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Books about famous Chinese people

Read about well known Chinese people who have had huge influences, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, on Chinese society politically, culturally, and economically. During the long course of Chinese history, such people are countless. 

For students who can not read Chinese yet, they are recommended to read about these people in their own languages. Students can get tremendous insights into the intricate details about China, and accumulate essential cultural knowledge. 

The following books are written in English and are highly recommended by April. They are easy to read, well balanced and well informed. 

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

(By Ezra F. Vogel)

Deng Xiaoping (邓小平, 1904 - 1997) is believed to have transformed China, single handedly, to become an economic powerhouse. And his life is not without controversies.

First of all, this book gives a comprehensive narration about Deng Xiaoping’s life within a broad context of world political and economical developments. Secondly, this book presents multi-dimensional accounts and in-depth analyses on many sensitive events and issues, such as the Cultural Revolution, and Mao Zedong’s cult of personality.

In particular, this book describes in detail the events leading to the eventual crackdown in Beijing in 1989. Published in 2011, more than twenty years after the Movement, this book is able to assess what had happened, what options there were, and discuss the far-reaching consequences.

Mao Zedong

(By Jonathan Spence)

Very few people have not heard about Mao Zedong (毛泽东, 1893 - 1976). He has stimulated tons of interests in the world, and his ideas and thoughts have reached far away places and have inspired many people to take actions. 

If anyone wants to know a rough sketch of Mao’s life and his impact, the major events, the ups and downs, and some insightful accounts and analysis, this is the book to read. 

Starting from Mao Zedong’s humble origins, we are informed of how he rose to the absolute power. We will also have an idea of what China was like at the time, a vast country torn apart by years of wars and colonialism, followed by devastating political movements.

The True Story of Lu Xun

(By David E. Pollard)

Lu Xun (鲁迅, 1881 - 1936) had produced genuinely the best short stories in modern China. For those who are interested in connecting with Lu Xun’s world, this is a good book to start. 

This book is a full-life biography of Lu Xun, presenting the facts of his life objectively and with balance. In this book, readers are able to meet Lu Xun who was talented, determined, devoted and, the most of all, a credible human being. 

As Lu Xun’s life spanned the transition from the end of Qing Dynasty to the Republic, this book is also a detailed account of China’s progress, which many readers may not be familiar with. Therefore, when necessary, as a well-informed scholar, Pollard offers his intelligent interpretations to help readers along.

Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China

(By Thomas R. Martin)

It’s a great way to read about the first great historian of the East, Sima Qian (司马迁, CA.145—CA.86 BCE), with a connection to the first great historian of the West, Herodotus. We’ll get a good idea about who Sima Qian was and why he wrote.

Also, this book included some selections of Sima Qian’s monumental work Shiji (史记), and these selections are a marvellous source for us to read a few more famous Chinese people. They are:

  • The first emperor of China: Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇)
  • The first powerful empress of China: Empress Lü (吕后)
  • Famous war strategists: Sun Wu (孙武) and Sun Bin (孙膑)
  • An imperial assassin: Jing Ke (荆轲)

Reading about these people is definitely the extra benefit coming with the book.