Books about China
Page 6 (books 101 to 120)
The Collision of Two Civilizations, Alain Peyrefitte, Harvill, 1993630 pages. ISBN 978-0002726771 Details/purchase ➚
This epic book of over 600 pages covers just five months of Anglo-Chinese history. It recounts the embassy send by the English East India Company to China in 1793. It gathers the personal accounts of many of the key members of Lord Macartney's embassy together with the Chinese Imperial correspondence. The level of detail is probably too much for an average reader but the translation from French is excellent. As the book title suggests it was a 'collision' rather than a friendly chat about trade relations. The lessons of this infamous encounter are still to be fully learned.
The Complete I Ching, Alfred Huang, Inner Traditions, 2004539 pages. ISBN 978-1594773860 Details/purchase ➚
There are many books to choose from that describe the Yi Jing (I Ching). Huang has written a modern (1998) translation that reads well. He has taken great trouble to understand the true meaning of the guas (hexagrams) and introduces some thought provoking new ideas on interpretation. He succeeds in giving a 'complete' treatment to the subject that is so rich in Chinese cultural traditions.
The Death Of Mao, James Palmer, Faber and Faber, 2012249 pages. ISBN 978-0571243990 Details/purchase ➚
A misleading title. I thought it would cover the events of 1976 in great detail. However it takes 70 pages to reach that year and then 100 pages describing everything after the event - so there is disappointingly little about the main events. The description of the Tangshan earthquake is well researched however much of the book is an unremitting diatribe against the PRC. Apparently nothing good was ever done and all the leaders were evil. Such a biased viewpoint smacks of a lack of understanding of modern China.
The Death of Woman Wang, Jonathan Spence, Penguin,1978169 pages. ISBN 0-14-005121-X Details/purchase ➚
This is one of Jonathan Spence's earlier works. It brings to life the ordinary people of Shandong in the mid seventeenth century. It is based on contemporary sources.
The Dragon Empress, Marina Warner, Hamish Hamilton, 1972247 pages. ASIN B0006C4SLO8 Details/purchase ➚
A scholarly and detailed biography of the famous Dowager Empress Cixi. It has an impressive list of references to back up the content. It gives a rather different interpretation to events to that of Jung Chang. She is seen as brutal, insecure and indecisive but battling against the odds. So to give balance you need to read Marina Warner's account to get to grips with this totemic figure.
The Emperor's River, Liam D'Arcy-Brown,Eye Books, 2010279 pages. ASIN B00ARGHN3E Details/purchase ➚
More a travelogue than a guide to the Grand Canal, this book documents a modern journey to try to follow the route from Hangzhou to Beijing. He meets many local characters who inject interest into this rather pedestrian book. A set of color illustrations would have greatly added to the enjoyment. The history of the Emperor's River (Grand Canal) is somewhat buried and fragmented. He finds out at first hand that much of the northern section is non-navigable, indeed its route is hard to trace, a fact that the authorities wish to cover up as it is held up as a major Chinese achievement.
The Empress Wu, C.P. Fitzgerald, Cresset Press, 1968263 pages. ISBN 978-0248997317 Details/purchase ➚
I was delighted to find this book in a local charity shop. Fitzgerald was a much admired historian of China in the period up to the 1960s. Here he looks in great detail at the life of the great and only Empress of China: Wu Zetian of the early Tang dynasty. Fitzgerald tried to disentangle the myths made up about her after her fall. Using Chinese records of the period Fitzgerald gives a full acount of the many intrigues and revolts at the Imperial court. Wu Zetian comes across as ruthless but shrewd and a much more able administrator than many Emperors. She welcomed and did not punish people with well reasoned arguments aginst her actions but anyone who appeared to lie or defraud faced swift punishment. The ordinary Chinese people do not get much of a mention, but for them it would appear her long period in power was one of peace and prosperity.
The First Chinese Embassy to the West, J.D. Frodsham, Clarendon Press, 1974222 pages. ISBN 978-0198215554 Details/purchase ➚
There are many books about Westerner's first impressions of China from Marco Polo onwards. How many people have read of the Chinese first impressions of the West? This book has selected extracts from the contrasting diaries of three Chinese who formed the first Embassy to Britain in 1876. A very interesting study of cultural understanding and misunderstanding that ruined the promising career of Guo Songtao.
The First Emperor of China, Frances Wood, Profile Books, 2007209 pages. ISBN 978-1846680410 Details/purchase ➚
This book is disappointingly short, of the 200 pages, 40 pages are notes. It covers the First Qin Emperor as separate subject areas, with some needless repetition rather than in chronological order. It covers Confucius, the Great Wall, Burning of Books and the Terracotta Army. It lacks a consistent structure and background, the author tends to ramble, but ramble interestingly. There is very little on the actual history of the Qin unification. The last chapter on the Mao Era is poorly connected with the previous text, it has interesting perspectives on Confucius, the Cultural Revolution and Lin Biao but very little on the First Emperor himself.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Jonathan Spence, Penguin, 1982516 pages. ISBN 978-0140062793 Details/purchase ➚
Jonathan Spence always manages to write on interesting topics and never delivers just another 'standard' history. In this dense volume he covers the period 1895-1980 from the perspective of the reformers, writers and thinkers, with political events as the backdrop. Being a writer in this century was a hazardous profession, adulation was all too often followed by condemnation. The biographies of leading writers such as Kang Youwei, Lu Xun, Ding Ling and Lao She are set out in detail. The many ideas for China's future are explored as well as the changing attitudes to the past. Which approaches seem to win in this continuing struggle is an engaging topic for study.
The Genius of China, Robert Temple, Inner Traditions, 2007285 pages. ISBN 978-0233002026 Details/purchase ➚
A survey of the extra-ordinary range of Chinese inventions. Robert Temple presents a gorgeously illustrated survey of Joseph Needham's mammoth work on Chinese Science and Civilization. Nearly everything you can think of from plastic to matches and rudders to bridges were invented in China hundreds of years before anywhere else. I would love to give it a whole-hearted 10/10 but its weakness is that Robert Temple has not looked anywhere else other than Needham's work and his views on first usage are widely challenged by other scholars. Some claims are poorly supported and he always takes the view China was there first. Although China did invent many things most of them were not taken up and lost. The huge number and longevity of Chinese writings has distorted the study of inventions, many could well have come from elsewhere, they were simply never formally recorded there. However it is a very readable account of Chinese ingenuity in every field.
The Giant Panda, Ramona and Desmond Morris, Kogan Page, 1981179 pages. ISBN 978-0333324738 Details/purchase ➚
Covers all that was known about the Giant Panda when the book was written - initially in 1966. since then a lot more has been written. Interesting chapters on how foreign adventurers came to China to hunt the Panda first as a trophy and then as a zoo specimen. Very little in the book about China itself.
The Good Women of China, Xinran, Vintage, 2003230 pages. ISBN 978-0099440789 Details/purchase ➚
This book tells the often distressing fate of women in China. Xinran is a famous journalist who ran a popular confessional phone-in radio programme at Nanjing. Xinran followed this up by interviewing a number of these women. The author has a sympathetic, caring personality that allowed long held secrets to be unburdened. The main criticism of the book must be that some of the stories are now rather dated (some from pre-1949) and attitudes towards women have somewhat improved since those dark days.
The Great Wall, Man, Bantam, 2008411 pages. ISBN 0-978-0-553-81768-3 Details/purchase ➚
Quite by chance I found this book while I was about to write about China's Great Wall. The Great Wall is China's most iconic feature. John Man undertook a trek to trace it through the deserts and grasslands of northern China. Along the way he met with many helpful locals who add greatly to the enjoyment of the book. The history of the wall comes in short sections scattered throughout the book so it is more of a travelogue than a reference work. It documents modern China as much as the Great Wall.
The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution, Augustus Lindley, Cox and Wyman, 1866842 pages. ISBN 978-1481220446 Details/purchase ➚
Augustus Lindley went to China and fell in love with a Chinese woman and then became embroiled in the horrific Civil War in China. He backed the 'Christian' side - the Taipings and as they eventually lost the war, the Taiping point of view is rarely reported. We read of the 'good' side of the Taiping rebellion and very little of the confusion and megalomania that brought about its fall. For a Christian reader it challenges existing preconceptions of this great war.
The I Ching, James Legge, Clarendon Press, 1899448 pages. ISBN 978-0486210629 Details/purchase ➚
One of the earliest translations of Yi Jing into English (1899) so it reads as rather dated. Such an ancient and revered text is most difficult to render in another language, this is a commendable attempt. It should only really be used in conjunction with more modern translations.
The Illustrated Tao Te Ching, Man ho Kwok and Martin Palmer, Element,1993189 pages. ISBN 1-85230-322-0 Details/purchase ➚
The choice of a translation of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) is a very personal one. I like this modern translation with its sleek presentation and carefully chosen words. It seeks to capture the spirit of the text, not a character by character transliteration. Each chapter (or page) has the text in calligraphy on one page faced by the translation on the other. Each page has a different painting as background. It is a bit of a shame it uses Wade-Giles rather than Pinyin in places.
The last days of Old Beijing, Michael Meyer, Walker, 2008309 pages. ISBN 978-0802716521 Details/purchase ➚
In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 priority was given to 'tidying up' Beijing ready for visitors. A particular target was the old hutong districts regarded by many planners as slums ideal for redevelopment. The author lived in the hutongs as a volunteer English teacher at a local school. He describes the misuse of planning to evict people from the last few, old districts and the general disregard for preserving the past. The book includes chapters on history and planning process but it is the detailed description of the hutong residents that brings the book to life. It is a distressing tale of how rapid modern development has destroyed age-old communities. Essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the hutong districts and how Chinese planning system works.
The Last Emperor, Edward Behr, Futura, 1987335 pages. ISBN 978-0773680258 Details/purchase ➚
This is the book on which the major film 'The Last Emperor' was based. The life of Pu Yi gives keen insights into China in transition from Empire to People's Republic 1906-1967. This is a carefully researched work with personal interviews with key players who met Pu Yi. It underlines how chaotic life was at the time and the future of China was decided by many chance events.
The Lion and the Dragon, Aubrey Singer, Barrie and Jenkins, 1992192 pages. ASIN B01HC0M56M Details/purchase ➚
This is an account of the very important British embassy to the court of the Qing Emperor Qianlong. It is a readable compiled from the journals. Relatively little about the Chinese side of this adventure which was doomed from the start. The mutual mis-comprehension of European and Chinese values and cultures is evident throughout the visit. It offers an outsider's view of the Manchu elite with rather little about ordinary China and Chinese people.
Key to symbols used in the book descriptions
Note: More up-to-date editions of these books may well exist.
Our overall star rating for the book up to five stars.
Has black and white illustrations, none in color.
Has color illustrations, often has black and white illustrations too.
Does not have Chinese text in it.
Uses the modern Pinyin system for romanizing Chinese text.
Uses the old Wade Giles system for romanizing Chinese text.
Includes Chinese characters.
Many books cover more than one topic, these icons reflect all topics it may touch on.
Covers Chinese art.
Covers Chinese dynastic history up to 1912.
Covers Chinese modern history from 1912 into PRC.
Covers Chinese traditions.
A work of Chinese literature (translated into English).
An introduction to learning the Chinese language.
Covers Chinese philosophy / religion.
Useful travel guide to China.