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

Who am I?

My interest in Chinese military history stems from an early interest in books on strategy like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and in East Asian martial arts. I have pursued both since high school, translating Sun Tzu as a senior thesis in college (and now returning to it professionally), and practicing a number of martial arts over the last forty years (and writing a book on the history of Chinese martial arts). Although there are plentiful historical records for all aspects of Chinese military history, the field remains relatively neglected, leaving it wide open for new studies. I continue to pursue my teenage interests, writing the books I wanted to read in high school.

I wrote...

The Reunification of China: Peace through War under the Song Dynasty

By Peter A. Lorge,

Book cover of The Reunification of China: Peace through War under the Song Dynasty

What is my book about?

The Song dynasty (960–1279) has been characterized by its pre-eminent civil culture and military weakness. This groundbreaking work demonstrates that the civil dominance of the eleventh century was the product of a half-century of continuous warfare and ruthless political infighting. The spectacular culture of the eleventh century, one of the high points in Chinese history, was built on the bloody foundation of the conquests of the tenth century. Peter Lorge examines how, rather than a planned and inevitable reunification of the Chinese empire, the foundation of the Song was an uncertain undertaking, dependent upon highly contingent battles, both military and political, whose outcome was always in doubt. The Song dynasty's successful waging of war led ultimately to peace.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Sanctioned Violence in Early China

Why did I love 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.

By Mark Edward Lewis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This book provides new insight into the creation of the Chinese empire by examining the changing forms of permitted violence--warfare, hunting, sacrifice, punishments, and vengeance. It analyzes the interlinked evolution of these violent practices to reveal changes in the nature of political authority, in the basic units of social organization, and in the fundamental commitments of the ruling elite. The work offers a new interpretation of the changes that underlay the transformation of the Chinese polity from a league of city states dominated by aristocratic lineages to a unified, territorial state controlled by a supreme autocrat and his agents. In…

Book cover of Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900

Why did I love 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.

By David Graff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortly after 300 AD, barbarian invaders from Inner Asia toppled China's Western Jin dynasty, leaving the country divided and at war for several centuries. Despite this, the empire gradually formed a unified imperial order. Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900 explores the military strategies, institutions and wars that reconstructed the Chinese empire that has survived into modern times.
Drawing on classical Chinese sources and the best modern scholarship from China and Japan, David A. Graff connects military affairs with political and social developments to show how China's history was shaped by war.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Kenneth M. Swope,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The invasion of Korea by Japanese troops in May of 1592 was no ordinary military expedition: it was one of the decisive events in Asian history and the most tragic for the Korean peninsula until the mid-twentieth century. Japanese overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi envisioned conquering Korea, Ming China, and eventually all of Asia; but Korea's appeal to China's Emperor Wanli for assistance triggered a six-year war involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers and encompassing the whole region. For Japan, the war was ""a dragon's head followed by a serpent's tail"": an impressive beginning with no real ending.

Kenneth M. Swope has…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Joanna Waley-Cohen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Was the primary focus of the Qing dynasty really civil rather than military matters? In this ground-breaking book, Joanna Waley-Cohen overturns conventional wisdom to put warfare at the heart of seventeenth and eighteenth century China. She argues that the civil and the military were understood as mutually complementary forces. Emperors underpinned military expansion with a wide-ranging cultural campaign intended to bring military success, and the martial values associated with it, into the mainstream of cultural life. The Culture of War in China is a striking revisionist history that brings new insight into the roots of Chinese nationalism and the modern…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Yingcong Dai,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The White Lotus War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The White Lotus War (1796-1804) in central China marked the end of the Qing dynasty's golden age and the fatal weakening of the imperial system itself. What started as a local rebellion grew into a serious political crisis, as the central government was no longer able to operate its military machine.

Yingcong Dai's comprehensive investigation reveals that the White Lotus rebels would have remained a relatively minor threat, if not for the Qing's ill-managed response. Dai shows that the officials in charge of the suppression campaign were half-hearted about the fight and took advantage of the campaign to pursue personal…

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