The best books on how imperial China became modern China

Peter Zarrow Author Of After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924
By Peter Zarrow

The Books I Picked & Why

The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man's Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942

By Henrietta Harrison

Book cover of The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man's Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942

Why this book?

This beautifully written book gives a picture of the life and times of one ordinary man. Unusually, he maintained a daily diary throughout his entire life, which was mostly lived in a remote—but certainly not isolated—village. Harrison highlights the tumultuous political, social, and economic changes China was undergoing through the lens of a man who lived from the Qing Empire through the 1911 Revolution and the warlord era and into the rise of the Communist movement.


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Rickshaw Beijing: City People & Politics in the 1920s

By David Strand

Book cover of Rickshaw Beijing: City People & Politics in the 1920s

Why this book?

Another beautifully written book, this one about how Beijing residents of all backgrounds found their identities in a tumultuously changing environment and how they fought with and against each other for political agency. Readers see into the lives of policemen, rickshaw-pullers, tram conductors, and the middle classes. It reminds me of how history is made brick by individual brick.


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History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

By Paul Cohen

Book cover of History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

Why this book?

This book is by a man who has done as much as anyone to shape how historians approach the study of modern China. Here he not only looks at the rise and fall of the infamous Boxers (1898-1900) but also what the Boxer movement felt like to its various participants at the time, and finally the many strikingly different ways (myths) later generations have understood the Boxers. I learned how to better think about history from this book.


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Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928

By Edward J. M. Rhoads

Book cover of Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928

Why this book?

I have long thought that one of the key ingredients of modern Chinese nationalism is a strong sense of ethnic identity for the people labeled “Han Chinese.” To a great extent this Han identity, though having ancient roots, was formed, elaborated, and ideologized around the turn of the twentieth century in opposition to the ruling Manchu Qing dynasty. This book shows how and why this happened.


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The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures

By Justin M. Jacobs

Book cover of The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures

Why this book?

A good deal is known about the Westerners who dug up ancient artifacts in Central Asia (China’s Far West) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not least because these explorers were great self-promoters. This book tells the story from the Chinese side, and it is a lot more interesting and complicated than you might expect. It is only with the birth of Chinese nationalism that the tens of thousands of artifacts now found in the museums and collections of the West came to be defined as Chinese and their loss defined as imperialist looting. By academic standards, this book is a page-turner.


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