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The Best China Books of 2021

recommended by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom


Whether you want to read the entire history of China in 250 pages or find out what's going on right now in Xinjiang, enjoy a new translation of a 16th-century fantasy novel or delve into contemporary short stories, 2021 has been another good year for books about China. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor's Professor of History at UC Irvine, recommends his favourite China books of 2021.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom


Before we go through the books individually, what’s been going on in 2021 with books about China in general?

There have been plenty of books coming out lately on US relations with China and the Chinese Communist Party’s global reach. Some of them, I’m sure, are very good, but I haven’t kept up with them. I’ve also got a growing ‘to read’ list that includes Chinese contemporary novels by writers whose pasts works I’ve liked. 2022 will need in part to be a catch-up year for me—though that hasn’t stopped me from offering up 2021 suggestions here. I’ve fallen behind because I’ve been trying to finish a long in the works project on China in the year of the Boxers, 1900, after spending a few years deeply into the Hong Kong story. I’m worried that I may have trouble getting through my ‘to read’ list in 2022, however, as some of my very favorite historians have books coming soon.

Let’s turn to the first book you’ve chosen, which is a work of history. This is by Linda Jaivin and it’s called The Shortest History of China, which sounds brilliant. How many pages does she manage to squeeze China’s history into?

It’s about 250 pages, which for several thousand years of history is not bad. Jaivin’s a very talented writer, who knows China well, and from a variety of vantage points. She’s written on rock music there, on protest. She’s got a passionate interest in women’s roles both in Chinese history and in contemporary China. Women figure in the book throughout, in more than token ways for every period, which is refreshing. She brings to the book this special energy and interest in intriguing and unexpected stories, while also covering the historical milestones.

The most challenging thing for a book like this is to do justice to both continuities and ruptures. She doesn’t fall into the trap of an ‘unchanging China’ idea. One nice visual touch is that most chapters have a map. It’s a map of what now comes into our mind when we hear the word China, and she shows how much or how little—and it’s often very little—of that physical space was actually controlled by the dynasty in power at the time. That’s a very effective way to keep reminding us to forget the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to get one to think of there being a single geographical space that always was and always will be China, except when bad things happened, and parts got carved away.

And she really does manage to cover all the dynasties and take it right through?

It’s all in there. I used it as a textbook, and it seemed to work quite well. It’s sort of an anti-textbook, but those are the textbooks that I like to use. It’s not in the grade school textbook genre, in which it’s all names and dates. It gives you lots of information, but it’s carried forward by gripping tales and nicely crafted profiles.

She writes about poetry and the script as well. It’s a nice introduction to China, maybe, if you don’t know much about it.

Yes, and particularly Chinese culture. If you had to classify it, I think its strength is as cultural history.

Let’s go on to the next book you’ve chosen, which is Julia Lovell’s Monkey King: Journey to the West, a new translation of the novel by Wu Cheng’en. Do you want to start by explaining why this book is important in China?

It’s one of those books that if you grow up in China, you know the story, even if you haven’t read the book. It’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland or the story of Romeo and Juliet if you’re growing up in England or America. Even if you’ve never seen Romeo and Juliet, you still know the characters, somebody can refer to Romeo and it means something.

It’s a quintessentially Chinese work, it’s fundamental to Chinese culture and, yet, it has elements in it that do not fit in at all with the stereotyped vision of China as this place of Confucian hierarchies where familial ties and stability are all that matters. It’s the story of an adventure, a trip on the road by these characters with magical capabilities. The Monkey King, the novel’s provocative and provoking protagonist, likes to turn the world upside down and revels in chaos. In the introduction I wrote to the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China—which is coming out early in 2022 in an updated edition as the Oxford History of Modern China—I paired it with one of the other novels that’s familiar to so many people of Chinese descent, inside and outside of Asia: Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone. In that novel, the action takes place mainly within the extended family compound and has much more of the stereotyped view of a harmony-focused and settled down China. Monkey King is late Ming, so 16th century. The Dream of the Red Chamber is a Qing creation, early 18th century. I think these two novels are both crucially part of what Chinese culture is—and yet, by placing them side by side, they show that you can’t reduce it to a single set of values, any more than you could the West.

I know you were excited last year about a new translation of Monkey King coming out. Was it needed?

Yes. It’s a story that should be more widely known globally. It’s also enjoyable. But if you’re unfamiliar with it, if it’s translated too literally, the style can be off-putting, letting you forget it’s fundamentally a popular adventure story. You want to be drawn in via lively narration, and some previous translations have ended up a bit stodgy. It’s also a long book, and I think it was good that Julia Lovell decided to do some abridgement to make it move along faster for the uninitiated reader. It’s a translation that is done carefully while engaging a reader who doesn’t want a literature lesson but wants to be entertained. It’s very well packaged with that in mind.

My edition comes with a foreword by Gene Luen Yang, who’s a wonderful comic book writer who’s been fascinated with the story of Monkey and has brought it into his comics (He also wrote a two-part comic book about China in 1900, Boxers and Saints, that I like a lot.) The whole project was meant to give people a sense that if they don’t know about the book, they’ve been missing out on something, in the way that if you don’t know Tolkien, you are missing out.

Okay, let’s go on to The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives, which is edited by three historians of China, Timothy Cheek, Klaus Mühlhahn and Hans van de Ven. Tell me more about it.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and there has been a slew of books about it from different angles, including a good, detailed narrative by Tony Saich, From Rebel to Ruler. A lot of the works have focused either on the organization, or its formal ideology, or on particular leaders. What this trio of historians decided to do was go decade by decade, picking a different individual to highlight, who could either be a member of the party or have a key relationship in their life to the party. The contributors are mostly academics who write well and work in different disciplines, and the book can serve as a sampler of who you might want to read more by, if you want to go deeper into the last 100 years. A couple of the contributors are scholars active within China who are critical intellectuals, but not dissidents, which is a tricky line to walk at this point.

It’s a good book to give a sense of more individuals than just Mao and Deng Xiaoping and maybe a famous dissident or two—who will be the only people that many readers know about. It’s a nicely varied collection that focuses on life stories, which is a recurring theme in the books that I tend to be drawn to.

Can you give an example of the kind of person they pick? Are they all unknown?

Some political leaders get chapters: Jiang Zemin, for example, is the representative of the years around 2000.

There are also chapters, such as one by Zhang Jishun, that focus on very different kinds of people. Her contribution is a profile of an actress, Shangguan Yunzhu, who was a film star in the late 1940s in Shanghai, where Zhang is based, who later had to be re-educated to become a literary worker in the new China. It talks about the ups and downs of the star’s career and the ways in which she ran afoul of the new government. In the process, it introduces you to the world of film before 1949, and of political struggles after 1949.

Shangguan Yunzhu was somebody who was denounced and suffered. Adding to the interest of the chapter is how its subject’s life was entwined with the most famous—and infamous—actress of the era, Jiang Qing, who was Mao’s wife and became part of the Gang of Four.

Let’s go on to Land of Big Numbers, which is by Te-Ping Chen of the Wall Street Journal. From the title, I thought this was going to be a book about Chinese statistics, but it’s actually a collection of stories, isn’t it?

It’s an extraordinary collection of short stories, which would be valuable for their literary merits even if they didn’t also provide a window onto China. The stories aren’t of a single genre. Some of them are what you would expect from a gifted journalist who’s taking stories in the news and putting a fictional spin on them. There is one story about a rural inventor—and I remember reading news reports about rural inventors, people in the countryside who put their energy into coming up with these amazing devices. That’s a charming story, but it’s not unexpected from a journalist.

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But there are a couple of other stories that veer toward science fiction or magical realism. My favorite is one about an extraordinary fruit that appears in a local market one day. The story has a great evocation of neighborhood markets in China where you shop for fruits and vegetables. But it turns out that this particular fruit unlocks memories, getting characters to talk about things that they had been repressing. As the best science fiction often does, it takes a realistic setting and spins it out, asking, ‘What if you altered one element of a milieu? How would everything change?’ In this case, people’s relationships change. The fruit is really delightful to eat, but do people want to unlock these emotions and go in that direction? It’s a lovely and strange story.

The other thing that I like about the book is that even though it’s not about this, there are some characters sprinkled in that move between China and the United States. There’s some cross-cultural understanding or misunderstanding. Te-Ping Chen is a very good journalist, and a very talented writer of fiction as well. It would be a perfect book club book.

It also ties in with the previous book, in that the rural inventor is always trying to get into the Chinese Communist Party. If you haven’t spent time in China, I think it’s hard to imagine the role the party plays in everyday life.

It’s part of life, maybe in the way that in very religious countries, a church or religious hierarchy might be. It also has a social welfare and a prestige-granting mechanism—as well as control.

On that note, your last book choice is In the Camps by Darren Byler. Presumably, the book is about what’s been going on in Xinjiang. The Financial Times review says it “evokes the shadow of concentration camps—with the added cruelty of a 21st-century surveillance system.” Tell me what it’s describing and why it’s important to read this book.

It’s been reviewed paired with a book that I recommended last year, which was the new edition of James Millward’s big history of Xinjiang, Eurasian Crossroads, that was updated with a chapter on recent repression. What’s important about In the Camps is that there hasn’t been a short, deeply informed book about Xinjiang that you could point somebody to who says, ‘I don’t have a lot of time to devote to this subject, but I want to go deeper than I can even through a long-form journalism piece’.

Darren Byler is an anthropologist who has significant on the ground experience and has been doing ethnographic work. He also just published a more scholarly book with Duke University Press, Terror Capitalism, which is very good on related fieldwork but written for other specialists.

In the Camps is designed to give a feel for the human experience of having the ground pulled out from under you in every conceivable way. Forms of movement become constrained, everything you’re doing is watched. People are disappearing into camps, but also going silent because of fear of being targeted. It’s an incredibly important story, because of the impact it has on the people involved. Also—and this is something Byler gets at—while it’s a very distinctive and unusual story, it’s not an isolated one. This is an extreme example, with both the assault on the Uyghurs and on Islam as a religion, but the effort to control forms of difference is something that’s happening in other places across China, too.

“It’s a dark story: there’s no way around that”

Byler also takes pains to show that what is happening in China has parallels in other places and global relevance. The technologies that are being developed to control are ones that are, in some cases, being developed in part by international companies and being used in other locales.

I understand why the terms ‘concentration camp’ and ‘genocide’ are sometimes used—because there’s a sense that you need to have the strongest language possible to get attention for this issue. He suggests other ways to frame discussion, however, that are equally appalling and might not lead into back-and-forth discussions. He talks about processes that are tied to carceral systems in all kinds of places, prisons where your every movement is controlled. He writes of varied forms of colonialism. The way that Beijing is trying to control places on the peripheries is very much like a colonial state, but armed with very advanced surveillance technologies.

It’s a dark story: there’s no way around that. But he is somebody who—to return to the theme—fills his book with real people. He’s sensitive to things like poetry, which is incredibly important as a form of expression among Uyghurs, both within the PRC and now in exile. You’re not simply reading a catalogue of human rights abuses. It’s the story of a slide toward a very dystopian daily life.

So, if you read this book, you have a pretty good sense of what’s going on in Xinjiang with the Uyghurs?

Yes, it’s very timely, with the diplomatic boycott by the United States—and other countries—of the Olympics. This is due to multiple concerns about China, including Peng Shuai. But I think if there was one thing to point to, it’s Xinjiang. It’s become a focus in the way that in 2008, when there was talk about a potential boycott, Tibet was the place that came to mind. That they are connected stories comes out in the book. It’s not an isolated thing: some of the methods now being used in Xinjiang were tried out in Tibet or against Falun Gong members. The Party keeps experimenting with and refining techniques and technologies of control. There are also echoes of Mao-era reeducation camps in this as well.

In terms of the technologies, is things like facial recognition?

It’s facial recognition, checkpoints but also just data collection. That’s something that is relevant across the PRC. It’s happening in Hong Kong as well, this effort to get people’s cellphones and their contacts and to maximize the personal data the government has at its command. Though, of course, that again is not just a China story but a global one.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

December 16, 2021

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Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in modern Chinese history, with a strong interest in how China's past relates to the present as well as events elsewhere in the world. He is focused on popular protests in particular. He has written a number of books about modern Chinese history, both for academic and for general audiences. You can find him on Twitter at @jwassers.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in modern Chinese history, with a strong interest in how China's past relates to the present as well as events elsewhere in the world. He is focused on popular protests in particular. He has written a number of books about modern Chinese history, both for academic and for general audiences. You can find him on Twitter at @jwassers.