The best books on modern Chinese history

The Books I Picked & Why

The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

By Yang Jisheng, Stacy Mosher, Guo Jian

The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

Why this book?

Perspectives on one of the most bewildering and turbulent periods in modern Chinese history – the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, in the decade from 1966, by one of contemporary China’s foremost historians. Yang, who has worked on the era of the great famines in China prior to this, is well served by two excellent translators. A book that brings the vastness of this revolution down to the stories of specific people and places, including those who were most involved in creating and directing this seminal event.


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Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to XI Jinping

By Klaus Mühlhahn

Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to XI Jinping

Why this book?

To understand where China is now, and where it has been travelling from since 1949 when the People’s Republic was established, you need to grapple with the complex history that preceded that. German sinologist Klaus Muhlhahn expertly does this, succinctly drawing out the key theme of institution-building and showing how this provides the link between the final imperial period of the Qing to its collapse in 1911, and then the slow rise to power of the Communists over the 1920s to the 1940s when China was fragmented and beset by war. Accessible, authoritative, and ambitious.


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The Killing Wind: A Chinese County's Descent Into Madness During the Cultural Revolution

By Tan Hecheng, Stacy Mosher, Guo Jian

The Killing Wind: A Chinese County's Descent Into Madness During the Cultural Revolution

Why this book?

A searing account by a retired Chinese journalist of the impact of social unrest and factional clashes in a rural area of central Hunan province in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. Tan’s haunting account starts with his memories of passing through this area around the time the events he goes on to recount as a young journalist decades before. With research and investigation, he finds that the quiet but unsettling place he remembers witnessing was in fact consumed by murder and bloodshed. Some of these events he documents. A book that describes but does not judge, making its impact even more powerful.


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Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village

By Ralph A. Thaxton Jr.

Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village

Why this book?

A tremendous piece of scholarship by American Ralph Thaxton, looking at a specific village during the late 1950s and early 1960s as it experienced the great famines. This shows the impact of that tragedy on everyday Chinese lives, and the ways in which the suffering of that period was to overshadow so much of what happened afterward. Beautifully written, with wonderful deployment of other scholarship, an exceptional work, and one that is part of a trilogy that takes the story forwards in the late 1960s.


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How the Red Sun Rose: The Origin and Development of the Yan'an Rectification Movement, 1930-1945

By Hua Gao, Stacy Mosher, Guo Jian

How the Red Sun Rose: The Origin and Development of the Yan'an Rectification Movement, 1930-1945

Why this book?

Gao Hua was one of China’s best-regarded historians. His tragically early death in 2011 at the age of 57 deprived the world of a meticulous scholar, one who was able to shed light on the early years of the Communist Party before it came to power in 1949. Shedding the influence of the Soviet Union, the increasing power of Mao Zedong is documented in this work, through the rectification campaigns undertaken during the Second World War when the Party was still a marginalised entity that no one expected to ever become important. This book shows why, and how, the Party under Mao disciplined itself, and how it came to have power over the world’s largest population.


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