The most recommended China History books

Who picked these books? Meet our 25 experts.

25 authors created a book list connected to China History, and here are their favorite China History books.
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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.

Why am I passionate about this?

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 World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

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?

Perspectives on one of the most bewildering and turbulent periods in modern Chinese history – the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, in the decade from 1966, by one of contemporary China’s foremost historians. Yang, who has worked on the era of the great famines in China prior to this, is well served by two excellent translators. A book that brings the vastness of this revolution down to the stories of specific people and places, including those who were most involved in creating and directing this seminal event.

By Yang Jisheng, Stacy Mosher (translator), Guo Jian (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World Turned Upside Down as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a major political event and a crucial turning point in the history of the People's Republic of China, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) marked the zenith as well as the nadir of Mao Zedong's ultra-leftist politics. Reacting in part to the Soviet Union's "revisionism," which he regarded as a threat to the future of socialism, Mao mobilized the masses in a battle against what he called "bourgeois" forces within the Chinese Communist Party. This ten-year-long class struggle devastated traditional Chinese culture as well as the nation's economy.

Following Tombstone, his groundbreaking and award-winning history of the Great Famine,…


Book cover of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

Benjamin Breen Author Of Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science

From my list on the history of drugs.

Why am I passionate about this?

As a historian of science and medicine, I’m fascinated by the many ways that drugs—from tea to opiates, Prozac to psychedelics—have shaped our world. After all, there are few adults on the planet today who don’t regularly consume substances that have been classified as a drug at one time or another (I’m looking at you, coffee and tea!). The books I’ve selected here have deeply influenced my own thinking on the history of drugs over the past decade, from my first book, The Age of Intoxication, to my new book on the history of psychedelic science.

Benjamin's book list on the history of drugs

Benjamin Breen Why did Benjamin love this book?

This ambitious and readable book explores how a seemingly simple beverage—tea—became a force shaping global empires. Rappaport, a historian at UC Santa Barbara, documents how tea has influenced everything from global trade networks and consumer cultures to ideas about health, morality, and national identity over the past three centuries.

Readers follow tea’s rise to become a key global commodity, moving from the courtly culture of tea in imperial China to the pages of Victorian magazines and the vast plantations of India and East Africa. This book made me think in a new way about the origins of modern-day consumer culture—not to mention the cup of tea I’m drinking as I write this. 

By Erika Rappaport,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Thirst for Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How the global tea industry influenced the international economy and the rise of mass consumerism

Tea has been one of the most popular commodities in the world. For centuries, profits from its growth and sales funded wars and fueled colonization, and its cultivation brought about massive changes-in land use, labor systems, market practices, and social hierarchies-the effects of which are with us even today. A Thirst for Empire takes an in-depth historical look at how men and women-through the tea industry in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa-transformed global tastes and habits. An expansive and original global history of imperial…


Book cover of The Golden Days

Why am I passionate about this?

To experience another's thoughts and emotions, one first has to feel them. Eyes, lips, tongue, and teeth are involved before the brain/heart can engage. Translation of poetry is the same. My mother has sung Chinese poetry to me since forever, and English poetry came alive for me through verse speaking. I studied and taught as I wrote for many years. I cannot say I find my way into every poem I come across, but the poems I translate are ones I know and love. That is why I am passionate about translation. For me, it is not a secondary experience but a primary, primal performance art!

Susan's book list on translated books that capture the magic of the original, making what’s unfamiliar, foreign or ancient, accessible

Susan Wan Dolling Why did Susan love this book?

I read this English translation before I even read the book in Chinese, even though Chinese readers in Hong Kong where I grew up all read it as teenagers or young adults. The popular title of the novel is Dream of the Red Chamber, in both English and its original Chinese, but I immediately agreed with Hawkes that The Story of the Stone, one among its many titles, is much more expressive and fitting.

The eighteenth-century aristocratic family is a hugely complex world we are introduced to, but Hawkes’ faithful, resourceful, and unpretentious translation makes getting to know the multitude of characters easy and unforgettable.

Even though it is set in eighteenth-century China, for a twentieth/twenty-first-century English reader like myself, the family dynamics, tragedy, and romance here are palpable thanks to Hawke’s understanding and translation.

By Cao Xueqin, David Hawkes (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors 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 The Sword Dancer

Elizabeth Langston Author Of Whisper Falls

From my list on fish out of water” historical novels.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve always loved learning about the past. Whenever we travel for vacation, my family has become resigned to making a stop at a historical site, especially for Colonial America. It was no surprise to them that I set parts of my first published novel (and series) in 18th century North Carolina. Each novel on my book list is set in a different century and features ordinary people who, when thrown into extraordinary circumstances, respond with strength, courage, and grace. These historical “fish-out-of-water” stories remind us how much people have changed across time—and how they’ve stayed the same. 

Elizabeth's book list on fish out of water” historical novels

Elizabeth Langston Why did Elizabeth love this book?

The Sword Dancer takes place during the Tang Dynasty. Although I knew little about that part of history, I loved how quickly this story immersed me into the world of 8th century China. Li Feng, a young woman who was orphaned under mysterious circumstances, leaves her childhood protector and journeys to the city to uncover her past. She’s strong, smart, and brave but doesn’t always make the best choices when it comes to choosing allies. Using her wits and skill with swords, Li Feng battles human foes as well as a society that doesn’t expect her to amount to much—that is, until she discovers an ally worthy of her trust.

By Jeannie Lin,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE THIEF WHO STOLE HIS HEART Sword dancer Li Feng is used to living life on the edge of the law - a woman alone in the dangerous world of the Tang Dynasty has only her whirlwind reflexes to trust. She will discover the truth about her past, even if that means outwitting the most feared thief-catcher of them all...

Relentless, handsome and determined, Han sees life - and love - as black and white. Until he finally captures the spirited, courageous Li Feng, who makes him question everything he thought he knew about right and wrong. Soon he's faced…


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.

Why am I passionate about this?

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 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.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.


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.

Why am I passionate about this?

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 The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

Tom Carter Author Of Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China

From my list on Chinese prostitution and vice.

Why am I passionate about this?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for what would become a two-year backpacking sojourn across all 33 Chinese provinces, the first foreigner on record to do so. Since then, I have published three books about China; my anthology Unsavory Elements was intended as a well-meaning tribute to the expatriate experience, however my own essay – a bawdy account of a visit to a rural brothel – was understandably demonized. The following five books expand on that illicit theme.

Tom's book list on Chinese prostitution and vice

Tom Carter Why did Tom love this book?

Starting out as a serial in an 1890s Shanghainese magazine, yet remaining unpublished until 2005 following the discovery of its English translation among the belongings of the late Eileen Chang, The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai is an unparalleled historical classic set in the pleasure quarters of the Qing Dynasty. Unlike the hyper-erotic writings of Li Yu and Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng, the author, Bangqing Han, opted for a tempered realism unique for its period. Clocking in at 600 pages, and densely layered with multiple character arcs that are a bit difficult to keep track of, Sing-Song Girls may require more than one reading.

By Bangqing Han,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Desire, virtue, courtesans (also known as sing-song girls), and the denizens of Shanghai's pleasure quarters are just some of the elements that constitute Han Bangqing's extraordinary novel of late imperial China. Han's richly textured, panoramic view of late-nineteenth-century Shanghai follows a range of characters from beautiful sing-song girls to lower-class prostitutes and from men in positions of social authority to criminals and ambitious young men recently arrived from the country. Considered one of the greatest works of Chinese fiction, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai is now available for the first time in English. Neither sentimental nor sensationalistic in its portrayal…