Condense a few thousand years of history into a few hundred pages?
February 13, 2011 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Is there a good overview or history of China to read? Or a few books together to read on the various eras of Chinese history? It's one of the areas of the world that I know surprisingly little about but really should. Ideally, I would love to find some books that are available for Kindle. This prior AskMefi question targeted Early Chinese History. I'd also like some suggestions on 19th and 20th century Chinese history and the Communist revolution, in particular, too.
posted by andrewraff to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Jonathon D Spence's The Search For Modern China has been considered the standard text covering the last 500 years of Chinese history.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:46 AM on February 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes, read the book KokuRyu recommended, Spence's The Search for Modern China. There's two editions. Either is fine, really.
posted by vincele at 8:54 AM on February 13, 2011

Sorry to jump back in. Spence has extensive "recommended reading" sections at the end of the book for each chapter. You should get the most recent edition for the most recent publications.
posted by vincele at 9:13 AM on February 13, 2011

The Open Empire is good at dispelling certain myths about Chinese history.

China: A New History is also quite informative, but a wee bit dated.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 9:39 AM on February 13, 2011

One Chinese history book that I love is The Snow Lion and The Dragon.

It cover a few thousand years history of inter-action between China and Tibet. It covers the last few hundred years in depth. It is a great book and very read-able. It is only about 150 pages. It is also not one sided. China / Tibet is often a very politically emotionally charged discussion - this book does a very good job of showing both sides.

Chinia / Tibet is only one area of Chinese history - but it is a fairly prominent piece of current Chinese / Western relations. I highly recommend this book.
posted by Flood at 9:39 AM on February 13, 2011

Given that Joseph Needham's epic Science and Civilization in China is now at volume 24 and is (posthumously, even) still being produced it probably doesn't look like the condensed history you want...but, Vol II, an overview of the history of science/scientific thought in China might be a good alternative/accompaniment to more traditional economic, political and social histories.
You'll need a decent library (or a really lucky day in a second hand book store) though.
posted by AFII at 9:56 AM on February 13, 2011

Best answer: Not a book, but worth checking out is China: A Century of Revolution, a six hour documentary of the 20th century in China originally aired on PBS about 15 years ago. I watched this series the week before I moved to China because I was nervous about the fact that I didn't know anything about China. Obviously not comprehensive, but a very good overview, I think.
posted by skewed at 11:05 AM on February 13, 2011

I enjoyed, and learned a lot from:

Hungry Ghosts by Jasper Becker
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Red China Blues by Jan Wong
The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu
posted by Corvid at 1:06 PM on February 13, 2011

Best answer: Seconding Search for Modern China. It's a fantastic, comprehensive book. Red China Blues is definitely also worth picking up. China Wakes by Kristof and WuDunn was a pretty decent read, though it might be dated. Lastly, if you're at all interested in the division of the country during WWII, Stillwell and The American Experience in China by Barbara Tuchman is a pretty fascinating insight into the American efforts to prop up Chiang Kai-Shek during the period.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:55 PM on February 13, 2011

Tai-Pan by James Clavell is a great historical fiction about Hong Kong.
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 7:08 PM on February 13, 2011

Best answer: I think Jacques Gernet's A History of Chinese Civilisation still takes some beating as a general history, despite being first published in 1972. For China in the global context you might like Ken Pomeranz's The Great Divergence.
As a lot of Western historiography (quite rightly) tells us what went wrong post-'49, I'd recommend a couple of books that help explain where the revolution came from and why it still commands a surprising degree of legitimacy given everything that's happened since: Two Kinds of Time, recent re-issue of a contemporary work where a young US journalist/minor war-time official sees how the Nationalist regime fell apart - very readable too, with the author's own illustrations. Then there's William Hinton's Fanshen and Shenfan which look at the revolutionary changes in the countryside from a sympathetic but not blindly fellow-travelling US Marxist. Maybe combine with Revolution, Resistance and Reform in Village China which is more critical.
Lastly on the revolutionary era and ridiculously specialist but you did ask, I've been thoroughly enjoying Revolution in the Highlands: China's Jinggangshan Base Area by the late Steven Averill.
posted by Abiezer at 8:48 PM on February 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like John King Fairbanks's The Great Chinese Revolution, which covers China since 1800; he's very readable and has an eye for vivid detail.

F.W. Mote's Imperial China: 800-1800 covers the period named in detail; I particularly appreciated the focus on Northwest Asia.
posted by zompist at 9:03 PM on February 13, 2011

Seconding Red China Blues. Jan Wong is a Canadian of Chinese descent—born in Canada, mind you—who became enamored with Maoism in the 60s and moved to Beijing to be a part of the movement. The book is a great tour of 20th-century Chinese history and politics.
posted by awenner at 5:34 AM on February 14, 2011

Best answer: John Keay's China: A History is an accessible single-volume general history, which is available in a Kindle version.
posted by HastyDave at 7:40 AM on February 17, 2011

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