23 books directly related to China History 📚

All 23 China History books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

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

By Cao Xueqin,

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

Why 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.


Mistress of the Empire

By Raymond E. Feist, Janny Wurts,

Book cover of Mistress of the Empire

Why this book?

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. 

Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

By Richard E. Strassberg,

Book cover of Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China

Why 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.


Rickshaw Beijing: City People & Politics in the 1920s

By David Strand,

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

Why 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.


A Hero Born

By Jin Yong, Anna Holmwood (translator),

Book cover of A Hero Born

Why 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.


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

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

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

Why 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.


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

By Henrietta Harrison,

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

Why 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.


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

By Paul Cohen,

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

Why 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.


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

By Sarah Schneewind,

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

Why 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.


The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records (Oxford World's Classics)

By Sima Qian, Raymond Dawson (translator),

Book cover of The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records (Oxford World's Classics)

Why this book?

I am recommending this collection of eight essays from the immense Historical Records primarily for Chapter 7, “The Story of the Rebel Xiang Yu.” This is a rebel who didn’t win – Xiang Yu was defeated by the man who went on to found the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE, which makes this perhaps China’s most famous tale of personal failure. The Grand Historian Sima Qian veered from his format to write this biography because he had so much to say about Xiang Yu. As I work on my own novels about the founding of the Ming, I keep Xiang Yu in mind as a reminder of how generals can achieve glorious victories and then lose everything over a few casual mistakes, and of how storytellers decide how a hero gets remembered.


Confucianism in China: An Introduction

By Tony Swain,

Book cover of Confucianism in China: An Introduction

Why this book?

Most books on the history of Confucianism are dry and concentrated on the earliest period, during and soon after Confucius lived. I’m not saying Confucius himself wasn’t important, but the greatness of Tony Swain’s book is that it manages to be both fascinating and engaging, even occasionally snarky, while also bringing the story of Confucianism all the way up to the twenty-first century. If you want to think about Confucianism as something important today, it helps to understand the evolving ways the tradition has been lived throughout the centuries. 


Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-Hsi

By Jonathan D. Spence,

Book cover of Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-Hsi

Why this book?

The eighteenth-century Kangxi Emperor was one of the most successful rulers in Chinese history, and he had a fascinating life. But Jonathan Spence was not content to write a standard academic biography. Instead, he writes from a first-person perspective. The reader does not look at Kangxi’s life from the outside but sees the world from the emperor’s point of view. Spence was a talented stylist, so the book is not only a profound study of Chinese history but also an innovative piece of literature. 


Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution

By Feng Jicai,

Book cover of Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China's Cultural Revolution

Why this book?

Oral history as a literary form is relatively new in China. When asked why he wrote the book, Mr. Feng replied that it was because of his guilt as a survivor and as a witness. The Cultural Revolution has devastated and scarred generation after generation in China, yet most people are silent about their personal experiences. Feng conducted numerous interviews with ordinary people who had lived through that period and wrote these intimate stories in the collection. Every voice is different and deeply personal; together, they portray one of the most disturbing and tumultuous times in Chinese history. 


Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to XI Jinping

By Klaus Mühlhahn,

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

Why 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.


How the Red Sun Rose: The Origin and Development of the Yan'an Rectification Movement, 1930-1945

By Hua Gao, Stacy Mosher (translator), Guo Jian (translator)

Book cover of How the Red Sun Rose: The Origin and Development of the Yan'an Rectification Movement, 1930-1945

Why this book?

Gao Hua was one of China’s best-regarded historians. His tragically early death in 2011 at the age of 57 deprived the world of a meticulous scholar, one who was able to shed light on the early years of the Communist Party before it came to power in 1949. Shedding the influence of the Soviet Union, the increasing power of Mao Zedong is documented in this work, through the rectification campaigns undertaken during the Second World War when the Party was still a marginalised entity that no one expected to ever become important. This book shows why, and how, the Party under Mao disciplined itself, and how it came to have power over the world’s largest population.


Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928

By Edward J. M. Rhoads,

Book cover of Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928

Why this book?

I have long thought that one of the key ingredients of modern Chinese nationalism is a strong sense of ethnic identity for the people labeled “Han Chinese.” To a great extent this Han identity, though having ancient roots, was formed, elaborated, and ideologized around the turn of the twentieth century in opposition to the ruling Manchu Qing dynasty. This book shows how and why this happened.


June Fourth

By Jeremy Brown,

Book cover of June Fourth

Why this book?

This newly published book is the definitive account of the Tiananmen protest movement of 1989 and its suppression, which has turned out to be the pivotal political event in the post-Mao era. Weaving a range of personal stories and new documentation into a highly readable analysis, it lays bare its unpredictable course and tragic but avoidable outcome. There is nothing else in print that manages to describe the drama while providing a shrewd and cool-headed critical scrutiny of a range of competing scholarly interpretations and official misrepresentations.


The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

By Bangqing Han,

Book cover of The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

Why 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.


Iron Widow

By Xiran Jay Zhao,

Book cover of Iron Widow

Why this book?

Unapologetically furious, vicious, and brilliant, Iron Widow adapts the history and folk tales surrounding Wu Zetian, the first empress regnant of China, into a science fiction tale of giant robots, oppressive societies, and rebellion, featuring a team of heroes that fight back against everything their world throws at them. Appropriate for adults or younger readers, it caught my imagination and refuses to let go, and I can’t wait for the sequel. 


The Sword Dancer

By Jeannie Lin,

Book cover of The Sword Dancer

Why 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.


The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention

By Robert Temple,

Book cover of The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention

Why this book?

This book is full of “wow” moments. The author describes the history of numerous inventions to show the ingenuity of Chinese civilization. Some of these inventions are well known, like paper and the compass. But most of them come as a surprise. Until about two hundred years ago, China was far ahead of the rest of the world in most types of technology. In some respects, such as agricultural tools and steel smelting, China was two thousand years ahead of Europe. When you read this book, you will realize that for most of history, Europe was like a marginal third-world society and China was the center of things.  


The Last Embassy: The Dutch Mission of 1795 and the Forgotten History of Western Encounters with China

By Tonio Andrade,

Book cover of The Last Embassy: The Dutch Mission of 1795 and the Forgotten History of Western Encounters with China

Why this book?

In 1795 a group of Dutch diplomats traveled across China from a port in the south to Beijing in the north. At this time, few Westerners had ever traveled beyond the coast, so when the embassy returned to the Netherlands, several members wrote accounts of their unusual journey. This book gives an enormous amount of fascinating detail about what it was like to travel in imperial China, and about the lifestyles in various regions of the country. At times the diplomats enjoyed luxury and refinement, but they also had to endure hardship and mistreatment. The book evokes what daily life was like in China prior to the Western impact.


Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan

By Margery Wolf,

Book cover of Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan

Why this book?

Even though this is a work of anthropology, it also provides unique insights into rural history. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Margery Wolf did fieldwork in a poor village in rural Taiwan. At that time, modernization was just beginning to affect the countryside, so most aspects of village life were still traditional. Although Taiwanese society differed from the mainland in certain ways, in most aspects of life there carried on the traditions of Chinese village life. This book looks at rural society from a female perspective. Due to poverty, both women and men had few options. They did whatever it took to survive. Many of the people the author interviewed seem very discontent with their lives, but they usually had no other choice.