Are there any good books that get into how imperial China worked?
December 18, 2016 8:17 PM   Subscribe

I know that that spans a long period of time, and that ambiguity is ok. I guess what I'm interested in is how the government was actually structured... what sort of intrigue went down? How were regions governed? I've heard a lot about the fairly sophisticated bureaucracy that existed for a very long time in China, and I'm very curious to know more about the nitty gritty of how society actually functioned... the time period is open to whatever time period someone found fit to write a book about!
posted by wooh to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Wild Swans isn't focused exclusively on imperial China, but covers three generations and shows the end of the Imperial era through the rise of communism. It's focused on the lives of three women during these time periods and was a super fascinating read.
posted by space snail at 8:36 PM on December 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Law and Society in Traditional China by T'ung T'su Ch'u is EXACTLY what you want here. Info about the father's authority, style of life, supernatural recompense. Absolutely fascinating even though it is mostly about the laws of the time.
posted by aetg at 8:40 PM on December 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Search for Modern China, which covers the end of the Ming Dynasty to the present, was hugely helpful to me in understanding exactly your questions. The late Qing bit is fascinating in particular because the reader can see which imperial traditions were jettisoned over time and which endure to this day, even in what claims to be a radically different state.
posted by mdonley at 10:30 PM on December 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Soulstealers. As nitty gritty as it gets, wrapped up in an incredible story about rumour, superstition and the workings of the imperial state. Pretty much unparalleled classic in the field. Or Benjamin Elman's history of the civil service examinations. Both are on my essential reading lists at both advanced undergrad and graduate level.
posted by idlethink at 1:13 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think 1587, a year of no significance might be up your alley?
posted by Diablevert at 3:23 AM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Spence covers the Qing well. You get to see the limits of the Emperors' influence and the ways information was dealt with in what was filtered and what had more circuitous routes.
posted by jadepearl at 4:24 AM on December 19, 2016

Some great suggestions already above, especially by idlethink and Diablevert. I don't think Wild Swans is what you want (wrong time period), and suspect that it's getting favorited because it tends to be peoples' first China book.

Beyond what's already been recommended, one book I enjoyed was The Chinese Emperor by Jean Levi, a work of historical fiction about the rise of Qingshi Huangdi. It lacks the completeness of an academic work, but avoids the dry facts-and-figures approach that "better" books might suffer from. Lots of palace intrigue and dramatic twists made this a fun read, while painting an eye-opening picture of the Chinese emperor's world.
posted by msittig at 7:12 AM on December 19, 2016

The 2 books by Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay give a good synopsis of development of governmental structures in China and relates it to governance structures overall in the course of human history.
posted by indianbadger1 at 8:31 AM on December 19, 2016

You might want to check out Wang Hui's China from Empire to Nation-State, which came out a couple of years ago. It's a translation of the first part of his four-volume Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, which came out in Chinese in 2004; I haven't read it, but it's been well reviewed, and Wang (who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing) is a very well reputed scholar (with an interesting background—he was sent to rural Shaanxi for "reeducation" after he was arrested protesting at Tiananmen Square in 1989). It's only 200 pages but dense reading, full of new takes on Chinese history. Probably not the only thing you'd want to read, but would give you a fresh perspective on what you read elsewhere.
posted by languagehat at 8:40 AM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mote's Imperial China: 900-1800 is gloriously descriptive and I found it quite readable. (Except that it's so heavy it's hard to read in bed.)
posted by clew at 1:38 PM on December 19, 2016

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