The best books on the Qing dynasty

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the Qing dynasty and why they recommend each book.

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The Culture of War in China

By Joanna Waley-Cohen,

Book cover of The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military under the Qing Dynasty

This is a series of six essays that present a “new Qing history” approach to 17th and 18th century Chinese military history, specifically the culture involved in the military campaigns from 1636 to 1799.  Waley-Cohen not only presents a more positive view of the Qing’s Manchu rulers, but also the centrality of military activities and culture to Chinese culture.  The Qing government enthusiastically promoted its martial accomplishments, and martial culture was in turn reflected in visual culture, religion, and popular culture.


Who am I?

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.


I wrote...

The Reunification of China: Peace through War under the Song Dynasty

By Peter A. Lorge,

Book cover of The Reunification of China: Peace through War under the Song Dynasty

What is my book about?

The Song dynasty (960–1279) has been characterized by its pre-eminent civil culture and military weakness. This groundbreaking work demonstrates that the civil dominance of the eleventh century was the product of a half-century of continuous warfare and ruthless political infighting. The spectacular culture of the eleventh century, one of the high points in Chinese history, was built on the bloody foundation of the conquests of the tenth century. Peter Lorge examines how, rather than a planned and inevitable reunification of the Chinese empire, the foundation of the Song was an uncertain undertaking, dependent upon highly contingent battles, both military and political, whose outcome was always in doubt. The Song dynasty's successful waging of war led ultimately to peace.

The Cambridge History of China

By John K. Fairbank,

Book cover of The Cambridge History of China: Volume 10, Late Ch'ing 1800–1911, Part 1

The Qing dynasty is covered in both volumes 10 and 11 of this wonderful series. Volume 10 contains essays that earlier in my career I would always go back to—not for the riveting prose but for the solid information. John K. Fairbank (1907-1991), the father of U.S. Sinology and longtime professor at Harvard University, invited the finest Sinologists to contribute to these volumes. Pick and choose from among the excellent chapters including: Joseph Fletcher (Inner Asia and Sino-Russian relations), John K. Fairbank (the treaty port system), Philip A. Kuhn (the Taiping Rebellion) in volume 10; and Immanuel C. Y. Hsu (foreign relations), Marius Jansen (Japan and the 1911 Revolution) in volume 11. Beware that the two volumes are very much scholarly works—in both the positive and negative meanings of the word, scholarly.


Who am I?

Growing up during the Cold War, I wondered how the United States and the Soviet Union became locked into an existential struggle that threatened to vaporize the planet. So, I studied Russian, Chinese, and Japanese (along with French, Spanish, and German) to learn more. At issue was the global order and the outcome of this struggle depended on the balance of power—not only military power that consumed Soviet attention but also economic power and standards of living that Western voters emphasized. Yet it was Japan that had the workable development model as proven by the Four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan) during the 1960s to 1990s.


I wrote...

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy

By S.C.M. Paine,

Book cover of The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy

What is my book about?

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 reversed the Asian balance of power, yielding the unprecedented outcome of Japan not China on top, an outcome China has been striving to reverse ever since. Although this war, not the Opium Wars, constitutes the divide between China’s traditional and modern eras, it remains virtually ignored in Western literature. Not so in the East, where this reversal in the traditional power balance fractured the previous international harmony within the Confucian world and left an aftershock of enduring territorial and political fault lines that continue to embroil China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Taiwan.

As the tectonic plates shift back to China on top, it is worth understanding what happened during the last time of portentous seismic changes.

Making China Modern

By Klaus Mühlhahn,

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

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.


Who am I?

I have been working on China as a student, teacher, diplomat, business person, and academic since 1991. 
Currently, professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, my work involves trying to understand how the country’s deer and more recent history has created the remarkable country that we see today. I have written over 20 books on modern China, and lived there in total 5 and a half years. I have visited every single province and autonomous region, and have lectured on China in over 40 countries, across four continents.


I wrote...

China

By Kerry Brown,

Book cover of China

What is my book about?

China is poised to become the world’s largest economy in the next decade. But its great struggle to modernise has been one of tragedy, conflict, and challenge. From the first attempts to introduce Western ideas into the country two centuries ago, China’s long march to global primacy has been above all an epic fight to renew an ancient country and culture.

Sinologist Kerry Brown traces this quest for renewal through the major moments of China’s modern history. Taking the reader on a journey that includes war, revolution, famine, and finally regeneration, he describes concisely and authoritatively where China has come from, and where it is heading as it achieves great power status. This is a story that is no longer just about China, but concerns the rest of the world.

The White Lotus War

By Yingcong Dai,

Book cover of The White Lotus War: Rebellion and Suppression in Late Imperial China

Few include the White Lotus War in their discussion of nineteenth-century rebellions. Yet, in many ways, it provides the perfect starting point. Lasting over eight years, plowing a path of destruction across five central Chinese provinces, and emphatically marking the end to nearly a century of peace and commercial prosperity, the White Lotus War is an ominous harbinger of what was to follow. Chinese historian Yingcong Dai highlights the many disparate factors – from bureaucratic negligence and administrative apathy to the rise of secret societies and charismatic religious leaders – that transformed otherwise weakly connected local protests into a massive revolt that threatened to upend the Qing imperial state (1644-1911). As a specialist on Chinese warfare and imperial governance, the author pulls back the curtain on a rarely told tale that brings turn-of-the-18th-century China to life.


Who am I?

Just after graduating from college in 1989, I spent the year teaching in the city of Kunming – a “small” city of several million in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. In some ways, I have never left. My year there set me on a life-long trajectory of exploring some of China’s most remote corners from Tibet to Beijing. Intrigued by the way China’s borderlands reflected China’s diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural traditions, I eventually wrote my first book The Chinese Sultanate on the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1872). Today I teach at Penn State University seeking to share my experiences in China (and the world) with my students in the university classroom.


I wrote...

Sources in Chinese History: Diverse Perspectives from 1644 to the Present

By David G. Atwill, Yurong Y. Atwill,

Book cover of Sources in Chinese History: Diverse Perspectives from 1644 to the Present

What is my book about?

Sources in Chinese History serves as an introduction to a sweeping array of key events, personages, and policies from the founding of China’s last dynasty in 1644 to the present. Now in its second edition, each chapter opens with an annotated visual source followed by a historical snapshot of a key event from that period. By highlighting social and cultural dimensions of China’s past, the sourcebook challenges the reader to consider the shifting perspectives, economic challenges, and political ideologies of each era. Special attention has been made to incorporate non-traditional documents, such as film scripts, private correspondence, and political cartoons.

From the founding of China’s last dynasty to Xi Jinping’s leadership today, this book suits those seeking more information about a specific person or era, as well as those looking for a more thorough introduction to China’s recent or more distant past.

The Deer and The Cauldron

By Louis Cha, John Minford (translator),

Book cover of The Deer and The Cauldron: The First Book

There is an argument to be made that Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) is modern China’s version of William Shakespeare. From Cha’s unimaginably rich and bottomless imagination come unforgettable stories and characters that have had a huge impact on not only contemporary China but the rest of the world. Writing in the category of wuxia (martial arts fiction) he sold 100 million copies of his books, making him China’s most famous author. Countless films and TV shows have been based on his stories, that typically portray the under classes struggling against overlords. One of my favorite memories of travels in China was sitting at the tea house inside Hong Kong’s Peninsula hotel and spending the day reading this book and munching on dim sum. If I’d stepped out and been hit by a bus, I would have died a happy monk.


Who am I?

I was born to privilege in Manhattan. A seeker from the get-go, I perpetually yearned to see below the surface of the pond and understand what lay beneath and how the world really works. Not connecting with Western philosophy, religion, or culture, I turned to the wisdom of the East at a young age. I stayed the course through decades of training in Chinese martial arts, eventually reached some understanding of them, and realized my spiritual ambitions when I was ordained a Daoist monk in China in an official government ceremony. I write about China then and now and teach meditation and tai chi around the world. 


I wrote...

The Monk of Park Avenue: A Modern Daoist Odyssey

By Yun Rou,

Book cover of The Monk of Park Avenue: A Modern Daoist Odyssey

What is my book about?

A literary memoir like no other, Monk of Park Avenue recounts novelist and martial master Monk Yon Rou’s spiritual journey of self-discovery. Learn from Yon Rou as he tackles tragedy and redemption on an unforgettable soul-searching odyssey.

A spiritual journey with extraordinary encounters. Yon Rou’s memoir is a kaleidoscopic ride through the upper echelons of New York Society and the nature-worshipping, sword-wielding world of East Asian religious and martial arts. Monk of Park Avenue divulges a privileged childhood in Manhattan, followed by the bitter rigors of kung fu in China and meditations in Daoist temples. Join Yon Rou’s adventure as he encounters kings, Nobel laureates, and the Mob. Witness this martial master’s incarceration in a high-mountain Ecuadorian hellhole and fight for survival in Paraguay’s brutal thorn jungle.

My Several Worlds

By Pearl S. Bucks,

Book cover of My Several Worlds

Pearl S. Bucks was the first American woman who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was brought to China by her missionary parents when she was an infant. She continued to spend much of the first half of her life in China from 1892 to 1934. This autobiography covers her growing up in China and returning to the U.S. Good-hearted and open-minded, she was the very few foreigners who had intimate access to ordinary Chinese people's lives and souls, which remain mysterious to most outsiders to this day. As a sharp-eyed observer and skillful writer, she gave an extraordinary account of the major events such as the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Boxer Rebellion, and the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. The missionary work brought her to China in the first place, but in the end, she admitted failure in bringing God to China. Pearl…


Who am I?

Anna Wang was born and raised in Beijing, China, and immigrated to Canada in her 40s. She received her BA from Beijing University and is a full-time bilingual writer. She has published ten books in Chinese. These include two short story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and two translations. Her first book in English, a 2019 memoir, Inconvenient Memories, recounts her experience and observation of the Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989 from the perspective of a member of the emerging middle-class. The book won an Independent Press Award in the "Cultural and Social Issues" category in 2020. She writes extensively about China. Her articles appeared in Newsweek, Vancouver Sun, Ms. Magazine, LA Review of Books China Channel, Ricepaper Magazine, whatsonweibo.com, etc.


I wrote...

Inconvenient Memories: A Personal Account of the Tiananmen Square Incident and the China Before and After

By Anna Wang,

Book cover of Inconvenient Memories: A Personal Account of the Tiananmen Square Incident and the China Before and After

What is my book about?

Oh, no, another book about the Tiananmen Incident? Inconvenient Memories is a rare and truthful memoir of a young woman's coming of age amid the Tiananmen Square Protests. In 1989, Anna Wang was one of the lucky few who worked for a Japanese company, Canon. She traveled each day between her grandmother's dilapidated commune-style apartment and an extravagant office just steps from Tiananmen Square. Her daily commute on Beijing's impossibly crowded buses brought into view the full spectrum of China's inequalities during the economic transition. When Tiananmen Protests broke out, her Japanese boss was concerned whether the protests would obstruct Canon's assembly plant in China, and she was sent to Tiananmen Square on a daily basis to take photos for her boss to analyze for evidence of turning tides. From her perspective as a member of the emerging middle class, she observed firsthand that Tiananmen Protests stemmed from Chinese people's longing for political freedom and their fear for the nascent market economy, an observation that readers have never come across from the various accounts of the historical events so far.

The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

By Bangqing Han,

Book cover of The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

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.

Who am I?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for what would become a two-year backpacking sojourn across all 33 Chinese provinces, the first foreigner on record to do so. Since then, I have published three books about China; my anthology Unsavory Elements was intended as a well-meaning tribute to the expatriate experience, however my own essay – a bawdy account of a visit to a rural brothel – was understandably demonized. The following five books expand on that illicit theme.


I edited...

Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China

By Tom Carter (editor),

Book cover of Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China

What is my book about?

Unsavory Elements is an unprecedented anthology of 28 original, true stories from some of the most celebrated foreign authors who have lived in modern China. Edited by Tom Carter, whose unfortunate contribution – a ribald tale of a boys’ night out to a house of ill repute – blights this critically acclaimed rogues gallery of Western expat writers. Unsavory Elements falls under the genre of travel writing, yet travel is just the beginning of the adventure here.

Empress Orchid

By Anchee Min,

Book cover of Empress Orchid

Empress Wu, the protagonist of my historical duology The Empress of Bright Moon, was often mistaken for the Empress Cixi in this novel, which often prompted me to explain that Empress Wu lived in the seventh century and she was the only female who ruled China in her name. But Empress Cixi, perhaps, was the only equivalent to her, as Cixi wielded great power and ruled the country from behind a thick, embroidered curtain in the late nineteenth century. Well-researched, the novel chronicled the rise of a cunning concubine, a woman of the reigning ethnic group over the Han people, and offered a rare insight into the journey of the indomitable woman and China at the end of the nineteenth century. 


Who am I?

I was born and raised in China; at twenty-four, I immigrated to the US and switched to English, my second language, to write historical fiction featuring Chinese women. I published The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, a historical novel series about Empress Wu, the first and only female ruler in China, in 2016. The Moon in the Palace won the RWA RITA Award, and the series has been translated into seven languages. I love writing novels with rich historical details, compelling descriptions of culture, and strong but flawed Chinese women who are not afraid to defy tradition to pursue their dreams.


I wrote...

The Last Rose of Shanghai

By Weina Dai Randel,

Book cover of The Last Rose of Shanghai

What is my book about?

The novel, set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during WWII, tells an impossible love story between a wealthy Chinese woman, Aiyi Shao, and a penniless German Jew who fled to Shanghai from Nazi Germany, Ernest Reismann. When Aiyi, a woman from a well-bred family in Shanghai, hired Ernest to play the piano in her nightclub, the two forge an unbreakable bond that transcends race, class, and war. The novel reveals a little-known segment of history, the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, and the resilience of both Chinese and Jewish people during WWII.

The Rebellion Engines

By Jeannie Lin,

Book cover of The Rebellion Engines

This is about a mathematics prodigy in a steampunk version of 19th century China, who wants to study at the Imperial Academy in Peking….except that she’s a young woman and not allowed to enroll in the all-male academy. Needless to say, this does not stop Anlei, who disguises herself as a man, scores top marks on the exam, and falls in love with one of her fellow students at the same time. Brilliantly lush writing, inventive world-building, and a mathematical romance to make my nerdy heart sing.


Who am I?

It is a truth almost universally accepted that historically women had no way to support themselves except marriage…but it’s not true! I’m all-in on Happily-Ever-After, of course, but I absolutely love it when a heroine is smart, sensible, and able to support herself on her own. When she falls for someone, it’s got to be for real because she’s not afraid to take charge of her own life and make her own way, despite whatever obstacles are thrown at her. 


I wrote...

About a Rogue: Desperately Seeking Duke

By Caroline Linden,

Book cover of About a Rogue: Desperately Seeking Duke

What is my book about?

Bianca Tate stands to inherit her family’s thriving pottery business, and she fully expects to keep running, too, without any man’s interference or help—until a penniless rogue turns up and starts charming his way into her company, her family, and her heart.

Manchus and Han

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

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.


Who am I?

Like many Americans of my generation (boomer) who became China scholars, I witnessed the civil rights and anti-war struggles and concluded that we in the West could learn from the insights of Eastern thought and even Chinese Communism. I ended up specializing in modern political thought—I think of this field as the land of “isms”—nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and the like. I have lived in China and Japan, and spent twelve years as a historical researcher in Taiwan before returning to America to teach at the University of Connecticut. Today, I would not say China has the answers, but I still believe that the two most important world powers have a lot to learn from each other.


I wrote...

After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

By Peter Zarrow,

Book cover of After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

What is my book about?

By the turn of the twentieth century, China was undergoing acute political, social, and cultural change. So, question: how did the Chinese people stop believing in an emperor who claimed the Mandate of Heaven and decide to replace the empire with a republic? After years of looking at individual thinkers, activists, writers, and political movements, I tried to put the story together, with all its ups and downs, from the first glimpses of a political community that would function without a sacred leader to the final ignominious expulsion of the emperor from the Forbidden City a full twelve years after the founding of the Republic. Also important to me: the story of the rejection of kings is not limited to China. 

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