Here are the key books I read in the first decade of the 21st century:
Turning Bricks into Jade, by Margaret Wang. This book is a collection of 'critical incidents' of misunderstanding between Chinese and Americans. Perfect for use in a cross-cultural orientation program, it presents the miscommunications, followed by a detailed analysis/explanation of the cultural assumptions at play on both sides. It's an excellent way to get some practice at figuring out what's really going on in cross-cultural communication events with Chinese.
The Good Women of China, by Xinran. This may be one of the most difficult China books I've read. Xinran used to be the host of a call-in radio show in Nanjing for women. Every night she would hear heartbreaking tales of sorrow, exploitation, and downright abuse. This book is a collection of some of those stories, and paints a bleak picture of the plight of women in contemporary Chinese society.
Rivertown, by Peter Hessler. This is another book that caused me to smack my forehead and say "I wish I had written that!" In the late 1990's Hessler went to a city on the Yangtze River to teach English at a small university. He writes about his students, his (successful) attempts at learning Chinese and the unique rhythms of a city that is on the verge of being submerged due to the Three Gorges Dam.
Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler. OK, I admit it, I'm a Hessler fan. Any of book by Hessler is worth your time. In this one, he explores the direct links between ancient Chinese systems of thought and contemporary China. Despite all the changes that have taken place in recent years, there are more connection points than one would think.
Jesus in Beijing, by David Aikman. If you're looking for a good overview of the development of Christianity in China, particularly during the reform era (post-1980's), this is a great starting point. It's gives excellent historical background, as well as the structure and role of both the registered churches and house churches in China.
China Road, by Rob Gifford. Since I am a great lover of road trips, this remains one of my all-time favorite China books. In the early 2000's Gifford (NPR correspondent in China at the time) hitch-hiked across China from Shanghai to the Kazakh border, along the way chatting with everyone from glamorous party members to truck drivers to Amway salesmen. This book is an excellent 'starter' book for those who don't know much about China and want to get a good overview of the complexity of modern life in China. I wrote a review of the book, which you can read here.
Last Days of Old Beijing, by Michael Meyers. In the years leading up to the Olympics in Beijing (2008) Minnesota native Meyers moved into an old hutong neighborhood of Beijing to experience and document the last days of an ancient neighborhood. It's a good reminder that in the midst of China's high-speed development, history is being destroyed and lives altered.
Factory Girls, by Leslie Chang. Ever wonder where all your 'stuff' comes from? Chances are it comes from a factory in southern China where millions of young people from China's countryside work. Chang (wife of Peter Hessler) follows the journeys of three young women who migrate from their villages to the factory town of Donghuang in search of their dreams. You'll never look at your iPod the same again.
(NOTE: If you purchase any of these books by clicking on the links above, I will get compensation from Amazon. Think of it as a way to support my work in China. Thanks.)