Scholarly-but-accessible reference about Chinese history and culture.
January 8, 2005 8:09 PM   Subscribe

SinoFilter: I'm looking for a scholarly-but-accessible book (or books) about Chinese history and culture. (Web site recommendations also welcome.) I have done some Googling and poking around, but frankly my ignorance is so deep that I have no good way of evaluating the quality of what I'm finding.
posted by enrevanche to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This book has been highly praised. I'm about half way through it and like it a lot.
posted by zelphi at 8:25 PM on January 8, 2005

Red Star Over China. Edgar Snow visited the Chinese Communists in northern China in the thirties. A fascinating look at revolution and revolutionaries in the early, idealistic stage. The extensive biographical sketches in the endnotes are a book in themselves. Get an early edition if you can. I think Snow cleaned it up some in later editions.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:34 PM on January 8, 2005

Lords of the Rim by Sterling Seagrave. Someone here actually recommended it a while back, I think, and I got the audiobook and really liked it.
posted by weston at 8:56 PM on January 8, 2005

For a Chinese history course I read Joanna Waley-Cohen's The Sextants of Beijing. I found it accessible and interesting.
posted by Marit at 9:05 PM on January 8, 2005

Peter Hessler's "River Town" (Amazon; first chapter; review) covers Hessler's two years teaching English in Fuling, a city on the Yangtze River. As Hessler says, the book is not about China as a whole, but it gives an intelligent look at modern Chinese life.
posted by NickDouglas at 9:42 PM on January 8, 2005

I second the Hessler. I also recommend Kristof and Wudunn's China Wakes as a good introduction to modern Chinese history.
posted by calistasm at 9:50 PM on January 8, 2005

I second China Wakes. The same couple also wrote Thunder from the East, which is more about Asia in general but has some stuff about China.

I'd also recommend Jan Wong's Red China Blues (subtitled "My Long March from Mao to Now"). She's a Canadian of Chinese descent who moved to China for the Cultural Revolution.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:44 PM on January 8, 2005

My dear friend Paul is reasonably proud of his Condensed China, which is reputed to provide a certain effect, not dissimilar to what you seek.
posted by mwhybark at 11:14 PM on January 8, 2005

Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China is a pretty extensive historical overview of China from the Ming dynasty onward. One of the few books that covers more than just a relatively small portion of China's history without being a completely dry recitation of events.

Can anyone recommend less pure scholarly histories of the Tang or Sung dynasties? I've found a few university publications, but there don't seem to be many informal histories of those periods.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 5:10 AM on January 9, 2005

I now live in the Sichuan Province and had no idea I would end up here when I began Wild Swans and found it to be a great read. I was also recently passed Lords of the Rim by a fellow lau wei and am finding it to be a great read.
posted by geekyguy at 7:18 AM on January 9, 2005

I second Spence's "The Search for Modern China."
posted by stonerose at 8:15 AM on January 9, 2005

I highly recommend Chinese Shadows, by Simon Leys, which should dispel any lingering bits of nostalgia for the good old days of Mao. Speaking of which, Red Star Over China is a wonderful read and has invaluable personal accounts of the Communist leaders in the days before they took over the country, but Edgar Snow was hopelessly infatuated with them and covered up all sorts of negative information -- he basically presented them as they wanted to be seen. So treat it as you would a well-written "profile" in a highbrow version of Entertainment Today. For older history, read Mark Elvin's The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1971) -- it revolutionized China studies and is extremely readable and thought-provoking. A more recent book, Another History: Essays on China from a European Perspective, sounds great too. Oh, and I agree -- Spence is wonderful.
posted by languagehat at 8:31 AM on January 9, 2005

Response by poster: Wow, great suggestions! Thanks to all - and keep them coming. My credit card is already starting to heat up in my wallet.

(mwhybark, I was unable to reach the Condensed China site - "connection refused," probably one of those transient problems that the Interweb is so famous for - but from Google's cached version of the main page, it looks pretty great. Thanks!)
posted by enrevanche at 8:38 AM on January 9, 2005

Jacques Gernet's History of Chinese Civilization is a good summary of the long view of Chinese history. It's where I picked up a broad, general notion of what happened during various dynasties. Amazon reviews do mention a few minor quibbles. Should be fairly easy to come across a copy at your big-box retailer, library or used book store.
posted by gimonca at 11:59 AM on January 9, 2005

Response by poster: gimonca, thanks. I had looked at both the Gernet book ("History of Chinese Civilization") and one by Kwang-ching Liu ("Cambridge Illustrated History of China") as potential candidates for a kind of "China In a Nutshell" approach.
posted by enrevanche at 1:26 PM on January 9, 2005

enrevanche: I have the Cambridge Illustrated History of China. While it's quite good in covering thousands of years of history, it's rather dry - more like a textbook than anything else. I put it aside after a hundred pages or so because I was getting bored. YMMV but I tend to prefer history books that are more 'alive'.
posted by adrianhon at 2:48 AM on January 10, 2005

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