Being a westerner, my upbringing is obviously western. Although I live in the Bay Area with a large Asian population, am married to an American born woman of Chinese descent, and despite having traveled to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Japan, and the Philippines, I’ll admit that I don’t know squat about Asian history. The extent of my educational background with regards to Asia is limited to the perspective of European and American influence on the Asian continent and current events. Although I’ve read the Art of War and the Tao Te Ching, my readings were primarily for philosophical and poetic context and my understanding was limited. I didn’t really get a chance to study much history during my undergraduate years and therefore I didn’t get much opportunity to explore the historical richness that heavily influences the way of life, culture, and motivations of the “other half” of the globe’s burdensome population.
John Keay’s China, A History, provides a nice introduction for those curious about the world’s most populous nation and the rising economic superpower that we refer to as China. Prior to this reading I had scant knowledge of the nearly continuous 3-6ooo year history of the region that spans from Mongolia to the Himalayas and from Afghanistan to the China Sea. Granted, although China celebrates its dynastic chain of succession of “All Under Heaven,” the broad scoping historical reference of Keay’s book reveals that China has hardly been so blessed to celebrate a continuous rule of everlasting peace. As is true of all history, there is much bloodshed, civil strife, exchange of power and successive sequences of turmoil and eventual collapse. There have been several periods of warring states and divided kingdoms, as well as colonial expansion and isolationist retraction. In short, China’s history is subject to a cyclical pattern of unification, growth and development that transitions into steady decline, turmoil, collapse, dispersal, and ultimately reunification. Even the current communist/socialist republic falls into this pattern with Mao being the unifier after a period of 50 years of civil war and the current capitalistic expansion mirroring past dynastic periods of growth and innovation.
Keay starts the book well, with keen awareness that he is writing for a western reader unfamiliar with the geography of the Chinese region and he provides many maps to provide perspective and reference. His introduction did a great job of orienting this reader to a region I know little about and he also clearly acknowledges that the novice reader will struggle with the Chinese names that are often repetitious (dynastic emperors will recycle names just like European rulers would) and without turning the book into a linguistic orientation he does provide some clarification of the meaning of some words (such as Bejing literally meaning northern capital).
Keay provides much acknowledgement to the richness of China’s historical record with written texts spanning at least 3000 years of history and he also provides welcome explanation of the influences of classical Confucianism, the import of Buddhism, and eventually Islam and Christianity upon the Chinese mindset. Through the historical transitions Keay adeptly illuminates that despite the influence of the imported religions, ultimately Confucianism provides the core of “Eastern” thought just as Socratic examination provides the core of “Western” thought. Keay’s insight into the social thought during historical periods is definitely the strongest element his work.
However, despite these strong points, where China, A History faults is that it is far too heavily a history told from the good-old-boy mentality. Keay relies too heavily upon the historical documents written by the learned class for the ruling class and much of his book is a catalog of emperors, generals, with much discussion of development of great cities and epic battles. Granted this is how much of world history is cataloged, from the perspective of those in power and not from the perspective of their subjects. I would have liked to have a little more knowledge of the social and anthropological context of the Chinese history. Despite some vague reference to three classical dynasties Keay pays little merit to archaeological data to support his historical thesis. Furthermore, he does not go far enough into the history to satisfy my curiosities. I wanted to know a little about the prehistorical migration into the region and the development of agriculture, but Keay skips all of this with blunt acceptance that there were a peoples in the region that developed into the dynastic empire. Although this work lacked these elements, it is still a great introduction into Chinese history. Keay does a great job of providing equal attention to every period in the Chinese history, each 1000 years or so is approximately 140 pages and the devotion to present day is just as focused as the devotion to the events occurring 500 years prior. I finished this book with a sense that I had learned a great deal and I’d put it on any list of works deserving credit as valuable for historical perspective.