The best China History books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about China History and why they recommend each book.

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The Story of the Stone, Volume I

By Cao Xueqin,

Book cover of The Story of the Stone, Volume I: The Golden Days, Chapters 1-26

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.

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.


I wrote...

The Lacquered Talisman

By Laurie Dennis,

Book cover of The Lacquered Talisman

What is my book about?

A sweeping coming-of-age epic, The Lacquered Talisman launches the story of one of the most influential figures in Chinese history. He is the son of a bean curd seller and he will found the Ming Dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644. Known as "Fortune" as a boy, Zhu Yuanzhang has a large and doting family who shepherd him through hardship until drought ravages the countryside and heralds a plague. Left with nothing but a lacquered necklace from his grandfather, Chen the Diviner, Fortune is deposited in the village temple and is soon wandering the countryside as a begging monk. Signs and dreams leave him convinced that he has a special fate. What matters most is that he prove himself to be a filial son.

Mistress of the Empire

By Raymond E. Feist, Janny Wurts,

Book cover of Mistress of the Empire

In a magical world, based in Japan, a young girl needs to rely on her wits to survive. A highly political intrigue-filled thriller. This book is easily one of the best examples of Asian fantasy done right. What I like about the book is the way the characters are brought to life. The female lead Mara of the Acoma starts the story in a desperately vulnerable position and finds a way to work within the rigidly hierarchical and misogynistic system she is part of to effect change from within. The challenges she faces don't appear contrived in any way and her solutions are masterfully implemented. 

Who am I?

I've been passionate about Fantasy ever since I found a used copy of the Dragonlance Chronicles in a second-hand book store in India. I was 10 years old and immediately fell in love with the idea of fantasy worlds with magic and dragons. Soon after I read Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman, Piers Anthony, RA Salvatore, Edgar Burroughs, and a host of other writers from the 1980s. What I like about the books I've chosen is that these characters are memorable. They are stories that can be re-read because the plot doesn't feel like rehashed tropes. The uniqueness of the settings, the challenges they face, and the solutions they engineer are what make them worth reading.


I wrote...

Keep Calm and Go Crazy: A Guide to Finding Your Inner Hero

By Rohan Monteiro,

Book cover of Keep Calm and Go Crazy: A Guide to Finding Your Inner Hero

What is my book about?

He had it all: a spot on the couch, a bunch of friends, and a semi-decent-paying job... What more could anyone want? But when an unexpected offer took him to Dubai, Rohan realized he was completely clueless about how to survive. And when he found the girl of his dreams, survival was no longer an option. He needed to discover the hero within him, and he was buried way too deep. In a journey across mountains, rivers, and jungles, with half-baked plans and misadventures, Rohan reinvents himself in the pursuit of true love and along the way inspires us to discover our true selves.

Inscribed Landscapes

By Richard E. Strassberg,

Book cover of Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

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.

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.


I wrote...

Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

By Yang Ye (translator),

Book cover of Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p'in Anthology

What is my book about?

More than two decades after its publication, this anthology of seventy pieces from fourteen representative writers remains a rare, if not entirely unprecedented, selection of belles-lettres non-fictional essays from the Chinese tradition which provide invaluable glimpses of the colorful daily life of the Chinese society during the Late Ming period, especially that of the literati or men of letters. Generically meant to amuse and entertain its readers, as well as the authors themselves, the vignette (hsiao-p’in) focuses on sensual pleasures and triviality, and more than often displays individual personality and wit in a playful manner. It could help the reader to better appreciate and understand the psyche and spirit of an important epoch of new developments in literature and fine arts in Chinese history.       

Rickshaw Beijing

By David Strand,

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

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.


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.


I wrote...

After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

By Peter Zarrow,

Book cover of After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

What is my book about?

By the turn of the twentieth century, China was undergoing acute political, social, and cultural change. So, question: how did the Chinese people stop believing in an emperor who claimed the Mandate of Heaven and decide to replace the empire with a republic? After years of looking at individual thinkers, activists, writers, and political movements, I tried to put the story together, with all its ups and downs, from the first glimpses of a political community that would function without a sacred leader to the final ignominious expulsion of the emperor from the Forbidden City a full twelve years after the founding of the Republic. Also important to me: the story of the rejection of kings is not limited to China. 

History in Three Keys

By Paul Cohen,

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

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.


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.


I wrote...

After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

By Peter Zarrow,

Book cover of After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

What is my book about?

By the turn of the twentieth century, China was undergoing acute political, social, and cultural change. So, question: how did the Chinese people stop believing in an emperor who claimed the Mandate of Heaven and decide to replace the empire with a republic? After years of looking at individual thinkers, activists, writers, and political movements, I tried to put the story together, with all its ups and downs, from the first glimpses of a political community that would function without a sacred leader to the final ignominious expulsion of the emperor from the Forbidden City a full twelve years after the founding of the Republic. Also important to me: the story of the rejection of kings is not limited to China. 

A Hero Born

By Jin Yong, Anna Holmwood (translator),

Book cover of A Hero Born

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.


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.


I wrote...

The Lacquered Talisman

By Laurie Dennis,

Book cover of The Lacquered Talisman

What is my book about?

A sweeping coming-of-age epic, The Lacquered Talisman launches the story of one of the most influential figures in Chinese history. He is the son of a bean curd seller and he will found the Ming Dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644. Known as "Fortune" as a boy, Zhu Yuanzhang has a large and doting family who shepherd him through hardship until drought ravages the countryside and heralds a plague. Left with nothing but a lacquered necklace from his grandfather, Chen the Diviner, Fortune is deposited in the village temple and is soon wandering the countryside as a begging monk. Signs and dreams leave him convinced that he has a special fate. What matters most is that he prove himself to be a filial son.

The World Turned Upside Down

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

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

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

China

By Kerry Brown,

Book cover of China

What is my book about?

China is poised to become the world’s largest economy in the next decade. But its great struggle to modernise has been one of tragedy, conflict, and challenge. From the first attempts to introduce Western ideas into the country two centuries ago, China’s long march to global primacy has been above all an epic fight to renew an ancient country and culture.

Sinologist Kerry Brown traces this quest for renewal through the major moments of China’s modern history. Taking the reader on a journey that includes war, revolution, famine, and finally regeneration, he describes concisely and authoritatively where China has come from, and where it is heading as it achieves great power status. This is a story that is no longer just about China, but concerns the rest of the world.

Making China Modern

By Klaus Mühlhahn,

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

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.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

China

By Kerry Brown,

Book cover of China

What is my book about?

China is poised to become the world’s largest economy in the next decade. But its great struggle to modernise has been one of tragedy, conflict, and challenge. From the first attempts to introduce Western ideas into the country two centuries ago, China’s long march to global primacy has been above all an epic fight to renew an ancient country and culture.

Sinologist Kerry Brown traces this quest for renewal through the major moments of China’s modern history. Taking the reader on a journey that includes war, revolution, famine, and finally regeneration, he describes concisely and authoritatively where China has come from, and where it is heading as it achieves great power status. This is a story that is no longer just about China, but concerns the rest of the world.

The Man Awakened from Dreams

By Henrietta Harrison,

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

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.


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.


I wrote...

After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

By Peter Zarrow,

Book cover of After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

What is my book about?

By the turn of the twentieth century, China was undergoing acute political, social, and cultural change. So, question: how did the Chinese people stop believing in an emperor who claimed the Mandate of Heaven and decide to replace the empire with a republic? After years of looking at individual thinkers, activists, writers, and political movements, I tried to put the story together, with all its ups and downs, from the first glimpses of a political community that would function without a sacred leader to the final ignominious expulsion of the emperor from the Forbidden City a full twelve years after the founding of the Republic. Also important to me: the story of the rejection of kings is not limited to China. 

A Tale of Two Melons

By Sarah Schneewind,

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

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.


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.


I wrote...

The Lacquered Talisman

By Laurie Dennis,

Book cover of The Lacquered Talisman

What is my book about?

A sweeping coming-of-age epic, The Lacquered Talisman launches the story of one of the most influential figures in Chinese history. He is the son of a bean curd seller and he will found the Ming Dynasty, which ruled China from 1368 to 1644. Known as "Fortune" as a boy, Zhu Yuanzhang has a large and doting family who shepherd him through hardship until drought ravages the countryside and heralds a plague. Left with nothing but a lacquered necklace from his grandfather, Chen the Diviner, Fortune is deposited in the village temple and is soon wandering the countryside as a begging monk. Signs and dreams leave him convinced that he has a special fate. What matters most is that he prove himself to be a filial son.

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