Alexandra “Alex” Pearson knows a few things about China and a few things about books.
Fluent in Chinese, she first moved to Beijing in 1982, when her father was here on a diplomatic post. After spending her university years in her native England, she returned to China in the 90s to eventually became founder of a literary venture known as The Bookworm.
It’s not easy to pigeonhole The Bookworm, which Pearson started as a one-woman restaurant and small library of 2,000 titles tucked into a Beijing courtyard.
In its current incarnation, The Bookworm might be described as a café, restaurant, library, bookshop, literary festival and social club rolled into one. In addition to the original Beijing Bookworm, there are now also branches in Chengdu and Suzhou.
In each of these cities it’s a popular gathering place for anything from lectures by internationally renowned authors to afternoon coffee and snacks—as well as a go-to spot to buy the latest books. Last year, Lonely Planet named The Bookworm Beijing one of the top ten bookshops in the world.
Given her breadth of experience with both China and the literary world, we thought we would help people preparing for a trip to China by asking Pearson to make some recommendations of English-language books about the country. Here are some of her favorites, along with some of her thoughts about each:
Favorite novels about China:
Change, by Mo Yan
“This novella/autobiography details the social and political changes in China over the past few decades, all through a personal lens. Mo Yan depicts his own experiences and the tales of those around him in yet another great book by this master storyteller.”
Three Sisters, by Bi Feiyu
“Three Sisters is a family epic; a tragic comedy that follows the lives of three sisters in late 20th century China. Bi Feiyu’s keen and satirical observations of domestic and rural life is what makes this book brilliant.”
Favorite historical non-fiction book about China:
The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power by Jonathan Fenby
“A comprehensive coverage of 150 years of Chinese history, Fenby has compiled a really good introduction to modern Chinese history. His content and style are thoroughly interesting and gripping all the way through.”
Favorite contemporary non-fiction books about China:
Factory Girls, by Leslie T Chang
“A truly compassionate portrayal of the lives of two young women who leave their rural home to become part of the migrant population of factory workers in southern China, Factory Girls is the story of a million such women of modern China. It’s an essential read.”
China: Museums, by Miriam Clifford, Cathy Giangrande and Antony White
“This volume also deserves a mention, as it is a fantastic guide on more than 200 museums, small to large, all across China.”
Favorite Chinese cookbook:
Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province , by Fuchsia Dunlop
“More than a cookbook, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook brings the cuisine and legends of Mao’s homeland, Hunan province, to life. It’s full of great authentic recipes.”
Note: If you’re planning on being in Beijing, Suzhou or Chengdu during March 4 through March 18, don’t forget to check out The Bookworm International Literary Festival 2011—of which WildChina Travel is a proud sponsor. There will also be a prologue to the festival in Beijing January 26 through 29 featuring Dave Eggers and David Sedaris.