where to begin: Chinese history
October 5, 2017 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I have the standard American liberal arts education. I have come to realize that it is pretty lacking in certain areas. I'd like to read more history, specifically of China. Where do I start?
posted by Shohobohaum Za to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoyed The Search For Modern China as a good introduction with academic rigor.
posted by munchingzombie at 3:01 PM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Two books about Chinese history that I really like:

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. The author provides a vivid history of 20th century China through the experiences of her grandmother, her mother, and herself.

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang. Chang was an American journalist of Chinese descent.

Sorry for the linking weirdness. I can’t figure out how to highlight more than one word on my iPad without highlighting everything.
posted by FencingGal at 4:10 PM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Seconding Wild Swans.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:43 PM on October 5, 2017

Well this is very specific to a specific period of time, but I just started reading Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine last night and it is fantastic and horrifying all at once.
posted by so fucking future at 6:01 PM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

You should check out Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. It's comprehensive and really good. Really.
posted by gnutron at 6:53 PM on October 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Frank Dikötter's books on Communist China are highly regarded. I have the first one on the Great Famine queued up for my Christmas reading list this year.
posted by sagwalla at 2:04 AM on October 6, 2017

Jonathan Spence is a leading American historian of China. His The Search for Modern China is described (by the publisher) as "the classic introduction to modern China for students and general readers." For a less traditional structure, try The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, "the Chinese revolution through the eyes of its most articulate participants."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:13 AM on October 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Spence is also extremely readable. His intro course at Yale, though not really a requirement for any program, was constantly oversubscribed.
posted by praemunire at 8:27 AM on October 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had the same realization a few years back. Here are quick reviews of all the books on my bookshelf about China:

Communist Revolution, Cultural Revolution:

The Long March by Sun Shuyun. Shuyun digs into the history of the Long March, tracking down as many old participants as she can find. The propaganda version of the story clashes with what actually happened; Mao comes out as a brilliant, lucky, manipulative backstabber, who used the Long March to launch himself into supreme leadership.

Fanshen and Shenfan, both by William Hinton. An on-the-ground account of the bloody post-Revolution land reforms (Fanshen) and the tumult of the following decades (Shenfan) in a Chinese village. Excellent, detailed storytelling by a committed Marxist.

Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng. Cheng was locked in solitary confinement for 6 years as the Cultural Revolution swirled around her and the giants of the Communist Party did battle. A gripping, detailed account through a narrow window. It'll make you want to learn more about why the Cultural Revolution happened.

Red China Blues by Jan Wong. Wong was an idealistic Canadian girl who enrolled in Beijing University at the height of the Cultural Revolution and got swept into the action. Another great read.

Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary: A biography of the ultimate survivor under Mao, a man who managed to be loved and admired while holding on to power for decades. Up to 2 million people visited Tiananmen Square on one day to honour him after his death, despite a prohibition on public mourning of him.


China Shakes the World by James Kynge. I don't remember a thing from this book. It won the Business Book of the Year Award for 2006, though.

China Changes Face by John Gittings. Another book that I remember nothing from.


Chen Village by Anita Chan et al. A blow-by-blow account of the impact that the Communist Revolution and subsequent events had on a single village in China. If you want to get a sense of what the Chinese Communism has looked like on the ground - and how it has changed over the decades - this is about as good as it gets.

The House of Lim by Margery Wolf. Written in the late 1960s about a village in Taiwan. Paints a picture of a more traditional, conservative China, especially in gender relations.

Chinese Lives by Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye. If you like Studs Terkel, you'll probably like this. People talking about themselves, telling their stories.

Pre-Communist History, Philosophy, etc.:

Source of Chinese Tradition, Volume I. A massive tome that I bought as a present for myself. It's a collection of excerpts from classic Chinese literature, from the ancient Shang dynasty through to the Ming, on philosophy, politics, economics, ethics, etc., each with a brief introduction that provides some history and context. There's so much good stuff in it that I feel excited every time I open it. Not a book to read through from beginning to end.

Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-Tung by Herrlee G. Creel. I don't remember anything from this one, either.

1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies. An entertaining but no doubt fanciful account of the (in themselves fascinating) Chinese voyages of the early 1400s, before the Ming dynasty decided that it would be better served by staying home.

The Retreat of the Elephants by Mark Elvin. I feel like I should like this book, but I've never been able to make it more than a couple of chapters in.

Lives of Confucius by Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson. Another book that had no apparent impact on me.

God's Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence. A fascinating account of the largest uprising in human history, led by a failed examination candidate who believed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

On the question "Where to begin?", I'd say:
- Sources of Chinese Tradition for the ancient and medieval stuff.
- God's Chinese Son for the turmoil of the decaying Qing empire that eventually resolved itself in the Communist Revolution a century later.
- The Long March or Zhou Enlai to start you on the epic story of the Revolution and its aftermath.
- Chen Village or Fanshen for the post-Revolutionary story.

One thing I'd love to read is a great history of the Song and Tang, when Chinese society, literature and economy were at their most dynamic and glittering.
posted by clawsoon at 6:44 PM on October 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

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