China: A History is an excellent and authoritative tome by an author who brings this enigmatic land to rich and colourful life. John Keay illustrates that phrase ‘To know who we are we must know where we come from’ or, and perhaps of more interest to us in the West, ‘We must know where we come from to know where we are going’.
We start with the Xia dynasty and continue through to the last emperor, and on to Chairman Mao. The ‘big five’ dynasties (or were they 10 kingdoms?) of Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing are all explained, and their reigns put into both historic and geographic context.
Lovers of theatre will find narratives here that read like scripts for movies. There are epic armed clashes, murder on a regular basis, and intrigue aplenty. There are puppet emperors and manipulating governments. One can find parallels with modern politics, and perhaps discover lessons learnt …or not.
Culture and refinement
There are nuggets of fascination on every page. Emperors having their troops tattooed in case of defection; one could be executed should the battle not be won, or if your commander was lost. Along with these displays of unbridled barbarity we find culture and refinement, with poets, painters and philosophers who are still revered to this day.
China: A History presents sweeping historic vistas but also considers the people behind the broad and sometimes hostile landscape, their motivations, their route to almost total power, and indeed their very human personalities. One can find justifications of the Chinese aspiration for a different style of government, but equally of the desire for continuity. This is a complex tapestry and relevant: China is a stirring dragon, and it would be good to know how it will awake. Consider past dawnings, and that might give something of a clue. Perhaps this should be prescribed reading not only for students of all things Chinese, but for those doing business in China, too. There are more than 500 pages here, but they are all worthy of inclusion.
China: A History
Author: John Keay
Published by: HarperCollins Publishers