for decisively towards globalization: both in terms of enabling international trade and establishing political relationships - even intervening in local conflicts in other countries and installing a China-friendly ruler. This policy implementation was led by Zheng He who supervised the building off ships four time longer and taller than Columbus; Santa Maria, and himself undertook seven major voyages, while other Chinese traders traveled as far as modern day Kenya.

However, 'globalization' had its enemies even then. What I didn't know is that Confucian scholars in particular advocated a policy of focusing on China's home territory: Part of being filial to ones parents is not to venture to unsafe foreign places where return may be uncertain. The end of China's external relations, and the weakening of its fleet was thus mainly an outcome of internal politicking; in addition the huge costs of building the fleet at the expense of domestic project appear to have overstretched the economy. Arguably the project was driven by a megalomaniac emperor, yet it demonstrates the power of China when it is able to bundle its resources to a singular objective.


Mr Selden's Map of China, by Timothy Brook, published by Profile Books, London.

Starting from a discovery of an old map in Oxford University's famous Bodleian Library, Timothy Brook is exploring the trade and geography of South East Asia in the early 17th century. His story tells of a journey of discovery in search of the meaning of the map - why it is so different from contemporary maps made by either Chinese or European map makers?

The name by which the map is known, and which gives the book its title, is, unfortunately, misleading.  First, "Mr Selden" was legal expert and scholar, about whom Timothy Brook has a lot of anecdotes to tell - notably his dispute with Dutch legal scholar Grotius that shaped international law of the seas, a big issue now in the area depicted in the map. However, Mr Selden's contribution to the map is - for all that is known - that he is the last (and only verified) owner of the map before it was bequeathed to the library. We would expect historical maps to be named by the person who commissioned it or the person who made it. In this case these persons remain unknown, the historians best guess is that it must be Chinese based either Fujian province of China, or (Mr. Brook's hypothesis) in Bantam, which at the time was a European trading post near modern day Jakarta.

The second curios matter is that it is not "of China", but it is the sea-routes that connect Southern China to key trading places in South-East Asia. China appears at the top of the map, and looks distinctly odd to modern observers - but apparently it is quite consistent with the depiction of China in other maps of the time, apart from the fact that Chinese maps always put China in the middle, and this maps doesn't. What distinguished the map is, as Mr Brooks tells the story, that it appears to have been drawn around the travel instructions used by traders that travelled the seas, with the land then filled in around the ports.

The area depicted is today subject to claims and counter claims by the nations surrounding what the Chinese call the South China Sea. Does the map give us answers as to who has the older claims? No, it doesn't. The map is clear only in advising seafarers to avoid large chunks of the sea - little islands are a hazard to shipping, not land of interest to the the mapmaker, nor, presumably to traders nor emperors of that age. 

Mr Brooks search for the story behind the map takes the reader to the history of the late 16th and early 17th century in both England and in South East Asia. An enjoyable journey to meet many interesting characters, though a bit of background knowledge of both British and Chinese history clearly enhances the enjoyment. It also tells a lot of the idiosyncrasies of Oxford scholars, past and present. The book triggers curiosity - for starters here is the website of the Bodleian library.


An Irishman in China: Robert Hart, Inspector of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs, by ZHAO Changtian, translated by YANG Shuihui and YANG Yunqin, published by Better Link Press, New York.

As a young man, Robert Hart landed his first job with the British foreign service of the day, and headed for Ningbo, at the time a treaty port city with few European residents. From there he moved on to serve the Chinese imperial customs service, a role critical for the interface between foreign traders and the Chinese authorities. He earned himself respect among both the foreign traders and the Chinese imperial court, which was rare those days. In his role, he became a critical interface in some of the conflicts between the British (or more generally, Europeans) with China throughout the 2nd half of the 19th century.

This novel is written to honor his memory, telling the story of his life in a vivid way and - as far as I could see - largely following historical documents, but enriched with the novelists descriptions. Along the way, the reader learns at lot about the historical events of the time. For Western readers the presentation of these events is also interesting as they are described as today's Chinese recall them - which sets different emphases than British textbooks do.  

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).


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.


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.



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.




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