The best Asian history books for a Sunday afternoon

Michael Schuman Author Of Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World
By Michael Schuman

Who am I?

Michael Schuman is the author of three history books on Asia, most recently Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World, released in 2020. He has spent the past quarter-century as a journalist in the region. Formerly a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, he is currently a contributor to The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

I wrote...

Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World

By Michael Schuman,

Book cover of Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World

What is my book about?

We in the West routinely ask: "What does China want?" The answer is quite simple: the superpower status it always had but briefly lost. In this colorful, informative story filled with fascinating characters, epic battles, influential thinkers, and decisive moments, we come to understand how the Chinese view their own history and how its narrative is distinctly different from that of Western civilization. More importantly, we come to see how this unique Chinese history of the world shapes China's economic policy, attitude toward the United States and the rest of the world, relations with its neighbors, positions on democracy and human rights, and notions of good government.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945

Why did I love this book?

The masterful Toland weaves a narrative of jaw-dropping detail, drama and complexity that tells the grand and harrowing story of the Pacific War between the United States and Japan from the perspective of the Japanese. The tale takes the reader from Tokyo cabinet meetings to the deck of warships to the frontline of critical battles, to share the experiences of everyone from national leaders to top generals to ordinary soldiers. It’s one of those books that’s so good it leaves you wondering how it was even written.

By John Toland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rising Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“[The Rising Sun] is quite possibly the most readable, yet informative account of the Pacific war.”—Chicago Sun-Times

This Pulitzer Prize–winning history of World War II chronicles the dramatic rise and fall of the Japanese empire, from the invasion of Manchuria and China to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Told from the Japanese perspective, The Rising Sun is, in the author’s words, “a factual saga of people caught up in the flood of the most overwhelming war of mankind, told as it happened—muddled, ennobling, disgraceful, frustrating, full of paradox.”

In weaving together the historical facts and human drama leading…

Book cover of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857

Why did I love this book?

Mixing deep archival scholarship with brilliant storytelling, Dalrymple transports the reader into the final days of the Mughal Empire and its last emperor. The story centers on Delhi during the mutiny against British rule in 1857, the last great attempt by the Indians to throw off their European overlords until Gandhi. What begins with hope ultimately ends in tragedy, for the Mughal poet-ruler who fails to grasp his chance to change history, and the brilliant civilization his empire had fostered.

By William Dalrymple,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Mughal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At 4pm on a dark, wet winter's evening in November 1862, a cheap coffin was buried in eerie silence: no lamentations, no panegyrics, for as the British Commissioner in charge of the funeral insisted, 'No vesting will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests.' This Mughal was Bahadur Shah Zafar II, one of the most talented, tolerant and likeable of his remarkable dynasty who found himself leader of a violent uprising he knew from the start would lead to irreparable carnage. Zafar's frantic efforts to unite his forces proved tragically futile. The Siege of Delhi was…

Book cover of The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

Why did I love this book?

Filled with larger-than-life characters risking life and limb in the quest for empire, Hopkirk recounts the contest between Britain and Russia for influence in remote inner Asia in the 19th century. Appropriate derring-do abounds as spies and soldiers traverse steppe, mountains and desert in search of glory, only to become entrapped in the ultimate folly of imperial designs. Hopkirk’s sharp eye for the epic would make Kipling proud.

By Peter Hopkirk,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Great Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Peter Hopkirk's spellbinding account of the great imperial struggle for supremacy in Central Asoa has been hailed as essential reading with that era's legacy playing itself out today.

The Great Game between Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia was fought across desolate terrain from the Caucasus to China, over the lonely passes of the Parmirs and Karakorams, in the blazing Kerman and Helmund deserts, and through the caravan towns of the old Silk Road-both powers scrambling to control access to the riches of India and the East. When play first began, the frontiers…

Book cover of Nathaniel's Nutmeg: Or, the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History

Why did I love this book?

One of those rare and wonderful books that brings back to life long-ago events that were of globe-changing importance at the time but have been all but forgotten today. With flair and energy, Milton retells the story of the battle between the British and Dutch for control of the famed Spice Islands and the riches they then possessed, all with a special twist at the end.

By Giles Milton,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Nathaniel's Nutmeg as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A true tale of high adventure in the South Seas.

The tiny island of Run is an insignificant speck in the Indonesian archipelago. Just two miles long and half a mile wide, it is remote, tranquil, and, these days, largely ignored.

Yet 370 years ago, Run's harvest of nutmeg (a pound of which yielded a 3,200 percent profit by the time it arrived in England) turned it into the most lucrative of the Spice Islands, precipitating a battle between the all-powerful Dutch East India Company and the British Crown. The outcome of the fighting was one of the most spectacular…

Book cover of Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

Why did I love this book?

Crowley employs all of his storytelling skill to recreate the saga of the Portuguese eruption into the Indian Ocean to form the first East-West seaborne empire. British exploits in Asia are better known among English-language readers, but it was tiny Portugal that launched the era of European imperialism in Asia, and this book packs in the imperious characters and their intrepid (and violent) deeds that reshaped the world.

By Roger Crowley,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Conquerors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As remarkable as Columbus and the conquistador expeditions, the history of Portuguese exploration is now almost forgotten. But Portugal's navigators cracked the code of the Atlantic winds, launched the expedition of Vasco da Gama to India and beat the Spanish to the spice kingdoms of the East - then set about creating the first long-range maritime empire. In an astonishing blitz of thirty years, a handful of visionary and utterly ruthless empire builders, with few resources but breathtaking ambition, attempted to seize the Indian Ocean, destroy Islam and take control of world trade.

Told with Roger Crowley's customary skill and…

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