Do you want to learn more about China? Then grab one of these Chinese history books and find yourself a cozy armchair!
Reading books about past and present China will give you a better chance to grasp the complexities of the country.
It will also sweep away the broad generalizations and media hysteria that seems to dominate a lot of the conversation.
So, if you want to get deeper into the history, culture, and mindset of China, here are some of the best books that will help you do it.
1. Modern China: A Very Short Introduction by Rana Mitter
If you don’t know much about China or its history, then this is the book to start with.
It’s short, so it’s easy to read. And it’s the perfect size to take with you in your carry-on bag if you’re traveling to China.
It’s a great starting point to your explorations because it will give you the basics on China today so that you have a better idea of what to expect once you get there.
And once you know the basics, it’ll be easier for you to start reading more in-depth books on the topic!
2. The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History by R. Keith Schoppa
China is an ancient nation, filled with customs and beliefs that are almost completely different to what you would experience in the West.
It’s almost impossible for you to learn about and understand all that history and culture, which is why you need to cut it down into bite-sized pieces.
This book on modern Chinese history looks at the last 220 years. It explores how the most crucial events in that time shaped the China of today.
The author is very clear and concise in the way he talks as well. This makes it one of the more easy-to-follow Chinese history books.
3. A History of China by John Keay
If you want more detail on China’s history and how China today came to be, then this is a great book to read.
It goes into detail about the dynasties, as well as Buddhism and Confucianism and how they led to today’s culture.
You’ll also get a good understanding of some of the most important events in China’s 5,000-year history. This includes wars, golden ages, technologies, philosophers and cultural revolutions.
Understanding this history is probably the best tool in a deeper, richer appreciation of China as a whole.
Naturally, a book with this degree of depth isn’t a short one. In fact, it’s 535 pages long with mostly text. You’ll need to be a dedicated reader to get through it!
But you don’t have to read it all in one shot of course.
You can dip in and out of the book or even flip to specific chapters. This will help you understand situations you find yourself in while you’re in the country.
4. To Change China by Jonathan Spence
Throughout history, people have tried to change China. As a foreigner living and working there, it can be tempting to try to do the same.
You may see and experience things that seem very wrong to your Western sensibilities. You may even consider it your duty to speak out and change the system.
This book won’t try to dissuade you from doing that. After all, if you want to have a lasting impact on China, then it very well may be in positive ways.
Instead, the book illustrates the ways foreigners can help, the problems they may encounter, and the importance of respecting and honoring the local cultures at the same time.
For anyone who’s heading to China with dreams of solving medical or social problems there, this is a must-read.
5. China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu-Dunn
Sometimes, the best way to learn about a country is by reading about the experiences of people who have been there and done that.
This book is written by New York Times journalists who explore the history of China through that lens.
They examine the most important events in recent Chinese history, such as the establishment of the communist government and its slow transition to capitalism. And they do it all with a firm belief in China’s bright history and its own potential.
This is a great book for overcoming any biases and mistakes in the way you think about China.
And it’s not only very informative, it’s also written in a way that’s gripping and entertaining. Flipping through the pages feels like you’re reading a political thriller!
6. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
If you’d rather learn about Chinese culture through stories, then this novel consisting of 10 short stories is a good place to start.
It was written by a former Chinese resident who lived in Beijing and each story explores a specific aspect of China’s political and cultural landscape.
Here you will find vivid illustrations of the clash between old China and the new.
The people you read about will not only touch your heart but open up your mind to a very different way of living.
7. Unbound by John Shors
Everyone who visits China goes to see the Great Wall of China, and yet few of those travelers know about the history of this landmark.
You could read a history book on the topic of course, or you could look at it through the eyes of love.
In this historical fiction novel, Meng’s husband is forced to work on the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty which lasted from 1368 to 1644. This was when the wall was at its strongest and when that protection was incredibly necessary.
This new perspective, far different from the crumbling defenses of today, is remarkably powerful and so is this story.
It not only explores the history of the wall, it also paints a vivid picture of life in the sixteenth century in Beijing, the role of women, and the uncertainty of the time.
As a fictional Chinese history book, it’s a story that won’t be forgotten. And when you’re finished with it, you’ll be surprised by how much you’ve learned from it.
8. Factory Girls by Leslie Chang
The roles of women in modern China are changing rapidly, and this book will give you a clear picture of just one manifestation of those changes.
Along with China’s rapid industrialization has come a dependence on building things and on having the workforce to meet that demand. This has created what’s known as the migrant class; people who move to the cities in search of work and a better life.
The women who make this choice often start out in the factories. The freedoms they experience in this life is usually their first taste of liberation from the traditional lifestyles of their homes.
This novel explores these new lives, the trials and problems and the painful reality of working incredibly hard for very little. Just imagine trying to claw your way up a ladder that’s overcrowded with people in the same situation!
Despite the huge, sweeping issues, the novel explores these themes in very real, down-to-earth ways.
You follow the factory girls throughout their days: in the dorms, the karaoke bars, the eateries, and the hospitals. You get a firsthand view of what it’s really like to be a woman in China in the twenty-first century.
First published over 10 years ago, this book has become a favorite among modern Chinese history books.
9. The Party by Richard McGregor
The Communist Party has been the most powerful driving force in China for the last hundred years. That’s why you can’t understand the country without understanding its inner workings.
This reality is often hidden behind the wealth, influence and culture of the country, but the veil is torn away in The Party.
The author explores the influence that communism has had in the past and how it still directs China in language that’s vivid and informed.
This book is the best summation of power in China. It shouldn’t be missed if you want to really understand how the country came to be.
10. China: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
If you want to read a book that’s lighter on text but just as illuminating, then try this photo journal.
The author backpacked through every province in China with the goal of representing the people through images.
He’s done a fantastic job at it.
From Hong Kong to Yunnan, across 56 ethnic backgrounds, numerous customs and villages, he’s managed to capture the soul of the country.
It’s probably the most complete photo record of Chinese culture and diversity in existence. It’s a spectacular introduction to the country’s people.
Psst! Planning a trip to China?
Some of you might be learning about China (through books) before you head over there for a holiday.
If this sounds like you, take a read of my article specifically about planning a trip to China which you should find beneficial.
Go deeper by reading books about China’s history
China is huge and varied. So, if you want to understand its history and where it is today, you need to take an approach that’s just as varied.
Through stories, images and political commentary, these Chinese history books will take you on a journey through this incredible country.
Hopefully they’ll whet your appetite and open your eyes so you can really appreciate China for what it is.
I’ve included links to the paperbacks as I’m a bit old-fashioned. But you can also get most of them in digital format at eBooks.com (where you’re not stuck to any particular e-reader like a Kindle).
I hope you enjoy reading some of these books. Please let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any.
Now that you’ve learned about some of the best books on understanding Chinese history, delve into the best documentaries about China and then watch one!