Books about China
Page 1 (books 1 to 20)
These pages contain my reviews of books about China that have all been read when researching the information on this web site.
Note: many of the links to the books will earn us a small commission from Amazon if you decide to buy the book as we operate as an Amazon Associate.
100 Buddhist Parables, Zhang Qingnian, 1995203 pages. ISBN 7-5001-0240-2 Details/purchase ➚
Because Buddhism is such an important religion in China it is vital to know the key Buddhist beliefs and attitudes to life. This book is collection of old parables - short stories with a moral and philosophic underpinning.
1421: The year China discovered the World, Bantam, 2002520 pages. ISBN 0-593-05078-9 Details/purchase ➚
This is an exciting and interesting read. It does not tell you much of Chinese culture as it is mainly concerned with the sea voyages. Gavin Menzies' background was as a naval officer and so his chief interest is in working out the likely course of Zheng He's historic voyages. His theory that he sailed as far as America is a matter of debate, he bases this on finding Chinese artifacts in various locations, but it is quite possible these got there through trade via intermediaries and do not directly imply a visit by the Chinese navy. It's a fascinating tale.
1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, Gavin Menzies, Harper Collins, 2008368 pages. ISBN 978-0061492181 Details/purchase ➚
A very disappointing book. There are very few pages are about China, the rest could have been copied from Wikipedia/tourist guides. The false suppositions that were interesting in his '1421' book are laughable here. He chooses to ignore all historians if he can find one maverick that supports his case. The lack of serious study and supporting material is depressing. Yes, there was knowledge of Chinese inventions that came to Europe at this time, but not from Zheng He and independent discovery of the same idea is the most likely explanation of 'coincidences'. It can only be recommended as an example of how not to write a history book.
60 Scenic Wonders in China, New World Press, 1980238 pages. ASIN B000OFXXX2 Details/purchase ➚
A little travel book written by the Chinese for foreign tourists in 1980. It covers all the main historic tourist attractions in China. Reflecting views at the time it is rather hostile to the imperial past. It has some interesting folklore tales that are not recorded in the Western travel guides.
A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, Eberhard, Routledge, 1983332 pages. ISBN 0-415-00228-1 Details/purchase ➚
This dictionary is organized as an A-Z of all concepts used in Chinese art from Amber to Zodiac. There are many small black and white illustrations. It uses the old traditional characters in the names. There are useful cross-references to related topics but there is no index or list so it is not easy to work out whether something is covered or not and which word is used to refer to the concept. The list is pretty comprehensive and much of the material is hard to find elsewhere.
A Map History of Modern China, Catchpole, Heinemann, 1976145 pages. ISBN 0-435-31095-X Details/purchase ➚
A series of interesting and unique maps that illustrate Chinese history in an admirably direct fashion. Most of the book covers the modern history from 1850 and ends 1975 with little on the earlier dynastic history. There are details of campaigns that are not covered elsewhere. It does, however, look rather dated now.
An Introduction to Feng Shui, Ole Bruun, Cambridge University Press, 2008210 pages. ISBN 978-0521682176 Details/purchase ➚
A very useful reference for Feng Shui. It covers the history, beliefs and development well. It is written by an adherent so there is a little bias in the treatment of the subject. Covers the adaption when the system became a fad in the West as well as more recent adoption back in mainland China.
Away with all pests, Joshua Horn, Modern Reader, 1969192 pages. ISBN 0-85345-199-0 Details/purchase ➚
Joshua Horn was a British surgeon who followed in the eminent footsteps of Norman Bethune. He witnessed the revolution in medical care under the new Communist government 1954-69 when Western medicine was enthusiastic embraced. He was impressed by the dedication of the newly trained medics in difficult circumstances. It has many personal recollections of contact with the Chinese.
Bomb Book and Compass, Simon Winchester, Penguin, 2009317 pages. ISBN 978-0-141-01158-5 Details/purchase ➚
Simon Winchester has the habit of sensationalizing his subject. This is certainly an exciting and interesting adventure story rather than a standard biography. Joseph Needham was an extra-ordinary man, who I had myself the privilege of meeting, the foremost sinologist of his day. There is a more balanced biography available produced by UNESCO.
Buddhism made Plain, Antony Fernando and Leonard Swidler, Orbis Books, 1985138 pages. ISBN 978-0883441985 Details/purchase ➚
A concise and clear description of the basic theology of Buddhism. This book avoids all discussion of the rituals associated with Buddhism and concentrates on the teaching of Guatama (the Buddha) with comparisons to Judaism and Christianity. It makes plain that Buddhism has no clear concept of God, concerning itself with relieving suffering by contemplation. Reincarnation, for instance, is not a part of the original teachings.
Cantonese Chinese: Phrase book and dictionary, Berlitz, 2003223 pages. ISBN 978-981-246-324-1 Details/purchase ➚
There are many guides to Mandarin Chinese but relatively few for Cantonese despite there being 70 million speakers in southern China. This is a traveler's phrasebook arranged by area (food, shopping, travel etc.). Characters are included too which is useful when translating to Mandarin.
Cat Country, Lao She, Penguin Modern Classics, 1932218 pages. ISBN 978-0143208129 Details/purchase ➚
This is an extra-ordinay book. It is a heavy satire on China at the end of the Qing dynasty (c. 1912) and was written by a leading republican writer seeking to point out the abject weaknesses of China. If written by a non-Chinese this would be considered racist as there is very little that Lao She has to say that is positive about his own people. It is set on Mars when the narrator (a foreigner) encounters a Chinese society in its death throes from opium addiction. The satire is too dark and direct and lacks a lighter side to counteract the bleakness. The book is fascinating as a rare insight of what reformers thought about their own situation.
Changing China, Michael Shapiro, Camelot Press, 1958182 pages. ASIN: ?B001KK5TM8 Details/purchase ➚
This unique book was written in 1958 and covers the first nine years of the Peoples Republic. It gives a glowing portrait of the early reforms (land reform and industry) that stabilized the country and laid much of the groundwork for further development. The 1950s was a time when access to China was limited and this is an important book marking China's transition.
China : A New History, Fairbank and Goldman, Harvard University Press, 2002546 pages. ISBN 0-674-11673-9 Details/purchase ➚
An excellent modern survey of Chinese history. A condensed undergraduate course in one book. Because it is so condensed there is little time to study events in detail, it is really a 'tertiary' reference book - it summarizes the finding of other books rather than referring to primary documents. The lack of references to primary sources is a bit of a weakness - there is no way of tracing a statement directly to its source. It concentrates more space on modern history - post 1911 - rather than dynastic history which seems fair enough. The weakest chapters are on post Deng Xiaoping's time in office when it seems to ramble. Another slight niggle is that the retelling of the People's Republic rather belittles the achievements in the early days.
China : A short cultural history, C.P. Fitzgerald, The Cresset Press, 1950619 pages. ISBN 0-978-0091687519 Details/purchase ➚
In spite of its age (first published 1935) this remains a classic treatment of all Chinese history up to 1850. It is a readable and thought provoking work bringing together immense scholarship and delightful writing style. Apart from its age, its chief drawback is the lack of source references, there is no bibliography and the index is too short. He remains broadly positive about Chinese achievements over centuries with many facts that are not reported elsewhere.
China : Eyewitness Travel, Dorling Kindersley, 2012672 pages. ISBN 978-1-4053-6890-2 Details/purchase ➚
If I could only take one book to China with me this would be it. Copiously and richly illustrated it offers not only a comprehensive travel guide but also a huge amount on traditions and culture. This is a book that has been put together by people who know how to present information clearly and succinctly. It is arranged by region within China and covers virtually everywhere worth visiting. My only concern is that the days of a beautiful but heavy travel guide may not survive the days of smartphones with similar information available at your fingertips.
China A to Z, Kai Strittmatter, Haus Publishing, 2006316 pages. ISBN 978-1905791316 Details/purchase ➚
A book with A-Z in the title might be expected to be ordered alphabetically, it is not, it does not even have an index or table of contents. So it has to be read cover-to-cover and can not be classed as reference guide. It is organised as a set of 'topics' under a particular Chinese phrase. It accurately describes modern China from an ordinary person's perspective and is useful as a guide to modern Chinese views and values. I found the tone generally a bit negative about Chinese people - they are portrayed as rather shallow and selfish. There is a certain degree of repetition but the lack of an index makes it fairly useless as a guide.
China A to Z, May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai, Plume, 2007292 pages. ISBN 978-0142180846 Details/purchase ➚
A good coverage of many different aspects of China. The style is of a reference guide but it lacks references to back up the facts. The mixture of geography, biography, history and culture makes it a bit hard to dip it into. It has the advantage of being written by people who are Chinese and so know the traditions and customs that a Westerner would overlook. There is quite a little repetition and it could do with cross references to skip between related entries. It has a limited section on further reading rather than full references.
China and the West, Jerome Chen, Hutchinson, 1979488 pages. ISBN 978-0091382117 Details/purchase ➚
This monumental work of scholarship covers the relationship of China and Western civilizations in the tumultuous period 1815-1937. His painstakingly thorough analysis looks at the relationship from all angles: stereotypes, theology, industry, education, law, politics and philosophy. The amount of factual detail is impressive and must reflect a life-time's study of this fascinating subject. It is split into two parts: describing the situation and then how China responded to the new challenges. The downside is that his writing style is so factual that it is a hard and slow read and perhaps more importantly there is only a recomended reading section rather than an extensive list of references. Another drawback is the use of Wade-Giles rather than Pinyin.
China Culture Smart!, Kathy Flower, Kuperard, 2010168 pages. ISBN 978-1857335026 Details/purchase ➚
Part of a series covering all countries that aims to quickly give a flavor of a country. This small book is too brief to serve as a full culture guide or reference. Unfortunately it has a number of errors, particularly in the pinyin phrases that make it an unsafe guide. Written in an entertaining style it does bring out the key cultural differences and would be useful for a brief business visit.
Key to symbols used in the book descriptions
Note: More up-to-date editions of these books may well exist.
Many books cover more than one topic, these icons reflect all topics it may touch on.