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Reading List: 5 Books to Understand Modern China

In what can seem a universe within itself, Kerry Brown, author of The New Emperors, selects five essential reads on modern China.

Each year, a multitude of books inundates the literary landscape with a focus on China. The extensive array of publications, ranging from gender studies to pop culture, history, and politics, reflects the vastness of this subject matter. Even topics as specific as analyzing agricultural tax returns from a single year in the late Qing period have been explored. China has evolved into a self-contained realm, attracting a diverse array of authors delving into its complexities.

I’m just as culpable as anyone else. Over the past decade, following my departure from the British Foreign Office and transition into academia, I’ve authored ten books, edited three volumes, and compiled an extensive multi-volume dictionary on Chinese biography. My enthusiasm for delving into the inexhaustible and captivating realm of China remains undiminished. However, recognizing the constraints of time for some, I offer recommendations for five books that have personally enriched my understanding of China and informed my writing, particularly in my latest work, “The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China,” a recent study on contemporary Chinese leadership.

Great Leap Forward, edited by Chuihua Judy Chang, Jeffrey Inaba, Rem Koolhaas, and Sze Tsung Leong, Harvard Design School Project on the City, Taschen 2001

Great Leap Forward

This authoritative volume serves as compelling evidence that our physical environment reflects our collective mindset. Curated by a team led by architect Rem Koolhaas, it examines the urban landscape of contemporary China, shaped by a unique blend of latent utopian ideals and modernity infused with Chinese characteristics. Nihai Cracium’s insightful essay draws parallels between Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, marked by devastation, and Deng Xiaoping’s pursuit of material wealth, offering profound insights into modern China.

The book vividly portrays the rapid pace of change in Chinese cities, serving as a potent metaphor for the aspirations and resilience of the Chinese people. A particularly striking chapter focuses on Zhuhai, showcasing numerous planned infrastructure projects from the early 2000s through illustrations. This collective portrayal underscores a society brimming with optimism and boundless energy. However, underlying this optimism are enduring questions concerning values, objectives, and the ultimate destination of this transformative journey.

“Great Leap Forward” captures the fleeting dreams of Chinese society while also raising significant uncertainties. It stands as an indispensable resource for anyone seeking to understand the complexities of modern China.

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua, Pantheon Books, New York, 2011

China in Ten Words

Yu Hua has established himself as one of the most notable contemporary writers in China, characterized by his sharp wit and sarcasm, which have allowed him to navigate criticism of Chinese society while avoiding repercussions from authorities. In “China in Ten Words,” he delivers on his promise to provide insights into the evolving attitudes and complexities of modern China as it undergoes economic growth and societal changes.

Drawing from his own experiences, Yu Hua explores key themes such as “people,” “leader,” “revolution,” and “copycat,” questioning prevailing discourses and societal norms. He probes into the identities of individuals and leaders, examining their relationships and the unequal treatment they receive in a society marked by widespread cynicism and defamation. Despite the prevalent skepticism, the elite leadership remains insulated from criticism, while the reputation of ordinary citizens is subject to scrutiny.

For those grappling with the bewildering realities of China, this book serves as a valuable remedy, offering a dose of incisive wit and humor as the antidote to confusion.

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State, Yasheng Huang, Cambridge University Press, 2008

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

Many domestic politicians and commentators assert that China’s primary focus is its economy, with economic development being the central goal of the political leadership. According to Yasheng Huang’s meticulously researched study, however, many commonly accepted notions about China’s economy lack a solid foundation. Through a comprehensive examination, Huang reveals the intricacies and contradictions that belie the prevailing narratives.

In a detailed analysis, Huang scrutinizes Shanghai, often hailed as a symbol of entrepreneurialism and commercial success. Contrary to popular belief, he illustrates how the city’s economy is predominantly state-directed, with significant reliance on illegitimate practices, such as the contentious land acquisition during the development of Pudong in the 1990s. Moreover, Huang highlights the city’s environmental vulnerabilities, including its inadequate water supply and precarious foundation on marshland, which raises concerns about the stability of its numerous skyscrapers.

By meticulously dissecting data and statistics, Huang exposes the discrepancies between official interpretations and the underlying realities. His book offers a captivating and nuanced exploration of the Chinese economy, transcending simplistic GDP figures to uncover the complex and potentially unsettling truths beneath.

No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, Liu Xiaobo, Belknap, Harvard, 2012

No Enemies, No Hatred

Liu gained prominence due to his imprisonment in 2009 for advocating for increased freedoms and democracy in China through Charter 08, as well as receiving the Nobel Prize in 2010. This collection showcases his impressive analytical prowess, offering a rare firsthand account from a Chinese writer within the country. Liu delves into the cultural and moral complexities that China grapples with following decades of Maoist ideology and subsequent material development under Deng Xiaoping.

His essays dissect the world of government officials, where public authority intertwines with personal interests, transitioning from the formalities of daytime offices to the extravagance of nocturnal nightclubs. While often laced with humor, Liu’s observations pose profound questions about the true objectives of the Chinese Communist Party and its people. This book serves as a poignant testament to why authorities sought to silence Liu through imprisonment.

From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society, Fei Xiaotong, University of California Press, 1992

From the Soil

Trained at the London School of Economics in the 1930s, Fei returned to China to pioneer the field of sociology, enduring the tumultuous twists of Chinese politics until his passing in 2005 at nearly a hundred years old. Originally published in 1947, just prior to the founding of the People’s Republic, this concise yet insightful book delineates the essence of Chinese society. Fei characterizes it as agrarian, inherently provincial, and structured around flexible networks where interpersonal connections are extensive, but distrust of outsiders runs deep.

Even today, this book remains invaluable for comprehending Chinese social dynamics, offering a framework to grasp the intricacies of kinship and interpersonal bonds within Chinese culture. As a counterpoint to the overused notion of “guanxi,” Fei’s work stands out as an unparalleled resource

Follow Kerry Brown on Twitter @BKerryChina.
Read the Financial Times‘ review of The New Emperors.
Read Times Higher Education‘s review of The New Emperors.

The New Emperors

Kerry Brown is the Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and former head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House. His new book is The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, and is the author of Contemporary ChinaFriends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China and Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century.


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