I trained as an historian and, through that training and a lifetime of reading history and sociology, I am convinced that the past illuminates the present. Accordingly, I recommend A History of China by William Eberhard, as China is important and most Americans, including me, are woefully ignorant about its history and culture–well, not just ignorant, more like farcically misinformed and bigoted.
I do not claim that it answers every question nor that it is without bias (I don’t know enough about Chinese history to make that claim), but the author’s credentials are impeccable and the book is readable and accessible, having been written for the general reader; it can give perspective to why China is what it is now.
Maps of China through its history from Chinahighlights.com illuminate the narrative.
To get a sense in English of day-to-day life in ancient China, you probably can’t do better than Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries, which I first encountered in a marvelous little bookshop on 33rd Street across from Madison Round Garden (it’s not at Madison Square any more and it is round) in New York City when I was involved in an extensive training project there in the early ’80s. I’m rereading them now.