China has a rich history that spans several millennia as a continuous civilization. For me, however, the most interesting part has always been the last 66 years under communism. Society was swept from one end to the other, experimented on, if you will, and later unshackled to start what we now know as history’s greatest economic boom. Quite a ride.
There are countless books on China’s modern history. These are three of my favorites.
In Chen Village we follow the changes in one village somewhere in Southern China, close to Hong Kong. The book has three versions. The first version was based on interviews with villagers who had fled to Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s. For the second version its three authors, two sociologists and one sinologist, visited the village between 1987 and 1990. For the latest version they went back again in 2006 and 2007. The end result is a well-written story (despite being written by academics) of how the 20th century’s many upheavals influenced the lives of every Chinese person. The villagers of Chen village suffered through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and ended up as wealthy land owners who turned their fields into factories.
Simlar to Chen Village, Private Life under Socialism follows the fate of one single village somewhere in China. But the books are different enough to read both. For one thing, it’s author Yan Yunxiang is Chinese. He describes the village he grew up in in the 1970s and returned to as an anthropologist in 1989. He went on to live and do field work there for no less than eleven years. Where Chen Village is more a history, Private Life under Socialism carefully describes the influences of first communism and later money on people’s personal lives. Central is his analysis of the Chinese family, and how China’s new riches mean young couples no longer have to listen to their parents all the time.
From 2005 until 2013, Evan Osnos was China correspondent for the New Yorker. Plenty of time to get to know China as it is today, the good and the bad. In Age of Ambition Osnos describes the country with wit and intelligence, and the book has rightly been praised by everyone who read it. If you want to understand modern China, there is perhaps no better book to read than The Age of Ambition.