To know China is to know half the world

By Razib Khan | January 9, 2013 2:05 am

Unfortunately history is a discipline where we can not run experiments. From my earlier posts it should be clear that I have a keen interest in Western antiquity. But another passion of mine is Chinese history. A frustrating experience I have is that many people feel confident in making cross-cultural generalizations despite having deep familiarity with only one civilizational tradition. A comparative perspective is highly illuminating, but only if you stand on a solid ground of factual bases from which to actually make comparisons.  The existence of complex societies at both ends of Eurasia over the past 2,500 years are fascinating parallel “natural experiments.” But to compare and contrast you need to know a great deal about both civilizations.

Increased knowledge enriches discussion, and in the near future this weblog will once again have vibrant comments sections. With that in mind here are some books on Chinese civilization which I have found informative and useful:

First, by dynasty* (earliest to most recent):

The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han

China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties

China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty

The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China

The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties

China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing

For “one-stop-shopping,” John Keay’s China: A History is serviceable, though I find it somewhat elementary. John King Fairbank’s China: A New History is the classic in the field, though I can’t vouch for its academic authority, as it is a touch dated. One of my favorite surveys is A History of Chinese Civilization by Jaques Gernet. Finally, for an ‘internationalist’ perspective, Samuel Adshead’s China in World History is a must in my opinion. Reader suggestions welcome!

* The Zhou and Shang are in a different category in terms of their statuses as classical dynasties. The Qin founded China as we understand it, even if the civilization’s roots go back to the Bronze Age.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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