Interested in China? Read These Books.

The spirit doesn’t always strike me, but lately I’ve been feeling focused enough to read. I think I was getting burnt out on Victorian novels after finishing Jane Eyre, and Frankenstein just couldn’t hold my attention. I needed something a little bit more pertinent to my professional focus—namely, books about China.

I went to my local library and was pleasantly surprised by the goldmine of books that awaited in the China section. Here is just a quick list that I’ve been enjoying lately.

The China Mirage

This book takes a critical look at the relationship between the US, China and Japan during the events leading up to and during World War II. The China Mirage refers to the misinformed policy that the FDR administration enacted in reaction to the struggle for power between Chiang Kai-Shek, founder of the Guomintang Party, and Chinese communist leader, Mao Zedong as Japan was invading China.

The complex web of interactions between FDR and other administrators, lobbyists in Washington bankrolled by the Song and Chiang families, the US Christian media, and the American public is not a narrative that I have ever heard before. It is refreshing because it does not blindly attack Mao for being a communist, nor does it blame for Japanese-US conflict entirely on Japan.

The Kitchen God’s Wife

This riveting story chronicles a mother’s journey through China during the Japanese invasion that she has kept from her daughter after moving her life to the United States. The book gets bonus points for being local and begins from the daughter’s perspective in the Richmond District and Chinatown of San Francisco, but later transitions to the mother story as a young girl in Shanghai. The narrative is free flowing and feels as if I were sitting at a kitchen table, listening to a family member telling a story.

I’ve been reading the China Mirage and The Kitchen God’s Wife simultaneously and because the historical context is fresh in my mind, it really brings the story to life.

Factory Girls

I meet many Americans who have negative feelings towards China because many of our clothes and electronics are imported from across the Pacific–I myself admit to having had similar feelings in the past. But I think this malaise about imports boils down to guilt and fear about their place in the world order. On the one hand, Americans feel guilty because all the stuff they use on a daily basis is manufactured in factories under conditions that they themselves would probably never submit to. They also feel fear because everything seems to be labeled with “made in China.” It makes us wonder if it is wise rely so heavily on another country–a big scary communist one at that.

I love factory girls because it put faces to the people who work in the Nike and cell phone factories. After reading this book, I suddenly understood that working in a factory was just a job, certainly demanding, but not evil in and of itself. It gives you a context in which to locate where all this “made in China” stuff comes from. It makes you realize that all of these efforts to go an entire year without buying Chinese imports needlessly protectionist and suspicious.

Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress

Haven’t started this book yet, but it is next on my list and has been for some time. This book piqued my interest because it had made its way into several friends’ high school required reading lists and I’m interested to see why.

As far as I can tell, the story centers on some young people, exiled to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. They soon discover a stash of banned foreign books, which will ultimately have a powerful influence over them. Bonus points because Balzac is great! But the author seems to be a formerly Chinese French citizen, which I imagine makes this book a likely target to come under attach as “not Chinese enough” by some. Still, I’m looking forward to this read.

I’ve been soaking up these books for a few weeks now—such good reading. What do you think of my recommendations? Are there any books that you would add to this list? Tweet me @rachelcritelli—I’d love to hear what you think!

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