My Favorite China History Books

xichang city gate

To wrap up my week of posts on Chinese history, here are TEN of my favorite Chinese history books:

The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900, by Diana Preston.

This is a riveting account of the madness that engulfed northern China at the turn of the century. 

City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China, by Jasper Becker

A great overview of the history of Beijing. I found it particularly interesting to read about the city in the early days of the People’s Republic of China. 

 God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong XuQuan, by Jonathan Spence

This book tells the story of Hong Xuquan, a mid-19th century drifter who becomes convinced he is Jesus’ younger brother. Convinced that God has called him to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, he launches the Taiping Rebellion, which kills 20 million people. 

The Great Wall: China Against the World, by Julia Lovell

What we know as The Great Wall is actually a series of defensive structures that were built over thousands of years. This book helps set the record straight on many mythical stories about the Great Wall. 

 Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, by Jasper Becker

In the late 1950’s Chairman Mao The Great Leap Forward, a collectivization campaign designed to speed up industrialization. It led to a famine that killed 30 million people. This book is the story of that famine. 

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, by Peter HesslerThunder Out of China, by Thoodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby

Hessler uses the ancient oracle bones used for divination as a platform to explore the connections between ancient and modern China. 

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, by Jan Wong

Canadian-born Jan Wong went to China as a committed Communist in the 1970’s. This is her story of her journey from euphoria at participating in the revolution to disillusionment as she watched the assault on Tiananmen Square in 1989. 

The Search for Modern China, by Jonathan Spence

A good old-fashioned history book. Modern China, here, refers to the period from the 1600’s onward.

The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History, by Joanna Waley-Cohen

This is a fascinating look at the history of China’s interaction with the outside world over the centuries. Hint — it began much earlier and was more extensive than most people think. 

Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, by Barbara Tuchman

This is a fascinating look at the American involvement in China in the first half of the 20th century. 

For a great list of NOVELS set within Chinese history, check out this list by my friend Amy, over at The Messy Middle.

What are YOUR favorite Chinese history books?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “My Favorite China History Books

  1. At the talk you gave a few years ago at The Opposite House you had Sidney Rittenberg’s “The Man Who Stayed Behind” on this list. I was so grateful when you mentioned it because I had never heard of it and was totally blown away! This was years before he made headlines with his documentary.

    I’ve read a lot of the Spence books and while they are brilliantly researched, I just can’t get into them. Maybe it’s a British-US style writing difference? But when I’m reading his books I feel like I’m taking a class I don’t like.

  2. The books I’ve read on this list are great! For sure am going to have to check out Preston’s book about the Boxer Rebellion. My list would also add these books…
    Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen Platt. This book takes a look at the Taiping Rebellion from the Imperial side of things focusing mainly on the leading general of the Hunan Army, Zeng Guofan.
    The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence. A profile of the life and times of one of the first full time Jesuit missionaries sent to China.
    Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret. Pomfret follows the lives of his Chinese classmates as they move from the first generation of students allowed back into university after the Cultural Revolution on through to the early 2000’s and all of the change in between. Humorous, tragic and overall an amazing window into the changes of the past 30 years in this country.