Best books of 2014

2014 saw an impressive range of writings produced on China, Australia and international relations. Many of these writings were good, but the following list of five works are in my estimation the most illuminating and best writings produced this year.


Evan Osnos – Age of Ambition

Perhaps the best work on China this year, Osnos’ work is a marvellous portrait of various lives in contemporary China. The book also provides all the necessary facts and details to understand the various complex upheavals taking place in China today.

Age of Ambition includes very appropriate and illuminating reflections of China’s economic and social development, which note how analogous China’s present is with the United States’ Gilded Age. Osnos quotes Mark Twain and Charles Warner, ‘every man has his dream, his pet scheme’, and points out the growing number of entrepreneurs and growing individuality and expressiveness in contemporary China.

Osnos however doesn’t use the full quote from Twain and Warner, which reads: ‘in America nearly every man has his dream, his pet scheme, whereby he is to advance himself socially or pecuniarily’. While Osnos’ quote did fairly clearly suggest that the gilded age wasn’t a time where literally everyone was scheming and dreaming, with the heavily gendered language pointing out it was foremost a time for male advancement, the latter and fuller quote contains the important word ‘nearly’, which underlines that the period in question wasn’t a time of universal social mobility and progress. And so too in China is it made quite clear, when one reads Osnos’ book, that there are winners and losers in contemporary China (with the book perhaps playing up the amount of success stories to a degree, but nonetheless it does illuminate some of people negatively caught up in China’s transformations, and the feeling of their strife).

In sum Age of Ambition is a brilliant and dazzling piece of writing on contemporary China, that perhaps clearest conveys the feeling and vibe of the transformations taking place in China. It is a book that can be readily suggested to anyone who wants to both understand and feel what is taking place in present day China.


Andrew Charlton – Quarterly Essay (54) – Dragon’s Tail: The Lucky Country after the China Boom

An excellent essay on Australia-China economic relations. Dragon’s Tail provides a stellar economic history of Australia and China, with the essay then providing a concise telling of Australia’s economic ties to China and the resulting mining boom that occurred around the turn of the century. The work concludes with a look to the future, and whether it will likely contain prosperity for China and Australia or not.

For a fuller review of Andrew Charlton’s Dragon’s Tail, my review of this Quarterly Essay can be read here.


Robert D. Kaplan – Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific

Agree with it or not, Kaplan’s latest book is a very interesting reflection on one of the world’s hotspots. The work includes a curious comparison between China in the South China Sea today, and the United States’ adventurism in the Caribbean some generations ago.

One of the main points of interests in this work, in my opinion, is that the book regularly tackles South China Sea issues by either looking at these issues through the lens of geography, or by being informed by geography.

So love it or loathe it, Asia’s Cauldron is a worthwhile read.


David Eimer – The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China

Former China Correspondent David Eimer produced a rich and impressionist work on the provinces and regions at the fringes of China: Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and Dongbei.

These regions are truly fascinating, and Eimer provides fine portraits of them. Along the way interesting questions become apparent, such as how diverse is China, and where exactly does China start and end?

A recommended work for persons seeking to learn about the diversity of China and the country’s limits.


Ramachandra Guha (Eds.) – Makers of Modern Asia

Makers of Modern Asia, published by Harvard University Press, is an excellent collection of short biographies of the political leaders who made modern Asia by leading scholars.

These chapter length biographies are about 20 to 30 pages long. They are generally more politics focused than economics focused. The biographies focus on the leaders of India (Gandhi, Nehru), Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh), Indonesia (Sukarno), Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew), Pakistan (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) and China.

The China biographies include: Chiang Kai-shek by Jay Taylor, Mao Zedong by Rana Mitter, Zhou Enlai by Chen Jian and Deng Xiaoing by Odd Arne Westad.

Overall a wonderful range of biographies, and definitely worth reading to understand the various histories that have guided the countries of Asia to their respective present moments.

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