How do you start to understand China? “The most populous country on earth with the second-largest economy, it claims the world’s longest continuously recorded history: the precociously advanced civilisations of its distant past have given humanity some of its most significant scientific and technological inventions. After an extended period of decline and turmoil, China has risen to become an economic superpower at dizzying speed, hosting a successful Olympic Games and weathering a global economic crisis along the way. Challenging to interpret, impossible to ignore – China has arrived on the global stage and invites you to marvel at its achievements.” Insight Guides: China
I recently spent a month exploring China and these are some of the resources I used in learning more about China:
Insight Guides: China
I have written previously that Insight Guides are my first go-to source of information about any country. These guides are usually written by local authors who can provide fact-checked and up-to-date information. They always have great sections on history, politics, food, festivals etc as appropriate to the country, and cover each region and major centre in a lot more detail with maps, photos and descriptions of main features and activities whether natural or man-made. They also finish with a great section on Travel Tips covering everything from transport, accommodation and eating out through to etiquette, electrical systems, and language pronunciation.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
I first read Wild Swans back in the 1990s and it had a huge impact on me in so many ways – some descriptions remain in my mind as clearly as if I had read it yesterday. Wild Swans is an autobiographical family history that spans a century, recounting the lives of three female generations in China living through some of the most turbulent times in the country’s history. It has sold over 13 million copies worldwide but is banned in China.
Chang’s grandmother was given to a warlord as a concubine. Her mother struggled through hardships in the early days of Mao’s revolution and rose to a prominent position in the Communist Party before being denounced during the Cultural Revolution. Chang herself marched, worked, and breathed for Mao until doubt crept in over the excesses of his policies and purges. Born just a few decades apart, their lives overlap with the end of the warlords’ regime and overthrow of the Japanese occupation, violent struggles between the Kuomintang and the Communists to carve up China, and, most poignant for the author, the vicious cycle of purges orchestrated by Chairman Mao that discredited and crushed millions of people, including her parents. from Amazon reviews
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
This book had as much impact on me as Wild Swans had twenty years ago. Reading it just before I visited China was absolutely perfect timing as it brought to life so many aspects of what I saw and heard there. It is a biography based on newly available historical documents such as court records, official and private correspondence, diaries and eyewitness accounts that comprehensively overturn the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.
The Goodreads review describes it well:
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history. She ruled China for decades and brought a medieval empire into the modern age. At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.
In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Cixi fought against monumental obstacles to change China. Under her the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state: industries, railways, electricity, the telegraph and an army and navy with up-to-date weaponry. It was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. She inaugurated women’s liberation and embarked on the path to introduce parliamentary elections to China. Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.
Cixi reigned during extraordinary times and had to deal with a host of major national crises: the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, wars with France and Japan—and an invasion by eight allied powers including Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States. Jung Chang not only records the Empress Dowager’s conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, but also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs—one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences. The world Chang describes here, in fascinating detail, seems almost unbelievable in its extraordinary mixture of the very old and the very new.
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang
“Based on a decade of research, and on interviews with many of Mao’s close circle in China who have never talked before – and with virtually everyone outside China who had significant dealings with him – this is the most authoritative life of Mao ever written. It is full of startling revelations, exploding the myth of the Long March, and showing a completely unknown Mao: he was not driven by idealism or ideology; his intimate and intricate relationship with Stalin went back to the 1920s, ultimately bringing him to power; he welcomed Japanese occupation of much of China; and he schemed, poisoned and blackmailed to get his way. After Mao conquered China in 1949, his secret goal was to dominate the world. In chasing this dream he caused the deaths of 38 million people in the greatest famine in history. In all, well over 70 million Chinese perished under Mao’s rule – in peacetime.
Combining meticulous history with the story-telling style of Wild Swans, this biography makes immediate Mao’s roller-coaster life, as he intrigued and fought every step of the way to force through his unpopular decisions. The reader enters the shadowy chambers of Mao’s court, and eavesdrops on the drama in its hidden recesses. Mao’s character and the enormity of his behaviour towards his wives, mistresses and children are unveiled for the first time.” Amazon
I was absolutely astonished by what I read in this book. Even though I was aware of many of the horrific acts Mao was responsible for I had no idea what an absolutely repugnant character he was right from the very beginning of his life. I have to admit that I didn’t read all of the book – I got to a point where I really didn’t want to know any more. Despite the subject matter, it is like all Chang’s books extremely well written and easy to read.
Sacred Rivers with Simon Reeve: Episode 3 The Yangtze
“Simon travels along the Yangtze, discovering a revival of religious faith in China. Starting his journey at the first bend in the Yangtze, Simon follows the river to Dazu where he sees 50,000 ancient and exquisite rock carvings, some of the only religious artefacts not to have been destroyed under communist rule. Taking a river cruise, he arrives at the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest power station on the planet. Simon’s journey ends in Shanghai, a shining symbol of China’s new economic might but also a city where many are rediscovering religious faith.” BBC Two
You can find this episode on YouTube.
China’s Megastructures and Bridges
I remember seeing a documentary about all sorts of amazing construction projects that China was undertaking from the Three Gorges Dam, a gigantic water ‘pipe’ bringing water from the mountains to the cities, and the building of cities at the speed of one sky-scraper every two weeks. I can’t find that again at the moment but I did find a useful website that includes a range of different examples and the link to YouTube for each. There is no shortage of examples as China doesn’t shy away from massive engineering projects that have never been undertaken before.
Intrepid Travel (a range of different travel styles – see my post on travel styles)
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
Note: After people telling me they had booked an Intrepid Tour on my recommendation, I now have affiliate links with the Intrepid Travel group of companies and may receive a commission if you book a tour online within a couple of months after clicking through to these sites. So if you are enjoying my tips and stories and finding them useful in choosing your own travel, please click on these links and help me to bring you more ☺.