china10wordsOne of the best books I have read about China since I have arrived here is China in Ten Words by Yu Hua. The book is a collection of essays, each one based on a commonly used word in China. Each of these words are loaded with historical and cultural contexts that few outsiders will ever truly understand, at least not in the way that the Chinese understand them.

The book begins with “People,” which Hua argues is so commonly used in China today that it has lost the weight of its initial meaning. He goes on to describe his childhood, which took place during the cultural revolution, and then his participation in the student protests that led to the June 4th massacre at Tianenmen Square. He also covers touchy issues that fascinate many foreigners, like piracy and counterfeiting.

What I loved about this book is that it was not written by a foreigner looking from the outside in. So much of what we hear as expats here is how we don’t understand why the Chinese do this or that (I’m guilty of these constant questions myself). There are also numerous books about Chinese history and culture written by expats. But I always get the sense that these books are written by someone from the outside looking in. We can never look past our own culture to just accept China for what it is. We always have to put it in contrast with our own cultures and histories. Hua, on the other hand, has been able to create a book that covers a number of very interesting issues and historical events, as an insider. He uses vivid imagery, wonderful anecdotes, and humor to illustrate a country that has transformed itself over and over in the past 50 years. I was hooked on this book from the second I started reading. It helped me to understand so many of the things I question often here. It also helped me to understand some of the “problems” I see in many of my students – their fear of having an opinion, their constant plagiarism, and their lack of personal responsibility, to name a few.

I am not sure this would be such an interesting book for those living outside of China, but for expats I think it is a must-read. However, it may be difficult to find in China as it was originally banned by the Chinese government (I am not sure whether it is now available). I bought my copy in Hong Kong and I have been told it is available on Kindle.

For more comprehensive reviews with excerpts and such, you can check out The New York Times or Tea Leaf Nation.