China, A History

Perhaps nowhere is the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” more appropriate than in China. China has the honor of being the civilization with the longest continuous history on Earth. China was not the first or the oldest civilization, but while ancient Egypt and Sumer have long since vanished from history, China remains. In that long 3000-4000 years of history, China has undergone many changes. Dynasties of rulers have risen and fallen. The country has been united into an empire, only to break apart and then be united once again. The Chinese Empire has expanded its frontiers into Central Asia, and has been restricted to northern or southern China, while foreigners have ruled other sections. China has been conquered and has regained its independence. Through all the revolutions and changes, China remains China.

The Communists under Mao Zedong were determined to remake China into a modern, socialist country, yet they went about their goals in a characteristically Chinese fashion. Mao condemned Confucius and sought to end that sage’s influence on China. So did Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (previous rulers were referred to as “kings”). The Communists enforced a rigid Marxist conformity on China intellectuals. The Song Emperors enforced a rigid Neo-Confucian ideology. China, under Mao limited its contacts with foreigners. So did the Qing Emperors. The present rulers of China have converted China into a major trading nation. So did the Tang Emperors. The Communist Party does not tolerate any rival parties. No imperial dynasty was ever comfortable with parties or partisanship. Like the Emperors of old, the Chinese government thinks more in terms of taking a paternal interest in the lives of its subjects rather than in protecting human rights.

Yet, one must not think China as being unchanging or Chinese history as being boring. China has seen drastic changes throughout its history. One might think of this history of change and continuity in terms of the Chinese philosophical ideas of Yin and Yang, opposites that work together. Passive, feminine Yin might represent the periods of imperial unity and strength while active, masculine Yang might represent the chaotic periods of war and disunity that were, nevertheless, the most intellectually productive periods of Chinese history.

I think there are few resources which explore the grand sweep of the Yin and Yang of Chinese history in one volume better than John Keay’s China, A History. In his book, John Keay tells the story of the Chinese nation from its Neolithic beginning up to the modern age. Keay does not, as many writers of history books do, spend too much time on recent events while neglecting past centuries. Every dynasty gets the proper amount of attention, as do the periods of disunion. If I have any complaint at all about China, A History, it is that at 611 pages it is simply too short. Six hundred pages are hardly enough to give an outline of Chinese history. I am not complaining, however. If you want a general outline of Chinese history, China A History serves the purpose admirably and if you want to know more about any topic, there is the bibliography John Keay provides.



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