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Books about famous foreigners in China

Read about well known foreigners in China, who have had a huge influence on the course of Chinese development in various areas. For students who are learning Chinese, reading about these people is a wonderful way to understand China and Chinese in depth. 

Matteo Ricci: A Jesuit in the Ming Court

(By Michela Fontana)

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), known in China for his Chinese name 利玛窦, was a Jesuit missionary who spent thirty years in China during the Ming Dynasty. He was accepted as a learned sage from the West by Chinese literati. He demonstrated his perfect understanding of Confucian classics and impressed everyone with his splendid mechanic clocks and his maps of the world. His teaching of western science was recognised as important cultural exchanges between China and the West. 

The way he treated his work as a missionary was extraordinary. Worked with vision and patience, he converted many Chinese people, obtained the protection from the emperor, and established a strong religious foothold on imperial China.

This is a wonderful book to read, inviting readers to be more open minded and to learn. Using an elegant narrative rhythm, Fontana presented Ricci’s rich and adventurous life in great details and supplemented necessary scientific background informations whenever necessary.

Ireland’s Imperial Mandarin: How Sir Robert Hart Became the Most Influential Foreigner in Qing China

(By Mark O’Neill)

Since British’s victory in the Opium War of 1940, it became the principal invader of Qing China. This paved ways for Sir Robert Hart, a British citizen who was born in a market town in Ireland, to become the highest ranking foreigner serving the Qing government from 1863 to 1911. He established customs houses and post offices in the country, and got involved in many diplomatic missions. He collected millions of taels of silver for the Qing government when the entire country suffered wide spread poverty. Hart enjoyed special honours and privileges provided by the Qing court, and also received a baronetcy in his home country for what he achieved during his time in the Qing court.

Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911) was a complicated character living in a complicated time. This book captures well all the different threads, work and family, and presents readers with balanced and sometimes contradictory views from various sides. The only thing that was certain was Hart’s excellent Chinese skills.

The Man Who Loved China

(By Simon Winchester)

This fascinating book is about the life of a brilliant and eccentric British biochemist, Joseph Needham, his love affairs, beliefs, researches, adventures, and his love for China. 

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) started learning Chinese when he was nearly 40 years old. As a renowned scientist, little did he know that learning Chinese changed direction of his life. Neither a specialist on China nor a historian by training, he produced his majestic Science and Civilisation in China, describing the country’s long and astonishing history of invention and technology. Moreover, his connections helped rebuild Chinese scientific community from the wars and he probably contributed to the fact that bicycles were used as a major transportation tools in China for decades. 

Needham’s Chinese learning experience was remarkable. He worked hard, and considered learning Chinese a liberation, like going for a swim on a hot day, and made him “almost delirious with happiness”.

Conversations with I. M. Pei: Light is the Key

(By Gero von Boehm)

I. M. Pei (贝聿铭) is a household name in China for his iconic design of the Bank of China in Hong Kong, a magnificent building appeared in countless postcards and photos. 

This book, in a form of several conversations, gives us an intimate feeling of sitting next to two good friends who are having some pleasant chats, which constantly send out magnificent sparks and bring us profound insights. 

At the time of these conversations (the Foreword was written in 2000) , Pei was already an old man and had had a long and extraordinary career. Drawing from his past experiences, he talked about his childhood in China, his university days in the US, his cultural roots, and his methods of approaching work. What Pei offered in these pages really goes beyond architecture. 

I. M. Pei was born in 1917, and died in 2019.

Bruce Lee

(By Simon Kenny)

As possibly the most influential martial artist ever, Bruce Lee has been cherished by Chinese people for decades. Although he was technically a citizen of the USA, millions of Chinese regard him as a Chinese icon. 

Bruce Lee (1940-1973) changed the martial art films forever. As an ethic Chinese, he punctured a hole in the highly discriminatory American society. His teaching on martial arts and his philosophy of life have inspired countless people. Since his death, there had been many copy cats and also lots of materials about him. Kenny’s book makes it quick and easy for readers to get a glimpse of this legendary figure, his life and his achievements.