The most recommended Ming dynasty books

Who picked these books? Meet our 12 experts.

12 authors created a book list connected to the Ming dynasty, and here are their favorite Ming dynasty books.
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Book cover of Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel

Olivia Milburn Author Of Kingdoms in Peril, Volume 1: The Curse of the Bao Lords

From my list on epic historical narratives from around the world.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a translator specializing in Chinese historical novels, and also an academic researching marginalized groups in Chinese history—ethnic minorities, the disabled, people with mental health issues, and so on. The treatment of marginalized people tells you a lot about what is going on within mainstream society. I’ve always been interested in stories about people from distant times and places, and I have a particular love of long sagas, something that you can really get your teeth into. Kingdoms in Peril covers five hundred years of history: I translated this for my own enjoyment and was surprised when I realized that I’d managed to write 850,000 words for fun!

Olivia's book list on epic historical narratives from around the world

Olivia Milburn Why did Olivia love this book?

If I were ever going to be marooned on a desert island, and was only allowed one book, this would be my choice.

Three Kingdoms is a book worth rereading, in fact, this is something you can spend the rest of your life thinking about. This epic account of the fall of the Han dynasty has everything—political scheming, great battle scenes, tragic love stories, double and triple-crossing, heroes and villains, bravery and cowardice, and best of all, these are real people, and their choices and failings have real-life consequences, some of which we are still living with today.

By Guanzhong Luo, Moss Roberts (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"A material epic with an astonishing fidelity to history."-New York Times Book Review

Three Kingdoms tells the story of the fateful last reign of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), when the Chinese empire was divided into three warring kingdoms. Writing some twelve hundred years later, the Ming author Luo Guanzhong drew on histories, dramas, and poems portraying the crisis to fashion a sophisticated, compelling narrative that has become the Chinese national epic. This abridged edition captures the novel's intimate and unsparing view of how power is wielded, how diplomacy is conducted, and how wars are planned and fought. As…


Book cover of Lord of Formosa

John Grant Ross Author Of Taiwan in 100 Books

From my list on novels set in Taiwan.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a Kiwi who has spent most of the past three decades in Asia. My books include Formosan Odyssey, You Don't Know China, and Taiwan in 100 Books. I live in a small town in southern Taiwan with my Taiwanese wife. When not writing, reading, or lusting over maps, I can be found on the abandoned family farm slashing jungle undergrowth (and having a sly drink).

John's book list on novels set in Taiwan

John Grant Ross Why did John love this book?

Recounting Taiwan’s single most gripping historical episode, Ming loyalist warlord Koxinga and his fight with Dutch forces in southwestern Taiwan, Lord of Formosa sticks close to the known facts. Koxinga’s life intertwines perfectly with that of the Dutch presence on the island. He was born in 1624, the year that the Dutch East India Company established a settlement on Taiwan, and he died in 1662, the year the Dutch were expelled. Dutch-born author Bergvelt adds flesh and breath to a fascinating cast of real-life figures, making them accessible for modern readers.

By Joyce Bergvelt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The year is 1624. In southwestern Taiwan the Dutch establish a trading settlement; in Nagasaki a boy is born who will become immortalized as Ming dynasty loyalist Koxinga. Lord of Formosa tells the intertwined stories of Koxinga and the Dutch colony from their beginnings to their fateful climax in 1662. The year before, as Ming China collapsed in the face of the Manchu conquest, Koxinga retreated across the Taiwan Strait intent on expelling the Dutch. Thus began a nine-month battle for Fort Zeelandia, the single most compelling episode in the history of Taiwan. The first major military clash between China…


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

Peter A. Lorge Author Of The Reunification of China: Peace through War under the Song Dynasty

From my list on Chinese military history.

Why am I passionate about this?

My interest in Chinese military history stems from an early interest in books on strategy like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and in East Asian martial arts. I have pursued both since high school, translating Sun Tzu as a senior thesis in college (and now returning to it professionally), and practicing a number of martial arts over the last forty years (and writing a book on the history of Chinese martial arts). Although there are plentiful historical records for all aspects of Chinese military history, the field remains relatively neglected, leaving it wide open for new studies. I continue to pursue my teenage interests, writing the books I wanted to read in high school.

Peter's book list on Chinese military history

Peter A. Lorge Why did Peter love 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.

By Kenneth M. Swope,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dragon's Head and A Serpent's Tail as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The invasion of Korea by Japanese troops in May of 1592 was no ordinary military expedition: it was one of the decisive events in Asian history and the most tragic for the Korean peninsula until the mid-twentieth century. Japanese overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi envisioned conquering Korea, Ming China, and eventually all of Asia; but Korea's appeal to China's Emperor Wanli for assistance triggered a six-year war involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers and encompassing the whole region. For Japan, the war was ""a dragon's head followed by a serpent's tail"": an impressive beginning with no real ending.

Kenneth M. Swope has…


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

Laura Hostetler Author Of Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China

From my list on geo-politics and rise of the nation state in China.

Why am I passionate about this?

As Professor of History and Global Asian Studies and Director of the Engaged Humanities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I'm interested in intersections at the margins between cultural systems. I first became drawn to Chinese history after visiting the country in 1982 and returned to teach English there before undertaking graduate studies. My work on eighteenth-century China focuses on ethnography and cartography as tools of empire building during its period of growth and expansion. My current project, Bridging Worlds: Reflections on a Journey, chronicles a quest for personal integration when obtaining an education has too often become predicated on the ability to cut oneself off from aspects of one’s own inner knowing and lived experience.

Laura's book list on geo-politics and rise of the nation state in China

Laura Hostetler Why did Laura love 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 multiple and apt. 

By Timothy Brook,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Ming dynasty was the last great Chinese dynasty before the Manchu conquest in 1644. During that time, China, not Europe, was the center of the world: the European voyages of exploration were searching not just for new lands but also for new trade routes to the Far East. In this book, Timothy Brook eloquently narrates the changing landscape of life over the three centuries of the Ming (1368-1644), when China was transformed from a closely administered agrarian realm into a place of commercial profits and intense competition for status. "The Confusions of Pleasure" marks a significant departure from the…


Book cover of Manchu

Michael A. DeMarco Author Of Wuxia America: The Timely Emergence of a Chinese American Hero

From my list on uniquely fantastic, yet possible heroic skills.

Why am I passionate about this?

Life is pretty dull without passion. Since early childhood I was attracted to Chinese philosophy, then to all the cultural aspects that reflect it. At the same time, I felt the blood in my veins drawing me to ancestral roots. Learning about other cultures helps us learn about our own. I’ve been driven by sympathy for the immigrant experience, the suffering, and sacrifices made for a better, peaceful life. What prepared me to write Wuxia America includes my academic studies, living and working in Asia, and involvement in martial arts. My inspiration for writing stems from a wish to encourage ways to improve human relations.

Michael's book list on uniquely fantastic, yet possible heroic skills

Michael A. DeMarco Why did Michael love this book?

I loved Elegant’s book because he included a highly detailed account of the period, an account only possible by a top China scholar.

Manchu is a fictional work set within a vivid history of 17th-century China when the Manchus from northeast Asia battled native Han Chinese causing the fall of the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644). The great conflict is brought to life in a personal way, including the interactions of heroic characters, Eastern and Western. The result highlights varied perceptions of politics, warfare, and social relations. 

I appreciate Elegant’s blend of academic precision and detail with creative storytelling to make history so interesting. He encases facts in an emotional plot. Elegant is a master wordsmith who stimulates thought, valuable for understanding the Manchu period as well as individual introspection. 

By Robert S Elegant,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A young, exiled British mercenary plays out his fortunes against a rich, exotic tapestry of love and warfare as China's last glorious Ming dynasty falls to the northern Manchu hordes


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

Laurie Dennis Author Of The Lacquered Talisman

From my list on entering the world of imperial China.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Laurie's book list on entering the world of imperial China

Laurie Dennis Why did Laurie love 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.

By Sarah Schneewind,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Tale of Two Melons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A commoner's presentation to the emperor of a lucky omen from his garden, the repercussions for his family, and several retellings of the incident provide the background for an engaging introduction to Ming society, culture, and politics, including discussions of the founding of the Ming dynasty; the character of the first emperor; the role of omens in court politics; how the central and local governments were structured, including the civil service examination system; the power of local elite families; the roles of women; filial piety; and the concept of ling or efficacy in Chinese religion.


Book cover of The World: A Family History

Thomas Hylland Eriksen Author Of Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change

From Thomas' 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Anthropology professor Amateur musician Super reader Foodie

Thomas' 3 favorite reads in 2023

Thomas Hylland Eriksen Why did Thomas love this book?

Do we really need another book of world history? Yes, We needed this one.

Montefiore tells the story of human society through a number of carefully selected families and their relationships, thereby connecting the intimate with the geopolitical, trivia with statesman craft, family with empire.

The author is an excellent storyteller and a reliable witness. He comes across as someone you would want to share a cognac with by the fireplace. Naturally, he tells stories that had to be left out of the book. 

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE TIMES HISTORY BOOK OF THE YEAR
ONE OF THE ECONOMIST'S BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR

From the master storyteller and internationally bestselling author - the story of humanity from prehistory to the present day, told through the one thing all humans have in common: family.

We begin with the footsteps of a family walking along a beach 950,000 years ago. From here, Montefiore takes us on an exhilarating epic journey through the families that have shaped our world: the Caesars, Medicis and Incas, Ottomans and Mughals, Bonapartes, Habsburgs and Zulus, Rothschilds, Rockefellers and Krupps, Churchills, Kennedys, Castros, Nehrus, Pahlavis…


Book cover of Tasting History: Explore the Past through 4,000 Years of Recipes (A Cookbook)

Nicole Kimberling Author Of Grilled Cheese and Goblins: Adventures of a Supernatural Food Inspector!

From Nicole's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Professional cook Editor Straight-shooter ENTP Nosy neighbor

Nicole's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Nicole Kimberling Why did Nicole love this book?

Some real history is too weird to be made up. The same goes for real food. But once you get into historical food, the sky is the limit for total strangeness.

You can open this book to any page and end up picking up some choice bit of knowledge to enliven your dinner conversation or historical recipe to enliven dinner itself. Did you ever want to be able to say, “You know this lamb stew? It’s the same kind that was served at a Babylonian annual spring festival where the main event was a priestess walloping the king straight across the face so hard he wept.”

I personally love being able to bust out trivial like this, and Tasting History is chock full of fun, true facts as well as actual recipes for historical dishes that have been adapted to modern measurements.

Well-researched and funny, you can enjoy this book…

By Ann Volkwein, Max Miller,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Begin your very own food journey through the centuries and around the world with the first cookbook from the beloved YouTube channel Tasting History with Max Miller

What began as a passion project when Max Miller was furloughed during Covid-19 has become a viral YouTube sensation. The Tasting History with Max Miller channel has thrilled food enthusiasts and history buffs alike as Miller recreates a dish from the past, often using historical recipes from vintage texts, but updated for modern kitchens as he tells stories behind the cuisine and culture. From ancient Rome to Ming China to medieval Europe and…


Book cover of When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433

Laura Rahme Author Of The Ming Storytellers

From my list on China’s Ming Dynasty.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an honours graduate in aerospace engineering and psychology and I have written five historical novels. My debut novel, The Ming Storytellers, is set during China’s Ming dynasty and was well-reviewed by the Historical Novel Society. To pen this 600-page saga, I spent six years researching the Ming dynasty while studying a year of mandarin. I have travelled to Beijing, along the Great Wall, and to China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. Being a descendant of the Vietnamese royal family gave me access to rich genealogical sources passed down from my scholarly ancestors. These stories of concubines, eunuchs, and mandarins made the past come alive, complementing my research with plausible drama.

Laura's book list on China’s Ming Dynasty

Laura Rahme Why did Laura love this book?

Another much-loved book about the Ming dynasty’s naval fleet but this time, all seven maritime expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He are dutifully described. It outlines the evolution in ancient Chinese ship construction which saw the development of the formidable Ming ‘treasure fleet’. The reader can explore the Chinese mariners’ lives and occupations at sea, their navigation techniques, Ming China’s world trade and its diplomatic relationships, and the Ming fleet’s fascinating destinations, including Champa (now South Vietnam), Sumatra, Kuli (Kozhikode in India), Mogadishu, Malindi, and Hormuz. Cultural and socio-political details relating to the period are seamlessly weaved into this account which closely follows the life and works of Admiral Zheng He.

By Louise Levathes,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A hundred years before Columbus and his fellow Europeans began making their way to the New World, fleets of giant Chinese junks commanded by the eunuch admiral Zheng He and filled with the empire's finest porcelains, lacquerware, and silk ventured to the edge of the world's `four corners.' It was a time of exploration and conquest, but it ended in a retrenchment so complete that less than a century later, it was a crime to go to sea in a multimasted ship. In When
China Ruled the Seas, Louise Levathes takes a fascinating and unprecedented look at this dynamic period…


Book cover of Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World

Mark Koyama Author Of How the World Became Rich: The Historical Origins of Economic Growth

From my list on politics and economics in preindustrial societies.

Why am I passionate about this?

I've always been fascinated with history. The study of economic history allows me to combine my passion for understanding the past with a rigorous and systematic set of analytical tools. In my own work I'm interested in understanding the economic, political, and institutional transformations that have created the modern world. The books I've selected here help us better understand quite how different the past and they have proven to be invaluable to me as inspirations. 

Mark's book list on politics and economics in preindustrial societies

Mark Koyama Why did Mark love this book?

Patricia Crone was an expert on the history of early Islam and attracted a lot of controversy for her views on Mecca and Mohamad. Pre-Industrial Societies is a brief, readable portrait of how preindustrial societies functioned. It isn't based on primary sources or archival evidence; there are no footnotes or endnotes, and the referencing is light; really it is a textbook. 

What makes it valuable is that unlike many historians, Crone isn't afraid to generalize and to draw on the ideas of social scientists. She packs in an amazing amount of analyze into a very short book and roams across entirety of world history.

If I could only recommend one book to students interested in how societies functioned in the past, it might be this book! 

By Patricia Crone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pre-Industrial Societies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Eminent historian Patricia Crone defines the common features of a wide range of pre-industrial societies, from locations as seemingly disparate as the Mongol Empire and pre-Columbian America, to cultures as diverse as the Ming Dynasty and seventeenth-century France. In a lucid exploration of the characteristics shared by these societies, the author examines such key elements as economic organization, politics, culture, and the role of religion. An essential introductory text for all students of history, Pre-Industrial Societies provides readers with all the necessary tools for gaining a substantial understanding of life in pre-modern times. In addition, as a perceptive insight into…