City of Devils set me off thinking about the most memorable books that I have read about China.
China: Alive in the Bitter Sea was without a doubt one of the most influential ones because it helped prepare me for what was to come before I even set foot in the country. Written by Fox Butterfield, one of the first foreign journalists to be posted in China after the 1949 revolution, it provides a fascinating insight into the huge changes that were sweeping the country in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s as well as an excellent overview of the history of the Cultural Revolution.
I read The Gate of Heavenly Peace by Jonathan Spence at around the same time, which provides an enthralling description of the origins of the Chinese Revolution. In my opinion, the author’s subsequent The Search for Modern China is the best history book about the country that has ever been written in the English language. Spence’s other works, including the Death of Woman Wang and God’s Chinese Son are equally brilliant. The more I am reminded of the beauty of Spence’s writing and the richness of his narratives, the more I’m tempted to dip into his canon once again starting with Return to Dragon Mountain.
Mark Edward Lewis is another excellent historian of China, though I wouldn’t say that his books are anywhere near as accessible or lyrical as Spence’s. However, both The Early Chinese Empires and China’s Cosmopolitan Empire provide extremely thorough accounts of the histories of the Qin and Han Dynasties and the Tang Dynasty.
Probably the most provocative writer about modern China was Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian sinologist who published a series of scathing critiques of his fellow western intellectuals for their blind worship of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party under the pen name of Simon Leys. I read Chinese Shadows before leaving for China. Although I found Leys’s venomous polemics to be highly entertaining, I could never quite escape the feeling that the vicious tone that they were written in meant that the people he was trying to influence simply ignored him or perhaps even further hardened their ideological stances in response to it. Talk about the law of unintended consequences!
I would add though that Leys’s translation of The Analects is outstanding. His love for traditional Chinese culture shines through it – even if he can’t resist throwing a few punches at the modern intelligentsia in the introduction and notes sections!