The best books to better understand and appreciate China

The Books I Picked & Why

The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

By Elizabeth C. Economy

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

Why 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.


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The Art of War: A Graphic Novel

By Sun Tzu, Pete Katz

Book cover of The Art of War: A Graphic Novel

Why 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. 


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

By Simon Elegant

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

Why 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.


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The Deer and The Cauldron: The First Book

By Louis Cha, John Minford

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

Why 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.


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The Lacquer Screen: A Chinese Detective Story

By Robert Van Gulik

Book cover of The Lacquer Screen: A Chinese Detective Story

Why 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.


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