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Country of Extremes: Books about Modern China

Likely StoriesLast night, I was fortunate to find myself at the Goodman Theatre for a “friends and family” preview of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play, The World of Extreme Happiness. It’s a fairly brutal, sometimes funny play about a young woman, Sunny, who has left the countryside for city life and a demeaning job at Jade River, a factory that is trying to survive its own FoxConn-like PR disaster during a suicide epidemic. While I had mixed feelings about the playwright’s execution, I couldn’t fault the production or the performances, and I find the central idea utterly compelling. And I was particularly riveted by a scene in which a factory supervisor reluctantly bandages a would-be suicide’s self-inflicted injuries—reluctant because he believes he’s only delaying the inevitable. The World of Extreme HappinessWhile he works, he gives the three young people present a lesson in China’s brutal history since Chairman Mao, concluding (I’m paraphrasing): If you want to kill yourself, fine, but kill yourself because you know what happened here.

Obviously, that’s a reductive view and
we owe it to ourselves to learn more.

Jennifer Lim (Sunny) in the world-premiere production of The World of Extreme Happiness.

Jennifer Lim (Sunny) in the world-premiere production of The World of Extreme Happiness.

Even though my own children are learning Mandarin in school, I don’t know nearly enough about Chinese history. I think that, for most of us, that amazing country exists as a sort of looming idea, a place where cheap stuff comes from that we all feel vaguely guilty about consuming, a place we feel both superior to and threatened by, a place that really enters our minds when we read about overcrowding, pollution, and gargantuan civic works. Obviously, that’s a reductive view and we owe it to ourselves to learn more. I spent a large part of this morning looking for good books about modern China, and here’s a selected list.

Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future, by Tom Scocca

Living in Beijing due to his wife’s work, Scocca offers an outsider’s perspective on this chaotic, bewildering city.

China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation, by Xinran

An “epoch-defining collection” of oral histories that captures mid-twentieth-century Communist China from extraordinarily diverse perspectives.

For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison, by Liao Yiwu

The number of dissident memoirs is telling in itself; this one, by poet and musician Liao Yiwo, details his imprisonment, escape, and continued activism.

The Little Red Guard, by Wenguang HuangThe Little Red Guard, by Wenguang Huang

The author, raised in central China in the 1970s, offers a highly personal view that demonstrates the difficult balancing act between personal beliefs and public demands.

Mao: The Real Story, by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine

Our reviewer considers this definitive English-language biography of its driven, complicated subject.

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962, by Frank Dikötter

Confirming a statistic cited by the character in The World of Extreme Happiness, the author asserts that as many as 45 million Chinese died during Mao’s Great Leap Forward—and yet the literature on this horror is dwarfed by that of the Holocaust.

A Tiger’s Heart: The Story of a Modern Chinese Woman, by Aisling Juanjuan Shen

Shen’s success story is what the character of Sunny aspires to—but the hardships are heartbreaking.

Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, by Orville Schell and John Delury

The authors suggest that China’s ascendancy is best understood by taking the long view.

When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind—or Destroy It, by Jonathan Watts

Watts offers an eye-opening look at China’s environmental crisis—and the way the West contributes to the problem.



The Goodman Theatre has been kind enough to share the list of books Cowhig herself used in researching The World of Extreme Happiness. Check it out!

Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews and Digital Rants, 2006–2009, by Ai Weiwei

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories; China from the Bottom Up, by Yiwu Liao

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang

Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, by Jasper Becker

Laogai: The Machinery of Repression in China, edited by Nan Richardson

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love, by Xinran

Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, by Ian Johnson

(I’ve made these reviews free to all. Subscribers to Booklist Online can search among hundreds more reviews of books about China using our powerful Advanced Search.)



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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