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Books about China

How we caught up on history and politics

In between all our running around we did find some time to actually read about China. It was a struggle, but well worth it. If we hadn't read some of these books we'd be completely unaware of a lot of referrences that float about. And our little bit of education helps us when we are faced with  certain "historical" statements made by the PRC government in its museums, etc.

A Dream of Red Mansions

A 3-volume novel written in and about 18th century China. It is rather long and tedious in parts (perhaps because of the quality of the translation) but gives a very detailed and mostly fascinating look at life in a rich Chinese family under the Qing dynasty. It is of course a soap opera that has been adapted for television in China and was apparently very popular.

The supernatural twist to the story doesn't hardly detract from the pleasure of being a fly on the wall of this large extended family as they struggle to prevent the decline of the family fortunes. Great to read while in China because of the insights into Chinese culture that it provides.


The Life of Confucius

A detailed account of the life of the 4th century BC philospher known to the Chinese as Kong Fu. He lived in the lower Yellow River plain, the heartland of where Chinese culture first developed. Centuries later is conquered and spread, as far south as today's Vietnam, but in Kong Fu's day the region consisted of a lot of petty kingdoms. He wandered from palace to palace in search of a patron worthy of him, but never found one to his liking. Like Buddha and Christ, he might be unheard of today except for his disciples. The greatest of them, Menacius, put his words into writing and laid the foundation for Confucianism. In fact, the "religion" did not take off until nearly a thoughsand years later when political expediency of the then emperor led him to adopt and spread it.


Woman in World History - Soong Chingling (Mme Sun Yatsen)

by Israel Epstein


Mostly a propaganda tract for the Communist Party but provides a   basic outline of 20th century Chinese history of which I had been largely ignorant. Interesting as a counterpoint to Wild Swans. Sun Yatsen is revered as the first President of Republican China and his second wife, Soong Chingling had two sisters. One married Chiang Kaishek, the other his finance minister H.H. Tung. Soong Chingling became an ambassador and apologist for the Communists.


Wild Swans - Three Daughters of China

by Chang Jung.


A wonderful first person account of the author's life during the Cultural Revolution combined with biographies of her mother's life as an official in Communist China and of her grandmother's life as a concubine in Imperial China, a wife and mother under the Guomindang (Chiang Kai Shek), a mother and grandmother under the Communists. This book covers almost the same period as the Soong Chingling biography but gives a very different and much more riveting picture of China in the 20th century. 650 wonderfully-written, action-packed pages. A must read.


The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan D. Spence.

We bought this book in Hong Kong at the end of our first 3-month stint in China. We were anxious to find a third-party history of China having found all references in China itself even to pre-Communist history to be heavily skewed by Communist propaganda. A very nicely written account of the history of China from 1600 to the present day.


The Last Emperors

by Harrison Salisbury


This biography of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping is a terrifically written short history of the Communist State. The first two thirds are about Mao. The ways he manipulates people are chillingly told. Highly recommended.


The Collision of Two Civilizations: The Embassy to China in 1793 of Lord George Macartney.

by  Alain Peyrefitte

A wonderfully written and translated account of the unsuccessful attempt by Lord George Macartney, on behalf of George III, to persuade Qianlong, the 3rd Qing emperor, to open up China more to British trade. A very clear-eyed view of the foibles of both sides as well as a brief account of the consequences of the embassy's failure. Highly recommended. Jan was especially impressed by Jon Rothschild's translation from the French original.


God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

by Jonathan Spence

A much less weighty book than the history of Modern China, also by Spence, but the story of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1850-1860) and its leader Hong Xiuquan is worthy of a Hollywood epic. It is also sad and depressing for the amount of blood shed on both sides and the lack of concern either leader had for the day-to-day well-being of their subjects. In our travels, particularly in Nanjing, we saw several Taiping sites.


East and West 

by Chris Patten, former Governor of Hong Kong.


An interesting after-the-fact justification of Patten's failed attempt to introduce democracy to Hong Kong in spite of the vigorous opposition of the Chinese government. Like us, he obviously did a lot of learning "on the job". Most interesting are his comments about dealing with the Chinese government. The very unrepresentative sample of people that I have talked to about Patten splits clearly along racial lines: the Chinese didn't like what he did, the Brits did.

Patten seems to have created a career as negotiator for impossible tasks. Most recently he has headed the "Patten Commission" in Northern Ireland.

last updated April 26, 2000; links fixed 8/28/2002