Chasing the Dragon: 26 of the Best Books on China

The way we conceptualize China in the West is a bit like the country’s Great Wall: our views are monolithic, defensive, and fairly impenetrable. The West’s existential fears of communism, coupled with China’s rising military and economic clout, suggests there’s little chance we’ll see the country as anything but a threat in the years to come.

China certainly hasn’t made it easy to dispel our one-dimensional ways, however: The country’s rule of law often runs counter to countless principles democracies hold dear, they maintain close ties to North Korea, and their Great Firewall is an affront to free speech.

Then again, heaven knows a country’s political reputation in no way represents the will and intent of its people, and it’s always hard to empathize when you look at the mass and not the individual. So in an effort to better understand China — politically, historically, culturally, personally — Signature is holding up twenty-six books as important entryways into a country whose global influence demands that you pay a little more attention and care to your own preconceived notions.

  • ~The History~

  • The cover of the book Imperial Twilight

    Imperial Twilight

    The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age

    Award-winning historian Stephen Platt sheds new light on the early attempts by Western traders and missionaries to “open” China–traveling mostly in secret beyond Canton, the single port where they were allowed–even as China’s imperial rulers were struggling to manage their country’s decline and Confucian scholars grappled with how to use foreign trade to China’s advantage. This book tells the story of the country’s last age of ascendance and how it came to an end in the nineteenth-century Opium War.

  • The cover of the book China 1945

    China 1945

    Mao's Revolution and America's Fateful Choice

    Mao Zhedong. Chiang Kai-shek. General George Marshall. These are just some of the characters present in the odd, unpredictable, honyemoon year of 1945 when China and the US emerged from WWII with high hopes for strong ties, only to see those ties nosedive by year’s end. If you’re looking to better understand the rivalry between the US and China today, look no further than Richard Bernstein’s China 1945.

  • The cover of the book Empress Dowager Cixi

    Empress Dowager Cixi

    The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

    Empress Dowager Cixi not only bore witness to the birth of modern China in the late 1800s, she practically ushered it in herself. Jung Chang’s biography draws on the latest sources, adding nuance to the often villified Cixi, whose story begs to be told again and again. Cixi rose from her role as an imperial concubine to become mother of China’s next emperor, and then ultimately the country’s power broker, shadow regent, and leader for decades more.

  • The cover of the book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

    Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

    China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

    The Taiping Civil War is one of the bloodiest wars in human history and the bloodiest civil war. But you learned all about that in school, right? Probably not, but that’s where Stephen Platt’s book comes in handy. It’s both sweeping and intimate in detail, chronicling the sparks of the war, when poor Chinese farmers were roused against the Manchus by a man claiming to be the brother of Jesus, as well as the devastating consequences. The road to modern China was paved by the fallout of the Taiping Civil War.

  • ~The Geography~

  • The cover of the book Black Dragon River

    Black Dragon River

    A Journey Down the Amur River Between Russia and China

    The Amur river is the world’s 9th largest river, creating a natural border between China and Russia. (It’s huge.) Journalist Dominic Ziegler scales the notoriously difficult terrain as he follows the twists and turns of the river from north to south, hopping on trains and horses when need be, and tracing the history of the region along the way. This is also one of the few books that carefully dissect the imperial headbutting of Russia and China, two major players in today’s global order.

  • The cover of the book Asia's Cauldron

    Asia's Cauldron

    The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific

    The South China Sea has been the subject of contentious power grabs and saber rattling for years. Vietnam, China, Taiwan and others all claim territorial ownership of land in the area. And why not? The way maritime law works, whoever controls the islands controls a great share of the sea around them. That’s why Robert Kaplan’s book remains an incredibly relevant and timely read, as he explores the future of East Asia relations as countries circle like hawks over the South China Sea.

  • ~Politics~

  • The cover of the book On China

    On China

    Curious about what it’s actually like to negotiate and work with China? Take it from a guy who lived it. Henry Kissinger is one of the most influential architects of modern US-China relations, and in On China he goes under the hood of our countries’ diplomatic ties to reveal how China thinks and how we’ve worked together in the past (from the Sino-Soviet days to Nixon’s famed trip), and he offers a prognosis on how our two nations will interact in years to come.

  • The cover of the book China's Twentieth Century

    China's Twentieth Century

    Revolution, Retreat and the Road to Equality

    In his book China’s Twentieth Century, Wang Hui takes us back to the year 1911. That year, a revolution gave birth to what would come to evolve into the modern Chinese political system. From there through the decades that followed, Wang stops at key moments in China’s recent history that have brought it to where it is today — and argues for where he thinks it needs to go moving forward.

  • The cover of the book Crouching Tiger

    Crouching Tiger

    What China's Militarism Means for the World

    Though co-existing fairly quietly right now, are we set up well to remain at peace with China? This is the overarching question author Peter Navarro explores in his well-researched study of how likely it is that the U.S. and China will, at some point, go to war with one another.

  • The cover of the book The Contest of the Century

    The Contest of the Century

    The New Era of Competition with China--and How America Can Win

    It’s no surprise that the U.S. and China are more competitively pitted against each other than ever, and the current Trump Administration will likely only further the intensity of that competition. For a better understanding of this rivalry, there is likely no more comprehensive book than Geoff Dyer’s The Contest of the Century.

  • ~Cultural Narratives~

  • The cover of the book Wish Lanterns

    Wish Lanterns

    Time to tear down the monolith. In the same way that Anne Garrels talks about how we view Russia in a single dimension — to our own detriment — the West is often all-too complicit in painting China with a single brushstroke, guided by fear or misunderstanding. Wish Lanterns is one of the best resources at our disposal to understand the individuals that make up China, specifically the rising generation poised to inherit it. Author Alec Ash follows the upbringing and tells the life stories of six Chinese, from a musician, to a hipster, to the daughter of a Party official, offering readers a fascinating window into the future of China.

  • The cover of the book The Souls of China

    The Souls of China

    The Return of Religion After Mao

    Generations of Chinese citizens have grown up without exposure to or understanding of world religions, as they are anathema to the country’s communist mandate. But with China’s evolution and steady modernization, there’s been a loosening effect on the country’s strictures of belief. Temples, churches, and mosques have popped up and now riddle the land. Ian Johnson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the suppression of the Falun Gong (a Chinese spiritual movement) in the 1990s, proves expertly equipped to document the rise of religion, ethics, and China’s shifting identity today in The Souls of China. 

  • The cover of the book Age of Ambition

    Age of Ambition

    Evan Osnos, Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, has written a breathtaking book on the cultural forces at play in a changing China. The central crux of Age of Ambition pits individualism and democratic principles against China’s aging communist ethos. Osnos is a masterful storyteller and this finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction will profoundly alter your understanding of the country.

  • The cover of the book The Slaughter

    The Slaughter

    Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China's Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem

    We’ve all at some point or another heard horror stories about organ theft. In China, the organ transplant business is booming — and one of their primary sources for live organs may surprise and disgust you. In his book The Slaughter, Ethan Gutmann dives deep into the dark underbelly of this mysterious industry.

  • The cover of the book China Witness

    China Witness

    Voices from a Silent Generation

    In her book China Witness, journalist and charity founder Xinran sets out to present a full understanding of the nation of China through the stories of its elders. While traveling throughout the country, she met with the men and women who witnessed firsthand all that modernity has brought to this part of Asia.

  • The cover of the book Street of Eternal Happiness

    Street of Eternal Happiness

    Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road

    A lot can happen on a little street, especially when it winds through a big city. Street of Eternal Happiness is a delightful tapestry of personalities told by the Beijing corespondent for National Public Radio. Similar to Alec Ash’s Wish Lanterns, Rob Schmitz’s portrait of everyday lives in China shatters stereotypes and humanizes his subjects, the result of years spent immersing himself in the culture and getting to know the people he writes about as if they were family. By the end of Schmitz’s book you’ll feel as if the people he profiles are part of your family, too.

  • The cover of the book China in Ten Words

    China in Ten Words

    Organized into essays built around ten common Chinese phrases, award-winning writer Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words addresses a variety of topics that are front of mind for most contemporary Chinese. His writing is fearless and thoughtful and humorous, all at once.

  • The cover of the book Factory Girls

    Factory Girls

    From Village to City in a Changing China

    The number of migrant factory workers in China is staggering, and the lifestyle of these workers is unique in so many ways. In her book Factory Girls, journalist Leslie T. Chang follows two women living this life, and uncovers the myriad ways this factor of the Chinese economy is transforming Chinese society.

  • ~The Economy~

  • The cover of the book Building Wealth in China

    Building Wealth in China

    36 True Stories of Chinese Millionaires and How They Made Their Fortunes

    This book tells the stories of 36 of China’s most successful entrepreneurs. Song Zhenghuan went from math teacher to founding the largest supplier of baby strollers in China, and Lu Guanqiu’s once small farm-machinery workshop is now China’s largest auto-parts manufacturer. The stories of these 36 innovative entrepreneurs will entertain and inspire.

  • ~Memoirs~

  • The cover of the book Beijing Bastard

    Beijing Bastard

    Coming of Age in a Changing China

    Val Wang’s memoir tells the story of being raised in a strict Chinese American household in the suburbs and follows her to China, the land from where her parents fled before the Communist takeover. In 1998, Val thinks she’ll find a China entirely different from that of her parents’ stories. After all, lots of time has passed since they lived there. But her traditional relatives wake her at dawn and watch state-run TV every night. Meanwhile, the city she goes out into at night is rebelling against itself.

  • The cover of the book "Socialism Is Great!"

    "Socialism Is Great!"

    A Worker's Memoir of the New China

    In her memoir, Lijia Zhang tells the story of her journey from factory worker to organizer, her support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, and how she became the powerful writer and journalist that she is today.

  • ~The Environment~

  • The cover of the book The China Price

    The China Price

    The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage

    Financial Times correspondent Alexandra Harney dives into the dark side of China’s competetive advantage in the world of the factory economy. Their workers and the environment get the short end of the stick when it comes to China competing in the global economy, says Harney. The pricing pressure that comes from the West, along with a corrupt lack of transparency, result in the misery of the masses, and cruelties exacted on the environment. A business story and a human rights story rolled up into one, Harney’s investigative, on-the-scene reporting makes for an expose you won’t want to miss.

  • ~The Future~

  • The cover of the book China Airborne

    China Airborne

    The Test of China's Future

    China Airborne is a look into the next stage of China’s modernization, as they move from dominating the industrial space to aerospace. China announced its twelfth Five-Year Plan in 2011, in which they committed to spending a quarter of a trillion dollars to jump-starting their aerospace industry. James Fallows dives into this massive project in China Airborne, as well as what it all spells for the United States.

  • The cover of the book Everything Under the Heavens

    Everything Under the Heavens

    How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power

    Howard French argues that to predict China’s future we must first cast our eyes to its past and its former dynastic reach. China today has shaken off any pretense about modest growth and benevolent cooperation as it seeks to dominate Asia through military might and territorial claims, and only by examining the historical context of its ideologies, philosophies, and social worldview can we expect to better understand and work with the global power.

  • The cover of the book China's Disruptors

    China's Disruptors

    How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business

    After Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba raised $25 billion (the worlds biggest initial public offering ever) in 2014, the world has had its eyes on China’s business “disruptors.” The thing is, Alibaba wasn’t an exception — it was the beginning of the new rule. We’ve seen China transform from an impoverished state-run system to a true global power in the past few decades, particularly when it comes to business. How are they doing it, and what can Alibaba and the tidal wave of disruptors who followed him tell us about how they’re doing it?

  • The cover of the book When China Rules the World

    When China Rules the World

    The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order: Second Edition

    This expanded update to Martin Jacques’s international bestseller investigates why, when China rules the world (which Jacques is certain it will), it won’t do so by becoming more Western. No, its approach will be something new entirely, and its ascendancy will make waves in the culture, economy, and politics of our world.