After the positive feedback I received from my list of top books on Martial Arts, I thought I’d also do a list of some my favourite reads about China; books which have a focus on either travel in the China, or life through the eyes of a foreigner who lived here… some in modern day, and some in old China.
Behind the Wall
I read this book back in 2007, as I was on my first trip in China. Behind the Wall is one mans travels through China in the early 1990s, and his encounters with various people along the way. Written while the Cultural Revolution was still a recent memory for people, a strong theme throughout the book is his talks with everyday Chinese people about their experiences and feelings of the Cultural Revolution, and how China is recovering. He was met with constant curiosity, as this was a time when foreigners had only just been allowed into China, and people had all kinds of strange ideas. The one that really stood out for me was one man believing white people were tall and strong, due to the fact they only ate honey and drank milk!
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
One of the most well known books about life in China, River Town is set in a similar time period to Behind the Wall. This is the story of two young guys who came to a small town in Sichuan province to teach English, and their attempts as crossing the cultural barriers faced in every aspect of life. Highly recommended for people wanting to come here to teach, particularly smaller cities.
Going back a bit now, this book is set in pre-communist China, and is the account of Peter Goullart, who lived in the city of Lijiang, Yunnan province, right on the borders of Tibet. Lijiang is the centre of the Naxi people, a unique ethnic minority in China with a fascinating culture unlike any other. Nowadays, the city is a popular tourist spot, for its ancient architecture and its stunning mountain scenery. If you are visiting Yunnan province, this book is an absolute must to get an understanding of its history.
My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu’s Travel Diary
Jon Blofield is one of the most highly regarded translators of Chinese Buddhist texts. He lived in China around a similar time to the above book, and had some fascinating adventures visiting remote temples deep in the mountains and drinking with poets and scholars in old Beijing. I particularly enjoyed this book, because it painted a picture of the China I wish I could have experienced.
A must read for anyone coming over to China to train Kung Fu! While things have changed in China over the last twenty years, this book will really get you prepared for the craziness that is China! And its not even only for martial artists; I feel like this book should be on any China enthusiasts list. The writer was one of the first foreigners to train at Shaolin Temple in the early nineties, and his accounts of rural China at that time are both fascinating and hilarious.
Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits
Bill Porter is the foremost Buddhist scholar and translator of poetry and Buddhist scriptures. This book is an absolute classic,which recalls his experiences visiting and living with Buddhist and Taoist hermits in the remote mountains of Zhong Nan Shan. The Chinese version of this book inspired an entire generation in China, and helped revive the hermit movement in contemporary China.
The Mercenary Mandarin: How a British adventurer became a general in Qing-dynasty China
The Mercenary Mandarin is a well researched and entertaining book which tells the story of William Mesny, a real life Indiana Jones who set off to Shanghai at the age of 18, became a weapons smuggler, and had all kinds of adventures before landing himself a position as a general in the Imperial Army and quelling a Miao uprising in southern China. A truly fascinating read for a look at China during the days of the British Empire.