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Readings and Movies Related To China

I claim no authority for the list below being a “correct” list. However, I and my wife have read or watched most the titles listed below and found them useful and interesting background on China, past and present. Consult the web for more in depth reviews of the books and movies.


  • The China Price - discusses the other costs (human, cultural) of migrant factory workers in southern China as China has become the world's factory. Presents some interesting detailed descriptions of young factory workers and their lives.
  • Factory Girls - more about the lives of young people who have left the farms to work in factories in southern China. An interesting, quick read.
  • Family by Pa Chin (1992). This is an important novel written in the 1920’s about the young men in a traditional Chinese family. It very effectively portrays the clashing of the old feudalistic culture with new cultural ideals influenced from the West. Used in some sections of the Chinese 345R course at BYU.
  • In The Pond by Ha Jin (1998). This is a newly published novel written in English by a Chinese native from China. He is an English professor at Emory University. His second novel won the National Book Award in 1999. This book portrays everyday life in China for a common worker. Used in some sections of the Chinese 345R course at BYU.
  • Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen (1999). This is a memoir of a young boy growing up in Southeastern China. It chronicles his struggles to be successful in life. It portrays how Chinese have to “negotiate” and learn the system to get ahead in life. Used in some sections of the Chinese 345R course at BYU.
  • The Good Earth - written by Pearl Buck. The daughter of western missionaries, she lived for many years in a house which is now on the Nanjing University campus. It tells the story of life in a chinese village. She won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1932. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.
  • Life and Death in Shanghai - this tells the story of a woman imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. She had worked for a foreign company previously, was relatively wealthy, and therefore was of questionable background. It tells of her experiences being arrested, imprisoned, repeatedly questioned by her captors, but never charged and then finally released.
  • Chen Village - this book chronicles (in detail) life in a rural Chinese village just across the border from Hong Kong during the period from 1960 into the 1980's. Written by a pair of academic researchers, the book's material is drawn from interviews, conducted over many years, of village members who left the village for Hong Kong. From this, they piece together life in a typical Chinese Village during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and later.
  • God's Chinese Son - in the 1800's a frustrated wannabe Chinese civil servant (he failed the exams multiple times) came into contact with Christian missionaries. Adopting portions of what they taught, he later came to believe he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, attracted a large peasant following, and formed the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Quickly transforming itself from a religious organization into a military force, the kingdom conquered the Qing emperor's armies throughout much of southern China, eventually coming to control a significant portion of southern and east-central China and establishing its capital in Nanjing. After ruling for a number of years from Nanjing, the kingdom eventually fell apart internally and then fell to the Qing armies. A fascinating and odd story, it proves that truth is stranger than fiction. Interestingly - the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom museum is in Nanjing and we visit it on our study abroad.
  • Red China Blues - Jan Wong is a rebellious teenager growing up in Canada at the height of the Vietnam War. Like many of her generation she came to dislike the west and concluded that China (the land of her grandfathers - she is ethnic Chinese) along with Mao hold the key to a world of peace and equality for all. She becomes an avowed Maoist and travels to China, arriving just weeks after President Nixon's first visit to China in 1972. She ultimately is invited to stay and be one of just two westerners studying at Peking University. The book describes her experiences during the Cultural Revolution and her personal attempts to “rectify wrong thinking through hard work”. As the book (and her experiences) unfold, she gradually realizes that Mao's Proletarian Utopia is not what she has been led to believe and that she seems to be the only one on campus who didn't know this! She then worked in China for 6 more years as a foreign correspondent during the Deng growth years. In the latter portion of the book she provides a firsthand account of the Tian An Men Square Massacre and descriptions of a variety of topics she covered as a journalist including China's one child policy, the buying and selling of brides, etc.
  • River Town - written by Peter Hessler. Peter travels to China as a Peace Corp volunteer in 1996 and is assigned to teach English in Fuling, a small town in the Yangtze river valley. As such he is the first American to live in Fuling in more than 50 years. As he becomes fluent in the local dialect he is able to provide a window into the culture a non-speaker could never provide. However, the book also illustrates his permanent status as an outsider, fluent language abilities notwithstanding. While he teaches his students English, they teach him much more about culture and small town life in rural China.
  • Oracle Bones - this is a follow-on to River Town by Peter Hessler and describes Peter's experiences living as a writer and foreign correspondent in Beijing. It consists of a collection of stories of his experiences living and writing about China as an outsider after his time in Fuling.
  • Nanking - in 1937 the Japanese army occupied Nanking (Nanjing) and proceeded to murder, by some accounts, over 300,000 of the 600,000 city residents, making it one of the most horrific events of the 20th century. Reports smuggled out of China to the west seemed too far-fetched to even be true. One bright spot during the 6-week tragedy involved a group of foreigners who used their status personal bravery to establish a safety zone within the city and protect the citizens who fled there for protection. Their leader was John Rabe, a German businessman who used his status as a member of the German Nazi party to help him deal with the Japanese. A significant part of the the safety zone is now the area occupied by Nanjing University and Rabe's home is now a museum on campus. In the end, I found the book too disturbing to read in its entirety but my wife finished it.
  • Wild Swans - this is a personal memoir which covers three generations of Chinese women from the 1890's until modern times (a woman, her mother, and her grandmother). The grandmother was the concubine of a warlord in the 1890's. The mother joined the communists as they overthrew the nationalists at the end of World War II and rose to a high position in the provincial government and communist party as a result. The daughter (the author of the book) describes the life of of her grandmother and mother in the book and then tells her own personal story living as the privileged daughter of communist officials through the cultural revolution. Her parents are purged at least once and as a result she eventually comes to despise the Chinese leadership, especially Mao. It provides an interesting viewpoint (from a privileged insider who clearly led a very different life than the typical Chinese person) of recent Chinese history.
  • Chinese Lessons - haven't read it, my wife liked it. It parallels in some ways “Red China Blues” described above. John Pomfret arrived in China in 1981 as one of the early foreign exchange students from the west. This was at the time shortly after Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. The book details his time as an exchange student as well as details the live of 5 of his classmates and provides a view into their lives under Mao.
  • Falling Leaves - another book my wife liked. Haven't read it. It is the memoirs of an unwanted Chinese daughter. See also “Chinese Cinderella”. Follows the author's life being being an unwanted child from a previous marriage to her life as she moves to America and becomes a physician.

I would be interested in suggestions for additional books to put on the reading list.


Rather than provide descriptions of each, I suggest you look these up on the web. I have written about only a couple. Also, there are many Chinese movies now popular in the west (mostly Kung Fu related). I have not included those as I assume most people are familiar with them (Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers, etc). The ones I have included are more historical and cultural in nature. As with the books above, there is no claim this is a “correct” or complete list, but these seem to be some of the more popular films which are available in the USA.

Some you may easily find on places like Netflix with English soundtracks. Others may be difficult to find with English soundtracks. The Humanities LRC may have some of these for check out.

  • To Live - one family's story from before 1949 through the Cultural Revolution. Highly recommended.
  • Not One Less - the story of a rural grade school who needs a substitute teacher and turns to a 13 year old from the neighboring village for help. Very interesting portrayal of current village life and education for the peasant class in the countryside. Highly recommended.
  • Up the Yangtze - details a poor family's experiences (in documentary form) of the changes the 3 Gorges Dam has on their lives. They are forced to move as their old town is flooded, and they send their young daughter to work on a Yangtze River cruise ship to help support the family. If you have taken a cruise on the Yangtze or are planning to do so (our study abroad did so in 2009 and 2010), this shows one of the main places the ships stop.
  • King of Masks - an aging street performer buys a young boy in the marketplace to have someone to pass his performing trade to, only to find out he has bought a little girl !!!
  • The Long Road Home - think of this as a Chinese version of “Mr. Holland's Opus”. A man travels to his home village for his father's funeral and the movie is a flashback of the father's life as the schoolteacher in the village. A non-political view of village life and culture. Recommended
  • The Emperor and the Assassin - this and Hero below deal with the unification of ancient China by a single emperor.
  • Hero
  • The Blue Kite - follows a family through the cultural revolution.
  • Eat Drink Man Woman - a Taiwanese film about a father and his 3 daughters.
  • The Story of Ju Dou
  • Raise The Red Lantern
  • Shanghai Triad
  • Beijing Bicycle - a young man from the country comes to Beijing to work as a bicycle courier.
  • Red Sorghum
readings.txt · Last modified: 2019/11/14 09:18 (external edit)