The best reads for understanding geo-politics and the rise of the nation state in China from the late Ming - 20th century

Laura Hostetler Author Of Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China
By Laura Hostetler

The Books I Picked & Why

The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution

By Jonathan D. Spence

Book cover of The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution

Why this book?

Recreating the experience of a variety of Chinese literary figures whose lives collectively spanned most of the 20th century, Jonathan Spence helps his reader to understand how and why individuals from across the political spectrum were drawn to the goal of recreating a strong and unified China, and were willing to sacrifice themselves—and fight against each other—in its pursuit. A cultural rather than a political history, we nonetheless begin to understand the power that politics has to shape lives and constrain the possibilities open to individuals, especially during times of significant upheaval. 


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

The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography

By Kären Wigen, Martin W. Lewis

Book cover of The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography

Why this book?

In this fascinating and highly readable account of how we have come to think of the globe, Martin and Lewis (a geographer and historian respectively) introduce their reader to the historical construction, contingencies, and inconsistencies of our basic geographical building blocks. On what basis has the world been divided up into “east,” and “west,” and how, for example, did Japan come to be considered part of the “West?” Why do we think of continents as fixed entities rather than as conceptual categories for thinking about both space and culture? How do these categories shape our continuing perception of geographic space and our own place in the world? 


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

Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

By Philip A. Kuhn

Book cover of Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

Why this book?

Set in the heyday of Qing glory—or some might say at the beginning of its decline—Philip Kuhn traces a panic that swept through rural China in which commoners feared for the safety of their children’s lives at the hands of imagined bands of “soulstealers.” Alternately tracing allegations of incidents and the imperial response, which the reader gradually comes to understand is fueled by its own brand of paranoia, the author describes the intricate workings of bureaucratic procedure and justice in Qing China in which the emperor sometimes felt foiled by his own ‘deep state.’


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

The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

By Timothy Brook

Book cover of The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

Why this book?

In The Confusions of Pleasure Timothy Brook captures the consternation of a local official as he witnesses the cultural and economic changes wrought by the rise of private wealth in the late Ming, (c. 1600). Unable to raise adequate revenue or to adapt the conservative agrarian foundations of its legitimacy to changing times, the Ming eventually collapses from within, unable to protect itself from marauding bands led by a disgruntled former government post station worker and subsequent invasion by a foreign force. Yet, those who are able to adapt to changing times survive. The resonances for our own day are multiple and apt. 


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

Thongchai: Siam Mapped Paper

By Thongchai Winichakul

Book cover of Thongchai: Siam Mapped Paper

Why this book?

Tracing the emergence of the modern nation of Thailand from the Kingdom of Siam, Thongchai Winichakul demonstrates that the rulers of the emergent nation gradually adopted the same logic of national sovereignty and geopolitics as its colonial neighbors in the region, France and Britain. The implication is that in modernizing and reconfiguring what constitutes sovereignty Asian nations are not necessarily more benign than their western counterparts in extending their rule’ victims of western colonial aggression are not exempt from exercising similar forms of coercion against their own inner others. 


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