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11 Great History Books About Beijing

Picture of Julianna Tetreault
Updated: 6 December 2017
Beijing has a long history and many stories. From heart-wrenching reflections of life as it once was, to contemporary glances at life as it is now, here are the best books that capture Beijing’s history and rapid rise to urbanization.

Beijing 798, by Huang Rui

A reflection of what once was and what has since become, Beijing 798 is a historically based critique of the progression of art, architecture, and society in China during the past 50 years, focusing on the 798 Art District. The book gives readers a deep sense of the societal shifts that have swept through China’s capital city. With essays, photographs, and interviews, the book presents Beijing’s progression in a truly captivating way.

Courtesy of Timezone 8
Courtesy of Timezone 8

The Last Days of Old Beijing, by Michael Meyer

American author and journalist Michael Meyer aims to preserve the ancient courtyard homes of Beijing through his encapsulating journalistic story, The Last Days of Old Beijing. Having resided in a hutong during some of Beijing’s most transformational times, Meyer portrays a push for urbanization in a historic city through the stories of neighbors, students, and others close to him.

The Last Days of Old Beijing
Courtesy of Walker & Company

Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking, by Frances Wood

Reflecting on her time as an exchange student at Peking University, British author Frances Wood provides readers with a detailed account of university life in Beijing in the 70s. Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking takes place toward the end of the Cultural Revolution and gives readers a feel for what academic life was like at the time.

Hand-Grenade Parctice in Peking by Frances Wood
Courtesy of John Murray

MAD Dinner, by Ma Yansong

Set during a dinner discussion, MAD Dinner presents the opinions of Beijing’s diverse population—migrant workers, drivers, government officials, artists—on the city’s speedy urbanization. Author, architect and Beijing-native Ma Yansong shares his own experiences throughout the story, as well.

MAD Dinner by Ma Yansong
Courtesy of Actar

Midnight in Peking, by Paul French

Following the true story of the 1937 investigation of the murder of Pamela Werner, a young expat, Midnight in Peking delivers a spine-tingling reconstruction of what took place in the historic city. Author Paul French tells a riveting story of crime and the living conditions in colonial Beijing during a time of turmoil.

Midnight in Peking by Michael Meyer
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

The Badlands, by Paul French

The Badlands, by the author of Midnight in Peking, is a continuation of the historic walk through life in Peking during the 30s. In this book, French follows the stories of eight residents of the Badlands District, including prostitutes, pimps, and cabaret dancers, who are stricken by poverty and crime.

The Badlands by Paul French
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City, by Lillian M. Li

The first English-language book to capture Beijing’s long history, Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City, tells the story of Beijing from thousands of years ago to present day. Author Lillian M. Li describes the rise of Beijing through the stories of the Ming and Qing dynasties and the Cultural Revolution sparked by Chairman Mao. From there, Li explains the city in present day. Full of detail, the book gives an accurate and insightful look at China’s capital throughout time.

Beijing From Imperial Capital to Olympic City
Courtesy of St. Martin’s Griffin

Remaking Beijing, by Wu Hung

In Remaking Beijing, author Wu Hung discusses the evolution of Tiananmen Square, weaving in his own personal experiences growing up in the city during the initial push toward urbanization. Hung focuses heavily on the affect that Tiananmen Square had on the growing city, and how, overall, it reformed Beijing’s society, politics, art, and culture.

Remaking Beijing by Wu Hung
Courtesy of The University of Chicago Press

I Chose China, by Sidney Shapiro

In this memoir, author Sidney Shapiro tells the detailed story of his past and why he chose to live in China. Shapiro first arrived in Beijing at the beginning of the Cold War to serve as a government translator. He immersed himself in the culture, and the book takes readers through his life in China’s capital during the Cultural Revolution. He gives a detailed account of the changes that both he and city underwent at the time.

I Chose China by Sidney Shapiro
Courtesy of Hippocrene Books

Beijing Confidential, by Jan Wong

Attending Beijing University in the 70s during the Cultural Revolution, Canadian author Jan Wong shares the riveting story of her 34-year journey to find forgiveness. Wong takes readers on an emotional ride through history, during which finding the classmate she wronged turns into finding a Beijing unlike the one she knew before.

Beijing Confidential by Jan Wong
Courtesy of Doubleday Canada

Red China Blues, by Jan Wong

Wong’s memoir tells of her harsh transformation from a devoted Maoist to her eventual return to China as a journalist who covered events including the Tiananmen Square protests. Wong describes the reality of the Cultural Revolution and the impact that Tiananmen Square had on her and on history. She opens old wounds in hopes of informing others about the reality of life in China.

Red China Blues by Jan Wong
Courtesy of Anchor Canada