Books with a China theme (2021 list)

Another year, another one of my annual book lists. Writing a post about the books related to China I read during the year has become a tradition on this blog! I made these lists in 20152016201720182019, and 2020, so 2021 couldn’t be any less!

I don’t know what happened in 2021. Well, yes, I do. Something went very wrong and I was worried sick for months, so my mind was not in reading (and while I was with The Brothers Karamazov, nonetheless! Finishing it took me over 2 months…). Also, my son increasingly demanded more and more of my time and my job got hectic. All of this is to say that I read 20% less than in 2020. Sigh! However, I still managed to finish several books related to China. Let’s see which ones they were!

A Daughter of Han, by Ning Lao Taitai and Ida Pruitt

The life story of an ordinary Chinese woman, from the end of the 19th century to mid 20th. It is a real story told by the protagonist to American Ida Pruitt during many meetings in which she recounted her whole life. The book also included some old pictures. I found it quite fascinating.

Peony, by Pearl S. Buck

This one was recommended by a reader of my Spanish blog. I had read several of Pearl S. Bucks’ novels but not this one. It’s the story of a Jewish family that lives in Kaifeng, how each of the family members relate to their religion and to Chinese culture, and the struggle kept mainly by the mother to ensure that their traditions survive. All of this is told by Peony, the family’s servant. Did you know that there was a Jewish community in Kaifeng since maybe the 10th century?

妈妈的每一天 (A Mum’s Daily Life), by Naoko Takagi

A comic book originally written by a Japanese author but that I read in its Chinese translation, so I added it to the list. It is a compendium of simple stories that happened to the author when she became a mum. It covers the first two years of her baby’s life and most mums have lived through many of the anecdotes so in that sense it was entertaining. Also, at least I read something in Chinese…

Chaos and All That, by Liu Sola

A short novel about a Chinese young woman that is studying in London while she tries to write a novel. The book combines some of her experiences in London with memories from her childhood in China during the Cultural Revolution, when for example she wanted to join the Red Guards and thought the main requirement was being able to curse at others the whole time. A bit messy but at least it was short.

The Long Revolution, by Edgar Snow

This has to be the weirdest book I’ve ever read. Edgar Snow must be the spiritual grandfather of those foreign vloggers of today who swear that absolutely nothing is going on in Xinjiang (how can they be so sure, I wonder). I haven’t read Red Star Over China, his most famous work, but in this one, in which he recounts what he saw in China during some visits he made in the 1960s, he says some very strange things. For example, that Chinese doctors had a method to perform painless abortions (without anesthesia) in which patients were smiling and up and running in 10 minutes (according to Snow, he was present during one such procedure), and also that contraceptive pills were of widespread use among Chinese women. WTF? What happened later with those two things? Nowadays, abortions are physically painful (and still often done without anesthesia) and a very small percentage of Chinese women take the pill. According to this article from 1983, only 10% of Chinese women took it, and this article from 2010 says just 2-3%. In general, this book made me think of an organised trip to North Korea in which you only see what they want you to see and you believe everything… But it was interesting nonetheless, especially the interviews he had with Mao. It was published in the 1970s and I wonder if, at the time, people believed everything it said.

Sweet & Sour Gazpacho / Chinese-Andalusians All Over the World, by Quan Zhou

A couple of comic books drawn and written by a Spanish-Chinese author. I follow her on Instagram and had enjoyed her first works (normally, one panel or one page comics that she posted online) so I was very disappointed when I read her full length comic books. Not very well written, not very well drawn, and quite boring. Still, her experiences about feeling 100% Spanish but being seen as a foreigner here needed to be told in a country where people believe they are not racist at all but still say things like “You are good looking, considering you’re Chinese”.

Water Margin, by Shi Nai’an

One of China’s classic novels! It is, as expected, super long, and can feel quite repetitive. It’s the story of 108 (one hundred and eight, yes) bandits who leave society and form a gang to fight against the corruption of officials. The story is supposed to take place during the Song Dynasty (12th century), but it seems to have been written way later than that. There are several versions and the one I read is the 70 chapter one (there’s another with 100). Like the rest of the other classic novels, it is very well known in China and everybody knows the characters (mainly because they watched the TV version). I found it a bit hard to remember who was who, as many stories were similar. But the “old morals” represented in it were fascinating, and often totally weird when seen from the present. For example, when bandits took revenge on some corrupt official, they would not only kill him and his family, but also the servants working for them. In one episode, they kill a child that a man they are interested in is taking care of, because they know that’s the only way the man would agree to join them (because he would be accused of murder by the child’s family and would have to flee). Also, women, with very few exceptions, are always adulterous and lying bitches. I enjoyed it at the beginning but was dragging through the second half.

Techno-Nationalism, Digital War and Videogames in China, by Antonio César Moreno Cantano

I randomly came across this book when looking for something else and as I had never seen a book that dealth especifically with videogames in China and that’s what I work in, I had to buy it. It’s a short divulgative work published by a Spanish university and, sadly, wasn’t as informative as I was hoping, but I did learn some things.

And those were the China-related books I read in 2021! Have you read any of them? Any recommendations for my to-read list? Please leave them in the comments below!