In 2001, I graduated college and decided to go teach English in China. I decided that the best way to prepare would be to read some books, both fiction and non-fiction, on China. Here is a list of some of the books I read to prepare for my first visit to China and the books I have read since.
Wild Swans by Jung Chang is one of the best memoirs out there on China. This is usually the first book people read about China, and for good reason, it is a truly engrossing story.
Red Azalea by Anchee Min is a little bit racy, but it is by far the best memoir on the Cultural Revolution. Min is a great writer, and I also enjoyed reading The Last Empress , and Katherine. I kind of thought that my teaching life in China would be similar to the main character (Katherine) in this book, but I was wrong. The area of China where I lived my first year was a big city, and I barely saw grass for a year!
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck is a great book for a perspective on Chinese life from someone who lived there a long time ago. This book will tell you nothing about current China, but it was still a good read. (By the way, when did Oprah start running out of material for her book club and have to revert to classics?)
River Town by Peter Hessler is another good one. Peter Hessler is a good writer who really knows China. He learned Mandarin really well within two years, and the book was pretty interesting. He also wrote Oracle Bones which wasn't nearly as good, in my opinion. Peter Hessler's wife wrote a book I read recently and love, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China . I thought this book was a good read, and it is an in-depth view on a group of people you may not meet if you visit China, migrant workers.
Ha Jin is my favorite Chinese fiction writer. Most of his books are really great. I especially like Waiting and his most recent book A Free Life is really good too. A Free Life is interesting because it talks about the everyday life of a Chinese immigrant. I know a lot of first-generation Chinese immigrants, and this book rang true to what I know of how hard it is to come here, less so now, but it must have been really hard 30 years ago.
Beijing Doll is a really interesting read, because it's pretty trashy, and the writer is like the Amy Winehouse of China. Chinese Chic Lit.
The Rape of Nanking and The Chinese in America by Iris Chang are both really good books. Iris Chang unfortunately committed suicide in 2004, possibly because of the images brought up by writing The Rape of Nanking. There are also accounts that Chang was threatened after writing The Rape of Nanking . Many people have disputed the accuracy of Chang's book, but I personally believe that the events took place. It's like landing on the moon, and some people don't believe that the Nanking Massacre even happened. I also think we landed on the moon.
Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now by Jan Wong wasn't that great for me. By the point that I read it, I had already read a lot of Chinese memoirs on the Cultural Revolution. After a while those books are like, 'my life was good, and then the Cultural Revolution happened and things got bad.' Not that the time period wasn't terrible and each story has a right to be told, but Anchee Min told her story in such a poignant manner, that everyone who comes after her must keep up.
There are some older books that I didn't care for that much either, they are China Men and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic by Bette Bao Lord.
Shanghai : The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City... by Stella Dong was interesting non-fiction, as was The Lost Daughters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past by Karin Evans.
I also really liked Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker. It is about the Great Leap Forward, from 1958-1962, the period when Mao tried to reform China's agricultural system, and the chaos and famine that followed.
This list definitely isn't everything you should read if you want to learn more about China, and it probably isn't everything I have read, but it should be a good start!