Summer holidays are coming to an end, but there's still plenty of time for a bit of summer reading before the autumn rolls in. Whether you're a newbie or an old China hand, these Beijing books provide interesting tales of the city that you'll definitely want to dive into.
1: Midnight in Peking
Paul French is on his way to becoming Beijing’s Truman Capote given the spectacular success of this tale of true crime. The book follows the investigation of the brutal murder of Pamela Werner, adopted daughter of the former British consul, Edward Werner. French works his way from the murder through the botched joint British-Chinese investigation to Edward Werner’s own obsessive search for justice and truth. The whirlwind journey whisks the reader through the old legation quarter and the licentiousness, hedonism and crime of the surrounding slums during the last days of Republican China as the Japanese Imperial army amasses around the city.
Midnight in Peking by Paul French (2012), RMB200 from The Bookworm
2: The Uninvited
The Uninvited is a thriller of misidentification, corruption and the moral choices facing journalists today. Our protagonist Dan is interviewing for a job in a hotel when he is mistaken for a journalist and invited to a banquet. He finds that he can eat for free and make money (in bribes for publishing positive stories about the banquet hosts), but the more he uncovers corruption the more he must make the choice between uncovering the truth and feeding his own family. Here we see two very different sides of Beijing: the one of the rich and powerful and the one of the poor, as our protagonist walks the thin line between the two. The pacing of the story, black comedy and Kafka-worthy absurdities make this book a page turner.
The Uninvited by Yan Geling (2006), RMB165 from The Bookworm
3: Rickshaw Boy
This iconic Beijing novel is a classic of Chinese realism and an indictment on the philosophy of individualism in the line of Dickens. The book focuses on an honest, diligent rickshaw driver who is corrupted and beaten down by society. Lao She captures the schizophrenic spirit of old Beijing—the chaos, beauty, sleepiness, decadence, destitution and charm as the protaginist, "Camel" Xiangzi, plies the streets from Xizhimen to Qianmen. Much will be familiar to current Beijing residents, but much has been lost. We particularly love the descriptions of the changing seasons.
Rickshaw Boy by Lao She (1937), US$11 from Amazon.com
4: Chinese Shadows
Famed sinologist Pierre Ryckman (writing under the pseudonym Simon Leys) dissects the Orwellian nature of the Cultural Revolution in this masterpiece of literary journalism. Published in 1977 following a six-month diplomatic stint in Beijing in 1972, Leys' work lays out how China’s cultural heritage is being torn down and a new façade erected—one where government whitewash has eroded critical thought and where foreigners are methodically kept apart from real Chinese. It is a brilliant view into Beijing at a unique moment of history from one of the greatest sinologists ever.
Chinese Shadows by Simon Leys (1977), US$29.99 from Amazon.com
5: Please Don't Call Me Human
Credited with the creation of Chinese "hooligan literature," Wang Shuo’s works brutally dissect Chinese culture at the end of the 1980s. Please Don’t Call Me Human attacks empty rhetoric, rampant materialism and the concept of face. The story imagines a new Olympics in which nations are not competing on athletic skill but on their people’s capacity for humiliation. A committee is formed to find a new athlete, in this case a pedicab driver from Beijing, and winds up exploiting him for money and for national interest until the very brutal end. The story shifts between the old and new Beijing: a nationalist Beijing, capital of the greatest country in the world, and the hyper-capitalist new Beijing willing to do anything to make money. Wang Shuo is one of China’s most popular authors and his acerbic take on contemporary culture is interesting if one can get over his heavy- handed satire.
Please Don't Call Me Human by Wang Shuo (1989), US$29.99 from Amazon.com
6: The Crazed
Many have described this as Ha Jin's most accomplished novel. The author analyses Chinese intellectualism through the story of an aging professor, Professor Yang, hospitalized due to a recent stroke, and his student-carer, Jian Wan, who intends to marry the professor's daughter and hopes for his guidance through university. Jian Wan must listen as Yang’s raving degenerates and he starts talking of the Cultural Revolution and the death of academia in China. The Crazed gives us an up close and personal portrait of academic life in Beijing, the role of professors in the capital and what students are expected to do in the city’s most prestigious schools. Ha Jin’s realist narrative is praised for its structure throughout the story, which only loosens as the professor descends deeper into his insanity and Jian Wan comes to term with the choices he himself must make.
The Crazed by Ha Jin (2004), US$13.50 from Amazon.com
7: Mao's Last Dancer
Recently made into a movie, Li Cunxin's autobiography is inspirational and insightful. Hailing from a poor family of 20 in Shandong Province, Li Cunxin is chosen by Madame Mao’s cultural delegates to study ballet in the newly revived Beijing Academy of Dance. At the age of 11, he moves to Beijing and trains rigorously before attending a cultural exchange mission in Texas. The years covered give us a great insight into the differences between life in Beijing and the countryside. Li is an outsider in Beijing, but training with the cultural elite gives him a unique perspective on the city. The book has been praised for Li Cunxin’s heartfelt recollection of events and is great for those looking for a Chinese rags-to-riches story.
Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin (2003), US$12.23 from Amazon.com
8: Beijing Confidential
Canadian-born Jan Wong studied at Beijing University during the 1970s at the height of the Cultural Revolution. During her time in China, Wong denounced a classmate, Yin Luoyi, who was eager to find out more about emigrating to the U.S. Thirty years later, Wong revisits Beijing and, racked by the guilt of having reported Yin Luoyi, she searches for her with the hope of redemption. Wong’s story is powerful both as a story of forgiveness but also as a recent history of China. Through her eyes we can see how different contemporary Beijing is compared to the days of the Cultural Revolution.
Beijing Confidential by Jan Wong (2007), US$22.95 from Amazon.com
9: The Dragon's Tail
This epic cold-war thriller takes us on a journey through childhood friendships, espionage, love, betrayal and loyalty. Harry Airton, a Scottish citizen born in Beijing, is recruited by the British secret service to spy in Beijing. He is later introduced to Peng Ziwei, a young lady recruited by the Chinese secret services to spy on Harry, who does so to ensure her family’s safety. The two fall in love and what follows is a tale of the choice between betraying their country or betraying their love set in the political world of Beijing, but also the Beijing of Airton’s childhood. The historical and personal scope of this novel is epic and makes it an impressive debut novel.
The Dragon's Tail by Adam Williams (2007), US$4.59 from Amazon.com
10: I Love Dollars
Through his writing and especially this collection of short stories and novellas, Zhu Wen has helped define the new generation. Labeled by many as a "freedom writer," he writes of sex as the embodiment of all "lofty" ideas, art as prostitution and money as obsession. In these stories, we meet people from every walk of life in Beijing and see how they deal with and use their newfound freedom in the capital. The loose themes of the stories come together well as the embodiment of a confused generation.
I Love Dollars by Zhu Wen (2007), RMB120 from The Bookworm
11: Beijing 798
This collection of essays, articles and interviews concerns China’s burgeoning art scene, the reconstruction of the city following the revolution and how these are interweaved with wider changes in society. The book was edited by artist Huang Rui, and contributors include Ai Wei Wei. The book uses 798 as a focal point to encapsulate the societal shift from the work unit (danwei) to today's consumerism.
Beijing 798 ed. Huang Rui (2005), RMB280 from Timezone 8 Art Books
12: The Last Empress
This book casts new light on the Empress Dowager Ci Xi, portraying her as a woman willing to sacrifice everything she had for those she loved and an empire in decline. From the isolation of the concubine quarters, we see her grow into her role as empress, holding together rival factions and representing China in the face of colonial encroachments. Anchee Min gives us an insight into royal Beijing—its customs and traditions, the Forbidden City and high politics in the capital.
The Last Empress by Anchee Min (2007), RMB90 from The Bookworm
13: Beijing Doll
This semi-autobiographical book reflects on the author's teenage years in Beijing and her rejection of everything she considers "normal." Cobbled together from journals she wrote from the ages of 14-17, it's an inside view of teenage angst of the ’90s. Chun Sue rebels against expectations for girls at the time by embracing the rock community and indulging in free sex. Here we meet people from all over China attracted to Beijing as the cultural and artistic center of China. The book resonates more with a teenage audience, but the conflict in gender roles and expectations make this book accessible to adults, too.
Beijing Doll by Chun Sue (2000), US$15.51 from Amazon.com
14: Hand-grenade Practice in Peking
In 1975, Frances Wood came to Beijing on a British university exchange program. Despite intending to study Chinese, she spent much of her time training to be a "worker peasant soldier student" and gives us a detailed account of revolutionary propaganda lectures, grenade throwing practice and manual labor. This is a great firsthand account of old Beijing, academic life and the atmosphere in Beijing during the '70s.
Hand-grenade Practice in Peking by Frances Wood (2000), US$21.71 from Amazon.com
15: Loving Sabotage
Originally written in French, this autobiographical book introduces us to Sanlitun of the 1970s as seen through the eyes of a little girl. The Belgian author lived in Beijing for two years while her father was posted here for work, and her life was confined mostly to the Sanlitun neighborhood, alongside the rest of Beijing’s foreign diplomatic families. Nothomb’s recollections, from fighting an all-out war against children from Soviet Bloc countries, to riding her bike down an empty Chang’an Jie, offer a fresh take on Cultural Revolution Beijing.
Loving Sabotage by Amelie Nothomb (1993), US$15.95 from Amazon.com
16: Serve the People
Many have compared this book to Lady Chatterly’s Lover thanks to its plot, controversy, and ability to shock and challenge taboos. Wa Dawang, the household chef of a division commander, falls for Liu Lian, the young wife of the commander. What follows is a brilliant satire on Mao’s phrase “Serve the People” and the sexual taboos of the time as Wa Dawang endeavors to satisfy Liu Lian. Serve the People highlights the rules and roles played by the military commanders in Beijing and inverts Beijing slogans and rhetoric.
Serve the People by Yan Lianke (2008), US$13.71 from Amazon.com
17: Mad Dinner
Written as an imaginary dinner discussion spliced with excerpts from real interviews and essays, Ma Yansong, founder of Beijing architectural design company MAD, dissects the rapid urbanization of Beijing. Throughout these discussions, Ma places equal emphasis on the opinions—sometimes imaginary and sometimes real—of artists, migrant workers, developers, doctors and people from all walks of life. Mad Dinner makes for enlightening reading thanks to Ma’s own personal experiences and expertise.
Mad Dinner by Ma Yansong (2008), US$49.95 from Amazon.com
18: Red Rock
The former drummer for Black Cat Bone and RandomK(e) gives an impassioned history of Chinese rock, told from an insider’s perspective. We see the evolution of the rock scene as it grows in Beijing from the 1985 Wham! concert to the flourishing contemporary scene, with everything from Cui Jian’s role in "Let the World Be Full of Love" at Workers Stadium, to the establishment of Magic Stone record label, to Kurt Cobain tributes in ’96 in between. Campbell’s impassioned history, told from an insider’s perspective, is accessible to all with an interest in rock but also Chinese society. To Campbell, Chinese rock embodies the spirit of endurance, and it is time for us to better understand the power of this movement as it begins to open to the world.
Red Rock by Jonathan Campbell (2011), US$15.36 from Amazon.com
19: The Maker of Heavenly Trousers
This recently re-released book tells the story of Kuniang, the child of an Italian railway man, who is left under the care of a foreign bachelor in Beijing. The story profiles the interaction of Kuniang with the other foreigners living in the quarters: a beautiful Russian aristocrat, an English millionaire and an American fashion designer. The dreams of migrants are brought into contrast with the realities of the capital, and the child's caregiver must compete for her attention among the charismatic migrants. The writing is romantic, at times comedic and definitely recommended for all expats in the capital.
The Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Vare (1935), RMB180 from The Bookworm
20: The Last Days of Old Beijing
Michael Meyer describes his relationship with Beijing as “love at first sight,” and this is his testament to Old Beijing. Meyers lived in Dazhalan Hutong for two years, and the book introduces a cast of fascinating real characters: “the widow,” his neighbor; “the hand,” a government official responsible for chalking the walls of homes to be demolished; and a local historian aiming to preserve the hutong culture.
The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer (2008), RMB160 from The Bookworm
21: I Chose China
Beijing resident Sidney Shapiro, having lived in China since 1947, retells his life story in this memoir which is also an ode to New China. On the recommendation of the U.S. army, Shapiro came to China to study Chinese and fell in love with the country and his future wife: Phoenix, a staunch communist and actress. This memoir weaves between events in Sidney’s personal life and the historical metamorphosis of China in the 20th century. Shapiro lived through massive changes in Beijing while being very well researched on Chinese culture, and this gives him a unique perspective on changes in Beijing and China at large.
I Chose China by Sidney Shapiro (1996), $18.96 from Amazon.com