Pengyou Picks: Top 10 China Books

Not sure what to get for the holidays? No sweat. We’ve picked out 10 of our favorite China books for you to read or gift to a friend. If you’re in China, don’t worry. We’ve also included links for those that are available on! A percentage of all book sales will go toward our organization. Support Project Pengyou and learn about China at the same time!

Top 10 Pengyou Picks

China Road by Rob Gifford

An informative read about one NPR reporter’s road trip along Route 312, “the Chinese Route 66.” The people Gifford meets along the way gives the reader a more personal perspective of how the economic transformation in China is changing Chinese society. China Road is an easygoing read that gave me an introduction to both the positive and potentially negative effects of China’s booming economy. It almost makes you want to hop in your car and head west! – Alyssa


Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls highlights the lives of young female migrant workers in Dongguan, Guangdong Province—the city where 30% of the world’s disk drives are produced. Defying the typical narrative of exploitation, Chang instead focuses on how the workers themselves feel about migration. She touches on a point that I found unique among other accounts about China’s economic boom—that by leaving home and coming to the factory cities, these girls experienced something they would not have experienced back home: independence. Overall, this book is a great mix of very personal stories that gives a deep insight into the lives of the steadily rising migrant population. – Alyssa (Also available on

 Foreign Babes in Beijing by Rachel DeWoskin

 Foreign Babes is still my favorite expat memoir, partly because I read it before moving here in 2007. Published in  2005, the book strikes a delicate balance between memoir and history. DeWoskin’s knack for humor and   storytelling are on full display and many of the issues she writes about—feeling like an outsider, making friends  with local Chinese, being treated differently as a foreigner—are still being pondered over by expats today. – George  (Also available on

Heaven Cracks Earth Shakes by James Palmer

This book is a fast and visceral read on perhaps the most extraordinary 12 months in modern Chinese history. Every foreigner who wants to understand China post-1949 should read this book. The author brings to life all the political figures caught up in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. So many pivotal events happened in 1976, including the death of Zhou Enlai, the death of Mao Zedong, the fall of the Gang of Four, the rise of Deng Xiaoping, and the Tangshan Earthquake which killed a reported half-million people. The 23-second earthquake was, according to the author, the most concentrated instant of destruction known to humanity. A gripping book, but not for the faint of heart. – Holly 

Mr. China: A Memoir by Tim Clissold

I read this book right before moving to China. It was a quick and easy read, and gave me great insight into what it would be like working with Chinese people. Basically: it’s going to suck. People will try to screw you over. Chinese people have an inner circle of trust, beginning with their family. As a foreigner, well, you’re not family. Given that premise, the book also set me up to jump in and enjoy China for what it is. Some of the excerpts are simply laugh-out-loud. I remember reading a page and running to find my parents so I could read it to them. The author, while describing all of his painful missteps in China, also accomplishes to tell his stories with amazing compassion. He shows that at our core, we are all the same—longing for a better life for our families, doing our best with what we have. That is the greatest achievement of this book. – Holly

Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip P. Pan

Hands down one of the best portraits of modern China. Pan, a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, fashions this book out of interviews with a wide range of Chinese people, from officials to businessmen to average citizens trying to make a difference. Their stories come together to form a picture of modern China that is not easily forgotten. – George



Return to Dragon Mountain by Jonathan D. Spence

Reading this book is like walking back in time. Dragon Mountain follows the historical figure Zhang Dai, a sort of renaissance man, as his fortunes fall with those of the Ming Dynasty. I read this book before I was familiar with Jonathan Spence and enjoyed it at the time for its splendid depictions of the art, poetry and culture of the day. Only later did I appreciate how skillfully Spence is able to bring Zhang Dai’s story to the page and, through his life, reveal the monumental transition China went through from Ming to Qing. Dragon Mountain is a historical novel that is both engaging and informative. – Jonathan (Also available on

River Town by Peter Hessler

This was the first book I read that was related to my experience living in China.  Although it was written well before I arrived and about a completely different part of China, Hessler’s stories felt very familiar. He writes about his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in the remote city of Fuling during the mid-90s. Hessler shares anecdotes about teaching English, the longing to hold on to the smallest bits of home and the overall sentiment behind being a foreigner in China that would strike a chord among most foreigners who have spent time here.  River Town is a “China hand” classic that will remain a timeless novel for years to come. – Alyssa (Also available on

The Generalissimo by Jay Taylor

I read this book when I was living in Taiwan, before I really knew anything about Chiang Kai-shek. If you don’t know who he is, you have to read this book. Chiang led China through one of the country’s most politically significant eras, resisting the Japanese invasion, leading part of the country through civil war and eventually fleeing to Taiwan. Employing a wealth of material made available only in recent years, Taylor writes a biography of one of the most important people in China’s modern history. Let me know what you think after you’ve read it! – Jonathan


When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques

From British author Martin Jacques comes one of the most balanced and informative books on China in recent memory. Despite the alarmist title, When China Rules the World is as much about the past as it is about the future. Speaking of the past, that’s where Jacques smartly begins his book. Instead of pontificating about how China will do this or that, Jacques delves into the cultural and historical factors that make China unique and uses those as a starting point for his analysis. If you’re looking for a comprehensive primer on contemporary China, look no further. – George 


Best Books of 2012

Behind the Red Door by Richard Burger

Richard Burger gives us a glimpse at the sexual revolution underway in modern China, as economic prosperity clashes with traditional morals and behavior.




China Airborne by James Fallows

Atlantic writer James Fallows documents China’s herculean effort to develop its aerospace industry.





Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Paul French reconstructs the last days of Pamela Werner and in doing so gives us a look at Beijing in 1937. (Also available on




Tiger Heads Snake Tails by Jonathan Fenby

Jonathan Fenby summons his decades of China experience to craft this book about the past, present and future of China. (Also available on




When America First Met China by Eric Jay Dolin

In a year of trade disputes, Eric Jay Dolin’s timely book looks at the history of America’s relationship with the Middle Kingdom.




What Chinese Want by Tom Doctoroff

Advertising guru Tom Doctoroff on what the growing consumer culture in China is after. The answers might surprise you.




Winner Take All by Dambisa Moyo

Dead Aid author Dambisa Moyo investigates China’s rush for natural resources and its global implications.





Project Pengyou is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to