The best books on China’s Ming Dynasty

Who am I?

I am an honours graduate in aerospace engineering and psychology and I have written five historical novels. My debut novel, The Ming Storytellers, is set during China’s Ming dynasty and was well-reviewed by the Historical Novel Society. To pen this 600-page saga, I spent six years researching the Ming dynasty while studying a year of mandarin. I have travelled to Beijing, along the Great Wall, and to China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. Being a descendant of the Vietnamese royal family gave me access to rich genealogical sources passed down from my scholarly ancestors. These stories of concubines, eunuchs, and mandarins made the past come alive, complementing my research with plausible drama.


I wrote...

The Ming Storytellers

By Laura Rahme,

Book cover of The Ming Storytellers

What is my book about?

Set against the backdrop of China’s sixth naval expedition in the early Ming dynasty, this is the story of an imperial concubine’s rise in the reign of the Yong Le emperor, and her forbidden relationship with one of China’s most illustrious figures, Admiral Zheng He. A complex tale of thwarted love, adventure, crime, and mystery, The Ming Storytellers brings a cast of fascinating supporting characters. We meet a mysterious storyteller on board Zheng He’s ship whose long winding tale will turn out to be more than it originally seemed. Also traveling with the Ming fleet and bound for her home in Zanzibar, the secretive Persian traveller, Shahrzad, watches Zheng He closely. But what does she seek? 

A rich story unfolding in Beijing, on the Ming ships, and in a mountainous village in Yunnan, The Ming Storytellers explores a distant world and brings to life key events in China’s history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Chinese Clothing

Laura Rahme Why did I love this book?

So you wish to paint your lips red like ancient Chinese women but are worried about confusing your Tang from your Ming. Get your make-up right with this manual. This succinct and wonderfully illustrated book is a treasure for lovers of Chinese fashion history or historical novelists like myself who may not be fluent in mandarin and depend on English publications. Creating vivid descriptions of concubines or Ming court characters is made easy when you can visualise exactly how people dressed or painted their faces during the different periods of China’s long history, including the Ming dynasty. I loved this book as it informed me about hairstyles, make-up, shoes, hats, clothing, and even the different insignias embroidered on eunuch clothing depending on their rank. With attention to variations across ethnicities and insights on historical and social changes, this book is a must-have.  

By Hua Mei,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chinese Clothing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Chinese clothing has undergone continuous transformations throughout history, providing a reflection of the culture in place at any given time. A wealth of archaeological findings coupled with ancient mythology, poetry and songs enable us to see the development of distinctive Chinese fashions through the ages. This illustrated introductory survey takes the reader through traditional Chinese clothing, ornamentation and ceremonial wear, discusses the importance of silk and the diverse costumes of China's ethnic groups before considering modern trends and China's place in the fashion world today.


Book cover of Naxi Dongba Pictograph Dictionary

Laura Rahme Why did I love this book?

While researching the Ming dynasty and its tea horse trade, I had the joy of traveling to Lijiang in China’s Yunnan province. Lijiang is home to the Naxi (or Nakhi) whose Mu clan rose in prominence during the Ming dynasty. The Naxi people are unique in that they employ the world’s only living pictographic writing system. 

This tiny dictionary is filled with pictographs and their meaning, both in English and in Mandarin. Pictographs are grouped by topics significant to the Naxi culture, such as behaviour, family life, housing, and plants. This book extends one’s view of China, a country which should not be perceived as purely populated by the Han ethnic majority. The common symbols employed in the Naxi language provide valuable insights into the Naxi value system.

Book cover of Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

Laura Rahme Why did I love this book?

My favorite Ming dynasty source. It is rich with details on the eunuch institution during the Ming dynasty including its supply chain— the parts of society and of the world where eunuchs were historically drawn. Described here, are the various agencies within the Beijing Forbidden City where Ming dynasty eunuchs worked: Carpentry, Palace Servants, Palace Foods, Royal Clothing, the Nursing Home, and others, including a Toilet Paper agency. Readers not only gain insights on the imperial palace’s operations, but also on the eunuch ranking system, the emperors’ policies concerning eunuchs, and the rise of powerful eunuchs in the Ming secret police (Eastern Depot) and in Ming diplomacy. The latter came to its apogee with Admiral Zheng He, himself a eunuch, leading the Ming fleet during seven world voyages.

By Shih-Shan Henry Tsai,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study of Chinese eunuchs illuminates the entire history of the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, and provides broad information on various aspects of pre-modern China.


Book cover of 1421: The Year China Discovered America

Laura Rahme Why did I love this book?

Long subject to debate due to its assertion that China discovered America, this book remains an astounding Ming dynasty source that should not be overlooked based on a single controversial claim. It has a decidedly maritime, diplomatic, and economic focus, offering a comprehensive – often technical – account of the 1421 Ming fleet’s expedition with attention to historical figures like Admiral Zheng He. It vividly paints Ming dynasty China as an economic might that traded extensively for various world products and received tributes and envoys from places as far as Malindi in southeast Africa. Published in 2002, the book has a certain prophetic quality: it highlights early Ming China’s trade dominance on the world stage as though Menzies sensed that history could repeat itself. Today, China is once again seen as an economic superpower.

By Gavin Menzies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked 1421 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On March 8, 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen set sail from China to "proceed all the way to the ends of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas." When the fleet returned home in October 1423, the emperor had fallen, leaving China in political and economic chaos. The great ships were left to rot at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost in the long, self-imposed isolation that followed was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America seventy years before Columbus and had circumnavigated the globe a…


Book cover of When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433

Laura Rahme Why did I love this book?

Another much-loved book about the Ming dynasty’s naval fleet but this time, all seven maritime expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He are dutifully described. It outlines the evolution in ancient Chinese ship construction which saw the development of the formidable Ming ‘treasure fleet’. The reader can explore the Chinese mariners’ lives and occupations at sea, their navigation techniques, Ming China’s world trade and its diplomatic relationships, and the Ming fleet’s fascinating destinations, including Champa (now South Vietnam), Sumatra, Kuli (Kozhikode in India), Mogadishu, Malindi, and Hormuz. Cultural and socio-political details relating to the period are seamlessly weaved into this account which closely follows the life and works of Admiral Zheng He.

By Louise Levathes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When China Ruled the Seas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A hundred years before Columbus and his fellow Europeans began making their way to the New World, fleets of giant Chinese junks commanded by the eunuch admiral Zheng He and filled with the empire's finest porcelains, lacquerware, and silk ventured to the edge of the world's `four corners.' It was a time of exploration and conquest, but it ended in a retrenchment so complete that less than a century later, it was a crime to go to sea in a multimasted ship. In When
China Ruled the Seas, Louise Levathes takes a fascinating and unprecedented look at this dynamic period…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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