China; Read all about it!

It goes without saying that the best way to learn about China is to spend a good slug of time here and immerse yourself in the place itself, talking to locals, visiting the diverse regional provinces, and having an open and curious mindset about the Chinese culture; however, I’ve come across some great books, videos and podcasts over the past couple of years which give a good level of insight without having to commit to an international flight or, indeed, a three-year work assignment (although I wholeheartedly recommend both of these options if you have the chance!)

If your understanding of 2019 China is based on a recent viewing of Crazy Rich Asians (which coincidentally tanked at the China box office and was slammed by Chinese netizens* who took offense at the superficial, wealth-obsessed stereotypes which abound in the film) and want to learn more about this deeply traditional, rapidly changing and globally influential country then the links below may provide a good starter for 10.

* internet citizens, for those who like a good portmanteau 

If you’re interested in…

1. The transformative power of the internet in China.

Even the most unobservant would be hard pressed to ignore the total absorption of mobile internet into modern Chinese life. Walking through the bustling metro stations in downtown Shanghai it’s a miracle there aren’t more frequent human-on-human collisions as people dart from one platform to another, eyes fixated on the glowing screen in their outstretched palm. Once boarded, life in a metro carriage invariably looks something like this:

metro phones
Unlike London, you can still access 4G and Wifi on the Chinese underground.

Yes, I know that smartphone-addiction isn’t unique to China, but what is interesting about the adoption of the internet here – especially mobile internet – is the sheer scale and speed at which it is transforming the way in which people interact and make a living in what is still a communist state with a tradition-heavy culture.

1.1. The rapid growth of the Chinese internet and where it’s headed, by Gary Liu (TED TALK)

Gary Liu speaks at TED2018 – The Age of Amazement, April 10 – 14, 2018, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

I alluded to the all-consuming absorption of mobile internet in my slightly facetious comment about the Shanghai metro, above; however, this TED talk by Gary Liu, the new CEO of the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong’s daily newspaper), paints a vivid and engaging picture of how the internet has revolutionised the basics of life in China, manifesting tangible benefits for those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

“China had 772 million internet users by the end of 2017 (equivalent to the accumulated populations of US, Russia, Germany, France, UK and Canada) – and still this only counts for 56% of the population.”

Gary Liu

Case in point, the Sunshine Digital Classroom initiaive wherby qualified teachers live-stream classes to some of the 60 million “left behind children” whom, pre-internet, would have been lucky to access any schooling at all. Having met some of these children at the Jaguar Land Rover Zhaotong Hope School in Yunnan Province in 2016, I can understand the potential life-changing impact of this initiative for underprivileged kids in a country where your education level is of paramount importance.

1.2. Digital Migration (PODCAST – BBC World Service The Documentary)

The impact of the internet on China’s working class is also explored in this podcast by the BBC World Service, in which domestic migrants working repetitive jobs in factory environments describe how they use their social media accounts to access a virtual private space, practically inaccessible to them in their real lives (they often live in cramped rooms, sharing living space and beds). Social media also provides a channel through which they can access the glamour and luxury of modern China – an aspirational lifestyle which they have little chance of attaining.

Listening to this podcast led me to reflect on my own relationship with private space – something I place huge value on as an introvert, but often take for granted – and wonder how I would cope in a similar environment.

2. “Doing Business” in China

2.1. The House that Jack Ma Built, by Duncan Clark (BOOK)

Hands-up, I’d never heard of Jack Ma (Chinese name Ma Yun 马云) before I moved to China; something I now find hard to believe! As co-founder (and until recently the Executive Chairman) of the Alibaba Group – the Chinese multinational e-commerce conglomerate – Ma is one of China’s richest men and is a bit of a local superhero here.

This book would have been equally at home in my first list on the transformative power of the internet in China as it straddles the two topics, but at it’s heart this is a book about entrepreneurial success, charting Ma’s journey from humble beginnings in Hangzhou, via a stint as an English teacher, before his elevation to mega-icon for all budding Chinese entrepreneurs.

When Alibaba went public in 2014 it’s IPO was $25bn, and two of it’s subsidiaries Taobao (an e-commerce website) and Alipay (a mobile payment platform) – are an essential and integral part of daily life in China, so it was great to learn more about how they came into being.

2.2. Chinese Rules, by Tim Clissold (BOOK)

In this book Clissold – a British investment consultant who moved to China in the early 1990’s – recounts his experience of buying tradeable ‘carbon credits’ from heavily-polluting industrial firms in cities like Hangzhou, at a time when the iron doors of Communist China were tentatively opening up to the West.

Structured in a series of ‘lessons learned’, Clissold paints a comical first-person-perspective picture of 老外 lǎowài (foreigners) attempting to do business in China and – with the wonderful wisdom of hindsight – details the implications of trying to operate “Our Way” in a country with it’s own well-established rule book.

While the macro environment has undoubtedly progressed in leaps and bounds over the last 30 years, there is still a tangible difference between “getting things done” in China versus in the UK, and I found myself nodding along to parts of this book where I’ve had similar interactions or experiences in the workplace, especially around decision-making (which doesn’t always follow the Western rules of logic, even in a non-State-owned company!). The descriptive writing in this book is excellent and could easily masquerade as a novel, so don’t be put off if you’re not usually one for non-fiction.

3. The Chinese Approach to Dating and Love

Attitudes towards relationships and dating are inexorably intertwined with the cultural norms and expectations of a society, which makes this a fascinating topic for discussion in China where attitudes (at least in the supercities like Shanghai) are undergoing a generational revolution.

From the indubitable importance of star signs, to the role of ones parents in finding a match for uncoupled offspring, it’s a world away from my own experience of relationships in the UK, and I’ve learned a lot about the Chinese culture through listening to my friends’ stories of dating and marriage.

3.1. Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, by Jemimah Steinfeld (BOOK)

If you don’t have Chinese girlfriends with whom to debate the relative importance of various attributes in a potential partner, then this book will prove a stellar substitute. Steinfeld draws on her interviews and conversations with young people, mainly in Beijing, and recounts their stories of dating and love against the social, political and economic context of modern China.

The book also gives a perspective on the impact of the single-child policy (implemented in 1980 and only recently reversed), wealth, homosexuality and religion on relationships.

“China is transfixing – and transforming – the world. And it’s youth are at the centre…They are being tugged in different directions, by tradition as much as modernity”

“The China of the twenty-first Century was nothing like the China of the twentieth – a fundamental difference between them and us [the West].”

Little Emperors and Material Girls, Jemimah Steinfeld

The author is undoubtedly a Sinophile, casting a positive light on certain more contentious aspects of relationships, but if you hold that lightly then it’s a great read.

NB- Don’t be put off (or misled) by the sensationalist title; this is a book about youth culture and relationships in China, not about sex (which, aside from a mention in a couple of interviews,  doesn’t really feature). ALSO, this book was recommended me by a guy at work who said that it really helped him to better understand his local team and colleagues, so I can affirm that it’s not just one for the girls!

3.2. Lotus, by Lijia Zhang (BOOK)

A little left-field for this topic, but a great book and so worth a mention.

Lotus, the protagonist heroine, is inspired by the author’s grandmother who, orphaned as a child, was sold into prostitution aged 14 by her uncle. While the story itself is a work of fiction, the sex trade in China is not and – albeit illegal – it’s a fast-growing industry which typically exploits poor migrant workers from rural China. Zhang wrote this book in English, as a form of protection from censorship on what is a desperately sensitive topic.

This story won’t be to everyone’s taste, in which case a good alternative is to listen to this BBC Sounds World Book Club interview with the author Lijia Zhang, which starts with an excerpt from the book (a little of which is copied below) read by Zhang.

“Every day at four p.m., as instructed by Moon, the girls all had to stand outside on display, dressed up, painted and ready for sale. Lotus’s thoughts turned to the last letter from Shadan, her seventeen year old brother. In his last letter he had thanked her for the money she sent home…

Shadan, her brother’s nickname, meant “Stupid Egg”, and her own was Chouchou, “Ugly Ugly”. Their superstitious grandma Nai had given them unattractive nicknames in the hopes that the evil spirits would leave them alone”

Lotus, Lijia Zhang

4. China’s Generation Gap

4.1. China’s Generation Gap Beijing (PODCAST – BBC World Service The Documentary)

China’s generation gap is referenced quite a bit in Steinfeld’s Little Emperors & Material Girls, but I found listening to the first-hand account in this podcast really powerful. It describes the profound differences between generations, explained against the backdrop of the socio-political changes of the past 60 years in China.

Today, Chinese millenials operate in a country which is economically open to the rest of the world; women have more freedom to pursue varied career and life choices, young people have the opportunity to work for Western companies, travel abroad and spend money on lifestyle and experiences. This is in stark contrast to their great grandparents – who lived through a turbulent Cultural Revolution characterised by violence and famine – and their parents’ formative years which were shaped by the fall-out from this period.

The Chen family, who are interviewed in the podcast.

“young people start to realise that you don’t have to rely on a very established system or institution… there are so many opportunities that you can really participate as an individual instead of as part of a machine… that is also the biggest difference between my generation and my parents’ generation, they don’t really have this opportunity “

BBC World Service ‘The Documentary’ Feb 11, 2018

While pushing back against parents very counter-cultural, it’s becoming more and more common in China today as young people wish to pursue a more independent and modern lifestyle. Interestingly, one of the things that I’ve admired about the Chinese culture during my time here is the respect shown to elders; you often see young people assisting their grandparents in the street, and it’s still common for the older generations to live with their children (retirement homes are being introduced here, but far less normative than in the UK). It will be interesting to see how this dynamic changes over the coming years.

5. China’s past (the recent, and the not so recent!)

5.1. ‘Do Not Say We have Nothing’ by Madeline Thien (BOOK)

This book is beautifully written and left a deep impression on me. It tells the story of Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli, a trio bound together by their love of classical music and of each other, during the Cultural Revolution when intellectual pursuits such were vilified and forbidden. It is a sweeping book which spans three generations and two continents and is on my ‘must read again’ list.

“The students began offering criticisms of themselves and each other, and the girl next to her, an erhu major, mocked Zhuli for favouring music in the “negative” and “pessimistic” key of E-flat minor, and continuing to play sonatas by revisionist Soviet composers, including the disgraced formalist, Prokofiev. 

Zhuli rebuked herself fiercely, vowed to embrace the optimism of the C and G major keys, and ended her self-criticism with “Long live the Great Revolution to create a proletarian culture, long live the Republic, long live Chairman Mao!”. Had she been critical enough, too critical? Their faces, their gestures, their eyes were cold.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeline Thien

5.2. ‘Empress Orchid’ by Anchee Min (BOOK)

I read this book shortly before visiting the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing, and it provided a vivid fictional peek into what life may have been like during the final years of the Qing Dynasty. It’s told in the first person from the perspective of Cixi, the last empress of China from 1856 to 1908 and gives a sympathetic account of her rise to Empress Dowager (non-fictional historical accounts are typically not so kind). It’s a good read, if you don’t mind taking your history with a pinch of salt!

“At audiences, I discovered that the best solutions often existed between the words of those who had reported the troubles. They had spent time with the subject and were able to come up with suggestions. What bothered me was that the ministers often held their true opinions back. They trusted the Son of Heaven to see things “through a god’s eye”.

It amazed me that Emperor Hsien Feng believed that he was the god’s eye. Rarely doubting his own wisdom, he sought signs to prove it’s heavenly source. It might be a tree split by thunder in his garden, or a shooting star crossing the night sky”

Empress Orchid, Anchee Min

If you do read or listen to any of the above, I’d love to know your thoughts and reflections so please leave a comment or get in touch. Likewise, if you would like a recommendation on another topic then let me know. I’ve purposefully omitted politics and economics here to keep it light, but, or the McKinsey Global Institute APAC research articles are a good shout


Header image courtesy of (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)