Great Books on China

Headed to China as an expat and want to know what’s in store for you?  Already here but trying to figure out why mopeds keep their lights off at night (to save gas) and the thousand other riddles of modern China? These are some of my favorite reads on the Middle Kingdom.

River Town, by Peter Hessler.  Hessler spent two years teaching English in Fuling, a remote town on the Yangtze River. This extremely well crafted book captures the essence of a country and a people in transition. Although his experience is far from that of a typical expat, the book serves as an excellent starting point to get into the Chinese mindset.  I had been trying for years to find a way to explain some of the dusty and dirty trees I’ve seen here in China.  Hessler nailed it in one sentence: “Few things are more pathetic than a tree in Fuling, its leaves gray and dull as if it were just taken out of the attic.”  You’ll chuckle all the way through this book, and if you know China even a little, you might laugh out loud.  All the while, you’ll be developing a deeper understanding of this fascinating place.

Country Driving, by Peter Hessler. Hessler gets his Chinese driver’s license and embarks on a cross country adventure in a series of beat-up Jeep rentals.  It’s sort of a “Route 66 Meets The Great Wall” kind of tale.  There’s plenty in the book to prime a would-be expat for the insanity that is the Chinese driving experience, but he goes so much further.  Free to go wherever he wants, he spends time with the people of a small farming village near Beijing and documents how their lives change after the village is connected to the capital by a new road.  He visits a newly developed factory town, and the “pleather weather” it now enjoys courtesy of the noxious fumes emanating from the world’s new capital of plastic leather manufacturing.  Hessler’s observations are both humorous and poignant.  One of my favorites is: “It occurred to me that only in China could you visit a mountain and then, two years later, find it replaced by something called the Renli Environmental Protection Co., Ltd.”

China Kookoo, by Mark Kitto. Kitto is an English guy that started an English language magazine about the goings-on around town in Shanghai called That’s Shanghai. He learned the hard way that foreigners starting popular publications isn’t exactly on the top ten list of development priorities in China. His Chinese business partner teemed up with the Chinese government to see that he was left with nothing. After reading China Cuckoo and in solidarity to his plight, I stopped reading That’s Shanghai and switched over to Time Out Shanghai and City Weekend. Happily, he’s doing fine, having retreated to the mountains near Hangzhou to open The Lodge at Moganshan, a long forgotten weekend getaway for Shanghai expats that thanks in part to him is now drawing foreign visitors once more. It’s a great story and a fun read. And make sure to check out Moganshan when you need a break from the smog in Shanghai.

Poorly Made in China, by Paul Midler. Midler worked in China as a representative to western companies trying to get stuff made in China. They say it’s never a good thing to watch sausage being made, but Midler’s insiders view of the Chinese production process extends the concept considerably. After reading this, you’ll question why so many American and other companies raced to close down factories at home and shift their manufacturing to China. You’ll probably also never buy discount shampoo again either. Asked why he decided to write this book, he replied, “I felt someone had to.”

Mr. China, by Tim Clissold.  In the early 90s, Clissold, a Mandarin-speaking Englishman, teamed up with a Wall Street investment banker to make sure they wouldn’t miss out on China’s economic transformation.  Within a few years, they invested hundreds of millions of dollars in factories across the country, learning the hard way that the gap in culture, business styles, ethics and just about everything else was too much to handle. Much has changed in China since Clissold’s pioneering days, but his story is a cautionary, highly entertaining and still relevant tale that should be mandatory reading for anyone hoping to find their fortune in China.