The best history and environmental history books of China

Yijie Zhuang Author Of 24 Hours in Ancient China: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There
By Yijie Zhuang

Who am I?

I'm an archaeologist that is primarily interested in understanding ancient history of water. I have conducted fieldwork in China, Southeast Asia, and Africa. In my spare time, I enjoy writing novels (though never published any yet). This 24 Hours in Ancient China is a trial from this hobbit. I first became fascinated by Han China through a remarkable excavation at the Sanyangzhuang site where an almost intact Han-Dynasty farming village was preserved due to a Yellow River flood. Houses, mills, farming fields, and many other artefacts were revealed through the excavation. Subsequently, I was fortunate to be involved in some collaborative research on the environment and society of Han China. 

I wrote...

24 Hours in Ancient China: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

By Yijie Zhuang,

Book cover of 24 Hours in Ancient China: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

What is my book about?

I enjoyed writing this half-fiction half-history book. Han Dynasty represents a fascinating time in Chinese history. Whilst much has been written about its powerful ruling of the expanding territory and economic flourishment, little is known about the life of ordinary people during this time. 

I aim to redress the balance by bringing the everyday actions of ancient Chinese Han citizens vividly to life, using information from both the latest archaeological records and research, and traditional historical documents. When and where the data permits, I highlight, or dramatize, the social tension between the governors and the governed, male and female, wife and husband, and many other everyday interactions. This is to further illustrate that life was not as harmonious and frictionless as it is often depicted in mainstream historical narratives.

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The books I picked & why


By Yi-Fu Tuan,

Book cover of Escapism

Why did I love this book?

Life is complicated and can be overwhelming. We all need to escape. We need to be able to escape anytime, anywhere. Grew up in China and trained in the West, Professor Tuan is one of those magicians who could blend different conceptual understandings of space and beliefs into a coherent narrative of how to overcome and escape from extenuating circumstances. Many of the Chinese perspectives he introduces in his book are refreshing and valuable not only to western readers but to many Chinese readers who have not thought about those ordinary things from an extraordinary angle like Professor Tuan. Ancient wisdom from a distant place can be relevant!

By Yi-Fu Tuan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In prehistoric times, our ancestors began building shelters and planting crops in order to escape nature's harsh realities. Today, we flee urban dangers for the safer, reconfigured world of suburban lawns and parks. According to the author of this work, a cultural geographer, people have always sought to escape in one way or another, sometimes foolishly, often creatively and ingeniously. Glass-tower cities, xuburbs, shopping malls, Disneyland - all are among the most recent monuments the author identifies as efforts to escape the constraints and uncertainties of life - ultimately, those imposed by nature. "What cultural product," he asks, "is not…

Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I

By Sima Qian, Burton Watson (translator),

Book cover of Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I

Why did I love this book?

More than 2000 years later, Sima Qian’s masterwork remains the most crucial source of the Han-Dynasty history. He explained his intention of writing this immortal history, "I wish to examine into all that concerns heaven and man, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, and to establish my own view of history." Although it was inevitable that legendary kings, emperors, and elites were the main focus of the book, Sima unprecedentedly dedicated some chapters to not so important people before or of his time. The book produces a wide list of famous stories and idioms, many of which are still well-known or used in contemporary Chinese society. 

By Sima Qian, Burton Watson (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Records of the Grand Historian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sima Qian (145?-90? BCE) was the first major Chinese historian. His Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, documents the history of China and its neighboring countries from the ancient past to his own time. These three volumes cover the Qin and Han dynasties.

Book cover of The Analects of Confucius: The Books of Confucian Wisdom

Why did I love this book?

Lunyu is another ancient masterpiece that has withstood the test of time. The book contains primarily sayings and ideas of Confucius and his contemporaries. It is arguably, the most influential Confucius cannon that is still extremely influential. The chapters are being regularly taught at all levels of school. It provides the most unique perspective to understand the philosophy, politics, ideology, and many other aspects of ancient and contemporary Chinese societies. 

By Confucius, James Legge,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the long river of human history, if one person can represent the civilization of a whole nation, it is perhaps Master Kong, better known as Confucius in the West. If there is one single book that can be upheld as the common code of a whole people, it is perhaps Lun Yu, or The Analects. Surely few individuals in history have shaped their country's civilization more profoundly than Master Kong. The great Han historiographer, Si-ma Qian, writing
2,100 years ago said, "He may be called the wisest indeed!" And, as recently as 1988, at a final session of the…

Book cover of Earth-Shattering Events: Earthquakes, Nations, and Civilization

Why did I love this book?

Andrew Robinson is my academic hero. He has written more than 30 books. He is one of those very few scholars who understand both science and humanity subjects very well and who can translate his formidable knowledge of science and civilization into popular books. In Earth-Shattering Events, he provides detailed yet often sorrowful accounts of how we understand and respond to natural disasters such as earthquakes. Like any other historical dynasty, the Han Dynasty also had to confront natural disasters. The study of natural disasters and Han society has become one of the most burgeoning research fields in recent years. 

By Andrew Robinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Earth-Shattering Events as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A truly welcome and refreshing study that puts earthquake impact on history into a proper perspective" --Amos Nur, Emeritus Professor of Geophysics, Stanford University, California, and author of Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God.

Since antiquity, on every continent, human beings in search of attractive landscapes and economic prosperity have made a Faustian bargain with the risk of devastation by an earthquake. Today, around half of the world's largest cities - as many as sixty - lie in areas of major seismic activity. Many, such as Lisbon, Naples, San Francisco, Tehran and Tokyo, have been severely damaged or…

Book cover of The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History

Why did I love this book?

Long being considered the ‘mother river’ of the Chinese civilization, the Yellow River has attracted intensive scientific research in the past decades. In this new book, Ruth Mostern aims to provide a new look of this old river with a special focus on how ancient people along the river from very early period onwards had started systematic engineering the river for various purposes. Some of the aspects discussed by Mostern, such as the frequency of Yellow River floods and their social ramifications, are also relevant to understand some of the stories that I articulated in my own book. 

By Ruth Mostern,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A three-thousand-year history of China's Yellow River and the legacy of interactions between humans and the natural landscape

"No other scholar has produced such a systematic, comprehensive account of the long-term changes in the river's function and structure. I consider it to be the definitive work on the topic of the Yellow River to date."-Peter C. Perdue, author of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia

From Neolithic times to the present day, the Yellow River and its watershed have both shaped and been shaped by human society. Using the Yellow River to illustrate the long-term effects of…

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