China's best books 2014

Our top ten picks for books that tackle new ground in China

These ten books taught us something remarkable about how China is changing in 2014.

Age of Ambition

Evan Osnos

Thirty years ago in China, the parameters of daily life were controlled by the Communist Party. Your danwei, or work unit, had the final decision on where you lived, where you worked and whom you married. Mao Zedong ruled over millions of people in identical uniforms, an army taught to live, work, and die for the greater good.

Mao was, as one pithy book title terms it, ‘Emperor of the Blue Ants’. In Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, The New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos examines the birth of an era of aspiration and introduces the people who have jumped, in one generation, from worship of the collective to worship of the individual. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

China’s Second Continent

Howard French

As the planet’s resources grow scarcer, concern over China’s burgeoning presence in Africa is palpable. China’s blueprint for industrial investment across the continent has been accused of being economic colonialism in the 21st century. While Chinese-funded infrastructure like hospitals, roads and football stadiums have won over some politicians, what of regular Africans at the heart of it? In China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, Howard French investigates the extent to which Chinese business interests are reshaping Africa’s economy, culture and environment – and the world’s. Published by Knopf.

Death Fugue

Sheng Keyi (translated by Shelly Bryant)

Sheng Keyi has gone from promising talent, to well-respected novelist, to banned writer in the space of just a few years. This final epithet comes after the release of her latest novel, Death Fugue. Where her early works told the story of China’s young female migrants, her new book is a thinly veiled metaphor for the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Set in fictional Beiping (a former name for Beijing), the book opens with a huge pile of faeces that has mysteriously appeared in Round Square. The government is quick to point fingers, blaming gorillas (yes, animals, not guerilla fighters). When people fail to swallow the proverbial crap, civil protests ensue. An important book by an important writer. Published by Giramondo.

The Forbidden Game

Dan Washburn

Dan Washburn first started covering Chinese golf tournaments in 2005 for ESPN, interviewing the likes of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Luke Donald. However, he quickly gravitated towards China’s fledgling domestic golf tour, the Omega, and less illustrious names. In this debut book, Washburn gives the first account of China’s unconventional embrace of the ‘forbidden game’. Energetic, poignant and revealing, Washburn’s account expertly articulates how the ‘rich man’s game’ has become an instrumental force in realising the much-vaunted Chinese dream. Published by Oneworld.

The Incarnations

Susan Barker

It’s the year 2008 in Beijing and the Olympic Games are drawing near. As the city swells with anticipation of the arrival of its future, taxi driver Wang receives a letter that sucks him back into the past. The anonymous writer claims to be his soul mate from numerous past lives spanning over 1,000 years. She has tracked him down to 21st century Beijing where she confesses to stalking him and his family.

The Incarnations captures the moral struggle and crushing sense of duty felt by many everyday workers in Beijing. Through Wang’s time-sweeping visions Barker exposes the cyclical nature of history and man’s powerlessness in the face of it. Imagery from the Tang Dynasty, Genghis Khan’s invasions and Ming Dynasty pleasure houses emblazon this thoughtful novel with the magic of China’s ancient civilisation. Published by Double Day.

Leftover Women

Leta Hong Fincher

Think of modern China and the images of newly gilded men and women striding confidently into the future almost immediately come to mind. But the reality, according to American journalist Leta Hong Fincher, is that while economic gender gaps are (gradually) closing in most parts of the world, they are actually widening in China.

Her book is a rigorously researched investigation into the position of urban women in the country and she suggests that women’s rights have regressed, relative to those of men, since Mao. It’s a compelling piece of research that puts pay to the rosy assumption that the lives of people in China are improving. Published by Zed Books.

Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist

Andrew Field (translated by Effy Hong)

Andrew Field’s first book, Shanghai Dancing, captured the spirit of the city’s iconic dancehall age that spanned the ’20s to the ’40s. In his latest work, he introduces us to that era’s greatest scribe. Adored in his heyday, Mu Shiying’s legacy was buried by the Communist authorities, who deemed his depictions of hedonism anti- revolutionary. Thanks to Field and Hong, his story and works have been restored. Published by Hong Kong University Press.

Myth-Busting China’s Numbers

Matthew Crabbe

A British data specialist with over 30 years of experience in China, Crabbe takes the view that state figures – contradictory and bewildering as they are – can help us understand the country, provided we know how to make use of them. Crabbe, co-founder of the research company Access Asia and research director for Mintel, leaves no stone unturned in the ensuing guide to decoding China’s data footprint.

In the face of complexity, Crabbe keeps it simple. ‘Just when you think you understand what is going on in China,’ he writes, ‘you learn that everything has changed and you have to start learning all over again.’ Crabbe’s deeply informed book is an excellent place to begin. Published by Palgrave Macmillan.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver

Chan Koonchung (translated by Nicky Harman)

Chan Koonchung’s first novel, The Fat Years, a dystopian sci-fi thriller about a society enslaved by consumerism and suffering from wilful amnesia, was banned in China. In his latest novel, the author is once again testing boundaries.

The present-day tale follows the life of a young man from Lhasa. After taking a driving job for a Han businesswoman in Lhasa, Champa’s life begins to change. Cosmopolitan, car-loving and Mandarin-speaking, he embarks on an affair with his older, status- conscious employer. When he leaves for Beijing, the relationship unravels along with his boyish dreams, which crack under the weight of endemic racism. An illuminating window into society’s complex racial divides. Published by Transworld.

The Valley of Amazement

Amy Tan

The Valley of Amazement, Tan’s first book in eight years, treads familiar territory for her fans. Covering two continents and half a century, it is an epic exploration of her trademark themes: Chinese-American identity, fraught mother-daughter relations and the never-ending search for love.

The protagonist is the mixed-race Violent Minturn. She grows up in cosseted luxury in an elite Shanghai courtesan house run by her American mother (her father is a Chinese artist). But when her mother accidentally abandons her while returning home to the US, Violet is forced to become a courtesan herself. The result is a sumptuous bit of escapism from a master of the genre. Published by Ecco.