In 2007 I considered myself pretty well traveled. I had spent a semester abroad and seen most of Western Europe but my travel was about to level up. That June I went to China, and Asia for the first time. Also for the first time I was going to experience a culture very different from my own. I was a little nervous about how I would feel and I wanted to make sure I could understand everything I was going to learn and see.
I had been told that because China is a communist country it was really important to do some reading before you went. Tour guides and historical places would have the government approved story, but if you really wanted to gain a full understanding of the place and culture, it was important to do some homework. Thus began a tradition.
From that trip onward, whenever I travel I make sure to do my homework. Reading about a country has enhanced my travel experience and on that note I am starting my series “What I Read When I Went To…” with the original: China.
Wild Swans is a nonfiction exploration of three generations of women in Chang’s family. She starts with her grandmother who was part of the last generation of women to bind their feet. She then follows her parents through the Mao years and I’m not giving anything away by revealing that she also details how she herself eventually leaves China. This book looks at Chinese history in the last century through the lens of the author’s family. It was a great way to gain an understanding of how the major historical moments of communist China impacted specific people although of course the lens is very biased.
I read this because this book is hyped as THE fiction book to read about historical China. It is an engaging story about Wang Lung and agrarian China. When I read it I was engaged with the story and I felt like it gave me some insight into Chinese history and agrarian culture. However as I have begun teaching history and practising the art of reading fiction to understand culture I know I can look back in hindsight and realize that it is really important to be careful about this exercise. This book is a good example for while it is an interesting read and celebrated as a classic work of literature, it is important to remember that this is one viewpoint from a colonial perspective.
This was another nonfiction book that I found fascinating. Peter Hessler first moved to China to work for the Peace Corps and ended up living there for many years as a correspondent for National Geographic and the New Yorker as well as other publications. Again, this book is an outsider to the culture looking in but I also think Hessler was respectful. He merged the story of discovering the oracle bones, one of the most ancient artifacts of China, with the formation of modern China. This book also tells the story of the Uighurs, an ethnic minority in western China, that I had known very little about.
Reading books about China in preparation for my trip was the first time I had done this. I have learned some things since that trip, most importantly that I think it is important to read books from authors from the place where you are traveling, not just an outsider looking in with their own perspective. On that note, and because of course three books don’t encompass all options, here are some other books I have come across about China that might provide more insight on Chinese culture.