Five Best Books to Understand Modern China

By Tessa Nolan

From poetic memoirs on social repression to studies on the lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution, these titles are a great starting point if you want to learn more about the country and its people.

As the world’s second-largest economy, the next big threat to global security, and a country governed by an authoritarian regime that increasingly flexes its power beyond its borders, China is a complex and influential player on the world stage. But the most important part of China is its population of 1.4 billion diverse, cunning, and resilient individuals, whose choices often diverge greatly from those making decisions in Beijing. These books serve as an introduction to the forces that have shaped China’s recent past and the people living in its present.

“Red Memory” by Tania Branigan

What was the Cultural Revolution? A decade of mass killings, political purges, and ruthless power assertion that “cannot be understood,” writes Branigan, a Guardian writer and former China correspondent. However, today it is crucial for understanding China. Instead of focusing on a historical analysis of how such fervor and hatred erupted across the country, Branigan focuses on the individuals whose lives were turned upside down by this period of social upheaval. She convincingly argues that the Cultural Revolution is not just a historical curiosity: its horrors and attempts to forget the debauchery inflicted by the campaign continue to resonate.

“Leftover Women” by Leta Hong Fincher

When Hong Fincher first published her groundbreaking book on gender inequality in China in 2014, China’s fertility rate stood at 14 per 1,000 people. By January 2024, shortly after the release of the updated edition commemorating the 10th anniversary of “Leftover Women,” this number had halved. Understanding why more and more women are rejecting social and political pressure to become mothers also requires an understanding of why Chinese women are so disillusioned with marriage. In an accessible, entertaining prose, “Leftover Women” guides readers through the economic and social inequalities embedded in marriages in China that increasingly deter educated young women.

“The Souls of China” by Ian Johnson

In this vivid and engaging book, veteran China chronicler Johnson explores the inner and outer lives of hundreds of millions of people who lay claim to some form of spirituality in the shadow of the officially atheist Communist Party of China. From Christians and Muslims who find it particularly challenging to express their religious beliefs—especially the latter group who have seen their mosques destroyed and communities oppressed on an extraordinary scale over the past decade—Johnson delves into the complex and often contradictory role of mixed teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The result is a humane portrait of Chinese society that reveals more about everyday life in China than any political text could.