The best books on the emergence of modern China

Bill Hayton Author Of The Invention of China
By Bill Hayton

The Books I Picked & Why

Great State: China and the World

By Timothy Brook

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.


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

By Jessica Hanser

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.


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

By Julia Lovell

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.


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

By Orville Schell, John Delury

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.


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Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal

By Patrick Fuliang Shan

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.


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