The best books for entering the world of imperial China

The Books I Picked & Why

The Story of the Stone, Volume I: The Golden Days, Chapters 1-26

By Cao Xueqin

Book cover of The Story of the Stone, Volume I: The Golden Days, Chapters 1-26

Why this book?

This is the best translation into English of the first 26 chapters of the most influential classic of Chinese literature. (It also has the English name Dream of Red Mansions.) Generations have swooned over the 18th century love triangle that is at the heart of this epic tale of the Jia family in decline. If you can’t get enough of this elaborate novel of manners, you can listen to the podcast currently chewing on it, Rereading the Stone. I consider this opening volume to be a useful introduction to family life in traditional China (though its lens is focused on high society), including the importance of dreams, rituals, family relationships, gossip, and poetry.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

A Hero Born

By Jin Yong, Anna Holmwood

Book cover of A Hero Born

Why this book?

Jin Yong’s characters move in the gritty village lanes or wander China’s remote mountains, seeking vengeance, escaping persecution, forming alliances. The launch of a martial arts series, A Hero Born was first serialized in a Hong Kong newspaper in the 1950s and is about a young hero who ends up in the Mongol camp of the future Genghis Khan. It’s a thrilling read and proved an immediate sensation, spawning movies, video games, comic books, etc.  Holmgren’s new translation offers a window into the gallant world of martial men and women who will fight to the death to defend their honor. It also gives a Chinese perspective on the rise of the Mongols.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties

By Timothy Brook

Book cover of The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties

Why this book?

Brooks is a Canadian scholar of Chinese history who specializes in the Ming Dynasty. In this work, he offers an overview of the transition from the Mongol Yuan to the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which is the setting for my own writing, and so is a period I consider to be of unrivaled appeal! Brooks studies, among other things, how extreme weather caused political upheaval and why emperors needed to worry when the locals started reporting dragon sightings. He also offers perspective on the autocratic rule of the Ming founder, “the brilliant and ruthless Zhu Yuanzhang,” and how his example impacted the rest of the dynasty.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

A Tale of Two Melons: Emperor and Subject in Ming China

By Sarah Schneewind

Book cover of A Tale of Two Melons: Emperor and Subject in Ming China

Why this book?

On July 28, 1372, a group of high officials presented the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty with two melons on a lacquer tray. The melons grew from the same stalk – an anomaly that was judged a lucky omen. Schneewind uses this seemingly minor matter to study the daily workings of court life and the complex relationships between rulers and subjects. I had the great luck to travel with the author to Nanjing, the first Ming capital, and visit some of the locales she analyzed for this book, including the tomb complex where the founder and his empress are buried.  Schneewind’s short and readable study of two melons offers a sense of the high stakes and grand scale of imperial life, and I admire how she was able to connect so much to such a small gift of ripe fruit.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records (Oxford World's Classics)

By Sima Qian, Raymond Dawson

Book cover of The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records (Oxford World's Classics)

Why this book?

I am recommending this collection of eight essays from the immense Historical Records primarily for Chapter 7, “The Story of the Rebel Xiang Yu.” This is a rebel who didn’t win – Xiang Yu was defeated by the man who went on to found the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE, which makes this perhaps China’s most famous tale of personal failure. The Grand Historian Sima Qian veered from his format to write this biography because he had so much to say about Xiang Yu. As I work on my own novels about the founding of the Ming, I keep Xiang Yu in mind as a reminder of how generals can achieve glorious victories and then lose everything over a few casual mistakes, and of how storytellers decide how a hero gets remembered.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.