Jung Chang's mega-seller Wild Swans is a fascinating family saga spanning three generations against the backdrop of China's turbulent 20th-century history. Other I-survived-China titles include Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai, Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng & Judith Shapiro and Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag by Harry Wu.
Western views of contemporary Chinese politics are provided by Nicholas D Kristof & Sheryl Wudunn's China Wakes, Orville Schell's Mandate of Heaven and the highly recommended Evening Chats in Beijing by Perry Link.
For a spot of biography to enlighten your trip there's The Private Life of Chairman Mao, written by the man's private physician, Zhisui Li. Books on other Chinese personalities include Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China by Richard Evans (which includes a discussion of the Tiananmen Square tragedy), The White Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong by Ross Terrill and Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898-1976 by Han Suyin.
When it comes to history - and be prepared for some brick-sized titles here - the most comprehensive coverage is the 15-volume (and counting) series the Cambridge History of China. Travellers may prefer to lug The Walled Kingdom: A History of China from 2000 BC to the Present by Witold Rodzinsky around - it's a mere 450 pages. A book full of lively prose, and a pleasure to read, is Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China; another highly rated modern history is John King Fairbank's The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985. More recent history is discussed in Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era by Merle Goldman.
Colin Thubron's Behind the Wall and Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster remain the two best recent travel books written about China, while older travelogues include Isabella Bird's 1899 The Yangtse and Beyond and Peter Fleming's One's Company.