China is not just the most populous country in the world, it also has a very rich heritage. As one of the biggest economies in the world, it is one of choicest places to visit and there’s a lot to learn before you do.
It is not enough to just visit China to enjoy the scenery and artifacts, learning Chinese history is also important.
Best Books on Chinese History: Our Top 6 Picks
We’ve put together a list of six of the best to help you learn about the rich – and complicated – past of this astonishing country.
1. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Second Edition)
Author Patricia Buckley Ebrey begins this book by tracing the Chinese history from prehistoric times and then leads the reader to the present day, beginning with the rise of Confucianism and Buddhism, followed by the great Manchu and Mongol dynasties.
The author then touches upon the intrusion of the Western world and the communist state of the present day. This book has a phenomenal scope, embracing economics, culture, society, and foreign policy. It also discusses the way women are treated, politics, and immigration.
Of course, this book wouldn’t be complete without discussing the Tiananmen Square uprisings. These events occurred twice, first in 1919, and then again in 1989. The author expertly explores the disjuncture and continuities of Chinese history, while comprehensively introducing us to the country’s civilization.
This is the second edition of this book, containing an additional chapter in which China’s opening to the rest of the world is discussed.
China has a history that spans over 5,000 years. Readers of this book applaud the author for the effort to capture most of it. It is regarded as one of the best introductory books to Chinese history in modern times.
As a novice to Chinese history, you should find it easy to follow and understand. Relatively simple language makes it easy to read so you should be inspired to finish it in no time at all!
- Author: Patricia Buckley Ebrey
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 2nd Edition (January 25, 2010)
- Pages: 384 pages
- Edition: Second Edition
2. The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State
This book looks to shine a light on the recent transformations. The author, Elizabeth C. Economy, explains the new economic and political reforms by China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
She goes ahead to discuss how Xi has centralized power and advanced the role of the Communist Party in the political, economic, and social life of China, controlling the exchange of capital and ideas between China and the rest of the world.
Beijing has always been at the forefront of Chinese development. Economy details how this city has sought to re-establish itself as a strong force by establishing certain norms. Obviously, the Chinese government is seeking to achieve a lot more than it already has.
Economy explains the steps Xi Jinping has taken to combat corruption and explore economic and political priorities. She seems to try to help the reader experience China without even visiting the country.
Aside from the good deeds of the Chinese leader, the book also presents his flaws. It helps the reader understand the failures, shortcomings, tensions, and successes of the administration. Economy explains how Xi has affected and will continue to affect the rest of the world.
In the final pages, the book presents recommendations to the United States and other countries for how to handle their relationships with China.
Readers have lauded the effort of the author to make the otherwise complex political and economic climate of China understandable. The arguments are clear and outlined in language that is easy to understand.
The Third Revolution is not just smart but engaging, and well worth the money and time.
- Author: Elizabeth C. Economy
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (May 3, 2018)
- Pages: 360 pages
3. China: A History (Volume 1)
There are two volumes of this book by Harold M. Tanner, and each is accessible and revealing. It rigorously introduces the reader to the social, cultural, and political history of China.
China: A History provides the reader with a thoughtful and balanced approach to Chinese civilization with a step-by-step guide to the development of China from its inception through to the present day.
Both volumes include ample illustrations, alongside maps and a chronology. The author provides extensive explanatory notes along with recommendations for further reading.
Paying attention to economic and cultural development, the author makes use of recent research, creating a balance between the ancient and modern, judicious and informative.
Most readers believe this text is great if you are seeking background information about China. It is not just informative, it is also exciting to read and covers a lot of Chinese history.
- Author: Harold M. Tanner
- Publisher: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (March 15, 2010)
- Pages: 414 pages
4. Foundations of Chinese CivilizationFoundations of Chinese Civilization answers a wide range of questions by discussing a wide range of topics including China’s founders, the religion of the people, Chinese culture, and how Chinese culture has evolved with time.
The book uses comics to pass along its contents, making it easy to understand and entertaining to read. It cuts across all ages, introducing the concepts of Confucianism and Daoism, and telling the tale of the Silk Road and the stories of famous Chinese emperors, like Han Wudi.
The author, Jing Liu, explains a lot about China’s unification via a handy timeline. Liu is a native of Beijing but resides in California and uses his design skills to tell stories.
Many readers commend the author’s approach as it makes it easy for the readers to understand and remember the contents. It is not your typical comic book, neither is it an average history text.
- Author: Jing Liu
- Publisher: Stone Bridge Press (May 31, 2016)
- Pages: 168 pages
5. China: A History
Other nations of the world define themselves in terms of population and landmass. China is proud of its history and heritage, which China: A History aims to tell us about. China is known for its truly unrivaled and long history of writing.
In this book, the author, John Keay, shows the reader just how rich China’s history is by shining a spotlight on the nation’s vivid and complex past in a vital and illuminating text.
Keay goes back 5,000 years to talk about the period when the Three Dynasties existed, before taking the reader through the times of Chairman Mao to the country’s current economic transformation. This book is crisp, engaging, and judicious in delivering its message.
If you truly want to understand China and its history, this book offers you all of this and more. It also takes a quick peek into the future of this powerful nation and how it relates to other countries. Reviewers have described China: A History as an excellent text that is absorbingly readable.
- Author: John Keay
- Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint Edition (December 6, 2011)
- Pages: 608 pages
6. A Short History of China: From Ancient Dynasties to Economic PowerhouseA Short History of China is a comprehensive introduction to China’s enormous history that describes China from the prehistoric era right to the present day.
The book will take you through a 4,000-year journey that tells of the warriors, artists, philosophers, tyrants, etc, all of whom helped to shape China’s complex history.
It goes on to discuss the technological breakthroughs made by the country, including several inventions made by Chinese scientists before the Europeans visited the country. Kerr also examines how China perceives the rest of the world in his book, then concludes with a look at how China has changed over the last few decades.
Readers describe the book as straight to the point and easy to understand. The details are chronological and largely uncomplicated.
- Author: Gordon Kerr
- Publisher: Pocket Essentials (September 1, 2013)
- Pages: 160 pages
Any of these books will be very helpful in a quest for knowledge about Chinese history. They are all easy to understand and loaded with chronological details. You should definitely read any of these before visiting China.