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There are many good books that are very interesting to read and that will help to bring Beijing’s past to life for the visitor.
Almost a Revolution: The Story of a Chinese Student’s Journey from Boyhood to Leadership in Tiananmen Square. University of Michigan Press, 1998. Almost a revolution is a readable first-hand account of the happenings in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress. Sterling Seagrave. Vintage, 1993. There is a lot of debate about the best book on the Empress Dowager, who was effectively the ruler of China at the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911. Whichever is best, Cixi (also spelled Tzu-hsi) is the major-and very interesting- character behind many of the palaces that a visitor to Beijing will see, especially the Summer Palace. This or another book on Cixi is highly recommended.
Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China. Rachel Dewoskin. Norton, 2005. Foreign Babes is not as risque as it sounds, but is an engaging story of one woman’s experience portraying a foreign woman in a popular television program.
From Emperor to Citizen: The Autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi. Foreign Languages Press. This is the autobiography of the last emperor of China who began his life in Beijing’s imperial courts.
Imperial China (Architectural Guides for Travellers). Charis Chan. Chronicle Books, 1992. This is an excellent guide that provides detailed information about the architecture and ritual significance of many of the important historical sites in Beijing. Well worth the price of a used copy and essential for any traveller with a serious interest in the history and architecture of imperial Beijing.
Peking Story: The Last Days of Old Peking. David Kidd. New York Review of Books Classics, 2003. Peking Story is a reprint of a book chronicling the experiences of an expat living in China on the eve of the Chinese revolution in 1949.
Rickshaw: The Novel of Lo-T’o Hsiang Tzu. Lao She (also Lu Shun). University of Hawaii Press, 1979. Set in Beijing, this novel portrays the nearly hopeless struggles of one of Beijing’s poorest class struggling to survive. Lao She is one of China’s best known authors.
Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now. Jan Wong. Anchor, 1997. A really excellent memoir by one of the first foreign students allowed to study in Beijing beginning in the Cultural Revolution.
Streetlife China. Michael Dutton. Cambridge University Press, 1998. This academic book includes snapshots of life in Beijing, including much of the underside of the city not often seen by tourists. Chapters discuss work units, hoodlums, homosexuals, household registration, prostitution, Zhejiang village, police, tattoos, Mao badges and more. A bit technical at times, but generally well-written and very engaging.
Falliing Leaves Adeline Yen Mah an account of a girls experience as the 5th unwanted daughter ina wealthy family. Adeline's story takes her through her childhood in Shanghai and further north, through the cultural revolution, studying in the US and concludes in modern day Hong Kong. A fascinating true story
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. A memoir of when Hessler was working for Peace Corps, teaching English is a city in southwestern China. It's a great description of modern China and all its paradoxes and incongruities. If coming to China for an extended period, this is an invaulable look into the mind of the average Chinese, from an American perspective.
Fodor's Bejing - while most of the guide is useful, beware that the subway map inside the back cover is current but subway stops on interior maps are according to the old system. And some sites such as the weekend Dirt Market is shown on the map in the Northeast quadrant of the city when it is actually in the south.