The best books on the emergence of modern China

Bill Hayton Author Of The Invention of China
By Bill Hayton

Who am I?

I’ve spent more than a decade exploring the historic roots of Asia’s modern political problems – and discovering the accidents and mistakes that got us where we are today. I spent 22 years with BBC News, including a year in Vietnam and another in Myanmar. I’ve written four books on East and Southeast Asia and I’m an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at the London-based thinktank, Chatham House. I love breaking down old stereotypes and showing readers that the past is much more interesting than a series of clichés about ‘us’ and ‘them’. Perhaps through that, we can recognise that our future depends on collaboration and cooperation.


I wrote...

The Invention of China

By Bill Hayton,

Book cover of The Invention of China

What is my book about?

China’s current leadership lays claim to a 5,000-year-old civilization, but “China” as a unified country and people, Bill Hayton argues, was created far more recently by a small group of intellectuals.

In this compelling account, Hayton shows how China’s present-day geopolitical problems—the fates of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea—were born in the struggle to create a modern nation-state. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformers and revolutionaries adopted foreign ideas to “invent’ a new vision of China. By asserting a particular, politicized version of the past the government bolstered its claim to a vast territory stretching from the Pacific to Central Asia. Ranging across history, nationhood, language, and territory, Hayton shows how the Republic’s reworking of its past not only helped it to justify its right to rule a century ago—but continues to motivate and direct policy today.

The books I picked & why

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Great State: China and the World

By Timothy Brook,

Book cover of Great State: China and the World

Why this book?

A great place to start to understand the long history of connections between East Asia and the rest of the world. Thirteen chapters take the reader from the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century up to the end of the Second World War. Each follows a particular person and their encounters with peoples of Inner and Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. They show how many things that historians have assumed to be ‘Chinese’ were borrowed from foreigners. Even the idea of the Great State, the framework through which later Chinese emperors used to describe their realm was taken from the Mongols. They also allow us to remember the ‘messiness’ of history with pioneers and villains on all sides.

Great State: China and the World

By Timothy Brook,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The world-renowned scholar and author of Vermeer’s Hat does for China what Mary Beard did for Rome in SPQR: Timothy Brook analyzes the last eight centuries of China’s relationship with the world in this magnificent history that brings together accounts from civil servants, horse traders, spiritual leaders, explorers, pirates, emperors, migrant workers, invaders, visionaries, and traitors—creating a multifaceted portrait of this highly misunderstood nation.

China is one of the oldest states in the world. It achieved its approximate current borders with the Ascendancy of the Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth century, and despite the passing of one Imperial dynasty to…


Mr. Smith Goes to China: Three Scots in the Making of Britain's Global Empire

By Jessica Hanser,

Book cover of Mr. Smith Goes to China: Three Scots in the Making of Britain's Global Empire

Why this book?

This is a jewel of a book. It takes a strange coincidence and weaves it into a wonderful tale of world history. It explores the lives of three Scotsmen, all called George Smith but not related, who traded in Asia during the eighteenth century, a crucial time for the development of the East India Company and ties between East and West. It really opens a window into the lives of these pioneers and brings this neglected history alive. In particular, it complicates the usual story of the East India Company by showing how it was a force for stability in trade with China and it was the ‘free traders’ taking inspiration from people like the economist Adam Smith back in London, who upset the relations and created the conditions for the nineteenth-century Opium War.

Mr. Smith Goes to China: Three Scots in the Making of Britain's Global Empire

By Jessica Hanser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mr. Smith Goes to China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An illuminating account of global commerce in the eighteenth-century Indian Ocean world as seen through the lives of three Scottish traders

This book delves into the lives of three Scottish private traders-George Smith of Bombay, George Smith of Canton, and George Smith of Madras-and uses them as lenses through which to explore the inner workings of Britain's imperial expansion and global network of trade, revealing how an unstable credit system and a financial crisis ultimately led to greater British intervention in India and China.


The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

By Julia Lovell,

Book cover of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

Why this book?

A brilliant account of the two Opium Wars showing how they have been remembered in particular ways in order to make modern political points. Lovell shows us how political operators on both sides used the question of the opium trade to further their own interests. It exposes the nasty business of imperialism but also takes down a lot of myths about the wars. The book allows us to see the conflicts both in terms of what happened at the time, and how views over those events changed over the following century and a half. She explores the international history of opium and how it became linked with racist representations of Chinese overseas and how this continues to affect relations between peoples and governments today.

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

By Julia Lovell,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Opium War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A gripping read as well as an important one.' Rana Mitter, Guardian

In October 1839, Britain entered the first Opium War with China. Its brutality notwithstanding, the conflict was also threaded with tragicomedy: with Victorian hypocrisy, bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and collaboration. Yet over the past hundred and seventy years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise has become the founding episode of modern Chinese nationalism.

Starting from this first conflict, The Opium War explores how China's national myths mould its interactions with the outside world, how public memory is spun to serve the present, and how…


Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century

By Orville Schell, John Delury,

Book cover of Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century

Why this book?

This book is an excellent introduction to some of the most important characters in modern Chinese history, from nineteenth-century reformers to twentieth-century communist leaders. We meet some of the characters I write about in The Invention of China like the great journalist Liang Qichao and the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, along with others such as Mao Zedong. The authors link their overlapping lives together showing how the old Qing Empire crumbled and was overthrown and replaced by a new Republic, which was itself overthrown within 40 years. It’s a great way to experience China’s journey from a time when it could be described as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ to an era in which its ‘strength and power’ unsettled the world.

Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century

By Orville Schell, John Delury,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

By now everyone knows the basic facts of China's rise to pre-eminence over the past three decades. But how did this erstwhile sleeping giant finally manage to arrive at its current phase of dynamic growth? How, after such a long and painful period of dynastic decline, intellectual upheaval and revolution, foreign occupation and civil war, did a country once derided as the 'sick man of Asia' manage to break out of its old pattern of repeatedly failed reform efforts to burst forth onto the world stage with such an impressive run of hyperdevelopment and wealth creation? How did the century-long…


Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal

By Patrick Fuliang Shan,

Book cover of Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal

Why this book?

Very few people outside China have even heard of Yuan Shikai, the last prime minister of the Qing Empire who became president of the Republic of China before briefly declaring himself to be a new emperor. If it hadn’t been for Yuan, however, China would look very different today. He held the country together for a few crucial years after the revolution but then took some decisions that split it apart. He has been vilified ever since as a buffoon and a dictator, but this book asks us to take him seriously as a neglected and important figure in China’s transition. Although the book focuses too much on trying to decide whether Yuan was a good or bad person, it does what it promises and ‘reappraises’ an important life.

Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal

By Patrick Fuliang Shan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) has been both hailed as China's George Washington for his role in the country's transition from empire to republic and condemned as a counter-revolutionary. Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal sheds new light on the controversial history of this talented administrator and modernizer who endeavoured to establish a new dynasty while serving as the first president of the republic, eventually declaring himself emperor. Drawing on untapped primary sources and recent scholarship, Patrick Fuliang Shan offers a lucid, comprehensive, and critical new interpretation of Yuan's part in shaping modern China.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, opium, and international relations?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, opium, and international relations.

China Explore 434 books about China
Opium Explore 19 books about opium
International Relations Explore 170 books about international relations

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like What Remains, The Company and the Shogun, and From the Ruins of Empire if you like this list.