The best books about East Asia

2 authors have picked their favorite books about East Asia and why they recommend each book. Soon, you will be able to filter this list by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to discover books.

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Book cover of Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present

Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present

By Christopher I Beckwith,

Why this book?

While only one chapter of Empires of the Silk Road is dedicated to the Scythians, this book is a compelling introduction to Central Eurasian peoples throughout history. Beckwith’s work stabs right at the heart of ancient and modern writings that frame the Scythians and other nomadic peoples within a pejorative “barbarian” framework. More than that, he explores how societies such as the Scythians viewed themselves, which differs greatly from other approaches, which use them only as a foil to more sedentary peoples.

From the list:

The best books to understand the Scythians

Book cover of Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern

Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern

By Prasenjit Duara,

Why this book?

One of the first scholars to write a full-length monograph on Manchukuo, Duara delves into the Chinese and Japanese writers who viewed northeast China under Japanese occupation as a means to envision their own Pan-Asianist ideals. He analyses this in the context of a broader "East Asian modern" in Manchukuo, and utilizes political and literary sources to unearth previous connections with previous iterations and currents of Chinese nationalism tied to the Pan-Asianism of the early twentieth century.
From the list:

The best books on Manchukuo (Manchuria)

Book cover of The Forgotten Air Force: The Royal Air Force in the War Against Japan 1941-1945

The Forgotten Air Force: The Royal Air Force in the War Against Japan 1941-1945

By Henry Probert,

Why this book?

Understanding the full scope of the air war in the CBI requires knowledge of Royal Air Force operations against the Japanese, and Probert’s book delivers. I regret that I am not aware of a similar book covering the CBI story from the point of view of the Japanese Army Air Force. Probert begins his book with the arrival of RAF flying boats at Singapore in 1928 and recounts in detail the events of World War II from the debacle in Burma and Malaya in 1941-42 to the hard-won victory in 1945. Substantial appendices, notes, photographs and maps complete the package.

From the list:

The best books on the Air War in the China-Burma-India Theater during WWII

Book cover of A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East

A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East

By Tiziano Terzani,

Why this book?

Warned by a Hong-Kong fortune-teller not to risk flying for a whole year, the author – a vastly experienced Far East war and revolutions correspondent of the German Der Spiegel – took what he called “the first step into an unknown world.” It turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years he ever spent: he was marked by death and instead he was reborn. Geography expanded under his feet. Magnificently written in the best traditions of travel literature. A full immersion into the invisible world and belief systems that shape Southeast Asian cultures.

From the list:

The best non-fiction books that will immerse you in far-flung places and times

Book cover of From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

By Pankaj Mishra,

Why this book?

This is a different kind of history. Rather than retelling the story of colonial conquest and incursion, Pankaj Mishra focuses instead on how colonised societies processed the political and cultural trauma of their encounter with imperialism. Asian thinkers are at the centre of this book, and their attempts to explain, and answer, the rise of the West from the perspectives of their own societies – India, China, or Japan – forms its central axis. This could be an obscure study, but Mishra’s style, sharp and incisive, ensures that it’s not.

From the list:

The best books about East Asia in the age of empire

Book cover of East Asia, Latin America, and the Decolonization of Transpacific Studies

East Asia, Latin America, and the Decolonization of Transpacific Studies

By Chiara Olivieri (editor), Jordi Serrano-Muñoz (editor),

Why this book?

This book uses a transpacific, decolonial, and interdisciplinary approach to study the connections between Latin America and East Asia, concentrating on contemporary commodity extraction and exchanges. The book explores South-South exchanges without Global North metropolitan mediations, thus recentering East Asia-Latin America as an epistemological lens through which to consider these sophisticated networks and produce new knowledge. In my view, the originality of this book resides first in the interdisciplinary connection it makes between the decolonial project and transpacific studies, and secondly, in the two-pronged approach from two unfortunately often disconnected academic perspectives: Latin American and East Asian Studies. 

From the list:

The best books about transpacific studies and Asian-Latin American exchanges and cultural production

Book cover of The East Asian War, 1592-1598: International Relations, Violence and Memory

The East Asian War, 1592-1598: International Relations, Violence and Memory

By James B. Lewis (editor),

Why this book?

This is a valuable edited collection that brings together scholarship from experts in Korea, Japan, Europe, and the United States. The translation of works by East Asian scholars is particularly useful as these materials are largely inaccessible to Western readers. The book spans events from before the war to various memories of the war in the countries involved, touching on specialized topics including Hideyoshi’s planning process, guerrilla warfare in Korea, how the war figured in the grand strategy of the Ming dynasty, and how the war impacted subsequent cultural exchanges between the countries involved.  However, note that this book assumes…

From the list:

The best books on the Great East Asian War of 1592-1598

Book cover of The Book of Corrections: Reflections on the National Crisis During the Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598

The Book of Corrections: Reflections on the National Crisis During the Japanese Invasion of Korea, 1592-1598

By Yu Song-Nyong, Choi Byonghyon,

Why this book?

This book is not a page-turner by any means, but what it does have is hidden information through imagination. It is an eyewitness account in Korean, translated into English concerning the 16th-century Japanese Invasion. It is a step-by-step recounting of how one administrator had to flee the Japanese army as they burned their way through his native lands. The hidden joy is knowing that the samurai army is on his heels and you can feel them in the shadow of the book all the way through. It was a joy to read because it allowed me to see how the…

From the list:

The best books on a hidden Japan and the real samurai

Book cover of A Maritime History of East Asia

A Maritime History of East Asia

By Masashi Haneda (editor), Mihoko Oka (editor),

Why this book?

OK, I had to sneak in at least one academic book; I’m a professor, after all. This book might be a little drier than some of the others, but it’s also the most up-to-date and comprehensive account of premodern Japanese international relations available in English. Most Japanese historians only publish in Japanese, so this book provides a unique window into the results of their studies for those who don’t read that language. It’s a treasure trove of information about diplomacy, war, piracy, trade, and cultural exchanges between 1250 and 1800. Who could ask for more?

From the list:

The best books on early Japan in world history

Book cover of Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History

Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History

By James A. Benn,

Why this book?

This is the book I had been waiting for and was so delighted when it appeared. It provides a fascinating and sweeping account of the meaning of tea in Chinese culture from its earliest appearance to the late imperial period. Benn has a wonderful eye for examples and delicious details that illuminate how religion, art, poetry, class, and gender created a commodity and culture that travelled around the world. A great place to start if you are interested in the history of tea or China.
From the list:

The best books to understand tea and other Chinese things

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