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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey

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.


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The Arts of China

By Michael Sullivan

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.


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The Art of Chinese Poetry

By James J. Y. Liu

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 Published nearly six decades ago, this book has not been superseded and, in fact, has become an indispensable classic for the English-speaking reader.


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Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

By Richard E. Strassberg

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.


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

By T. June Li

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.


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