The most recommended books about Chinese culture

Who picked these books? Meet our 10 experts.

10 authors created a book list connected to Chinese culture, and here are their favorite Chinese culture books.
Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

What type of Chinese culture book?

Loading...

Book cover of The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream

Shaoyu Yuan Author Of Panda Not Dragon: Why the Rise of China Is Not a Threat

From my list on understanding China and Chinese culture.

Why am I passionate about this?

Yuan, born in a small town in Inner Mongolia, is a researcher and PhD candidate at Rutgers University. He is an expert on Chinese and East Asian studies. Yuan's research interests include Chinese foreign and domestic policy, Sino-US relations, and how the country utilizes its influence and fosters relationships. He received his MS in International Relations from Northeastern University and BA from Centre College. Yuan has written extensively on China and Chinese foreign policy.

Shaoyu's book list on understanding China and Chinese culture

Shaoyu Yuan Why did Shaoyu love this book?

This fascinating book explains China from a historical perspective. It presents a detailed look at how China has transformed from its past to today, from the Middle Kingdom to Red Communist. 4,000 years of history is almost impossible to fit in a single-volume book, yet this book did its best and successfully summarized the most fundamental parts of the country’s history, introducing one of the oldest civilizations alive on earth to those who wish to learn more about China.

By Michael Wood,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A single volume history of China, offering a look into the past of the global superpower and its significance today.

Michael Wood has travelled the length and breadth of China, the world’s oldest civilization and longest lasting state, to tell a thrilling story of intense drama, fabulous creativity, and deep humanity that stretches back thousands of years.

After a century and a half of foreign invasion, civil war, and revolution, China has once again returned to center stage as a global superpower and the world’s second largest economy. But how did it become so dominant? Wood argues that in order…


Book cover of Illustrated Myths & Legends of China: The Ages of Chaos and Heroes

Justine Laismith Author Of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree

From my list on to see the hidden side of Chinese culture.

Why am I passionate about this?

Being half-Chinese and half-Peranakan, I grew up in a mixed cultural environment but went to secondary school with a strong Chinese culture. I became aware of my inferior knowledge, not just of the language, but also Chinese culture and history. Hence I immersed myself in the Chinese environment. But there is so much in this long and illustrious history of one of the oldest civilisations that my initial motive to learn was soon replaced by a genuine interest. Now I am always on the lookout for anything related to China, its history, and the Chinese culture.

Justine's book list on to see the hidden side of Chinese culture

Justine Laismith Why did Justine love this book?

This book stands out because it delves deeper into popular characters that appear repeatedly in similar books. I have also enjoyed coming across new names and places not previously found. But far from being obscure names, I have encountered these in Chinese fantasy dramas.

Best of all, it includes pictures of relevant artwork and museum artifacts. I get to see these without having to travel to the four corners of the world. Giving us a sense of where we are in place and time, these displays show that throughout the long Chinese history, these legends and myths are integral to the lives of Chinese people.

By Dehai Huang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Illustrated Myths & Legends of China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Illustrated Myths & Legends of China is a profusely illustrated collection of 32 carefully chosen tales of Chinese myth and legend.


With more than 100 illustrations drawn over two thousand years of all aspects of Chinese art—including painting, pottery and porcelain, jade, bronzes and tomb decoration—Illustrated Myths & Legends of China is a vividly written collection of tales of the universe's emergence from chaos, the creation of the world in which the first Chinese people appeared and a depiction of how the many strands of myth and legend have influenced Chinese culture.


An impressive array of heroic figures and rich…


Book cover of Bronze and Sunflower

Justine Laismith Author Of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree

From my list on to see the hidden side of Chinese culture.

Why am I passionate about this?

Being half-Chinese and half-Peranakan, I grew up in a mixed cultural environment but went to secondary school with a strong Chinese culture. I became aware of my inferior knowledge, not just of the language, but also Chinese culture and history. Hence I immersed myself in the Chinese environment. But there is so much in this long and illustrious history of one of the oldest civilisations that my initial motive to learn was soon replaced by a genuine interest. Now I am always on the lookout for anything related to China, its history, and the Chinese culture.

Justine's book list on to see the hidden side of Chinese culture

Justine Laismith Why did Justine love this book?

I always like reading anything about day-to-day living in China. In this book, I loved the descriptions of what life is like in rural China, eg making their own reed shoes and building their own roofs. On the surface, this book is about the idyllic life in the countryside. However, it is set during the cultural revolution but so subtly described in the back-drop that it is perfect for the target audience. We often read about the people banished to the countryside, and this book tells me what happens to them when they arrive.

I also enjoyed it as it is a translated text, so there is a sense that this is authentic.

By Cao Wenxuan, Meilo So (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bronze and Sunflower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 9, 10, 11, and 12.

What is this book about?

A classic, heartwarming tale set to the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution, with the timeless feels of Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea.

A beautifully written, timeless tale by bestselling Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award. When Sunflower, a young city girl, moves to the countryside, she grows to love the reed marsh lands - the endlessly flowing river, the friendly buffalo with their strong backs and shiny round heads, the sky that stretches on and on in its vastness. However, the days are long, and the little girl is lonely. Then she…


Book cover of On China

Shaoyu Yuan Author Of Panda Not Dragon: Why the Rise of China Is Not a Threat

From my list on understanding China and Chinese culture.

Why am I passionate about this?

Yuan, born in a small town in Inner Mongolia, is a researcher and PhD candidate at Rutgers University. He is an expert on Chinese and East Asian studies. Yuan's research interests include Chinese foreign and domestic policy, Sino-US relations, and how the country utilizes its influence and fosters relationships. He received his MS in International Relations from Northeastern University and BA from Centre College. Yuan has written extensively on China and Chinese foreign policy.

Shaoyu's book list on understanding China and Chinese culture

Shaoyu Yuan Why did Shaoyu love this book?

Written by America’s former Secretary of State, this book is the one to read for Westerners to understand today’s China and some of its history. Mr. Kissinger successfully used some well-known Chinese stories, historical events, and Chinese games to communicate his message. The effects of the Opium War in 1840, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the board game weiqi (Go) were all accurately and thoroughly examined as instruments to understand today’s China. Mr. Kissinger and his collaborators performed a fantastic job translating Chinese classic works into English.

By Henry Kissinger,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1971 Henry Kissinger took the historic step of reopening relations between China and the West, and since then has been more intimately connected with the country at the highest level than any other western figure. This book distils his unique experience, examining China's history from the classical era to the present day, describing the essence of its millennia-old approach to diplomacy, strategy and negotiation, and reflecting on these attitudes for our own uncertain future.


Book cover of Spilled Water

Justine Laismith Author Of Secrets of the Great Fire Tree

From my list on to see the hidden side of Chinese culture.

Why am I passionate about this?

Being half-Chinese and half-Peranakan, I grew up in a mixed cultural environment but went to secondary school with a strong Chinese culture. I became aware of my inferior knowledge, not just of the language, but also Chinese culture and history. Hence I immersed myself in the Chinese environment. But there is so much in this long and illustrious history of one of the oldest civilisations that my initial motive to learn was soon replaced by a genuine interest. Now I am always on the lookout for anything related to China, its history, and the Chinese culture.

Justine's book list on to see the hidden side of Chinese culture

Justine Laismith Why did Justine love this book?

Winner of the 2004 Smarties Award for fiction 9 – 11, it is a well-deserved award as it describes a difficult topic at an appropriate level for its readers. 

I read Spilled Water as it has a similar theme to my own book. It gives insight into the unseen ugliness of economic success in China. In addition, this story informs our target audience of the existence of child labour and misogynism in this part of the world, where poverty forces family to treat their daughters like ‘spilled water’ and employers regard them as property.

By Sally Grindley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spilled Water as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

When her husband dies, Lu Si-yan's mother is encouraged to sell her young daughter into domestic service. Lu Si-yan is just eleven when sold by her uncle. Nearly two years will pass before she can get back home to her mother and brother. In this powerful and compelling novel Sally Grindley portrays the life of a young girl in China, a young girl whose life is said to be like 'spilled water'. With a brilliant first-person narrative and a powerful description of time and place, this novel is gripping, heart-wrenching and utterly mesmerising.


Book cover of Spin the Dawn

Kate Chenli Author Of A Bright Heart

From my list on fantasy novels by Asian authors for young adults.

Why am I passionate about this?

I write adult and young adult fantasy. I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of magic. While growing up in China, I often found myself immersed in fantasy literature based on Asian history, mythology, and legends. I enjoyed getting lost in the rich imaginary worlds where the characters came to life. These tales fed my imagination and inspired me to create my own magical adventures. Writing has allowed me to expand on the ancient legends and mythology that I’ve always loved. Moreover, I’ve enjoyed creating lifelike characters, especially strong women who inspire young girls.

Kate's book list on fantasy novels by Asian authors for young adults

Kate Chenli Why did Kate love this book?

A tailor Mulan? Sign me up!

This book is pitched as Mulan meets Project Runway, but it’s so much more than that. 

The beautiful writing style adds to the fairytale feeling of the story. Based on a mixture of the folklore of East Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, the vibrant world sets a perfect backdrop for the main character’s adventure.

The story is enriched by an incredible journey to the sun, moon, and stars, and a heart-throbbing romance. Not to mention stunning dresses created by a gifted tailor with her magical scissors!

By Elizabeth Lim,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Spin the Dawn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Project Runway meets Mulan in this sweeping fantasy about a teenage girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on an impossible journey to sew three magic dresses, from the sun, the moon, and the stars. And don’t miss Elizabeth Lim’s new novel, the instant New York Times bestseller, Six Crimson Cranes!

“All the cutthroat competition of a runway fashion reality show and the thrilling exploits of an epic quest." —The Washington Post

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can…


Book cover of The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why

Gloria Mark Author Of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity

From my list on attention and why it is the ultimate currency.

Why am I passionate about this?

In 2000, I entered the University of California, Irvine as an assistant professor. Suddenly faced with multiple research projects, courses, committees, grant-writing, and student mentoring, I found myself switching screens and tasks like crazy. But I was also glued to my computer. I began to wonder if this was normal? Trained as a psychologist, I decided to study empirically what was happening to our attention. I began research over two decades on attention and discovered how our attention spans have shrunk over time (to a mere average of 47 seconds). Fast forward, I've continued to study our relationships with our technology, uncovering different types of attention and busting myths associated with focus and productivity. 

Gloria's book list on attention and why it is the ultimate currency

Gloria Mark Why did Gloria love this book?

When I visited Asian countries of China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore, food was always a highlight. But what also stood out for me was the social nature of eating. I was also struck by the simple gestures of people that indicated politeness and respect. We might think of culture as influencing behavior, but this book argues that culture can penetrate our thinking.

Nisbett contrasts how eastern and western cultures think differently about context, the individual vs. the group, and our relationship to the environment, among other differences.

In our age of the Internet, cultural differences on the surface may be eroding globally but there may be deeper influences of culture on thought that are harder to erase.

By Richard E. Nisbett,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An award-winning professor of psychology examines the divergent ways in which eastern and western cultures view the world, offering suggestions about how today's interdependent global cultures may be bridged. Reprint. 15,000 first printing.


Book cover of The Grace of Kings

Prashanth Srivatsa Author Of The Spice Gate: A Fantasy

From my list on fantasy novels with quests and crafty gods.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am instantly drawn to stories with voyages, spices, and trade. But as much as these, I love meddlesome and crafty gods. I’m not a religious person, but I love to understand how people behave around religion, how it influences their choices, and how our world’s history can be chronologized as a series of fanatical events and conquests. Fantasy gives me the option to explore characters and worlds where gods are not only inherently intrusive but also cast a long shadow on people’s nature, giving birth to folklore, myths, and, of course, great stories to tell. They drive destinies, but more importantly, they drive the resistance against being puppeteered.

Prashanth's book list on fantasy novels with quests and crafty gods

Prashanth Srivatsa Why did Prashanth love this book?

This was one meaty book! Ken Liu has thrown away all the rules of writing and has yet written an absolute masterpiece of fantasy fiction.

I don’t remember being this thrilled, terrified, angry, and chuffed with scene after scene, battle after battle. I am a sucker for sprawling epic fantasies. Give me intricate maps, dozens of characters, multiple POVs, betrayals, puppeteering gods, and a complex plot that ties them all together.

The Grace of Kings is all that and more in its rich and silken reimagining of the Han dynasty and the Chu Han Contention. Imagine my delight when I found out there are three more books to this saga, each meatier than the previous.

By Ken Liu,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Emperor Mapidere was the first to unite the island kingdoms of Dara under a single banner. But now the emperor is on his deathbed, his people are exhausted by his vast, conscriptive engineering projects and his counsellors conspire only for their own gain.

Even the gods themselves are restless.

A wily, charismatic bandit and the vengeance-sworn son of a deposed duke cross paths as they each lead their own rebellion against the emperor's brutal regime. Together, they will journey to the heart of the empire; witnessing the clash of armies, fleets of silk-draped airships, magical books and shapeshifting gods. Their…


Book cover of In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West

Dean Kostantaras Author Of Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848

From my list on the spread of nationalism in the modern world.

Why am I passionate about this?

I was a pretty poor student in high school and college but did reasonably well in my history classes. Much of the credit goes to a few inspired teachers who, at least in memory, made me feel that I was a witness at every turn to some grand Gibbonesque moment of truth. Perhaps they aroused in my mind the wonderful prospect of a life spent roaming unfettered in the realm of ideas. In reality, much else comes with the territory but it is nevertheless true that we academic historians get to use up a fair number of unpoliced hours doing just that. Mine have largely been expended on problems of collective identity and the formation of national movements.

Dean's book list on the spread of nationalism in the modern world

Dean Kostantaras Why did Dean love this book?

This book was recommended to me in graduate school and was a natural fit for the kind of comparative research I was then busy with concerning the global dispersion of national ideas among cultural elites in the nineteenth century. That story is contextualized here through an examination of the life and thought of Yen Fu (1854-1921). Shwartz's work was immediately praised as a model for such a study and continues to appear frequently in bibliographies and course reading lists.

By Benjamin I. Schwartz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In a serious effort to divine the secret of the West's success in achieving wealth and power, Yen Fu, a Chinese thinker, undertook, at the turn of the century, years of laborious translation and commentary on the work of such thinkers as Spencer, Huxley, Adam Smith, Mill, and Montesquieu. In addition to the inevitable difficulties involved in translating modern English into classical Chinese, Yen Fu was faced with the formidable problem of interpreting and making palatable many Western ideas which were to a large extent antithetical to traditional Chinese thought.

In an absorbing study of Yen Fu's translations, essays, and…


Book cover of Pavilion of Women

Alice Poon Author Of Tales of Ming Courtesans

From my list on novels that take place in China.

Why am I passionate about this?

Born and raised in Hong Kong, I received a fully bilingual (English and Chinese) education and also learned French in my youth. Since the release of my two historical Chinese novels: The Green Phoenix and Tales of Ming Courtesans, nostalgia for the magical world of wuxia fiction, which I grew up with, has spurred my desire to write wuxia stories following Jin Yong’s style, but with a mythical slant. Overall, my fiction writing has been influenced by Jin Yong, Emile Zola, and the wuxia/xianxia media.

Alice's book list on novels that take place in China

Alice Poon Why did Alice love this book?

Pearl Buck is an author whom I admire for her genuine love and respect of the Chinese culture and people. This sentiment shines through her novels. Pavilion of Women is unique in that it highlights a pronounced social change in China in the early 20th century, when Western values began to nudge younger Chinese to unyoke themselves of old traditions and customs. The fastidious, all-wise, and freedom-seeking protagonist attempts to dictate other people’s lives to keep her household in order, but fails miserably. She finally learns from a renegade missionary that her rigid attitudes and lack of empathy are in fact the real shackles that hobble her.

I love this novel because character development is superbly handled.

By Pearl S. Buck,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Pavillion of Women (View amazon detail page)