Holiday books

Our first summer reading list is a compilation of books we’ve read that we like about China.

Holiday books

The Man Who Loved China

Simon Winchester

The Chinese discovered paper and printing. They were the first to figure out how to make a compass, as well as how to concoct gunpowder and build bombs. They knew how to cast iron before anyone else and how to build suspension bridges. They gave the world tea, silk and porcelain. They also invented playing cards, the toothbrush and (allegedly) football.

But when Joseph Needham was born in 1900, much of China’s former greatness was long forgotten. American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson called it a “booby nation”, and there were many in the West who readily agreed. The New York Times called China “an anachronism and a dirty one”, while a (now defunct) British newspaper described the country as a “vast jellyfish.”

China was at one of the lowest ebbs in its five thousand year history. How could it make any pretense to be a superior civilisation when it had ceded treaty ports to foreign powers, and was ravaged by disease, opium addiction and famine? In the coming decades it would get worse: China would descend into civil war and outright brutality. It looked ever more backward to the Western eye.

None of this should particularly have aroused the interest of Needham, a brilliant Cambridge biologist. A polymath who spoke seven languages by the age of 24, he was viewed by friends as a twentieth century Erasmus. At 31 he wrote a history of embryology that established his reputation in the British scientific community. However, it was the unlikely arrival of a young woman from Nanjing – Lu Gwei-djen – that changed the course of his life.

They became lovers, and one afternoon he asked Lu how to write the Chinese character for cigarette, which he happened to be post-coitally puffing. She obliged, and he copied the 19 strokes with his pen, mulling how much more beautiful was the Chinese translation – ‘fragrant smoke’ – than its banal English equivalent. Lu recounts that he then said: “I must learn this language – or bust!”

Needham began to learn Chinese – from scratch – at the age of 38 and soon became obsessed by the language and the country. When the Second World War began he angled for a post in China, and was personally selected by Churchill for a special mission. He was to visit Chinese universities – or at least those that had not yet been destroyed by the Japanese – and get them the materials they needed to continue functioning. So began a 30,000 mile journey around China –nearly four times the distance of Mao’s Long March. Needham picked up ancient books and manuscripts along the way, assembling a vast library.

During his travels, Needham harboured an ulterior purpose. Years earlier he had scribbled on a piece of paper, “Science in general in China – why not develop?” This came to be known as the Needham Question: why was it that science flourished in Europe rather than China? After all, as Needham discovered during his time in the country, China had invented virtually everything before Europe. Then suddenly, between 1500 and 1600, Chinese innovation ossified.

Needham decided – on his return to Cambridge at the end of the Second World War – that he would write a book on the subject.

This was the genesis of what would be called Science and Civilisation in China. He initially hoped to deal with the subject in a single volume but no sooner had his publisher – Cambridge University Press – agreed than Needham upped his estimate to seven volumes, with the aim of completing it in a decade.

And it just got larger. The first volume was published in 1954, and Needham would write 18 volumes by his death in 1995.

The work continues to be produced today, and now stands at 15,000 pages spread over three million words and 24 volumes. As Needham’s biographer, Simon Winchester comments: “It is universally acknowledged to be the greatest work of explanation of the Middle Kingdom that has yet been created in Western history.”

It is important for another reason: through Needham’s painstaking research and his eloquent presentation of the facts he demolished a long-held perception in the West that China was its inferior.

With China’s current rise, Winchester’s book is timely. In a deft and readable style, he brings Needham – who is no bland academic – to life. And at a mere 265 pages it is also (thankfully) a good deal shorter than Science and Civilisation in China – but will give you a summary of all its most salient ideas.

Falling Leaves

Adeline Yen Mah

This memoir about China is laced with wisdom, describing the trials and tribulations of a rich Chinese family as they move from pre-Communist Shanghai, to 1960s Hong Kong and later to the US. This is by no means a new book (it was published in 1997) – but its insights still resonate.

Take, for example, when the author’s grandfather tells her: “the words 買 賣 (business) held the secret to all the riches in the world. 買 means buy, 賣 means sell, he said. The two words are identical except for the symbol 土 (dirt or land) on top of sell. The essence of business is buy-sell; and its most important ingredient is land.”

What Does China Think?

Mark Leonard

Mark Leonard offers a brief and very readable overview of China’s intellectual landscape. In an unusual approach he focuses his attention on the ideas of key academics, and looks at how they interface with government leaders to drive policy. The book makes clear that there is much debate on the direction the country should take.

Pro-Western reformists and rampant nationalists vie with those who want environmentalism to be the top priority. Some want more democracy, even if only within the ruling party itself. Others feel China has to find its own developmental model, and not try to ape the West. A must-read for anyone who thinks China a monolithic society.

Seize The Hour: When Nixon Met Mao

Margaret MacMillan

The Sino-American relationship may now be recognised as the world’s most important but a little over 35 years ago the two countries went almost a generation with no official contact.

Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing was to change all that. “A trip to China is like going to the moon,” may have been the president’s message to journalists as he departed Washington but his journey would relaunch ties, and put the two countries on the road to their “G2” status of today.

Margaret MacMillan’s recounting of the trip is an excellent read, not only in explaining the wider context in which the two leaders decided to meet (Mao worried by his increasingly fractured relationship with the Soviet Union, and Nixon longing for a distraction from the gloom of the US entanglement in Vietnam) but also in outlining the detail of how the visit was then conducted. Contact with the Americans astonished many of the Chinese (the first sighting of a Xerox machine; even an explanation of the rules of golf). Chinese sagacity impressed the US delegation.

In fact, Mao met Nixon only briefly, but still long enough to urge Henry Kissinger to “Seize the hour and seize the day.” A message that still resonates today.

Factory Girls

Leslie Chang

You should never judge a book by its cover. That goes doubly so for Factory Girls, whose cover is so unappealing it might pass for an academic tome.

Fortunately, what’s inside is neither dry nor academic. In fact, if you want to gain insights into modern China, there are few books as worthwhile. As the name suggests, Leslie Chang’s subject matter are the girls who power China’s dynamic coastal factories – the young migrants from the countryside who sew together your running shoes and assemble your mobile phone. For a full review see WiC6.


Wang Gang

If you liked the Kite Runner, you will find this novel vaguely familiar. The narrator is also a young boy and the tale is likewise one of coming of age; except this time in Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

There are many histories of the the Cultural Revolution, all of which offer disturbing details on the miseries of the era.

But this book dramatises the period with a vividness that escapes most historians: depicting on each page the curious balance of mundanity, terror, and hypocrisy which – for many – clearly made the Cultural Revolution such a terrifying time.

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