Books about China

The easiest way to gain understanding of China, its history, its culture, and events that still reverberate in China today is to read about China. When reading Chinese is difficult, students can read books written in English. 

April recommends the following books, which are well informed, well written, and easy to read.

A Short History of China: From Ancient Dynasties to Economic Powerhouse

(By Gordon Kerr)

It is a super short read. Within 150 pages, this book provides a quick and absorbing introduction to more than 4000 years of history, covering stories of famous emperors, artists, philosophers and so on, and describing the amazing technological advances China have had. 

This book also captures well the turbulent times, wars, famines, rebellions, movements and aspirations Chinese people have experienced throughout the history. 

Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy

(By Bryan W. Van Norden)

This book presents a nice and comprehensive introduction to ancient Chinese thoughts, which have been at the core of Chinese civilisation throughout millenniums. 

After setting up a proper context and historical background, this book explains the essential ideas, key terminologies, and some cool stories of Confucius (孔子), Mozi (墨子), Yang Zhu (杨朱), Mencius (孟子), Laozi (老子), Zhuangzi (庄子), Xunzi (荀子) and Han Feizi (韩非子), detailing their similarities and differences.

Written clearly as a textbook for fresh undergraduate students, this book includes constant comparisons between these Chinese thoughts and western thinkings, and these comparisons make these indigenousChinese philosophies easy to comprehend for people who are familiar with the western practices.

The Search for Modern China

(By Jonathan Spence)

For anyone who is curious to know the conflicts that China and the West have had dating back to the Qing Dynasty and China’s internal struggles over the past few centuries, this is the book to start. It provides a good account of major characters and events starting around 1600, and sheds light on the current issues and problems China is facing.

The stories Spence narrated are multi-faceted, not only covering what the West’s point of views but also what the Chinese was experiencing. The only drawback of the book is that it does not have much information in terms of individual small people’s lives and their personal life stories. But with already more than 700 pages to read, we will content us with the big pictures Spence painted.

Red Star Over China

(By Edgar Snow)

This book is often credited as being the first one to present the West a detailed account of Mao Zedong. But this is not the reason why it is recommended here. 

A remarkable achievement of this book is its descriptions of all kinds of people, both the famous ones and the insignificant ones who left a record in the history by pure chance. It is fascinating to read Snow’s personal experience of what it was like in the blockaded Red area during the 1930s. He gave a detailed account of the political climate and the complicated relationship of the various parities of the time. Also, Snow showed us a good example of searching for the truth and answers when fake news were permeated.  

The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History

(By Robert Finlay)

Evolved around Chinese porcelain’s production, distribution, and consumption, this book explores, in great details, the history of China, India, the Islamic world, Europe, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and East Africa. Meticulously researched facts and quotes inform us fascinating stories of technology, trade and art. 

Not only will reader learn so much about porcelain, about the rise and fall of Chinese porcelain across the globe in particular, but also commodity history, cultural history, political history and literary history, associated with desire, artistic symbols, styles, espionage, competitions and power. 

Rich with materials, this book helps us understand Chinese porcelain and its cultural role in the world history as complete, and as comprehensive, as possible.

Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West

(By Beatrice Hohenegger)

“Tea is not only the most consumed beverage on the face of the Earth; aside from water, it is also one of the oldest known to humankind.” This is where tea stands today, and this is how we understand tea.

The first part of the book is devoted to telling stories about the origins of tea in China and how it was accepted in Japan. The second part of the book tells us stories of how tea was welcomed enthusiastically in the West, and the social changes tea created in the society. The rest of the book tells us some interesting facts about the tea.

This book touches a wide-ranging topics, such as tea plantation, opium wars, and the invention of tea bags. It’s a nice read to understand tea as an ancient discovery in China and the most popular drink in the world.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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