After teaching English in Zhengzhou for two years, I returned to Minnesota in 1986 to pursue a Master's Degree and gain more teaching experience, with the intention of returning to China a few years later. While Stateside, I started serious work on building my China library. These are the books that were key for me during that time:
1986 – 1990
Coming Home Crazy, by Bill Holm
In 1985 an oversized Icelandic-American professor from Minnesota went to Xi’an to spend a year teaching English. When he returned a year later, he published this book of essays on his experience. This was the first book that I read that caused me to smack my head and say “I wish I’d written that.” What made the book so endearing to me and others who had or were teaching in China at the time was that he was essentially telling our stories and experiences. I re-read the book last year and wrote a post titled “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
The Joy of Getting Along with the Chinese, by Fred Schneiter
In the early 1980’s Fred Schneiter, in his capacity as a representative of the American Wheat Board, arrived in China to promote the eating of bread among the rice and noodle-eating population. This book offers a light and witty tour of Chinese culture, especially as it is often encountered by outsiders who are here to do business. There are tips on everything from the rituals of banqueting and getting your taxi driver not to drive like a maniac to conducting negotiations.
The New Emperors, by Harrison Salisbury
In this book, NYT correspondent Salisbury shows how Mao and Deng ruled China, not according to Marxist principles, but in the manner of the emperors before them. It was something that I hadn’t seen before, and completely changed my understanding of China’s governance.
The Search for Modern China, by Jonathan Spence
If you’re looking for a definitive work on China’s recent history, this is it. It’s laid out much like an encyclopedia, so is a great reference book. Keep in mind, though that in Chinese history parlance, “modern China” dates from the mid-1600’s.
Evening Chats in Beijing, by Perry Link
In 1988 Princeton Professor Perry Link spent a year in Beijing interviewing intellectuals to understand the changes that had taken place in the ten years of reform. This book is a record of those conversations. We can listen in as they talk about corruption, the authoritarian nature of the state, the need for the reform of the work unit system. The reader can’t help get the feeling that pressure is building and something will blow, which it did in the spring of 1989. This book will give you understand the mood in the country leading up to the events of 1989.
Have you read any of these? What did you learn?