Chinese Language Learning – Recommend some popular historical books about ancient China that are easy to read


Hi. I do not know if there is anyone here who is interested in historical stories or ancient Chinese history in general, but I think it might be a good idea to recommend some of them to those who want to practice reading and read some historical stories at the same time.

The ancient Chinese historical texts are usually written in classical Chinese and thus it is naturally not a good choice for language learners, and I guess academic books are too serious and exhausting to read for beginners. Therefore I would like to recommend some popular historical books. Most of them are definitely not accurate and objective and do not include any in-depth analysis of society, culture, economy, etc. But they include a lot of exciting plots, interesting characters, and, as part of the nature of ancient history asks, include murder, incest, betrayal, rebellion, tyranny, murder between blood relatives, a ruthless struggle for power, the most brutal and savage torture, human consumption and wild sex gang. (Of course, there is also the part about heroes, loyal subjects, good emperors and chaste queens——at least they are depicted so.) Most of them are written just like a novel, so they could be treated as novels. They rarely include any Chinese ancient texts and are often written in oral and easy language, sometimes even web language (actually many of my recommendations below are posted on the internet first.)

I will list these popular history books then and roughly rate them for their entertaining degree and (relative) accuracy. **For those who really want to learn history, you can skip all these recommendations and start from Cambridge and Harvard Chinese History series**. **Do not take what these writers below say as history directly as they do include some factual errors, stories that are not reliable and personal bias about historical figures.** I will also attach a sample for each book so you can judge if it is easy to read and whether or not you like their styles.

# 1.明朝那些事儿 Things about Ming Dynasty By 当年明月(1368 A.D.―1644 A.D.)

Entertainment:★★★★★ Accuracy:★★★

All-time best-seller among popular history books and really inspire a generation of the Chinese public to learn more about the history of the Ming dynasty. Highly recommend. My only complaint is that the writer’s style is overly oral and informal. It was originally posted serially on the Internet, so its language is very close to contemporary Internet language. And he can be too emotional when he talks about the heroes he admires, but all of these make his book a good resource for language learners. And he is a great storyteller and masters the rhythms of the story very well. He skips all the boring parts and highlights the exciting moments in Ming history.

SAMPLE:

>唐时的黄巢在考试落榜后,站在长安城门前,惆怅之余,豪气丛生,作诗一首,大大的有名——《咏菊》: 待到秋来九月八,我花开后百花杀。 冲天香阵透长安,满城尽带黄金甲。 数年后,他带领着十余万大军,打进长安。 此时的朱元璋,站在濠州的城门前,看着自己身后的二十四个人,他知道,迈出这一步,他就将孤军奋战,或者兵败身死,或者开创霸业。 他仰望天空,还是那样阴暗,这个时候作出这个选择,似乎并不吉利,他又想起了那次无奈的占卜。 父母去世的时候,在庙里干苦力的时候,夜里望天痛哭的时候,也是这样的天空。 什么都没有变,变的只是我而已。 百花发时我不发,我若发时都吓杀。 要与西风战一场,遍身穿就黄金甲。 什么都不能阻挡我,就从这里开始吧! 出发!

# 2.易中天品三国 Yi’s Three Kingdoms(220-280 A.D.)

Entertainment:★★★★★ Accuracy:★★★★

Okay if you have watched the three kingdom TV series (**the 1994 one is much much better than the 2010 version**) or played any video games, you might want to check this book. It is a highly controversial book indeed; Yi’s intention is to educate the public on the difference between those fictional Three kingdom stories and the real history, **but he draws a lot of dubious conclusions as well.** Many Chinese Three kingdoms fans hate this book, but it is another indication of how influential the book once was. It is probably still the second most influential popular Chinese history book today. And I really like Yi’s prose style. (He is a literature professor before.)

SAMPLE:

>所以我觉得曹操终其一生,最后没有称皇帝,可能还有一个原因:那就是他忘不掉荀彧那一双忧郁的眼睛。

SAMPLE:

>曹操的笑是各种各样的,有放声大笑、开怀大笑,也有自我调侃的苦笑、嘲笑,还有讥笑、冷笑,甚至是充满杀机的冷笑。然而曹操始终在笑。 曹操也哭。他的战友去世,他的朋友去世,他的亲人去世,也会嚎响大哭。但如果是做错了事情,打了败仗,遭到人家的羞辱,曹操绝对不会哭,他一定是笑。因为曹操豁达开朗大气磅礴,他是一个性情中人和本色英雄。 这种本色使曹操这个“雄”平添了许多可爱。

SAMPLE:

>魏、蜀、吴在本质上都是“非士族政权”,三家之主也均非士族,因此与士族阶级都有矛盾。斗争的结果,是曹魏放弃,孙吴妥协,蜀汉坚持。正因为坚持,所以蜀汉先亡。正因为放弃,所以曹魏也亡。正因为妥协,所以孙吴尚能苟延残喘,却也不得不亡。

P.S.: Yi’s book is actually an adaptation of the transcript of his lectures on the TV programme 百家讲坛. This is a CCTV TV programme that invites scholars to introduce history to the public. Some of the books I will mention below are of the same kind of origin. If you want to watch the video and listen to Yi speaking, you can check the resources on youtube. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVbuuuKKYnc&list=PL79351734D6728295&index=1](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVbuuuKKYnc&list=PL79351734D6728295&index=1%EF%BC%88the)

(the main section has Chinese subtitles)

Yi speaks standard mandarin in a relatively slow and clear way, and he is also a very affective speaker.

# 3. 王立群读史记 系列 Read Records of the Grand Historian with Wang series (221 B.C. -220 A.D.)

王立群读《史记》之汉武帝

王立群读《史记》之项羽

王立群读《史记》之吕后

王立群读《史记》之文景之治

王立群读《史记》之秦始皇

Entertainment:★★★★ Accuracy:★★★★

Just like Yi, Wang is also a 百家讲坛 lecturer and his books are also an adaptation of TV Programme transcripts. He also speaks standard mandarin clearly. The link for his programme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YvyOfZmH6A&list=PLVyDH2ns1F757AqBjZMIK36kUaLjdhSTn

As for the books, this is a series of a modern retelling of the work of the greatest Chinese historian Sima Qian, whose work is still the main resource for modern historians to understand pre-Han history. *Records of the Grand Historian* is also great narrative prose literature which lays the foundation for all the Chinese narrative literature later. Qian has such a subtle and minimalist technique for irony which is my favourite part, so **if you are interested in reading some original historical texts, you could either read the original text in ancient Chinese or read a modern Chinese translation of Qian’s work such as this one 史记 (文白对照全译).**

Back to Wang’s books, among all the five books of this series, I recommend 王立群读《史记》之项羽 the most. Xiang Yu is one of the most famous tragic heroes in Chinese history and a highly flawed one. He fought for the rulership of China with Liu Bang after Qin Empire’s collapse. Xiang Yu is a talented general, a proud, strong and brave warrior but a bad politician, who is ruthless toward his enemy but also has a sentimental heart thus he has been criticised as too feminine. After he lost to Liu Bang, he commits suicide with his lover, leaving behind a popular and poignant love story.

His main opponent, Liu Bang, who eventually beat Xiang Yu and became the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, is also a highly complex figure: A rogue-like figure who started from nothing, and sometimes acts like a scoundrel even after he became an emperor, but with great endurance and psychological strength, eventually a far more successful and cunning politician than Xiang Yu. Liu Bang is good at winning people’s support and using talented people to work for him, and he successfully presents himself as a benevolent and kind ruler, although in terms of personal morals he is at least as dubious as Xiang Yu. For example, Xiang Yu threatened to kill Liu Bang’s father and threatened Liu Bang to retreat. And Liu Bang is unmoved and replied something like ‘well since we were once bonded as brothers, my father is your father. if you must cook your father, I hope to share a cup of meat soup to eat!’. Also, when Liu Bang was being chased by Xiang Yu’s army, he kicked his own children out of the cart to buy time to escape. And… he has peed at scholars’ hats publicly.

Anyway, in Sima Qian’s original text, the part that depicts Xiang Yu’s life is a great romantic and dramatic literature. Stories about Xiang Yu and Liu Bang’s political struggle have been adapted many times as movies and TV series, have been the background of Chinese Chess and also donates at least a thousand chengyu and many of them are still in use today: 破釜沉舟、多多益善、四面楚歌 (my personal favourite)、背水一战、成也萧何,败也萧何、项庄舞剑,意在沛公、胯下之辱、暗渡陈仓、人为刀俎,我为鱼肉、妇人之仁、国士无双. **You could also check this book, 藏在楚汉的成语 by 林汉达, which is part of a series that introduce chengyu stories to children, so it should be easy to read even for beginners. And this series, 图文本林汉达中国历史故事经典, is probably the easiest for beginners to read, a series that introduce historical stories to children. If the other works in this list are hard for you then you might want to check this one.**

And if you are not interested in Xiang Yu? If you want to know more about 吕雉, Liu Bang’s wife, an equally astute and equally cruel female politician, who took over the Han dynasty after Liu’s death, you could read 王立群读《史记》之吕后. If you want to know more about Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor on Chinese history, you could read 王立群读《史记》之秦始皇.

SAMPLE:

>项羽又是如何理解刘邦的鸿门说辞的? 听到刘邦这一番甜言蜜语、谦恭卑微的说辞,项羽晕头转向了,简直摸不着北了,因为他的自尊和虚荣得到了最大限度的满足了。 此时他真心实意地感到对不起自己当年并肩作战的战友,真心实意地为自己差一点毁灭掉刘邦集团感到内心忏悔。

# 4. 大隋兴衰四十年 The Rise and Fall of Sui Dynasty within 40 years By 蒙曼(581-619 A.D.)

Entertainment:★★★★ Accuracy:★★★★★

Just like Yi and Wang, 蒙曼 is also a 百家讲坛 lecturer and her books are also an adaptation of TV Programme transcripts. Among her books, I recommend this book the most. It tells the story of the Sui Dynasty, a powerful, short-lived, grand dynasty like a shooting star, and its two rulers. One of them, Yang Guang, is one of the most controversial historical figures in Chinese History. He was indeed a cruel and paranoid tyrant, but also a very farsighted canal builder. He was obsessed with the luxurious beauty of the grand spectacular at the cost of thousands of human lives. He was handsome, good at writing poetry, and seemed to have an artist’s character.

SAMPLE:

>这是一个富强、文明的王朝,它的仓库里堆着五六十年吃不完的粮食,它的皇帝被突厥人誉为“圣人可汗”;这又是一个短命、暴虐的王朝,它的皇帝修长城、建东都、开运河、游江南,搞得国无宁日、民无宁时。“隋”这个名字就像流星一样,在中国历史上瞬间璀璨又瞬间毁灭。隋朝两代父子究竟做了什么?大隋王朝勃兴速亡的原因又在哪里?

Meng has three other books about Tang’s politicians, which follows Sui Dynasty:蒙曼说唐: 长恨歌、蒙曼说唐:乱世红颜、蒙曼说唐:武则天. I personnaly recommend 蒙曼说唐 : 长恨歌 the most. This is a book about Li LongJi, the so-called ‘风流天子‘ by 蒙曼, who is the emperor at Tang Empire’s peak. But late in his reign, the Tang Empire experienced a rebellion and fell from its peak and then began its decline. This duality is very attractive.

If you like Meng‘s works, you might want to read some of 孟宪实 and 于赓哲’s works. They are also 百家讲坛 lecturers and scholars that researched Tang Dynasty.

Their works of popular history include:

孟宪实:

从玄武门之变到贞观之治 : 孟宪实讲唐史、唐高宗的真相 : 孟宪实讲唐史

于赓哲:

平衡的失败 : 唐玄宗的得与失、大唐英雄传、巾帼宰相上官婉儿、她世纪 : 隋唐的那些女性、狄仁杰真相、唐开国

Yu is also a Bilibili uper, and I highly recommend you to check his Bilibili channel: 于赓哲老师. He uploads many free videos about Chinese History and clarifies those popular rumours. However, for me, his paid course does not really worth the price.

**Oh, and all these three scholars have their 百家讲坛 TV programme online.**

蒙曼:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COrn54DfYew&list=PLO71F9MiiPves56alprOaWF_zS3BuOjYA

孟宪实:

于赓哲:

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mefjFij8tfI&list=PLiqH0c3SMeGtp-Sv53OyGh8xHcYdELtlr](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mefjFij8tfI&list=PLiqH0c3SMeGtp-Sv53OyGh8xHcYdELtlr)

# 5. 万历兴亡录、大明嘉靖往事 By 方志远(1573-1620 A.D.,1507 A.D.―1567 A.D.)

Entertainment:★★★★★ Accuracy:★★★★★

And the final 百家讲坛 lecturer…These two books are about Ming Dynasty and are also transcripts. I recommend the first one 万历兴亡录 more.

And apart from these two transcripts, his more serious book, for example, his biography of the Chenghua Emperor is both entertaining and accessible. But it will include a few quotes from ancient Chinese so it might suit more advanced learners.

His 百家讲坛 link:

方志远 is also a Bilibili Uper. His channel’s name is 方志远讲明史. And I like his paid course more than his free videos, although the latter is interesting as well. His paid course discusses the reason for the fall of the Ming Empire. Was it due to natural disasters or human actions? Was it due to the eunuchs or the bureaucrats? Was it due to the loose social atmosphere? Was it due to financial crises?

# 6. 如果这是宋史 If This is the Historical Book of Song Dynasty By (960 A.D. – 1279 A.D.) By 高天流云

Entertainment:★★★★ Accuracy:★★★

An equivalent of Things about Ming Dynasty, only it is about Song Dynasty. If you want to learn more about this prosperous dynasty, which is considered by many scholars to be the dawn of the early modern era, you could read this book. Actually, I like the writer’s prose style more compared to *Things*. And like *Things*, this series is originally posted on the Internet, so its language is very close to contemporary Internet language.

SAMPLE:

>中国这一段的历史,从一个人的离家出走开始。
>
>赵匡胤,时年二十一岁,已婚。此前的生活平静得像是一潭死水,没有任何特别的事发生。
>
>…
>
>在这空洞无聊的二十一年里,赵匡胤干过的唯一一件出点格的事,就是骑了一匹烈马冲出城,结果脑袋撞到城门,硬生生栽下马来。旁观的人吓坏了,以为他这下铁定死了,却不料他立即就跳了起来,不仅没事,反而冲向那匹害他丢了面子的马,骑上去,直到马服了,面子找回来为止。

# 7. 血腥的盛唐 The Bloody Golden Age a.k.a. 大唐兴亡三百年 The Rise and Fall of Tang Dynasty within 300 years (618-907 A. D.) By 王觉仁

Entertainment:★★★ Accuracy:★★★★

An equivalent of Things about Ming Dynasty, only it is about Tang Dynasty. If you want to learn more about the ‘Golden Age of China’, you could read this book. I personally feel like Tang Dynasty is one of the most similar to Europe’s Middle Ages in a good way, and I find the royal family of Tang is a little bit like the Plantagenets if you get what I mean.

I feel like the writer’s prose style is more refined compared to *Things*. (And I like it.) The only problem is that the rhythm is a little bit dragging. And because he is written in a literal way, it is probably more difficult to read than many books mentioned above.

SAMPLE:

>东征高丽的战车还没有开上战场,隋帝国的后院就起火了。
>
>烽火首先在山东点燃。自从战争动员令下达,山东就成了主要的战备后勤基地。从大业六年开始,杨广就命当地百姓饲养战马,以供军用,同时征调大批民夫运送粮食前往辽东前线。由于运输量大,路途遥远,车辆和牛马大量损毁死亡。
>
>与此同时,频繁的徭役挤占了耕种时令,导致山东、河北等地大量农田抛荒,粮食价格飙涨,一斗米卖到了数百钱,而各级官吏依然横征暴敛。加之黄河泛滥、洪涝成灾,致使老百姓衣不蔽体、食不果腹,生存底线被彻底突破。
>
>如何在暴政中生存下去?

# 8. 华丽血时代 Gorgeous Blood Era,刀锋上的文明 The Civilisation on the Razor’s Edge,帝国如风 Empire that Gone with the Wind,帝国的正午 Empire at Noon, and other books such as 极乐诱惑,纵欲时代,亡天下 By 梅毅/赫连勃勃大王

Entertainment:★★★★★ Accuracy:★★

Well, I believe Mei is a writer who has the best taste for titles on this list. Like 当年明月, he is an internet writer to start, but his language is much more refined. His works cover almost all the periods and eras of China. And they all try to observe Chinese history from an alternative perspective. That makes his works entertaining, and I like his beautiful prose style. (He is also a novelist and his novel has a beautiful title that can almost make people jealous.) But **warning: He is not at all objective and neutral toward history.** And his opinions and biases about history are very problematic at least and sometimes intolerable. The following passage is an example. I like his literary talents for metaphors but find his perspective about the nation is twisted and untested. Repeat, if you want to learn some serious history, go for the Cambridge and Harvard Chinese History series.

SAMPLE:

>不可否认的是,蒙古人在十三世纪晚期带来的血与火,从某种意义上涤荡了汉民族的颓靡苟全与委曲求全。残酷有时促人警醒,杀戮有时会让复仇的雄心苏醒。相比满清,蒙古统治者人群本质上仍存有草原蓝天下那种质朴的野蛮和不加掩饰的爽朗,他们来得急,去得快,输得起,放得下。所以,在历史的丛林中,骄傲的蒙古雄狮是那样阳刚,白山黑水中大辫子的群狼阴柔却更具破坏力。

# 9. 流血的仕途 (Bleeding Career Path of an Official)(221 B. C.-207 B.C.)By 曹昇

Entertainment:★★★★★ Accuracy:★★

So this is the pseudo-biography of Li Si, one of the designers of the political institution of the Qin Empire. I say this is a pseudo-biography because it is almost like a novel. It includes many reimaginations of Li Si’s relationships with people around him and his psychological movement. I find this reimagination of historical figures’ psychological movement is interesting, but my problem is that the writer uses too many modern terms to depict a historical figure’s psyche and implants too much modern thinking. However, this makes the book easy to read for language learners and it is entertaining. The writer made a good choice of the biographer. His legendary life, which revolves around the core of power, and his miserable death by cruellest tortures are dramatic and good materials.

SAMPLE:

>李斯深知:在商场上,没有善意,没有恶意,只有生意;在官场上,没有比较级,没有最高级,只有上下级。 一个人过了二十五岁,便不可能再交到真正的朋友。李斯知道自己将再也交不到朋友,他并无伤感,也不再需要朋友。韩非是他唯一的朋友。他始终这么认为,他相信韩非也和他有着相同的感受。像韩非这样的朋友,能交到一个就足以招致全天下的人妒忌,如能交到两个,恐怕就连老天也会妒忌。 风险投资的最大原则是什么?就是从来只雪中送炭,绝对不锦上添花。唯其如此,方可最小投资,最大获利。 胆敢给太后拉皮条,在任何朝代都是死得不能再死的死罪,事办成了,就算秦王不杀他,吕不韦也不会容他再活下去,因为他已经掌握了足以置吕不韦于死地的秘密。没有足够的腕力,别人的把柄最好还是不抓为宜。

# 10.悠悠南北朝 & 纵横十六国 (220 —589 A.D.)By 陈羡

Entertainment:★★★★ Accuracy:★★★★

This is another series originally posted on the Internet which is about the ‘dark ages’ of Chinese History, 两晋南北朝, and the writer is a good storyteller as well.

I will post his great beginning and let this passage speak for itself, which has this almost epic *in medias res* effect**.**

SAMPLE:

>公元546年的冬天异常漫长。这年的年底,在亚平宁半岛上与东罗马人交战了数年的东哥特人(Ostrogoths)在国王多迪拉(Totila)的指挥下重新占领了罗马城。然而,他们却无力守卫这座惨遭战火蹂躏的城市,被迫宣布退兵。与此同时的东方,同样争斗多年的两个政权也在一场攻城战后暂时停息了战火。与西方战争的不同之处在于,损兵折将的东魏并没有攻下这座守备坚实的城池,却只因为一个人的倒下而全军撤退。
>
>十二月,东魏军退往晋阳,上上下下惶遽不安,人心思反,士气低落。有人开始传播一个来自西魏的消息:在攻打西魏重镇玉壁的过程中,东魏的最高统帅高欢被西魏守将韦孝宽的劲弩射中,已经身亡,只不过真相被高欢的左右严密封锁了。
>
>[…]
>
>面对如此的危机,只有一个人可以出来化解,他就是事主本人,东魏丞相、渤海王——高欢。
>
>高欢并没有在战场上被杀,但年过五旬的他已经身染重疾、力不从心。他勉力撑起病体,在中军大帐召集众多大将。环视帐内,将军们依然生龙活虎。自信都起兵以来,风风雨雨十六个年头,将士们出身入死,马上马下,几度干戈,几度浮沉,今日无功而返,情何以堪?
>
>看透高欢心思的老将斛律金肃然起身,道:“卑将今日触景生情,愿在帐中高歌一曲,以振军中士气!”
>
>高欢两眼放光,欣然同意。斛律金遂用鲜卑语引亢歌道:
>
>敕勒川,
>
>阴山下,
>
>天似穹庐,
>
>笼盖四野。
>
>天苍苍,
>
>野茫茫,
>
>风吹草低见牛羊。
>
>曲至高潮处,高欢情不自禁老泪纵横,和声共唱,于是整座大帐里都回响起了这首流传千古的名曲《敕勒歌》。
>
>起了这首流传千古的名曲《敕勒歌》。
>
>高欢这个名字,是如此的掷地有声,他几乎是用一生改变了南北朝历史的走向。他那传奇的故事,以及与他势均力敌的对手,也会像《敕勒歌》一样,不断流传下去。而这一切,都从“传奇”的开端说起。

# 11.说不尽的南北朝 & 东晋十六国风云 (220 —589 A.D.)By 邙山野人

Entertainment:★★★ Accuracy:★★★★★

Another set of books about 两晋南北朝. The writer stays closer to the historical record and keeps a relative detached and restrained position, but as a result, this book is less entertaining and exciting. The prose style is humorous and clear.

**I mention this writer partly because he is also a Bilibili uper. His channel: 历史作家邙山野人.** He has a series about those controversial historical figures whose reputation has been reversed in modern times compared to ancient times, and he discusses whether or not this Reevaluation is reasonable.

# 12. 天下英雄谁敌手、失败者的春秋、战国歧途、两晋 : 风流总被雨打风吹去 By 刘勃

Entertainment:★★★ Accuracy:★★★★★

Liu is probably one of the best prose writers on this list. His style is simple and elegant. However, his works are more like essays about history than stories, so his works include less narrative and might be less entertaining. Among all his works I recommend 天下英雄谁敌手 the most. This is a line from a famous poem, meaning that there is no hero in the world comparable to Cao Cao and Liu Bei. So yes this is a book about these two figures in the Three Kingdoms period and the difference between their literary images and historical images. I like how Liu does not see the two characters as embodiments of two opposite values, as Romance of the Three Kingdoms does, but rather shows that historically, the personalities and ambitions of these two figures have more similarities than differences.

SAMPLE:

>通脱的状态,在实践中可能非常可怕,比如怎样既大肆摧毁破坏,却显得既率性又深情,就不妨说也是一种通脱。汉末乱世,曹操既是最凶残的屠伯,又是最悲凉慷慨的吟游诗人,这两个形象让后世有些论者感到无法兼容,但在曹操却一切自然而然。 文人可能是最不能抵御这种诱惑的群体。精明如鲁迅方面很清楚以自己爱吐槽打脸的脾气,如果遇到曹操,多半会被他杀了,但另一方面也毫不掩饰对曹操的推崇。文学评价,本不能以现实的利害计算。

P. S.: I am planning to write a couple of more posts on recommending some Chinese learning resources, and I am considering several topics such as the same kind of style in popular books for Chinese literature and philosophy that are intended for the public; web novels and/or erotica; Chinese videos on bilibili about video games, cuisine, music, history, literature, art, movies and LGBT; Best Chinese TV drama all the time; a list and recommendation of short stories from 30+ most famous Chinese novelist; Chinese genre novels. There’s a ton of work here and I am not sure when and where shall I start, so please tell me if there is anything above that is specifically interesting to you, or if there is something you would like some recommendations but I do not mention. (I will try my best!)



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  1. hanguitarsolo April 28, 2022
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