11 books and one film that explain modern China

Beijing South Station
Beijing South Station in June
Matt Rivera | NBC News

Earlier this summer, I was one of six U.S. journalists who traveled to China on an East-West Center fellowship to study technology and innovation in the country.

I prepared for the trip by reading a series of books exploring modern China. During the trip, some of the tech company officials we met passed along their own personal recommendations for books to read on our return home.

What I read before the trip:

'Tiger Head Snake Tails'
'Tiger Head Snake Tails' by Jonathan Fenby
Book cover courtesy of publisher

1) "China in Ten Words" by Yu Hua

This set of essays was an easy-to-digest explainer of everyday life in China and how it relates back to Mao's Cultural Revolution.

2) "Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There, and Where It Is Heading" by Jonathan Fenby

If you're looking for a solid book that gets deep into China's promising and also troubling economic growth, this is a great book for the big picture.

Kaiser Kuo, Baidu's director of international communications, also recommended this book during our visit to the company's headquarters in Beijing.

From The Wall Street Journal:

According to Mr. Fenby, the book is aimed at readers who want a one-stop overview of China's politics, economics, society, international relations, history, environmental issues, corruption and new leadership. No one book has drawn all these elements together, he said, so he felt compelled to write one himself.

"China's rise since the 1980s is the most important world development since the end of the Cold War," he said. While the world might not know what to make of it, "China doesn't quite know how to deal with the rest of the world and its newfound status."

3) "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" by Yiyun Li

A strong collection of 10 stories related to the country's Cultural Revolution from the viewpoint of people living in China and the United States.

"Li does more than simply provide a human face for a set of statistics," writes Fatema Ahmed in The New York Times. "Her compassion for her own creations persuades us that they are worth caring for; the most selfish characters often turn out to be the most unhappy, their self-absorption a way of keeping up appearances."

4) "The Corpse Walker" by Liao Yiwu

I am still reading this book, but I wanted to add it to the list because it delves into a part of China I didn't get to interact with during my visit.

The author interviews Chinese citizens with unique jobs on the lower end of the economy: a professional mourner, human trafficker, a public toilet manager.

Joe Kelly, HuaWei's head of international media affairs, recommended:

Joe Kelly
Joe Kelly, HuaWei's head of international media affairs, in the company's Shenzhen offices in June.
Matt Rivera | NBC News

5) "On China" by Henry Kissinger

6) "Factory Girls" by Leslie Chang

7) "Wild Swans" by Jung Chang

8) "The Party" by Richard McGregor

Julien Gong Min, Weibo.com spokesperson, recommended:

Julien Gong Min
Julien Gong Min, Weibo.com spokesman at the company's headquarters in Beijing in June.
Matt Rivera | NBC News

9) "River Town" by Peter Hessler

"Peter Hessler has a lot of Chinese fans," Min said. "'River Town' tells a story of his Peace Corps days in China."

Min said he related to the book because he was just a few years younger than Hessler's students.

10) "One Billion Customers" by James McGregor

The stand-alone stories "are like biographies of doing business in China," Min said. "This book is definitely the best one on China business."

11) "Age of Ambition" by Evan Osnos

"In the pages of the New Yorker, Evan Osnos has portrayed, explained and poked fun at this new China better than any other writer from the West or the East," wrote John Pomfret for The Washington Post. "In 'Age of Ambition,' Osnos takes his reporting a step further, illuminating what he calls China's Gilded Age, its appetites, challenges and dilemmas, in a way few have done."

Beckie Wang, Alibaba Group senior PR specialist, recommended:

If you haven't heard the story behind China's e-commerce giant Alibaba, watch the documentary "Crocodile in the Yangtze" by Porter Erisman.

The company's founder, Jack Ma, started the business in Hangzhou when he convinced 17 of his friends to invest in his plan. Last year, he topped the Forbes China Rich List with a net worth of $19.5 billion, up from $7.1 billion in 2013.

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