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Preparatory Reading


If you are offered a place to read Chinese Studies at Cambridge, the short period between leaving school and coming into residence offers a valuable –and necessary – window of opportunity to do some effective preparatory work.

Chinese language

Since learning to speak, read and write Chinese is one of the main components of the course, it would seem natural to want to make a start on that. However, knowledge of Chinese is not required for students starting the course, as we teach Chinese to first-year students from scratch

The Oxford Beginner’s Chinese Dictionary

If you wish to make a start with learning the language before arriving in Cambridge, we advise you to read the following sections in the Oxford Beginner's Chinese Dictionary (ISBN:0-19-929853):

  • Basic rules of writing Chinese characters
  • Learning and lifestyle kit
  • Dictionary know-how
  • The Chinese words and phrases you must know
  • Numbers
  • Phrasefinder
  • Dates for your diary
  • Quick reference guide to life and culture
  • Social survival guide

A wall of Chinese characters at Peking University, photograph by Adam ChauThe advice of our teaching staff in Chinese is, however, not to try to start tackling the language but to do some exploratory reading about China and the Chinese tradition. There should be two aims behind such reading. The first is to learn some basic facts about China and Chinese history, in order to acquire a preliminary orientation on China and the East Asian tradition. The second aim is to clarify the nature of your own interest in Chinese Studies and to develop it.

East Asian history

In the first year you will be following a course on East Asian history covering Japan, China and Korea. To prepare for this you should read the following before the start of your first term in Cambridge:

  • Hane, M., Premodern Japan (Westview Press) or Totman, G., Japan before Perry (Univ. of California Press)
  • Hunter, J., The Emergence of Modern Japan (Longman) or Barnhart, M., Japan and the World Since 1868 (Edward Arnold)
  • Hansen, V., The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600 (Norton) or Ebrey, P., The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge UP)

Preparatory reading list

The full list of recommended reading is available below.

Adler, Joseph. Chinese ReligionsLondon: Routledge, 2002.

A concise introduction to the history of religion in China and its ramifications in China today.

Cahill, James. Chinese Painting (Lausanne: Skira, 1960)
An excellent introduction to the major stylistic developments of Chinese painting from ca. 800 to 1800. Written thirty years ago in fluent prose, it remains unrivalled in its ability to stimulate interest in and understanding of this grand tradition.

Chang, Jung. Wild Swans: three daughters of China (London: Flamingo, 1991).
The compelling account of three generations of women in a family in twentieth century China, this is a highly readable introduction to the turbulent changes that form the background to the China of today.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Gernet, Jacques. Daily life in China: on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276(London: Allen & Unwin, 1962). 
A richly evocative account of Chinese urban culture in the thirteenth century, it serves as a highly informative and enjoyable introduction to many features of Chinese society and thought.

Graham, A. C., Poems of the Late T'ang (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1977, reprinted).
A masterly translation of complex poems from the mid-eighth to the early tenth century, plus a sensitive introduction to the place of these famous poems in the overall development of Chinese poetic traditions.

Han, Lifeng; Wu, Emma Lejun; Cai, Hua, Insider China (Lexus Ltd., 2009; ISBN 1-904737 – 17 –X)
A truly fascinating portrayal of Chinese life and culture. Here you have the real insider's knowledge of China and things Chinese, a vast range both ancient and modern. This book offers a window on the knowledge of Chinese culture, history, personalities, events, beliefs and customs that Chinese people have simply because they are Chinese.

Huang, Ray. 1587, a year of no significance; the Ming dynasty in decline (London : Yale University Press, 1981).
Through a series of perceptive biographies the author unravels for the Western reader many of the more perplexing features of the Chinese scene. No other account of traditional Chinese government captures the feel of political life in early modern China with such poignant authenticity.

Loewe, Michael, Bing: From Farmer's Son to Magistrate in Han China (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2011).
In this engaging volume, Michael Loewe (Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Cambridge from 1963 to 1990) mines the written and material records to depict the imagined life of an ordinary person, Bing Wu, from the hardships of his earliest years on a rural farm to his retirement from a respected position in government service.

Marks, Robert B. China: Its Environment and History (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012)
A comprehensive history of how Chinese history has shaped and been shaped by its relationship to nature and the environment, from Peking man to the present.

Needham, Joseph. The grand titration; science and society in East and West (London : George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1969).
Dr Needham is the pioneer of the study of the history of science and technology in China and the founder of the Needham Research Institute at Cambridge. This volume of his essays contains many of the ideas that inspire his world-famous multi-volume Science and Civilization in China, published by Cambridge University Press.

Norman, Jerry. Chinese (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
A thorough and concise account of the Chinese language, its history and modern dialects and of the script and its history.

Spence, Jonathan. The search for modern China (London : W W Norton and Co, 1991.)
An overview of Chinese history, which effectively presents the grand drama of the past few centuries of political and cultural change in China.

Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600 (New York: Norton, 2000).

Hawkes, David, translator. The Story of the Stone; a Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin(Harmondsworth, Middlesex : Penguin Books, 1973).
Also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, this eighteenth century masterpiece of Chinese fiction tells of the rise and fall of a large upper-class family. Its rich detail and psychological realism combine to fascinate the reader with the complexity of late imperial life. It is essential, and enjoyable, reading for any student of China.

Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth Century China (California: Stanford University Press, 1994).

Kuhn, Philip. Soulstealers; the Chinese sorcery scare of 1768 (London : Harvard University Press, 1990).
A highly insightful portrayal of Chinese social and political life in the eighteenth century. Novel in its focus on popular religious obsessions, it makes a significant watershed in Western writing about Chinese social history.

Lopez, Donald S. The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings.San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001.
Introduction to Buddhism that pays adequate attention to its developments across East Asia.

Chan, A., Madsen, R. and Unger, J. Chen Village under Mao and Deng (London : University of California Press, 1992).
A village level account of the dramatic political changes in China during the first three decades of Communist rule, it neatly captures the impact of revolution on individuals and their families.

Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist BodyBerkeleyUniversity of California Press, 1993.
Introduction to Daoism from one of the doyens of the field.

Schram, Stuart. Mao Tse-tung (Harmondsworth, Middlesex : Penguin Books, 1970).
A compelling biography of the most influential figure of twentieth century China as well as an informative account of its turbulent history.

Shapiro, Judith. Mao’s War against NaturePolitics and the Environment in RevolutionaryChina. Cambridge University Press 2001.

Spence, Jonathan. The Death of Woman Wang (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1980).
A re-creation, part historical and part fictional of the living conditions in a poor part of China in the late seventeenth century, this short work presents a compelling account of the problems of being poor and female in traditional China.

Wolf, Margery. The house of Lim; a study of a Chinese farm family (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968).
A good introduction to the dynamics of Chinese family relations. As enjoyable as it is instructive.

Yu, Anthony. State and Religion in China: Historical and Textual Perspectives. Chicago: Open Court, 2005.
Discusses the complex relations between state and religion throughout Chinese history from a Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist angle.

Yuan, B. and Church, S.K. Oxford Beginner's Chinese Dictionary. Oxford University Press 2006.