The best books on utopianism east and west

Peter Zarrow Author Of Abolishing Boundaries: Global Utopias in the Formation of Modern Chinese Political Thought, 1880-1940
By Peter Zarrow

The Books I Picked & Why

Utopia

By Thomas More

Book cover of Utopia

Why this book?

This is the OG of utopias—written in 1516 about people living on a distant island. Later writers made up utopias set in the future, but More’s island is still fun to read about. A place where there is no private property, no one desires wealth, all citizens are equal, and all religions are tolerated—though there is no privacy (or premarital sex) either. Nobody knows whether More meant it as satire or longing, or even if we should translate u-topia as “no-place” or “good-place.”


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Utopian Thought in the Western World

By Frank E. Manuel, Fritzie P. Manuel

Book cover of Utopian Thought in the Western World

Why this book?

The Manuels give an exhaustive but very readable history of utopian thought from the Renaissance (Thomas More) to Marxism, with backward glances to ancient Judaic and Hellenic cultures. This book explains how and why utopias have been central to Western thought, showing how the utopias of one age seem dystopian in another age (or even their own), presented in wry prose that draws readers into the story.


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China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese Cultural History

By Wolfgang Bauer, Michael Shaw

Book cover of China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese Cultural History

Why this book?

What the Manuels did for the West, Bauer did for China. Sometimes we think of the Chinese as eminently practical people, but they had their dreams of perfect worlds as well. And these dreams were not necessarily kept to the world of sleep but found expression in the lives of individuals and communities. The Manuels confronted the fact that dreams fade with a touch of cynicism, Bauer with a touch of melancholy.  


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Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of Kang Yu-Wei

By Kang Yu-Wei

Book cover of Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of Kang Yu-Wei

Why this book?

This is modern China’s only full-fledged utopia (mostly written about 1900)—explaining how humanity gradually evolves to get rid of the “boundaries” dividing us by nation, class, race, and gender. It may take thousands of years, but history will create a truly democratic and equal society. Children will be raised in public nurseries, couples, including homosexuals, will enter into one-year (renewable) contracts. In thousands of years, the boundaries separating the species and even the gods will dissolve as well.


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The Dispossessed

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Book cover of The Dispossessed

Why this book?

What happens when one of the three best science-fiction writers of the twentieth century imagines how anarchism would actually work at the planetary level? A bit of Kropotkin, a bit of Gandhi, a bit of Laozi, set on a whole planet that is a bit like an Israeli kibbutz. In all, a great story about a scientist faced with difficult choices about individual freedom, social responsibility, the effects of possessions, and the meaning of work, and his extended visit to another planet, which seems like a grander vision of our own.


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