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Beijing Books: Life in China

Beijing Made Easy recommended books about life in China

Beijing Made Easy reviews Beijing and China related books: books set in China or Beijing, books about China, books about Chinese culture and history, books about the Chinese language and Beijing and China travel guides.

Authors and Publishers who wish to have their works reviews by Beijing Made Easy should contact us to arrange for a review copy to be sent to us.

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River Town by Peter Hessler
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Sky Burial by Xinran

River Town

by Peter Hessler

The author is a young American peace corps volunteer sent to teach literature in Fuling, a central Chinese town on the Yangtze, where foreigners are still a rarity. His account of how he and his students and fellow teachers relate to each other, and how he comes to understand their ways and attitudes, makes fascinating reading. However, there is much more than that in this book.

The rapidly changing politics of China and the effects of Three Gorges Dam are having a dramatic impact on the lives of the people of the area and are a constant theme to the book. The author enters fully into the life of the college and town and is as ready to chronicle his own shortcomings and mistakes (such as turning up to an official function in shorts and baseball cap when everyone else was wearing a suit) as he is to write about the gulf between western and Chinese views of events, and the students’ apparent willingness to accept the official Party line, notwithstanding the relative liberalisation of Chinese society in recent years.

The book can be seen as a personal memoir, a travelogue or as a fascinating study of the attitudes and prejudices of two opposing cultures during a period of immense change in the lives of the Sichuan peasants who make up his classes. Anyone with even a passing interest in modern-day china will find this book informative, amusing and very easy to read and it is to be hoped that this is only the first of many books by this writer.

Reviewed by Albert Helm

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Before this book’s publication in 1991 few western readers could have named a title that gave them much of an insight into the recent history of the emerging commercial and political colossus that China was becoming. Since then there have been many imitators; books about China and the Chinese are often found among the best sellers, but there is no denying the impact that Jung Chan’s hefty volume has had.

The author describes the experiences of three generations of her family; her grandmother, given by her father as a concubine to a warlord general; her mother who lived through the Japanese wars, the emergence of Mao and the turbulent times that followed; herself and her own emergence from the chaos to become a peasant labourer, barefoot doctor and student before eventually leaving China for a life in the West. It is a story full of disappointment and suffering and it splendidly evokes the uncertainty of life in mid-20th century China.

This is a fascinating memoir and a riveting story that will enlighten and entertain anyone, with or without an interest in the history of China. Its status as a 20th century classic can hardly be doubted and if you want to know a bit about the recent history of the nation that’s becoming such a dominant force in the world and be thoroughly entertained at the same time, this is the place to start.

Sky Burial

By Xinran

Review by Matt Bowden

‘Sky Burial’ is an astounding and remarkable tale and follows hot on the heels of Xinran’s first book ‘The Good Women of China’. It is a story of love, adventure, loss, friendship, and belonging. It is a true emotional roller-coaster which will, I daresay, not fail to have a profound effect upon most readers.

Xinran wrote ‘Sky Burial’ after a two-day-long conversation with the subject of the story, Shu Wen. Wen left her home town of Suzhou, in the east of China, for Tibet in the mid-1950s in order to discover what had happened to her husband, Kejun, who had been sent there as a doctor in the People’s Liberation Army. Wen travels to this vast, distant land as a brave but somewhat naive twenty-six year old Han Chinese woman and returns some three decades later a profoundly different person, having been transformed by time and circumstances into a Tibetan Buddhist nomad.

It is unsurprising, having read this book, that Xinran felt an intense desire to tell the world Shu Wen’s story. Indeed, Shu Wen’s story has, according to Xinran, been one of the three greatest lessons of her life. It will no doubt inspire many other readers with what one may interpet as its main message: that one should never lose hope.

The book is also interesting on a number of other levels. Firstly, it is a lesson on cultural exchange; what happens when is thrown into a culture completely alien to their own. The first section of the book explores how acts and beliefs which at first appear barbaric to Shu Wen come to make sense with the passage of time and when explained in their proper cultural context. Secondly, the story is interesting for the insight it provides into the life of Tibetan nomads in particular and Tibetan culture in general. Thirdly, the book sheds a different light on life in the People’s Republic of China over the last thirty years in comparison with the works of other authors such as Jung Chang and Ma Jian.

‘Sky Burial’ is a stunning read, both for those with a deep-seated interest in Chinese and Tibetan culture and also for those who are inspired by tales of extraordinary compassion and humanity.


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