The best books on modern Chinese history

Who am I?

I have been working on China as a student, teacher, diplomat, business person, and academic since 1991. 
Currently, professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, my work involves trying to understand how the country’s deer and more recent history has created the remarkable country that we see today. I have written over 20 books on modern China, and lived there in total 5 and a half years. I have visited every single province and autonomous region, and have lectured on China in over 40 countries, across four continents.

I wrote...

China

By Kerry Brown,

Book cover of China

What is my book about?

China is poised to become the world’s largest economy in the next decade. But its great struggle to modernise has been one of tragedy, conflict, and challenge. From the first attempts to introduce Western ideas into the country two centuries ago, China’s long march to global primacy has been above all an epic fight to renew an ancient country and culture.

Sinologist Kerry Brown traces this quest for renewal through the major moments of China’s modern history. Taking the reader on a journey that includes war, revolution, famine, and finally regeneration, he describes concisely and authoritatively where China has come from, and where it is heading as it achieves great power status. This is a story that is no longer just about China, but concerns the rest of the world.

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The books I picked & why

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

Kerry Brown Why did I love 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.

By Yang Jisheng, Stacy Mosher (translator), Guo Jian (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World Turned Upside Down as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a major political event and a crucial turning point in the history of the People's Republic of China, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) marked the zenith as well as the nadir of Mao Zedong's ultra-leftist politics. Reacting in part to the Soviet Union's "revisionism," which he regarded as a threat to the future of socialism, Mao mobilized the masses in a battle against what he called "bourgeois" forces within the Chinese Communist Party. This ten-year-long class struggle devastated traditional Chinese culture as well as the nation's economy.

Following Tombstone, his groundbreaking and award-winning history of the Great Famine,…


Book cover of Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to XI Jinping

Kerry Brown Why did I love 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.

By Klaus Mühlhahn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Thoughtful, probing...a worthy successor to the famous histories of Fairbank and Spence [that] will be read by all students and scholars of modern China."
-William C. Kirby, coauthor of Can China Lead?

It is tempting to attribute the rise of China to Deng Xiaoping and to recent changes in economic policy. But China has a long history of creative adaptation. In the eighteenth century, the Qing Empire dominated a third of the world's population. Then, as the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion ripped the country apart, China found itself verging on free fall. More recently, after Mao, China managed…


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

Kerry Brown Why did I love 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.

By Tan Hecheng, Stacy Mosher (translator), Guo Jian (translator)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A spasm of extreme radicalism that rocked China to its foundations in the mid- to late 1960s, the Cultural Revolution has generated a vast literature. Much of it, however, is at a birds-eye level, and we have very few detailed accounts of how it worked on the ground. Long after the event, Tan Hecheng, now a retired Chinese writer and editor, was sent to Daoxian, Mao's home county, to report on the official investigation into the massacre that took place there during
the Cultural Revolution.

In The Killing Wind, Tan recounts how over the course of 66 days in 1967,…


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

Kerry Brown Why did I love 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.

By Ralph A. Thaxton Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book documents how China's rural people remember the great famine of Maoist rule, which proved to be the worst famine in modern world history. Ralph A. Thaxton, Jr., sheds new light on how China's socialist rulers drove rural dwellers to hunger and starvation, on how powerless villagers formed resistance to the corruption and coercion of collectivization, and on how their hidden and contentious acts, both individual and concerted, allowed them to survive and escape the predatory grip of leaders and networks in the thrall of Mao's authoritarian plan for a full-throttle realization of communism - a plan that engendered…


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

Kerry Brown Why did I love 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.

By Hua Gao, Stacy Mosher (translator), Guo Jian (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How the Red Sun Rose as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work offers the most comprehensive account of the origin and consequences of the Yan'an Rectification Movement from 1942 to 1945. The author argues that this campaign emancipated the Chinese Communist Party from Soviet-infleunced dogmatism and unified the Party, preparing it for the final victory against the Nationalist Party in 1949. More importantly, the monograph shows in great detail how Mao Zedong established his leadership through this party-wide political movement by means of aggressive intra-party purges, thought control, coercive cadre examinations, and total reorganisations of the Party's upper structure. The result of this movement not only set up the foundation…


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Book cover of The Romanov Heiress

Jennifer Laam Author Of The Romanov Heiress

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Who am I?

A proud native of Stockton, CA, Jennifer Laam resides in California with a temperamental tabby cat named Jonesy. Her other works of historical fiction are The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, The Tsarina’s Legacy, and The Lost Season of Love and Snow. When not reading or writing, she enjoys planning cosplay for the next San Diego Comic-Con, experimenting with vegetarian recipes (to mixed results), cooing at Baby Yoda, or obsessing over House Targaryen. 

Jennifer's book list on the last Romanovs

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What is this book about?

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Interested in China, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Shanghai?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Shanghai.

China Explore 570 books about China
The Chinese Cultural Revolution Explore 37 books about the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Shanghai Explore 52 books about Shanghai