The best books about Chinese history that will surprise you

Bret Hinsch Author Of The Rise of Tea Culture in China: The Invention of the Individual
By Bret Hinsch

Who am I?

I’ve dedicated my life to the study of Chinese history. I received a Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard and have spent my career teaching Chinese history at universities in Taiwan. I am the author of eleven books and many academic articles and book reviews about Chinese history. As an American who has spent decades lecturing about Chinese history in Mandarin to Taiwanese students, I have an uncommon perspective on the subject.  

I wrote...

The Rise of Tea Culture in China: The Invention of the Individual

By Bret Hinsch,

Book cover of The Rise of Tea Culture in China: The Invention of the Individual

What is my book about?

"In this captivating volume, Bret Hinsch demonstrates as never before how an unpretentious infusion of the dried leaves of a bitter plant from the southern hinterland became the iconic beverage of high culture in central China. Beyond that, he shows how the art of tea drinking during the transition from medieval to early modern China was intimately involved in the development of individualism and self-expression, such that the ‘new man’ of this period had a very different outlook on personhood from individuals of classical times. This is a learned study of the role of tea in Chinese society, one that ranges from literature and aesthetics to gender and morality, covering a host of topics in a most engaging fashion." - Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention

Why did I love this book?

This book is full of “wow” moments. The author describes the history of numerous inventions to show the ingenuity of Chinese civilization. Some of these inventions are well known, like paper and the compass. But most of them come as a surprise. Until about two hundred years ago, China was far ahead of the rest of the world in most types of technology. In some respects, such as agricultural tools and steel smelting, China was two thousand years ahead of Europe. When you read this book, you will realize that for most of history, Europe was like a marginal third-world society and China was the center of things.  

By Robert Temple,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Revised, full-color illustrated edition of the multi-award-winning, international bestseller that charts the unparalleled and astounding achievement of ancient China

• Brings to life one hundred Chinese “firsts” in the fields of agriculture, astronomy, engineering, mathematics, medicine, music, technology, and warfare

• Based on the definitive work of the world’s most famous Sinologist, Joseph Needham (1900-1995), author of Science and Civilisation in China

• Organized by field, invention, and discovery for ease of reference

Undisputed masters of invention and discovery for 3,000 years, the ancient Chinese were the first to discover the solar wind and the circulation of the blood and…

Book cover of Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-Hsi

Why did I love this book?

The eighteenth-century Kangxi Emperor was one of the most successful rulers in Chinese history, and he had a fascinating life. But Jonathan Spence was not content to write a standard academic biography. Instead, he writes from a first-person perspective. The reader does not look at Kangxi’s life from the outside but sees the world from the emperor’s point of view. Spence was a talented stylist, so the book is not only a profound study of Chinese history but also an innovative piece of literature. 

By Jonathan D. Spence,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A remarkable re-creation of the life of K'ang-hsi, emperor of the Manchu dynasty from 1661-1772, assembled from documents that survived his reign. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.

Book cover of The Last Embassy: The Dutch Mission of 1795 and the Forgotten History of Western Encounters with China

Why did I love this book?

In 1795 a group of Dutch diplomats traveled across China from a port in the south to Beijing in the north. At this time, few Westerners had ever traveled beyond the coast, so when the embassy returned to the Netherlands, several members wrote accounts of their unusual journey. This book gives an enormous amount of fascinating detail about what it was like to travel in imperial China, and about the lifestyles in various regions of the country. At times the diplomats enjoyed luxury and refinement, but they also had to endure hardship and mistreatment. The book evokes what daily life was like in China prior to the Western impact.

By Tonio Andrade,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the acclaimed author of The Gunpowder Age, a book that casts new light on the history of China and the West at the turn of the nineteenth century

George Macartney's disastrous 1793 mission to China plays a central role in the prevailing narrative of modern Sino-European relations. Summarily dismissed by the Qing court, Macartney failed in nearly all of his objectives, perhaps setting the stage for the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century and the mistrust that still marks the relationship today. But not all European encounters with China were disastrous. The Last Embassy tells the story of the…

Book cover of Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962

Why did I love this book?

From 1958-1962, Chairman Mao’s disastrous economic policies culminated in a famine that killed forty million people or more. Frank Dikötter combed through Communist Party archives to find documents and first-hand accounts of this tragedy. The archives have since been closed to scholars, so a book like this is now impossible to write. This is not just the story of the greatest man-made disaster in Chinese history, but it is also an indictment of Communist Party rule. The legacy of this famine continues to affect Chinese society. Much of the cruelty, corruption, and cynicism that plagues contemporary China are long-term results of this traumatic event.

By Frank Dikötter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Mao's Great Famine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A groundbreaking history of China's Great Famine: winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize 2011 'A gripping and masterful portrait of the brutal court of Mao, based on new research but also written with great narrative verve' Simon Sebag Montefiore 'Harrowing and brilliant' Ben Macintyre 'A critical contribution to Chinese history' Wall Street Journal Between 1958 and 1962, 45 million Chinese people were worked, starved or beaten to death. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up with and overtake the West in less than fifteen years. It led to…

Book cover of Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan

Why did I love this book?

Even though this is a work of anthropology, it also provides unique insights into rural history. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Margery Wolf did fieldwork in a poor village in rural Taiwan. At that time, modernization was just beginning to affect the countryside, so most aspects of village life were still traditional. Although Taiwanese society differed from the mainland in certain ways, in most aspects of life there carried on the traditions of Chinese village life. This book looks at rural society from a female perspective. Due to poverty, both women and men had few options. They did whatever it took to survive. Many of the people the author interviewed seem very discontent with their lives, but they usually had no other choice.

By Margery Wolf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Studies of Chinese society commonly emphasizze men's roles and functions, a not unreasonable approach to a society with patrilineal kinship structure. But this emphasis has left many important gaps in our knowledge of Chinese life.

This study seeks to fill some of these gaps by examining the ways rural Taiwanese women manipulate men and each other in the pursuit of their personal goals. The source of a woman's power, her home in a social structure dominated by men, is what the author calls the uterine family, a de facto social unity consisting of a mother and her children.

The first…

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