Making Sense of Chinese History: A Reading List

A picture of a book shelf I own.

We often hear of people who will descend to any servility, submit to any insult for the sake of getting themselves or their children into what is euphemistically called good society. Did it ever occur to them that there is a select society of all the centuries to which they and theirs can be admitted for the asking?

—James Russel Lowe (1855)

—Chinese proverb

Razib Khan and Omar Ali, friends of mine who blog at Brown Pundits, invited me onto their podcast this week to talk about Chinese history, literature, and geopolitics. Our discussion was wide ranging. Among other things, we talked about the role that Chinese history plays in modern Chinese rhetoric and pop culture, the “four great novels” of Chinese literature, my extreme skepticism with the claim that there is a “Chinese way of war,” common misconceptions about Chinese history, how the growing purchase of Indian, Japanese, and Korean pop culture among the Chinese people might shape Chinese relations with these countries in the future, the vision PRC leaders have articulated for the sort of world order they wish to create, and what “socialism” means to the leadership of the Communist Party of China.

One of the first questions that Omar asked me was what a complete beginner should do to get into Chinese history. I did not answer that question as straight as I ought to have. Instead, we focused on why someone hoping to understand modern China should care about the philosophers, poets, and historical figures of China’s past. In making this case I invoked Mortimer Alder’s description of the Western canon as a “great conversation.” Here is how he put this idea:

“What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways” [1]

As Adler saw it, understanding Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Conrad requires a knowledge of what came before them. Their words, ideas, and works were inspired by the good that came before, written in response to the bad which they deplored, and full of allusions to both. It is hard to appreciate or engage with these authors in isolation.

Something similar might be said for the great Chinese thinkers. It can be difficult to understand what a 20th century luminary, be they a famous writer like Lu Xun or a revolutionary dictator like Mao Zedong, was getting on about if you don’t understand the historical and literary allusions that pepper their works. To understand what people are saying in modern China you need a fairly strong background on what Chinese were saying centuries ago.

While I stressed the need to do this on the Browncast, I did not provide a good reading list to help people who wanted to go about actually doing as I advised. This post is an attempt to make up for that oversight. I have divided my list into two parts, each containing nine titles. The first part, which I label “Level One,” requires less commitment. Most of its titles are less than 200 pages or are divided up into smaller sections which can be read as stand-alone pieces. Some of the “Level Two” books can be divvied up into smaller pieces, but not all of them can. Several are thousands of pages long. They require a significantly larger time commitment than the “Level One”  titles.

Before we continue, I should be very clear about what the goal of this list is. My intent is not to provide a birds eye view of Chinese civilization. This list is not about finding macro-historical patterns or the dynamics of East Asia’s long duree. If that is what you are interested in, I would recommend starting with Richard von Glahn’s The Economic History of China, Li Feng’s Early China, Donald Graff’s Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900 AD (it is really more of a military themed institutional and political history), Robert Mark’s China: An Environmental History and the six volumes in Harvard’s History of Imperial China series. This list should be considered a humanist’s introduction to Chinese history. It is designed to introduce you to the characters, personalities, ideas, books, and events that have shaped “the great conversation” of the Chinese tradition. The hope is that after having read these books you could be given a primary source document from most any period of imperial or modern China and have a good idea of what is being discussed inside it.



Dennis Bloodworth and Ching-pei Bloodworth, Chinese Machiavelli: 5,000 Years of Chinese Statecraft, 2nd ed. (Transaction Publishers, 2004).

John E. Willis, Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

Orville Schell, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 20th Century (New York: Random House, 2013).


Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (New York: Hackett Publishing, 2005).

Philip Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation, 2nd ed. (New York: Hackett Publishing, 2000).

Hans Georg Moller, The Philosophy of the Dao De Jing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).


Bill Porter (“Red Pine”), Finding Them Gone: Visiting the Poets of China’s Past (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press).

Wu Ching-tzu, The Scholars, trans. Gladys Yang (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

Lu Xun, “Kong Yiji” and “Diary of a Madman” in The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun, trans. Julia Lovell (New York: Penguin, 2009).

Notes on Level One:

The first three books are similar in both function and form. Each is comprised of chapters that narrative either the life of key person or course of key event in Chinese history. The Bloodsworths’ book is one of my favorite presentations of Chinese history; I am saddened that it is not better known today. The Bloodsworths’ focus is on statecraft and strategy. They spend the first eight chapters or so presenting what various Chinese philosophers have said on the topic, and then describe some of the most famous military campaigns and political struggles of Chinese history from the founding of the Han Dynasty to the Communist revolution. In each case they describe what “lessons” are traditionally taken from the events they describe.

Willis’ book is similar, but his focus is more on culture than combat, with many of his biographies focused on literary figures like Sima Qian, Su Dongpo, and Liang Qichao. Schell and Delury’s book returns the focus to politics. However, their book is restricted to the last two centuries of Chinese history.

Much like in the West, not every period in Chinese history has had an equal intellectual impact. Philosophically speaking, the foundations of the Chinese tradition were laid in the Warring States and Spring and Autumn era. There were many philosophers who lived then (they were famously called “the hundred schools”), but only seven are must-reads. These are Confucius, Mozi, the Dao De Jing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Han Feizi, and Xunzi. All except Han Feizi have affordable and complete translations into English (there is a partial translation of the Han Feizi). Ideally you would go read the full translations of each, but for those not this committed Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy includes excerpts of each. Moller’s book on the Dao De Jing is an excellent companion piece: it is short, lucid, and does a better job than any other book I’ve found at teaching how to read an ancient Chinese text.

Ivanhoe’s book takes the story forward into the imperial period, providing a very good introduction to “Neo-confucian” philosophy, about which more will be said in the next section.

Finally, we get to literature. The most important literary genre in Chinese history is poetry. In imperial times nothing (with the exception of the imperial examination curricula) was more treasured, memorized, or alluded to. Everything paled beside it. In modern China its role has seen relative increase; the average Chinese memorizes reams of poetry before they graduate high school, but most memorize only some of the Mencius.

This puts the amateur Sinologist in a bit of a bind: poetry does not translate well. Porter’s book is a partial antidote to this problem. The book is partly a biography of a famous Chinese poets, partly a translation of some of their famous poems, and partly a travelogue across modern China. You can use to to identify which Chinese poets are worth deeper investment for you.

I do not recommend reading The Scholars all the way through. At least, it need not be read all the way through. Like many of the great Chinese novels, The Scholars is organized as a string of more or less self-contained tales, not unlike episodes on a sit-com. These episodes can be read independent of the rest of the novel. But you may find the novel to your liking: it is a satirical attack on the examination system and contemporary Chinese social mores that reveals a great deal about how Chinese society actually worked during the imperial period.

Lu Xun invented modern Chinese literature. I find the two short stories “Diary of a Madman” and “Kong Yiji” referenced more often than any of his other works, but it is worth your time to read the whole thing.



Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, 3 vol, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961).

F.W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).

Frank Dikotter, The Tragedy of Liberation (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2013)
       ————–, Mao’s Great Famine (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).
       ————–, The Cultural Revolution (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2016)


Justin Tiwald and Bryan van Norden, Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century (New York: Hackett Publishing, 2014). 

Stephen C. Angle and Jason Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2017).


Wu Cheng’en, Journey to the West, 4 vol, rev. ed, translated by Anthony Yu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
                    See also the abridged version.

Shi Nai’an, Outlaws of the Marsh, 4 vol, translated by Sydney Shapiro (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2001).

Cao Xueqin, Story of the Stone (or Dream of the Red Chamber), 5 vol, translated by David Hawkes and John Minton (New York: Penguin, 1973-1982).

Luo Guanzhong, Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel, 2 vol, translated by Robert Moss (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991).

Notes on Level Two:

Mote’s Imperial China is one of the best works of history I have ever read. He somehow manages to marry the large-scale macro-historical analysis I mentioned earlier with personal (and often poignant) assessments of Chinese historical figures. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Mote has no counterpart for the earlier eras of Chinese history. Sima Qian, the first historian of China and the only great Chinese historian that has been published in an affordable English translation, wrote with a similar sense of scope. The Qin, Han, and Three Kingdom eras are to the Chinese imagination what the Roman Republic and early Empire are to the Western one. Sima Qian covers the first half of all that (the novel Three Kingdoms covers the last fourth).

I am treating Dikotter’s three histories as one. I would not be surprised if they are included in one volume sometime in the future. I believe they will be the definitive history of the Mao era for decades to come. Gripping, if sometimes sickening, reading.

The philosophy selections included in this list focus on Neo-confucianism. The only selections you really need to read in the Readings of Later Chinese Philosophy are the selections from Chinese Buddhist and Neo-confucian philosophy. Neo-confucianism was in large part a response to the Buddhist influx of the middle ages. Confucians felt that the true Confucian way was losing ground to an outside religion. Neo-confucianism was an attempt to create a new Confucian synthesis that not only affirmed traditional Confucian ideals of order, but also equipped Confucians with the ability to combat the sort of metaphysical problems Buddhist philosophy introduced into Chinese thought.

The reason this is important enough to justify a place on this list is because it was this new Neo-confucian synthesis that ended up being encoded in the imperial examination system. From the Song Dynasty to the collapse of the Qing, Neo-confucianism was China’s reigning orthodoxy.

I am not going to say too much about the “four great novels.” They deserve their own blog post. I will simply note that for two of the novels, Journey to the West and Outlaws of the Marsh, reading the story all the way through is not strictly necessary. These novels are episodic. Only rarely do the adventures of one cycle impact the plot of the adventures contained in another.

This is not true for Three Kingdoms or Dream of the Red Chamber. I do not think either of these novels should be read in an abridged version. Dream of the Red Chamber is the easier to read of the two, but also the more subtle and allusion-filled. Fortunately, you do not need a full command of the Chinese tradition to be captured by this novel’s characters. A few parts will be difficult to understand, however, if you don’t have a basic grasp on Daoism and Chinese Buddhist thought.

Three Kingdoms is a tough cookie to crack. I honestly think it is the most difficult work to approach on this entire list. Explaining why this is so would require an entire essay. All I will say here is that you will have some difficulty with all of the place and character names included in the book. The easiest way to solve this problem is to introduce yourself to these characters and places through a different medium first. There are two separate Three Kingdom TV dramatizations, both of which can be found on Youtube. The Dynasty Warriors video game series is another avenue; the Total Wars franchise will soon release a Three Kingdoms version of its game as well. Finally, there is an entertaining podcast version of the Three Kingdoms tale for those who like that sort of thing.

I recommend going with the translations I list above. These recommendations are most forceful for Dream of the Red Chamber and Journey to the West. Trust me: you will have a better experience if you read the Anthony Yu and David Hawkes/John Minford translations of these works. I am less picky with the other great novels.

A few caveats about this entire list. It is not comprehensive. I am sure someone will show up in the comments and ask why I have not included The Story of the Western Wing or what have you. My only answer to this is that all lists must end, and this one is long enough already. A more compelling critique is that knowledge of all these classical thinkers and novelists will do you no good in modern China. I sympathize with this. I am reminded of a story David Moser tells about a Chinese woman he met who was writing a PhD on Franz Kafka but had never once in her life heard of Santa Claus.[2]  This list will not teach you about the Chinese version of Santa Claus. Nor will it teach you much about the Chinese version of Star Trek, Beyonce, or that meme of the cute toddler making a fist. One could make a good argument that a working knowledge of Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor series will get you further in modern China than a working knowledge of the philosophy of Mozi or Wang Yangming. That is probably correct. But the intent of this list is not to provide you with fodder for impressing Beijing taxi-drivers (I promise you: if you memorize the different provincial capitals and some stereotype about the people from each place, you will impress the Chinese people you meet far more than you ever will by quoting something said by Wang Yangming). The intent of this list is provide you with a foundation for understanding Chinese literature, philosophy, and rhetoric writ-large. To that end this list should be sufficient.


[1] See his introduction to “The Great Books of the World: Author-to Author Index.” The Great Ideas Online. No. 692. November 2012. p. 1. See also my earlier post on this topic, “Do Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?

[2] David Moser, “Why is Chinese So Damn Hard?”, accessed 23 December 2018.

Leave a Comment


Hi, thx for this really great post. I was wondering if there are translation of classical chinese philosophy texts that you would recommend or that one should avoid at all costs.

Thank you again.

Really interesting list. What books would you recommend that focus on China between the fall of the Qing and the victory of the communists? Warlord era etc.

Iskander–Start with The Wars for Asia referenced in the comment above. Follow its footnotes for more.


Slingerland for Confucius. The Ames translation is a good, though difficult, compliment.

Van Norden for Mencius.

DDJ demands to be read in several translations at once. The Moller translation is good, so is the Lau and Ames.

There is only one full translation of Mozi and Xunzi.

Victor Mair for Zhaungzi. AC Graham is accurate but boring as hell.

Victor Mair also has the best translation for Sunzi, FYI.

Han Feizi has only one partial translation, written by Burton Watson. There is a volume of selected essays of Xunzi, Han Fei, and Mozi all translated by Watson and put into one book–I like it a lot. You can find it used on Amazon.

Can you recommend any links to accurate lists of what people regard as stereotypes of each province, so I can thereby follow your advice and impress Beijing taxi drivers?

You have done a great job. This is a great list, so that after reading these books to get the source from any period of imperial or modern China and have a good idea of ​​what is discussed in it. Thanks for sharing!

Great List. Mote's 'Imperial China' is really a very good book, assuming you are willing to read thousand pages of medieval/early modern history. Jonathan Spence 'The Search for Modern China' is a good introduction to more modern Chinese History (it starts with the Late Ming and goes to about 1990). 'A History of Chinese Civilization' by Jacques Gernet is somewhat dated, but a good one-volume history with lots of maps.

Thanks for the great article. Small typo: Alder should be Adler in "I invoked Mortimer Alder's description of the Western canon". You get it right in the next paragraph.