China Book reviews
Here we list most of the books used as source reference when writing the pages on this web site.
Each book has a short review and star rating with full information about the book: pages, illustrations, Chinese, coverage. The 'full details' links take you to an external web site (usually amazon) which will give more details and often allow you to purchase a copy.
We also provide a section on the many web sites that we also use to build up the information on China sage. Please see our web site directory section.
Books are grouped according to main subject area: History; Modern History; Traditions; Language and 'Other'.
1421: The year China discovered the World, Bantam, 2002
ISBN 0-593-05078-9 Details/purchase ➚
This is an exciting and interesting read. It does not tell you much of Chinese culture as it is mainly concerned with the sea voyages. Gavin Menzies' background was as a naval officer and so his chief interest is in working out the likely course of Zheng He's
historic voyages. His theory that he sailed as far as America is a matter of debate, he bases this on finding Chinese artifacts in various locations, but it is quite possible these got there through trade via intermediaries and do not directly imply a visit by the Chinese navy. It's a fascinating tale.
Everyday Life in Early Imperial China, Michael Lowe, Carousel, 1973
ISBN 978-0872207585 Details/purchase ➚
This book looks in detail at life in China in the Han dynasty
period. Although there is a lot written about Imperial life, the lot of ordinary people is rarely touched on. I find Michael Loewe's style hard to read, it is rather wordy, dry and scholarly. Even so, there are few books that concentrate on this very important time in China's formation.
God's Chinese Son, Jonathan Spence, Harper Collins, 1996
ISBN 0-00-255584-0 Details/purchase ➚
This is one of Jonathan Spence's most important contributions to the understanding of Chinese History. He covers the subject of the Taiping Rebellion
in great detail and with scholarship. He concentrates on Hong and his inner circle rather than the ordinary Chinese. However, I have to take issue with his title 'God's Chinese Son' is a mistranslation of the Chinese and makes it sound more sensational a claim than it actually was. It represents a time when Western ideas and religions were being absorbed and merged with Chinese culture with devastating results.
Life along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield, University of California Press, 1999
ISBN 978-0520232143 Details/purchase ➚
The book is a noble attempt to reconstruct the lives of ordinary travelers along the silk
road in ancient times. However I found the style difficult to engage with, there are a large number of places and people to try to remember. Inventive narrative does not mix well with factual history. It is written to imitate Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - the same road seen from different perspectives: a merchant, a monk, a horseman, a princess... The book covers a lot about Central Asia rather than China, so that is probably why I found it a hard read.
Old Beijing: In the Shadow of the Imperial Throne, Xu Chengbei, Foreign Languages Press,2001
ISBN 7-119-02786-7 Details/purchase ➚
I was excited to find this book at the local Oxfam bookshop. It contains hundreds of archive black and white photographs of pre-1949 Beijin
g. Unfortunately the text is not brilliant and it lacks an index. As it is produced by a native Chinese enthusiastic about the subject there are many insights into life under the Imperial Qing
dynasty that you will not find elsewhere. My other main quibble is the size of the book, as it is only A5 in size it is hard to appreciate the detail of the fine historic illustrations, they deserve to be reproduced at a larger size.
The Chinese Renaissance, Hu Shi, University of Chicago, 1934
ISBN 978-0674412507 Details/purchase ➚
There are very few books that cover the Republic of China. This book, based on a series of lectures was written in 1933 and gives a vivid impression of the hopes that the Republican
government had for the development of China before the Japanese occupation. It provides a useful window into the mindset of Chinese intellectuals seeking to find a new place for China in the world.
The City of Light, Jacob d'Ancona: translated by David Selbourne, Abacus, 1997
ISBN 0-349-20895-1 Details/purchase ➚
A contentious book, as it claims to be a new find that documents the journey of an Italian Jew to China in 1270 just before Marco Polo's
visit. The owner of the manuscript does not allow other scholars to study it, so the authenticity has been disputed. If it is a fake, it is a very elaborate and strange one. The traveler visited Zayton and describes some of the sights he saw. However there is much in the book not about China but the places on the way, so its interest is principally in learning about the traveler himself.
The Death of Woman Wang,Jonathan Spence,Penguin,1978
ISBN 0-14-005121-X Details/purchase ➚
This is one of Jonathan Spence's earlier works. It brings to life the ordinary people of Shandong
in the mid seventeenth century. It is based on contemporary sources.
The Dragon Empress, Marina Warner, Hamish Hamilton, 1972
ISBN-978-0689707148 Details/purchase ➚
A scholarly and detailed biography of the famous Dowager Empress Cixi
. It has an impressive list of references to back up the content. It gives a rather different interpretation to events to that of Jung Chang. She is seen as brutal, insecure and indecisive but battling against the odds. So to give balance you need to read Marina Warner's account to get to grips with this totemic figure.
The First Emperor of China, Frances Wood, Profile Books, 2007
ISBN 978-1846680410 Details/purchase ➚
This book is disappointingly short, of the 200 pages, 40 pages are notes. It covers the First Qin Emperor as separate subject areas, with some needless repetition rather than in chronological order. It covers Confucius, the Great Wall, Burning of Books and the Terracotta Army. It lacks a consistent structure and background, the author tends to ramble, but ramble interestingly. There is very little on the actual history of the Qin unification. The last chapter on the Mao Era is poorly connected with the previous text, it has interesting perspectives on Confucius, the Cultural Revolution and Lin Biao but very little on the First Emperor himself.
The Great Wall, Man, Bantam, 2008
ISBN 0-978-0-553-81768-3 Details/purchase ➚
Quite by chance I found this book while I was about to write about China's Great Wall. The Great Wall
is China's most iconic feature. John Man undertook a trek to trace it through the deserts and grasslands of northern China. Along the way he met with many helpful locals who add greatly to the enjoyment of the book. The history of the wall comes in short sections scattered throughout the book so it is more of a travelogue than a reference work. It documents modern China as much as the Great Wall.
The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution, Augustus Lindley, Cox and Wyman, 1866
ISBN 978-1481220446 Details/purchase ➚
Augustus Lindley went to China and fell in love with a Chinese woman and then became embroiled in the horrific Civil War in China. He backed the 'Christian' side - the Taipings
and as they eventually lost the war, the Taiping point of view is rarely reported. We read of the 'good' side of the Taiping rebellion and very little of the confusion and megalomania that brought about its fall. For a Christian reader it challenges existing preconceptions of this great war.
The Last Emperor, Edward Behr, Futura, 1987
ISBN 0-7-88-3439-6 Details/purchase ➚
This is the book on which the major film 'The Last Emperor' was based. The life of Pu Yi
gives keen insights into China in transition from Empire to People's Republic 1906-1967. This is a carefully researched work with personal interviews with key players who met Pu Yi. It underlines how chaotic life was at the time and the future of China was decided by many chance events.
The Shorter Science and Civilization in China, Needham and Ronan, Cambridge University Press, 1978
ISBN 0-521-29286-7 Details/purchase ➚
For those without the time to study Needham's full text the abridgments by Colin Ronan are useful books. Joseph Needham was the pre-eminent scholar of the development of Chinese Civilization, his work continues to this day at the Needham Research Institute ➚
. There are 5 volumes in this abridgment. I have volumes 1 and 2 only. Volume 1 covers the cultural, historic and philosophical background including the main religions. Volume 2 covers mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, geography, geology and physics. Unfortunately it uses Wade-Giles throughout and has an infuriating index - it lists every word mentioned even if just in passing. It is essential reading if you want to get close to the original documents.
The Walled Kingdom, Witold Rodzinski, Fontana, 1984
ISBN 0-00-686148-2 Details/purchase ➚
This is a very competent survey of Chinese history from earliest days to 1960. It reads rather like an undergraduate course, fairly heavy and turgid in places. There are no source references and the use of Wade-Giles
makes it all hard work. The earlier, but more readable, book by Fitzgerald is to be preferred.
Through the Chinese Revolution, Ralph and Nancy Lapwood, Spalding and Levy, 1954
ISBN 978-0883550793 Details/purchase ➚
This is one of very few eye witness accounts of a Westerner in China in the period 1932-1952. It documents the appalling conditions during the Japanese occupation. Ralph Lapwood was a British missionary and scientist who saw the transformation of China at first hand. The fervor of revolution after the foundation of the
P.R.C. in 1949 is described in detail. It can be suggested that the author became too wrapped up in the revolution, seeing only the benefits but personal accounts of people living closely with the Chinese at this time are rare and the account can not be easily dismissed. This is a very personal record so there are no notes or references.
Treason by the book, Jonathan Spence, Penguin,2001
ISBN 0-713-99449-5 Details/purchase ➚
Jonathan Spence has written many interesting books that give a keen insight into life in dynastic China. In this case he follows in meticulous detail the tortuous legal system in use during the Qing dynasty
. The system of scholars, generals and local fiefs that ruled China was an imperfect but effective means of control. The book follows the twists and turns of a case of treason, where an attempted insurrection is severely dealt with. The book gives direct quotes from the voluminous records that have survived to this day. It is a scholarly work.
Modern History books (mainly post 1912)
Mao : A Life, Philip Short, Hodder and Stoughton, 1988
ISBN 0-340-60624-X Details/purchase ➚
There are a number of biographies of Mao Zedong
available. Nigel Short has written a comprehensive and authoritative work on this often divisive subject. There are over 100 pages of notes and references. It is quite a hard read as the author immersed himself in the detail and many people and places are mentioned in passing without descriptive background. In terms of political balance Short gets it about right - neither too adulatory nor too denigratory.
Nearly a Chinese: A life of Clifford Stubbs, Charles Tyzack, Book Guild Publishing, 2013
ISBN 0-978-1846249631 Details/purchase ➚
This recent book documents the life of Clifford Stubbs, a rare example of a Christian missionary who truly engaged with the Chinese people. He taught at the West Union University, Chengdu, Sichuan
and garnered the affection of many ordinary Chinese people. There was widespread grief when he was assassinated in 1930, a victim of rabid anti-foreign sentiment at the time. A dedicated and true friend of China.
Red China Today, Edgar Snow, Pelican, 1970
ISBN 0-978-14-021159-4 Details/purchase ➚
Edgar Snow became a personal friend of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. He is most famous for his first book 'Red Star over China' which documents the Long March
and the foundation of the PRC. This follow-up book documents his visits in the 1960s with an extra chapter added later about the 1970s. He is extremely positive about the achievements of Communist China in breaking the bad habits of the dynastic period. He was condemned as a 'fellow traveler' who offered just propaganda, but in hindsight he wasn't too far wrong on many aspects of China.
The Long March 1935, Dick Wilson, History Book Club, 1971
ISBN 978-0670438457 Details/purchase ➚
This formative period of the Communist Party in China needs to be understood as it explains why the PRC
took its truly revolutionary turn in the 1950s and 60s. The book has a good set of notes and references and uses material and photographs not used elsewhere. It includes a biography of Mao Zedong and Zhu De. It highlights the exaggeration of some of the accounts but includes them as they were important propaganda in the years that followed. The grueling record of the crossing of the Grasslands makes discomforting reading.
Chinese traditions and philosophy
100 Buddhist Parables, Zhang Qingnian, 1995
ISBN 7-5001-0240-2 Details/purchase ➚
is such an important religion in China it is vital to know the key Buddhist beliefs and the attitude to life. This book is collection of old parables - short stories with a moral and philosophic underpinning.
Chinese Cultural Traditions, Yujing He, CreateSpace publishing, 2013
ISBN 978-1481983211 Details/purchase ➚
This very short booklet gives some useful everyday traditions
that are useful to know when visiting China.
Chinese Painting Techniques, Jean Long, Studio Vista, 1994
ISBN 0-289-80114-1 Details/purchase ➚
This is a practical guide to the Chinese painting technique. It gives a good grounding in calligraphy
, symbolism as well as painting. It does not cover art history in any depth.
Chronicles of Tao, Deng Ming-Dao, Harper Collins, 1993
ISBN 0-06-250219-0 Details/purchase ➚
The Daoist tradition in China remains important. The chronicles is a fictional account of a Daoist
master living through the difficult times of the Japanese occupation then Communist suppression of religion to finally end up in America. Deng Ming-dao's prose style is rather labored and unrefined.
Disputers of the Tao, A.C. Graham, Open Court, 1989
ISBN 0-8126-9088-5 Details/purchase ➚
This scholarly work looks at the currents in the development of the Daoist philosophic tradition. He compares Daoist thought to those of Kongfuzi (Confucius
) and Mozi
. He covers the Yi Jing
and Wu wei as well as many other traditions. Of interest to anyone who wants to study ancient Chinese thought in depth.
Feng Shui,Stephen Skinner,Parragon,1997
ISBN 978-0752523859 Details/purchase ➚
This book gives an introduction to Feng Shui
for Westerners written by a Westerner covering only the basic principles. It has many colorful illustrations and suggestions on applying Feng Shui to building and garden design. It has very little to say about Daoism or China.
Myths and Legends of China, Werner, Dover, 1922
ISBN 0-486-28092-6 Details/purchase ➚
A survey of a country's myths and legends is a very difficult task. By their nature they are hard to tie down and there are usually many alternative stories that have developed over the centuries. The book is handicapped by using wade-giles for names; and lacks cross-references and source information. It was originally published in 1922 and the language and attitudes reflect this period. It covers Buddhist
figures as well as folk heroes. The myths and legends of China are not widely described and it is useful as a reference.
The Analects of Confucius, Confucius: translated by Arthur Waley, Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992
ISBN 978-1135764364 Details/purchase ➚
If there is a Chinese book that gets close to a 'Chinese Bible' then this is it. It is essential to understand Confucius
's philosophy if you want to understand China. The translation is old and uses Wade Giles and the notes require you to be a scholar to make sense of them. More recent translations are better than this one.
The book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Palmer and Breuilly, Arkana, 1996
ISBN 0-14-019488-6 Details/purchase ➚
Many Westerners turn to the Dao De Jing to learn of the Daoist tradition. However it is the Book of Zhuangzi
that gives a much more accurate reflection of the philosophy of Daoism. It is a series of entertaining, often amusing, tales that generally reveal a thought provoking paradox. It gives food for thought even in today's world. This translation is rather dated as it uses Wade-Giles
but is otherwise admirable.
The Complete I Ching, Alfred Huang, Inner Traditions, 2004
ISBN 978-1594773860 Details/purchase ➚
There are many books to choose from that describe the Yi
Jing (I Ching). Huang has written a modern (1998) translation that reads well. He has taken great trouble to understand the true meaning of the guas (hexagrams) and introduces some thought provoking new ideas on interpretation. He succeeds in giving a 'complete' treatment to the subject that is so rich in Chinese cultural traditions.
The I Ching, James Legge, Clarendon Press, 1899
ISBN 978-0486210629 Details/purchase ➚
One of the earliest translations of Yi Jing
into English (1899) so it reads as rather dated. Such an ancient and revered text is most difficult to render in another language, this is a commendable attempt. It should only really be used in conjunction with more modern translations.
The Tao and the Tree of Life, Eric Yudelove, Llewellyn Publications, 1996
ISBN 1-56718-250-X Details/purchase ➚
The book compares and contrasts the Daoist
mystical tradition with the Jewish Tree of Life tradition. Looks at yoga and acupuncture and other traditions but there is far more on the Jewish tradition than the Chinese.
The Thought of Mao Tse-Tung, Stuart Schram, Cambridge University Press, 1989
ISBN 0-521-31062-8 Details/purchase ➚
Understanding Mao Zedong's
guiding philosophy is hard work. With so much propaganda obscuring the truth this book goes back to the source documents to reveal underlying development and changes of his thought. It does not quote large slabs of the 'Thoughts of Mao Zedong', instead it attempts to see where the ideas came from. It documents the differences with Russian (Soviet) thinking leading to the inevitable Sino-Soviet split. There are many biographies of Mao Zedong but these describe the man and not the all important philosophy that took China in a new direction. This is quite a hard but rewarding read if you want to truly understand Mao's philosophy.
Poems of the Late T'ang, Various: translated by A.C.Graham, Penguin, 1977
ISBN 0-14-044157-3 Details/purchase ➚ Tang dynasty
poetry has for a thousand years been considered the zenith of this Chinese literary form. Poems read fresh and relevant even today. This collection includes seven poets including Du Fu
and Du Mu. The excellent translations include notes that aid the reader in understanding the places and people mentioned.
Selected Stories, Lu Hsun,Foreign Languages Press ,1980
ISBN 0-978-0917056703 Details/purchase ➚
The writings of Lu Xun
had great impact in the Republican period. He was the pioneer of modern Chinese literature - written in the vernacular for ordinary Chinese people not just the educated elite. This collection of short stories is all very readable. He satirizes the ancient traditions and customs of dynastic China most famously in the 'True Story of Ah Q' which is included in this collection.
Key to symbols used in the book descriptions
Note: More up-to-date editions of these books may well exist.
Our overall star rating for the book up to five stars.
Has black and white illustrations, none in color.
Has color illustrations, often has black and white illustrations too.
Does not have Chinese text in it.
Uses the modern Pinyin
system for romanizing Chinese text.
Uses the old Wade Giles
system for romanizing Chinese text.
Includes Chinese characters.
Many books cover more than one topic, these icons reflect all topics it may touch on.
Covers Chinese art.
Covers Chinese dynastic history
up to 1912.
Covers Chinese modern history
from 1912 into PRC.
Covers Chinese traditions
A work of Chinese literature (translated into English).
An introduction to learning the Chinese language
Useful travel guide to China.
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