100 books like China's Last Empire

By William T. Rowe, Timothy Brook (editor),

Here are 100 books that China's Last Empire fans have personally recommended if you like China's Last Empire. Shepherd is a community of 11,000+ authors and super readers sharing their favorite books with the world.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Book cover of The Death of Woman Wang

Henrietta Harrison Author Of The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire

From my list on Qing Dynasty China from an Oxford historian.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian of modern China in the department of Chinese at the University of Oxford. I started off working on the twentieth century but have been drawn back into the Qing dynasty. It’s such an interesting and important period and one that British students often don’t know much about! 

Henrietta's book list on Qing Dynasty China from an Oxford historian

Henrietta Harrison Why did Henrietta love this book?

This short classic was one of the first books I read when I began studying China, and that drew me into the subject of rural life.

The story of the death of Woman Wang (nothing more is known of her name) is gripping and tragic, and it is beautifully written.

By Jonathan D. Spence,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Spence shows himself at once historian, detective, and artist. . . . He makes history howl." (The New Republic)

Award-winning author Jonathan D. Spence paints a vivid picture of an obscure place and time: provincial China in the seventeenth century. Life in the northeastern county of T'an-ch'eng emerges here as an endless cycle of floods, plagues, crop failures, banditry, and heavy taxation. Against this turbulent background a tenacious tax collector, an irascible farmer, and an unhappy wife act out a poignant drama at whose climax the wife, having run away from her husband, returns to him, only to die at…


Book cover of The Talented Women of the Zhang Family

Henrietta Harrison Author Of The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire

From my list on Qing Dynasty China from an Oxford historian.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian of modern China in the department of Chinese at the University of Oxford. I started off working on the twentieth century but have been drawn back into the Qing dynasty. It’s such an interesting and important period and one that British students often don’t know much about! 

Henrietta's book list on Qing Dynasty China from an Oxford historian

Henrietta Harrison Why did Henrietta love this book?

I loved this book because the story of the Zhang family brings the history of the Qing dynasty alive as real women experienced it. Qing dynasty people can seem very different from us, and it’s often hard to get a sense of their characters, but Mann does this by taking us right into their homes and making this a story of the three women who were also writers, poets, and teachers.

We hear about their studies, their loves, and their families’ grief when they died, and just when we’ve really got to know them, we find that they were also living through and writing about some of the great events of the nineteenth century like the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. It’s also beautifully researched by a great scholar.

By Susan Mann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Talented Women of the Zhang Family as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The history of China in the nineteenth century usually features men as the dominant figures in a chronicle of warfare, rebellion, and dynastic decline. This book challenges that model and provides a different account of the era, history as seen through the eyes of women. Basing her remarkable study on the poetry and memoirs of three generations of literary women of the Zhang family - Tang Yaoqing, her eldest daughter, and her eldest granddaughter - Susan Mann illuminates a China that has been largely invisible. Drawing on a stunning array of primary materials - published poetry, gazetteer articles, memorabilia -…


Book cover of The World of a Tiny Insect: A Memoir of the Taiping Rebellion and Its Aftermath

Henrietta Harrison Author Of The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire

From my list on Qing Dynasty China from an Oxford historian.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian of modern China in the department of Chinese at the University of Oxford. I started off working on the twentieth century but have been drawn back into the Qing dynasty. It’s such an interesting and important period and one that British students often don’t know much about! 

Henrietta's book list on Qing Dynasty China from an Oxford historian

Henrietta Harrison Why did Henrietta love this book?

I loved this little book because, in just a short space, it takes you into what it was like to live through the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most important events in China’s nineteenth century, and it does it through the eyes of a child. It’s an amazing viewpoint, and the stories are dramatic.

The introduction, which explains all the background, and translation by Xiaofei Tian, who is a well-known poet in Chinese as well as a professor at Harvard, is also beautifully written.

By Zhang Daye, Xiaofei Tian (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World of a Tiny Insect as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"From the cry of a tiny insect, one can hear the sound of a vast world..." So begins Zhang Daye's preface to The World of a Tiny Insect, his haunting memoir of war and its aftermath. In 1861, when China's devastating Taiping rebellion began, Zhang was seven years old. The Taiping rebel army occupied Shaoxing, his hometown, and for the next two years, he hid from Taiping soldiers, local bandits, and imperial troops and witnessed gruesome scenes of violence and death. He lost friends and family and nearly died himself from starvation, illness, and encounters with soldiers on a rampage.…


Book cover of Forging the Golden Urn: The Qing Empire and the Politics of Reincarnation in Tibet

Henrietta Harrison Author Of The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire

From my list on Qing Dynasty China from an Oxford historian.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian of modern China in the department of Chinese at the University of Oxford. I started off working on the twentieth century but have been drawn back into the Qing dynasty. It’s such an interesting and important period and one that British students often don’t know much about! 

Henrietta's book list on Qing Dynasty China from an Oxford historian

Henrietta Harrison Why did Henrietta love this book?

I loved this book because I learned so much new about the Qianlong emperor and his relations with Tibet, how the eighteenth-century Qing state went about actually influencing the appointment of the incarnate lamas (like the Dalai Lama) who ruled Tibet.

Of course, all this has huge implications for Tibet now, but unlike the other books on this list, which I’ve recommended because I found them useful or a pleasure to read, this one is here because it is an exciting new scholarship.  

By Max Oidtmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Forging the Golden Urn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1995, the People's Republic of China resurrected a Qing-era law mandating that the reincarnations of prominent Tibetan Buddhist monks be identified by drawing lots from a golden urn. The Chinese Communist Party hoped to limit the ability of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile to independently identify reincarnations. In so doing, they elevated a long-forgotten ceremony into a controversial symbol of Chinese sovereignty in Tibet.

In Forging the Golden Urn, Max Oidtmann ventures into the polyglot world of the Qing empire in search of the origins of the golden urn tradition. He seeks to understand the relationship between…


Book cover of The Cambridge History of China: Volume 10, Late Ch'ing 1800–1911, Part 1

S.C.M. Paine Author Of The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy

From my list on the origin of the Asian balance of power.

Why am I passionate about this?

Growing up during the Cold War, I wondered how the United States and the Soviet Union became locked into an existential struggle that threatened to vaporize the planet. So, I studied Russian, Chinese, and Japanese (along with French, Spanish, and German) to learn more. At issue was the global order and the outcome of this struggle depended on the balance of power—not only military power that consumed Soviet attention but also economic power and standards of living that Western voters emphasized. Yet it was Japan that had the workable development model as proven by the Four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan) during the 1960s to 1990s.

S.C.M.'s book list on the origin of the Asian balance of power

S.C.M. Paine Why did S.C.M. love this book?

The Qing dynasty is covered in both volumes 10 and 11 of this wonderful series. Volume 10 contains essays that earlier in my career I would always go back to—not for the riveting prose but for the solid information. John K. Fairbank (1907-1991), the father of U.S. Sinology and longtime professor at Harvard University, invited the finest Sinologists to contribute to these volumes. Pick and choose from among the excellent chapters including: Joseph Fletcher (Inner Asia and Sino-Russian relations), John K. Fairbank (the treaty port system), Philip A. Kuhn (the Taiping Rebellion) in volume 10; and Immanuel C. Y. Hsu (foreign relations), Marius Jansen (Japan and the 1911 Revolution) in volume 11. Beware that the two volumes are very much scholarly works—in both the positive and negative meanings of the word, scholarly.

By John K. Fairbank,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This is the first of two volumes in this major Cambridge history dealing with the decline of the Ch'ing empire. It opens with a survey of the Ch'ing empire in China and Inner Asia at its height, in about 1800. Contributors study the complex interplay of foreign invasion, domestic rebellion and Ch'ing decline and restoration. Special reference is made to the Peking administration, the Canton trade and the early treaty system, the Taiping, Nien and other rebellions, and the dynasty's survival in uneasy cooperation with the British, Russian, French, American and other invaders. Each chapter is written by a specialist…


Book cover of The White Lotus War: Rebellion and Suppression in Late Imperial China

David G. Atwill Author Of Sources in Chinese History: Diverse Perspectives from 1644 to the Present

From my list on 19th-century China’s rebellions, uprisings, and wars.

Why am I passionate about this?

Just after graduating from college in 1989, I spent the year teaching in the city of Kunming – a “small” city of several million in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. In some ways, I have never left. My year there set me on a life-long trajectory of exploring some of China’s most remote corners from Tibet to Beijing. Intrigued by the way China’s borderlands reflected China’s diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural traditions, I eventually wrote my first book The Chinese Sultanate on the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1872). Today I teach at Penn State University seeking to share my experiences in China (and the world) with my students in the university classroom.

David's book list on 19th-century China’s rebellions, uprisings, and wars

David G. Atwill Why did David love this book?

Few include the White Lotus War in their discussion of nineteenth-century rebellions. Yet, in many ways, it provides the perfect starting point. Lasting over eight years, plowing a path of destruction across five central Chinese provinces, and emphatically marking the end to nearly a century of peace and commercial prosperity, the White Lotus War is an ominous harbinger of what was to follow. Chinese historian Yingcong Dai highlights the many disparate factors – from bureaucratic negligence and administrative apathy to the rise of secret societies and charismatic religious leaders – that transformed otherwise weakly connected local protests into a massive revolt that threatened to upend the Qing imperial state (1644-1911). As a specialist on Chinese warfare and imperial governance, the author pulls back the curtain on a rarely told tale that brings turn-of-the-18th-century China to life.

By Yingcong Dai,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The White Lotus War (1796-1804) in central China marked the end of the Qing dynasty's golden age and the fatal weakening of the imperial system itself. What started as a local rebellion grew into a serious political crisis, as the central government was no longer able to operate its military machine.

Yingcong Dai's comprehensive investigation reveals that the White Lotus rebels would have remained a relatively minor threat, if not for the Qing's ill-managed response. Dai shows that the officials in charge of the suppression campaign were half-hearted about the fight and took advantage of the campaign to pursue personal…


Book cover of Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to XI Jinping

Kerry Brown Author Of China

From my list on modern Chinese history.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been working on China as a student, teacher, diplomat, business person, and academic since 1991. 
Currently, professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, my work involves trying to understand how the country’s deer and more recent history has created the remarkable country that we see today. I have written over 20 books on modern China, and lived there in total 5 and a half years. I have visited every single province and autonomous region, and have lectured on China in over 40 countries, across four continents.

Kerry's book list on modern Chinese history

Kerry Brown Why did Kerry love this book?

To understand where China is now, and where it has been travelling from since 1949 when the People’s Republic was established, you need to grapple with the complex history that preceded that. German sinologist Klaus Muhlhahn expertly does this, succinctly drawing out the key theme of institution-building and showing how this provides the link between the final imperial period of the Qing to its collapse in 1911, and then the slow rise to power of the Communists over the 1920s to the 1940s when China was fragmented and beset by war. Accessible, authoritative, and ambitious.

By Klaus Mühlhahn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Thoughtful, probing...a worthy successor to the famous histories of Fairbank and Spence [that] will be read by all students and scholars of modern China."
-William C. Kirby, coauthor of Can China Lead?

It is tempting to attribute the rise of China to Deng Xiaoping and to recent changes in economic policy. But China has a long history of creative adaptation. In the eighteenth century, the Qing Empire dominated a third of the world's population. Then, as the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion ripped the country apart, China found itself verging on free fall. More recently, after Mao, China managed…


Book cover of God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

Suzanne Litrel Author Of Jackie Tempo and the Emperor's Seal

From my list on Chinese tradition, revolution, and change.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian, educator, and author with an abiding interest in stories that help bridge cultural divides. I first encountered tales of China as an elementary school student in Singapore. Years later, I studied Chinese and backpacked through China, after which I earned my M.A. in Asian Studies. I would go on to become a high school instructor, and this experience helped me teach AP World History ™ and IB (International Baccalaureate) History. I began writing my Jackie Tempo series as a way of providing accessible content in the classroom. Historical fiction has always helped provide deeper context for me and my students.

Suzanne's book list on Chinese tradition, revolution, and change

Suzanne Litrel Why did Suzanne love this book?

The late and highly regarded scholar Jonathon Spence, prolific author of ground-breaking texts, takes on one of nineteenth-century China’s strangest political mysteries.

In God’s Chinese Son, he asks: how did Hong Xiuquan, the so-called Chinese younger brother of Jesus Christ, manage to gain thousands of followers—and nearly topple Qing dynasty(1644-1912)? 

As an educator, I needed more than a pat answer regarding how the Taiping Rebellion endured for decades and upended Qing norms. Spence provides this depth.

Prior to reading this, I had no real concept of the disaster that was the Taiping Rebellion. Spence’s compelling and deeply researched tale of a failed scholar’s vision—and the disaster that followed—is a riveting ride through China’s traumatic nineteenth century, and a glimpse of what would come. 

By Jonathan D. Spence,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked God's Chinese Son as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Whether read for its powerful account of the largest uprising in human history, or for its foreshadowing of the terrible convulsions suffered by twentieth-century China, or for the narrative power of a great historian at his best, God's Chinese Son must be read. At the center of this history of China's Taiping rebellion (1845-64) stands Hong Xiuquan, a failed student of Confucian doctrine who ascends to heaven in a dream and meets his heavenly family: God, Mary, and his older brother, Jesus. He returns to earth charged to eradicate the "demon-devils," the alien Manchu rulers of China. His success carries…


Book cover of Manchu

Michael A. DeMarco Author Of Wuxia America: The Timely Emergence of a Chinese American Hero

From my list on uniquely fantastic, yet possible heroic skills.

Why am I passionate about this?

Life is pretty dull without passion. Since early childhood I was attracted to Chinese philosophy, then to all the cultural aspects that reflect it. At the same time, I felt the blood in my veins drawing me to ancestral roots. Learning about other cultures helps us learn about our own. I’ve been driven by sympathy for the immigrant experience, the suffering, and sacrifices made for a better, peaceful life. What prepared me to write Wuxia America includes my academic studies, living and working in Asia, and involvement in martial arts. My inspiration for writing stems from a wish to encourage ways to improve human relations.

Michael's book list on uniquely fantastic, yet possible heroic skills

Michael A. DeMarco Why did Michael love this book?

I loved Elegant’s book because he included a highly detailed account of the period, an account only possible by a top China scholar.

Manchu is a fictional work set within a vivid history of 17th-century China when the Manchus from northeast Asia battled native Han Chinese causing the fall of the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644). The great conflict is brought to life in a personal way, including the interactions of heroic characters, Eastern and Western. The result highlights varied perceptions of politics, warfare, and social relations. 

I appreciate Elegant’s blend of academic precision and detail with creative storytelling to make history so interesting. He encases facts in an emotional plot. Elegant is a master wordsmith who stimulates thought, valuable for understanding the Manchu period as well as individual introspection. 

By Robert S Elegant,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A young, exiled British mercenary plays out his fortunes against a rich, exotic tapestry of love and warfare as China's last glorious Ming dynasty falls to the northern Manchu hordes


Book cover of The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military under the Qing Dynasty

Peter A. Lorge Author Of The Reunification of China: Peace through War under the Song Dynasty

From my list on Chinese military history.

Why am I passionate about this?

My interest in Chinese military history stems from an early interest in books on strategy like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and in East Asian martial arts. I have pursued both since high school, translating Sun Tzu as a senior thesis in college (and now returning to it professionally), and practicing a number of martial arts over the last forty years (and writing a book on the history of Chinese martial arts). Although there are plentiful historical records for all aspects of Chinese military history, the field remains relatively neglected, leaving it wide open for new studies. I continue to pursue my teenage interests, writing the books I wanted to read in high school.

Peter's book list on Chinese military history

Peter A. Lorge Why did Peter love this book?

This is a series of six essays that present a “new Qing history” approach to 17th and 18th century Chinese military history, specifically the culture involved in the military campaigns from 1636 to 1799.  Waley-Cohen not only presents a more positive view of the Qing’s Manchu rulers, but also the centrality of military activities and culture to Chinese culture.  The Qing government enthusiastically promoted its martial accomplishments, and martial culture was in turn reflected in visual culture, religion, and popular culture.

By Joanna Waley-Cohen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Was the primary focus of the Qing dynasty really civil rather than military matters? In this ground-breaking book, Joanna Waley-Cohen overturns conventional wisdom to put warfare at the heart of seventeenth and eighteenth century China. She argues that the civil and the military were understood as mutually complementary forces. Emperors underpinned military expansion with a wide-ranging cultural campaign intended to bring military success, and the martial values associated with it, into the mainstream of cultural life. The Culture of War in China is a striking revisionist history that brings new insight into the roots of Chinese nationalism and the modern…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, the Qing dynasty, and the Taiping Rebellion?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, the Qing dynasty, and the Taiping Rebellion.

China 603 books
The Qing Dynasty 28 books