YCW canvassed its global chapters for recent favorite summer reads about China. The list covers our top 2021 recommendations for books on Culture & Society, Food & Travel, Politics & International Affairs, History & Memory, and Fiction. Happy reading!

Culture & Society

The Children of China’s Great Migration – Rachel Murphy

Drawing on long-term fieldwork in eastern China, Rachel Murphy examines how the mass rural-urban migration of workers has impacted the lives of left-behind children in rural China. An interesting read that offers a new perspective from the children who have been left behind, the book looks at how parental migration leads to a significant reconfiguration of families and presents challenges for the left-behind children to negotiate their identities.

Meritocracy and Its Discontents: Anxiety and the National College Entrance Exam in China – Zachary M. Howlett
“Meritocracy and Its Discontents” is a peep into the politics and philosophy of the gaokao, China’s national college entrance exam, which determines college admissions and the fates of some ten million high school students each year and provides a path to an urban lifestyle for hundreds of millions of young people living in rural areas. As the CCP celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is useful to understand how the party has used meritocracy as a powerful ideology to justify the successes of its transition to a market economy and motivate youngsters to pursue higher education.

The House of Yan: A Family at the Heart of a Century in Chinese History – Lan Yan

In recounting her family history, Lan Yan, a successful businesswoman, brings to life a century of Chinese history from the last emperor to the present. The Yan family held prestigious diplomatic posts during Mao’s rise to power and were then targeted during the Cultural Revolution. According to Lan, the story tells “in microcosm the history of 20th-century China.”

Food & Travel

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China – Fuchsia Dunlop

“Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper” is an insightful, engaging and super entertaining book that is a combination of memoirs, recipes and descriptions about Sichuan cuisine. It explores China’s cultural connection with food and the true meaning of the well-known Chinese epithet “to the people, food is heaven” (民以食为天). This is a particularly good read for someone passionate about food or China or both.

Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road – Rob Schmitz

In “Street of Eternal Happiness,” foreign correspondent Rob Schmitz explores China’s past and present via portrayals of his fascinating neighbors living along a Shanghai street – Changle Road – with whom he forged deep relationships during the time he lived there. He shares insights into the social and economic struggles between various generations, such as China’s hukou system and parents’ roles in helping their children find a spouse. This is a great book for everyone who wants to explore the richness of modern China or get a real sense of the experience of ordinary Chinese folk in Shanghai.

Politics & International Affairs

China’s Civilian Army – by Peter Martin

This book traces how Chinese diplomats operate around the world and toes sensitive lines within the CCP’s domestic and foreign policy agendas. It explores how “wolf warrior diplomacy” emerged and describes the CCP’s foreign policy approaches since the early days of the PRC. The book draws on Martin’s experience as a journalist in Beijing and his interviews with more than one hundred former Chinese diplomats. It explains China’s strides toward global power and prominence from the perspectives of those who shaped it on the front lines.

Read our interview with Peter Martin here
Peking Story – David Kidd

David Kidd lived in Beijing (known as Peking at the time) before and during the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. Kidd married the daughter of Chinese aristocrats; in the book, he describes his experiences in China during a period of immense social and political transition.
Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy – Kishore Mahbubani

In “Has China Won?,” former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani lays out the strategic advantages and disadvantages present in competition between the United States and China. He discusses how the social, political and economic forces in both countries continue to shape the relationship. He describes the strengths and weaknesses of both nations and assesses the progression of the relationship and its global reverberations.
The Invention of China – Bill Hayton

“The Invention of China” approaches the formation of modern China through descriptions of how its most important claims to legitimacy were originally formed and why they persist today. The eight chapters describe eight “inventions”: China, sovereignty, the Han race, Chinese history, the Chinese nation, the Chinese language, national territory and maritime claims. Each of these inventions, Hayton argues, are rooted in both historical truths and myths.

History & Memory

Utopian Ruins – Jie Li

Jie Li unpacks how China remembers and does not remember Maoist China through the creation of a hypothetical virtual museum depicting the era. The book takes on the creation and erasure of some of the most influential chapters in China’s modern past by addressing the challenge of memorializing the tenure of the first leader of the CCP. Each chapter is structured as its own exhibit in Li’s imagined museum, drawing on photos, archival documents and material relics from Maoist China.

Negative Exposures – Margaret Hillenbrand

“Negative Exposures” provides an original and vital framework through which to understand the origins of self-censorship and its relationship to other forms of oppression in contemporary China. Hillenbrand depicts Chinese individuals’ collaboration with the state in repressing traumatic events — specifically, the Nanjing Massacre, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre through an analysis of photographs and other visual materials she calls “photo-forms”. The book is a meditation on the perpetuation of collective memory and amnesia and describes the unique circumstances present in Chinese history and memory pertinent to social stability.

Superpower Interrupted – Michael Schuman

This book is a comprehensive and foundational overview of Chinese history through the dynasties. It is helpful for understanding how China converges with and diverges from other nation-states. It approaches Chinese history from the perspective of Chinese officials and intellectuals, depicting the prominent conception in the PRC that China’s destiny to become a global superpower suffered a one-hundred-year setback during the era of “national humiliation.” Beginners in China studies would benefit from this book, as it explains how Chinese thought leaders think about Chinese history and its rightful role on the global stage.
The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives – Timothy Cheek, Hans van de Ven, and Klaus Mühlhahn

A collection of riveting microhistories depicting scenes from the ten decades since the founding of the CCP, this volume gives readers a glimpse into the lesser-known characters who influenced the party’s trajectory. The editors commissioned essays from ten leading historians and China watchers, writing from both within the PRC and outside it, providing thoroughly-researched and thoughtfully-conveyed depictions of the decades in recent Chinese history. Even seasoned China experts are likely to learn something new about historical figures like Wang Guangmei, Liu Shaoqi’s wife and a political force in her own right, and Guo Meimei, a Weibo user who got caught in a social media firestorm in the early days of the Chinese internet.


平原上的摩西 [Moses on the Plain and Other Stories] – 双雪涛 [Shuang Xuetao]

This book is a fascinating collection of ten short stories about life in northeast China in the late 80s and 90s. One of the stories – “Moses on the Plain” – is a murder case of a taxi driver that happened 12 years ago. In addition to being a well-written crime novel, book reviewers enjoyed the depictions of joy, sorrow and character changes demonstrated during a time of mass layoffs in Dongbei.

At the moment the book is only in Chinese but is currently being translated. The English translation is expected to come out in 2022.
2034: A Novel of the Next World War – Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

“2034” is a realistic yet terrifying novel full of tension. It envisions a nuclear war and cyberwarfare between the United States, China, Iran, Russia, and India. While everything in “2034” is purely imaginary, the authors’ predictions relied on extrapolation from present-day geopolitical and security developments.

Read our full review here!

– Compiled by Johanna M. Costigan and Greta Lai

YCW 2021 Summer Reading List
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