Books about China

Page 6 (books 101 to 120)

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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 Empress Wu, C.P. Fitzgerald, Cresset Press, 1968

263 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0248997317 Details/purchase No illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
I was delighted to find this book in a local charity shop. Fitzgerald was a much admired historian of China in the period up to the 1960s. Here he looks in great detail at the life of the great and only Empress of China: Wu Zetian of the early Tang dynasty. Fitzgerald tried to disentangle the myths made up about her after her fall. Using Chinese records of the period Fitzgerald gives a full acount of the many intrigues and revolts at the Imperial court. Wu Zetian comes across as ruthless but shrewd and a much more able administrator than many Emperors. She welcomed and did not punish people with well reasoned arguments aginst her actions but anyone who appeared to lie or defraud faced swift punishment. The ordinary Chinese people do not get much of a mention, but for them it would appear her long period in power was one of peace and prosperity.
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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 Genius of China, Robert Temple, Inner Traditions, 2007

285 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0233002026 Details/purchase Color illustrations Wade-Giles text History book Chinese traditions book
A survey of the extra-ordinary range of Chinese inventions. Robert Temple presents a gorgeously illustrated survey of Joseph Needham's mammoth work on Chinese Science and Civilization. Nearly everything you can think of from plastic to matches and rudders to bridges were invented in China hundreds of years before anywhere else. I would love to give it a whole-hearted 10/10 but its weakness is that Robert Temple has not looked anywhere else other than Needham's work and his views on first usage are widely challenged by other scholars. Some claims are poorly supported and he always takes the view China was there first. Although China did invent many things most of them were not taken up and lost. The huge number and longevity of Chinese writings has distorted the study of inventions, many could well have come from elsewhere, they were simply never formally recorded there. However it is a very readable account of Chinese ingenuity in every field.
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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.
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The Good Women of China, Xinran, Vintage, 2003

230 pages. 3.5 stars ISBN 978-0099440789 Details/purchase No illustrations Pinyin text Chinese traditions book Modern history book
This book tells the often distressing fate of women in China. Xinran is a famous journalist who ran a popular confessional phone-in radio programme at Nanjing. Xinran followed this up by interviewing a number of these women. The author has a sympathetic, caring personality that allowed long held secrets to be unburdened. The main criticism of the book must be that some of the stories are now rather dated (some from pre-1949) and attitudes towards women have somewhat improved since those dark days.
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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 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 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 districts 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, 1992

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. It is a readable compiled from the journals. Relatively little about the Chinese side of this adventure which was doomed from the start. The mutual mis-comprehension 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 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 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 leading the 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, foreigners, 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.

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.