China Book reviews

Directory of web sites with information about China

Directory of web sites with information about China


We have built-up an extensive directory of other web sites that offer useful information about China. These cover language, history, travel and traditions. We also have a list of some interesting blogs.

Here we list most of the books used as source reference when authoring the pages on this web site. Each book has a short review and star rating with full information about the book: pages, illustrations, Chinese language, 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.

Books are grouped according to main subject area: History; Modern History; Traditions; Language and 'Other'.

History books

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1421: The year China discovered the World, Bantam, 2002

520 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-593-05078-9 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text History book
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.
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1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, Gavin Menzies, Harper Collins, 2008

368 pages. 0.5 stars ISBN 978-0061492181 Details/purchase Color illustrations No characters History book
A very disappointing book. Only very few pages are about China, the rest could have been copied from Wikipedia/tourist guides. The false suppositions that were interesting in his '1421' book are laughable here. He chooses to ignore all historians if he can find one maverick that supports his case. The lack of serious study and supporting material is depressing. Yes there was knowledge of Chinese inventions that came to Europe at this time, but not from Zheng He and independent discovery of the same idea is the most likely explanation of these 'coincidences'. It can only be recommended as an example of how not to write a history book.
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60 Scenic Wonders in China, New World Press, 1980

238 pages. 2.5 stars ASIN B000OFXXX2 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Travel book
A little travel book written by the Chinese for tourists in 1980. It covers all the main historic tourist attractions in China. Reflecting views at the time it is rather hostile to the imperial past. It has some interesting folklore tales that are not recorded in the Western travel guides.
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A Map History of Modern China, Catchpole, Heinemann, 1976

145 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 0-435-31095-X Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Modern history book
A series of interesting and unique maps that illustrate Chinese history in an admirably direct fashion. Most of the book covers the modern history from 1850 and ends 1975 with little on the earlier dynastic history. There are details of campaigns that are not covered elsewhere. It does, however, look rather dated now.
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Bomb Book and Compass, Simon Winchester, Penguin, 2009

317 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0-141-01158-5 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Modern history book
Simon Winchester has the habit of sensationalizing his subject. This is certainly an exciting and interesting adventure story rather than a standard biography. Joseph Needham was an extra-ordinary man, who I had myself the privilege of meeting, the foremost sinologist of his day. There is a more balanced biography available produced by UNESCO.
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Cat Country, Lao She, Penguin Modern Classics, 1932

218 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0143208129 Details/purchase No illustrations No characters History book Chinese traditions book
This is an extra-ordinay book. It is a heavy satire on China at the end of the Qing dynasty (c. 1912) and was written by a leading republican writer seeking to point out the abject weaknesses of China. If written by a non-Chinese this would be considered racist as there is very little that Lao She has to say that is positive about his own people. It is set on Mars when the narrator (a foreigner) encounters a Chinese society in its death throes from opium addiction. The satire is too dark and direct and lacks a lighter side to counteract the bleakness. The book is fascinating as a rare insight of what reformers thought about their own situation.
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China : A short cultural history, G.P. Fitzgerald, The Cresset Press, 1950

619 pages. 4.5 stars ISBN 0-978-0091687519 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
In spite of its age (first published 1935) this remains a classic treatment of all Chinese history up to 1850. It is a readable and thought provoking work bringing together immense scholarship and delightful writing style. Apart from its age, its chief drawback is the lack of source references, there is no bibliography and the index is too short. He remains broadly positive about Chinese achievements over centuries with many facts that are not reported elsewhere.
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China : Eyewitness Travel, Dorling Kindersley, 2012

672 pages. 4.5 stars ISBN 978-1-4053-6890-2 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers History book Chinese traditions book Travel book
If I could only take one book to China with me this would be it. Copiously and richly illustrated it offers not only a comprehensive travel guide but also a huge amount on traditions and culture. This is a book that has been put together by people who know how to present information clearly and succinctly. It is arranged by region within China and covers virtually everywhere worth visiting. My only concern is that the days of a beautiful but heavy travel guide may not survive the days of smartphones with similar information available at your fingertips.

China A to Z, May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai, Plume, 2007

292 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0142180846 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book Travel book
A good coverage of many different aspects of China. The style is of a reference guide but it lacks references to back up the facts. The mixture of geography, biography, history and culture makes it a bit hard to dip it into. It has the advantage of being written by people who are Chinese and so know the traditions and customs that a Westerner would overlook. There is quite a little repetition and it could do with cross references to skip between related entries. It has a limited section on further reading rather than full references.

China Culture Smart!, Kathy Flower, Kuperard, 2010

168 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 978-1857335026 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book Travel book
Part of a series covering all countries that aims to quickly give a flavour of a country. This small book is too brief to serve as a full culture guide or reference. Unfortunately it has a number of errors, particularly in the pinyin phrases that make it an unsafe guide. Written in an entertaining style it does bring out the key cultural differences and would be useful for a brief business visit.
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China, Sir Henry Arthur Blake, A & C Black, 1909

129 pages. 3.0 stars ASIN B00DB5HDQK Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book Travel book
Although titled 'China' this is only a cursory sketch of the country. Written by the British Governor of Hong Kong in 1909 it gives an interesting perspective on China at the time. Details bring the various short scenes and topics to life, as do the skilful watercolours scattered through the pages. The attitude of the British to China is clear from his writings - sympathetic but paternalistic. It is really a miscellaneous set of jottings but still of value.
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China: A Concise History, Meyer, Littlefield Adams, 1984

354 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-8226-3033-8 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book
To understand Chinese history it is important to view it from as many perspective as possible. Each historian has their own slant and particular points to make. Meyer, in this survey up to 1976 does an admirable job of putting each time period into focus. It has a good bibliography and index. The first section quite rightly looks at the Chinese way of life (110 pages): age old customs and traditions, before launching into the historical survey.
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China: A Macro History, Huang, Sharpe,1990

281 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 0-87332-728-4 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book
A 'macro' view of history is a way of stepping back from details and trying to make sense of the complex patterns that form the bigger picture. Ray Huang summarizes each major period of Chinese history highlighting the key trends and developments. This is really aimed at undergraduates studying Chinese History. However, there is little factual material that can not be found elsewhere, its value is in analysis and context.
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China: Library of Nations,TimeLife,1984

160 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 0-7054-0840-X Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Travel book
More of a coffee table picture book than a work of reference this book is a series of 'essays' about different aspects of China. It is a pleasant enough book to look through but there is no list of references and as this was produced in 1984 it documents a bygone age.
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Chinese Characteristics, Arthur Henderson Smith, North China Herald, 1890

278 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-1230225128 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book Philosophy book
Written at the height of Christian missions to China, this book gives the Westerner's perspective of the Chinese character. The book gives many examples of the life in China at the time (pre-Republic) and is generally negative. The author sees little hope for reform without Christianity providing the necessary moral and spiritual guidance.
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Chinese Civilization - A source book, Patricia Ebrey, The Free Press, 1993

524 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0029087527 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book Literature
Most of the time we see Chinese history through the distorting lenses of the historians who have translated and analyzed the source documents. Often we are not entirely sure what historians have actually read to form their view. This is where this source book is invaluable. It is a set of one hundred source documents all gathered together and translated into English. It covers the whole of Chinese history from the Shang dynasty to the 1989 democracy protest. Each article is given a brief introduction but is then just printed unmodified. Obviously the choice of which 100 articles to include has a strong bearing on the attitude to an event and this is where care needs to be taken in interpreting one document from one time period as representative of the whole.
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Chinese Lattice Designs, Daniel Dye, Dover, 1974

469 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0486230962 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Art book Chinese traditions book
One of the key features of traditional art has been the intricate and varied designs of the wooden lattices used to decorate windows. This book gathers together designs from all over China and carefully categorizes them. Often the design goes back hundreds of years to the Ming dynasty. The geometric patterns are fascinating and immediately convey an Oriental flavor.
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Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs, C.A.S. Williams, Tuttle, 1993

472 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-8048-1586-0 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text Chinese characers History book Art book Chinese traditions book
A treasure trove of Chinese symbols in alphabetical order. Unfortunately now a bit dated, particularly as it uses Wade-Giles not pinyin. He covers a lot of Buddhist deities and motifs that are neglected elsewhere. Each entry has source references. However illustrations are disappointing, as the book title says 'art motifs' you may have expected lots of illustrations from art works, there are some but not very good ones.
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Chronicles of the Chinese Emperors, Ann Paludan, Thames and Hudson, 1998

224 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 0-500-05090-2 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
A lavishly illustrated delight. Covers all the dynasties in time order with every emperor getting a mention. The most attractive feature are the illustrated panels covering related cultural topics. It is a most commendable factual account of Chinese history. The only things it lacks, may be, are overviews of the time periods and putting events into a global context. As it is titled a 'chronicle of emperors' one would not expect it to cover the lives of ordinary Chinese people but all major developments are covered.
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Early Civilization in China, Willaim Watson, Thames and Hudson, 1966

143 pages. 3.0 stars ASIN B0018GTEK2 Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text History book
A very creditable but now dated survey of Chinese art from the earliest times (Neolithic) up to the start of the Han dynasty. Many useful and attractive illustrations of pottery and bronzes over the two thousand years. The development of a uniquely 'Chinese style' is made evident from the evolution of form and ornamentation. This is a book based around archaeology and art history and not dynastic history.
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Emperor of China, Jonathan Spence, Vintage Books, 1974

226 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 978-0679720744 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book
It is amazing to read about the life of a great Emperor in his own words. Emperor Kangxi reigned over 60 years (1661 to 1722) and his humanity, scepticism and sheer hard work are expressed in his writings. He is rightly regarded as one of the great emperors. He took care to rule as wisely as he could and was not above self-criticism. A fascinating book from the great Jonathan Spence.
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Everyday Life in Early Imperial China, Michael Lowe, Carousel, 1973

201 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 978-0880291774 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
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.
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God's Chinese Son, Jonathan Spence, Harper Collins, 1996

400 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-00-255584-0 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
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.
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History: China Handbook Series, Foreign Languages Press, 1982

190 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 0-8351-0985-2 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book
This rare book was produced in Beijing to set out the official Chinese Communist Party's view of history. It is interesting to read Chinese history from this perspective. As you would expect the sufferings of the mass of people is given coverage rather than squabbles among Imperial families. It lacks an index which is a shame. The style is fairly 'official' and full of facts and there are no source references. It is the sort of book you need to read to see Chinese History from another angle, it is then possible to identify the points of divergence and interpretation compared to scholarly but 'foreign' historians.
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Insight Guides: China, APA publications, 1994

406 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 0-395-66244-3 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text History book Travel book
Every travel guide to China seeks to say something different about the country. This nicely illustrated book covers most regions of China as well as customs and traditions. The copy I have is rather out-of-date and the articles that are written by a variety of contributors vary in quality. It is not the best guide book available for travelers.
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Life along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield, University of California Press, 1999

242 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 978-0520232143 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
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.
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Lion and dragon in northern China, Reginald Johnston, Murray, 1910

451 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-1313763936 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
Reginald Johnston went on to be the Emperor Pu Yi's tutor and friend so it is to be expected that he knew a thing or two about China. This book is not a history or diary, it is a collection of musing on the traditions, legal system and religion of China at the time that he was governor of the British colony at Weihaiwei, Shandong.
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Lonely Planet: China, 1988

821 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-86442-003-X Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers History book Travel book
I have the 1988 edition of the Lonely Planet guide. This was written for the first back-packer tourists when China opened its doors to tourism. The descriptions of historic sites is still useful but the rest is now out-of-date: places to stay; transport and places to eat. The style is very informal, as a well informed, young traveler would write. It has a basic 160 page guide to everything a traveler needs to know covering history, culture and language. Later editions have been updated and improved but I would still go for the Eyewitness China guide instead.
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Massacres of Christians by heathen Chinese and horrors of the Boxers, Harold Irwin Cleveland, Miller, 1900

612 pages. 3.0 stars ASIN B00088SG0A Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
Disregard the title, this is not a polemic about the evil Chinese; in fact it is really a China reference guide covering all aspects of China as they were in 1900. It is fascinating to read attitudes and misunderstandings that were prevalent at the time. It is a bit disorderly and misleading, the chapter on China and India for example is more about Christian missionary work on China. Subjects covered include: geography (provinces, mountains, rivers); education; missionaries; Korea; Japan; England and Russia; Treaty ports; Army and Navy; the Emperor; Mandarins; Railways; Tea; Opium etc.. Basically a reference to all that was known at the time. It does have a detailed chronology and background to the Boxer Rebellion which gives the book its title - the hot topic at the time.
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Modern China: A companion to a rising power, Graham Hutchings, Harvard University Press, 2003

530 pages. 2.5 stars ASIN B01K9AI7XM Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Modern history book
This is an encyclopedia of entries from agriculture to Zhu Rongji rather than a standard history. This makes it pretty impossible to read from cover to cover. It is about 'modern' history so leaves out mention of anything pre-1900, it also has good entries on each province and institution. Graham Hutchings has a generally anti-Communist and pro-Western outlook that makes it a useful counterbalance to accounts that originate from China. He is reluctant to say anything good came from the Communist Era 1949-1985. The text highlights links to other topics which is helpful. Overall it is a useful reference for the modern period, but only in conjunction with other sources. It has a bibliography but no source references for individual encyclopedia entries.
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Nagel's Encyclopedia guide: China, Nagel, 1978

1503 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-2826307310 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book Travel book
Up to about 1970 Nagel produced the definitive guides to all the major countries in the World, they were required travelling companions for diplomats and tourists. They are voluminous guides and concentrate on historic sites on a province by province basis. My copy dates to 1978 and so is well out of date in terms of town and city plans and statistics. It has a 400 page introduction covering geography, language, history, art, culture and traditions. Originally written in French some illustrations are bi-lingual. There are several fold-out maps and plans. The depth of detail of the historic sites is exceptional. As it was 'the' guide for diplomats to use, trouble was taken to keep it as accurate as possible, and some material remains very useful.
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Old Beijing: In the Shadow of the Imperial Throne, Xu Chengbei, Foreign Languages Press,2001

240 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 7-119-02786-7 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book Modern history book
I was excited to find this book at the local Oxfam bookshop. It contains hundreds of archive black and white photographs of pre-1949 Beijing. 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.
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Return to Dragon Mountain, Jonathan Spence, Quercus, 2008

332 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0143114451 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
Jonathan Spence is renowned for his scholarly works on Chinese history. In this book he gives a detailed biography of the famous Ming historian Zhang Dai who saw the dynasty fall in 1644. After a life as a member of the rich, scholar elite of Ming China Zhang became an impoverished recluse under the Qing and spent many years writing a history of the Ming. The book starts off well but somehow runs out of steam towards the end. It gives a unique insight into life in late Ming China.
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The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China, ed. Brian Hook, Cambridge University Press, 1991

502 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0521355940 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text History book Art book Chinese traditions book Modern history book
An extensive and heavy book that covers all aspects of China: history, geography, religion, arts and language. Unfortunately it is written by a large number of different 'experts' and quality is mixed. It can not be used as a standard encyclopedia - you need to read whole sections. The text is 'academic' rather than readable prose and lacks vitality. Because it is written by so many authors there is overlap and no cross references, even so some parts are very valuable, particularly on technology.
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The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Patricia Embury, Cambridge University Press, 2010

352 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 0-521043519-6 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
Cambridge University Press produce a mammoth in-depth history of China, this can be considered an abridgement of this work. It has copious illustrations and useful panels describing key parts of Chinese culture and history. It covers the whole time period from pre-history to the present day - a lot to cover in one book. It is a fascinating and engaging read and to be recommended as a key overview.
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The Chan's Great Continent, Jonathan Spence, Penguin,1998

279 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0140281743 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
Jonathan Spence, a leading expert on China, has written many fascinating books about China. They all concentrate on a different aspect of Chinese history. In this one he looks at contacts with foreign countries from the time of Marco Polo to the 1920s. He puts particular emphasis on the attitudes to China which range from wonder to contempt. We forget the times when every great house just had to have a collection of Chinese porcelain; every fine garden was heavily influenced by Chinese taste and design. The book contains many new and entertaining perspectives on how different cultures have both admired and despised each other.
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The Chinese Renaissance, Hu Shi, University of Chicago, 1934

110 pages. 3.0 stars ASIN B007T276WM Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Modern history book
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.
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The City of Light, Jacob d'Ancona: translated by David Selbourne, Abacus, 1997

516 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0316639682 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
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.
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The Civilization Of China, Herbert A. Giles, Bickers and Dagny, 1911

136 pages. 3.0 stars ASIN B0084ABT4E Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
Giles was a pioneer in the study of China in the modern age. After spending 25 years as a diplomat in China he came back to become Professor of Chinese at Cambridge, England. This book surveys the traditions, religion, legal system of ancient China. He does not cover the history in a consistent fashion. Some of his first-hand accounts of games, attitudes to women etc. are not readily found elsewhere.
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The Death of Woman Wang, Jonathan Spence, Penguin,1978

169 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-14-005121-X Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
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.
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The Dragon Empress, Marina Warner, Hamish Hamilton, 1972

247 pages. 3.5 stars ASIN B0006C4SLO8 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book
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.
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The Emperor's River, Liam D'Arcy-Brown,Eye Books, 2010

279 pages. 2.0 stars ASIN B00ARGHN3E Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book Travel book Modern history book
More a travelogue than a guide to the Grand Canal, this book documents a modern journey to try to follow the route from Hangzhou to Beijing. He meets many local characters who inject interest into this rather pedestrian book. A set of color illustrations would have greatly added to the enjoyment. The history of the Emperor's River (Grand Canal) is somewhat buried and fragmented. He finds out at first hand that much of the northern section is non-navigable, indeed its route is hard to trace, a fact that the authorities wish to cover up as it is held up as a major Chinese achievement.
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The First Chinese Embassy to the West, J.D. Frodsham, Clarendon Press, 1974

222 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0198215554 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Travel book Modern history book
There are many books about Westerner's first impressions of China from Marco Polo onwards. How many people have read of the Chinese first impressions of the West? This book has selected extracts from the contrasting diaries of three Chinese who formed the first Embassy to Britain in 1876. A very interesting study of cultural understanding and misunderstanding that ruined the promising career of Guo Songtao.
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The First Emperor of China, Frances Wood, Profile Books, 2007

209 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 978-1846680410 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book
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.
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The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Jonathan Spence, Penguin, 1982

516 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0140062793 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Modern history book
Jonathan Spence always manages to write on interesting topics and never delivers just another 'standard' history. In this dense volume he covers the period 1895-1980 from the perspective of the reformers, writers and thinkers, with political events as the backdrop. Being a writer in this century was a hazardous profession, adulation was all too often followed by condemnation. The biographies of leading writers such as Kang Youwei, Lu Xun, Ding Ling and Lao She are set out in detail. The many ideas for China's future are explored as well as the changing attitudes to the past. Which approaches seem to win in this continuing struggle is an engaging topic for study.
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The Great Wall, Man, Bantam, 2008

411 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-978-0-553-81768-3 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text History book Travel book
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.
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The History of the Ti-Ping Revolution, Augustus Lindley, Cox and Wyman, 1866

842 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-1481220446 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
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.
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The last days of Old Beijing, Michael Meyer, Walker, 2008

309 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 978-0802716521 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Modern history book
In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 priority was given to 'tidying up' Beijing ready for visitors. A particular target was the old hutong districts regarded by many planners as slums ideal for redevelopment. The author lived in the hutongs as a volunteer English teacher at a local school. He describes the misuse of planning to evict people from the last few, old district and the general disregard for preserving the past. The book includes chapters on history and planning process but it is the detailed description of the hutong residents that brings the book to life. It is a distressing tale of how rapid modern development has destroyed age-old communities. Essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the hutong districts and how Chinese planning system works.
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The Last Emperor, Edward Behr, Futura, 1987

335 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0773680258 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text History book
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.
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The Lion and the Dragon, Aubrey Singer, Barrie and Jenkins

192 pages. 3.0 stars ASIN B01HC0M56M Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text History book
This is an account of the very important British embassy to the court of the Qing Emperor Qianlong. The mutual miscomprehension of European and Chinese values and cultures is evident throughout the visit. It offers an outsider's view of the Manchu elite with rather little about ordinary China and Chinese people.
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The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements, J.D. Vaughan, Oxford Asia Paperbacks, 1879

126 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 0-978-1241496104 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
This is a rare insight into the attitude of Englishmen towards the Chinese. It was written in 1854 and reflects the views of the time - European culture as superior and Chinese as quaint and strange. To understand the British perspective, It is important to try to understand the viewpoints at this time. The Chinese community described was at Singapore. The book is a collection of short pieces and it has no index. He plays particular attention to the secret societies that were prevalent at the time for running overseas communities.
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The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Jonathan Spence, Faber and Faber, 1984

350 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0140080988 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
A deceptive title. This is much more about the life of Matteo Ricci and the work of the Jesuits than it is about China or memory palaces (disappointingly little). It seems the author thought that memory images would be a good way of dividing up the book into categories (warfare, foregners, sin and Christianity) but it does not work well and he gives up on the idea part way through. It is very scholarly and factually dense making it a challenging read and he does not split up the long chapters into more manageable sections. Essential reading to get to the mindset of Jesuits in the late 16th century.
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The Opium War through Chinese eyes, Arthur Waley, Stanford University Press, 1958

256 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0804706117 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
It is important to see both perspectives of the Opium War conflict with Western powers in the mid-nineteenth century. This book uses the personal journals of the famous Commissioner Lin Zexu and other eye witnesses of the first War with the British. The book shines very useful light on different cultural attitudes and serious misunderstandings.
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The Origin of the Chinese People, John Ross, Pekanduk, 1994

189 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-1330079515 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book Language book Philosophy book
This old but useful book looks at early China, up to the foundation of the Qin dynasty. It looks at the development of the written script and the philosophy of Kongfuzi (Confucius). At the time this was written (1916) the idea that China was a distinctly different civilization was a subject of debate among Western scholars. Many thought Chinese culture must have been an offshoot from the Middle East. This book puts forward a strong case that China developed in isolation and this important fact explains some key cultural differences up to the present day. It includes a number of illustrations of Zhou and Shang dynasty scripts.
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The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta 1350-1988, Philip Huang, Stanford University Press, 1990

421 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 0-8047-1788-5 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book
An unusual academic study. It takes one area - the lower Yangzi - and follows agricultural practice over six hundred years. Most space and emphasis is given to the changes from 1950-1988. It is of interest to those seeking to understand how agriculture has developed in China.
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The Question of Hu, Johnathan Spence, Vintage, 1989

187 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 0-679-72580-6 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
A short book of the extra-ordinary life an early Chinese Christian convert who was brought back to France to help translate Chinese books. He became deranged and was confined in an asylum, possibly the cultural and religious changes were too much for him. A rather sad tale of European misunderstanding of China. Spence uses the letters of Jesuit Foucquet as his primary source.
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The Revolution of 1911,Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1976

174 pages. 3.0 stars Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Modern history book
A rare book published by the PRC to explain the revolution and why it failed. It gives a lot of historical details that are not published elsewhere. It is very supportive of Mao's view on the subject.
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The Sextants of Beijing, Waley-Cohen, Norton, 1999

322 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-393-04693-1 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book
What a misleading title! I thought this was going to be just about western contacts particularly in the Matteo Ricci period (around 1600). It is much more general in scope, describing Chinese contacts with foreign cultures from earliest days up to the Peoples Republic. It seeks to over-turn the view that China has always been self-contained and inward looking while in fact China has been the most cosmopolitan of countries at key moments in World history. By understanding China's attitude and relations with foreign countries a good deal is discovered about China itself.
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The Shorter Science and Civilization in China, Needham and Ronan, Cambridge University Press, 1978

325 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-521-29286-7 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book
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.
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The Stone of Heaven, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001

429 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 978-0753813294 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text History book Art book Chinese traditions book
A disappointment. There are really two books here: a journalistic scoop on the apalling condition of the Burmese jade mines and a survey of jade ornaments throughout Chinese history. There is far too much tedious detail that are not part of the narrative - about half of book could have been left out. There are some unfortunate repetions of debunked myths and some inaccuracies. It seems it was written rapidly without due care on checking facts. Even so it does give an insight into the shady world surrounding China's most precious treasure.
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The Taiping Revolution, Various, Foreign Languages Press, 1976

188 pages. 3.0 stars ASIN B000FEKKA6 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book
This rather dated little book was produced in China at a time when the Taiping Rebellion was seen as the forerunner of the Communist revolution. It therefore gives the pro-Taiping view often absent in the works of Western historians. It considers the positive ambitions for land reform and equality that attracted its millions of followers just like the Communists 70 years on.
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The Treasures and Dynasties of China, Bamber Gascoigne, Jonathan Cape, 1973

256 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0224009256 Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Art book Chinese traditions book
Bamber Gascoigne was a much loved TV personality. When a major Chinese exhibition came to London he wrote this book. It covers the dynastic history of China in a very readable and thought provoking way. He uses sources not generally mentioned to bring history to life and shows a deep interest in Chinese history.
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The Walled Kingdom, Witold Rodzinski, Fontana, 1984

450 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 0-00-686148-2 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text History book
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.
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Through the Chinese Revolution, Ralph and Nancy Lapwood, Spalding and Levy, 1954

216 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 978-0883550793 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Modern history book
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.
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Treason by the book, Jonathan Spence, Penguin,2001

300 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-713-99449-5 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text History book Chinese traditions book
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.
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Twilight in the Forbidden City, Reginald Johnston, Oxford Paperbacks, 1934

486 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-1843560203 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book Modern history book
Reginald Johnston was the last Emperor's favorite tutor and trusted friend (1919-24). As the Westerner with the most knowledge of the Qing dynasty's fall his perspective is enlightening. However this is certainly not a detailed biography of Puyi (as in The Last Emperor by Edward Behr) most of the content is about the internal power politics of the time. The author sets the record straight as far as the misconceptions of this time of transition. He was very loyal and attached to the Emperor and believed that the restoration of the Qing dynasty as a constitutional monarchy (like Britain) would have been the best outcome for China; as this did not happen this account gives a valuable perspective on events. His account trails off after the Emperor fled the Imperial Palace and skates over events leading to Puyi's move to Manchuria. Johnston writes well and was certainly a great scholar of Chinese culture and traditions.
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When America first met China, Eric Jay Dolin, Liveright, 2013

394 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 978-0871406897 Details/purchase B/W illustrations No characters History book Chinese traditions book
A disappointing read as it is not true to its title - there is virtually nothing about meetings of Chinese and American people. It is mainly about the American sea trade in general so there is a lot about such things as fur trading and tea clippers. Somehow the Opium Wars gets a lengthy treatment even this did not effect the Americans (even though Americans did take part in the trade). It does however cover the often neglected and shameful coolie trade. In general the book is all about the US sea trade where it effected China but you will learn very little about the Chinese point of view.

Modern History books (mainly post 1912)

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Away with all pests, Joshua Horn, Modern Reader, 1969

192 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-85345-199-0 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
Joshua Horn was a British surgeon who followed in the eminent footsteps of Norman Bethune. He witnessed the revolution in medical care under the new Communist government 1954-69 when Western medicine was enthusiastic embraced. He was impressed by the dedication of the newly trained medics in difficult circumstances. It has many personal recollections of contact with the Chinese.
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China through the sliding door, John Gittings, 1999

261 pages. 4.0 stars 978-0684870229 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
The book is a collection of articles written 1968-98 by the admired and perceptive Guardian reporter John Gittings. The book contains first hand accounts of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, Tibet and Deng Xiaoping reforms. Each chapter contains an overview of a group of related reports. An invaulable guide to China over this period of rapid change with fascinating details of everyday life.
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Experiences of China, Percy Cradock, John Murray, 1999

319 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 0-7195-6042-X Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
The perspective of an English diplomat is a useful viewpoint on China's often fraught relations with Britain and the West in the 1960s. The burning down of the British mission building in 1967 symbolizes this hostility. The book says much about international relations but rather little about China itself. The book also covers the negotiations over the future of Hong Kong.
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Five Essays on Philosophy, Mao Tsetung, Foreign Languages Press, 1977

157 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 978-0835104517 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Modern history book
To understand the early days of the PRC it is necessary to know Mao Zedong's mindset. This rare book puts forth his thinking in his own words. The essays were written between 1937-57 and have been carefully hand-picked to justify his own position on key strategies.
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Inside the Red Mansion, Oliver August, John Murray, 2007

268 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 978-0618714988 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
This book was banned in China. It is a slow, tortuous story of the tracking down of the Xiamen 'criminal' Lai Changxing who built up a personal empire and fortune in the 1990s. It lifts the lid on the sleazy world of brothels, corrupt officials and fugitives attracted to a boomtown in the throes of rapid economic transformation. The style is by way of sets of conversations, many of which seem to be irrelevant sidelines to the main story of Lai's eventual capture and imprisonment. A useful guide to the less seemly side of modern China.
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Mao : A Life, Philip Short, Hodder and Stoughton, 1988

782 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-340-60624-X Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
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.
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Mowrer in China, Mowrer, Penguin,1938

216 pages. 3.5 stars ASIN B0006DCDDI Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Modern history book
This little old Penguin book was written by one of the best foreign correspondents of his day. He viewed events in the 1930s with an experienced and perceptive eye. There are few first-hand accounts of China under Chiang Kaishek and the Nationalists. After the foundation of the PRC nationalists and their sympathizers were hounded and nothing good was said about the Republican period. This book highlights the great difficulties faced by the Republican government in those days. He interviewed key members of the famous Song family and experienced the Japanese invasion. Essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the Republican perspective in those dark days.
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Nearly a Chinese: A life of Clifford Stubbs, Charles Tyzack, Book Guild Publishing, 2013

233 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-1846249631 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
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.
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Red China Today, Edgar Snow, Pelican, 1970

749 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 978-0394462615 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Modern history book
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.
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Red Dust: A path through China, Ma Jian, Vintage, 2002

324 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0099283294 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Travel book Modern history book
Ma Jian is a noted 'dissident' artist who took part in the Tiananmen protests. This book recounts a tale of his eventful travel throughout China to try to discover himself. It is a warts and all exposee of 'modern' China in 1981. It is the sort of book you need to read to get some counterbalance to the government line. I think he set out to shock too much and portray China as a flawed system. It says much about the author but not very much about China.
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Revolution in a Chinese Village : Ten Mile Inn, Isabel and David Crook, Routledge and Kegan, 1959

190 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 0-7100-3393-1 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text Modern history book
To understand how the Chinese Communist Party rose to power 1921-49 you need to know how their reforms brought the rural peasants to their side. Rather than rely on bland national statistics this in depth study looks at the individuals in one particular village and track the effects of the reforms. A series of reforms met with mixed success but eventually a more equitable and prosperous village was the end result. For critics of communism, this study will challenge deep-trenched antipathy - mistakes were made but in the end a better system resulted.
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Son of the Revolution, Liang Heng; Judith Shapiro, Vintage, 1984

292 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0394722740 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
A rare book that covers from the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of personal experiences of ordinary, poor people rather than the country's leadership. Each stage of the revolution affected the author and his family. He explores the many ways people coped with the upheavals. It is not eloquent descriptive writing and does become a little turgid in places. Essential reading if you want to trully understand the impact of the period 1966-76.
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Streetlife China, Michael Dutton, Cambridge University Press, 2000

304 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-521-63719-8 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
This is a sociological study of China's urban communities. It is a collection of articles written by mainly Chinese writers about urban culture, how it has changed and how it is changing. It covers the transitional period of the 1980s with the drift away from Maoism and covers such things as slang, tattoos, work units - which you won't find anywhere else.
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The China Threat, Bill Gertz, Regnery Publishing, 2002

280 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 0-89526-187-1 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
Sometimes it is important to see things from the other side of the wall. I am, personally, broadly convinced that China has no ambitions for world conquest. This book makes the case that America in particular is in grave danger because China has secret plans to subvert and conquer the United States. No doubt this book sold well to the hawkish elements in America, its sub title could have been 'be afraid, be very afraid'. It is not possible to refute this view all that easily as it is based on so many secret plans and documents. If you want to understand the widespread suspicion about China's motives then you need to read a book such as this.
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The Chinese : Portrait of a people, John Fraser, Fontana, 1980

474 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0671448738 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
John Fraser is a talented Canadian journalist who traveled extensively in China in the difficult period 1976-79. He takes a very critical eye on the workings of the Communist system at a time of deep suspicion of the motives of Western journalists. He became very much involved in the poster campaigns and unrest in Beijing. A very valuable insight into life in China at the time.
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The Long March 1935, Dick Wilson, History Book Club, 1971

331 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0670438457 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text Modern history book
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.
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The Long March: The Untold Story, Harrison E. Salisbury, Harper and Row, 1985

419 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0070544710 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
A detailed and authorative treatment of the Long March from Jiangxi to Yan'an with biographies of the main leaders. It lacks good detailed maps and a quick background list of the key people - too many names to take in. The last two chapters cover the Long March leaders experience under the Cultural Revolution and the rise of Deng Xiaoping. It's quite a hard read as there is so much detail to take in, but it is the details that are not reported elsewhere. It uses interviews and papers not available before 1985.
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The State of China Atlas, Benewick and Donald, University of California, 2009

128 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 978-0-520-25610-1 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
Geographical information can be dull and hard to interpret, this heavily illustrated book brings the subject to life with many colorful graphs and diagrams. There have been a number of published editions to keep the information up-to-date. It covers all the main economic and geographic data as well as government organization and the legal system. A very useful way to see how China compares to other countries and how different are the regions that make up China.
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The Writing on the Wall: China, Will Hutton, Abacus, 2007

436 pages. 1.5 stars ISBN 978-0316730181 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Modern history book
Many Americans still believe that the Chinese must surely want to be more like Americans and that the strange Communist government is doomed to fail and democracy prevail. To understand this mindset it is necessary to read American writers such as Will Hutton. This book says very little about China - particularly Chinese history and culture, it is mainly about the International Economic situation and why China does not fit into it.
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Three Essays on Party Building, Liu Shaoqi, Foreign Languages Press, 1982

300 pages. 2.5 stars ASIN B008YMDWGU Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
It is often overlooked that Liu Shaoqi was Communist party leader for the whole of the tumultuous time from 1959-1968. He espoused a more 'mixed' economy than Mao Zedong. After he was disgraced and jailed his achievements were not mentioned until he was rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. This rare book includes his core beliefs on how the Chinese Communist Party should be organized on Marxist-Leninist lines. An essential read for people studying the way that the PRC developed in its early years.
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What does China think?, Mark Leonard, Fourth Estate, 2008

134 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 1586484842 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
There are a lot of books trying to place China in the modern World, this does better than most. Mark Leonard bases his insights on personal interviews rather than other books. He manages to demolish many myths and succinctly gets to the crux of the issues facing China. An absorbing read.
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When China rules the World, Martin Jacques, 2009, Allen Lane

549 pages. 1.5 stars ISBN 978-0140276046 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Modern history book
This is a tiresome book. A vitally important subject and a contentious title lead you to think this will be a rewarding experience. The author has a pompous and extremely wordy style that makes reading needlessly hard work. Buried in the random witterings about China's past, present and future are useful facts and perspectives but they are so hard to uncover that frustration rather than enlightenment is the outcome. It reads like a brain dump rather than a carefully prepared argument. Repetitions are numerous. It has 100 pages of notes and bibliography. To learn about China's new place in he world is so important that, with severe misgivings, this book is pretty much essential reading.

Chinese traditions and philosophy

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100 Buddhist Parables, Zhang Qingnian, 1995

203 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 7-5001-0240-2 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Philosophy book
Because Buddhism is such an important religion in China it is vital to know the key Buddhist beliefs and attitudes to life. This book is collection of old parables - short stories with a moral and philosophic underpinning.
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A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, Eberhard, Routledge, 1983

332 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-415-00228-1 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Chinese traditions book
This dictionary is organized as an A-Z of all concepts used in Chinese art from Amber to Zodiac. There are many small black and white illustrations. It uses the old traditional characters in the names. There are useful cross-references to related topics but there is no index or list so it is not easy to work out whether something is covered or not and which word is used to refer to the concept. The list is pretty comprehensive and much of the material is hard to find elsewhere.

An Introduction to Feng Shui, Ole Bruun, Cambridge University Press, 2008

210 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0521682176 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Chinese traditions book Philosophy book
A very useful reference for Feng Shui. It covers the history, beliefs and development well. It is written by an adherent so there is a little bias in the treatment of the subject. Covers the adaption when the system became a fad in the West as well as more recent adoption back in mainland China.
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China A to Z, Kai Strittmatter, Haus Publishing, 2006

316 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 978-1905791316 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Chinese traditions book Travel book Modern history book
A book with A-Z in the title might be expected to be ordered alphabetically, it is not, it does not even have an index or table of contents. So it has to be read cover-to-cover and can not be classed as reference guide. It is organised as a set of 'topics' under a particular Chinese phrase. It accurately describes modern China from an ordinary person's perspective and is useful as a guide to modern Chinese views and values. I found the tone generally a bit negative about Chinese people - they are portrayed as rather shallow and selfish. There is a certain degree of repetition but the lack of an index makes it fairly useless as a guide.
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Chinese Art, Mary Tregear, Thames and Hudson,1980

216 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0500202999 Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text Art book Chinese traditions book
This book gives a good survey of the decorative arts (pottery, painting, ornaments) from earliest times to the present day. There are only a few color illustrations, most are small and in black and white; and so the art examples are hard to appreciate in detail. It is a vast subject to try to condense into a small book so this can only be regarded as an overview.
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Chinese Cultural Traditions, Yujing He, CreateSpace publishing, 2013

16 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 978-1481983211 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese traditions book
This very short booklet gives some useful everyday traditions that are useful to know when visiting China.
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Chinese Painting Techniques, Jean Long, Studio Vista, 1994

224 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-289-80114-1 Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text Art book Chinese traditions book
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.
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Chinese Painting, James Cahill, Booking International, 1995

211 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-2605003068 Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text Art book Chinese traditions book
Covers Chinese painting through the ages with many color illustrations. Paintings are critically analyzed and the changes of style over the centuries carefully explained. It does not have much to say on symbolism or general Chinese culture and traditions; it is very much a treatise on the painters and their paintings.
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Chronicles of Tao, Deng Ming-Dao, Harper Collins, 1993

476 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 0-06-250219-0 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Philosophy book Literature
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 the Communist suppression of religion to finally end up in America. Deng Ming-dao's prose style is rather labored and unrefined.
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Disputers of the Tao, A.C. Graham, Open Court, 1989

502 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 0-8126-9088-5 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Philosophy book
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.
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Feng Shui, Stephen Skinner, Parragon, 1997

96 pages. 1.0 stars ISBN 978-0752523859 Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text Chinese traditions book
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.
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Fun with Chinese Characters, The Straits Times, Federal Publications,1982

176 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 981-01-3004-X Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Chinese traditions book Language book
Published in three volumes this set of books is a unique exposition of the origin and meaning of about 450 of the most commonly used characters. Each character has a humorous cartoon suggesting how the character can be understood and there are notes on how it evolved from its ancient form. Each page also has a useful list of 'words' and phrases that use the character and an example sentence. This is a powerful and interesting way to learn Chinese characters while picking up a little Chinese culture and history along the way.
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It's All Chinese to Me, Pierre Ostrowski and Gwen Penner, Tuttle Publishing, 2011

192 pages. 3.0 stars ASIN B005M2AHY0 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Chinese traditions book Modern history book
A light hearted look at the contrasting customs and traditions in China. Useful for anyone wishing to live in China for a while. A little short on details, but the cartoons are great fun. Somewhat aimed at business traveller with a section on does and donts of business deals.
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Little-known Chinese Festivals,Shanghai Daily, Shanghai Daily, eBook

75 pages. 2.0 stars ASIN B00GZV7K24 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text Chinese traditions book
This little book covers the rarer Chinese festivals. It gives the legendary background and how the events are celebrated in China
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Monkey, Wu Ch'eng-en: translated by A.Waley, Penguin Classics, 1961

351 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-14-044111-5 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Chinese traditions book Philosophy book Literature
Monkey is the best known and most widely loved tale from ancient China. It tells the often amusing tale of how a Buddhist monk brought back scriptures from India to China. However the main character is the playful, irreverent, energetic Monkey - still often seen in films, cartoons and books. The tale does not say much about Chinese people or traditions but does give some insight into the Chinese view of Buddhism.
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Myths and Legends of China, Werner, Dover, 1922

453 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-486-28092-6 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text Chinese traditions book
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 and Daoist figures as well as folk heroes. The myths and legends of China are not widely described and it is useful as a reference.
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Symbols of China, Feng Jicai, Compendium, 2010

248 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-1849120180 Details/purchase Color illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Chinese traditions book
A lavishly illustrated book covering all aspects of China not just 'symbols': traditions, scenic sights, festivals, arts, legends and famous figures. Unfortunately many of the description are too short, just an overview and their are no references. At times the English is also rather poor. However it does give a very good overall coverage and the photographs and illustrations are very good.
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The Analects of Confucius, Confucius: translated by Arthur Waley, Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992

262 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 978-1135764364 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Philosophy book Literature
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.
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The book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Palmer and Breuilly, Arkana, 1996

320 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-14-019488-6 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text Philosophy book
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.
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The Book of Laozi: A Taoist classic, Ren Jiyu, Foreign Languages Press, 1995

103 pages. 2.0 stars ISBN 7-119-01571-0 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Philosophy book Literature
There are many translations of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) and this is a fairly modern one produced by a Chinese scholar. I find the English adequate but it does not have the poetic ring of other translations. The nuances of translation are particularly hard to get right for this ancient classic. It does not include the original Chinese text.
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The Complete I Ching, Alfred Huang, Inner Traditions, 2004

539 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-1594773860 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Chinese traditions book Philosophy book
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.
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The I Ching, James Legge, Clarendon Press, 1899

448 pages. 2.5 stars ISBN 978-0486210629 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Chinese traditions book Philosophy book
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.
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The Illustrated Tao Te Ching, Man ho Kwok and Martin Palmer, Element,1993

189 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 1-85230-322-0 Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text Chinese characers Chinese traditions book Philosophy book
The choice of a translation of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) is a very personal one. I like this modern translation with its sleek presentation and carefully chosen words. It seeks to capture the spirit of the text, not a character by character transliteration. Each chapter (or page) has the text in calligraphy on one page faced by the translation on the other. Each page has a different painting as background. It is a bit of a shame it uses Wade-Giles rather than Pinyin in places.
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The Tao and the Tree of Life, Eric Yudelove, Llewellyn Publications, 1996

230 pages. 1.5 stars ISBN 1-56718-250-X Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text Chinese traditions book Philosophy book
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.
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The Thought of Mao Tse-Tung, Stuart Schram, Cambridge University Press, 1989

242 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 0-521-31062-8 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Modern history book Philosophy book
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.
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The Wall Has Two Sides, Felix Greene, Jonathon Cape,1970

432 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0224604031 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese traditions book Modern history book
Felix Greene is an accomplished writer - he was a cousin of Graham Greene. This book is the result of a six month fact-finding trip as the only American journalist to visit China in 1960. His positive reporting of what he found counter-balances the negative view of foreign correspondents (often based at Hong Kong) at the time. He found no evidence of the abuse and famine that had been reported. Maybe he was only given access to 'appropriate' people and places but it is undoubtedly true that he captures the 'can do' attitude of China at the time.
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The Xenophobe's Guide to the Chinese, Zhu Song, Xenophobes Guides, 2010

98 pages. 3.0 stars ASIN B00796E6T4 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese traditions book Modern history book
A guide to the modern Chinese people. Good insights into the everyday lives of the Chinese. A light hearted guide that would be very useful for a Westerner going to live in China. Many topics are treated pretty superficially and there is no index or list of references.
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Western Chamber Romance, Master Tung, Li-li Ch'en, Columbia University Press, 1994

239 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-231-10119-8 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Chinese traditions book Literature
This 12th century masterpiece is a real challenge for a translator. It is a mixture of prose and poetry in complicated patterns. It is, inevitably, a story of a scholar's love for a young lady aristocrat who he rescues. It says a lot about ancient Chinese cultural attitudes.

Language books

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Cantonese Chinese: Phrase book and dictionary, Berlitz, 2003

223 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-981-246-324-1 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Language book
There are many guides to Mandarin Chinese but relatively few for Cantonese despite there being 70 million speakers in southern China. This is a traveler's phrasebook arranged by area (food, shopping, travel etc.). Characters are included too which is useful when translating to Mandarin.
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Colloquial Chinese: A Complete Language Course, Routledge, 1995

330 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-415-11386-5 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Language book
This is a basic guide for 'Getting by in Chinese', suitable for tourists and businessmen. It takes the student through a number of 'real-life' situations giving conversational Chinese. It is mostly in pinyin but some of the most common characters are introduced. Provides a sound introduction to the language.
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Mandarin Chinese: The Rough Guide Phrasebook, Rough Guides, Penguin Books, 1999

284 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-1848367333 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Language book
This is a pocket book reference for the traveler with a little knowledge of Chinese. It gives characters and a phonetic spelling of words. It is arranged as a set of useful phrases then an English to Chinese dictionary followed by Chinese to English and finally groups of related Chinese words. A handy guide.
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Routledge Grammar, Basic Chinese, Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington, Routledge, 1998

221 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 978-0415472159 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Language book
If you want to go beyond speaking and writing 'tourist Chinese' you need a good grounding in Chinese grammar. This Routledge guide goes far beyond memorizing useful phrases and serves as an essential course if you want to speak Chinese well and understand Chinese text. All the Chinese is in both pinyin and characters. It does not include a dictionary section so you will need a separate dictionary in conjunction with the book.
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The Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary, Wu Jingrong, Wiley, 1985

976 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-9620700064 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese characers Language book
Not so long ago you often needed to look up Chinese characters in a dictionary. With over 6,000 characters it is hard to memorize them all, but now the Internet has taken much of the drudgery of using dictionaries but there are still occasions when you need a full, comprehensive and accurate definition. This dictionary has 70,000 compound words and phrases that are arranged by pinyin tone. However the characters are printed so small that I need to use a magnifying glass to check them out.

Other books

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China: A Geographical Sketch, Foreign Language Press, 1974

130 pages. 1.5 stars ASIN B001OT7PF4 Details/purchase B/W illustrations Wade-Giles text
A book full of facts about the geography of China: mountains, rivers, plateaus, vegetation, soils. Rather dated now but has the merit of being written by Chinese authors.
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Poems of the Late T'ang, Various: translated by A.C.Graham, Penguin, 1977

173 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 0-14-044157-3 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Literature
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.
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Selected Stories, Lu Hsun, Foreign Languages Press ,1980

323 pages. 4.0 stars ISBN 978-0393008487 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text Literature
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.
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The Giant Panda, Ramona and Desmond Morris, Kogan Page, 1981

179 pages. 3.0 stars ISBN 978-0333324738 Details/purchase B/W illustrations No characters
Covers all that was known about the Giant Panda when the book was written - initially in 1966. since then a lot more has been written. Interesting chapters on how foreign adventurers came to China to hunt the Panda first as a trophy and then as a zoo specimen. Very little in the book about China itself.

Key to symbols used in the book descriptions

Note: More up-to-date editions of these books may well exist.

star ratingOur overall star rating for the book up to five stars.
black and white illustrationsHas black and white illustrations, none in color.
colour illustrationsHas color illustrations, often has black and white illustrations too.
no Chinese textDoes not have Chinese text in it.
Chinese pinyin textUses the modern Pinyin system for romanizing Chinese text.
Chinese wade-giles textUses the old Wade Giles system for romanizing Chinese text.
Chinese characterIncludes Chinese characters.

Many books cover more than one topic, these icons reflect all topics it may touch on.

art bookCovers Chinese art.
history bookCovers Chinese dynastic history up to 1912.
modern history bookCovers Chinese modern history from 1912 into PRC.
Chinese traditions bookCovers Chinese traditions.
Chinese literatureA work of Chinese literature (translated into English).
Chinese languageAn introduction to learning the Chinese language.
Chinese philosophyCovers Chinese philosophy / religion.
Travel in ChinaUseful travel guide to China.
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