There is a lot to learn about Chinese culture as a newcomer to Beijing. Across topics ranging from history, mythology, and philosophy going back thousands of years, we are not alone in not knowing where to get started.
While it’s very unlikely for someone who isn’t from this country to scratch the surface of China’s 4,000 year history in a summer, at least you can say you gave it a try. We’ve compiled a list of literary essentials provided by educators from Keystone Academy, Beijing No. 55, Peide School, and Eduwings, to get your voracious young reader or Sinologist in the making started. So let’s all begin chipping away at this massive endeavor of learning a bit about the place we currently call home through these fantastic examples of literature, featuring selections that are appropriate for readers of all age groups.
Best Books for Primary School Age
Confucius Speaks: The Message of the Benevolent. Chih-Chung Tsai, translated by Bryan Bruya
This work is by the famous cartoonist Chih-Chung Tsai from Taiwan. It is based on the daily life of Confucius and The Analects. Confucius is a symbol of Chinese culture; there is an entire philosophy founded by him that has influenced Chinese thought for two thousand years, and The Analects are an epitome of Confucianism. Tsai has a deep understanding of Chinese culture and The Analects. He has created illustrations that are understandable and lively cartoons filled with humor, using a seasoned cartoon style. This work has provided a brand new door for youth to enter and understand Chinese traditional culture.
Wei Zhuo and Siying Huang of Peide School: “The thoughts generated from the original words of Confucius, along with the illustrations that support it and the humorous style makes the reading experience enjoyable and inspiring for all interested in learning the basics of this important segment of Chinese thought.”
Tikki Tikki Tembo. Retold by Arlene Mosel and Illustrated by Blair Lent
Many years ago it was a custom to give the first boy a honourable long name. This story is about two brothers, the eldest named Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo and the younger brother named Chang. Both brothers were told not to play near the well or they could fall in. Chang had fallen in and his older brother managed to help him in time by notifying his mother and an old man with a ladder. However, a few months after Chang had fallen inside, Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo also fell into the well. Chang went straightaway to help his brother but every time he said his name he ran out of breath. Eventually he and the old man with the ladder saved him but his recovery took considerably longer. From that point on, every Chinese parent decided to name their first child with shorter names.
Rachel Ing of Eduwings Kindergarten: ”This is a very intriguing story as it takes an important aspect of Chinese culture and has incorporated slight humor into it. This book does a really good job in showing just how strong the bond is between two brothers, and their willingness to help each other out through tough, life-threatening circumstances.”
Understanding China Through Comics, by Liu Jing
This addition to the list covers Chinese civilization in comic form, introducing geography, history,
economics, politics, the examination system, famous emperors, and poets. It’s a panoramic experience for whoever is interested in China’s past.
Kacy Song, Director of Libraries, Keystone Academy: “Learning Chinese language and understanding China seems to be daunting task. But if you want to learn a little bit of ‘everything’ about China, this book can definitely serve as a great start. Liu Jing, who had wanted to create a comic book to introduce his homeland to his son, found himself spending more than ten years collecting, analyzing, drawing, and writing this series of books. This series is for both English and bilingual students, and its rigorous research and amusing details will intrigue readers of all ages.”
Best Books for Middle to High School Age
The Grand Forbidden City- The Imperial Axis, by Zhao Guangchao
The Imperial Axis is a book that focuses on the architecture of the Forbidden City and is accompanied by illustrations on architectural details, that will give you a greater appreciation for this landmark that is literally the center of Beijing.”
Kacy Song, Director of Libraries, Keystone Academy: “You may have visited the Forbidden City once as a tourist, or you may have visited it more than once and are familiar with its buildings and treasures in its exhibitions. But after you finish reading this book, you’ll want to go back with a pair of ‘refreshed eyes.’ Zhao Guangzhao’s illustrations and writings provide an accessible and unique way for readers to understand how these earthly buildings correspond to heavens, how one architecture interacts with another, how lines and curves ‘talk’ to each other, and how spatial design reflects traditional customs and beliefs. The book is done with particular attention to every detail – it’s a work of art in itself.”
The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham, the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and ‘Honorable Taoist’, who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world’s most technologically advanced country.
Kacy Song, Director of Libraries, Keystone Academy: “Many Chinese are familiar with this question, or paradox, even though they have never heard of Joseph Needham: ‘Why had China (and India) been overtaken by the West in science and technology, despite their earlier successes?’ It’s also known as ‘The Needham Question.’ In the late 1930s when China was mired in the Anti-Japanese War, Joseph Needham embarked on the long and fruitful journey of seeking out these answers. He and his collaborators, Lu Guizhen (his Chinese lover), Wang Ling, and He Bingyu, and many other scholars, conducted substantial original investigations, compiled and wrote the massive Science and Civilization in China, which has changed and is still changing how the world sees China.”
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler
This compelling book is set in the heart of China’s Sichuan province and tells the story of a young foreigner experiencing China for the first time. River Town is a work of non-fiction and an unforgettable portrait of a city that is seeking to understand both what it was and what it someday will be. Peter Hessler, who would later become a New Yorker correspondent, first arrived in China as a Peace Corps volunteer. He taught English and American literature at the local college, but it was his students who taught him about the complex processes of understanding that takes place when one is immersed in a radically different society.
Anna Lowenberg of Beijing No. 55 High School: “This poignant, thoughtful, funny book is a good read. Young people are sure to relate to the author, who is also young and discovering China for the first time.”
To Live, by Yuhua, translated by Michael Berry
This novel portrays one man’s transformation from the spoiled son of a landlord to a kindhearted peasant. After squandering his family’s fortune in gambling dens and brothels, the young, deeply penitent Fugui settles down to do the honest work of a farmer. Forced by the Nationalist Army to leave behind his family, he witnesses the Civil War, only to return years later to face a string of hardships. Left with an ox as his only companion for his final years, Fugui stands as a model of gritty authenticity, buoyed by his appreciation for life in this narrative of humbling power.
Anna Lowenberg of Beijing No. 55 High School: “This is an excellent novel for young readers because it illustrates the tumultuous history of China during the twentieth century through the life of an individual. Yuhua’s authentic and sometimes humorous tale gives a face and a context for the major historical events that have shaped today’s China. Zhang Yimou’s celebrated film was also based on this novel.”
Download the digital copy here.