The Best Books About China: From History to Art

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China is a country I learned to love from its literature. My parents had a big library that seemed huge for a child. I read the books for kids and skimmed through the pages of the ones for grownups. My mind would travel to faraway places, including China, of course. As I grew up, my love affair with the country grew too. Whenever I would find a book about China, I would read it immediately. I visited the country for the first time in the year 2001 and have come back several times. I have surrendered to the beauty of China, its millenary wisdom, and its people. The following are my best books about China. I’m sure that reading them will make you fall in love with the country or keep the flame alive.

Books about China

Best Books About Chinese History

China in World History (New Oxford World History)

Author Paul S. Ropp

Without a doubt, this is one of the best books about Chinese history ever written. Historian Paul S. Ropp’s book goes from the earliest civilizations in China to the beginning of the 20th Century. Even more impressive are the topics covered by the book: economy, politics, and culture. Hard to believe that only 155 pages include so much information. The final sections are quite handy, in particular the chronology, notes, websites, and suggestions for further reading. No wonder this book is so good, it’s published by the Oxford University Press.

Books on Chinese History

The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power

Author Jonathan Fenby

Fenby’s book covers the last 150 years of China’s history in deep detail and clear language. In all honesty, some history books are good but hard to read. Not this one! Jonathan Fenby’s book is a page-turner. His book reads like a novel. The character descriptions and insights into key people are fascinating. You get to understand the psychology of historical figures. At the same time, everything has been checked and is a fact. The number of sources is quite impressive. As you can imagine, this is also a book about the different empires that influenced and fought with China. Read this book, and you will understand why China is now the epicenter of the world.

Books on Chinese History

Best Books about Mao

Mao: The Unknown Story

Author Jung Chang

Mao is probably the most popular Chinese figure in recent times. Who hasn’t heard of him? The guy played such an important role not only in the country’s history but in the entire world. Mao was a force to be reckoned with, and some will say he is still one. Jung Chang has written what is considered by many one of the best books about Mao Zedong and one of the best books about Chinese recent history. The author took a decade to complete this huge book. No wonder, considering its level of detail, the wide array of sources, and in-depth analysis. What I loved about it is that it’s brilliantly written. At times it’s hard to read since Chang’s descriptions of the horrors are realistic. Read it after finishing the history books mentioned above. That will help you understand where Mao comes from.

Books about Mao

Madame Mao

Author Anchee Min

I’ve got to admit I knew nothing of Madame Mao before reading this book. I read the book as if it was a fictional novel, which it is. However, as I was reading, I checked and researched historical data. Yes, Madame Mao is both one of the best Chinese fiction books and full of history. Not only that, but characters are portrayed originally. Three different voices tell the story. Some readers have a hard time with Madame Mao herself. So did I! The woman was mean and ill-spirited. Nevertheless, Anchee Min brought to life a real person, with all the nuances this implies. Trust me: you will have contradictory feelings about one of China’s most important figures.

Books about Mao

Best Ancient Chinese Books

The Art of War

Author Sun Tzu

The ancient The Art of War is one of the best Chinese books ever written. We are talking about one of the oldest and most famous books of all time, a military treaty written in the 5th century BC. What’s more, it is still timely and appropriate. Sun Tzu’s book is actually much more than war strategies. To me, it’s a book on how to live. We’ve all have all sorts of family members, bosses, neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Read the book thinking about each relationship in your life, and about the battlefield as your everyday life. You will be surprised how much you can learn from it.

Ancient Chinese Books

Tao Te Ching

Author Lao Tzu

Who hasn’t heard about the Tao Te Ching, one of the most celebrated ancient Chinese books of all time? How many of us have actually ready it? Written in the 6th Century BC, the Tao Te Ching is the bible of Taoism, one of China’s most relevant philosophical systems. As you probably know, Tao means the way. You will recognize some of the insights from other books. However, nothing beats the original. Besides, the book is not only a guide on how to live. What I love about it is its connection to nature. We are currently fighting nature and polluting it. The Tao Te Ching will make you fall in love with our planet once again.

Ancient Chinese Books

Best Chinese Fiction and Novels About China

Red Sorghum

Author Mo Yan

I read this book before 2012 when Mo Yan won the Noble Prize for literature. Read it, and you will agree with the Swedish academy: it’s amongst the best Chinese fiction you’ll ever read. It’s a family saga set in China from the 1920s to the 1970s. Thus, it’s also the story of the country. Red Sorghum has it all: love, hate, murder, passion, sex, pettiness, and faith. The characters are so real and the prose so compelling that you will have a hard time putting it down. The book was made into a movie in 1987, directed by Zhang Yimou, and starring my idol Gong Li. It’s a fantastic movie that won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. However, read the book first and then watch the movie.

Chinese Fiction

Waiting: a Novel

Author Ha Jin

Waiting is one of the best novels about China. It’s a beautiful love story that takes place in the years of Mao to the early Deng Xiaoping period. This is a book that will make you feel both good and sad. We are talking about falling in love with tradition and modernity, a person and society, nature and the country, and with oneself. In particular, I loved how characters develop in the first chapters. Once you know them, you understand their journey. Waiting by Ha Jin won the National Book Award in 1999 and the 2000 PEN Faulkner Award.

Novels about China

Best Books Set in China by a Foreign Writer

Empire of the Sun

Author J. G. Ballard

I’ve got to admit that J. G. Ballard is one of my favorite writers of all time. All of his books are brilliant! I loved Empire of the Sun, his story about a lost boy in Shanghai following the Japanese invasion. Though the book is fiction, it comes from real-life experiences. Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai and lived 2 years with his parents in an internment camp when Japan invaded. One of the things the Empire of the Sun excels at is Ballard’s description of pre-war Shanghai and the atrocities of war. The book inspired a superb movie by Steven Soderbergh and starring John Malkovich and Miranda Richardson. Do yourself a favor and read the book first, then watch the movie.

Books set in China

When We were Orphans

Author Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese born British writer, has written a detective story that is one of the best books set in China. It’s the story of an English boy in Shanghai who loses his parents. The story follows this boy as he grows and moves through China, London, and Hong Kong. The chapters of his early life are particularly interesting since Oe includes information of day to day life in China at the beginning of the century. I liked a lot how he never blames but describes deep-rooted emotions at a personal level and between three powers at war: China, Japan, and Britain. Another theme is memory: how we get confused and write history.

Books set in China

Chinese Books for Kids

Foundations of Chinese Civilization: The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty

Author Jing Liu

You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy this wonderful book. The scope of Jing Liu’s book is pretty impressive. It covers early China, the most famous emperors, its culture, the Silk Road, the unification of the country, Confucianism and Daoism, and endless topics. The text is concise and clear. The pictures are absolutely beautiful. It’s not your traditional comic book, with small boxes and characters saying silly things or making noises. Most illustrations cover a page or two per page. This is one of the best Chinese books for kids. I liked it a lot, but my 10-year-old niece loved it! To me, it’s the perfect blend between a comic book and a history book. One of a kind, perfect to gift to a child or yourself!

Chinese Books for Kids

The Runaway Wok: A Chinese New Year Tale

Author Ying Chang Compestine

Unlike the previous book, this one is just for kids. I gifted it to one of my closest friend’s sons, and he loved it so much he read it over and over again. The story is an old Chinese folk story that blends the ginger man with Robin Hood. It’s all about a poor family and a magic wok celebrating the Chinese New Year and love. Though the story does have a bit of a class war, it is so fun and human that any kid will love it. Ying Chang Compostine is an American-Chinese author of 20 books and winner of countless awards. The illustrations are colorful pieces of art by Sebastia Serra, a world-famous Catalan artist.

Chinese Books for Kids

Best Travel Books on China

China, Lonely Planet

Author Group of Authors

I’ve discovered Lonely Planet back in the 90s and have been a fan ever since. No, I’m not that old, I began traveling young! Lonely Planet has published several of the best travel books on China. This one is the most comprehensive and, without a doubt, the best China travel guide of all time. We are talking about over 1000 pages and 200 maps! The guide is suitable for all types of travelers, from the posh to the frugal. In fact, you will enjoy the book even if you do not travel to China. I bought my first copy some 4 years before going to China, so I had to buy an updated one for the trip. You get to know a lot of Chinese history, culture, and everyday life from first-hand accounts from fellow travelers.

Travel Books on China

Best of China Travel Guide, by Lonely Planet

Author Group of Authors

Lonely Planet did it again! Best of China is as good as the thick China travel guide but concise. We are talking about just 348 pages, 88 maps, and loads of photos. As the title says, Lonely Planet selected the best of the best China has to offer. You can argue that some things were left out, but, then again, that’s why they publish a more comprehensive guide. However, everything suggested by the book is indeed superb. Not only that, but the itineraries proposed for each province are truly helpful. Once again, the book is a great read even if you are not planning to travel to China. You will feel you are there as you read!

Travel Books on China

Best Chinese Art and Architecture Books

Chinese Architecture: A History

Author Nancy Steinhardt

Chinese architecture books are hard to find. I gifted this one to my husband, an architect, and he loves it. The scope of Steinhardt’s book is quite impressive: it includes everything from the earliest Chinese buildings to the 21st century. According to my husband, Chinese architecture is amongst the best in the world and so vast he couldn’t believe this book goes into such detail. Particularly interesting are the sections in the books about Tibet. Hailed by scholars and universities, Chinese Architecture: A History makes a good read for non-architects like me too.

Chinese Art Books

Chinese Houses: The Architectural Heritage of a Nation

Author Ronald G. Knapp

I went to China for the third time with my husband, an architect. Though he was impressed with all Chinese architecture, he fell in love with Chinese houses. We dreamt of building a Chinese inspired house for ourselves! I don’t know much about architecture, but I have to agree with him: Chinese houses are gorgeous. Thus, I did a little research and gifted him with this book. The photographs by A. Chester Ong are beautiful, and the floor plans and drawings fantastic. Ronald’s book is not only one of the best Chinese architecture books but one of the best Chinese art books too. Besides, since the book follows the Chinese Diaspora through Southeast Asia, it’s one of the best books about Chinese history and culture.

Chinese Architecture Books

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