China’s history revealed in 11 fascinating books

Mal Warwick
6 min readJun 21, 2018
Today, the news centers on the US-China trade relationship. But our two-century history of relations is far, far more complex. China is one of the most diverse and complicated nations on Earth. Credit: BBC

It’s widely believe that if the 20th was the American Century, the 21st may well prove to be China’s. There is good reason to believe that. Within less than a generation China’s economy will overtake that of the United States. It’s already number two. And under Xi Jin-Ping, China is flexing its muscles all across East and Southeast Asia, egged on by a wave of ultranationalism that is sweeping through the Chinese people. Meanwhile, the USA is in decline, no matter what our own ultranationalists might say. The proof lies in the deterioration of the country’s infrastructure, the wave of white nationalist populism that has begun to seize the levers of national power, and the failure of America’s leaders to assert world leadership on the issues that matter the most: climate change and nuclear proliferation. It behooves all Americans to learn more about the country that has emerged as our nation’s principal adversary. These 11 books about China can help.

Insightful books about China: nonfiction

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia by James Bradley — “Who lost China?” Nobody.

James Bradley’s revisionist history of US-China relations locates the roots of today’s uneasy relationship between the two nations in the missteps of FDR’s Administration and the misinformation spread by the China Lobby.

Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert D. Kaplan — Competition between the U.S. and China through the lens of geopolitics

Despite the “pivot” to Asia trumpeted by the Obama Administration, despite the constant refrain by observers of world affairs that the 21st century is shaping up to be dominated by a leadership contest between China and the US, the American news media as well as the public continue to direct their attention primarily to the Middle East and Europe. Robert D. Kaplan believes this is a tragic error.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos — Chasing fortune, truth and faith in the New China

In his brilliant survey of contemporary China, New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos trains his penetrating repertorial eye on about a dozen central figures who represent the broad range of diversity in the world’s most populous country. Age of Ambition won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949 by Kevin Peraino — Mao, Truman, and the birth of Modern China

By focusing on the events of a single year, and concentrating on just ten key individual players in the drama, Kevin Peraino has brought back to life the complex circumstances surrounding one of the seminal events of the 20th Century: the birth of the People’s Republic of China.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret — A revealing history of U.S.-China relations

Some Americans seem to have the impression that the U.S. relationship with China began in 1972 when Richard Nixon flew to Beijing. Journalist and long-time Beijing resident John Pomfret puts this mistaken impression decisively to rest. In truth, the destinies of the two countries have been closely linked for more than two centuries — and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776.

China in World History by Paul S. Ropp — Chinese history in less than 200 pages

China faces the world with critical advantages: a written language that spans numerous mutually unintelligible languages and dialects; an acceptance of “the world and human existence as facts of life that needed no supernatural explanation or divine creator;” and a contiguous landmass advantageously situated to command much of the Asian continent. Together, these facts help account for the reality that, except for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China was the world’s most advanced and prosperous nation throughout its 3,500-year history.

Insightful books about China: novels

The Incarnations by Susan Barker — A brilliant novel that spans a thousand years of Chinese history

No doubt Chinese history (or, for that matter, the history of any other people) is littered with innumerable examples of depravity, violence, and betrayal. Though I’d like to think that a few good things happened, too — and I know that they did, having read some Chinese history — the novel The Incarnations takes a thousand-year tour through the bad stuff. It’s tough to find good people in these pages. With that said, however, The Incarnations is a brilliant piece of work — consistently engrossing, suspenseful, and intricately plotted.

Sea of Poppies (Ibis Trilogy #1) by Amitav Ghosh — A superb historical novel about the opium trade by Amitav Ghosh

The story is set in 1838, shortly before the First Opium War in China which set the stage for mounting conflict in India, as the opium trade declined. Ghosh’s unforgettable characters quickly take on lives of their own, thinking and speaking in their own, often uniquely personal variations of the languages and dialects of the era. To achieve the remarkably musical cadence of the book’s dialogue, Ghosh immersed himself in contemporaneous dictionaries, grammars, and diaries. Sea of Poppies is a brilliant accomplishment. It’s worth re-reading — it’s that good.

River of Smoke (Ibis Trilogy #2) by Amitav Ghosh — A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War

The first book in this brilliant trilogy by one of India’s most outstanding writers, Sea of Poppies, set the scene with an in-depth look at the harvesting and manufacture of opium in India. River of Smoke details the life at sea and in the foreign enclave in Canton of the immensely rich men who dominated the trade, principally Britons. Ghosh’s sprawling novel spans the years 1838 and 1839, detailing the events in South China that led to the First Opium War.

Flood of Fire (Ibis Trilogy #3) by Amitav Ghosh — An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War

Opium is at center-stage in Flood of Fire, which traces the consequential history of the British, their Indian allies, and the mandarins ruling China just before and during the First Opium War. Though it occurred nearly two centuries ago, this historical event is worth revisiting today for its lasting influence on today’s Chinese rulers, whose memories are vivid about the humiliation visited on their country by the British, other Europeans, and (later) the Americans. Few of us in America today can appreciate the intense feelings this nineteenth-century conflict continues to conjure up in the minds of educated people in China.

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin — Betrayal is in the eye of the beholder

Who is the betrayed, and who the betrayer? It’s clear from the outset that there’s plenty of blame to spread around in this deeply engaging novel about a Chinese mole in the CIA. Gary (née Weimin) Shang is a young secret agent for Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists in the culminating days of the Revolution. He is singled out by his handlers to infiltrate an American intelligence unit that is later absorbed into the CIA itself. Despite begging his handlers at every turn to permit him to return to his wife and children in rural China, Shang is progressively more and more generously rewarded as he rises through the CIA ranks through three decades. He marries an American woman and fathers a daughter, the principal narrator of the novel.

For additional perspective on world history, see 61 nonfiction books about history reviewed here. You might also be interested in Understanding American history through 72 nonfiction books.

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Mal Warwick

Author, book reviewer, serial entrepreneur, board member