For people who are considering a visit to China there are a few books that can really help you get a handle on things, probably the two best reads for being both well written and informative:
The River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester. Especially good if you are looking to visit Shanghai, Nanjing, do a Yangtze River cruise or go out to Yunnan province.
Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. This book is a great way to get the history of China while also being exposed to a wealth of experience and information on modern china. Of his books that also include River Town and Country Driving, Oracle Bones is by far the most informative and engaging.
And though there are many good books on the subject, here are a few more recommendations:
Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I'm just going to steal this from the book description on Amazon because they put it very well, "Blending the intimacy of memoir and the panoramic sweep of eyewitness history, Wild Swans has become a bestselling classic in thirty languages, with more than ten million copies sold. The story of three generations in twentieth-century China, it is an engrossing record of Mao's impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love."
Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James Fallows. Old China hand and current writer and editor for The Atlantic, this is a collection of his essays and articles on China that offer great insight into Modern China and its relationship with the world.
A Short History of Chinese Philosophy by Fung Yu-Lan. You can pretty much read the history of China by following Wikipedia articles or getting a brief overview from the front of a Lonely Planet. There is a lot going on, but a basic understanding of the dynasties is all you'd need before arriving so that you can put the Terracotta Warriors in context with the ancient bronzes or the Ming Tombs of Purple Mountain. However, if you are interested in Chinese thought, this is a great place to start. It begins by really opening up the 'spirit' of Chinese philosophy and then moving through the major movements like Confucius, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu and the foundations of Chinese (Zen) Buddhism. There are large parts of the book that the novice may not find necessary, but the descriptions of the main sections are very helpful.
So I put this out to Twitter and got a few more suggestions -- I've only read a couple of these and China really isn't my area, so links to Amazon and the recommender (on Twitter).
Riding the Iron Rooster - Theroux being grumpy in China - tks Stuart at RTW Flights
"Shark's Fin & Sichuan Pepper" For eaters & food travellers - tks Mark at @stickyinhanoi
Chinese Characters "Fantastic compilation of diverse profiles by some of the best writers on China" - tks Matt at @caffeinatedmatt
On University of California Press
Red Azalea "Anchee Min's celebrated memoir of growing up in the last years of Mao's China" - tks @watawit01
Empire of the Sun (Ballard)
Miracles of Life (Ballard)
Factory Girls (Leslie Chang)
Above three all tks to Chris at @travelhappy
More suggestions? add them in please
I would suggest taking some Chinese literature as well, what could be better for understanding China than reading its modern literature? And it can also be quite enjoying during your trip.
Novelists like Yu Hua, Mo Yan, Su Tong, Wang Shuo, Murong Xuecun and more have all been translated to English. Pick one or two before you go.
#4 beibaozu has been a member since 26/2/2013. Posts: 4
A few more tips in via Twitter -- oddly didn't get any when I asked on Facebook!
News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir by Peter Fleming
Forbidden Journey: From Peking to Kashmir by Ella Maillart
Both the above Tks @naomiduguid
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Kessler
Country Driving by Peter Kessler
Above two Tks @eatingasia
Thanks for the other suggestions as well beibaozu
well,I think the best China guidebook is from Lonely Planet, which is not only rich in content, but also vivid in pictures.
#6 nobody has been a member since 26/2/2013. Posts: 9
I loved Wild Swans. Strongly recommended!
#7 worldaroundthe has been a member since 25/5/2013. Posts: 6
I suggest to have a look at "Shanghai Baby" if you want to read a bit more about the seedier side
#8 Risstel has been a member since 21/12/2013. Posts: 6