100 books like The First Emperor

By Sima Qian, Raymond Dawson (translator),

Here are 100 books that The First Emperor fans have personally recommended if you like The First Emperor. Shepherd is a community of 10,000+ authors and super readers sharing their favorite books with the world.

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Book cover of The Golden Days

Laurie Dennis Author Of The Lacquered Talisman

From my list on entering the world of imperial China.

Who am I?

My background is in journalism, and I have traveled widely in China, including visits to Fengyang, Anhui Province, and other sites important to the Ming founding, though I currently reside in Wisconsin. The Lacquered Talisman is the first in a planned series on the Ming founding, one of the most thrilling and dramatic dynastic transitions in China’s long history. I became addicted long ago to this 14th-century tale, in part because it is such a key moment in Chinese history and yet is so unknown in the English-speaking world. Since I write historical fiction, I have curated a list of both history and fiction about imperial China for you to enjoy.

Laurie's book list on entering the world of imperial China

Laurie Dennis Why did Laurie love this book?

This is the best translation into English of the first 26 chapters of the most influential classic of Chinese literature. (It also has the English name Dream of Red Mansions.) Generations have swooned over the 18th century love triangle that is at the heart of this epic tale of the Jia family in decline. If you can’t get enough of this elaborate novel of manners, you can listen to the podcast currently chewing on it, Rereading the Stone. I consider this opening volume to be a useful introduction to family life in traditional China (though its lens is focused on high society), including the importance of dreams, rituals, family relationships, gossip, and poetry.

By Cao Xueqin, David Hawkes (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Story of the Stone (c.1760) is one of the greatest novels of Chinese literature. The first part of the story, The Golden Days, begins the tale of Bao-yu, a gentle young boy who prefers girls to Confucian studies, and his two cousins: Bao-chai, his parents' choice of a wife for him, and the ethereal beauty Dai-yu. Through the changing fortunes of the Jia family, this rich, magical work sets worldly events - love affairs, sibling rivalries, political intrigues, even murder - within the context of the Buddhist understanding that earthly existence is an illusion and karma determines the shape…


Book cover of A Hero Born

Laurie Dennis Author Of The Lacquered Talisman

From my list on entering the world of imperial China.

Who am I?

My background is in journalism, and I have traveled widely in China, including visits to Fengyang, Anhui Province, and other sites important to the Ming founding, though I currently reside in Wisconsin. The Lacquered Talisman is the first in a planned series on the Ming founding, one of the most thrilling and dramatic dynastic transitions in China’s long history. I became addicted long ago to this 14th-century tale, in part because it is such a key moment in Chinese history and yet is so unknown in the English-speaking world. Since I write historical fiction, I have curated a list of both history and fiction about imperial China for you to enjoy.

Laurie's book list on entering the world of imperial China

Laurie Dennis Why did Laurie love this book?

Jin Yong’s characters move in the gritty village lanes or wander China’s remote mountains, seeking vengeance, escaping persecution, forming alliances. The launch of a martial arts series, A Hero Born was first serialized in a Hong Kong newspaper in the 1950s and is about a young hero who ends up in the Mongol camp of the future Genghis Khan. It’s a thrilling read and proved an immediate sensation, spawning movies, video games, comic books, etc.  Holmgren’s new translation offers a window into the gallant world of martial men and women who will fight to the death to defend their honor. It also gives a Chinese perspective on the rise of the Mongols.

By Jin Yong, Anna Holmwood (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE CHINESE "LORD OF THE RINGS" - NOW IN ENGLISH FOR THE FIRST TIME.

THE SERIES EVERY CHINESE READER HAS BEEN ENJOYING FOR DECADES - 300 MILLION COPIES SOLD.
.
ONE OF TIME MAGAZINE'S 100 BEST FANTASY NOVELS OF ALL TIME.

"Jin Yong's work, in the Chinese-speaking world, has a cultural currency roughly equal to that of "Harry Potter" and "Star Wars" combined" Nick Frisch, New Yorker

"Like every fairy tale you're ever loved, imbued with jokes and epic grandeur. Prepare to be swept along." Jamie Buxton, Daily Mail

China: 1200 A.D.

The Song Empire has been invaded by its…


Book cover of The Troubled Empire

Laurie Dennis Author Of The Lacquered Talisman

From my list on entering the world of imperial China.

Who am I?

My background is in journalism, and I have traveled widely in China, including visits to Fengyang, Anhui Province, and other sites important to the Ming founding, though I currently reside in Wisconsin. The Lacquered Talisman is the first in a planned series on the Ming founding, one of the most thrilling and dramatic dynastic transitions in China’s long history. I became addicted long ago to this 14th-century tale, in part because it is such a key moment in Chinese history and yet is so unknown in the English-speaking world. Since I write historical fiction, I have curated a list of both history and fiction about imperial China for you to enjoy.

Laurie's book list on entering the world of imperial China

Laurie Dennis Why did Laurie love this book?

Brooks is a Canadian scholar of Chinese history who specializes in the Ming Dynasty. In this work, he offers an overview of the transition from the Mongol Yuan to the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which is the setting for my own writing, and so is a period I consider to be of unrivaled appeal! Brooks studies, among other things, how extreme weather caused political upheaval and why emperors needed to worry when the locals started reporting dragon sightings. He also offers perspective on the autocratic rule of the Ming founder, “the brilliant and ruthless Zhu Yuanzhang,” and how his example impacted the rest of the dynasty.

By Timothy Brook,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Mongol takeover in the 1270s changed the course of Chinese history. The Confucian empire-a millennium and a half in the making-was suddenly thrust under foreign occupation. What China had been before its reunification as the Yuan dynasty in 1279 was no longer what it would be in the future. Four centuries later, another wave of steppe invaders would replace the Ming dynasty with yet another foreign occupation. The Troubled Empire explores what happened to China between these two dramatic invasions. If anything defined the complex dynamics of this period, it was changes in the weather. Asia, like Europe, experienced…


Book cover of A Tale of Two Melons: Emperor and Subject in Ming China

Laurie Dennis Author Of The Lacquered Talisman

From my list on entering the world of imperial China.

Who am I?

My background is in journalism, and I have traveled widely in China, including visits to Fengyang, Anhui Province, and other sites important to the Ming founding, though I currently reside in Wisconsin. The Lacquered Talisman is the first in a planned series on the Ming founding, one of the most thrilling and dramatic dynastic transitions in China’s long history. I became addicted long ago to this 14th-century tale, in part because it is such a key moment in Chinese history and yet is so unknown in the English-speaking world. Since I write historical fiction, I have curated a list of both history and fiction about imperial China for you to enjoy.

Laurie's book list on entering the world of imperial China

Laurie Dennis Why did Laurie love this book?

On July 28, 1372, a group of high officials presented the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty with two melons on a lacquer tray. The melons grew from the same stalk – an anomaly that was judged a lucky omen. Schneewind uses this seemingly minor matter to study the daily workings of court life and the complex relationships between rulers and subjects. I had the great luck to travel with the author to Nanjing, the first Ming capital, and visit some of the locales she analyzed for this book, including the tomb complex where the founder and his empress are buried.  Schneewind’s short and readable study of two melons offers a sense of the high stakes and grand scale of imperial life, and I admire how she was able to connect so much to such a small gift of ripe fruit.

By Sarah Schneewind,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Tale of Two Melons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A commoner's presentation to the emperor of a lucky omen from his garden, the repercussions for his family, and several retellings of the incident provide the background for an engaging introduction to Ming society, culture, and politics, including discussions of the founding of the Ming dynasty; the character of the first emperor; the role of omens in court politics; how the central and local governments were structured, including the civil service examination system; the power of local elite families; the roles of women; filial piety; and the concept of ling or efficacy in Chinese religion.


Book cover of Moment in Peking

Olivia Milburn Author Of Kingdoms in Peril, Volume 1: The Curse of the Bao Lords

From my list on epic historical narratives from around the world.

Who am I?

I am a translator specializing in Chinese historical novels, and also an academic researching marginalized groups in Chinese history—ethnic minorities, the disabled, people with mental health issues, and so on. The treatment of marginalized people tells you a lot about what is going on within mainstream society. I’ve always been interested in stories about people from distant times and places, and I have a particular love of long sagas, something that you can really get your teeth into. Kingdoms in Peril covers five hundred years of history: I translated this for my own enjoyment and was surprised when I realized that I’d managed to write 850,000 words for fun!

Olivia's book list on epic historical narratives from around the world

Olivia Milburn Why did Olivia love this book?

Moment in Peking is an elegy to a lost world and a past way of life.

The main character, Yao Mulan, falls victim to human traffickers in 1900 as her family flees from Beijing. Although she is soon rescued, this experience turns her life in new and unexpected directions. We follow Yao Mulan through war, famine, and revolution, the fall of the Qing dynasty, the tumultuous Republican era, the rise of warlords, and the Japanese invasion in 1936, facing every challenge with indomitable courage.

This is a great evocation of early twentieth century Chinese history, from the perspective of someone who lived through terrible events.

By Lin Yutang,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The English Works of Lin Yutang collected and published this time lists more than 10 influential original works including A Leaf in the Storm, The Wisdom of Laotse and Lady Wu besides My Country and My People, Moment in Peking, The Art of Living published by our press. It is the first time for such a collection to be published in China and also for some of them to appear in original English. In addition, in order to better introduce and display Lin Yutang and his works, we have collected precious photos from his former residence in Taipei and his…


Book cover of Rickshaw Beijing: City People & Politics in the 1920s

Peter Zarrow Author Of After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

From my list on how imperial China became modern China.

Who am I?

Like many Americans of my generation (boomer) who became China scholars, I witnessed the civil rights and anti-war struggles and concluded that we in the West could learn from the insights of Eastern thought and even Chinese Communism. I ended up specializing in modern political thought—I think of this field as the land of “isms”—nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and the like. I have lived in China and Japan, and spent twelve years as a historical researcher in Taiwan before returning to America to teach at the University of Connecticut. Today, I would not say China has the answers, but I still believe that the two most important world powers have a lot to learn from each other.

Peter's book list on how imperial China became modern China

Peter Zarrow Why did Peter love this book?

Another beautifully written book, this one about how Beijing residents of all backgrounds found their identities in a tumultuously changing environment and how they fought with and against each other for political agency. Readers see into the lives of policemen, rickshaw-pullers, tram conductors, and the middle classes. It reminds me of how history is made brick by individual brick.

By David Strand,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the 1920s, revolution, war, and imperialist aggression brought chaos to China. Many of the dramatic events associated with this upheaval took place in or near China's cities. Bound together by rail, telegraph, and a shared urban mentality, cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing formed an arena in which the great issues of the day--the quest for social and civil peace, the defense of popular and national sovereignty, and the search for a distinctively modern Chinese society--were debated and fought over. People were drawn into this conflicts because they knew that the passage of armies, the marching of protesters, the…


Book cover of Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas

Melissa Addey Author Of The Fragrant Concubine

From my list on the concubines of imperial China.

Who am I?

A tiny mention of the legendary ‘fragrant concubine’ in a travelogue had me search out more information… and more and more until I’d researched and written the stories of four imperial concubines in the Qing era (18th century China). Some rose to power, while others fell to madness. Their extraordinary lives within the high red walls of the Forbidden City fascinated me. Along the way I found a banished empress and a real woman who had endless myths grow up around her, as well as secondary characters like the Italian Jesuit turned court painter. An irresistible era and way of life to explore, in all its shades of light and darkness.

Melissa's book list on the concubines of imperial China

Melissa Addey Why did Melissa love this book?

An extraordinary tale of a chokingly claustrophobic household in historical China, in which four women (wives and concubines) jealously vie for attention and privilege. As the stakes grow higher, so do the dangers inherent in their choices. Made into the film Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou, for me, this is the gold standard on this theme.

By Su Tong, Michael S. Duke (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Raise the Red Lantern as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The brutal realities of the dark places Su Tong depicts in this collection of novellas set in 1930s provincial China -- worlds of prostitution, poverty, and drug addiction -- belie his prose of stunning and simplebeauty. The title novella, "Raise the Red Lantern," which became a critically acclaimed film, tells the story of Lotus, a young woman whose father's suicide forces her to become the concubine of a wealthy merchant. Crushed by loneliness, despair, and cruel treatment, Lotus finds her descent into insanity both a weapon and a refuge.

"Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes" is an account of a family's struggles during…


Book cover of Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

Yang Ye Author Of Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

From my list on understanding China.

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.

Yang's book list on understanding China

Yang Ye Why did Yang love 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.

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…


Book cover of The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man's Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942

Peter Zarrow Author Of After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

From my list on how imperial China became modern China.

Who am I?

Like many Americans of my generation (boomer) who became China scholars, I witnessed the civil rights and anti-war struggles and concluded that we in the West could learn from the insights of Eastern thought and even Chinese Communism. I ended up specializing in modern political thought—I think of this field as the land of “isms”—nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and the like. I have lived in China and Japan, and spent twelve years as a historical researcher in Taiwan before returning to America to teach at the University of Connecticut. Today, I would not say China has the answers, but I still believe that the two most important world powers have a lot to learn from each other.

Peter's book list on how imperial China became modern China

Peter Zarrow Why did Peter love this book?

This beautifully written book gives a picture of the life and times of one ordinary man. Unusually, he maintained a daily diary throughout his entire life, which was mostly lived in a remote—but certainly not isolated—village. Harrison highlights the tumultuous political, social, and economic changes China was undergoing through the lens of a man who lived from the Qing Empire through the 1911 Revolution and the warlord era and into the rise of the Communist movement.

By Henrietta Harrison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Man Awakened from Dreams as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this beautifully crafted study of one emblematic life, Harrison addresses large themes in Chinese history while conveying with great immediacy the textures and rhythms of everyday life in the countryside in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Liu Dapeng was a provincial degree-holder who never held government office. Through the story of his family, the author illustrates the decline of the countryside in relation to the cities as a result of modernization and the transformation of Confucian ideology as a result of these changes. Based on nearly 400 volumes of Liu's diary and other writings, the book illustrates what it…


Book cover of History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

Peter Zarrow Author Of After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

From my list on how imperial China became modern China.

Who am I?

Like many Americans of my generation (boomer) who became China scholars, I witnessed the civil rights and anti-war struggles and concluded that we in the West could learn from the insights of Eastern thought and even Chinese Communism. I ended up specializing in modern political thought—I think of this field as the land of “isms”—nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and the like. I have lived in China and Japan, and spent twelve years as a historical researcher in Taiwan before returning to America to teach at the University of Connecticut. Today, I would not say China has the answers, but I still believe that the two most important world powers have a lot to learn from each other.

Peter's book list on how imperial China became modern China

Peter Zarrow Why did Peter love this book?

This book is by a man who has done as much as anyone to shape how historians approach the study of modern China. Here he not only looks at the rise and fall of the infamous Boxers (1898-1900) but also what the Boxer movement felt like to its various participants at the time, and finally the many strikingly different ways (myths) later generations have understood the Boxers. I learned how to better think about history from this book.

By Paul Cohen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked History in Three Keys as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A comprehensive look at the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, a bloody uprising in north China against native Christians and foreign missionaries.


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