The best books on Chinese military history

Peter A. Lorge Author Of The Reunification of China: Peace through War under the Song Dynasty
By Peter A. Lorge

The Books I Picked & Why

Sanctioned Violence in Early China

By Mark Edward Lewis

Book cover of Sanctioned Violence in Early China

Why this book?

This is the classic study of the changes in violence and war in Chinese society from the Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period. Lewis demonstrates that war, hunting, and the sacrifices of the Spring and Autumn chariot-riding aristocracy were key to demonstrating membership in that class. Political power moved from the feudal rulers to their ministers, who were lower-ranking members of the aristocratic class, and the struggle for power among those men transformed warfare and society. Violence was transformed from a class-defining activity into a state-building tool that had to be controlled by the feudal ruler.


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Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900

By David Graff

Book cover of Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900

Why this book?

This is the best Chinese military history in any language. Scholarly, yet readable, it lays out the military, political, and social history of a complicated period in great detail. Despite challenging source material, Graff manages to create a coherent and comprehensible narrative.


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Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

By Kenneth M. Swope

Book cover of Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

Why this book?

Contrary to previous scholarship, Ming China was not in military decline at the end of the 16th century, and the Wanli Emperor was not an ineffectual ruler during the conflict in Korea with the Japanese. Swope also demonstrates the importance of guns in the conflict, with the Japanese army strong in harquebuses and the Chinese army strong in cannon.


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The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military under the Qing Dynasty

By Joanna Waley-Cohen

Book cover of The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military under the Qing Dynasty

Why this book?

This is a series of six essays that present a “new Qing history” approach to 17th and 18th century Chinese military history, specifically the culture involved in the military campaigns from 1636 to 1799.  Waley-Cohen not only presents a more positive view of the Qing’s Manchu rulers, but also the centrality of military activities and culture to Chinese culture.  The Qing government enthusiastically promoted its martial accomplishments, and martial culture was in turn reflected in visual culture, religion, and popular culture.


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The White Lotus War: Rebellion and Suppression in Late Imperial China

By Yingcong Dai

Book cover of The White Lotus War: Rebellion and Suppression in Late Imperial China

Why this book?

This book details why the Qing dynasty had such great difficulty in suppressing a religious rebellion in Shaanxi from 1796 to 1804. Dai shows that in addition to corruption and failed reform efforts following previous fighting, disastrously bad mistakes of command were made at every level, from top to bottom. The structure of the Qing military proved difficult to mobilize in Shaanxi, and hired local militias were used instead, resulting in a singularly expensive and ineffective response to the rebellion.


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