10 books like Mr. Smith Goes to China

By Jessica Hanser,

Here are 10 books that authors have personally recommended if you like Mr. Smith Goes to China. Shepherd is a community of 7,000+ authors sharing their favorite books with the world.

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The Opium War

By Julia Lovell,

Book cover of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

A brilliant account of the two Opium Wars showing how they have been remembered in particular ways in order to make modern political points. Lovell shows us how political operators on both sides used the question of the opium trade to further their own interests. It exposes the nasty business of imperialism but also takes down a lot of myths about the wars. The book allows us to see the conflicts both in terms of what happened at the time, and how views over those events changed over the following century and a half. She explores the international history of opium and how it became linked with racist representations of Chinese overseas and how this continues to affect relations between peoples and governments today.

The Opium War

By Julia Lovell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'A gripping read as well as an important one.' Rana Mitter, Guardian

In October 1839, Britain entered the first Opium War with China. Its brutality notwithstanding, the conflict was also threaded with tragicomedy: with Victorian hypocrisy, bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and collaboration. Yet over the past hundred and seventy years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise has become the founding episode of modern Chinese nationalism.

Starting from this first conflict, The Opium War explores how China's national myths mould its interactions with the outside world, how public memory is spun to serve the present, and how…


Great State

By Timothy Brook,

Book cover of Great State: China and the World

A great place to start to understand the long history of connections between East Asia and the rest of the world. Thirteen chapters take the reader from the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century up to the end of the Second World War. Each follows a particular person and their encounters with peoples of Inner and Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. They show how many things that historians have assumed to be ‘Chinese’ were borrowed from foreigners. Even the idea of the Great State, the framework through which later Chinese emperors used to describe their realm was taken from the Mongols. They also allow us to remember the ‘messiness’ of history with pioneers and villains on all sides.

Great State

By Timothy Brook,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The world-renowned scholar and author of Vermeer’s Hat does for China what Mary Beard did for Rome in SPQR: Timothy Brook analyzes the last eight centuries of China’s relationship with the world in this magnificent history that brings together accounts from civil servants, horse traders, spiritual leaders, explorers, pirates, emperors, migrant workers, invaders, visionaries, and traitors—creating a multifaceted portrait of this highly misunderstood nation.

China is one of the oldest states in the world. It achieved its approximate current borders with the Ascendancy of the Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth century, and despite the passing of one Imperial dynasty to…


Wealth and Power

By Orville Schell, John Delury,

Book cover of Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century

This book is an excellent introduction to some of the most important characters in modern Chinese history, from nineteenth-century reformers to twentieth-century communist leaders. We meet some of the characters I write about in The Invention of China like the great journalist Liang Qichao and the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, along with others such as Mao Zedong. The authors link their overlapping lives together showing how the old Qing Empire crumbled and was overthrown and replaced by a new Republic, which was itself overthrown within 40 years. It’s a great way to experience China’s journey from a time when it could be described as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ to an era in which its ‘strength and power’ unsettled the world.

Wealth and Power

By Orville Schell, John Delury,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

By now everyone knows the basic facts of China's rise to pre-eminence over the past three decades. But how did this erstwhile sleeping giant finally manage to arrive at its current phase of dynamic growth? How, after such a long and painful period of dynastic decline, intellectual upheaval and revolution, foreign occupation and civil war, did a country once derided as the 'sick man of Asia' manage to break out of its old pattern of repeatedly failed reform efforts to burst forth onto the world stage with such an impressive run of hyperdevelopment and wealth creation? How did the century-long…


Yuan Shikai

By Patrick Fuliang Shan,

Book cover of Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal

Very few people outside China have even heard of Yuan Shikai, the last prime minister of the Qing Empire who became president of the Republic of China before briefly declaring himself to be a new emperor. If it hadn’t been for Yuan, however, China would look very different today. He held the country together for a few crucial years after the revolution but then took some decisions that split it apart. He has been vilified ever since as a buffoon and a dictator, but this book asks us to take him seriously as a neglected and important figure in China’s transition. Although the book focuses too much on trying to decide whether Yuan was a good or bad person, it does what it promises and ‘reappraises’ an important life.

Yuan Shikai

By Patrick Fuliang Shan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) has been both hailed as China's George Washington for his role in the country's transition from empire to republic and condemned as a counter-revolutionary. Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal sheds new light on the controversial history of this talented administrator and modernizer who endeavoured to establish a new dynasty while serving as the first president of the republic, eventually declaring himself emperor. Drawing on untapped primary sources and recent scholarship, Patrick Fuliang Shan offers a lucid, comprehensive, and critical new interpretation of Yuan's part in shaping modern China.


For All the Tea in China

By Sarah Rose,

Book cover of For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire, and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink

I am a total tea-head, so any book about the history of how we all came to be addicts is a good start. This one is particularly gripping and reads like an adventure novel. Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, and industrial spy, was employed by the East India Company in 1848 to be smuggled into China and steal their tea-growing secrets. The book never flags, full of information about the opium wars, the Chelsea Physic garden and how the tea, later found to grow naturally in India, was made into a consumer product garnering enormous profits. As I grew up with a family member who disappeared to work in Assam tea gardens just before I was born, I have always been fascinated by this way of life.

For All the Tea in China

By Sarah Rose,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked For All the Tea in China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Robert Fortune was a Scottish gardener, botanist, plant hunter - and industrial spy. In 1848, the East India Company engaged him to make a clandestine trip into the interior of China - territory forbidden to foreigners - to steal the closely guarded secrets of tea.

For centuries, China had been the world's sole tea manufacturer. Britain purchased this fuel for its Empire by trading opium to the Chinese - a poisonous relationship Britain fought two destructive wars to sustain. The East India Company had profited lavishly as the middleman, but now it was sinking, having lost its monopoly to trade…


The Man Who Loved China

By Simon Winchester,

Book cover of The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom

I am delighted to recommend this book. Not only is it a fascinating true story, but it is also a page-turner. The story starts in 1937 when Joseph Needham, an English biochemist, falls in love with a Chinese student. He travels to China with her, where he begins a lifelong quest to document the scientific contributions of ancient China.

The Man Who Loved China

By Simon Winchester,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Man Who Loved China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman ("Elegant and scrupulous"—New York Times Book Review) and Krakatoa ("A mesmerizing page-turner"—Time) brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham, the brilliant Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, long the world's most technologically advanced country.

No cloistered don, this tall, married Englishman was a freethinking intellectual, who practiced nudism and was devoted to a quirky brand of folk dancing. In 1937, while working as a biochemist at Cambridge University, he instantly fell in love with a visiting Chinese…


Britain's Chinese Eye

By Elizabeth Hope Chang,

Book cover of Britain's Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Much of the Western world but especially eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain obsessively purchased, collected, displayed, and thought about Chinese things. A brilliant literary critic, Elizabeth Chang traces this obsession through a wide variety of British texts from Sir William Chambers, Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772) to Isabella Bird's, Chinese Pictures (1904). Chang takes us on an intimate journey into a pleasurable yet imperialistic and often racist material culture that still shapes the way the West looks at and consumes Chinese products.

Britain's Chinese Eye

By Elizabeth Hope Chang,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This book traces the intimate connections between Britain and China throughout the nineteenth century and argues for China's central impact on the British visual imagination. Chang brings together an unusual group of primary sources to investigate how nineteenth-century Britons looked at and represented Chinese people, places, and things, and how, in the process, ethnographic, geographic, and aesthetic representations of China shaped British writers' and artists' vision of their own lives and experiences. For many Britons, China was much more than a geographical location; it was also a way of seeing and being seen that could be either embraced as creative…


Babel

By R. F. Kuang,

Book cover of Babel

Kuang is a brilliant scholar, and the depth of research that went into Babel lives and breathes on every single page. But she never lets historical detail derail the story. Babel is a masterclass in worldbuilding, where magic-infused silver sits naturally and authentically against the backdrop of 1830s Oxford…and where magic’s ability to leverage the power of what might otherwise be lost in translation is as real and transformative as the deleterious consequences of imperialism. 

Babel

By R. F. Kuang,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE #2 SUNDAY TIMES AND #1 NYT BESTSELLER

'One for Philip Pullman fans'
THE TIMES

'An ingenious fantasy about empire'
GUARDIAN

'Fans of THE SECRET HISTORY, this one is an automatic buy'
GLAMOUR

'Ambitious, sweeping and epic'
EVENING STANDARD

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

Oxford, 1836.

The city of dreaming spires.

It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world.

And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows.

Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by…


The Confusions of Pleasure

By Timothy Brook,

Book cover of The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

In The Confusions of Pleasure Timothy Brook captures the consternation of a local official as he witnesses the cultural and economic changes wrought by the rise of private wealth in the late Ming, (c. 1600). Unable to raise adequate revenue or to adapt the conservative agrarian foundations of its legitimacy to changing times, the Ming eventually collapses from within, unable to protect itself from marauding bands led by a disgruntled former government post station worker and subsequent invasion by a foreign force. Yet, those who are able to adapt to changing times survive. The resonances for our own day are multiple and apt. 

The Confusions of Pleasure

By Timothy Brook,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Ming dynasty was the last great Chinese dynasty before the Manchu conquest in 1644. During that time, China, not Europe, was the center of the world: the European voyages of exploration were searching not just for new lands but also for new trade routes to the Far East. In this book, Timothy Brook eloquently narrates the changing landscape of life over the three centuries of the Ming (1368-1644), when China was transformed from a closely administered agrarian realm into a place of commercial profits and intense competition for status. "The Confusions of Pleasure" marks a significant departure from the…


The Golden Peaches of Samarkand

By Edward H. Schafer,

Book cover of The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of t'Ang Exotics

This book examines the exotics imported into China during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) and depicts their influence on Chinese life. During the three centuries of Tang came into the land the natives of almost every nation of Asia, all bringing exotic wares either as gifts or as goods to be sold. Ivory, rare woods, drugs, diamonds, magicians, dancing girls—the author covers all classes of unusual imports, their places of origin, their lore, their effect on fashion, dwellings, diet, painting, sculpture, music, and poetry.

This book is for students of Tang culture and laymen interested in the same topic. Its author Edward Schafer was an eminent American sinologist.

The Golden Peaches of Samarkand

By Edward H. Schafer,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Golden Peaches of Samarkand as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the seventh century the kingdom of Samarkand sent formal gifts of fancy yellow peaches, large as goose eggs and with a color like gold, to the Chinese court at Ch'ang-an. What kind of fruit these golden peaches really were cannot now be guessed, but they have the glamour of mystery, and they symbolize all the exotic things longed for, and unknown things hoped for, by the people of the T'ang empire. This book examines the exotics imported into China during the T'ang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), and depicts their influence on Chinese life. Into the land during the three centuries…


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