The best and worst China books of 2008

Last week's email newsletter from research firm Access Asia includes their annual guide to the best and worst of China books. It is republished below with their permission.*

It looked like being a bad one – the Olympics looked like it might throw a kink in the market with a boom in bad books looking to hang on the coattails of the Games. However, by and large they 'didn’t appear. Still, it was hardly a stellar year – there were no really big picture books this year that stormed the shelves, though there were a few interesting memoirs (Rowan Simons’s Bamboo Goalposts and Zhang Lijia’s Socialism is Great! both deserve a mention) but not one good business book. 2008 was a good year for general history though as reflected in our choices below (NB: we’ve left out anything costing a ridiculous amount of money, usually the academics, as who the hell buys books for US$70+?):

The Best of 2008

The Age of Openness: China Before Mao by Frank Dikotter
A superb, concise yet detailed book arguing that the great Communist Party myth that all was terrible, corrupt and backward during the Republican period is inaccurate. Dikotter superbly shows that far from being decayed and needing a revolution, Republican China was a vibrant, progressive society. Far from doing anything bold or new the CCP destroyed China's emerging society and global network of connections for several generations. The Age of Openness is the perfect antidote to the current rise of the Communist Party myth that is being extended globally now through the perfidious Confucius Institutes and lazy educators.


China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage by Alexandra Harney
After all the tomes about how to profit from low-cost manufacturing in China and the wonders of the export economy we were long overdue a good book that looked at the dark side of manufacturing in China. Perfectly timed to deal with the rising costs of production, the moves inland, the recession and factory closures and the stupidity of companies who claimed they were effectively auditing their suppliers. Harney also notes the gorilla in the corner of the CSR party - the general disinclination for supposedly concerned and ethical western consumers to cough up more money for products. Harney gets it all down in a readable fashion and nails her subject. We won't need another book on the problems with this sector for a while now.


The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed by Michael Meyer
It could have been maudlin, could have been a lot of waffle but it turned out to be gripping and well researched. Meyer vividly brings the life of his hutong, now history apparently as the remorseless bulldozers still destroy Beijing. Bound to become a classic we reckon.

The City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China by Jasper Becker
A great gallimaufry of Beijing stories from the veteran journalist and all immensely readable. However, it is Becker's searing indictment of Neanderthal communist officialdom, the campaign to destroy historical memory and the collusion in this process of vainglorious foreign architects and builders that hits home hardest.


The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009 by Jonathan Fenby
A good rolling summation of the last 150 years or so since the Taiping and segueing nicely from the Republican period to the communist. Nice to get that 2009 in there - presumably now Fenby can add a couple of pages a year and then update annually - 2010, 2012, 2014 to keep it selling?

Honourable mentions: Yasheng Huang's Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State and Leslie Chang's Factory Girls.

The Worst of 2008


China's Creative Imperative: How Creativity is Transforming Society and Business in China by Kunal Sinha.
We once spent a long and enjoyable weekend in Istanbul - you'll be happy to know we didn't then write a book about modern Turkey. Sinha spent a small amount of time in China and then penned this drivel which will stand as one of the worst books on China ever - uninformed, incorrect largely, the writing skills of a 12-year-old and would have sunk without a trace had the Ogilvy PR machine (which employs Sinha) not boosted it. Back to your hot-desking, multi-tasking cubicle Mr Sinha and think no more upon China please. Boring, derivative and offering nothing to the reader of any use - RIP some beautiful trees.

Supertrends Of Future China: Billion Dollar Business Opportunities for China's Olympic Decade by James Yuann and Jason Inch.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Surely the title should be enough to persuade you not to waste a couple of hours of your life on this sort of opportunist piffle. Regular readers will know our feelings about books with chapter titles such as China, the Land of Mystery.


My Favourite Wife by Tony Parsons.
While Parsons captured some of the flavor of ex-pat bubble Shanghai our problem with this was that it was just clunking, pontificating and the last few scenes were frankly nuts - Ozzie ex-pat lawyers with pistols in their sideboards willing to die for Filipino cover band birds? Like most people we have no love for lawyers and are quite happy to watch them shoot each other but we doubt it likely. Thanks Tony, but please go back to writing about north London. We wouldn't mind betting that if he'd submitted the manuscript under any other name it would never have made it out of the slush pile.

China Fireworks: How to Make Dramatic Wealth from the Fastest Growing Economy in the World by Robert Hsu.
Yes, you can judge a book by its cover - a book only for the truly retarded. The out of focus cover photo is reflective of the contents.


What Does China Think? by Mark Leonard.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear (again). This piece of wonkish nonsense left you feeling sorry for the trees that had to be sacrificed. Nil points for effort; nil points for research; nil points for being unable to filter the official line due to linguistic and political lack of education and nil points for anything at all really. Let us all pray that this will be Leonard's first and last outing on China.

And a couple of dishonourable mentions: while the above were all totally risible we should also note Simon Winchester's Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China - though bits were interesting, it was riddled with mistakes that could have been easily checked and corrected had a) an editor done a serious job on the manuscript or b) Winchester wasn't such a pompous ass as to believe himself infallible.

There are currently 24 Comments for The best and worst China books of 2008.

Comments on The best and worst China books of 2008

Wow, there is so much blatant bias in the list selection. Notice how all of the "best" books are China-bashing and over-pessimitic, and all of the "worst" books are optimistic of China's future and acknowleging of the growing economy (except the 3rd one which I can't tell from description). It can't be any clearer that the "best" list are based on how hard China and the CCP are bashed. Any sign of agreement with the government will immediately qualify a writer as inexperienced or a communist crony.

Did danwei add the comment, or is it the comments from "Access Asia"? I thought people got over the Tibet stuff and dropped their relentless China-bashing. Guess not.

The entire text is from Access Asia.

Abde -- The world of books and media is not divided into China-bashing / China-loving lines. Frankly, only people within China think that way.
The books that did well on this list were filled with research and facts on the realities of daily Chinese life. And reality is often critical. It's hard writing about difficult circumstances and complications; it's easy to write about the simple happy stuff or get-rich schemes.
Look at best book lists overseas. The one written by the young Islamic translator at the Guantanamo Bay prison was incredibly well rated, because it told a harsh story others could not. It was also hugely critical of the U.S. regime.
Look at the books that have won Pulitzers and Bookers over the years. Most bring up problems, whether it's racism in South Africa, or immigration problems in Europe.
The people who visit this site have to stop seeing everything from a love/hate China point of view.

I have two to add to the list. (Good books, not bad ones)
One is Jen Lin-Liu's Serve the People. (My IHT review is here). Here's a book that is both well-written and researched, but also light, humorous and largely positive. It's about an overseas Chinese moving to China to learn how to cook.

Another is Pallavi Aiyar's "Smoke and Mirrors". I can't say if it's really positive or negative, though Aiyar clearly lovers her adopted home of Beijing. It's a memoir that compares the author's home country of India to China. Review is here.

Like most people we have no love for lawyers and are quite happy to watch them shoot each other but we doubt it likely.


also, the plot may be less fanciful than you imagine.

see, for example, this, this and of course this.

I must say that this list seems quite arbitrary.

One could easily argue that some of the books categorized as "Worst" are actually pretty good (i.e. "What Does China Think?")and that some of the books categorized as "Best" aren't really up to par (i.e. "The Penguin History of Modern China")

@Joyce Hor-Chung Lau
Of course, I would want the world of book not to be divided between hating or loving China. But look at the clear dividing line between the best and worst list. All the "best" books are China hating and all the "worst" books are China loving. Ok, there might be a small chance that this correlation is purely accidental. But look at the biased language of the description. A small example: they are blaming the idea that the republican party was corrupt and incompetent on the Confucius Institute. What? How many people even know what that is? It is as if they are saying those tiny party-sponsored schools can brainwash the whole western world's perception. Also note the cute adjective, perfidious, which means treacherous, deceitful, by the way.

Also, are you saying that a book that only talk about the view of China from the business prospective deserve their pathetic bashing? Are you saying that those books can not achieve their purpose and describe China with a more complete view?

If they have your two recommendation or anything similar in their "best" list, I might think that they picked the list based on actual quality of the book, not on how good those books fit their in-your-face liberal agendas.

abde, have you actually read any of the books that you are talking about?

abde, looking through those short reviews above I find it really hard to see how you classify all the "best" books as China-hating or China-bashing. Two- Dikotter's and Becker's- seem to be very opposed to the Communist Party, and I suppose that if I read those books, I might find them very anti-China, but I find it very hard to see anything in, for example, the review of Fenby's "Penguin History of Modern China" to suggest that it is in any way China-bashing. If you have read these books, could you please explain how it is that they all bash China?

@reader & chriswaugh_bj
I admit that I didn't read every book on the list, so maybe some books in "best list" doesn't bash China. The only ones I read are "China Price" and "What does China thinks". To me, they are both of similar quality, so I can't see where the day and night difference in their reviews come from, unless there are some other factors involved in their judgment.

So you agree that Dikotter and Becker is China Bashing, chriswaugh_bj. Can't you also agree that Meyer and Harney's books are also overly critical of China, just from the reviews. Do I need to justify my statements? "China Price" is very critical towards the capitalism in China. You can probably tell just from the review. I haven't read "Penguin History", so I don't know whether it's really China bashing. But after a little reading some reviews on Amazon, I can tell that this book isn't deserving of its place.

Can you really deny the general trend that unfavorable books about China's development in the last century dominates the "best" list? Also consider their honorable and dishonorable mentions. Books about corrupt abomination of capitalism/oligarchy in the best list; Books by sino-philes(?) about past achievements of Chinese society in the worst list.

"The Last Days of Old Beijing" details daily life in Beijing's oldest neighborhood, where the author volunteered as an elementary school teacher and at the Neighborhood Committee, teaching retired elderly "Olympics English." He lived in a shared courtyard home without heat or indoor plumbing, recalling his two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Sichuan. Just because the book details the destruction of Beijing's lanes doesn't mean it bashes China. In fact, it does quite the contrary, as several characters' lives improve greatly in the year following being evicted. No tears here or teeth-gnashing here.

For what it's worth, I had the same impression after reading the post for the first time. The skew doesn't lend much credibility to the reviews. (Nor does the snarky tone, but this isn't the London Review of Books.)

Also, in the dishonourable mentions section, "Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China" should all be bolded as it's the title of a single book, I believe.

Thanks, Micah. That mistake was easily checked and corrected.

micah - its paul french. snarky is his middle name.

Does anyone divide books about America or France or Japan into the categories of "bashing" and "optimistic of their future"? I believe my book, The China Price, is both balanced and optimistic. It describes the Chinese factory managers and workers trying to make better lives for themselves and their children under intense pressure from Western multinationals chasing ever-lower prices - people like the worker-turned-activist Li Gang, Wal-Mart supplier Eugene Chan, and coal miner Ma Jianguo. It is critical of multinationals that come to China demanding prices so low that they can't possibly include the full cost of environmental and labor protection, a fact that is increasingly acknowledged by officials in Beijing. I hope it challenges consumers - all of us - to understand the real cost of what we're buying.

We inadvertently left off the introductory paragraph to this best/worst list, which gives you some idea where the writers are coming from. I've added it back in.

Can any Chinese readers explain to me why any book that tries to offer a non-official line or is critical of the CCP is quickly labeled anti-China or China-bashing? It's a very bad habit of Chinese bloggers and intellectually lazy - reminds me of the Fox News network in the US always jumping on any Bush criticism as Anti-American. Why can't anyone be critical of aspects of China without being denounced? Criticism is far more useful than all slapping each other on the back.

Funnily enough YangYi that's very similar to the points made by General Xiao Ke (萧克) to the staff at Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine which he helped found if the memorial articles in their most recent edition are to be believed. The general, who died a centenarian this year, only fought through the Nanchang Uprising, the encirclement of the Soviets, the Long March and the war against Japan, so obviously made far less of a patriotic contribution than these brave souls who fight for China on their keyboards every day.

Here is another man's take on the Best China Books of 2008, with better explanations of the merits of each, and how we're actually in a new "golden age" of China reportage (debatable though that may be): link

Meyer's book was OK on content, but it reached too much to capitalize on fake folksiness. "Teacher Plumblossom"? Yeah right, as though Americans surnamed Cooper are more often referred to as Mr. or Ms. "Barrel Maker."

Out of Mao's Shadow. Was surprised to not see it on the "best" side considering the rave reviews it has gotten in internet, tv, print.

greets from bkk

Ps. I took down on "to buy" some books from here and from the second link provided by a commentator. The factory girls, and China Price. Maybe even the history from penguin. :)

Very disappointing article. I was hoping to see some interesting reviews by Danwei editors and I find this rubbish list from Access Asia.

In particular, I don't think Mark Leonard's "What does China think" is wonkish nonsense. Sure it is not the most comprehensive analysis. But it is well written and it works fine as an introduction to China politics in 150 pages. Including profiles and opinions of important Chinese intellectuals, like Wang Hui, Cui Zhiyuan and many others that most Western readers rarely get to know. (but what do we care, old expats always know better than Chinese intellectuals).

The problem, of course, is that this book was written by an outsider who has not lived in China since 1989, and therefore he knows nothing. Paul French, like many others, suffers from the Old Expat Syndrome.

The China Price does not bash China. It simply tells it like it is.

I cannot believe you left out "Out of Mao's Shadow." It is an excellent book and it is the kind of book that will last.

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