The best books to better understand and appreciate China

Who am I?

I was born to privilege in Manhattan. A seeker from the get-go, I perpetually yearned to see below the surface of the pond and understand what lay beneath and how the world really works. Not connecting with Western philosophy, religion, or culture, I turned to the wisdom of the East at a young age. I stayed the course through decades of training in Chinese martial arts, eventually reached some understanding of them, and realized my spiritual ambitions when I was ordained a Daoist monk in China in an official government ceremony. I write about China then and now and teach meditation and tai chi around the world. 

I wrote...

The Monk of Park Avenue: A Modern Daoist Odyssey

By Yun Rou,

Book cover of The Monk of Park Avenue: A Modern Daoist Odyssey

What is my book about?

A literary memoir like no other, Monk of Park Avenue recounts novelist and martial master Monk Yon Rou’s spiritual journey of self-discovery. Learn from Yon Rou as he tackles tragedy and redemption on an unforgettable soul-searching odyssey.

A spiritual journey with extraordinary encounters. Yon Rou’s memoir is a kaleidoscopic ride through the upper echelons of New York Society and the nature-worshipping, sword-wielding world of East Asian religious and martial arts. Monk of Park Avenue divulges a privileged childhood in Manhattan, followed by the bitter rigors of kung fu in China and meditations in Daoist temples. Join Yon Rou’s adventure as he encounters kings, Nobel laureates, and the Mob. Witness this martial master’s incarceration in a high-mountain Ecuadorian hellhole and fight for survival in Paraguay’s brutal thorn jungle.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

Why did I love this book?

Those of us who study Chinese history know that the global dominance the West has enjoyed over the last couple of hundred years is a mere blip on the radar to scholars and leaders in China. That’s what makes China so fascinating to me and drives me to write so many novels set there and to teach Daoist arts like tai chi and qigong. China was long known as the Middle Kingdom because it really was the social, cultural, and military center of the world. This author, a well-known scholar, policy expert, and now member of President Biden’s “China Team” sets the stage for how and why Xi Jinping is a serious adversary with his sights set on dominating the world.

By Elizabeth C. Economy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Third Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Third Revolution, eminent China scholar Elizabeth C. Economy provides an incisive look at the transformative changes underway in China today. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has unleashed a powerful set of political and economic reforms: the centralization of power under Xi, himself, the expansion of the Communist Party's role in Chinese political, social, and economic life, and the construction of a virtual wall of regulations to control more closely the
exchange of ideas and capital between China and the outside world. Beyond its borders, Beijing has recast itself as a great power, seeking to reclaim its past glory and…

The Art of War: A Graphic Novel

By Sun Tzu, Pete Katz (illustrator),

Book cover of The Art of War: A Graphic Novel

Why did I love this book?

Both the monk and the martial artist in me have long found Sun Tzu’s treatise on how to conduct military campaigns to be fully as seminal as Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War.” Both books are studied at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I find Sun Tzu’s wisdom to be applicable to both combat and life’s more pleasant endeavors, such as relationships and work. Sun Tzu’s is purported to be the student of the great Daoist Sage Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, a seminal work that many folks find impenetrable. Perhaps that’s why Sun Tzu can be a bit oblique sometimes, too. This interpretation of his lessons, replete with wonderful illustrations, lends insight into the text and makes it easier to understand. 

By Sun Tzu, Pete Katz (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An entertaining graphic adaptation of the oldest military treatise in the world.

Hailed as the oldest philosophical discussion on military strategy, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been adapted as a graphic novel by award-winning illustrator Pete Katz. In this collectible thread-bound edition, the narrative focuses on a teacher instructing a pupil on the main points of Sun Tzu’s treatise, with vibrant battle scenes interspersed throughout. Issues such as planning, tactics, maneuvering, and spying are illustrated with full-color scenes, so that readers may gain a greater understanding of principles from the fifth century BC.

Book cover of A Floating Life: The Adventures of Li Po: A Historical Novel

Why did I love this book?

This novelized biography of a poet some consider China’s greatest pleases me over and over again. Rendering Li Po (sometimes Li Bai) as a libertine living on a barge, drinking too much and partaking with gusto in the pleasures of the flesh at the red-candle district near which he moors, really helps bring alive the great man’s life and work. There’s also a bit about his relationship with Du Fu, more of a straight arrow. Those two, along with Wang Wei really offer a picture of the Daoist life I so adore and the feeling of watching the world spin out of control in war but also the peace and solitude of a mountain retreat.

By Simon Elegant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Floating Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The studious young son of a vintner takes down the life and exploits of Li Po, China's legendary poet, as the poet recalls his outlandish adventures

The Deer and The Cauldron: The First Book

By Louis Cha, John Minford (translator),

Book cover of The Deer and The Cauldron: The First Book

Why did I love this book?

There is an argument to be made that Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) is modern China’s version of William Shakespeare. From Cha’s unimaginably rich and bottomless imagination come unforgettable stories and characters that have had a huge impact on not only contemporary China but the rest of the world. Writing in the category of wuxia (martial arts fiction) he sold 100 million copies of his books, making him China’s most famous author. Countless films and TV shows have been based on his stories, that typically portray the under classes struggling against overlords. One of my favorite memories of travels in China was sitting at the tea house inside Hong Kong’s Peninsula hotel and spending the day reading this book and munching on dim sum. If I’d stepped out and been hit by a bus, I would have died a happy monk.

By Louis Cha, John Minford (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This is the first of a three-volume picaresque historical romance by China's best-loved author. It tells the story of Trinket, an irreverent and comic anti-hero, and his adventures through China and Chinese history, spanning more than twenty years at the beginning of the Qing dynasty.

Book cover of The Lacquer Screen: A Chinese Detective Story

Why did I love this book?

Van Gulik is a giant in the field of historical mysteries, having penned the better part of 20 novels about his favorite protagonist “Judge Dee.” Set in ancient China, the stories typically involve political intrigue, moral quandaries, and settings so evocative it is easy to just close your eyes and see yourself in a pavilion overlooking a swan-filled lake or in a lady’s bed-chamber, a scholar’s library, or an artist’s studio. These novels are mood pieces as well as whodunnits, and the immersive experiences the author offers lead me to recommend not only this title but any and all in the series. Heaven for someone like me who loves what China used to be.

By Robert Van Gulik,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Early in his career, Judge Dee visits a senior magistrate who shows him a beautiful lacquer screen on which a scene of lovers has been mysteriously altered to show the man stabbing his lover. The magistrate fears he is losing his mind and will murder his own wife. Meanwhile, a banker has inexplicably killed himself, and a lovely lady has allowed Dee's lieutenant, Chiao Tai, to believe she is a courtesan. Dee and Chiao Tai go incognito among a gang of robbers to solve this mystery, and find the leader of the robbers is more honorable than the magistrate.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, judges, and political?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, judges, and political.

China Explore 514 books about China
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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