10 Books to Read Before You Study Abroad in Shanghai

Nov 26, 2013 8:07:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

Before you study abroad in Shanghai enjoy some of our reading recommendations below. You might want to keep a book aside to take with you on the plane. 

1. GLOBAL SHANGHAI 1850-2010 BY JEFFREY N. WASSERSTROM. The subtitle "A History in Fragments" aptly sums up Shanghai. It is important to understand how life was kick-started, then interrupted by foreign interventions in Shanghai, starting with its role as a Treaty Port after Britain's first Opium War with China, supported by the Western-friendly Chinese Nationalist Government after 1912 but suffering after the 1937 Japanese invasion, and held back by Chairman Mao's isolationist period. Shanghai then rose again after 1990 with Jiang Zemin as China's leader and established as China's leading economic city. This book will give you a good sense of the history and Shanghai's claim to be a global city.

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2. TALES OF OLD SHANGHAI BY GRAHAM EARNSHAW.
This book takes you into the period, mainly in 1920s-1930s, when Shanghai was described as "the Paris of the East and the New York of the West" - a rich and cosmopolitan mixture of East and West illustrated through photographs, newspaper clippings, cartoons, stamps and other collectibles. The scrapbook format allows readers to either follow from the start or flip through to any page to learn of the layers and depth of the old-world city.

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3. UNDERSTANDING CHINESE SOCIETY BY XIAOWEI ZANG.
There are many books about Chinese culture and this one will give you a good overview of foundations of Chinese identity and the impact of modernisation and globalization in the last 40 years. Chinese customs and rituals and how they impact at stages of the life cycle are reviewed along with the changing role of family structure and marriage. It wasn't written specifically about Shanghai but this city has seen some of the greatest changes and is home to the highest percentage of migrant workers of any major Chinese city. Thus it has felt the pressures of economic and social transition more than most.

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4. SHANGHAI RISING: STATE POWER AND LOCAL TRANSFORMATIONS IN A GLOBAL MEGACITY BY XIANGMING CHEN.
There's the rise of China generally to become to world's second largest economy... And then there's the rise of Shanghai to be the de facto economic capital of that country. Local governments compete with each other to boost local economic growth. Shanghai was not chosen to be the first area of economic development after economic reform was ushered in from 1978. Yet from the designation of the Special Economic Zone in Pudong in 1990, Shanghai has truly "motored" and has become a city of economic experiment. This book will give the reader a flavor of it.

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5. THE SHANGHAI CIRCLE BY TONY HENDERSON.
This is a fiction trilogy of short stories set in Shanghai. Firstly, a family trading house needs steering through turbulent times in the 1930s as the imminent Japanese invasion and the rise of Communism threaten its survival. Then there is a story of vice and violence in Shanghai's criminal world of Triad groups, followed by a circle without end as two families involved above engage each other to vie for wealth in Shanghai. This work brings Shanghai of the 1930s to life as a bustling and seemingly prosperous city.

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6. THE CONCUBINE OF SHANGHAI BY HONG YING.
Set in the first half of the 20th century, a young girl is sold into servitude at an upper class Shanghai brothel. She grows to gain the attention of one of Shanghai's most powerful men and to learn a new world only for her lover to be assassinated. She sets off again on a path to become one of the most powerful women in Shanghai. The author's work has been banned in China in the past, but Hong Ying has become famous internationally for her novels.

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7. SHANGHAI GIRLS BY LISA SEE.
A contrasting novel which made the New York Best Sellers list, Shanghai Girls is set later in the 1930s. Two sisters come from a wealthy family with the father owning a prosperous rickshaw business and they can enjoy life in Shanghai. Then they learn that their father has gambled away their wealth and to repay debts he plans to sell the sisters as wives to wealthy suitors who have traveled from California to find brides. After fleeing the Japanese invaders, their journey takes them to America where they have to fight against discrimination and Chinatown's old ways and rules.

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8. LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI BY NIEN CHENG.
This autobiography takes China forward to the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 under Chairman Mao. It details Cheng's six-year imprisonment during that period and was written in exile in the US. The author died at age 94 in 2009 and her work has been praised as one of the most riveting accounts of the Cultural Revolution. She was the wealthy widow of a Shanghai oil company executive, but was arrested in 1966 and accused of being a spy. Cheng endured over six years' of solitary confinement and torture in prison.

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9. FACTORY GIRLS BY LESLIE T. CHANG.
Covering the most recent period of these recommended stories of real or imaginary lives, factory girls chronicles the experiences of young migrant workers in southern China, leaving rural life for better economic prospects in manufacturing labor since the 1980s and with stories from the 1990s. Chang focuses on the lives of individuals who have forsaken the Confucian bedrock of traditional culture for a chance of upward mobility. Factory Girls was named a New York Times Notable Book and one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Time Magazine and several other authorities.

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10. LONELY PLANET SHANGHAI BY DAMIAN HARPER AND CHRISTOPHER PITTS.
There is a wide choice of Shanghai guide books and it is good to familiarize yourself with the major districts in this municipality of 23 million. A starting point is to know your Puxi from your Pudong - the two main parts of Shanghai divided by the HuangPu River. Then more detail on the Former French Concession area, the Bund and the new China Art Palace in the China Pavilion would not go amiss. This guidebook will provide all that are more, including the author's local secrets.

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Topics: Shanghai, China