I spent most of the 1990's as the director of a Chinese language learning program in Changchun, Jilin Province. My job was to lead, guide, and cajole a group of strong-willed North Americans as they learned Chinese, definitely a 'herding cats' type of experience! As we all went deeper into the language, we inevitably delved deeper into the culture. The following books were key for us all:
Wild Swans, by Jung Chung. This is the story of China's tumultuous 20th century as it affected three generations of women in one family. The story is especially riveting as the madness of the Cultural Revolution engulfs her parents, even though they are true believers in the Party. This book is an excellent way to immerse yourself into Chinese history without feeling like you're reading a history textbook. It reads more like a novel (which it most definitely is NOT!)
China Wakes, by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. Nicholas and Sheryl describe the "wild west" days of China in the 1900's, as the pace of economic reform picked up without commensurate laws and regulations to accompany it. Looking back, it's a wonder the country survived the roaring 90's.
The Man Who Stayed Behind, by Sidney Rittenberg. In the closing days of World War II, US Army soldier Rittenberg was stationed in China as part of the US effort to assist the Nationalists in their fight against the Communist Party. Since his sympathies were with the Communists, he one day left behind his uniform and passport and defected. The Communists welcomed him with open arms. His journey over the next few years took him from Yan'an, where he met Mao and Zhou, to Beijing, where he churned out propaganda material in English. Like others who were loyal to the Party, he was not spared the persecutions of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Before the madness ended in the late 1970's, he would spend 16 years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. Through it all, he kept his faith in the Party.
Red China Blues, by Jan Wong. In the late 1960's Jan Wong was among a small group of foreign students who were allowed to study in Beijing. She and her fellow students were sympathetic to the goals of the regime, and were eager to take part in what the revolution. This is Jan's story of her journey from devotion to disillusionment, which solidified as she watched first-hand the events of 1989. Her eyewitness accounts of that weekend are among the most graphic.
Pavilion of Women, by Pearl Buck. No China book list would be complete without at least one book by Pearl Buck. This is the story of a noble-woman in old China who, at age 40 announces to her husband that having fulfilled her duty to provide him with a son, she now wants him to take a second wife so that she can live her own life and educate herself. There is much to be learned about traditional notions of love, marriage, and duty that, while they may play themselves out differently, are still very much present in Chinese culture today.
To Change China, by Jonathan Spence. Spence, the eminent Chinese historian at Yale, tells the story of 5 westerners who went to China in the late 1800's and early 1900's to do their part in helping China enter the modern world. They all arrived with the intent of changing China, but were eventually chewed up and spit out by a thousand-year-old culture. It is an important cautionary tale for westerners working in China today.
A Million Truths, by Linda Jakobsen. This book, written by a Finnish journalist in the late 1990's gives an excellent picture of the new China that was beginning to emerge 20 years after the beginning of the economic and social reforms.
The Chinese Have a Word for It, by Boy Lafayette De Ment. This is a 2-inch thick glossary of China's cultural rules — the words that provide the keys to unlocking how Chinese society is ordered and how Chinese people think. It is one of those books that will switch on numerous light-bulbs in your head.