I occasionally get asked to recommend good Chinese history books that are well-researched but also accessible to a general readership. So as a mild public service, here it is…my 5 Books about the Qing Dynasty.
Published in 1990, this is the oldest book on the list, but remains a brilliant example of following a single – seemingly random – skein through the archives. Kuhn tugs the thread, and the political and social fabric of the era historians still refer to as the “High Qing” slowly starts to unravel page after page. Despite its reputation as a golden age in Chinese history, it soon becomes clear that all was not well in the empire during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. The creeping calcification of the bureaucracy meant the government struggled to keep pace with an increasingly complex and mobile society, an ominous foreshadowing of the problems to come in China’s disastrous 19th century. The case in question starts as a simple incident of local mischief – the clipping of men’s braids/queues ostensibly for use by sorcerers – but the affair so shocked the increasingly paranoid Qianlong emperor that he engineered his own investigation, simultaneously trying to root out heterodox groups in Qing society while also hoping to shake his officials out of their complacency. Kuhn’s masterwork is an incredible, and highly readable, look at Qing society just as things started to turn for the worse.
If you like this, next read Jonathan Spence, Treason by the Book
Writing a history of China with women at the center of the story is as daunting an undertaking as there is in the profession, but in crafting this book, Susan Mann combines superior research skills with an elegantly written narrative to create a wonderful work of historical scholarship. So much of what we think we know about the historical Chinese woman is a product of May 4th-era reformers seeking to condemn the old as backwards and feudal (Look! See how they treated their women!) or finger-wagging corseted foreign missionaries bewailing their poor benighted bound foot Chinese sisters. In this absolute classic, Mann deconstructs the gaze of the (mostly) male writers of the time to ask, “Did women have a high Qing?” With a distinct nod to the work of historians like Joan Kelly and Joan Scott, Mann looks at how the Qing state (and orthodoxy) attempted to reconcile the feminine ideal of demure submission with a reality — at least among elite women — of talented writers whose brushes and stories stretched the bounds of what was expected for woman of the age. In particular, Mann’s brilliant and nuanced readings of the women’s own poetry provide a fascinating counterpoint to those sources about women but written by men.
If you like this, next read Susan Mann, Talented Women of the Zhang Family
Pomeranz throws out the old 20th-century question of “Why did China fail to modernize” and instead sets out to prove that in 1800 both Europe and China faced a similar set of ecological limitations which could only be broken through the application of new technology. The industrial revolution which allowed European nations and their satellites to transform resources into economic and military power happened first in Europe not because Europeans were smarter or more advanced, but because historical contingency gave Western Europe a few key fortuitous advantages (namely, easily accessible coal to power the machines of industry and colonies which could provide cheap raw materials and ready markets) that helped to sustain the industrial revolution once it started. It’s a provocative thesis, challenged by many, but Pomeranz presents a solid economic and historical argument in a highly-accessible and thoughtful book.
If you like this, next read R. Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience
As much a book about history as it is a history book, Paul Cohen takes a (reasonably) well-known story – that of the Boxer Uprising of 1900 – and uses it to show how a single event can look very different when approached first as a straight narrative (the historian as story teller) then as experience (not just what happened but how it mattered to the people who lived it) and then myth (how the event is imagined and remembered long after the fact). The second section – on experience – in particular stands out for its historical artistry as Cohen weaves the story of the Boxers with those of other peoples to show both the unique and the universal of the Boxers’ experience. It was one of the first books I read in graduate school and is still a favorite of mine. Not just a good history, but a book that will change your view of how history is lived, written, read, and remembered.
If you like this, next read Paul Cohen, Discovering History in China
Yes, it’s Jonathan Spence and yes, Spence does write the whole book in the ‘present tense’ style popularized by the talking heads in Ken Burns’ documentaries (“And so, there was Grant…up on the hill looking down…and Grant knew that if he pushed on, disaster would be the result…”) but it’s also a cracking good read. I know people get on Spence as a novelist posing as a historian, but the man can write and he’s a far more innovative researcher than people give him credit. If you like your history served up with a storyteller’s flair for vivid descriptions, well-rounded characters, and the odd plot twist (and, in fairness, you don’t mind the occasional liberty with the historical record) then you’ll love this book. It helps too that Hong Xiuquan, the failed scholar who decided that as the younger brother of Jesus Christ he might as well bring down the Qing Empire, happens to be one of those grandiose historical mad men whose story needs very little in the way of embellishment.
If you like this, next read Jonathan Spence, Kangxi: Portrait of an Emperor (In which Spence goes full on hubris and writes the story of the Kangxi Emperor – in the first person as Kangxi.)
 Fans of public radio may recognize the name, Professor Kuhn’s son Anthony was the former Beijing bureau chief for NPR.