Top Five China Books of 2014

As the editor of ChinaFile’s Books section, I have the privilege of meeting and interviewing some amazing writers covering China today—academics, journalists, scholars, activists. Based on these conversations, we create short videos of the authors describing their inspiration, research, and hopes for their work. Since ChinaFile’s launch in early 2013 we have amassed a library of roughly 150 of these author videos on the site. I invite you to peruse them.

In no particular order, the following five books represent what I loved most in reading about China this year.

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa

by Howard W. French

China’s engagement with Africa remains dynamic, complicated, sometimes fraught, and Howard French investigates this relationship with the complexity and nuance the subject deserves. He is a terrific storyteller and weaves together fascinating portraits of the individuals on the ground remaking this relationship—both those who have set out from China in search of a better life and the Africans who are most directly affected.

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

by Leta Hong Fincher

Leta Hong Fincher’s unique sociological perspective on gender relations in China helps her to conclude that gains made by women following the 1949 Communist Revolution have steadily eroded in recent years. She attributes this erosion in part to state-sponsored campaigns, including those targeting educated young women to marry or risk becoming “leftover.” Her book is important and infuriating. The subject is ripe for more in-depth study, particularly of the corollary Fincher draws between China’s real estate boom and its impact on growing wealth inequality between men and women.

Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China

by Rowena Xiaoqing He

June 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and while there were several outstanding books published this year on the subject, I was particularly moved by the one written by Rowena Xiaoqing He. Raised in China as a member of the Tiananmen generation, He weaves together her own experience with those of several exiles in this powerful oral history. Her determination to preserve the memory of what she calls an “open wound” is inspiring, and, with family still in China, it was written at great personal risk.

Hou Hsiao-hsien

Richard Suchenski (editor)

One of the most beautiful books to land on my desk this year was an anthology about Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, edited by Richard Suchenski. The book’s publication coincided with an impressive international retrospective of Hou’s films that began in Vienna in May 2014 and will run through the end of 2015. The essays by his fellow filmmakers, including Olivier Assayas and Jia Zhangke, as well as by critics and scholars, make clear Hou’s extraordinary influence on cinema over the past three decades—not only in Taiwan and China but worldwide.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

by Evan Osnos

And finally, you may have heard that Evan Osnos wrote a book about China this year (and picked up a few awards along the way). Based on his years reporting from Beijing as a correspondent for The New Yorker and The Chicago Tribune before that, Osnos explores the tensions and contradictions in today’s China through stories of individuals, all written in his characteristically lively style. He describes the ambitions—both material and spiritual—of ordinary and not-so-ordinary Chinese within the context of an authoritarian system during a time he likens to America’s Gilded Age. If I had to recommend one book from this year to someone new to China, this would be it.