I'm interested in learning about this history of modern China, which to me means roughly the 19th-20th centuries. I'm kind of interested in the industrial development of China, and its role during the WWII period.

Are there any good books that focus on these subjects, but are suited to someone reading just for fun? I'm not a history student, but just curious due to being part Chinese. I should add that I'm mainly interested in nonfiction books as opposed to historical fiction. Thanks.

(I'm also interested in books on Ancient China, but I don't really know enough to ask a more specific question about it.)

  • 2
    You've received suggestions both in non-fiction and fiction. In between there are memoirs; among those I would recommend on the topic: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and Frank Ching: Ancestors: The Story of China Told through the Lives of an Extraordinary Family.
    – Drux
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 20:01
  • I definitely second Wild Swans. Haven't read the other. Commented Feb 20, 2013 at 21:23
  • 3
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is a reference request. Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 21:31

3 Answers 3


Here are some I can recommend, and I had a couple of these in my history classes so they might seem to be a bit more than you like but they are not bad reads even for non-history types. They are not difficult to get into even if you are not a historian, although modern Chinese history especially in the warlord era is complex so it does take a little bit of time to understand the complexities.

  • Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution 1915-1949
  • John King Fairbank, The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985
  • Grasso, Corrin, Kort; Modernization and Revolution in China from the Opium Wars to World Power
  • John Gittings, The Changing Face of China from Mao to Market
  • Hanes, Sanello; The Opium Wars, Addiction of One Empire and Corruption of Another

These should get you started, I'd recommend the Grasso, Corrin and Kort book only for its brief synopsis bits of many of the changes in China from the end of the Qing to modernization but I also had classes with Professor Corrin a few years ago so I am slightly biased there. The Changing Face of China might be more to your liking if you want to know about the modern attitudes and changes in China since 1949 and has some good detail on each stage of development and might be the style you want to read.

They are not really history books but Red Azalea by Anchee Min and The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck are views on China that are more fictional, although Anchee Min's story is more about her life in China through the Cultural Revolution. Pearl S Buck is more about China at the end of the Qing and is considered a very good capture of Chinese culture from an outsider for the time.

  • Thanks for the many suggestions, MichaelF. I'm sure this will keep me occupied for a good while. Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 5:03

I can't believe no one mentioned The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence. It is a rather long book and covers a longer time period than asked for by the OP. He is a very good writer who can synthesize the story and the main idea behind historical events. His writing is very easy to read yet also academic. It is the book to have if you want a general understanding of recent Chinese history and politics.

The book spans 1600s to 2000 but I think to understanding the events leading up to the 20th century one must step back a few centuries to examine China's opening up to the rest of the world and the collapse of dynastic rule.

  • 3
    +1 Jonathan Spence also gave the BBC Reith Lecture in 2008. It still can be listened to online.
    – Drux
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 20:03
  • For what it's worth, I like to read books in pairs (two in sequence on a single topic), and Jonathan Spence's occupies a place on my reading list jointly with On China by Henry Kissinger. I did enjoy Treason by the Book (about an incident in the 18th century during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor) also by Spence, and find that his books for general audiences cover a wide'-ranging selection of interesting subjects in Chinese history.
    – Drux
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 22:36

You definitely want to read Tai-Pan and Noble House by Clavell.

They are about the foundation of Hong Kong (Tai-Pan) and its economic boom in the 1960s (Noble House).


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