The best Ming dynasty books 📚

Browse the best books on the Ming dynasty as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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Book cover of Naxi Dongba Pictograph Dictionary

Naxi Dongba Pictograph Dictionary

By He Pinzheng

Why this book?

While researching the Ming dynasty and its tea horse trade, I had the joy of traveling to Lijiang in China’s Yunnan province. Lijiang is home to the Naxi (or Nakhi) whose Mu clan rose in prominence during the Ming dynasty. The Naxi people are unique in that they employ the world’s only living pictographic writing system. 

This tiny dictionary is filled with pictographs and their meaning, both in English and in Mandarin. Pictographs are grouped by topics significant to the Naxi culture, such as behaviour, family life, housing, and plants. This book extends one’s view of China, a country which…

From the list:

The best books on China’s Ming Dynasty

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Book cover of Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

By Kenneth M. Swope

Why this book?

Contrary to previous scholarship, Ming China was not in military decline at the end of the 16th century, and the Wanli Emperor was not an ineffectual ruler during the conflict in Korea with the Japanese. Swope also demonstrates the importance of guns in the conflict, with the Japanese army strong in harquebuses and the Chinese army strong in cannon.
From the list:

The best books on Chinese military history

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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

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

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

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

By Sarah Schneewind

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…

From the list:

The best books for entering the world of imperial China

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Book cover of Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

By Shih-Shan Henry Tsai

Why this book?

My favorite Ming dynasty source. It is rich with details on the eunuch institution during the Ming dynasty including its supply chain— the parts of society and of the world where eunuchs were historically drawn. Described here, are the various agencies within the Beijing Forbidden City where Ming dynasty eunuchs worked: Carpentry, Palace Servants, Palace Foods, Royal Clothing, the Nursing Home, and others, including a Toilet Paper agency. Readers not only gain insights on the imperial palace’s operations, but also on the eunuch ranking system, the emperors’ policies concerning eunuchs, and the rise of powerful eunuchs in the Ming secret…

From the list:

The best books on China’s Ming Dynasty

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Book cover of The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

By Timothy Brook

Why this book?

In The Confusions of Pleasure Timothy Brook captures the consternation of a local official as he witnesses the cultural and economic changes wrought by the rise of private wealth in the late Ming, (c. 1600). Unable to raise adequate revenue or to adapt the conservative agrarian foundations of its legitimacy to changing times, the Ming eventually collapses from within, unable to protect itself from marauding bands led by a disgruntled former government post station worker and subsequent invasion by a foreign force. Yet, those who are able to adapt to changing times survive. The resonances for our own day are…

From the list:

The best reads for understanding geo-politics and the rise of the nation state in China from the late Ming - 20th century

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