Shanghai Girl Gets All Dressed Up - Beverley Jackson

Okay, perhaps a bit off the usual path. This is a picture book of female fashion of Shanghai in the 1930's. The books is packed with both color and black white period photos of Shanghai. Included are not just many pictures of the qi pao (pinyin) or 'cheongsam' (from Cantonese pronunciation), but also advertising, and movie posters. 1930's Shanghai was a unique mix of Chinese and Western culture, and this books does an admirable job documenting one aspect of the cultural history during this unique point in Chinese history. If you want to get a sense of life among the well off and middle class living in China at the time, this is a good visual guide.

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1421: The Year China Discovered America - Gavin Menzies

Mr Menzies has written a book with a fascinating premise, too bad its almost too flawed to be considered non-fiction. The main concept is that China had landed in North America in the early 1400's before the Europeans had. Much of the premise starts with the Chinese Muslim admiral, Zheng He, who sailed to the coast of Africa. According to Menzies, unlike traditonal accounts, Zheng He did not stop on the west coast of Africa, but actually rounded the Cape of Good Hope before Magellan. Some people have debated that, but at this point most will say its more conjecture. However, Mr Menzies not only claim Zheng He rounded Africa, but traveled to North America. He cites many 'proofs', but unfortunately the leap in faith from a small clue to the conclusion that the Chinese reached the Americas is huge indeed. This is definitely one of those cases where a conclusion was already reached, and every 'fact' was made to fit into that conclusion.

In general, I am much happier reading history meant for a general audience, as books produced for an academic audience tends to be much more densely written at times, and at other times just poorly written. In this case however, the book screams for some formal academic scrutiny. Keep in mind that I would love for some of Menzies speculations to be true, but as I said previously, this book is more speculation than history.  It's so off from what a good history books is that I'm hestitant to even link to it , but hey maybe you just want to see how NOT to write a history book.

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God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan - Jonathan D. Spence

The book tells of the Taiping Rebellion that devasted China in the 19th century. Led by Hong Xiuquan, self claimed brother of Jesus Christ, the rebellion lasted almost 15 years. This was essentially a civil war that engulfed most of southern China, and an estimate of 20 millions dead - making this one of the most costly of wars in all history. Contrast this with the estimated 10-15 million Chinese dead in WWII. The story is well documented here and Dr Spence is one of the foremost Chinese historian today. The only problem is that the book does descend to 'academic speak' in many places. So it will be a tough read at points, but if you can get past those areas (frankly, you can skip some of those pages and still have a coherent history), the books is a good reference into the Taiping rebellion. If you are looking for a lighter read though, there are better choices out there.

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