If I was to read just one book on (the history of) China…

What should it be?

I’d prefer it not to be a massively heavy slog with seemingly infinite levels of detail about every single aspect of, well, everything, but a decent readable account of the key figures and actions (political and social) of each distinct era and a general feel for relationships (if any) with the wider world at the time. The intent is to help me put Chinese history into some sort of context with the Western history I already know and tie together global timelines and contemporaries (at least a little) in my head.

From a quick look about on Amazon (other on-line book sellers are available) and have picked out a few that may be shortlisted –

China: A History by John Keay

A Brief History of the Dynasties of China by Bamber Gascoigne

Or a more specific read, such as 1421 : The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies

Any of these worth the time, or do you have other recommendations? The first gets a lot of good reviews, anyone on here read it? I’m guessing the latter isn’t going to offer what I’m looking for particularly, so I might bench it for now. I have read quite a few fictional books set in China, along with travelogues and (more modern) biographies such as Wild Swans and Mao, but it’s more of a generalist historical overview that I’m looking for. If it read like a novel that would be a nice bonus.

Thanks for your time, thoughts and recommendations.

Obviously you need to read Needham’s “Science and Civilization in China.” It’s a bit of a dicey proposition, as only 24 of the 27 volumes have as-yet been published, and Needham’s been dead for the better part of two decades, but the last few will I’m sure be out sooner or later.

(Sorry I don’t have anything worthwhile to add. I know a little about China during the revolutionary period, and anything else I’ve managed to pick up from movies.)


You are describing On China by Henry Kissinger.

I’ve done a fair bit of reading about China, over the years, but I just finished, “The Man Who Loved China”, by Simon Winchester.

An awesome read, less about China than about the eccentric scientist Joseph Needham and his herculean task in writing and researching, “Science and Civilization In China”. A task not unlike the construction of the OED.

It is impossible to read it and not learn a great deal about China, as with all his very well researched books. Definitely recommend it.

I’ve never read it, but I see knowledgeable people criticizing the scholarship in 1421 a lot, so I’d approach that one with caution.

John Keay is a journalist with a background in history who writes popular histories of Asia for the masses. I’ve read one of his volumes on India and I remember it being decent enough, if kind of chatty in parts ( common for journalistic histories ). It’s probably not a bad way to go if you don’t want a straight textbook.

Don’t know much about the Gascoigne book, but…

…Menzies should be avoided. His scholarship is for shit.

My favorite survey history to date is French scholar Jacques Gernet’s ( though it is getting a little long in the tooth at this point ) and there are some pretty decent specific histories out there. I most recently liked China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia by Peter Perdue ( 2005, Harvard University Press ). But from your description of what you’re looking for, they may not be down your alley.

I disagree.

Kissinger gives everything prior to the Korean War only a cursory overview and while he covers portions of the last 50 years in depth, the book isn’t really a history of China so much as an overview of Chinese leadership and diplomacy. So, for example, he spends a great deal of time on how the Tiananmen massacre affected Sino-Chinese relations but only about a page on the massacre itself and its causes.

Well, the OP said “I’d prefer it not to be a massively heavy slog with seemingly infinite levels of detail about every single aspect of, well, everything, but a decent readable account of the key figures and actions (political and social) of each distinct era and a general feel for relationships (if any) with the wider world at the time.”

I’d say the Kissinger book is pretty much exactly that. I found it fascinating, particularly his insights into why the Chinese are the way they are.

Check out Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45. It’s a very good description of a very specific (and crucial) period of Chinese history.

I’ll agree that it deals with the “relationships (if any) with the wider world at the time”, but it in no way meets “the key figures and actions of each distinct era” criteria. Anything that Kissinger did not feel was important to Mao’s thought process or Chinese foreign relations was given a paragraph at most in the book. I mean, it literally covers the period from 1898 to 1949 in 5 pages.

Kissinger has some interesting insights in the book, but it is definitely not a “generalist historical overview” such as the OP asks for.

For the OP:

The Search for Modern China is, I believe, the most popular survey textbook for universities. It’s supposed to be very readable, but only covers from about 1500 on.

China: A New History is a classic. Perhaps a little dry, but covers everything in a relatively small number of pages.

I have fond memories of Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China, which covers the period from the fall of the Ming dynasty up till Tiananmen square (actually I read the first edition, the second came out in 1999 and a new edition is out this year which no doubt brings it up to the 21st century). It’s a first-year university text, and weighs in at 1088 pages but is worth the effort IMHO.

Spence tries (and to my mind largely succeeds) to present the recent history of China from a Chinese perspective, rather than as a response to outside influences. He also goes beyond merely diplomatic and political history to include discussions of art and culture as well. I learned a lot from it and thoroughly recommend it.

I’ve looked at Needham’s massive work on library shelves and slowly backed away in awe. It’s an amazing piece of scholarship but I can’t say I’ve read it.

Menzies is mad, 1421 is only good for a laugh, especially how he takes the slimmest fragments of dubious evidence and spins it into a tale of a trans-pacific Chinese empire. You’ll learn nothing about China (except a bit about the voyages of Zheng He, which is admittedly a fascinating tale) but lots about pseudohistorical crackpottery.