That China Girl

{May 4, 2011}   More great China books…

I’m glad I happened to check my email, because today is a “theme day” in this crazy blogathon thing I’m doing. We’re supposed to recommend our five favorite books on writing, or whatever it is our blogs are about. I guess for me that would mean China books, which is a challenge since I mentioned the one and only China-related book I’ve ever read in yesterday’s post. In case you missed it and aren’t into links, it’s The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, which is, uh, kind of obvious.

So…..I decided I would ask around and find people who are older (natch) than me and have been in China longer to see what they have to say. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Mr. China by Tim Clissold
Dad had a stack of books a few feet high on his desk back in Chicago to help him get up to speed on China. Lots of the them were about billions of customers, dragons rising and China taking over the world. BOR-ING!   The one he liked the most was this memoir by a British guy who used to live in a compound near here. Apparently, the guy came over here with some Big New York Investment Bank and lots of big dreams about conquering China. He then proceeded to lose millions of dollars and get screwed by all his Chinese investment partners — all in a couple of years. Despite this, and the fact that he had a heart attack in the process, Mr. Clissold, apparently loved China.  His book, says my Dad, was a warning that making it in China isn’t as easy as it looks.

2. The Crazed by Ha Jin
Mrs. Gately, who forced the Pearl Buck biography on me yesterday, had tons of book suggestions as you might expect. Her all time favorite, for capturing “the contradictions that are China” as she put it, is this novel by a Chinese author who high-tailed it out of here and is now teaching at a university in Boston. The story is about a college professor in China who is either losing his mind because he had a stroke or having real flashbacks of bizarre happenings from the Cultural Revolution. Sounds upbeat. To really appreciate it, Mrs. G recommended Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng as “an absolute prerequisite” since it’s the book that gave her an understanding of what happened under Mao. (Among other things Ms. Cheng was in prison and her Red Guard daughter was pushed out a window and died). This reminded her of Yu Hua, who also wrote a novel about the CR, as well as one about selling blood.  She just read his latest, “Brothers”, but said although it’s funny there are some things in it that aren’t appropriate for someone my age.   Hmm…

3. Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Mrs. G’s friend Judy Storm admitted she really doesn’t like to read. (No surprise there). But this was the book that all her expat friends said they read before they came over here. It’s the story about Mrs. Chang’s grandmother who had bound feet (eewww) and was the concubine to a warlord (double eewww) and her daughter who became a Communist Soldier and the grandaughter, who left China to go to London and how they came to term’s with their history.

4. Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China by Philip Pan
A reporter from some magazine came to Dad’s office this week to do a story on their company. Dad says the guy couldn’t stop raving about this book. It’s written by a correspondent from the Washington Post  who highlights China’s current problems — corruption, pollution, etc. by telling individual stories about people like a blind protester under house arrest and a fat rich lady who is friends with Jackie Chan. The magazine reporter says every journalist who comes to China thinks he has to write a book about it, but that Pan’s book is one of the best he’s ever read. He also talked about some book called “The Party” by Richard McGregor, (surprise, another journalist!) which sounded fun until I heard it was about the Communist Party. Nine guys with dyed black hair in suits, not smiling.  No thanks.  Think I’ll opt for number 7 below if I want political.

5. Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann
My new friend CC has a friend who’s a few years older, like college maybe. His name’s Geoff and he’s British and pretty blah about most things, but he had a copy of this book and got all excited about it. He said it is the best novel of modern day China he’s seen from an outsider’s viewpoint. It’s supposed to be about this girl Iraq vet who comes to Being and has an artist boyfriend who disappears because he’s helping some terrorist guy. Geoff insists the guy isn’t really a terrorist, but someone who isn’t Han Chinese and lives in Xinjiang, that place in the West where they’ve had riots. It also involves computer gamers, which does seem very Chinese and kinda cool.

And as a special bonus:

6. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel

I just thought of this one. I babysit this little German kid across the street and this is his favorite book for me to read to him. I think I remember it from when I was a kid, though I thought Tikki-squared was Indian. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s about this little Chinese boy, Tikki Tikki Tembo No Sa Rembo…. etcetera, etcetera, like his name is seriously a mile long and it means “the greatest thing in the world” and his brother Chang whose name means “less than nothing.” The story is about why the Chinese shortened the names of their firstborn sons: after Tikki fell in a well, he couldn’t be saved because it took too long for Chang to say his name.

7. Animal Farm by George Orwell

Seriously. Mom started taking Chinese at this school downtown and she says both her teachers love to talk about this book. You know, some pigs are more equal than others and all that. The book is about a authoritarian state so I guess that makes sense.

How about you? Have you read any books on this list? Are there any China books you love?


Katy M says:

Of this list, I’ve only read Animal Farm, even after our time in Beijing… hmmm.

I did read 2 good fiction books about China while over there, both by Lisa See: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which goes back to the concubine days, and one of her modern-day China mysteries, Dragon Bones. Her website is

Jeanette Ingold’s Paper Daughter (published last month) is about Chinese immigrants to the US -set in Seattle, explores an interesting time in history through flashbacks from today. I’ll have full review posted on my blog some time!

Taya says:

My Mom likes Lisa See. She read one of her books, “The Interior” and the Secret Fan one as well. “Paper Daughter” I haven’t heard of, but could be good.

Veronica says:

I loved Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel!

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