Moving to China and how to do it

A loyal MR reader writes to me:
I’m planning on…spending the summer in China before starting the program in Beijing in September…
How much emphasis should I spend generally on language study vs. travel in China vs. reading in English about the country? For this summer, I was thinking of holing up in one city and finding tutors to do 10hrs/day of study, traveling around the country, or some combination of the two.
Here’s how one blogger described what three months of intensive gave him: “My level of Chinese is sufficient to deal with most basic necessities of living, travel, make new friends and have interesting conversations entirely in Chinese. I can also read most of simple emails, menus and signs, although my reading still lags behind my speaking ability. I’m still not at a level where I could easily understand group conversations, movies, television or read books or newspapers.”
Also, any cities in particular you’d like to spend three months in?
What type/mix of books should I be reading over the next few months in the states to prep? Any particular titles come to mind?
Ideas for Master theses in economics that would benefit from being in-country even with relatively limited language ability?

TC here: Tough questions!  I would offer a few points:

1. You can’t study a foreign language for ten hours a day, as you need to intersperse more rewards to keep yourself motivated (like most things!).  The best way to learn Chinese is how I learned German, namely through a romantic partner.  That probably implies having a home base city for a big chunk of your time.

2. You need to ask how well you can handle air pollution, especially for the winter months.  Overall, I prefer Western China, which also tends to be less polluted.  Yunnan province is to me one of the very best visits in the world, and the environment there is downright pleasant, but everywhere I’ve gone in China was worth visiting.  Of course Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are where much of the action is at, of those three I enjoy Beijing the most (by far) but would pick Shanghai to live, mostly because it has less air pollution.

3. It is hard to tackle China through books, and single titles don’t get you very far (but here are a few recommendations).  Maybe start with John Keay for an overview, but finish up by reading it yet again.  Along the way, pick a few particular pre-communist topics, such as the Taiping rebellion, the history of a part of the country, Christianity in China, the Great Divergence, or the Grand Canal (understudied!), rather than just pawing through dozens of basically similar books on “where China is at right now.”  If I had to suggest one topic, maybe it would be “reading Chinese history through the lens of the state capacity idea,” as my colleague Mark Koyama has been working on.

4. The economic history of China is an area where economics research is making some very rapid advances from a pretty low base of knowledge.

5. Ask someone who has moved to China.


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