The best books to understand China, and its people and civilization

Who am I?

I am a Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Riverside. I was brought up in the family of a Chinese poetry scholar. Arriving in the States for my graduate studies at Harvard in 1982, I have engaged myself in academia here ever since. Acutely aware of, and deeply fascinated by, the cultural similarities and differences of China and the West, I have continued my learning experience, in my thirty years of college teaching, often from direct exchanges with my students. The books on my list of recommendations include both required texts chosen for my courses, and those I want to share with what Virginia Woolf called the Common Reader.


I wrote...

Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

By Yang Ye (translator),

Book cover of Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

What is my book about?

More than two decades after its publication, this anthology of seventy pieces from fourteen representative writers remains a rare, if not entirely unprecedented, selection of belles-lettres non-fictional essays from the Chinese tradition which provide invaluable glimpses of the colorful daily life of the Chinese society during the Late Ming period, especially that of the literati or men of letters. Generically meant to amuse and entertain its readers, as well as the authors themselves, the vignette (hsiao-p’in) focuses on sensual pleasures and triviality, and more than often displays individual personality and wit in a playful manner. It could help the reader to better appreciate and understand the psyche and spirit of an important epoch of new developments in literature and fine arts in Chinese history.       

The books I picked & why

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The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey,

Book cover of The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

Why this book?

Enriched by more than 200 pictures, mostly in color, as well as maps and line drawings, it is an illuminating and succinct account of Chines civilization from prehistoric times through the rise of the “Three Teachings” (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism) to the modern communist state. As someone who taught a popular undergraduate college course on Chinese civilization for many years, I can testify that the overall length (384 pages) of the book and its structure of 12 chapters plus an epilogue make it a perfect choice of required texts.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cambridge Illustrated History of China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

More populous than any other country on earth, China also occupies a unique place in our modern world for the continuity of its history and culture. In this sumptuously illustrated single-volume history, now in its second edition, noted historian Patricia Buckley Ebrey traces the origins of Chinese culture from prehistoric times to the present. She follows its development from the rise of Confucianism, Buddhism, and the great imperial dynasties to the Mongol, Manchu, and Western intrusions and the modern communist state. Her scope is phenomenal - embracing Chinese arts, culture, economics, society and its treatment of women, foreign policy, emigration,…


The Arts of China

By Michael Sullivan,

Book cover of The Arts of China

Why this book?

From a leading Western scholar on the topic, it is a comprehensive, well-researched, and highly readable account of Chinese fine arts from the Neolithic to the contemporary. It serves the need of college courses on Asian or Chinese art history as well as the interest of a common reader who wants to explore or better appreciate the aesthetics of Chinese art relics, including bronze, pottery, sculpture, etc., as well as the honorable splendor of calligraphy and painting.

The Arts of China

By Michael Sullivan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Internationally renowned and a crucial classroom text, The Arts of China has been revised and expanded by the late Michael Sullivan, with Shelagh Vainker. This new, sixth, edition has an emphasis on Chinese art history, not as an assemblage of related topics, but as a continuous story. With updated attributions and dating throughout and a revised bibliography, it reflects the latest archaeological discoveries, as well as giving increased attention to modern and contemporary art and to calligraphy throughout China's history, with additional discussions of work by women artists. Visual enhancements include all new maps, and approximately one hundred new color…


The Art of Chinese Poetry

By James J. Y. Liu,

Book cover of The Art of Chinese Poetry

Why this book?

How does the Chinese language, with all its linguistic idiosyncrasies, including its structure, implications, and associations of words, auditory effects, and grammatical aspects, serve as a medium of poetic expression? What are some of the traditional Chinese views on poetry? How should one understand Chinese poetry as a way to explore worlds and language per se, its imagery and symbolism, its allusions, quotations and derivations, and its natural tendency towards antithesis? Published nearly six decades ago, this book has not been superseded and, in fact, has become an indispensable classic for the English-speaking reader.

The Art of Chinese Poetry

By James J. Y. Liu,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This concise introduction to Chinese poetry serves as a primer for English-speakers eager to expand their understanding and enjoyment of Chinese culture. James J. Y. Liu first examines the Chinese language as a medium of poetic expression and, contrary to the usual focus on the visual qualities of Chinese script, emphasizes the auditory effects of Chinese verse. He provides a succinct survey of Chinese poetry theory and concludes with his own view of poetry, based upon traditional Chinese concepts.

"[This] books should be read by all those interested in Chinese poetry."-Achilles Fang, Poetry

"[This is] a significant contribution to the…


Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

By Richard E. Strassberg,

Book cover of Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

Why this book?

This is a singular anthology of pre-modern Chinese travel writing from the first century A.D. to the 19th century, copiously illustrated with paintings, portraits, maps, and drawings. It offers a unique resource for Western travelers to China and for students of Chinese art, culture, history, and literature.

Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

By Richard E. Strassberg,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Alongside the scores of travel books about China written by foreign visitors, Chinese travelers' impressions of their own country rarely appear in translation. This anthology is the only comprehensive collection in English of Chinese travel writing from the first century A.D. through the nineteenth. Early examples of the genre describe sites important for their geography, history, and role in cultural mythology, but by the T'ang dynasty in the mid-eighth century certain historiographical and poetic discourses converged to form the 'travel account' (yu-chi) and later the 'travel diary' (jih-chi) as vehicles of personal expression and autobiography. These first-person narratives provide rich…


Another World Lies Beyond: Creating Liu Fang Yuan, the Huntington’s Chinese Garden

By T. June Li (editor),

Book cover of Another World Lies Beyond: Creating Liu Fang Yuan, the Huntington’s Chinese Garden

Why this book?

The handsome hardback volume, enriched by colored photos, consists of essays from a variety of contributors, including an art historian, a botanist, and literary scholars. It introduces to the reader the construction of Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the largest Chinese garden outside China, and discusses its aesthetics in Chinese culture and civilization. It provides a valuable guide for both lovers of gardens and students of garden architecture.

Another World Lies Beyond: Creating Liu Fang Yuan, the Huntington’s Chinese Garden

By T. June Li (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Another World Lies Beyond as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Lake of Reflected Fragrance to the Pavilion for Washing Away Thoughts to the Isle of Alighting Geese, this gorgeously illustrated volume explores the Huntington's Chinese Garden - Liu Fang Yuan, or the Garden of Flowing Fragrance - one of the largest such gardens outside China. With the first phase of construction completed, the garden opened to visitors in early 2008. It resembles those created in seventeenth-century Suzhou, offering awe-inspiring views and architecture and evoking an era when scholars sought quiet, intimate gardens in which to retreat, write poetry, and practice calligraphy, among many other pursuits.The contributors to "Another…


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